Friday, September 04, 2009

Whoever Treasures Freedom

At the behest of my dear friend, Flicka Spumoni, I humbly offer a short story I wrote in November 2008.

Whoever Treasures Freedom*
A Fable

Way back long ago, Child, in the days of the Flood, He-Eagle and Rooster sat on top of Noah’s boat and watched the waves lap against it. The good friends had spent many hours just so in silent, bobbing companionship.

The chicken broke the silence. “Brother Eagle, it seems to me that these waters are receding at last.”

“That’s so,” replied the eagle.

“What do you think you and the missus will do, once we can safely leave the boat?”

“Well,” He-Eagle paused, staring thoughtfully into the distance, “I guess we’ll be flying to the highest point we can find and building a nest and beginning again. What about you and Sister Hen?”

“You know, I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and I think we’re going to stick close to Brother Noah and the children of Noah.”

He-Eagle was startled. “Do you think that’s wise?”

“I can’t think of anything wiser,” Rooster replied. “Think about it, Brother Eagle: this whole world is going to be pretty barren and uninviting until after the first spring. Not a tasty grub or tender shoot to be found. But, you know that Brother Noah and his children will be planting their seeds as soon as we hit fertile land, and the first-fruits of the earth will be theirs. Plus, they have enough food reserves to feed us all until the harvest. Yes,” Rooster nodded solemnly, “I really do not see a better way for my family.”

"I am grateful that Father, through Noah, provided this rescue when the rains came,” He-Eagle began slowly, “But these many months on a cramped ship have made me yearn for the mountains. My very bones cry for freedom.” He-Eagle shook his head, “No, Brother Rooster, I cannot agree with your plan. Brother Noah and his children are well and good, but as for me and my wife, we shall rely on Father’s provision. Surely He did not save us to let us perish, no matter how harsh this new world.”

“Suit yourself, Brother Eagle, suit yourself.” Rooster laughed a little under his wing. “Now, how about a race two miles out from the boat and back? Loser has to wake the boat tomorrow morning.”

“You’re on,” He-Eagle cried, and they flew off.

Within a few days, He-Eagle’s excellent eyes showed him that a purple peak had emerged on the horizon. He and She-Eagle asked Rooster and Hen once more if they would want to stretch their wings and journey with them. The chickens politely declined. So, after bidding farewell to Brother Noah and his children, the eagles left the ark.

A few weeks after the eagles’ departure, Noah’s boat came to rest on its own mountain peak, and a whole mess of weary, dirty, grumpy animals and people stepped foot again on solid land. Just as the chickens had predicted, after sacrificing on an altar and drunken revelry, Brother Noah and his children began the task of rebuilding the earth. Rooster and Hen stuck close by, pecking up spare crumbs that the people kindly left, and feeling pretty pleased with their good plan. Now, if an egg or two was taken for Noah’s breakfast, occasionally, they really didn’t miss it; they had so many.

Child, things were hard for He-Eagle and his wife. Again, just as Rooster had said, the earth was unforgiving that first year, begrudging her lost beauty by taking her time to renew. Their first nest was a paltry thing, with spindly vines and soft, new leaves to build it instead of strong branches and cozy moss. The first eggs She-Eagle laid never hatched. She mourned for a season. He-Eagle would descend far down the mountain daily to try to find the smallest sign of edible matter, and too many days he would come home with nothing at all.

But, Father remembered His eagle children, and mousies and bunnies do tend to multiply, and it did not take long for the eagles’ bellies to be filled again. The next year, enough bushes had grown to make a stable sort of nest, and two of the five eagle eggs hatched. The year after that brought three eaglets; the year after that, three more. Soon, when Rooster and Hen and their broods of chicks looked into the sky, the graceful silhouette of an eagle child was not an unusual occurrence. So, both the eagles and the chickens grew and prospered; they scattered across the globe – the eagles between the mountains, the chickens with the children of Noah.

Years turned into decades, decades to centuries, centuries to eons. He-Eagle and She-Eagle died. Rooster and Hen died. Their children’s children’s children, and so on, lived together on earth, but worlds apart. Eagles had little interest in the chickens, but the chickens had nothing but interest in the eagles. But, Child, it was not a kindly interest; it was a resentful one. You see, in the years since the Flood, chickens had forgotten that they were creatures of the air. They had become so satisfied, living with people, that they had begun to change. Their bodies grew heavier, their wings smaller.

