In the world of bird watching competition can be intense, sometimes even deadly, sometimes even magical. There are birds you can’t see unless you devote your life to seeing them, and a few are in this short story with an aesthetic best described as ‘birdwatchingpunk’.
The Field Guide to Fantasy Birding
(for enthusiasts only)
NAME: boreal chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus)
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: a four to six inch bird which may weigh as much as an ounce. Gray wings and a brown streak across the head are the most common features, but the easiest way to identify it is by its white face with gray patches at the sides. It also has short wings and a short dark bill.
DIET: feeds mostly on seeds and insects by probing in bark and across the forest floor. It favors wood beetle larvae most highly.
RANGE: Maine, Vermont, Alaska, Canada, and New York. Migration happens quickly, with hundreds of miles traveled in just a few days.
BEHAVIOR: not picky when it comes to choosing a mate, though they will often mate for life. Boreal chickadees rarely build their own nests, instead choosing to occupy the abandoned efforts of other birds like the woodpecker. Only one egg is laid, its size surprising given the diminutive creatures that produced it.
To nearly every person who looked at the amateurishly-produced paper it was just a page out of a field guide, a work in progress at best, something to keep an old lonely man busy. Even his family members would not have recognized it for what it was, because they, even the widower’s children, didn’t recognize him for what he was.
But I did. Blood might be thicker than water, but we were birds of a feather, which is the most powerful bond in the world. Birders, to be exact. Laypeople would call us bird watchers, but that’s a term for little old ladies throwing indigestible breadcrumbs to inbred public pond ducks. A bird watcher is any old jamoke who says ‘hey look, a bird’.
Birding is a lifestyle. It comes with its own philosophy, its own careers, its own slang, its own dreams, and, I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, its own magic. It’s not something that can be easily achieved, but the two of us, we got there. I’m only twenty-five, but I’ve been birding intensely since I was old enough to hold binoculars.
Even so, even coming from a family of birders, I was nothing compared to my peer Gideon Bleufeldt. He was sixty-five, and over fifty of those were birding years. His life list, a detailed account of every species he successfully identified visually or aurally in person, was thousands of species long.
His little house, tucked away from the rest of the alcove by the tall trees he planted all the way around it, was so stuffed with beautiful photographs of his encounters that there was no room for any pictures of himself. I had to describe what he looked like to the investigating officers, telling them he was small, hunched, bald with white wisps above his ears just like those on a molting maypole darter, and that he wore thick round glasses.
They jotted it all down, but refused to listen to my theories regarding his disappearance. I could’ve tried harder, but really there was no convincing them. I checked the national registry; none of the officers working in this county were birders. It would be up to me to find him and get him back.
The dark green trees around his property were so tall and thick that the other homeowners in his neighborhood complained about the risk of them falling over, failing to understand that if there was any chance a nest-bearing branch would fall he never would’ve planted such a useless tree in the first place.
They did make it impossible to see the house from the street, and there was no driveway to follow, just a dirt path between two of them, lined with flowers that attracted bees that attracted bee eating birds. None were on the wing and feasting that day, so the path was a minefield of buzzing stingers. Pulling my cap down low kept them out of my hair.
Normally his property was teeming, but they’d all vanished with him, and not just because there was nobody to refill the quintuple-deck feeders resembling prairie barns and homesteads hung from the mightiest branches of the backyard. They were gone because they were spooked by whoever, or whatever, had taken him.
I even tried a few calls to see if anything would respond, but no dice. Then I pulled out my electronic field guide. A layperson would think it a children’s handheld game in a colorful plastic case, but it’s the birder equivalent of a smartphone. With the push of a button it could recreate any call perfectly, but it too netted no results.
There was police tape around the broken window that no doubt marked the entry point of the assailant. It was simple enough to clamber inside, and I was already very familiar with the layout. Gideon’s research and photos, the good stuff, was hidden in a portable safe inside a hamper under one layer of concealing sweaters. It was still there, so I input the combination: number of toes on one foot for a cardinal, a ruby-throated hummingbird, and a half-full glasswine. It was empty, confirming one of my suspicions. A person or persons stole my friend, my mentor, because there was something he knew that they didn’t want anybody else knowing. They had to take him too, since whatever he’d written down was still stored in that curmudgeonly egghead of his.
I searched the rest of the home, turning up nothing suspicious. His garage was still full of bags of birdseed as tall as he was, and birdbaths that were out of rotation for cleaning. His fridge was loaded with vegetables from his garden, many of them unwashed, small amounts of soil falling off and freezing onto the bottom like fossilized mud puddles. The cops asked me if his television had been stolen, but he never had one.
The trail seemed like it had gone cold already, but I couldn’t give up, not when I’d spent more time getting up at four in the morning just to hear finches titter. I couldn’t remember the last thing he’d said to me, but I had the next best thing: the last thing he’d written. Near his overturned office chair, in the room with maps on the walls covered in flocks of bird shaped pins, there were some papers left on a desk.
