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The Origin of the Birds

The appearance of Birds comes relatively late, in the history of evolution, following the emergence of all the other classes of the animal kingdom. The progenitor of the Birds -- or at least the first whose traces have been found by paleontologists -- is the Archeopteryx (still endowed with certain characteristics of the Reptiles from which he descends), who dates from the Jurassic period, tens of millions of years after the first Mammals. This is the only exception to the successive appearance of animal groups progressively more developed in the zoological scale.

In those days we weren't expecting any more surprises, -- Qfwfq narrated, -- by then it was clear how things were going to proceed. Those who existed, existed; we had to work things out for ourselves: some would go farther, some would remain where they were, and some wouldn't manage to survive. The choice had to be made from a limited number of possibilities.

But instead, one morning I hear some singing, outside, that I have never heard before. Or rather (since we didn't yet know what singing was), I hear something making a sound that nobody has ever made before. I look out. I see an unknown animal singing on a branch. He had wings feet tail claws spurs feathers plumes fins quills beak teeth crop horns crest wattles and a star on his forehead. It was a bird; you've realized that already, but I didn't; they had never been seen before. He sang: "Koaxpf . . . Koaxpf . . . Koaaacch . . . ," he beat his wings, striped with iridescent colors, he rose in flight, he came to rest a bit farther on, resumed his singing.

Now these stories can be told better with strip drawings than with a story composed of sentences one after the other. But to make a cartoon with the bird on the branch and me looking out and all the others with their noses in the air, I would have to remember better how a number of things were made, things I've long since forgotten; first the thing I now call bird, second what I now call I, third the branch, fourth the place where I was looking out, fifth all the others. Of these elements I remember only that they were very different from the way we would draw them now. It's best for you to try on your own to imagine the series of cartoons with all the little figures of the characters in their places, against an effectively outlined background, but you must try at the same time not to imagine the figures, or the background either. Each figure will have its little balloon with the words it says, or with the noises it makes, but there's no need for you to read everything written there letter for letter, you only need a general idea, according to what I'm going to tell you.

To begin with, you can read a lot of exclamation marks and question marks spurting from our heads, and these mean we were looking at the bird full of amazement -- festive amazement, with desire on our part also to sing, to imitate that first warbling, and to jump, to see the bird rise in flight -- but also full of consternation, because the existence of birds knocked our traditional way of thinking into a cocked hat.

In the strip that follows, you see the wisest of us all, old U(h), who moves from the group of the others and says: "Don't look at him! He's a mistake!" and he holds out his hands as if he wanted to cover the eyes of those present. "Now I'll erase him!" he says, or thinks, and to depict this desire of his we could have him draw a diagonal line across the frame. The bird flaps his wings, eludes the diagonal, and flies to safety in the opposite corner. U(h) is happy because, with that diagonal line between them, he can't see the bird any more. The bird pecks at the line, breaks it, and flies at old U(h). Old U(h), to erase him, tries to draw a couple of crossed lines over him. At the point where the two lines meet, the bird lights and lays an egg. Old U(h) pulls the lines from under him, the egg falls, the bird darts off. There is one frame all stained with egg yolk.

I like telling things in cartoon form, but I would have to alternate the action frames with idea frames, and explain for example this stubbornness of U(h)'s in not wanting to admit the existence of the bird. So imagine one of those little frames all filled with writing, which are used to bring you up to date on what went before: After the failure of the Pterosauria, for millions and millions of years all trace of animals with wings had been lost. ("Except for Insects," a footnote can clarify.)

The question of winged creatures was considered closed by now. Hadn't we been told over and over that everything capable of being born from the Reptiles had been born? In the course of millions of years there was no form of living creature that hadn't had its opportunity to come forth, populate the earth, and then -- in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred -- decline and vanish. On this point we were all agreed: the remaining species were the only deserving ones, destined to give life to more and more highly selected progeny, better suited to their surroundings. For some time we had been tormented by doubts as to who was a monster and who wasn't, but that too could be considered long settled: all of us who existed were nonmonsters, while the monsters were all those who could exist and didn't, because the succession of causes and effects had clearly favored us, the nonmonsters, rather than them.

But if we were going to begin again with strange animals, if the Reptiles, antiquated as they were, started to pull out limbs and teguments they had never felt any need for previously, in other words if a creature impossible by definition such as a bird was instead possible (and what's more if it could be a handsome bird like this one, pleasing to the sight when he poised on the fern leaves, and to the hearing when he released his warbling), then the barrier between monsters and non-monsters was exploded and everything was possible again.

