Feathers

By Mateusz Tokarski

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Daedalus had to get these feathers from somewhere, and whoever thought about the birds when narrating the myth?

 The village, as many others in the area, laid a claim to being the location where Daedalus touched down on Sicily after the tragic flight from Crete. He wouldn’t have managed to land today. He would have been shot right down from the sky the moment he got within eyesight of the island’s shores. Just like every other winged creature. We would have had a second Icarus, though this one falling for no fault of his. We got an illustration of this famous southern trigger-itch already on the first day.

We were staying with an old man who used to own a restaurant and a small hotel here. Ever since the heat waves and droughts chased away most of the inhabitants and kept the tourists away, his venture has become somehow informal. Our arrival presented him with an unmissable opportunity to dust off the kitchen and prepare a special welcome dinner, inviting almost all of the remaining locals—counting 11 and falling. Unsurprisingly, the main dish was birds, local delicacy, broiled larks. One of the other guests motioned the pan towards us.

“They are so good they will make you sing.”

His mouth opened in a broad toothless smile.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure if that was simple ignorance or a premeditated test. In any case, we were forewarned by the last year’s team. We ate, our faces solid stone, though every bite was getting stuck in our throats. When we got to our apartment I thought Sine might puke it all out. But no, that would be a waste, and she managed to keep it in.

There was plenty of room for us, given how many people have left the place; tourists arriving only rarely at this time of the year and usually only for quick day trips to the nearby ancient ruins. We got a double apartment, separate rooms, bathroom, terrace with its own entrance to the garden. In a more modern establishment they would call it a “senior executive luxury suite” or something like that. This must have been quite a business he had been running here. True, everything was rather aged and a bit dusty, but like old wine, Greek ruins, and the old folks of the village—it aged well.

To help forget about the dinner trauma and wash away the taste of meat we sat on the terrace with a bottle of wine, compliments of the town, the finest the surrounding vineyards had on offer. The vintage dated several years back, to before the vines withered and died. With the first sip Sine nodded with approval. Unfortunately, rather than merriment, the bottom of the first bottle brought only concern:

“D’you reckon they’ll keep on being this friendly?”

“Dunno. Guess we’ll see t’morrow when we unfold the banners.”

 

Since we were unfolding bird nets far in the fields, nobody saw us do this. But most of them had a chance to see us packing up and driving out. Their faces expressed mostly amusement. At least it wasn’t hostility. Maybe everything would turn out just fine…

It didn’t—though the troubles started not quite as we expected.

We left early, too early to realize how hot it could get. Sure, we were told that even springtime can bring serious heatwaves, but we never imagined anything like this. Later we found it was no fault of ours—the freak heatwave proved to be another record breaker.

Meanwhile, there were very few birds, but at that point it suited us just fine. If there were any, it would mean we had to stay in the full sun, untangling them from the nets, putting bracelets on, making measurements, notations. It wasn’t a day for such things. Brains refused cooperation, our sweat was turning the notebook pages almost translucent, the ink was getting smeared all over.

The only hiding place was in the shade of our car, and even this was getting smaller and smaller. At some point we literally had to hide under the car. There was an olive orchard nearby they had used for shade some years back, but the trees died a couple of seasons ago.

We speculated that by noon the whole village would be asleep, the people hiding in the deepest, coolest recesses of their homes. Unlike them, we couldn’t just sleep through the worst of it. Even more so in this heat we needed to check the nets for birds before they fried in their own feathers. Laying under the car, smelling the oil and gasoline, patiently tolerating the ants crawling all over us, we decided it was useless—we better pack up the circus and drive home before we go insane.

The moment we crawled out—chocking on the dust we raised—we saw we were right. Since our last check the temperature must have gone up a couple of degrees. It was a dead spring around here all right—nothing living would be about in this heat. Dead and silent, it seemed we were the only living beings in the whole world. No birds for sure. They’d have to be crazy to fly in this weather. But where did they go? There was no shade for miles. Did they have some secret hiding places to wait out this insanity?

An answer came promptly—there was a stirring in my stomach, a nausea… Yes, of course… Didn’t we hide them in there ourselves yesterday during the dinner, before anyone could eat them? There was a tickling in my throat, and I could feel something making its way up. I tried to keep them in—it was not time yet, it was way too hot, not safe. But they insisted. I bent over in a cramp, half-expecting a whole flock to fly out of me. But all I saw were feathers, all shapes and colors, escaping out and floating away across the fields on the hot wind, getting caught in dead branches, in dried stalks of grasses…

Sine poured the rest of our water into me and over my head, tossed me into the overheated oven that our truck had turned into, and drove off, full speed, to the village. That would be the end of our work for the day.

She went back later in the afternoon to fold the nets. I was mostly over the heatstroke by the time she returned, so I remember that moment well: her standing in the doorway, with a couple of dead birds in her hands, looking uncertain, guilty.

