From the dawn of time, crows have bartered with humans for food and trinkets, but now scientists want to understand why, for example, a normal bottle cap equals twelve subnormal ones, and twenty thousand buttercups is not enough for one gleaming shard of tin.
We have been running our experiment for approximately a million years. I joined so long ago I don’t remember why I volunteered. It’s a white hole in my memory map. Everything else is there: my cliff nest, bone-dry, and the trinket cache singed into my brain as clear as this food-pellet in front of me, so clear it is nearly screaming, as if on fire. I remember the urge to fly, the whole neighborhood gang of us hurling ourselves into the sky and flying and flying and flying. Where did we think we were going in such a hurry? The next thing I remember is being in the experiment, where everyone was a stranger.
The challenge of Science is doing the thing consistently, the same way every time, with precision, but keeping it fresh! A sudden gleam in your peripheral vision — just over there … or the excitement of the very first time you earned corn (and it will always be corn, no matter how many rocks you offer, downgrading you from A to B to C if you offer too many, thinking you don’t know how to bargain). Imagine once again that it is Day 1, how you dropped a rock down the tube and out came the pellet like a goddamn miracle.
Science requires a fine balance: get the best deal you can, but do not change the experiment: that is cheating, and you will be expelled. When you improvise a dance, like Horace has been doing lately, you may be expelled. But falling into a depression is also unacceptable: it is considered failing. It happened to Murray, who was expelled.
Murray was known as B-11 at the time (this was years ago; B-11 is now, ironically, Horace). B-11 (Murray) stopped grooming his feathers, which went matte and frizzled, and his eyes stopped looking at what he was doing. He banged into the tube; he pushed the rocks listlessly on the ground.
“B-11,” I exhorted him. “Make an effort!”
He ignored me. The human scientists watched him closely. He had hurt himself and thereafter hopped on one foot, with dignity. He stopped eating and only drank colored sugar water.
I would never do that. Crows have always participated in Science, and I will do my part. Humans or crows, we are scientists.
But not everyone is cut out to be a scientist. What about Horace? Today, he kicked over the dispenser, spilling pellets. Then he started twirling, and kicking them to me.
“Stop it!” I shrieked.
“Helvete,” one of the scientists muttered. “Han är bortglömd.”
“No,” I said, “he hasn’t forgotten, he’s just like this now. Why are you like this, Horace?” I shouted, suffering to see the pellets skid out of the unlined metal nest, dropping to the floor like turds.
Horace looked at me with psychotic eyes. “I am a windmill. I am a pair of scissors. I want to be what I am!”
But that is a fantasy. We all have fantasies, and it’s not a big deal. I have a fantasy called Spaghetti Mountain: coming around a familiar bend, you are blinded by a flashing gold vertex, high above the ridge. As you approach, you see it’s all made of noodle necklaces and cheese pearls. There is also blood-bright ruby meat. I especially think about Spaghetti Mountain when it’s going to storm, and petrichor and ozone fill the laboratory so my wings itch until I want to beat them against the metal nest. Horace’s fantasy is more ordinary: he wants to be himself. And so he is, but less, the way the mountain is still mine but not like before, and how the real mountain is less than the one in my imagination. We are sober as monks, dull with duty: myself, Judith Nesterlarge, in my totality of what I might and might not do, could fly anywhere, but as A-1 I have to stay here no matter what.
Have I not mentioned that I am A-1? It simply means that I am the best. I do the experiment the same way every time, with a precision that makes the humans smile. I even do a special gleam in my eyes that makes me a bit feverish. I wait for them to hush, and silently drop the rock down the tube, expelling one food-pellet, which I pick up and display in my beak. Then, because this is part of the experiment, I run with it, not flying, ensuring they can see me, and hide it in a place that’s clever, but not so clever they don’t find it, for they would believe I’d eaten it and lost self-control. Self-control is essential to being A-1. An A-1 anklet was awarded to me, but unfortunately it is made of garbage. I brood on what happened to the former A-1 (the One). Never when I’m doing the experiment — then, I am pure immanence! — but later, during the long artificial night.
The One did everything his own way, and I understand now that some of it was very wrong. For example, he told us how to operate the pellet dispenser. It was cheating and it upset the human scientists.
And he went further. There was an extraordinarily stupid bird named Darla (C-13). She was incapable of using the dispenser, but there was something else deeply wrong with her, she slept all the time and she was afraid of rocks: she screeched and ran away, though I encouraged her. Encouragement is not cheating. She was going to be expelled, but the One hid a layer of twigs in the tube, so you could operate it by pushing a stick down to force it open. No rock required. C-13 survived this way until the human scientists found out. They were furious! She was demoted to D, and died.
