Once upon a time there lived a boy named Victor. Victor was a very sick child. He could not go outside to play with the other children. He couldn’t go for walks in the part or play on the sports teams. He couldn’t even go to school. Except for his doses of medicine and the time his parents spent trying to get him to eat, Victor spent most of his days lying in bed, trying to get better.
As one might imagine, this quickly became a monotonous and tedious life. In order to relieve somewhat the dreariness of his days, his parents bought him a songbird, a bright yellow canary in a wrought iron cage. From the moment Victor’s mother uncovered the cage in the morning to the moment his father covered it again in the evening, the bird sang. It sang louder than one might give its small body credit. Its song and yellow feathers were the sunshine of the boy’s life. He spent hours listening to the canary’s song, and if his health did not improve while the bird sang, at least it grew no worse.
The longer Victor listened to the bird’s song, the more he became convinced there lay a deeper meaning in the sound. While his parents heard only the same notes repeated ad nauseum, the boy realized that there was an endless variety to the canary’s song. The longer he considered the music, the more he felt he might even come to understand what the bird sang.
One afternoon, as he drifted in and out of a light sleep, Victor would have sworn that he understood the words of the song completely. And this is what the canary sang:
Let us fly.
Let us fly, you, my love and I.
Let us fly to the Canary Islands.
On the winds,
On our wings,
Let us fly.
Let us fly,
You, my love, and I…
The sad words of the song combined with a tune that was heartbreakingly beautiful. Victor thought he had never heard anything so lovely before. And as he finally fell asleep, the boy smiled for the first time in a long, long while.
The next day, the canary would not sing at all. Victor’s mother added vitamins to the bird’s water, and his father gave it all of its favorite treats, all to no avail. Shaking their heads, they went to call the veterinarian.
When they had left, Victor crept from his bed, even though he was under strict instructions not to get up. He stood on tiptoes to peer into the canary’s cage. The bird sat on its perch, all its feathers drooping.
“Little bird, little bird, why don’t you sing for me anymore?”
The small creature’s yellow feathers trembled as it let out a great sigh.
“How can I sing any longer, when tomorrow is supposed to be my wedding day?”
Victor blinked, not sure how to take this news. “I’m very sorry,” he said at last. “I didn’t even know that you were engaged.”
The canary sniffed. “What you humans don’t know would fill all the skies of the world.”
The boy gave an embarrassed cough. “I’m sure my parents would have never brought you here from the pet store if they had known you were engaged.”
The canary flapped its wings, all its feathers bristling. “My point exactly. You are the perfect picture of ignorance. Don Caravaggio de la Palma comes from no pet store. I am a prince of the Canary Islands.”
Victor made a soft, soothing sound, not at all sure how to act before a bird prince. Was that one of the subjects they covered in school? “I meant no offense, your prince-ness. I honestly didn’t know.”
The canary made a disdainful sniff, and moved as far away from the boy as the perch in his cage permitted.
“Please don’t be upset.” He paused. “You know, when I get upset, my parents want me to talk to them about it. Perhaps if you told me your story, it might make you feel better. At the very least I would no longer be so ignorant. I would consider it a great act of kindness.”
The canary twisted its head first this way, then that. After regarding Victor for a long time, it gave its beak one quick nod. And then it began to tell:
Don Caravaggio’s Story.
I was hatched at a young age to two loving parents deep in the warm clime of the islands named after us. As the islands take their name from us, we are naturally their rulers. Among my own people, therefore, I am a very great prince. My mother and father brought me food every day. How proud they were when I took my first flight. My heart beat so fast within me, knowing that all I surveyed would one day be mine. At that moment my joy overflowed into song.
And as I sang and flew, I heard another voice answering my song. If possible, that voice was even lovelier than mine. I sang louder and turned my head this way and that, trying to find the source of that beautiful answering melody. Always it seemed just a little beyond me. I flew until my wings tired, and I knew my parents would worry over my long absence, so singing a reluctant farewell, I turned back home. My worried parents welcomed me with open wings and I slept for hours.
As I slept, I dreamt of the song I had heard.
The next few weeks tried my soul to the utmost. Every morning I flew in the direction from which I had heard the song. I sang my best, as only a royal canary can. When I heard the answering song, I flew my hardest in that direction. Each day my search took me farther and farther from my home nest, but I could never reach the source of the song before I had to return.
I was in a sorry state. I spent so much time in my search that I barely ate. The song haunted my dreams in the short snatches of sleep I managed to catch. My parents fretted over me, but said nothing. Every day my wings grew stronger. Every day I could take my search farther afield. But every day I returned home in defeat.
At last the strain of my efforts took its toll on me. I felt the first itchy indications of molting. This could not be. Were I to lose my feathers, it would take too long to regrow them. Too many things could happen to the answering voice in the meanwhile, and I did not know if my heart could stand waiting in the nest for that long. That song had become sweeter to me than food, sweeter than the very air I breathed, even the ambrosial air of the Canary Islands.