The assailant or assailants hadn’t taken them, and they appeared to be rough drafts for a run of the mill field guide, which was how Gideon made a little extra money in his retirement. It was only on second inspection that I realized how terrible they were. You’ve seen the top page already. It’s positively riddled with errors and mischaracterizations.
The Gideon I knew would never make such mistakes, especially regarding a pedestrian creature like the boreal chickadee. I sat in his chair for a long time, staring at them, rifling through them, trying to make sense of their existence.
A code. Every incorrect factoid had to be part of a code, left for me to decipher. Why would he need to encode the information you ask? Because he was under observation. The criminals were obviously birders themselves, and they committed their heinous acts the same way they committed to their hobby, with lots of initial surveillance.
They must have been watching Gideon, either waiting to see where his safe was or looking for the perfect opportunity to strike. He had sensed it, or suspected it, and become too cautious to leave the house, lest they grab him. So he was trapped, with nothing to do but surreptitiously observe his observers right back and gather intelligence, which he could then give to me if they ever sprung their evil plot.
So let’s break this first page down together, shall we? You can see how the boreal chickadee starts to transform into a sinister human. First, the bird’s possible weight is listed as ‘up to an ounce’. Not a chance. That little creature never even makes it to half an ounce. From this I deduced that one attacker must have been overweight, possibly very overweight given that Gideon more than doubled the chickadee’s mass.
Second, the page states that the easiest way to identify the bird is by its white face with gray patches on the sides. The colors were swapped; the actual bird has a gray face with white patches on the sides. I took gray face to mean that the culprit was a senior citizen, and the white patches their white hair or white facial hair.
Then, in the behavior section, it’s listed as not being picky when it chooses a mate. The very casual phrasing made me suspect I was supposed to extrapolate. This person almost certainly had a partner or partners, given the presence of other pages, so they were the ‘mate’ in question. To me this said that this heavyset older birder had partnered with someone lower in the community, a scoundrel.
At that point I think Gideon almost overplayed his hand, putting in a nugget so ridiculous that I’m surprised his abductor’s eyes didn’t pop out of their head at the sight of it. The boreal chickadee most certainly does not lay a single large egg; it lays clutches of five or six. He also called the feat of laying such a large fictitious egg ‘surprising given the diminutive creatures that produced it’.
This seemed to be a variation of the phrase ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’. The villains had a singular goal, one thing they needed to find or achieve, and their diminutive size was Gideon insulting their ability to get it done effectively. He thought they would fail, but of course the effort could still prove fatal to him.
The rest of the errors were arrows, meant to point me in the right physical direction to pick up their trail. The chickadee’s range was listed as ‘Maine, Vermont, Alaska, Canada, and New York’. Not inaccurate, but oddly arranged. Why would Alaska and Canada divide the three northeastern states? Because one of them needed to be singled out. New York. They wouldn’t be crossing state lines then.
Finally, the cleverly botched guide said that the chickadee prefers to eat wood beetle larvae. They are generalists; there was no reason to specifically mention one species of insect they would eat. Unless of course, I was supposed to look for that insect.
Wood beetle larvae are sold in bulk, and mixed into some proprietary feeding blends, at the Sharp Eye Sanctuary and Information Center. It’s a grand gateway to the world of birding, and it was my next stop. There was lots of preparation that needed doing for an expedition such as this, but I could do most of it at the information center itself, at a very reasonable price too, thanks to my loyalty discounts.
That was when I got scared, but not for Gideon. He knew what he was signing up for when he put binoculars around his neck and picked up his first guide. When you become a birder you set your mind on the wing, but being a human it could always fall off, splattering disastrously on the ground below. Both of us were prepared for those consequences.
Nor was I afraid for myself, not directly anyway. I’m loathe to admit that I’d purposefully limited my own achievement in the field up to that point, never taking an expedition that lasted more than a day. My mother… she took one set for three. I never saw her again after that, and I was only twelve at the time. If I stayed out too long I might suffer the same fate… or I might find what was left of her.
My professional courtesy to Gideon overrode that fear. He practically raised me after she vanished, taught me how to tell the cry of a cunning crowbill from that of an asymmetrical swoopish. You know, all the kids’ stuff.
Getting to Sharp Eyes was a little more complicated than pulling into a shopping plaza. The place is for enthusiasts only, so it was located beyond a simple test of birding magic. I rode my bike out to the parking lot just in front of the nearby public hiking trails. It was evening, so the last cars were pulling out as the sun was eaten by the jagged treetops.
Once every last soul was gone, as there was no way I had the patience to introduce someone new to the hobby just then, I pulled out my binoculars and watched the overflowing trashcans on the edge of the concrete.
Here’s where I’m really breaking the rules, but I’m hoping anybody reading this will be either bored to tears by birding or so fascinated that they have to join and absolutely nothing in between. I’ve mentioned the magic of birding already, but now we’re getting into how to perform it in order to further your appreciation of nature’s feathered fellows.