So, Child, you can see how when the people began to farm them, they had no way to escape.

But, instead of relearning the gift of flying – for Father never takes away the gifts He gives; they can only be refused – the chickens began simply to complain. They complained about the rows of coops they lived in; they complained about the strict corn diet they were kept on; they complained about their eggs that were taken every morning; they complained about their cockerels and pullets who were taken in the night; but, most of all, they complained about the eagles who flew so very far above the reach of Man and who were free.

You must not think, Child, that after the earth was reborn the eagles’ lives were always easy. No. Far from it. But, they learned to hunt through layers of snow in the lean winters; they learned to build their nests in the tallest parts of trees to keep away prowling egg-eaters; they learned to stay far from the habitats of Noah’s children. They could learn these things, because they had never forgotten how to fly.

Now, one day, Child, a young eagle named Lire got a spell of curiosity and decided to leave the aerie. He flew in slow circles down from the mountain and came closer to a child of Noah’s farm than he had ever been.

A new kind of world came into focus as he descended. He saw the odd boxy shape of buildings below him. For the first time in his life, he touched the ground of the valley and looked amusedly about. Here was a strange thing indeed: A group of birds – quite fat, quite clumsy – were pecking about a large bowl on the ground filled with yellow stuff. Somehow, they had all decided to eat together inside a long grouping of trees. But such trees as that tree-dweller had never seen. Short, pure white, with no branches or leaves, all perfectly planted to form an oval and covered with some sort of moss that was hard and grey and shiny and cold. Lire flew up and alighted on one.

Soon, a proud, strutting He-Bird came out from behind the squat building that was in the center of the tree-circle. Something stirred in Lire’s memory – stories his mother had told him about the Flood and Father’s setting His children free, and about his one-thousand-times-great grandfather He-Eagle’s best friend, Rooster.
“Brother Rooster! How are you?”

“Who is that?” the bird cocked his head and looked around the enclosed circle.

“Up here! Up here! On top of this small, white tree!”

The rooster squinted into the sunlit branches of the trees behind him.

“No, no,” Lire laughed. “Not that high up. Here, on this short tree; to your left.”

“Oh, an eagle. Yes. Humph. Go away.”

“Go away? Are you kidding? Why don’t you fly up here and we can talk, just like our great-greats did? Or, better yet, why don’t we fly up to that beautiful pine over there and enjoy the view while we chat?”

Now, in the rooster’s chest, a great resentment burned toward Lire. The rooster had never seen the view from that or any tree. Suddenly, he wanted, with all his heart, to drag that eagle down from his perch and keep him on the ground. What is worse, he saw a way.

“Fool,” the rooster said grandly, “Firstly, you are sitting on a fence, not a tree. Secondly, chickens do not fly. And, lastly, eagles and chickens do not become friends.”

Lire was incredulous. “Well, that’s just silly. Of course we can be friends. I mean, I know you live in the valley, and I live in the mountains, but what’s a little flying, anyway? Oh wait, but you don’t fly? C’mon, that is total nonsense. I mean, Mama told me many times about the races your great-great and mine had when they were stuck on that boat all those months during the Flood. Mama said that Rooster was the only bird able to keep up . . .”

The rooster cut Lire off with a dismissive wave of his wing and a haughty laugh. “Silly eagle, coming here, telling me of flying chickens and the Flood. I’ve heard those childish tales from the butterflies and ladybugs, but I thought that at least a bird would have evolved beyond that sort of thinking. Next thing I know, you’ll be jabbering on about the ‘Father’ myth and then I shall have to bid you good day.”

Lire said, dumbfounded, “‘Tales?’ ‘Myth?’ What’s going on? Are you trying to tell me you don’t know Father, who made the earth and all that is in it? Who saved us from destruction in the Flood? Who provides for our every need?”

“My every need,” and it was amazing how supercilious that rooster could get, Child, “Is provided by Man. Your every need is provided by scrounging around eating disgusting things and going half hungry when times are bad. Now, really, eagle, look at you and look at me. You fly about all day, looking for food, hunting it down, eating it (ugh), building or cleaning your nest, worrying about your eggs, worrying about even finding a mate – worrying and work all day long, every day, for the rest of your life. And then, having done this all to the point of exhaustion, you say that some sort of all-powerful ‘Father’ provides. Ha!”