This put the whole experiment at risk. Human scientists are extremely sensitive. As A-1, I must prevent weirdos like Horace from upsetting them. Imagine: simply because Horace decided to do a dance, we could lose a thousand years of Science — or a billion.
How many years did we lose because of the One?
The One went too far. What he did was wrong but there had been something good about it earlier, like those glittering hard candies that come in a rainbow paper, if you know what to look for, and it seems just possible that you could accumulate a set of them, one of every color; but they melt when the day gets hot, and lose their luster, and no longer have any importance.
The One was expelled, his ideas softened and lost their sheen. I only remembered the feeling of the One, when he would do something incredibly surprising, like smashing through a clear glass pane, first glimpse of Spaghetti Mountain or the dream in which the world is a jewel mosaic and you rearrange it as you please! But then, a twinge of hunger, a vertigo of thirst: a nip of rose quartz, looks refreshing but tastes dry as the desert, and you are just reeling into death when you wake in your metal nest with its blinking bicycle light that cost you feathers: loyally blinking, it never imagines that you could be taken away from it, aloft again in the empty sky, green fields plummeting.
I just remembered something the One whispered to me very illegally at night: how to unlock the treasure drawer. The human scientists put all their sparkling things in a hoard that belonged to no one. They took out one jewel at a time, and always the same kind — one of those glittering clips that grow in people’s hair and in the wild require much dexterity to retrieve. Time and again, we “found” it, and back it went in the drawer. How wrong they were about us! The pleasure of the clip wasn’t finding it, but hoarding it as private property, belonging only to you, until it was stolen. My beak hurt, remembering the metal taste.
Would I dare to try the One’s idea? My idea of a key glowed phosphorescent in my darkening mind. Maybe it wasn’t an idea at all, but West Nile Virus.
But here’s a goldfinch, all of a sudden, clinging to the window screen. What does he want?
“What do you want?” I blurted, fluttering nervously side to side. It’s impossible to flutter in our niches without bumping into the walls. They are just like the coffins of the Ds, ex-birds that lie beneath us in identical conditions but for being dead.
“Are you a prisoner?” he demanded. “I think you are.”
“It’s not what you think. This is a Science experiment.”
“Then come out here a minute,” he said aggressively, “Everything I see is mine.”
“I won’t!” I said. “Because of the experiment. I have to stay in, or it will be ruined.”
The goldfinch turned in a circle on the screen until his head was pointing down and stared at me. “You can’t come out, and you’re being fed. You’re being fed. You’re a prisoner. Everything I see is mine!” he repeated.
Being fed troubles me as well, but I don’t need to hear it from a goldfinch. Since getting involved in the experiment, I miss adventure: screaming red faces, the flying flip-flop. “You’re one to talk,” I lectured him. “Every human with a feeder hopes you’ll eat there. You’re spoiled. Not just you in particular, but all goldfinches of all time. It’s because you’re yellow, because the color of you is exciting. You are a wonderful decoration that flies, but you have no self-control.”
“You’re garbage,” he replied immediately. “You’re turbid and overlarge, unpleasing to eye and ear. That’s why you are shoo-ooed.” He stretched it patronizingly over two tones, a descending chee-eep.
At this point I turned away. I am best in profile, redoubtable and chilling. I have the beak for it, unlike a finch. A finch in profile looks empty-headed. And it usually is.
“Ignoring me, eh?” Soon riled, he pressed his face to the screen and pecked at it, twice, four times, making the whole screen rumble thunderously.
“Stop that!” I shouted.
“I’ve seen the One,” he taunted me. “He said you are all prisoners, and it isn’t a Science experiment that you’re doing, but an experiment they’re doing to you.”
I flew at him in a rage, my large wise face pressed to his beating yellow body, and then I fell and fell, but upward and away — flying, which I hadn’t done for hundreds of years, and which was, I see now, a kind of death. I lost self-control.
Maybe I always meant to escape. I suppose I didn’t want to die of old age in my metal nest, though plenty of birds have done it and it was all right for them. I’ll have to answer for that, one day, when I return. I must return, or I’ll never know the result of the experiment.
Once I was out, I stopped fighting the goldfinch — I don’t think I wanted to kill him, only bite him terribly, frighten the arrogance out of him like a yellow ghost; but then dozens of them were all around me and I was aloft in the center of a great disturbance of goldfinches. I thought they would converge and kill me midair, but they had only swept me up in their migration.