We don’t actually call it magic, but fantasy birding, as the term gives us some deniability in case eavesdroppers ask us what it is. Of its dual meanings, one of them is a game. In fantasy football, participants ‘draft’ players into a team, with that team’s performance based on the eventual statistics of those players. It simulates being a coach. Fantasy birding is when, instead of going out into the field and spying the animals yourself, you simply look at a data registry of other birder accomplishments, trying to guess which species will show up and where they will do so.
It’s a rollicking good time I assure you, superseded only by actively hitting the field. I’ve proven adept at it myself, but that is not the meaning that brought us to that parking lot. The true fantasy birding is the documentation of and interaction with bird species that are only detectable to those within the birding community, some requiring extremely arcane and complicated triggers.
The source of these birds’ power is far from known, but the working theory is that it is some kind of self-defense, perhaps triggered by the extinction of the passenger pigeon, a bird which once darkened the skies of North America. Like a realization that they were vulnerable no matter how numerous. Whole families became apocryphal, became ‘this one time’ stories. Some were only rediscovered after drunken birders spouted off accounts that they couldn’t recall when sober.
This power can, in some of the less extreme examples, be manipulated. The chubby pumpkinstem for example, is a bird that can only be seen by birders, and when fleeing it reveals a path to a space within a space that it disappears into. In that space the Sharp Eye Sanctuary was constructed.
I watched. The little guys love to pick through the garbage, and Gideon had already taught me how to see them years ago. They could fit in the palm of your hand, though one had never been recorded making physical contact with a person. Oddly enough, they were never seen on branches either. The only items they seem willing to rest on, even root around in like pigs, are garbage cans and dumpsters.
A fluffy ball of orange fluttered into view. I focused in, catching its tiny brown head. The nearly spherical creature plunged into the nearest can with such force that the whole thing shook. Spooking it too early would blow any chance of finding the sanctuary, so I waited until it started tossing the least desirable bits of trash out, something for which litterbugs were often blamed. Any time you find yourself asking how someone missed the garbage can when it was so close, there’s a thirty percent chance it was just a chubby pumpkinstem going about its bumbling business.
One step forward for each cold french fry tossed to the side, that’s the proper technique. Flawless execution got me right alongside the rattling can. I flicked its metal side. With a consternated tweet it rocketed back out and made a beeline for the trees. I sprinted after it as fast as I could, trying to stay centered under its bright body like a miniature couch potato of a sun.
The last part of its defense mechanism of unexplained disappearance is to ‘place’ a root in the path of any pursuers for them to trip over, thus losing sight of it at the moment of transition from someplace sensible to someplace else. Without taking my eyes from it I entered the forest, leaping at what felt like the right moment. The root was successfully avoided, as when the bird vanished it was around the corner of a building that had no business being there but that did good business anyway.
To an outsider the best way to describe its appearance would be as a cross between a pet store, a sporting goods store, and a small zoo. Every corner of the structure was covered in coral-like projections of gripping rubber the color of pencil eraser, perfect for claws of all sizes to grasp and perch. A great pen fifty feet high, made of wood and rope netting, stuck off the side and held the animals that were either for sale, facilitation of fantasy birding, or rehabilitation. It was still pretty busy for that time of evening, elderly birders coming and going through its screen doors with their walking sticks and poles. A few of them recognized me and greeted me with a wave. That was good; the lack of concerned expressions meant the wider community didn’t know Gideon was missing yet.
There was an odd sensation as I entered, like some of the birds were watching me. Several holes connect the store proper to the pen, so it was simple enough to confirm by looking around. Perched doves looked down on me from the bookshelves. Robins tilted their heads inquisitively, hopping along the shelves after me, chirping at me as if in warning.
Starling was at the front desk. She’s an acquaintance of mine. We used to go to the same high school until she dropped out to focus on birding. I hadn’t seen her out and about in the regular world since then, and though she’s a muted personality generally I’d never seen her happier. Her Sharp Eyes employee vest was loaded with pockets and zippers, looking bulky enough to be a flotation device.
“Hey,” she greeted me simply with a quick glance before going back to the magazine open on the counter. “You need some gear?”
“Yes, but information first,” I told her, in as solemn a tone I could muster. A quick look at the field guide page reminded me what I was looking for. “Have you seen anybody come through here in the last twenty-four hours who matches this description: older, white hair, possibly with facial hair, and heavyset?”
“Giving out customer information is against store policy,” she said plainly, giving me a suspicious look. In my haste I’d forgotten how cutthroat birders can be with each other even when they’re not actually cutting throats. It probably looked like I was trying to beat someone to a good sighting, unfairly prevent them from expanding their life list.
“Starling,” I leaned closer and whispered, “Gideon’s been abducted.” Her eyes didn’t change, but I could see her throat tense. “He left me that description of the perpetrator. I have to get him back.” She placed a slip of paper in the magazine to hold her page and closed it.