That morning, I flew farther than I ever had before. My heart sank within me as I flew, because no matter how far I went, I no longer heard the answering song! Had something happened to the singer? I tamped down my fears and sang louder.
At last the song answered me, hesitant at first, as if the singer had given up all hope of ever hearing me again. I flew on, resolving today to fly past the point of no return. I had decided that life was not worth living if I could not find that singer. What is the point of life itself, even the life of a prince, if there is no beauty within it?
The farther I flew, the stronger the answering song became. I flew all the harder, heedless of everything except that beautiful music. I hardly registered when my flight took me over the great salt water. I noticed a large man-thing at last, of the sort I now know your kind to call a ship. The singer was somewhere on that man-thing.
Here I thought I must fail, even though I had striven so far, for the man-thing hurried away from the Canary Islands, the only home I had ever known to that point. In its haste, it created a violent tail wind that threatened to knock me from the sky. I realized that the only way I could achieve my goal was to fly out of the tail wind and then fly at the ship from the side. I flapped and flapped until it seemed my poor heart would burst. I saw the side of the man-thing loom large, but my strength was spent. I could fly no more. I folded my wings, closed my eyes, and dove.
I landed on the deck with a soft thump. I was aboard the man-thing.
I caught my breath for a long moment. I was so winded that no sound came from my beak but my breathing. After ages and ages, I tried again to sing, the sound tentative at first, tired. No response. I tried again, louder, more desperate. The answering song came at last, unsure, but growing stronger the more I sang. I could not yet fly again, so I hopped as fast as my legs could take me in the direction of the song. I reached the point where the music was the strongest, but still I saw nothing but a giant metal wall.
Our twinned songs grew more desperate as I hopped around, trying to find the source. At last, with my final burst of energy, I flew to the top of the wall. There I saw her. The most beautiful creature in the world. My Dulcinea.
After weeks of singing to her and with her, I found that I could not speak to her. She smiled at me, the sight like the sun coming from behind a cloud.
I chirped in pleasure. “It is.”
“What took you so long? They’re taking me away from you, and I feared I would never meet you.”
My heart thrilled with joy. A thousand thoughts crowded into my head. How I would take her home to meet my parents. How we would be married and I would build her a nest. How we would hatch many an egg together and teach our chicks to fly. Teach them to be princes and princesses of the islands. How we would sing together, the most glorious duets, from sunrise to sunset.
She understood my intention without my saying a word. Tears came to her beautiful, dark eyes. She looked about her, helpless, hopeless.
And that was when I first noticed the iron cage that held my love trapped.
I flew at the vile contraption in a rage, and if will alone could have bent iron, I would not be here to tell this tale. At last I collapsed, unable to free my Dulcinea.
When I could speak again, I mourned her fate. “Why is the world so cruel, my love?”
Dulcinea sighed. “It has not always been so, nor will it always remain so.”
Thus my love, my sweet, began her story of how the world became cruel, also known as the story of:
The Parliament of the Birds.
In the before time, long, long ago, all the creatures of God’s good earth were free. The fish were free to swim, the beasts were free to run, and the birds were free to fly. Every creature was free to follow the better impulses of its nature. But none were freer than the birds. With our songs we praised the Creator of all, and with our gift of flight, we drew closer to Him in His heaven than any other being on the good earth.
It was paradise.
Yet a question rose among the birds: Given that they were the pinnacle of creation, which species was the greatest? All of the bird nations came together in one great assembly to decide the issue, the first and only time such a meeting was ever convened. Each tribe and species argued its case, it being agreed that the whole parliament would vote at the end and abide by the decision of the majority.
The eagle thought himself the greatest because he could fly straight into the face of the sun. The owl thought herself the greatest because no other bird sees so well at night. The falcon thought itself the greatest because none could fly faster than her. The ostrich thought himself the greatest because he did not need to sully himself with flying at all. The peacock thought himself the greatest, because no other bird had a finer tail. The parrot thought himself the greatest because no other bird had such multicolored plumage.
The rooster thought himself the greatest, because his cries woke the very sun. The nightingale thought herself the greatest, since her song made the very stars twinkle. The raven thought himself the greatest, since he ate food no one else could eat. The hummingbird considered herself the greatest, since she could survive on hardly any food at all. The duck thought himself the greatest, as he could both swim and fly. The penguin thought herself the greatest, as she flew the waters of the sea.
On and on the debate raged, from early into the morning until late into the evening. The nocturnal birds carried the argument throughout the wee hours, only to have it start all over again when the sun rose. The argument turned heated, and violence broke out among some of the families of birds. It was then when some of us first began to eat our own kind. If the parliament were to continue in such a violent fashion, there would now be no bird left in the world.