It was more bountiful than I remembered, out, space in all directions and in between my feathers and amid my cells, cells I had seen very well through the Microscope. The air spread me out, let all of me get as flat as possible; and I felt with surprise that I was old, surrounded by finchy chatter about things that no longer mattered, such as how a dog will run if you frighten it — nothing was hilarious to me now.
I kept up with them out of pride. The goldfinch I had fought was named Mudley; he stayed close, making hurtful remarks. I knew I was heavy, my wings scant to lift my girth; he called me Black Beauty and Big Boy, but with a cruel intent. I stayed strictly in profile, too tired even to glare, beak tilling the soft wind. I glided whenever possible, over the green carpet of everything, warm breeze on my belly, inside the goldfinches like a great machine, each of them churning strong wings and quick-twitch idiot ideas.
“The One won’t let you into the City of Birds,” Mudley taunted me. “You’re too ugly.”
I didn’t know if it was a joke at my expense. I had never heard anything about the City of Birds, but I didn’t say anything, just kept going, with burning wings, burning lungs. The edges of my eyes dropped a bit lower with each pulse, heart vibrating with all my air sacs. The human scientists would be angry: I might die. And if so, who would retrieve me and make the final comparison of me with all my kind?
But the City was real, because with a glorious relief we were dropping down among its toothy peaks, and all of it glinted marvelously in the sun.
Nobody had to tell me that I was not A-1 in the City of Birds. I didn’t know the rules and would be playing it very safe. The last thing I wanted was to be expelled before meeting the One.
I had so many questions! And naturally I arrived empty-headed. Pacing in the plaza, a bit dizzy, I found myself picking up rocks in my beak; I dropped them, burning with shame, but it kept happening. I nudged them down a grate. I was acting like Horace. Soon I would be a spectacle.
Mudley eyed me from a metal bench. Sure enough, he was spying, hopping from perch to perch. He seemed to be ridiculing me, a stone in his beak. I dropped mine instantly, down the grate. He was trying to drop his stone into a bottle cap, bending his knees and stretching his short neck.
Aha! He was copying me. In a flash, I was at his side. Mudley tried heroically to swallow the pebble but it was too much for his finchy beak and fell through the slats of the bench. It landed with a crunch, where he had dropped others.
“Everything I see is mine,” he said defensively.
“I can teach you,” I murmured. “I can teach you the experiment.”
Mudley hopped nervously from the back of the bench to the armrest, to the seat and up to the armrest in quick succession. “The One didn’t give you permission.”
“Why would I need permission?” I asked, and then I saw the One.
He was the largest and most wonderful crow I had ever seen. His way of walking made me look down to see if I was standing on the same ground. His feet stepped softly, his head never jerked forward but followed elegantly as he moved in a stately but flowing amble that turned the dull cement of the plaza to velvet.
“Hail!” I cawed, like a common crow.
I had picked up a brassy accent, bossing Horace and Murray all day, but the One and I weren’t crows at all, but ravens. Crows were, unfortunately, inferior to us: smaller and less beaky, and much more prone to insanity.
“Hail, Judith,” the One said throatily, a high Raven croak, and I shivered with a feeling of warm birdbath at dusk. Of course he recognized me. I don’t say we were best friends, but perhaps it’s true that we had been best colleagues. Back in the experiment, he knew, for example, that I preferred to cache some of my food regardless of how predictably it appeared and to deposit small presents of it with the others; that my favorite way to drink water was endlessly, from a neglected kiddie pool, long ago; and that I would rather hoard a few very sparkly things than many dimmer ones. He knew many things about me.
“Scram!” I croaked at Mudley, who was still spying, and he shot up into the air and arced into a mulberry tree, where he began eating messily. “I’ve gotten so used to talking about very trivial and unimportant things, to incredibly common and ignorant birds,” I murmured elegantly. I saw Mudley pause in his eating and hoped he was hearing this. “I have so many things to ask you,” I said, entranced by the polite sound of my voice, “I want to know the meaning of the experiment and the reason you were expelled, and did it have anything to do with me.” I stopped short. I hadn’t realized I was going to say that.
“Come with me,” he said, and took off. I hoped he would land nearby on any number of inviting monuments, men and horses smooth as glass; but we passed wonder after wonder until we were beyond the City. I could feel how years of Science had weakened me, moving air out of my deflated thorax and abdomen to fill up my lonely head.
We landed on a telephone pole, high above a country road. There was a sweep of mown fields, a road clear cut, the building tops in the distance and the mountains beyond. Ragged trees lined the road: planted by humans, I could see, in a perfect line but too far apart, each one wilting in the heat. I ruffled my tail feathers in displeasure — another common gesture, too long among smaller birds. Starlings filled the grey sky, and siphoned off, fleeing a red-tailed hawk that had ignored us from the beginning. Now it set off after them.