“I can’t help you,” she said, but then she flipped the magazine around and pretended to rearrange some of the goods below the counter. I glanced at her bookmark and saw that it was a receipt, printed not three hours ago. One Leland Pokemiller had purchased one hundred and seventy dollars of climbing rope, camouflage hats, and premium grade hummingbird food. There was my man, one of them at least. There was another page from the unfinished guide, another suspect, but I didn’t want to put Starling in any more of a difficult position.
It was time to shop. This was an expedition that I suspected would take me to the deepest reaches of the fantasy birding realm, a place where maps are useless. You can only find your way by the birds, and you can only find the birds with the right tools.
First I grabbed climbing rope, just to match Leland’s order. Following them might force me to either ascend a cliff or descend into a cave. There were at least two species of fantasy birds whose calls could only be heard as echos within caves. Technically they protected themselves by always existing in moments just prior to the moment you got there, but an exception was made for adding them to your life list if you aurally confirmed the echoes.
After that I needed a field guide to fantasy birds, as I’d left my own at home and couldn’t waste any time going back to get it. There were two choices. I Swear I’ve Seen was the standard, thick enough to choke a pelican, but it was for settled science on the subject. Every species on its pages could be reliably found, and I had the feeling Gideon’s stolen notes dealt with ones that were anything but reliable.
So I settled on At Best a Shadow: your guide to birds that might not be. Its author had gone a little mad in the process of writing it, so some of the entries were almost certainly fabricated unknowingly from his imagination, but the others were real. The trouble that he ran into, and anybody else reading the guide for that matter, was in knowing which ones.
Every customer there was spoiled for choice when it came to binoculars, including the ones manufactured to go after fantasy birds. I had a decent pair at home already, but Gideon deserved the top of the line, which in this case was a pair of Fulbright O-O Companions, with digital and theoretical zoom, corner peek, lens flare eradication, and corner-of-the-eye enhancement. Buying them emptied my loyalty points, but gosh if they didn’t feel good hanging around my neck. Light as a feather, which they were guaranteed to be.
Another hour had passed by the time I had everything I needed, but anybody there could’ve told you they would sooner die right there on a public floor than leave for an expedition unprepared. I already had my heading as well, because there was only one path into the fantasy birding woods from Sharp Eyes, and my targets wouldn’t have stopped at this location if it wasn’t on their way to whatever phoenix or rukh they thought Gideon had cracked.
I was about to leave, halfway through my last deep breath in safety, when Starling called my name. When I turned to look she pointed in the other direction, into the pen. Through a window and the rope netting I saw a bench within, a lone figure sat there, facing away, tossing seed to the birds.
“You might want to say hi,” Starling suggested with a shrug before going back to her magazine.
I thanked her and went to the door that connected to the pen. Inside of it the floor was wood chips, the air fresh and breezy. With that many small birds present there wasn’t a single fly or mosquito that survived that far through the ropes, so there was no buzzing or whining. No distractions.
Tears formed in my eyes as I got close. Yes, that was her hair, as remembered. It didn’t look any grayer, but there was no telling how much time had been spent in places where fantasy birds flocked, where they hid away from time when they didn’t feel like being hungry or migrating. There was no reason for emotions to get in the way, so I wiped the tears off thoroughly and made sure I was composed before I took a seat next to her.
“Hey Mom,” I greeted. She didn’t look at me, didn’t so much as turn her head, but she heard. “How’s the expedition going?”
“No luck yet,” she said with a sigh. There was the mud of years on her brown boots, which had been green the day she left. She looked soft and weathered if not older, like the rain had drenched her and the sun had dried it without a towel intervening over and over and over again. “Just stopped in for a few things.”
“So… you’re not giving up?”
“Of course not. I will see a crystal clear bluebird. I just need to find my moment.”
“I’m… I’m proud of you Mom.” My eyes didn’t care about my professionalism, so I turned away and dabbed at them with the end of the climbing robe. “Are you proud of me?”
“Just a few more days and I’ll have it.” I don’t think she quite heard me. Her spirit was still out there, chasing that bluebird, the one she swore she caught a glimpse of, just a wingtip, when she was a child. It was mostly just her body that needed to stop in and resupply.
“I’m going on an expedition too,” I offered. Even that didn’t get her to look in my direction. Instead the tiny pecking beaks, red and orange, of the penned finches had her attention. Each throw of seeds was mindless, but each one went straight to an appropriate hungry beak, most caught out of the air. An extraordinary ability to be sure, one she earned out in the wilderness, probably taking the place of something useless in her mind, like the muscle memory of opening doors or how to sign her name. “Mom?” No answer. I needed to stop. If she didn’t respond when I was composed she certainly wouldn’t do it now that my voice quivered.
Her expedition was her own. She left when I was too young to go, which meant I was still too young to go in her mind, which in turn meant I was just doing that obnoxious thing children do. I was the child of a firefighter holding up a watering can, haphazardly splashing blazing carnations, shouting ‘look Mommy I’m putting out the fire’. ‘That’s nice dear’ would be the only thing she could’ve said in response. I’m glad she chose silence rather than condescend.