“I don’t feel exhausted by it; I feel alive, I feel . . .”

“Pray, do not interrupt your betters. Now I, eagle, live a life of sophistication and ease. I want to eat? The finest corn is provided by Man. I want to sleep? Nothing could be more warm and safe than my roost in the coop. I want a mate? Well, you can witness for yourself the bevy of beauties surrounding me . . .”
“Fatties,” Lire muttered.

The rooster glared. “The beauties surrounding me – a veritable harem of pleasure and delight. And because, dear boy, I do not have to focus my attentions and energies to such mundane tasks as survival, I have plenty of time to improve and exercise my mind in deep contemplation. I am a philosopher.” The rooster puffed his chest up and let out a bellowing crow. “You can never be what I am.”

Now, Child, Lire was feeling pretty low at this point. The rooster was right on many of the things. He did spend a lot of time hunting, and he was searching for a mate, and he did worry that his eventual progeny would fall prey to the wily egg-thieves of the mountains. He said good-bye to the rooster and sadly flew back to his mountaintop, which did, all of a sudden seem rugged and cruel rather than exhilarating. When he shivered in a rocky crag that night, he thought a little wistfully of the rooster’s snug coop.

Lire did not want to go back to the farm, but he did. He went the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. With every trip he became more impressed by the rooster’s secure situation and more humbled by his elegant condescension. In his aerie home, Lire would practice walking, trying to perfect the rooster’s barnyard strut.

Child, Lire began to court a young she-eagle named Ara. She was beautiful, proud and fierce, and Lire hungered after her with all his heart. But, Ara was a practical bird. She became more and more frustrated with his trips down the mountain.

“Why you’d ever want to spend your time in the valley, I’ll never understand,” she said once in exasperation, “It smells bad down there.”

“I dunno,” Lire demurred. “Ara, don’t you ever wish for a better life than what we have on this mountain?”

“What could be better than the clean air and magnificent views of this mountain?” Ara returned. “Can’t you just hear Father up here?”

“Hmmm . . . yes . . . Father,” Lire replied, with a guilty sideways glance.

They continued doggedly in their courtship, but Lire’s mind was always preoccupied with the happenings of the valley barnyard. One day, he ventured to mention the rooster’s harem to Ara, and asked if she would, well, maybe consent to . . . He got about that far when she pecked him hard enough to draw blood on his shoulder and flew away. Child, take note of that. And, another time, in a quarrel, he accused her of being ‘bourgeois.’ She flew away again, never to return.
Lire’s journeys south became even more frequent.

So, one afternoon, Lire was making his daily visit to the child of Noah’s farm. The rooster had told him that only uncouth fowl ever perched on fences, so Lire was sitting on the ground, listening to the cock’s pontifications.

“You know, you’re not such a bad bean, now that you’ve taken to learning some sense,” the rooster drawled. “You might just – yes, might just – be ready to make your place in this valley paradise.”

“Where would an eagle like me fit into the Noah child’s farm?” Lire asked.

“Shut up about ‘Noah,’ would you?” the rooster retorted. “And I wasn’t talking about on the farm anyway, bird brain. There are other places for misfits like you – animals not refined or cultivated enough to live closely with Man, but still advanced enough beyond the wild hoi polloi to deserve a little of Man’s protection. They are called zoos, and I think you’ll do nicely there.”

“And in this zoo, will they feed me and keep me warm and find me a mate – or several mates?” Lire asked eagerly.

“Indeed. Now, come a little closer, and I will tell you what you need to do . . .”

Now, Child, Lire, had been seduced, led away from the fundamentals of his being. If his mama had seen it, she would have wept. The young eagle had grown to despise his mountaintop home. He had come to doubt Father and the stories of the Flood. And the seduction was almost complete. Lire leaned his head in, thinking of his chosen mate and their eventual eaglets hatching in the safety and warmth of this zoo-thing, when . . . Hatchlings! Progeny! Hey, wait!

“Brother Rooster!” Lire pulled back his head from the huddle.

