Just yesterday, I had what I’d call a mysterious bird moment. Which is to say, observing bird behavior carries its own intrinsic value and, as an amateur naturalist, I’m continually re-inventing the wheel in a way that’s useful to the imagination and also just fun. What I saw, down at San Luis Park, was a wood stork wading through the water by the lake’s shore, with one wing extended. For a moment, I had no idea what I was looking at — both the form of the creature, which at that angle I didn’t immediately identify as a bird, and then the purpose. A moment later, I realized: bird, wood stork, wing extended. The wing, of course, was shielding the water as the bird searched out small fish or frogs. At least part of our fascination with birds is the way in which they are not mammals and yet not so estranged from us that we cannot identify with them in some way.
Birding, too, can be a great social activity for many people, even those who spend time alone in blinds or behind giant scopes, waiting for a flicker of movement. You’re still performing this activity within the greater context of something called “birding,” or maybe even a “big year.” As a child, I kept a birding journal in which I would list every bird I saw on our travels. This started in the last year of living in Fiji and continued on through coming to Florida.
These lists were full of mystery to me because when I started them I didn’t know much about birds. To some extent, too, each line with a different bird listed was a secret code for something larger and more forthcoming. Certain moments recorded tersely in my journal open up even today to form my earliest memories: A unique kind of kingfisher in Fiji, a silhouette of a heron in Australia, and, most horrifically, a lolling lump tossed up above the reeds in Kenya, then disappearing again — tossed up, disappearing. It turned out to be a baby ostrich in the clutches of a lion. It’s hard to forget that image.
Birds can be both sympathetic and sinister in fiction because of their quality of seeming both like and unlike us. A person described in fiction as “birdlike” can embody the creepy movement of a Maribou Stork stalking prey or the frothy stillness, the feathered turbulence, of a Great Horned Owl on a tree branch. A birdlike person can be frail or powerful, friendly or menacing. Even a casual question on Facebook about favorite bird stories can elicit dozens of responses, evoke dozens of moods.
When it comes to weird fiction, you might assume that the sinister aspect of birds would be most prevalent, and it’s true that evocative imagery of this nature lies at the heart of stories like Eric Basso’s “The Beak Doctor” and classics like Du Maurier’s “The Birds.” But for the next fortnight, you’ll find evocations of birds that are more complex, and reflect, I think, the ways in which we revere and admire birds.
The stories we’ve chosen for our celebration of birds in fiction range from originals to classic reprints. Our showcase original is Leena Likitalo’s “Ocelia, Ocelia,” which plays with our perceptions of both birds and human beings. The story has an exuberance buttressed by sadness that I find refreshing. It also displays a wild imagination and a wisdom in knowing that imagination requires grounding in something real at times. The details about the birds, the reprise of the opening lines, the way the meaning changes — all of these things make “Ocelia, Ocelia” a unique story that I find hard to classify or to compare to other fiction.
A similar exuberance in a completely different register brings to life Greer Gilman’s “Down the Wall,” which to me dives down into the recesses of language and detail to create another unique approach that succeeds, like Likitalo’s story, in part by the boldness of its rhetoric. “Stilt-legs scissoring, snip-snap! the bird gods dance. Old craneycrows, a skulk of powers. How they strut and ogle with their long eyes, knowing.” Is there any possibility of a crane-crow after this not informed by those words?
The pirouetting dance begun by Gilman turns into a rough downhill plunge in Brian Evenson’s “The Din of Celestial Birds,” a kind of surreal dream of a horror story that begins with an empty cage and a memory of a feathered body and becomes ever more concrete and yet diaphanous as the story progresses. The opening in some ways seems to evoke Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” and to respond to the strangeness of that story by creating an ever deepening abyss.
You’ll also discover more traditional chills and creepiness here, of course. Claude Seignolle’s surprising “The Ghoulbird,” translated by Gio Clairval, offers up not just sumptuous prose and an interesting narrator, but an ultimately complex and harrowing supernatural element. Seignolle is seriously underappreciated in the English-speaking world and “The Ghoulbird” was a translation specifically contracted for our The Weird anthology. We’re happy to offer it here to you online for the first time.
Liz Williams’ “The Hide,” also from The Weird, seems more like a birdwatcher’s approach to the weird, owing less to the Decadents than to contemporary mainstream fiction. With its precise characterization and the way the uncanny is layered into the story, Williams’ evokes the English landscape in a masterful way and leaves the reader feeling extremely unsettled.
Some stories have less of an uncanny element. Michael Blumlein’s tale of love and loneliness. “Bird Walks of New England,” another never before available online, contains at its core a possible mis-sighting or wrong-sighting of a strange bird. This element, almost akin to the heart of M. John Harrison’s classic “Egnaro,” tells us the world we live in is odd and driven by rhythms and seasons we only see the edges of.
I hope you immerse yourself in these stories over the next fortnight, and that you appreciate their range and the different kinds of treasures on offer. And the different views of birds.