“Mom, Gideon’s been taken.” Her hungry audience burst into flight, startling me. Even with seeds on the ground they grouped in the corner of the pen as far from me as possible. With my hobby veering so close to augury I had to take it as a bad omen. “He has been taking really good care of me while you’ve been away… but he’s gone. That mean’s nobody’s watching me. I’m in trouble.” Her eyes widened. “Somebody might have to call you back.”
“I told you to stay out of trouble… and…” A memory came back to her like a ball bearing violently thrown into the bowl of her skull, bouncing before it found a spiraling downward rhythm. “…out of trouble and out of Mrs. Tylos’s garden.”
“I know Mom. I’m doing the second one, I promise, but if I find Gideon you… you don’t have to come back. A man named Leland Pokemiller has him.”
“Leland,” she muttered. “Always has to stir the birdbath that one.”
“You know him?”
“Never liked him. Definitely lies on his life list. You lie there and you lie everywhere else. He always goes on and on about his wife, but nobody ever meets her. He says she’s not a birder, but who among us could stay married to someone who isn’t? Nobody. That’s why-”
“Dad, I know. Mom, listen. Leland is working with somebody else.” I pulled out the other guide page that I was sure fingered a suspect.
NAME: orchard oriole (Icterus spurius)
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: a six inch bird which weighs, on average, 0.7 ounces. The adult male has distinct chestnut patches on the head. The bill is rounded yet pronounced. Females are entirely yellow during the breeding season.
DIET: consists of insects and spiders with some seasonal fruits and berries. Has a tendency to accidentally swallow human objects, but these pass through its system very quickly and harmlessly.
RANGE: found, in spring, across Eastern North America and around the Canadian border. Migrates to central America, sometimes early when it senses premature snow and frost.
BEHAVIOR: swoops dramatically in flight. Females are notable for their attempt to court the males, including begging behavior characterized by raised tail feathers and whistling. Flighty in nature thanks to frequent predation, they are especially wary of Ghastus tolerri even though other birds of similar size show no fear of it.
As with Leland’s page I was confident I had deciphered most of it. The adult males did not have ‘distinct chestnut patches on the head’, so I assumed this conspirator had brown hair. The bill was not prominent and round, so I guessed this man had a large bulbous nose.
The description of the female threw me for a minute, but I think Gideon was providing a description of a romantic partner, perhaps because he knew the person and couldn’t think of any other notable physical features to encode. Describing the females as ‘entirely yellow’ might have meant that the person’s girlfriend was white and blonde.
The diet section mentions a habit of eating and harmlessly excreting human objects, which is not documented at all for that species. Whoever this person was, they were a thief, taking what they shouldn’t, somehow never suffering the consequences.
The early migration was erroneous as well. The thief probably spooked easily, left town frequently, whenever the pressure was on. This guy was the muscle to Leland’s brains. A weakness was apparent though. The unusual focus on female courtship, including begging, sounded like this theoretical girlfriend was the onus for the man’s actions. Perhaps he needed to steal to keep her satisfied.
One part at the end was beyond me. Gideon said the thief was afraid of Ghastus tolerri. I’d never heard such a binomial name. It meant nothing to me, but I’d never been on a deep expedition into fantasy territory. Mom had. Mom was.
“Tell me if this sounds like anybody you recognize, okay? He has brown hair and a big round nose. He’s disreputable. A thief who hasn’t been properly stopped or punished. He has a girlfriend or wife, blonde, possibly white, who might be his motivation for his crimes. He’s flighty.” It wasn’t clear if she’d absorbed the information, but she spoke after ten silent seconds.
“Ammon Horn. He fences counterfeit binoculars, making wild claims about fantasy birds only they can see. Takes advantage of the tourists who dip their toes into our deep sky. That girlfriend of his, Mattie, is always hanging on his shoulder. I went to high school with her, and after our last class together I deliberately walked out of any room she entered, any park, even if it cost me a sighting.”
“That’s great Mom! I can use that. Thank you… One last thing and I promise I’ll stop making trouble. Does Ghastus tolerri ring any bells? Gideon wrote it down. It might be code for something.” An owl flew over my head, forcing me to duck. It settled, agitated, in another high corner, staring at me with incandescent orange eyes like some unblinking oni from Japanese folklore. It emitted the first quiet screech I’d ever heard, like it was trying to show me the exact death rattle I would produce if I dared mention that name again.
“He found it?” Mom muttered. “Gideon found it… and I can’t even find a bluebird hiding in rippling lake reflections.”
“Mom, what did he find?”
“Ghastus tolerri is an anagram. If you rearrange the letters you get… the ultra soarsight.” Every bird in the pen exploded into flight, circling us. Their gust sent wood chips flying. I shielded my eyes from the splinters, but Mom kept staring ahead, at something new now, something she knew her eyes could never catch up to.
