Reflections on Spirit
Note 8: Spirit of the Earth. 2/22/99
This is a story told by Quetzal:
The old man drained my blood one drop at a time. He had dropped me like a sack of dirt on the cool, damp pool of sand that ran slowly down to the lake water's edge about ten feet from where I had come to rest. After a first few minutes of struggle I had given up the effort to fly away from the probing stab of the quill he was using to extract my blood from the wounds he had made in my flesh. He was using it to paint a picture on a piece of stone. Some would say that what he was doing to me was infinitely cruel and heartless. Given half a chance to speak, I might even say that myself in retrospect. My view of the situation, however, would naturally fall under a cloud of suspicion, of necessary doubt, because it was my pain and suffering that the old man was using to inscribe the stone with the image of the sky-serpent he intended to use, at some later, indeterminate time, to seduce the adept he envisioned as the savior of the world.
The old man never said he was attempting to save the world. In fact, he had minimized the effort he was making toward his actual goal by telling me that the object of his quest was a wayward member of his tribe no more important than any other who had drawn his notice over the long years of his tendency to meddle in the affairs of the people who had managed somehow to escape his immediate control. I simply assumed his actual goal was more significant than he gave it credit for being since the old man was more inclined to lie than he was to tell the truth whenever anyone at all pressed him for more explanation than he was willing to offer for the bizarre nature of his activities.
I only knew the old man by reputation and had encountered him myself two days before I ended up dying at his feet while he painted my life away on his ridiculous piece of stone. His reputation was not particularly reassuring, of course, witnessed by the fact that he was killing me for no good reason I had heard him voice in the short hours of our association, but his life and deeds had come to constitute such an important part of the existence of my breed that there was no way I could have defended myself against his ultimate murderous intent even if I had known in advance what he meant to do with, and to, me on the shore of that vast expanse of water where we ended our journey together. Not that his journey ended where mine did; no, not that at all, since the legends told about the old man among our tribe seem to suggest that he has existed from the beginning of time and is not likely to disappear from his earthly realm any time in the near future either.
One of the stories we have told ourselves about the old man concerns his emergence from the chaos that made the world's shape before any shape at all was discernable in the matter that finally came to compose it. In some ways the story of his emergence, and I purposefully avoid use of the term "birth" because nothing like him could have been born at all, makes little, if any, sense to people who depend on notions of temporal sequence as a predominant method of ordering their conceptualizations of how things come into being and how they subsequently live out their allotted time on the earth. Time only seems to run in straight lines from a distant past to an equally distant future, from a then to a now and on to an even more distant potentiality which has not yet been realized, but in reality time has as many twists and turns as the serpent the old man was drawing on his stone. I only say this because our tribe was already in existence, though in vastly different form than the one we now have, when the old man emerged from the chaos that held no form whatsoever. You see what the problem is. If there was no form in the universe when the old man emerged, how can I then claim that we, as a tribe, were there to see his emergence from the chaos of nothingness that constituted the world before his emergence?
For that question I have no meaningful answer. We were there. We saw what we saw. On the day in dispute, in question, as it were, if for no other reason than the fact that time itself had not actually come into existence yet itself and hence there was nothing in it one could call a day, the world was what it always was--a dark, cold, formless, barren, and brutally wild place set out beyond the edges of what anyone could know about its shape or texture. The wind was howling like it did when sun and moon and stars refused to break above the line of stones that marked the only place we had to roost and warm the eggs that held us in a hope of going out beyond ourselves.
We were a tiny flock of birds back then. No more than half of us could fly across the circle of the sun when it had come to rest along the line of water, snow, and ice that split the earth and sky in equal parts of up and down before the other half of us had left the shelter of the rocks to bank the other way around the sky. We did that often, every day, to mirror who we were against ourselves and count a number higher than the one we held when all of us were still and silent in the shelter of the stones that made the world seem a place where life could be and last more than the time it takes to flip a single feather up against a howling in the wind. The old man broke a wild and fearful mass of mud and sticks for bones out of the bank of snow that stacked itself against the line of rocks that held our rookery in place against the tearing of the wind. He shrieked and moaned and flailed his arms and legs about and spun himself into a form that looked as human as a formless thing can be. We banked into the sky in terror of the thing that came out of the barren ice and snow.
Our flight away from fearful things that spring out of the nothingness of white as far as any eye can see came close to costing us as much of life as we could cling to on that barren shore. The old man wheeled around inside his skin and flesh and blood of mud and putrid earth with hardly any shape that one could see around the edges of his formless husk. His hands and arms were sticklike things that could have been the shattered pieces of a tree. He had no legs and feet at all except for broken stumps of wood. The howling in his voice came forth from everywhere at once because he did not have a mouth or eyes or anything at all that one could call a face. He stumbled blindly here and there until his whirling rage propelled him to the wall of stone where we had left our eggs. He ate them one by one before the turning circle of our flight could draw us back into the rookery we left behind for fear. We drove him from our perch into the ice and snow but not before we lost most of our future to the sucking whistle of his greed-filled empty maw.