“Do you see?” The One demanded.
“Yes, I see,” I told him in a low voice. “I see… everything!”
“Do you see why I was expelled?”
“Not yet,” I admitted. I redoubled my effort, head weaving, eyes bursting with strain.
“Do you know that hawk?”
I squinted. The hawk had picked off a straggler and plummeted, locked in gory struggle. “No,” I said finally. “I’ve never seen her before in my life.”
“What if I told you she is about to be expelled? Do you know what crime she committed?”
“Did she break a rule?”
A raft of anxious ducks barked in formation, and in seconds surrounded the hawk, hectoring her. The hawk was incredulous, covered in blood. I was interested in whether the starling was still alive. The whole thing made me nervous and very hungry.
“Do you understand what Science is for?” the One asked me — rhetorically, I assumed, so I waited respectfully, looking down to watch a couple of pipits flicker through the tall grass, having an inane peeping argument about where they were.
“Surely you wouldn’t deny that the purpose of Science is to prevent the revolution.”
I hesitated. I really had no idea what he was saying. It sounded wrong, but many of the One’s greatest ideas were wrong, their greatness bundled together with their wrongness.
“Will you be quiet?” I shouted at the pipits. They froze, blending instantly with the dry grass. “Say more,” I urged the One.
The One looked off into the faraway, and I melted into the reassuring thought that he would tell me what it meant and I would grasp it, not as the hawk took the starling, but in a bloodless volunteering to be on his side forever. That was what I had missed most: he put things in order. We followed him. Worse than being a prisoner was being lost. If I stayed close to the One, I would never be lost.
“Why do you think I was expelled? Was it for redistributing food pellets? For sabotaging the dispenser?”
“Yes,” I said confidently.
“No. It was because I changed the experiment, which had forced us to reproduce the conditions of our imprisonment.”
I did not understand any of that. I caught myself ruffling my tail feathers; I pretended I had been bitten by ants, and jumped around for good measure. “I agree with most of that,” I lied, “but isn’t a Science experiment designed to be very objective, and rate us? I believe it was rating us,” I insisted, sidling a bit closer, “seeing how excellent we could be. As for me, I became more and more excellent. But perhaps what you’re saying applies to the smaller, terribly stupid birds of the experiment. The failure birds, the ones who were expelled. Not you!” I shouted, “but Murray and Horace — dancers and psychos, and the dead.”
The One shot me a frosty look. “Dead or alive, any bird expelled from the experiment is a hero.”
“Yes,” I said hastily, “of course.” I sidled companionably closer and leaned into his steely flight feathers. We gazed at the hawk, escorted at the vertex of the vee of ducks. A police mallard lectured her: she would never eat a starling again. “So the ducks are…” — I struggled for the right word — “revolution.”
“Of course,” the One said. “What do you think the City of Birds is, a Science experiment? It’s just the opposite! I will never rest until the many are free from the elite.” He went back to fussing with the wood; he broke off a splinter and dropped it precisely where it had been. Every so often, he missed, and the splinter rippled down on the breeze.
“Are you going to let many birds out of the experiment, then? What about the result?”
“Result?” he said harshly. “Status quo.”
I searched my memory for the meaning of status quo, but all I came up with was how the human scientists said it when I did the experiment perfectly. I assumed it meant extremely excellent, exceptional or outstanding. I wished I could say just the right thing. “Is that red hawk a scientist?” I asked suddenly, with a flash of insight.
“Yes,” he said.
I felt a sudden cramp in my gut. “I am a scientist.”
“Yes. You too have been complicit in the status quo.”
“I didn’t intend to do it!” I said urgently. “I only wanted to make a contribution — without knowing, all the while, that Science was so negative.”
I was babbling. The One wasn’t looking at me and I was suddenly afraid that he would fly away.
“What are you prepared to do about it?” he rasped, very grave. “What will you do for the many, who are tired of waiting to be free, and will wait no longer?”
I cast about for an observation, but the fields were deserted; even the pipits had disappeared. The ducks and the hawk were long gone. Only a vulture soared high above on a thermal. It was getting late, the perfect time for a warm roost in the natural night.
“I don’t know,” I said reluctantly. “Will I be imprisoned? Will it always be winter?”
“You won’t be imprisoned, but you’ll have to stop doing experiments!” He ruffled his tail feathers, and for the first time sounded rather common.
“I didn’t intend to be so excellent,” I said, a note of complaint creeping in at the end.
“What about C-13 (Darla)? Was she supposed to starve?”
“I would have preferred to share my food with her,” I said — he knew this about me. “But I had to follow the rules.”