The bird flew far off. (In the drawing you see a black shadow against the clouds in the sky: not because the bird is black but because that's the way distant birds are drawn.) And I ran after him. (You see me from behind, as I enter a vast landscape of mountains and forests.) Old U(h) is shouting at me: "Come back, Qfwfq!"

I crossed unfamiliar zones. More than once I thought I was lost (in the drawing it only has to be depicted once), but then I would hear a "Koaxpf . . ." and, raising my eyes, I would see the bird perched on a plant, as if he were waiting for me.

Following him like that, I reached a spot where the bushes blocked my view. I opened a path for myself: beneath my feet I saw the void. The earth ended there; I was balanced on the brink. (The spiral line rising from my head represents my dizziness.) Below, nothing could be seen: a few clouds. And the bird, in that void, went flying off, and every now and then he twisted his neck toward me as if inviting me to follow him. Follow him where, when there was nothing farther on?

And then from the white distance a shadow rose, like a horizon of mist, which gradually became clearer, with more distinct outlines. It was a continent, coming forward in the void: you could see its shores, its valleys, its heights, and already the bird was flying above them. But what bird? He was no longer alone, the whole sky over there was a flapping of wings of every color and every form.

Leaning out from the brink of our earth, I watched the continent drift toward me. "It's crashing into us!" I shouted, and at that moment the ground trembled. (A "bang!" written in big letters.) The two worlds, having touched, bounced apart again, then were rejoined, then separated once more. In one of these clashes I found myself flung to the other side, while the empty abyss yawned again and separated me from my world.

I looked around: I didn't recognize anything. Trees, crystals, animals, grasses—everything was different. Not only did birds inhabit the branches, but so did fish (after a manner of speaking) with spiders' legs or (you might say) worms with feathers. Now it's not that I want to describe to you the forms of life over there; imagine them any way you can, more or less strange, it doesn't much matter. What matters is that around me there were displayed all the forms the world could have taken in its transformations but instead hadn't taken, for some casual reason or for some basic incompatibility: the rejected forms, unusable, lost.

(To give an idea this strip of drawings should be done in negative: with figures not unlike the others but in white on black; or else upside down—assuming that it can be decided, for any of these figures, which is up and which is down.)

Alarm froze my bones (in the cartoon, drops of cold sweat spurt from my figure) at seeing those images, all of them in some way familiar and all in some way distorted in their proportions or their combinations (my very tiny figure in white, superimposed on the black shadows that occupy the whole frame), but I couldn't refrain from exploring eagerly all around me. You would have said that my gaze, rather than avoid those monsters, sought them out, as if to be convinced they weren't monsters entirely, and at a certain point my horror was replaced by a not unpleasant sensation (represented in the drawing by luminous rays crossing the black background): beauty existed even there, if one could recognize it.

This curiosity had led me away from the coast, and I moved among hills that were spiky like enormous sea urchins. By now I was lost in the heart of the unknown continent. (The figure that represents me has become minuscule.) The birds, which a short time before had been for me the strangest of apparitions, were already becoming the most familiar of presences. There were so many that they formed a kind of dome around me, raising and lowering their wings all together (frame crammed with birds; my outline barely glimpsed). Others were resting on the ground, perched on the bushes, and gradually as I advanced they moved. Was I their prisoner? I turned to run off, but I was surrounded by walls of birds who left me no passage, except in one direction. They were driving me where they wanted, all their movements were leading me to one point. What was there, at the end? I could discern only a kind of enormous egg lying on its side, which opened slowly, like a shell.

All of a sudden it was flung open. I smiled. My eyes filled with tears of emotion. (I'm depicted alone, in profile; what I'm looking at remains outside the frame.) Before me there was a creature of a beauty never seen before. A different beauty, which couldn't be compared to all the forms in which we had recognized beauty (in the frame it is still placed in such a way that only I have it before me, not the reader), and yet ours, the most ours thing of our world (in the frame a symbolical depiction could be used: a feminine hand, or a foot, or a breast, emerging from a great cloak of feathers); without it our world would always have lacked something. I felt I had arrived at the point where everything converged (an eye could be drawn, an eye with long radial lashes which are transformed into a vortex) and where I was about to be swallowed (or a mouth, the parting of two finely drawn lips, tall as I, and me flying, sucked toward the tongue rising from the darkness).

