“The big beasts of Africa and Asia learned to avoid humans, so when the new mega-predator–Homo sapiens-- appeared on the Afro-Asian scene, the large animals already knew to keep their distance from creatures that looked like it. In contrast, the Australian giants had no time to learn to run away.”
Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
I’m not like other birds. Though I can feel the excitement in the flock buzzing through the peloton as we soar through the vast blueness toward an unknown destination, that excitement is not shared by me. My unusually tiny wings usually have to strain just to keep up. A strain not born of my mere physical deformity but a mind always stuck in the place from before–urging me backward. Yes, we would land and find a new place and slowly the memory of my old dwelling would fade -- but only a little. Like losing an old friend, I always felt it was a part of me.
Each new land brought its own excitement. A new land with vast greenery and plush fruits and juicy insects–often more plentiful than the place from before. But upon arrival, as I bathed in a calming pond, the slow silence would transform peace into ambivalence. Because I knew that this place–like all the others-- would not last.
I so envied the bears, the fish, and even the motionless trees -- for even they could set up roots. It was a thing so foreign to me that the flies whizzing by seemed to be mocking me with their freedom. I never talked about this to my father. He was like the rest of the flock–a bird of instinct. Why do we go south for the winter? Why can’t we ever stay somewhere? Why do we always run?
I would pose these questions to the flock only to be met with ridicule. For, it turns out, the funniest joke to a bird is rebellion.
I could only find a solace in my grandfather whose instincts, I suspected, were just as broken as mine. He would regale me with tales from long ago. Stories, he said, that were written in our subconscious. On this day, he tweeted a song from atop mulberry tree:
Let me tell you stories, old
Of great bird kings from long ago
We walked the land with perfect slant
Twice the size of elephants
We ruled the lands both far and wide
Until a rock came from the sky
“A big rock, grandpa?”
“Yes, it killed our more mighty ancestors and then...” his tone darkened. “And Then the humans came.”
Humans. I always heard about the humans but have never seen one. I never could ask this to my father, but could ask my grandpa anything. Sure, the answer would be insane nonsense, but in a flock of creatures known for their conformity anything different was a welcome change.
“Why haven’t we seen any humans, grandpa?”
“Legend has it that a great number of them died off many years ago in a catastrophic event. Still,” he continued, “some survived and some encounter them to this day.”
“And what happens when they encounter them.”
“Hm!” he lept from his perch, fluttering his wings in a purposely off-putting manner. “They fly Fly away -- like cowards.”
He was singing a dirge now, a song of longing as he looked off into the distance.
“Aren’t you tired, Litenas. Tired of fleeing. Tired of the flock skittering into a dozen different directions simply because a pebble fell? Aren’t you weary of these things when you know the thunder of our ancestors lurks through your veins?”
The word fleeing just hung there and suddenly we were singing the same tune.
“You and me inherited the boldness of our ancestors from long ago, Litenas. All the rest of the flock inherited was fear.”
As if on cue, my father came.
“Are you filling my son’s head with nonsense again, father?” he chirped, indignantly.
“All wise things are nonsense to the blind fools of the flock.”
Father, as he usually had to do, ignored the remark and instead got to business, “You can fill his head with nonsense on another tree. We have to leave.”
“What do you mean leave?” Grandpa squawked.
“Athenia was picking berries near the stream and that’s when she encountered them.”
He hopped down from his perch, apparently wanting to be sure of what he was hearing.
“Them? Them who?”
It hurt to see my father shiver as he trilled the word, “Humans.”
And there I saw everything gramps was talking about. The fear. The blind commitment to nothing in particular. The running.
The decision was final. “We have to go.”
As I saw visions of pebbles and cracking branches, he started his lunge to fly away–but then embolden by my grandfather’s words, I unleashed a mighty tweet unlike anything I had tweeted before.
My father turned as if he was unable to process the word. He clicked his beak several times before cawing incessantly, “Wherever humans go destruction follows! We must flee! There is no choice!”
“But what if we fought the humans, father?”
I saw my grandfather’s opal colored eyes widen as he leaned in–seemingly wanting to see what I would do next. I was wondering the same thing as my father turned. His eyes narrowed and he stuck out his chest.
Then, out of the blue, he broke into melodious laughter that rippled through the leaves.
“Fight the humans?” he laughed. “You are as silly as your grandfather!”
Usually the laughter came from a chorus of birds, which was enough to shame me into silence. But now it was just my father. So, instead, in an act both ironic and defiant, I fled.
I flew all the way to the end of the forest and when my tiny wings go tired I started walking. I looked around to take in the scenery. This beautiful woods I was fighting for. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t stay here forever. I was looking at the trees, the brilliant array of flowers and the effervescent, green grass. I had gotten so used to this place–we had been here only two days and now we were going to leave faster than we had ever left. And for what?
That’s when I saw it. Straight ahead of me–just as it had been described to me as a child: a human.
Just then I heard flapping overhead and a sea of birds came my way. The flock had caught up with me and suddenly they were circling overhead. None were bold enough to come down beside me.
“Run Lithenius! Run Lithenius! Run Lithenius! Run Lithenius!” they cackled in unison
It was followed by the unsettling call that had diminished my father to a shivering wreck not moments before,“Human! Human! Human! Human! Run!”
And they were right. He was right before me. My primal bird urges should have told me to run. But like I said, I was not like other birds. I had not learned to run.
So, I stood there, stupidly. And if stories were true, I was about to be captured. So I stood my ground against the beast who I was told would take me and torture me in a zoo or coop of some kind.
While all the flock was flying in crazy patterns above me at the mere presence of this creature, I–oddly enough–stood before it unmoved. For the way, they talked about it I imagined a creature as tall as tree. However, this human was no bigger than a rat.
I thought about what my grandfather had said -- how we were once great and lofty creatures and after a catastrophic event all that remained were the tiniest among us and how many thousands of years later we evolved into the smaller creatures of the world. Had the same thing occurred humans?
Against everything I had ever been taught, I did something unimaginable: I grabbed the human in my beak and picked it up. The entire flock, still circling above, began to go in erratic directions almost bumping into one another–creating panic in the air that they no doubt assumed would descend upon me.
What I did next, I did not know why. But I do know that the tiny creature, for the first time, felt fear before a bird. For the first time, a bird had stood up to him. There was a certain power felt from climbing above this creature on the food chain. I remember the stories of what humans did to birds. How they would catch them, torture them, and sometimes even keep their carcasses as decorations in their nests.
That made my mind for me.
I released the creature–because birds are better than men. I released him knowing he would warn his fellow humans and they would know we are not to be messed with and this was our place now.
The flock looked on in shock and seeing what I had done to they came to rest all about me in a sea of white, green, and ultraviolet shades. Then for a moment as I perused the flock of eyes, for only a fleeting moment, I could see no fear.