The tale of the eye-bird is said to be older than the Blanking, even more ancient than the metal bones at the edge of the Atla-sea; it is said to have started with a man that saw too much, or with a monster with many eyes that never blinked, or with a blue feather that held the wisdom of the gods – the story had many beginnings, and Jonathen knew them all, even before he became a hunter. It told of the old iron gods, that looked like men but weren’t, of thoughts that shaped and of palaces beyond the stars, it spoke of how the Blanking came to pass, and how the heavens threw a veil over the lands, so no god would ever return. And it told of those who refused the blessing of the stars and remained to face the curse, and when the Blanking ended, out of their seeds sprouted the Tribes, and then the City.
Jonathen knew this even before he became a hunter. As a child he had heard the stories and as a hunter he had the duty to tell them. But as he sought his prey he found tracks of those that had gone before – a dusty flag, hung above the abandoned niche of a dog-bear, from the one who spotted it first; a bone carved in human form and nailed to a wall, in the midst of the stone lands, which were haunted by sprites; a scarecrow in the middle of the dessert, bearing the marks “spider-sand”, so no one would approach it. New places, forgotten places, bits of the world others had discovered before him. He would see these places and return, and tell their tale once more. “It stopped here” he once read to the children from a piece of plastic he had found in a dry glen. The writing wasn’t that old and it had been burnt on the oily material with white-hot embers. “It looked at me. Its sight is fire and it hurts.” – and the children shuddered and took heed.
These were the tales of others. The eye-bird was his.
The first time he had seen one it had been quite close to home, on the ledge night wards to the city. It just sat in the grass and did nothing, its long tail all covered in dust. The little blue circles that adorned its feathers were motionless, and at first Jonathen thought it asleep. It didn’t look that terrible.
“It could eat your heart with a mere blink,” some said.
“It could tear you apart with the sound of its wings,” others added.
“It would split your skull and swallow you whole,” they gasped.
It did none of those things. It looked rather fragile, its beak and neck forming a serene question mark, while its eyes were like tiny beads, of those that women liked to mix in summer pies, to give them taste. Around its head the plumage was white as the sand on a winter moon night – Jonathen would later find out that those feathers appeared with age, and that first eye-bird was very old. And as time passed, the birds dreamed more and felt less, which was why it didn’t even flinch when he took out the knife and slit its throat.
Pretty harmless. The tail feathers were another thing however. Those were the dream jewels, the reason the bird was called an “eye-bird”. A mere brush of them brought Jonathen down in a second, and the would-be hunter woke much later near the swollen carcass of the bird, with memories of foreign dreams – a balloon was there, a pink one tied to the ear of a plastic animal that went round and round, and laughter, and bubbles of gum, and then there was a needle and a smile; then a car, one of those four-wheelers that still lingered around, and on the skies there glimmered metal.
He plucked the feathers carefully, he carried them home and went to sleep, holding them tight. The blue eyes blinked once, twice, then slept as well. They came once more, the dreams, and even if they were faded and weak, they lingered in his mind, and afterwards told others of the round worlds, which were above, and below, and around, and of the people that walked the stars, and of the iron seas and starlight music.
He kept the eye-bird to himself – blaming the dreams on silent winds and spirit humour. They listened with a raised brow, but said nothing. And when the feathers stopped dreaming, he went hunting once more, and came back with a handful of new dreams and each time he understood more, because the visions belonged with one another.
“They build bridges, our ancestors, long, graceful bridges, that at first had crossed waters and then the skies.”
“But what of them now?” his people would ask.
“Aye, what of the sky bridges now? And the flying machines? And the light?”
“They’re not gone” he would say. “They’re waiting. I dreamed once of a man – or god – in an iron place with stars on the walls. He turned a little wheel and the stars grew darker, and then he turned it again and they were once more bright. Perhaps the machines are like that. Waiting to shine again.”
“You speak foolish. No wheel could darken the sky!” some spoke.
“How would you know?” others asked.
“None could know for sure.” others would declared. “Only the gods. And they are all gone.”
Jonathen said nothing at this point, but as he hunted he began to disagree. In the feather dreams he saw people shape themselves like air, their hair taking the coloring of rainbows at a mere whim, he would walk on walls of glass built on a red world and he knew it to be up there, beyond the clouds, where air ran from you and gods floated in their vessels. Not gods, he decided at some point, but men. And so, each time he went hunting he knew more, and told enough of his journey to make them listen, and enough of their dreams to make them question. Each time, he went farther following the birds – he began to scry the dreams for locations of other birds, and so figured how to find them – and the farther he went, the more beautiful his dreams would turn out.
But the origin of the eye-bird was still a secret.
Soon, he was already known as the Dreamer.
And during those days it so happened that he slept and saw the red feathers. This is when his real journey began. The plumage was thick, with nuances of purple and pink and glimmering yellow. It reminded him of the fire-eagle he had once dreamed of – a fiction of the god-days, named phoenix. But now it seemed real, and so he figured that most of the old wishes came true now, after time has passed and reality finally reconsidered.
He took food, water and new feathers with him. He crossed the dry glens of the east, passed the stone mountains, and went over the silent rivers, among the metal places that still whispered the past. He climbed on the highest place, where the eye-bird was known to nest, looking at the stars. He climbed stairs that should have moved but stood still, he walked along corridors that should have been lit, and among glass and metal things that once had a life of their own. He daydreamed of the past and guided thusly he found his way to the top.
There he lay waiting and dreaming once more.
“How do they come to you?” I remember asking him, before he left, and he was wise to tell me:
That is all we know of his dreaming days. No eye-bird has ever come to these lands since his journey, and some say he made a deal with their king, the red one. But none could tell for sure.
When he returned, years later, he was blind. Some say the red king pecked out his eyes, and placed them in its tail. But that’s just a children’s tale. Some say Jonathen plucked out his own eyes, out of horror – I could accept that, given his reticence to talk about what he saw, and would indulge a further judgment: that the King saw not the past, but the future. It’s a grim thought. But the only tale Jonathen the Dreamer told when he returned, spoke of a darker past and how history goes around in circles.
“I look at her” he told me in his dream-voice, the one he spoke with when he recalled our past. “I look at her and she’s wearing my favorite T-shirt. It’s a twentieth-century cotton blouse. There’s a peacock feather drawn on it and it’s red. I would hug her, if it wasn’t for the glass between us, I would draw her close and slap her and kiss her and tell her how foolish she is. I touch the glass. It’s impossible to break, as was the silence between us, as was her decision. Peacocks. Brilliant. But pointless, and she didn’t understand that. So I’ll lose her, because of her brilliance. Perhaps it might have worked, had we more years to prepare – the red ones are quite strong, but not enough. Nanoempathic metabolism. Ironic. We hunted them for their feathers, we dressed ourselves in them, and, as she would put it, they’re now to keep our souls. Perhaps a red feather will keep her safe. I wish I could have stayed, but it’s too late now. I aim my thoughts at her, desperately, hoping she’ll hear, hoping she’ll know that it meant something. But there is only silence, and then the stars. She’s gone. I didn’t even wave.”
Jonathen then told me history goes in circles.
And I believed him.
At least nobody will hunt eye-birds anymore. It’s one of the rules the hunters have. I know because I am one – The Dreamer’s tale is to be his alone, and perhaps that’s what he wanted, all along.
Monday, October 22, 2007