All around me, birds: flapping of beaks, wings that flutter, claws extended, and the cry: "Koaxpf . . . Koaxpf. . . . Koaaacch. . ." "Who are you?" I asked. A title explains: Qfwfq before the beautiful Org-Onir-Ornit-Or, and makes my question pointless; the balloon that contains it is covered by another, also rising from my mouth, with the words "I love you!" -- an equally superfluous affirmation -- promptly followed by another balloon containing the question: "Are you a prisoner?" to which I don't await an answer, and in a fourth balloon which makes its way among the others I add, "I'll rescue you. Tonight we'll flee together."

The following strip is entirely dedicated to the preparations for the flight, to the sleep of the birds and the monsters in a night illuminated by an unknown firmament. A dark little frame, and my voice: "Are you following me?" Or's voice answered: "Yes."

Here you can imagine for yourselves a series of adventurous strips: Qfwfq and Or in flight across the Continent of the Birds. Alarms, pursuit, dangers: I leave these to you. To tell the story I should somehow describe what Or was like; and I can't. Imagine a figure somehow towering over mine, but which I somehow hide and protect.

We reached the edge of the chasm. It was dawn. The sun was rising, pale, to reveal our continent now disappearing in the distance. How were we to reach it? I turned toward Or: Or opened her wings. (You hadn't noticed she had them, in the previous frames: two wings broad as sails.) I clung to her cloak. Or flew.

In the next cartoons Or is seen flying among the clouds, with my head peeping out from her bosom. Then, a triangle of little black triangles in the sky: a swarm of birds pursuing us. We are still in the midst of the void; our continent is approaching, but the swarm is faster. They are birds of prey, with curved beaks, fiery eyes. If Or is quick to reach Earth, we will be among our own kind, before the raptors can attack us. Hurry, Or, a few more flaps of your wings: in the next strip we can reach safety.

Not a chance: now the swarm has surrounded us. Or is flying among the raptors (a little white triangle drawn in another triangle full of little black triangles). We are flying over my village: Or would have only to fold her wings and let herself drop, and we would be free. But Or continues flying high, along with the birds. I shouted: "Or, move lower!" She opened her cloak and let me fall. ("Plop!") The swarm, with Or in their midst, turns in the sky, goes back, becomes tiny on the horizon. I find myself flat on the ground, alone.

(Title: During Qfwfq's absence, many changes had taken place.) Since the existence of birds had been discovered, the ideas that governed our world had come to a crisis. What everyone had thought he understood before, the simple and regular way in which things were as they were, was no longer valid; in other words: this was nothing but one of the countless possibilities; nobody excluded the possibility that things could proceed in other, entirely different ways. You would have said that now each individual was ashamed of being the way he was expected to be, and was making an effort to show some irregular, unforeseen aspect: a slightly more birdlike aspect, or if not exactly birdlike, at least sufficiently so to keep him from looking out of place alongside the strangeness of the birds. I no longer recognized my neighbors. Not that they were much changed: but those who had some inexplicable characteristic which they had formerly tried to conceal now put it on display. And they all looked as if they were expecting something any moment: not the punctual succession of causes and effects as in the past, but the unexpected.

I couldn't get my bearings. The others thought I had stuck to the old ideas, to the time before the birds; they didn't understand that to me their birdish whims were only laughable: I had seen much more than that, I had visited the world of the things that could have been, and I couldn't drive it from my mind. And I had known the beauty kept prisoner in the heart of that world, the beauty lost for me and for all of us, and I had fallen in love with it.

I spent my days on the top of a mountain, gazing at the sky in case a bird flew across it. And on the peak of another mountain nearby there was old U(h), also looking at the sky. Old U(h) was still considered the wisest of us all, but his attitude toward the birds had changed.

He believed the birds were no longer a mistake, but the truth, the only truth of the world. He had taken to interpreting the birds' flight, trying to read the future in it.

"Seen anything?" he shouted to me, from his mountain.

"Nothing in sight," I said.

"There's one!" we would shout at times, he or I.

"Where was it coming from? I didn't have time to see from what part of the sky it appeared. Tell me: where from?" he asked, all breathless. U(h) drew his auguries from the source of the flight.

Or else it was I who asked: "What direction was it flying in? I didn't see it! Did it vanish over here or over there?" because I hoped the birds would show me the way to reach Or.