In the end we brought the birds to the padrone, avoiding eye contact. We were much better at keeping the birds down this time. We were swallowing guilt, every bite a punishment, settling in our stomachs with indigestion that would feel like embodiment of remorse.

 

The next day we went out better prepared. We brought lots of water—enough so that we could sprinkle our clothes before going out into the sun. We also borrowed a couple of ancient, white silk umbrellas. The kind people from high society would hide under when strolling in their immaculate suits and heavy dresses. The padrone let out a melancholy sigh when pulling them out from a storage room—must have been some memory of the good old days. We also brought a canvas roof and parked the car in the dead grove, spreading the sheet between the trees, covering the car and giving us lots of shade to relax in.

It made us comfortable enough to go exploring. And a good thing we did, since we wouldn’t have found what we did, just on the far side of the grove.

They knew where to place their nets. This much we had to grant them. They knew the area, they knew the habits of the birds, they knew the local routes and resting locations—after all they had been doing this for centuries. In comparison, we were quite ignorant. They also knew how to hide their traps and which ones to use where. They used nets like ours; they would put glue on branches; they would decorate trees with silk threads.

The ones in olive grove were the first ones we found. Over the next weeks, whenever a day was cooler, we would go for hikes or drive around the area. Whenever we found their traps—and this wasn’t too often—we would make a note of the species found, dismantle the traps, requisition the nets, set free the birds that were still alive—and eat the ones that were dead. At least we tried to. What else were we to do with them? We didn’t want them going to waste.

We never reported it to the carabinieri. This was a sort of code we developed with the locals—the only way we could stay here and not make outright enemies with everyone. As long as we were playing hide-and-seek game with each other it was all within the bounds of a gentlemen’s duel. It was our little game of wits—a secret we shared—something to bring us together. It felt like every trap we found and confiscated, while keeping silent about it, won us a little bit more respect.

Small offerings to step-up the game were in order: sometimes they brought us wounded birds that crushed into the windows to take care for. Sometimes we would offer them birds we had found in their nets for dinner if we could not get ourselves to stomach them. We would always look each other in the eyes, deep, long, supposedly a spark of understanding and respect would jump across the chasm of disagreement that separated us. Supposedly. In the moment I would even feel pride—I was being recognized as a worthy adversary, and we were all growing in this conflict. Later in the room I would hate myself for this, remembering the victims of our little contest.

 

About a week after our arrival, the padrone informed us there would be a tourist group arriving in town the following day. Since the guide was one of the locals, his good friend—everyone here was his good friend—we could easily join in, no cost. Sine couldn’t care less and said she could work the day on her own, so I joined in.

At some point I asked about Daedalus—was there any monument of him around? I got a strange look from the guide. There was a recent one in town, by the fountain, from the 18th century, but it was damaged during the war and never got replaced. I loved their idea of recent. I wanted to ask for less recent ones, but he pushed us along as if avoiding the question.

The place turned strangely quiet when the tour left. I was sitting on a bench in front of our hotel, waiting for Sine to return, when I became aware of the silence. I had never noticed it before, but now, having caught a glimpse of how the town must have been back in the day, the silence was almost painful. The padrone joined me on the bench at some point—he would be making another one of his big dinners, no special occasion this time. I was starting to realize these large meals were a sign of melancholy, a way of diffusing the sense of sadness over the silence that had fallen over his home. It was silent spring for them too. It’d been silent years for a long time.

Later that evening, Sine asked about the tour, more from politeness than interest. Politely, I made only the most general comments, though I did raise the question of the monument to Daedalus. Didn’t it seem strange they didn’t have one, given how proud they were of being the landing site? In all our hiking and driving around the area we never stumbled upon one. She agreed it was strange. But that wasn’t what she was wondering about. She was struck by a question concerning the myth earlier that day, when she was alone.

“Where did he get the feathers though? Do you ever wonder? He didn’t just pick them from pure air did he?”

It was a technical question. A kind of complaint a teenager would make about lack of realism in a sci-fi story. But the technical question demanded a solution: by the end of the bottle she had a whole series of hypotheses about the means of procuring bird feathers when locked up in a maze, the main conclusion being that as an inventor, Daedalus was the father of all kinds of bird-traps that have been used around the Mediterranean up to this day. A new origin myth was just created. What remained, was the problem of wax—was Daedalus also a bee-keeper? In any case, it wouldn’t work today. With this heat Icarus wouldn’t have to fly high for the wax to melt. We were both looking at the candle we forgot to take inside last night. After a whole day in the sun it was only a shapeless blob. Technically speaking, the myth was rendered obsolete by climate change.

But only technically. She might have missed the particular quality of mythical logic, but she did have a point, even if she couldn’t really see it herself—what about the birds?

