Anca Vlasopolos

Isles of the Blessed

everything was in its prettiest condition, and had the
bird out ready as an important part of the establishment

                            — Dickens, Bleak House

They were here once, green-eyed, long yellow hair hanging down their brown backs. Like us, yet not. The way some of us, one in every hundred, pop from the egg green and brown with yellow specks, just right for the smattering of sun among the leaves of the laurisilva. Like us, they no more roam freely. They are now brown and black and shiny and bowed, the ones who’re still there, among the others who came and squatted and bred like the rats they brought, and only one in a thousand may be born again with those sea eyes and seabreeze hair and the skin made for blending in the speckled sunshine of the laurisilva. Because trapped and caged the others filled holes at the bottom of ships. They were taken, to places where the air cuts throat and breast, those who did not die outright from the stench and green water in the holes of the ships.

We too—caged, crowded, dying one on top of the other, taken into darkness, breathing foul air, given strange seeds and green water. Most perished.   I’m a moving on to the berryin ground   The ones left, they chose to mate us, the ones who took us, the ones who came and squatted, who cut down the laurisilva so the rich vapor salving our song flew up, once, and was forever gone.

Now look at us: we are strange to ourselves. Orange, cinnamon, almost white, lemon, like fruit. If they released us, cats, rats, hawks, gulls would spot us before we had time to turn our eyes to the shade. They coo to us, feed us strange seed, mostly clean water, make night for us with a heavy thing over the tiny room they imagine stands for the laurisilva, a thing that suffocates, a heavy, heavy thing.    All the moveables. . . chairs and tables, hangings, glasses . . . pin-cushions and scent-bottles . . . dressing-tables . . . same quaint variety    For we are not from here, no matter how yellow we become. We die fast, from winds that cut through these bars like saws but do not free us, from this dismal light mocking sunshine, from these small round seeds, full of delusions, giving us dreams that make us peck at ourselves till we bleed, peck at the wooden bars till splinters lodge in our throats. “Sing,” they say, “sing.” As if song comes from croaked bidding. And we sing, deafening to ourselves, sing so that we nearly fall off these rounded perches nothing like branches, sing till we choke.    one secret doubt

This one, a paw, virtually clawless, padded, naked, enters the tiny space where I spend my daylight trying, is it years now? to get another like me to hear. My voice is no longer the best part of me. It used to be. I poured forth like a waterfall, cascades of limpid music, putting every bone, feather, muscle into the song, bodying it for her, who never came, how could she. They must let some of us be together.    I cried; but I hope it was with pleasure, though I am not quite sure it was with pleasure   I pecked out of the translucent wet dark into this space. Yet something in me vibrates so hard that I think I’ll risk breaking my wings and soar into these bars when the window is open, when the trees sway in wind, when I hear the others sing other songs, not mine, not like my kind, but songs of freedom: Stay-awaaay, traitor-trait, who’s-with-you, be-with-me, hear-my-song-soar-far-above, traitor-traitor, stay-awaaay, live-with-me, be-my-love.

The paw comes when songs get muffled, when the breeze swings like the lagarto del Salmor on tips of branches, making leaves dance, covering up merry-making of those ones who sing liber-teee. It encloses me in hot nakedness. I feel my own heart, tic-tic-tic-tic, against the boom of its hot blood, Tiic-Taaawck, Tiic-Taaawck. It nearly made me explode with fright at first, when I had just got my first wing feathers that would have carried me, who knows, back somewhere, back to what? Do I know the names? Tenerife, La Palma, Fuerteventura. Somewhere inside me I know not the names—given later by the ones who took us and them away—but the sea spray, scorched smell of volcanic dust, the vapors rising from the laurisilva. I am so sure I could fly my way back to that somewhere. Yet the window, square of light that nearly broke my fledgling neck that first time when I breached it, is always closed. The paw is careful. The round pate on which I find difficult footing is where the paw wants me to sit. That too is warm, not as hot for it does not enclose me, merely beats its loud rhythm under my sliding toes, claws trying to grasp something, till I fly to the perch, a sprig, from the very paw that encloses. It unfurls into this not unfriendly perch, naked, round, beating, hot, and I grasp onto it, in sheer terror that I might fall among the geysers set up here, away from the ground, being carried hither and thither like small volcanoes by more paws. Then another perch comes slowly over me, changes into a fat snake, descends on my head, moves my feathers hither and thither. I flapped furiously at first,    in sense and attachment   till the other paw enclosed me, and the snake came and came and came until I learned not to move under it.    most astonishing bird   I sit still while being molested, feet rigidly planted on the paw-perch, waiting till the snake lifts itself. I tried using my beak. It’s not very useful, my beak, since they’ve been giving us strange seed for more than three hundred years. It doesn’t tear as it should. I should have bloodied the paw, at least the small thin skin around claws that look squat like horn, like hoof, but I bit strips and could do no damage, and the sound that always comes when the paw takes me out, “Ha, ha, ha!” came out then, “Ha, ha, ha,” and I shat from fear, but now I cling tenaciously to the perch, the paw, let the paw-snake slither heavily upon my crown, and not even the “Ha, ha, ha,” cavernous like waves on rocks hollowed by time, not even that moves me now    sense of security complete   . At least the paw does not prompt me to sing,    no more   does not make grotesque whistles a wet egg breaker would be ashamed to let out, does not stick soft fleshy beaks close to the cage,    another bird   squeaks coming out, to aggravate me into trills loud, unmelodious, and shrill, go-awaaay, nasty-things, awaaaay-with-you.

*     *     *

Two more. I call them the Wards in Jarndyce. They are caged up with all the others. With Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach!