There's no use my telling you in detail the cunning I used to succeed in returning to the Continent of the Birds. In the strips it would be told with one of those tricks that work well only in drawings. (The frame is empty. I arrive. I spread paste on the upper right-hand corner. I sit down in the lower left-hand corner. A bird enters, flying, from the left, at the top. As he leaves the frame, his tail becomes stuck. He keeps flying and pulls after him the whole frame stuck to his tail, with me sitting at the bottom, allowing myself to be carried along. Thus I arrive at the Land of the Birds. If you don't like this story you can think up another one: the important thing is to have me arrive there.)

I arrived and I felt my arms and legs clutched. I was surrounded by birds; one had perched on my head, one was pecking at my neck. "Qfwfq, you're under arrest! We've caught you, at last!" I was shut up in a cell.

"Will they kill me?" I asked the jailer bird.

"Tomorrow you'll be tried and then you'll know," he said, perched on the bars.

"Who's going to judge me?"

"The Queen of the Birds."

The next day I was led into the throne room. But I had seen before that enormous shell-egg that was opening.

I started. "Then you're not a prisoner of the birds!" I exclaimed.

A beak dug into my neck. "Bow down before Queen Org-Onir-Ornit-Or!"

Or made a sign. All the birds stopped. (In the drawing you see a slender, beringed hand which rises from an arrangement of feathers.)

"Marry me and you'll be safe," Or said.

Our wedding was celebrated. I can't tell you anything about this either: the only thing that's remained in my memory is a feathery flutter of iridescent images. Perhaps I was paying for my happiness by renouncing any understanding of what I was living through.

I asked Or.

"I would like to understand."


"Everything, all this."

I gestured toward my surroundings.

"You'll understand when you've forgotten what you understood before."

Night fell. The shell-egg served both as throne and as nuptial bed.

"Have you forgotten?"

"Yes. What? I don't know what, I don't remember anything."

(Frame of Qfwfq's thoughts: No, I still remember, I'm about to forget everything, but I'm forcing myself to remember!)

"Come." We lay down together.

(Frame of Qfwfq's thoughts: I'm forgetting . . . It's beautiful to forget . . . No, I want to remember . . . I want to forget and remember at the same time . . . Just another second and I feel I'll have forgotten . . . Wait . . . Oh! An explosion marked with the word "Flash!" or else "Eureka!" in capital letters.)

For a fraction of a second between the loss of everything I knew before and the gain of everything I would know afterward, I managed to embrace in a single thought the world of things as they were and of things as they could have been, and I realized that a single system included all. The world of birds, of monsters, of Or's beauty was the same as the one where I had always lived, which none of us had understood wholly.

"Or! I understand! You! How beautiful! Hurrah!" I exclaimed and I sat up in the bed.

My bride let out a cry.

"Now I'll explain it to you!" I said, exultant. "Now I'll explain everything to everyone!"

"Be quiet!" Or shouted. "You must be quiet!"

"The world is single and what exists can't be explained without . . ." I proclaimed. Now she was over me, she was trying to suffocate me (in the drawing: a breast crushing me): "Be quiet! Be quiet!"

Hundreds of beaks and claws were tearing the canopy of the nuptial bed. The birds fell upon me, but beyond their wings I could recognize my native landscape, which was becoming fused with the alien continent.

"There's no difference. Monsters and nonmonsters have always been close to one another! What hasn't been continues to be . . ." -- I was speaking not only to the birds and the monsters but also to those I had always known, who were rushing in on every side.

"Qfwfq! You've lost me! Birds! He's yours!" and the Queen pushed me away.

Too late, I realized how the birds' beaks were intent on separating the two worlds that my revelation had united. "No, wait, don't move away, the two of us together, Or . . . where are you?" I was rolling in the void among scraps of paper and feathers.

(The birds, with beaks and claws, tear up the page of strips. Each flies off with a scrap of printed paper in his beak. The page below is also covered with strip drawings; it depicts the world as it was before the birds' appearance and its successive, predictable developments. I'm among the others, with a bewildered look. In the sky there are still birds, but nobody pays attention to them any more.)

Of what I understood then, I've now forgotten everything. What I've told you is all I can reconstruct, with the help of conjectures in the episodes with the most gaps. I have never stopped hoping that the birds might one day take me back to Queen Or. But are they real birds, these ones that have remained in our midst? The more I observe them, the less they suggest what I would like to remember. (The last strip is all photographs: a bird, the same bird in close-up, the head of the bird enlarged, a detail of the head, the eye . . .)