Three days after that our vigilance against his coming back was paid out over time where we could see him walking like an upright living man with arms and legs less wooden than they were before. He was driven toward us by a flanking rush of wolves that did not seem to mind the fact that every meal his awkward flesh contained was little more than mindless snapping at a bank of sand. His feet flew wildly through the snow and ice in his attempt to reach the shelter of our stones before the wolves could drag him down into a rag of shattered flesh and bone. We watched him struggle in his flesh of mud and sticks until it seemed we could not find an ounce of pleasure in the doom that overran his hapless living gait. Why we did it then, or if we ever would again, has been a question in our tribe that all of us collectively have shunned because it seems so pointless now to know a reason for an act no single one of us could do alone, that all of us together did without agreement or a second thought about what consequences might befall our kind if we, a tiny flock of birds, struck out against the wolves in a single flying body from our perch above the snow and pulled the old man in to places were a pack of wolves could never go.
The old man spit and screamed his muddy venom at the wolves until they went away. The snow was covered with their marks of owning us and all the settled regions of the earth that they could reach. The old man left his marks around our rookery as well. The splattered bits and pieces of his muddy hate were everywhere a wolf had been but none of them were thicker than the tracks he meant to cover with his rage at being driven like a hunted thing across a landscape that could barely harbor more than just a flash of life against the coming doom of sunless night we knew would freeze our feathers to the stones. The old man took his time in asking us what kind of fools we were to save a life that only yesterday had tried to cuts ours off by sucking out the inside of our eggs. He spoke a language none of us could understand; a horrid grating kind of sound that shook our spirits through a hopeless pause in time to show us how and why he stood there on his wicker limbs to suck all life out of a flock of birds. We drove him down into the snow a second time.
Another day of darkness passed before we saw him coming back again. To say that he had changed would not do justice to the transformation of his limbs from blocks of wood and mud into a fleshlike covering of skin and hair that one could almost take for human were it not still split and cracked from molting off his outer covering of mud and slim. He told us he had found a different place to live, a different kind of food to eat that did not tear the heart out of a bird. He showed us berries he had gathered from a thing he called a swamp. He gave us all he carried in his sack and said he meant to take us down the mountain of our ice into a place where sun and moon and stars were never known to leave the sky, a place like paradise as far as he could tell is what he said. His voice had changed in tenor to a liquid sound that none of us had ever heard before. We told him we were glad to know that he had found a different kind of life to live and thanked him for the berries he had carried on his back. He said he meant to take us to that place he knew. We said it sounded far too far for us to fly. He said he'd take us in his sack.
We drove him down into the snow again.
When he came back that final time, he looked as if the world he knew had molded him into a better thing than he had been the day he broke out of the ice and snow that covered everything from here to there. He told us one more time with words that bounced as much as flowed how warm it was where he came from and asked us if we wanted him to take us there. We said no sacks. He nodded once or twice and smiled as if he knew a secret we could only guess. "Exactly what I thought you'd say," he said and took a rack of fashioned sticks out of his bag. He told us how he gathered them from every part of the forest where he lived and tied them into bundles with enough cross-pieces stacked and stitched together for as many birds to perch upon as ever he had seen around our rockery the first and second times he'd been there in the past. He tied the rack with heavy cord against his shoulders and around his head and said: "Get on." We did and he began to walk us slowly down the mountain through our endless fields of ice.
After half the journey reached its end, he shook us off the tree he carried on his head and told us we could rest a while and play some games of fly and search that he had learned from other birds he'd seen along the way. He took the rack apart and stacked the pieces neatly out in rows that covered half the hillside where we learned to dart and slide between the ridges that the flowing water cut between the hills. He watched us fly and flash against the morning sky and frowned more than he laughed, he said, because our swoop and dive among the hills was fine enough for frozen birds but that the places he had seen would make our plumage stand out like a rusty spike for everyone to see. He told us he was sure a different color than the dusty one we had would serve us better in a land where trees and bushes covered half the distance from the earth to sky. He turned our feathers green.
By the time we reached the old man's version of true paradise, a place where rain was known to fall without a single flake of snow for half the year before it stopped, the feathers in our tail had grown some three feet longer than they were before he turned us forest green. He said it made us look like serpents of the sky when we flew back and forth from perch to perch. In time a race of human hunters came into our land and cut our thriving numbers down to half as many as we were before the old man took us south. He told me when he cut the first slit in my skin that drop by drop my blood would paint the picture of a turning tide against the ones who brought us down to naught.
He gave me burial beneath a tree of life when he had finished with his stone. The roots took up my flesh and carry me back toward the rookery that gave me birth. I see the old man here and there as he goes back and forth beneath my wooden frame. I rise inside the bark and gain a higher purchase from the ground with every year that passes through the earth. In time I'll be there when the final flash of sun sets down a darkness on the spirit sky.
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