There were twenty-five of us here. Yes, we can count. How else do you imagine the egg factory that is who we are would shut down? We are forever ready to make eggs, but we know how to stop ourselves. Can you say the same, featherless beings? One, two, three, hard winter, late spring, enough. One, two, three, four, five, abundant insects, early dandelions. But twenty-five of us, in one space the length of a small branch, the height of not even a delphinium? The stupids do not care that we’re not the roosting kind, that we’re not even the same kind; do not care which ones of us are solitary, gregarious, friendly with our own colors for most of the year, which ones fight, in this space to the death, those mirroring us. Broken song, meaningless chittering, half-dumb bird-half mouse, grown like a shrub—that’s the creature eyeing us, shutting us from light and the green fire of those other eyes, which we well know, which we fear from inside the shell.

Flat head it has, this one that puts us here, eyes like the other only no fire, just sparkles of pale blue, making sounds not amounting to song, to snuggling noises, to cheeps of new ones ever greedy. Some of us try to listen,   lives, poor silly things   although, if the noise-maker wanted an echo, it should have picked the starlings, a raven—that eater of kind who lives like the noise-makers, on garbage and young flesh. They echo each other,    so short in comparison   one dead serious, maniacal, like a bird that’s lost his mate, the others just for the fun of scaring us, who would not make the noises.

It comes and makes the same sounds, over and over. Is it counting, perhaps? oopijoiutpees-reslaifdusashswaswruspaerasdetcuifoliworswisrasheesipludpreecedejargagaspiiich. A long count. Of all of us: me, who need to rise higher than any tree in the field, stretch into an air of gold, me, with my tuft nodding on my head though I do not mean to acquiesce, me, brown like the clots from which I rise, impossible, defying the pull of the ground, into golden airs; me, capped in sober gray crowned by rubies with rubies hidden in my dun breast; me, dipped in blood, a ring of blood round my beak, blood-red I see when I hear one like me, we seek one another, we draw blood all while we fan the air black-gold, black-gold, while we hope for her, like a spring leaf, no blood, a leaf, in spring, she flies, she calls, you-you-you-come-with-me. It goes on, oopijoiutpeesreslaifdusash-swaswruspaerasdetcuifoliworswisrasheesipludpreecedejargagaspiiich, more when other flat heads eye us, when the claw, fluttering like a falling feather, pulls down darkness and lets this gray in. We blink. Is this supposed to be morning? So dull, so sudden? The claw points, and the flat head makes a sound that pierces like death-eeeeeeeeee. On the black stone are the green fires, watching. Down comes night again, so deep we cannot feel, hear, anything, we cannot defend ourselves by moonlight or stars, see the warning of that shadow creeping, feel a velvety denseness beating the air.

So often, we cannot tell how often in this dark/light, dark/light not of the world’s making, one of us falls to the bottom. Here he just lies, heaving, body rising and falling with each breath. Out there, the green fires would see him, seize him, make his death bloody and quick. Here he lies, for daylight and gray, till at last he keels over, claws curled in, giving up all hold on life, legs tough and rigid. Flat head blinks watery blues, eeees at us, tsks tsks tsks at us, claw almost as closed as that lying on the bottom reaches in, takes him out. Later, we know, another one, a stranger, is shoved in, let go by the desiccated claw. She struggles at first, fights for room, tries flying at the barriers, thinking they’d give, like branches when we’re clumsy and lucky, then we see her, defeated, hunched in a corner, pecking, pecking at her wing feathers till her beak draws blood. One by one, we change. We’re exchanged. Older ones die, new ones are brought to take our place. Flat head fixed blues on us, goes into the routine: oopijoiutpeesreslaifdusashswaswruspaerasdetcuifoliworswisrasheesipludpreecede-jargagaspiiich. Other flat head, bigger, eeeies and aaaaahs. Fleshy beak smells us. Eyes sharp, perhaps plans to devour us. We start screaming, hurling ourselves one upon the other, squeezing into space as far away from it. We end up with broken wings, feathers falling, a scratched eye. They let the gray fall on us    can’t allow them to sing much   We hear them, chittering, on the other side and wait, petrified, for we do not know when the claw may come, in or out, take or put.

At first light flat head blinks blues rapidly, as if frightened. Could something bigger be after it? It eeees, mews, meowls. We huddle together, all thrown by panic against the side farthest from it. Sounds like green fires, but they’re nowhere about. It opens the barrier, same as when dumping moldy seed or putting back the little puddle we all share, fight each other fiercely for. We are lice-ridden, having no dirt, nor water, enough to clean ourselves. Gone the strength to groom—feathers bedraggled, waste stuck to our tails. But what now?    began the world. . . the world that sets this right   Two claws lift this space, move us through the air, so now our huddle gets close to flat head, and we rush to the other side, and,    given her birds their liberty   wonder, first the one made of red and black and gold tumbles through the barrierless space and disappears, shooting out over the black stones, then the gray next to him, and now I rush, before it’s too late, before the claw reaches for me to hold me back for whatever torture awaits, I rush, into the dark sky, this air that chokes the song within me, but I feel the song, I feel it, bubbling in my chest, ripping through, and I fly, on the weak wings left me, no perch for me, no stopping, I fly even if my heart, the song, tear my breast from within and scatter it, bloody, across the dark stones, I fly in loops, up, over, to where I think I know there’s earth, rich with softness and rot and seeds and grubs, where the sky lifts at dawn break by itself, no feeble claw whisking it with a pshssh sound, where I shall rise, into the first pink gold, bathe in the breath of downs rising to meet the light, sing my own song, sing sing sing up, till I plummet, emptied of my message to my kind, to a new light.

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