Daedalus had to get these feathers from somewhere, and whoever thought about the birds when narrating the myth? There seemed to be unexplored spaces of meaning there. Things never spoken, never thought of.

For a moment I was visited by a vision of heaps of bird carcasses, stripped naked of the feathers, piled along the walls of Minotaur’s labyrinth, rotting in the sun; heard the buzzing clouds of flies. Daedalus and Icarus leaning against the wall, heavy from the feast. At some point Icarus had enough. He was too young, and if he carried on like this he would grow fat, lose his beautiful youthful body. Even if they ever made it out of there who would want him—a fat slob he’d become. Daedalus grunted something about never wasting a thing and started on another bird. Hours later, still heavy after eating for two, he went back to constructing the wings, while his son exercised, obsessing about his figure. When they finally flew out, Daedalus, fat and ponderous, could only barely keep himself in the air, tips of his wings slicing the waves. He couldn’t lift himself up to the great heights where, full of jealousy, he could see his son frolicking. Poor performance, resulting from gluttony or frugality—we are not certain about that—took an appearance of wisdom.

The silence in which we were sitting for some time now, admiring stars and sipping the wine, was broken by shuffling sound on the stairs and a quiet grunt. The padrone invited himself rather timidly, buying his way into our little party with a bottle of wine: a little special something from the good old times. The events of the day must have gotten to him, stirring memories, driving him sentimental. He must have felt pretty lonesome this evening if he was searching for our company. I felt a strange sense of kinship with the men who saw his beloved town decay house after house, orchard after orchard.

“We were just discussing the finer points of the story about Daedalus,” Sine invited him into our conversation.

“We used to have a festival in his name, you know,” the padrone begun musing nostalgically. “Kids would be collecting feathers for a whole year to make wings. Then they would be parading down the streets and then out to the… well, anyways. It’s all gone. And when we’re gone nobody will care about that story.”

“Was there any particular way of telling it you had here?” I asked, trying to disprove his pessimism with my own curiosity, though the question sounded way too obviously polite to be convincing.

“Well, we said that because he had so many different kinds of feathers in his wings… You know, because he couldn’t be picky about the feathers when stuck in that maze… Or tower, or whatever… Anyways, all the birds he passed on his flight thought he was one of their kind, and so they followed him. When he reached Sicily the sky was dark with birds, all kinds. You couldn’t see the sun for days. And they would fly the same way every year, making sure we would always have enough…”

“Well, that’s the kind of a story that gets us in trouble,” Sine could not miss the opportunity to point out the questionable role of myths. “And now it turns out they might be gone one day. For good.”

“And what does it matter? Even if they return, without us it won’t be the same, there won’t be anyone to admire them, to hear them sing…”

“Birds don’t sing. It’s an anthropomorphism,” Sine broke in, and I was quite surprised she could pronounce the word perfectly, given how many glasses she had already had. And she must have been way gone if she let him get away with the first part of the sentence.

“That’s just it,” he said, suddenly agitated. “You’re deaf and blind. You can’t hear the beauty. So why do you even bother to save them?”

I knew Sine had a whole lecture always at hand for such occasions, but the padrone was already half way down the stairs before she composed herself. She gave me the what-was-that-about look and poured herself another glass.

A little bit later at night—I think she must have gotten carried away by her thoughts—Sine started imitating a thrush. She stopped almost immediately, blushing and giving me a quick glance as if suddenly remembering I was there.

 

One day I spotted a cat carrying a bird. It must have found it somewhere—the old tomcat was much too fat and lame for hunting. It could have been that he simply found a bird killed by heat or disease. But maybe, just maybe, he knew of a secret stash…

“Here pussy, pussy, pussy, come here you little fuck,” I invite him for a cuddle. “Come and play, and I’ll make a judas cat out of you, I will.”

With a little makeshift GPS backpack and frustrated over the loss of his meal, he was set free. We would be friends no more if the padrone found one of his cats misused so.

The animal darted out.

That’s right, run away. And I really think that after this trauma you need some comfort food don’t you? Go to your little stash, your hiding place, and show me your dirty little secret.

If there were roads leading to the place where the cat went I did not know them. I had to go straight—through the dusty, prickly underbrush, through the rocks, the dead groves. The signal stopped. Gotcha.

When I eventually arrived, I found… Well, it took some time before I realized what it was that I found.

I saw the monument first, though initially I did not quite realize it was a monument. It was partly hidden by sand and overgrown. But when I got closer, there was no denying it—it was a monument to Daedalus, the one I thought should have existed. Somewhere. Around.