“What is that!?” I shouted over the feather-filled maelstrom. Her voice rose to match the creatures’ fervor.
“The god of fantasy birds seen only by the faithful! A theory until it isn’t! Each bird is just a piece of it, which is why we hunger for more. The longer the list the closer we are to completing it… but if Gideon sees the ultra soarsight he’ll do it all at once! Enlightenment! It’s the only bird to watch!” Her arm shot out and grabbed my shoulder with an eagle’s strength. She turned to me. “Be careful my child!”
There was so much left to say, but the cyclone of birds broke up around us. They flew between, obscuring her, and I wouldn’t dare put a limb out and risk hurting them. When they dispersed she was gone, and the downy feathers hadn’t even finished settling yet.
“I will Mom. I’ll leave your nest and make you proud.”
It took some time for me to gather myself, but I pretended all the disorganized pieces of my day and life were breadcrumbs. I followed them out of the sanctuary, dealing with one crumb at a time, as I headed for the deeply enchanted woods.
A bird that was god to all others. Every fantasy birder imagines new and exciting ones, some giant, some brilliant, some with unfathomable powers, but I had never heard tell of an outright deity. I must have been too young, too afraid to earn the possibility. I imagine when you get older you start to look at the life list and realize one of the species on it will be the last. That might compel us hobbyists to seek completion, a cap, an actual ending rather than an epic poem cut off in the middle of a stanza.
Leland and Ammon were after the same thing, only they didn’t want to work for it. I don’t know how Gideon discovered the means of seeing the ultra soarsight, but that’s what they stole, I was sure of it. They were going to cheat their way into the greatest birding accomplishment in history.
Another thing I became sure of as I picked up another mental crumb at the edge of a waterfall and its accompanying stream: Gideon was still alive. The brutes would not go to all this trouble just to suddenly kill him when he might contain yet more hidden information crucial to their goal. They would force him along until their eyes drank the ultimate ambrosia.
Something shot between the treetops. I collapsed against a wet mossy boulder as quietly as I could. Out came my binoculars. You’re uninitiated, so you might think me a monster for even thinking about indulging my own list when Gideon’s was about to be torn short, but that was the opposite of what I was doing.
A compass is useless when fantasy birding. There are only two cardinal directions, shallower and deeper, or as some birders bitterly joke, ‘toward cardinals or away’. The way to get out is to ignore the creatures of that special forest. Wonder whether you left the garage door open. Think about which leftovers you’re going to have for breakfast. Guess the number of unread E-mails you have. All of these will get you shallower, closer to home.
The more you commit to seeing the birds, the more you forget everything else, the deeper you go. There was some concern that my ultimate goal of rescuing Gideon, rather than birding, would slow me down or impede my progress, but I think adding the ultra soarsight to my ambitions strongly counteracted that.
So you see I was compelled to stop at the first sign of something that wasn’t on my list. Even with Gideon drawing closer to his fate with every second, the minutes spent there by the waterfall, waiting in stiff silence, were essential to his salvation.
Eventually I was rewarded with a gorgeous creature nearly as long as my forearm. She, the females are identifiable by a white head crest that produces an unbelievable sense of awe while the males instead have tail feathers that elicit an unrivaled sense of wonder, burst from the canopy and swooped along the stream.
What a beauty. She made a chubby pumpkinstem look like post-carving gourd guts tossed onto a sidewalk. She flew like she was the air. Her eye passed over mine, and I saw the glisten of acknowledgment. That’s the real quality that can separate a fantasy bird from a typical one when you get down to it.
They know they’re special. They know you know, even if it’s just on an instinctual level. A fantasy bird always watches back. Sometimes it’s not with their actual eyes, but a field they extend that you can feel, but this creature gave me the window to her soul.
The whole experience, from the moment she emerged to when she disappeared through the waterfall, took just three seconds, not counting the wait of course. You never count the wait when saying how long a roller coaster ride was. It was probably just rock behind the falls, but she never would’ve done that mistakenly. Her species could disappear into the space between strands of water; she would undoubtedly reemerge somewhere up or downstream.
I didn’t know her name off the top of my head, so I consulted the guide to complete the encounter. Brilliant blue color. Roaring rapid flight pattern. Sexually dimorphic feathering. A song like submerged wind chimes relying on the current instead. For a moment I thought maybe this was fate, that I was looking at the crystal clear bluebird that had vexed my mother for so long, that I had ended some kind of family curse by finding it.
Alas, she was something else, according to the guide: an unmistakable moonsplash. The elegant creature was more common at night, seen diving into the moon and somehow making it ripple as if it were just another puddle. A rare treat during daylight hours.
Completing the viewing, without me ever seeing a tree or leaf move, had opened up a clear path through the woods. I took it, but couldn’t run, as that might disturb the residents in the treetops. An hour passed. Two. Three. That was when I lost track of time, as when that deep it moves according to the birds’ collective circadian rhythms rather than actual ticking seconds. That was why the moon hadn’t risen, and with luck that distortion could help me catch up to them as well.
