“There is a bird," said Mamood, “who flies underground and eats children.”
The words hang like icicles in the warm night.
“This bird,” continues Mamood," is plumed in invisibility. We see it only by smell.”
The whole camp tightens with attention. Nostrils flare. Cups of tea hang in the air. Nursing women hold infants closer.
“Long ago this bird," continues Mamood, “appeared to our grandfathers and grandmothers in the air, over the soft soil and in fresh and salt water. They smelled it everywhere. The expanse of its body was measured in weeks of walking and running. It was near from dawn to dusk. There was no escape. Some burrowed in the earth to escape it. It followed them rustling unseen wings. The smell was foul and metallic. Many lost their minds.”
A woman begins to hum.
“I was a small child then,” says Mamood, “Our grandfathers and grandmothers were terrified. Their grandfathers and grandmothers, who still lived in those times, were terrified. The terror was hidden at the back of their hearts, as if they were being eaten alive from the inside out. We children were too young to know anything of it.”
The humming ceases. No one reaches for tea.
“Dream came to a woman of our clan. Her name was never to be spoken again. It meant 'Forehead' in the speech of those times, which is not our speech now but another secret tongue. Dream was bright red-yellow, like the fruit of the bitter orange. Dream told the woman of the unspeakable name to weave a carpet of pure light and cast it upon the air.”
Not one dares breathe.
“Our grandfathers and grandmothers labored for forty days and nights weaving this carpet of thought, this carpet of mind. We children, who knew nothing of what they were doing, brought them tea and candy and cooled their foreheads with damp rags. We wiped the blood from their eyelids.”
There is a murmur as if something has been remembered.
“When the carpet was finished, “ says Mamood, “ it bore the image of a bird, wings spread and perched at the center of the world. It covered space from here to there, from yesterday to tomorrow. It was immeasurably large and though light as air a heavy burden. Grandfathers and grandmothers labored to throw it upon the air as a fisherman casts his net.”
The humming resumes.
“With much groaning and sweating the carpet was at last cast upon the air. It floated for the space of two new moons and then fell to ground here as this common carpet between us. Smell, my fellows—smell the cool clean night air. The great invisible bird who ate children was enmeshed in what fell from the sky, what emerged from the earth, what rose up out of the fresh and salt seas.”
Several reached for tea.
“As children we trod upon it laughing,” said Mamood, “The bird has never again risen into our world. It is intricated here in the image of our minds. It is completed. It is finished.”
A drum of stretched hide sounds. A young woman arises clicking castanets and undulating like a fish. A young man shadows her shaking a tambourine. The fire flares. Children run out of the darkness dancing.
The long night yields at last to soft red dawn.
[E. A. Costa March 2011--November 2013]