“That’s why it’s your fault. The City of Birds is full of scientists. We are a tiny revolutionary force fighting ten trillion thousand enemies a day.”
I was impressed. “So the hawk is working with all of them.”
“Nothing in nature is free,” the One said grimly. “The hawk plays a rigged game. Did the starling have a fair shot? The puzzles you solved? Rigged. Your excellence was a fiction.”
I was taken aback. “But you were A-1 before I ever was. Your excellence could never have been a fiction. I saw it for myself. I was there.”
His magnificent profile was iridescent in the reddening sky. “Maybe long ago, the experiment was real,” he admitted. He turned, and I saw that his other eye had been put out and replaced with a dinner mint, red and white striped. “Maybe A-1 did mean something, long ago.” He nodded at my garbage anklet of which I had been proud. Now I almost wanted to rip it off and watch it flutter away.
Off in the distance came a glow, then zinging toward us were dozens of flying lemons. The goldfinches! They were executing a complex dance: one dropped something and another caught it midair. “What are they doing?” I asked. “They’re dropping rocks…” I fluttered closer for a better view. “One drops the rock, and the other catches it in a…”
“Yes, it’s a common dispenser,” the One said hurriedly. “Of course you think immediately of the Science experiment. The purpose here, of course, is the opposite. I have authorized this exercise myself.”
Something moved up my thorax uneasily, though I hadn’t eaten since my last feeding in the laboratory.
“Well?” the One demanded, gazing at me, his dark eye unfathomable, the dinner mint very angry. “Will you join us?”
As I was deciding, Mudley shouted something — it doesn’t matter what.
“No,” I told the One. “I won’t.”
“Back to the prison of Science,” he said disgustedly.
“No. I already know the result: status quo. And as it’s a fiction, I’ll return to where I was born.” The impulse in my thorax pushed up into my craw and still I resisted it, ruff billowing with feeling.
“You’ll end up a prisoner once again. You’re easily influenced. You could end up serving an eagle or a tortoise with an iron will and a philosophy. You could end up the servant to a large rock and never go anywhere again, waiting to be told what to do.” He laughed throatily and spat another wad of splintering wet wood into the atmosphere.
“I know,” I said sadly. “But where I am going there is an inflatable pool that was once left unattended for days; in the afternoons it was shady and I drank there unobserved more than once, and the water was bright blue like you have never seen. My trinkets are there — I can feel it, they are just where I left them. Now that I am old, they will seem new again. I think a nest lasts forever, huge and brittle as it ever was, but if not I won’t go to the trouble of building another one. I’ll live in the fork of a tree and emerge in the afternoons.”
I thought the One might give me something to eat, to swallow whole and digest over my journey, but he dove suddenly, and I cried out in surprise. He circled once and headed back toward the city.
“Goodbye!” I called after him.
He dipped left and went over the mountain. He was superb.
The wind went all the way through my gullet and pushed me off the post, and I arced high above the field and soon came close to the vulture.
“Oh, the usual for me,” it grumbled, returning my salute.
“Not for me,” I announced. “I’m going far away, and I’ll never come here again. ”
“Goodbye forever, then,” the vulture said.
“You know,” I added, wanting to stay close to the vulture for a moment, pumping my wings to keep up with its easy glide, “If you ever want to go to a wonderful place, I invite you to look for a blue pool under a shade tree, near a cliff with a large dry nest overhanging.”
The vulture glanced at me, its eye forbidding, its body enormous, but I didn’t compare myself. I showed it my A-1 tag fluttering in the wind. “It means excellent,” I shouted after him as he soared on an updraft. “Maybe you’ve heard of me!”
“Oh, A-1,” the vulture muttered kindly. “Everybody has heard of that.”
I was tiring, losing altitude. “Goodbye!” I said. “Perhaps one day you’ll visit.”
The vulture was high above me now, and I didn’t expect it to answer. I was very tired and as I drifted down grumpy birds warned me away from their trees. I chose one of the wretched wilting ones along the road. I crooned for a long time, low gurgling croaks, letting everybody know who I was and where I was going. I referred to the One modestly as a candy-eye raven I had bested in an experiment.
“Goodnight and congratulations,” the other birds called sleepily.
That night I dreamed that I owned Mudley. No longer a worthless goldfinch, he had been paralyzed into a gorgeous statue.
“What do you have to say for yourself now, Mudley?” I cried.
“Everything I see is mine!” he warbled.
I woke in a panic, blind in the natural night. Then I was soothed by the murmur of early birds: it was nearly dawn. I chuckled sleepily. Mudley would not live with me. I would live alone, among millions of impartial witnesses. I was A-1.
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