It became all the harder to move at a deliberate pace when I reached a cliff and found a staked rope hanging over the side that matched mine. The trail was confirmed. I used theirs rather than take the time to set mine out. The climb down was strenuous and long, so the whole time I hadn’t been thinking about being on even footing with the canopy when I was at the top.
After my feet hit solid ground I looked up to see trees far too thin to be that towering, standing anything but straight. It looked like I was at the bottom of a pond, staring at the thin stems of water plants and their floating pads above. The trees weren’t birds though, so nothing forced me to linger. The trail was still visible.
I came across a hummingbird feeder, larger than I’d ever seen, made of glass and metal rather than cheap plastic. It would’ve looked more like a streetlamp if not for the metal flowers around its base and the red liquid filling it, which was in the process of being rapidly drained. The birds fluttered with such speed that they buzzed, never staying on the same flower for more than a second.
Their chaotic ball obscured their numbers, but I guessed fifty. From their reflective purple throats and black bills sharper than syringes I was able to identify them as King’s throatcutters, an almost absurdly aggressive hummingbird that would attack on sight if not fed. Leland and Ammon had obviously hung the feeder there to distract them, get past their nests, and find their winged god. I was so close that I could feel something in the air, perhaps the last gasp of gust from giant beating wings.
Dropping to all fours, I moved through the undergrowth, closer and closer to the sensation. It only grew more intense, until I couldn’t see an inch in front of my face. Every leaf and branch was whipping back and forth, the way the treetops tend to when a helicopter hovers too close. This wasn’t an event, but their natural tendency. The ultra soarsight’s presence here forced the plants to adapt to this restless lifestyle.
Its divine winds howled, so I couldn’t hear what I was about to stumble into. It was only luck that kept them from seeing me when I crawled out of a bush and found them. I backed up, but only enough for the whipping vegetation to provide cover.
Gideon was on his feet, but tied tightly to a cluster of thin trees. A giant pair of binoculars, each half nearly the size of a bowling pin, hung around his neck. No functional model was that big. It was a prop, something to mark him as a birder rather than prove it.
Leland and Ammon were there, matching their encoded descriptions perfectly. Luckily Ammon had elected to leave his girlfriend Mattie behind, so it was only two against one. They were positioned as if they wanted to talk to Gideon, but the howling was too great, nobody could hear anything else. Periodically they stared into the whipping forest, waiting for its arrival.
Nothing would stop Gideon from seeing the soarsight, that I knew. He would never flee, so there was only one reason they would choose to bind him to the trees. He was meant as a sacrifice. Bait to lure a god into revealing itself. That was the required condition for seeing it, once the nesting place was ascertained.
Fantasy birds always came with price tags. You had to go into their version of the woods. You had to acknowledge them. Some you can only see just after tripping, when you look up to see if anyone saw your embarrassing fall. Some are identified by the way they fly by your ear and painfully graze it.
The ultra soarsight demanded the ultimate acknowledgment, of its power. It had to be fed a lifelong birder. I was sure of it. Gideon was going to have his life pecked out of him, one organ at a time, if I didn’t act. The only problem was how to do it. Both men, while significantly older than me, were larger. The only weapon I had was my rope… and my environment.
I grabbed a rock bigger than my fist and tied the end of the rope around it. After an experimental spin I decided it was good enough, emerging from the bushes, wielding it as a flail. Rather than wait for them to notice I charged forward. With all the force I had I swung the rock into the side of Leland’s head, instantly knocking him over.
There was no time to check how badly he was injured. Ammon charged me as soon as he recognized the threat. The closer he got the more certain I was I couldn’t take him without the element of surprise. His wild eyes forced me to remember that, though beyond disreputable, he was still one of us. In the end his eyes were just sore for the sight of it, no plans to profit or brag. He wouldn’t give up, and if he was willing to sacrifice Gideon how bad was adding his sidekick to the equation?
I retreated back the way I came. Gideon was shouting something at me, but it had to wait. Even though it slowed me down I kept my flail spinning. The energy already had a purpose; it just had to get close enough.
He chased me into the clearing with the throatcutters and their feeder, only stopping when I did, directly below it. Their buzzing felt like darts flying inches above my head. My hair moved.
“You wouldn’t dare!” he snarled.
“If you want to make an omelet!” I yelled back hoarsely. With that I swung the rock up, into the glass tank. It shattered, coating the stone in sticky red liquid. It poured everywhere, but I protected myself by holding my limbs as close to my body as possible, the base of the feeder directing it all in a circle around me.
The hummingbirds scattered at the shatter, but they would be back before the last drop of food fell. As soon as I could jump out without getting drenched I did, rock spinning up again. Ammon’s eyes followed the birds as they came back down, the distraction spelling his fate. I swung the flail at him, but not to knock him out. The rope wrapped around him twice.