There was an actual dead bird placed across his knee, a marble hand extending towards it to pick the next feather. Without doubt, the sculpture was thought in such a way that the marble had to be complemented by real birds. A kind of experimental setup I never would have suspected the ancients of. There were more birds laying discarded at the foot of the statue; just a couple of them here now—just a few birds that the locals managed to catch and could spare. I hypothesized that at the height of its popularity, there must have been piles of carcasses around here—the gruesome offerings completing the message of the monument. I leave this to your imagination, just as it was left to mine: a pile of corpses rotting in the sun, feathers strewn in the vicinity, some blown by the wind far down the hill and onto the fields, getting caught in dead branches, in dried stalks of grasses…

The monument itself would also look different than the respectable marble monochrome of today. At its heyday, the sculpture would have been painted in carnivalesque colors. This would have included the feathers—after all Daedalus couldn’t be picky—the padrone was right about that one. He used whatever feathers he could lay his hands on. The white wings we are familiar with from paintings must have been inspired by angelic figures brought into the myth by association between the divine heights and the flight of the father and son. A bland otherworldly abstraction making it all too easy to forget where the feathers came from: the birds.

The cat was trying to get another carcass. Made it easy for me to catch him, remove the tracker, and set him free again. I kept chasing him off for a while, trying to stop him from taking another bird before I asked myself why exactly I was doing that. After all let him have them. At least they won’t rot to waste. Then again, the sculpture really wasn’t complete without the birds. A meditative monument to the dark sides of human ingenuity. For every invention there are always some birds…

Craftily exploiting a momentary lapse in my attention, the cat managed to sneak out a bird and was off. Oh well—having thus failed in my mission I could finally sit down, look around, and let my thoughts wonder.

I thought that back in the day they would have to have someone protecting the carcasses from predators. There would have been a guard. He would hold vigil through the nights, keeping the animals away—they would creep closer, trying to grab an easy meal from the pile of corpses, which advertised itself far and wide through such a sweet, sweet smell of unattended flesh. He would burn fires to keep them away, would scatter firebrands around the perimeter. He would sit with his back to the bonfire to keep his eyes accustomed to darkness, a torch within arm’s reach, looking into the night where predators gathered. Occasionally he would have to fight off a particularly insistent scavenger. But the meat had to spoil, it had to go to waste, it had to rest at the foot of the monument—in the space of the myth.

Or did it? I sensed there was a choice here, and a temptation:

How many times would he consider putting down the fires, taking his spear, and walking off into the darkness—off to the village, to find a woman and spend a night with her. To leave behind the pile of carcasses, letting the predators carry the offerings away from the space of stories and back into the circle of life and death: a she-wolf carrying a nourishing morsel for her pups.

He would think these blasphemous thoughts while green eyes continued circling just outside of the reach of the light, preparing for a leap forward to drag back into darkness what belonged in that confused space of yelps and howls.

 

It was already night when I returned.

I could hear the shouting even from the street. Passing through the doorway, I saw Sine and the padrone stopping mid-sentence, turning towards me in stunned silence.

“Oh, thank god,” Sine finally broke the silence.

The padrone turned on a heel and left without a word. She bit her lip and anxiously glanced at his retreating back before ushering me upstairs.

When it got dark and I still hadn’t returned, she went to the padrone to get him and his friends to help her look for me—my little indisposition from a few days before was still fresh in her memory. I smiled thinking of the impromptu search party that could be called to arms here—a geriatric adventure moving at turtle speed. She told him to send people over to the locations of their traps, since she thought I might have had an accident while dismantling one of them. He asked, “What traps?” and that was when she lost it. Long story short, she continued with a bit of a blush, she threatened him she would call the police, telling them all about the poaching. They almost came to blows just the moment I entered.

“Guess I crossed the line there a bit,” she acknowledged, but her guilt didn’t last long. “You know, maybe this is the chance? I mean, I probably screwed up the relations with the folks here anyways now. But since its a lost cause, maybe we should just admit it and go all in. Call the police, file a claim…” she paused half sentence, as if waiting for my confirmation. But I delayed, trying to grasp the idea that was forming somewhere at the back of my head.

“You know what? Come with me,” I said finally after a long hesitation. “There is a place I want you to see.”

I knew she wouldn’t understand the story, that she would be oblivious to the nuances of the myth. But then again it didn’t matter. We were the ones stalking in the night, just outside the perimeter of light, outside of the space of stories, waiting for the moment to strike and drag the offerings back into the circle of life, the space of eating and being eaten, where nothing ever goes to waste.

Mateusz TokarskiMateusz Tokarski is an independent researcher, editor, and writer. He published several papers in the fields of environmental philosophy and animal studies and is the author of Hermeneutics of Human-Animal Relations in the Wake of Rewilding, a philosophical book exploring discomforting experiences of nature. He moves from a country to country every couple of years but calls every forest his home (currently it’s the Wienerwald).

Header image by Naypong Studio, courtesy Shutterstock.

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