The good God heard the great noise of the parliament, and He decided to put a stop to it. He created a horrible creature called man. This creature would hunt our kind, for food and sport. It would eat our flesh and our eggs. It would tame some of us and cage others to sing for its own pleasure. It would generally make our lives difficult. We would have to become oh so quick and oh so clever, and never again would such a thing as a parliament of birds be possible.
This monster fell upon the parliament, disrupting it completely. Some of us fled to the woods. Man followed us there. Some of us fled to the jungle. Man followed us there. Some of us fled to the fields. Man followed us there. Even to the frozen arctic and the burning desert, man followed us. When some of us thought the waters, fresh and salt, would save us, man created great ships and small boats. For a time, our only freedom lay in the skies, but even now our enemy threatens to drive us from the heavens themselves with loud, stinking machines.
And so there has never again been a parliament of birds, to this very day.
Don Caravaggio’s Story Continues
As she spoke those sorrowful words, my Dulcinea fell silent. My heart ached, not only for my beloved, but for all of our feathered kind. We could not endure the scourge that was man forever. Surely the good God could not be so cruel.
“Oh, my sweet, you have said that the world will not always be thus. How can that be?”
Dulcinea sighed. “In every generation, birds cry to heaven, beseeching the good God to end our torment. He sent a vision to a wise old heron. There is a place, one remaining place on this good earth where man is forbidden to go. In that place, the birds reign free again, in the paradise of Cloudcuckooland.”
“Where is this place? I must free you from your prison and we must go there at once.”
“Alas, it is given to few to find this paradise on earth. I was looking for it myself when man captured me and put me in this cage.”
I hopped from one foot to the other, furious at the grief man had caused my beloved. My anger gave me strength I did not know I had. With my beak I undid the latch to Dulcinea’s cage.
I laughed in joy. “You’re free! You’re free! We shall search for Cloudcuckooland together.”
My wise beloved shook her head. “You do not understand the cunning monster that is man. If I am gone from my cage, he will hunt me to the ends of the earth. He will catch me again and clip my wings so I can never find Cloudcuckooland.”
I pondered and pondered Dulcinea’s words. At last a thought occurred to me. “For all his cunning, it seems to me that man is not very bright. He can scarcely tell one bird from another.”
“This is true.”
“Let me take your place, at least for a time. You will be free to find the way to Cloudcuckooland, and when you have found it, we will go there together.”
Tears filled my beloved’s eyes. “You would do this? For me?”
“We are destined to be together, you and I. For you, I would wait in a thousand cages. Only hurry.”
And there and then we spoke the words of betrothal, my Dulcinea and I. She promised that she would search for Cloudcuckooland for a year and two years and half a year. And after that time, she would return to me and we would be married.
The small bird fell silent, as if telling his tale had taken all the strength from his little body. He seemed so sad, as if he might never speak again. Victor wiped tears from his eyes. The ship must have taken Don Caravaggio from the Canary Islands to the pet store that sold him to his mother and father. He had waited three and a half years for his beloved to return to him. And she never did.
What had happened to Dulcinea? Had she fallen victim to the dangers of the wide world? Had she been captured again? Had she found the way to Cloudcuckooland and forgotten all about Don Caravaggio in that paradise where no man might tread?
Acting without knowing how he had come to the decision, Victor took the only chair in his room and moved it beneath the cage. He climbed up it on unsteady legs and, reaching as high as he could, he opened the door of the canary’s prison.
The canary looked at him with confusion.
“Go. You’re free. Go find Cloudcuckooland and your Dulcinea. And when you are there, tell the birds that not all humans are bad.”
The canary circled Victor’s room once, chirping merrily. The boy opened the door to his room and the bird flew away, off to keep his appointment with his lady-love.
When he was gone, Victor closed the door and carefully put the chair back in its place. Worn out by this exertion, he crawled into bed and fell fast asleep. And he dreamed of the paradise of the birds.
He woke the next morning to his mother shaking him gently. She wore a sad smile and told him that the veterinarian had done all he could, but his canary had died in the night. He frowned in confusion, and then realized what had happened. The clever bird had played one last trick on his parents. He had made them think he had died so he might be free to search for Cloudcuckooland. He did not think his parents were bad people, but he knew now that the birds might not feel the same way.
“Perhaps we can get you another bird,” his mother suggested.
Victor shook his head. “I think I need to get better, and then I can see the birds for myself. Out there.”
His mother did not know what to say to that, so she simply hugged her son close. He thought of Don Caravaggio and his loving parents. He thought of all the birds in the great good world, all of them free to sing and fly, when not troubled by cunning man.
And he wondered what he might do, if freed too.
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt hardly needs an introduction. He has long been a part of the arena as one of its weekly judges. Donald strives to write what he calls “haiku fiction,” stories that are small in scope but big on impact. Find out more about haiku fiction here. He welcomes comments at his blog http://haikufiction.blogspot.com or via Twitter @haikufictiondju).