“Yes?” Exasperated, but polite.

“Where are your chicks, Brother Rooster?”

“Chicks?” Still supercilious, mind you, but with an edge of something else.

“Yes, your chicks. Ten, fa-- . . . er . . . plump, hens surrounding you, and yet, no chicks inside your fence. Where are your chicks?”

“Ah, yes, well, chicks. We get a brood up about once a year. Really, such deep thinking as mine does not call for time to raise up a very large family, you know. Plus, that’s rather, well, gauche, wouldn’t you say, to have so many children in such an overpopulated world?”

“Overpopulated? Are you crazy? I can fly miles in a day without seeing any other eagles, let alone chickens. But, really, are you telling me that your wives are really your daughters, because . . . ew.”

“No, no, of course not,” the rooster was indignant. “None of our chicks stays around past a year after they hatch. They all go away . . .” Now the rooster’s voice trailed off and he looked uncomfortable.

“Where do they go? Where do your cockerels and pullets go, Brother Rooster?” Lire had a horrible sinking feeling in his stomach.

“Now, really, Old Boy, you needn’t shriek at me so. Do eaglets stay around after they’re grown?”

“So, they fly away to new homes. Is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes, they go to new homes,” the rooster finished, relieved.

“Liar! Tell him the truth, Ralph. Tell him about our eggs, too,” called a piercing voice from behind the coop. A comely, yet rather obese, red hen waddled out. Her eyes flashed and her voice quavered, “Tell him where our eggs go – the ones that we do not hatch.”

“Shut up, Doreen,” the rooster hissed.

“The Man takes them,” the hen wailed. “He takes them, both the younguns and the eggs, and he eats some of them and sells the rest. I’ve seen it – don’t think I haven’t. He takes our babies, hatched and unhatched and he uses them. That, that is the price we pay for living in this hell.”

"Shut up, Doreen, shut up!” Ralph was furious, beating his wings at his rogue wife.

Doreen was not quelled. “Now you,” she said, turning to Lire, “You need to get out of here. I know what Ralph is trying to do to you, and it is not right.”

“Trying to do to me?”

“He hates you, Lire, because you have what we chickens do not – the ability to fly away. We chickens have been hating eagles since after the Flood, because you chose Father and we chose Man. But Man never gives unless he takes away as well; and he takes in a way that outweighs what good he gives.”

“But, my life is horrible. No cornmeal mush on winter’s nights; no warm perch in the biting cold; no bevy of mates,” he watched Doreen cringe as he said that. “No time for deep thinking or philosophy,” he finished.

“You listen to me, and you listen to me right now. There is nothing, nothing more precious than the freedom to fly. Once you give that up, you have damned generations. If you got yourself into a zoo, you would have a warm home and plenty of food and a hand-picked mate. And, chances are, your little ones would not be eaten by Man or beast. But, they would clip your wings. And, when your eaglets came along, they would be born into a life of captivity. And there would be fewer eagles living on the mountaintops. And that is where you belong.” Doreen was stopped by Ralph’s pushing her to the ground and sitting on her head.

“I apologize for my ignoramus of a wife,” Ralph said. “Her outburst on freedom was tres outrĂ©, but she’s always been one to fly the coop, if you catch my drift. Heh, heh. Freedom is so yesterday. The cool kids are all about security, you know. So, now about the zoo . . .”
But it was too late. The scales had fallen from Lire’s eyes. He had already spread his wings.

As his feet touched valley soil for the last time, Doreen gave a sharp poke of her beak on the backside of her husband, and he jumped up, cackling in pain. She scrambled to her feet and called out to Lire as he soared, ever smaller into the great blueness, “Fly on! Fly always! Fly for we who cannot!”

Her eyes fixed on the sky whose corners she had never seen, Doreen added in a whisper, “Father, I will spend the rest of my life trying to remember how to fly.” Now, dear Child, do you not think she will?

*From the folksong, "Dona Dona," whose last verse declares: Calves are easily bound and slaughtered/Never knowing the reason why/But whoever treasures freedom/Like the swallow must learn to fly


Jo said...

Awesome story, Justine! I'm so glad Flicka made you post it. :)

Arielle said...

Very nicely done! It kept me very absorbed.