Prose

Wisdom

13 February 2018

I had two brothers and a sister. I think of them often, as well as my stern old mother, and wonder if they’re alive and thinking of me, perhaps while rooting through a bin the way we did when we were young. Together we fought with the magpies over the best places to find food, and we huddled close in the cold at night, watching for cats, and we would sit in the swaying branches of oak trees, peering down at the neat rows of dark-bricked human houses, the rectangular sections of grass bordering them, the great black wasteland roads where monstrous cars roared by. Birds of all kinds were regularly found lying near the houses with their necks broken.

On a cool morning with shadows rustling on the pale walls I was mad enough to enter one of those bright caves alone. I could see a ledge piled high with gleaming fruit. It looked better than anything I’d ever eaten, and I was itching to make some great discovery to show off to my friends. I took a hop of faith and found no invisible bone-breaking wall. It was strange in there, so clean and hard-edged, and the air was still. I went straight for the fruit, gobbled the sweet fresh flesh, but soon a human came flailing its fearful limbs, so I flapped away.

Blooming in my gut was something. I didn’t know what it was then, but now I call it shame. I was to feel it over and over, every time I again ate something that wasn’t mine. There appeared so many of these subtle, terrible aches that I felt a sense of creeping horror at myself I couldn’t begin to understand. I sank into a listless confusion, crawled under a bush for three days and would not eat. My sister brought me worms but I gagged on their earthy flesh. I had become very weak by the time a friend of mine brought me what I really wanted. She had gone herself into the cave of the tall beasts, taken a human fruit and brought it to me. She had eaten some of it herself. Her beak was wet with sweet pulp. I devoured the fruit, and yet another ache seized me. I hopped in agitated circles around her, for I couldn’t yet speak. We showed my friends that window and others and we all shamefully went to feast on juicy dark fruits and hard white fruits and soft grey fruits until the humans stopped leaving the windows open. Soon we knew the taste of every fruit in the world, a few meats, and most vegetables; we marvelled at their freshness, their wholeness, their sweetness. In the clutches of wisdom I wondered, pecking at a hollow bone, if I was eating a bird. When completeness comes, perhaps you forget what it was like to know in part. We stopped eating eggs.

The humans passing in the street started to look us in the eye. They kept their windows shut and chased us from their gardens. I think they were troubled by us. We had always been troubled by them, but this was different. Their barking backyard beasts growled at us. It was like something had changed in us, and when I tried to talk to my sister her eyes were blank and black, like I wasn’t making sense. As I cried out in sadness, I turned to see a human standing over us, watching us. I looked back at it. I could not speak to it either, but I think that I understood it. It was not going to hurt me. As it loomed closer, I recognised, it was fascinated. My sister cawed and hopped away. I stayed still. The human looked me in the eye, the air trembled, and its arm shuddered and descended. I jumped away as its hand grazed the back of my neck. I pushed up into the air and settled in a branch next to a magpie. We greeted each other coolly and watched the human walk away. The magpies always were a bit smarter than us. I think they could tell something was wrong.

But that was fine. The crows who had eaten the fruit, we understood each other. I could no longer talk to my brothers and my sister and my mother, and the others could not talk to their own families, so we all stuck together. Us outcasts invented new ways to speak to each other. We scratched symbols in the dirt for the things we wanted to express. We would practice writing, instead of simply cawing and croaking with our voices. Something like, “Yesterday I fought with your brother over food” would take a long time to put together and understand, but it was a delirious satisfaction to communicate something so complex. But for all that, I still spent most of my time scrabbling for worms, like the magpies, who watched us shrewdly.

In the end the magpies chased us out of that place. We flew very far, to somewhere there were no oak trees or warbling white-flashing shadows, somewhere else, a place where we weren’t ourselves and the trees wouldn’t remind us. It was an open place of pale hills and dark cypress rows. The sky was very large but it made sense that way. You could see the stars and the moon. There were far fewer houses. I have spent most of my life out here by now, but it still feels like I spent an eternity longer with my brothers, my sister, and my old mother, among the oak trees and the humans.

Under the magpie sky, with nowhere to go, it became difficult to forget the constant creeping dread we had acquired, and as I tried to settle down to sleep, I would think about the inexplicable thing that I was afraid of. Now that I am old and scab-headed, bald, croaking and always fluffed up like a hot morning, I think that inevitable thing will be white like the white on a magpie. When I was young, I was scared of it, but not like this. I didn’t wait for it, didn’t wonder. Now we are older, we have put away our beastly things.

We told each other so many stories about the moon. Someone thought it was an egg. I said it was a hole in the sky, a glassless window. On one occasion, some of our number made up their minds to go there and find out. No one we knew had ever flown to the moon before, but if they managed, perhaps they’d come back with some new stories. They set off and rapidly vanished from sight and we began to wait for them to come back. Maybe behind the moon, we thought, things are better than they are here.

For now, I wake up each morning and eat my worms. We tell our stories and watch the stars, and I still don’t know why we are like this. Despite this, I feel very young and sense that there must be seasons and seasons left to see, burning brighter and hotter each time, growing stranger as we go on, and I think if I were to live to see it to the end I might understand it. From a comfortable perch on the tallest branch of the tallest cypress, I like to sit and watch the sky, and let the wind shiver on the back of my neck. The stars and the moon are bright white, the whitest thing I’ll ever see, except the white on a magpie, or the something else I’m yet to encounter. But it’s coming like always and soon we will meet face to face. Maybe we already have, and I missed it or forgot, or perhaps it’s always there, and it’s never over.

After a season passed and they hadn’t returned, my great friend fell into an awful melancholy. I brought her beetles, and she settled into the dust and cried out, so loud and sad. I reassured her that those adventurers had reached the moon. They must have gone through the hole in the sky and found plenty of things to eat. Maybe they have found some new kind of wisdom and we’ll find out what it is when they return. They are still coming, and I think of them often.


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