Once it was secure I tossed the rest of its length over his head to confuse him. Before he could undo it the throatcutters were there, interested in the sweet smell of the rock trailing behind him like an anchor. They swarmed it, and by extension him. He barked and howled, running off into the trees as they gave chase.
I was back at Gideon’s side moments later, the forest’s flux having intensified in the short time I was gone. It had nearly arrived, but it couldn’t have him. The birds already took one caretaker, and while I had the utmost respect for them, I was too selfish to let them have a second.
He was still shouting, wriggling madly, but my attention was on the rope. Without a blade to cut it I circled around the back and found the knot. Luckily it was one I knew how to undo, but my hands were shaking.
It was upon us. Just beyond. We heard its call. There aren’t words to describe it, but I can cobble some together to characterize what it stirred in my soul. Hearing it speak was like being in free fall, like being thrown from a mountaintop because lowly humans needed a reminder that they could never fly, not truly.
The voice insulted me for ever getting on an airplane, ever pretending I could, and I agreed with it. My hands went back and forth from the knot to my own neck, lost in indecision over which to end. We were not worthy. That’s why we could only ever see the individual subjects, never the kingdom, and never the monarch. Like looking upon the god of anything else, there was no point in seeing what we could not comprehend in totality.
My instincts under the awe echoing in the caverns of my ears finally finished tugging at the knot; the ropes went slack. Just as they did the air around us boomed, a wing beat that sent both of us flying away. That was when I passed out.
When I came back to my senses I was leaning on the same boulder I had used when watching the unmistakable moonsplash. My hand was dipped in the water, its chilly flow numbing the scrapes on my knuckles that I didn’t remember getting. Gideon sat across from me, on a rock of his own, waiting for me to adjust.
“What did you do kid?” he asked, voice hoarse and weary. His gnarled hands were wrapped around the fake binoculars he’d been decorated with. His eyes and cheeks were heavy, but not with his ordeal, not from the wide tendrils of purple bruise under one of his tufts of hair. Heavy from my actions.
“I decoded your guide!” I rasped. “I came to save you!”
“Yes you did. That’s… That’s half a job well done. I wanted you to find me… but I didn’t want you to stop them.”
“That was the ultra soarsight. The alpha and the omega. It was my life’s work, and I don’t think I can summon it again. I’ll never see it now.” He looked up at the empty sky.
“Why did you even have me come here then!?”
“So you could see it, and so you could testify to my seeing it. Nobody would ever believe a word out of the two mouths that grabbed me. You they’d believe. Nobody would question my list.”
“It would have killed you.”
“And I would have died as complete as my list. Now… now I don’t know what I’ll do.” We sat there in silence for several minutes, no sign of any other animal. The fantasy woods were always empty of creatures that weren’t birds or their admirers, but now it felt like there wasn’t anything flying around in the trees either.
My spirit became anxious and heavy at the same time, like cats were ripping their way down the curtains of my heart. He was disappointed. He was going to leave, in one way or another, and I didn’t know how to make him stay. Just like Mom. No matter what I did I couldn’t seem to take flight, to escape the need for them.
“We got the aural ID,” I offered to break the concrete silence.
“That’s true,” he said with a nod. “We’re the only ones… and we can put the species on the list. It’s… it’s not nothing kid. I’ll never forget its song. I felt judged. You?”
“Come on, let’s get you home.” The old man helped me to my feet. We found our way back by thinking about ice packs, hot chocolate, antibacterial ointment, and armchairs. All the things we wanted.
In the end I didn’t save anything. With his list complete the Gideon I knew perished, quickly replaced by someone else. He stopped birding. Took down his trees and feeders, blending his house into the rest. He met a nice woman who liked badminton; a court took the place of his nicest birdbath. They got married, and we lost touch.
I’m still in it, but I’m not waiting anymore. Some things that leave never come back, and it’s foolish to chase them, mostly because you can chase anything with the same fervor. If I lose one bird there’s another nearby.
He finished, and he never full admitted it, but he wasn’t fulfilled. I would be, but that included keeping my life. There was another way to get the ultra soarsight… by getting every single other bird.
My expedition begins in a week. I’ll leave a note for Mom in case we miss each other.
NAME: Ultra Soarsight (Ornithopteryx deus)
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: a wild whipping of the trees and undergrowth, hiding what should never be seen. It looks like all the birds, so best to look at them one at a time to avoid confusion.
RANGE: the fantasy birding realm.
BEHAVIOR: reclusive, but not timid. It owns the sky of the Earth. It looks out from every bird’s eye, which is what you see when you feel the rush of birding. The ultra soarsight will not be recorded in anything other than blood, so it is best for beginners to avoid.
Chickadee image licensed via wikimedia commons from Ryan Hodnett, some changes were made.
Oriole image licensed via wikimedia commons from Summerdrought, some changes were made.
Peregrine silhouette image licensed via wikimedia commons from Christophe cagé, some changed were made.