We Are Judged by Our Plumage
By Rhoads Brazos
Andrew didn’t trust the bank teller. He fidgeted at the counter and tried not to stare. Her delicate profile and warm smile meant nothing with that Magpie on her shoulder.
Latin name: Pica pica. Characteristics: thievery, omnivore, faux bird of prey.
The teller looked shifty. It surprised Andrew that the bank had even hired her. On the way out, he carefully counted his money.
At the curb, two men behind a Brink’s truck lowered bags of coins and currency onto a cart. The larger, complete with evil goatee and pointy features like a space-opera despot, bore a Peregrine Falcon. He and the bird watched as one, their heads swiveling as Andrew passed. The shorter of the two guards had a Spotted Sandpiper on his hat. The bird kicked rapidly at its throat with a spindly foot.
Andrew climbed into his car and waited. He checked the mirror and made sure he wasn’t alone.
“Friday,” he said. “Our favorite, right? Fun’s just begun.”
Maybe it was angry with him. Sometimes it seemed to be. It knew his prejudice. He of all people should know better than to judge others, but it was hard not to when the world offered so many opportunities.
Into traffic, merge, and switch. The vehicles slid around and about each other, creeping into new lanes and oozing forward. Fluid and concise. When everyone knew their place, the pieces fit together with facile simplicity.
The traffic slowed for a construction zone. A Lineated Woodpecker sat on the flagman’s sign and preened with a stiletto beak. Off to the side, someone in an Uncle Sam suit danced and shuffled under a Tax Preppers billboard. Sam became too exuberant and sent his Toucan squawking upward. It settled again while he caught his breath. Just past him, a group of youths exited a convenience store. Seedsnipe, Antthrush, Bananaquit, Egyptian Plover. Kids today had no respect for tradition.
A quiet teenager, separate from the group, served as a perch for a Sri Lankan Frogmouth. Maybe she’d grow up to be a philosopher or a poet, but right now she looked depressed. Andrew considered parking and consoling her, telling her things would get better — but that would be a lie, wouldn’t it? Every day, the birding handbooks were expanded, filled with more data from the ornipsychs on who you are, on your probabilistic aspirations. Data doesn’t lie.
Andrew glanced again at the mirror. His bird tilted its head and gave him a quizzical look, as if it had just failed the Daily Double. Did it know what went through his mind? If it was truly a reflection of himself, then it would have to.
“Friday,” Andrew said again.
A peck and tug at his shoulder, but he didn’t respond. He pulled off the thoroughfare, parked, and — keeping his head down — headed in.
When nobody expected your return, the weekend stretched open and lonely, like being lost on the tundra. Empty apartments burst with regrets, so find a crowd to hide in. This was Andrew’s preferred haunt, a casual family-restaurant with a long sports bar. He liked to sit at the far end, quiet and out of the way, but not unnoticed — that was impossible.
“Hey there, Ace.” The bartender ran a rag quickly before Andrew’s spot. “What’s it today?”
“Smith and Wesson.”
The bartender fancied himself saucy and hip, but came off as pointedly annoying. Andrew gave a token smile.
After the cocktail was presented with an unneeded flourish, Andrew drank and played with his phone. He gave the TV news off-and-on attention while he positioned digital candies just so.
A terrorist suspect had been detained at LaGuardia. He’d tried to hide his affiliation by tethering a Bald Eagle to his shoulder. The news anchors chuckled over the poetic justice of the mauling.
The bartender returned with another drink. “Too ambitious.”
“Should’ve used a Turkey,” Andrew said. “Docile.”
“Compared to that, sure.” The bartender tickled his Black Grouse under the beak. It hopped about on his shoulder and gave a bubbling coo.
Latin name: Tetrao tetrix. Characteristics: lekking, snow burrowing, mixed-sex flocks.
“You’re Irish?” Andrew asked.
“Very good. Most people can’t tell.”
“Bagpipers like that bird of yours—”
“Yeah, for decoration, in pies too, but you won’t find me puttin’ him in one. He’s too good for that. Aren’tchu!” Another tickle. “Whoops, customers. Holler when you’re dry.”
Both in the restaurant and the bar, families and groups of friends flocked in together. From somewhere in the bustle, a Whippoorwill called out its name. That was when Andrew saw her.
She sat at the opposite end of the bar, a bookend to himself. Wavy blonde hair that looked like it preferred the beach and a face that made him think of sunshine. Not the kind of woman you ever saw sitting alone. She must be waiting for someone.
The guys at the table behind her bellowed at sports highlights. They didn’t give her a glance. Strange they ignored her — she even had a svelte companion.
Bird-envy was common for both sexes. Andrew didn’t recognize her animal’s breed, but it was exquisite, with a curved beak like a long cat’s claw, a dun-colored body under zebra-striped wings, and a persimmon crown tipped tar-black.
For one reckless moment he considered approaching her, asking her what kind of animal it was. All of the best pick-up lines ladled flattery on the feathers.
Her face turned his way, just enough that he was in her vision. Andrew focused on his empty glass.
Out of his league. They all were — some more than others. Andrew motioned to the bartender for another round.
Some people had the luck and others, like himself, did not. There was no choice in the matter. The bird showed up minutes after a person’s birth, as soon as the tears dried. Tradition said to leave the window open, welcome the winged friend to its lifelong nest, but that was just out of a sense of decorum. The bird revealed itself regardless of any obstacles, hopping out from under the bed, flapping away from a cupboard, or rustling out of a sleeve like the failed finesse of a stage magician.
“Local authorities are on the lookout,” the closed-captioning read. “Suspect is Caucasian, medium build, five foot ten, Prairie Chicken.”
He hadn’t seen her come over, but she had taken the seat next to him.
“Oh, yes.” Andrew realized that eagerness could be read into his words and struggled onward. “Wouldn’t want to cross him.”
“I’m Melinda.” She tilted her head to him, close but not too close. Her bird watched him with as much suspicion as a bird could muster.
“Andrew. Like the song?” he asked.
“Your name. Melinda. Oh, never mind, I—”
“I’m surprised you know that. Nobody’s heard of it. My father was a Raven and my mother a Vampire Finch. They were into that sort of music. Andrew—” She spoke his name slowly, as if she were tasting it. “That’s a magnificent creature.”
“It certainly is.” Andrew rubbed at his chin. “He’s a Somali Ostrich.”
The bird rested its head on Andrew’s shoulder and batted its eyelashes.
“I can see that. Have you named him?”
Andrew took a slow sip of his drink. “Awaale. It means lucky.”
“You think so?”
“Some days more than others.”
He faced her directly, but she looked away, too shy to hold his eye. That seemed odd to him — she had been the one to come over.
Melinda tapped at her shoulder. “This is Helenus. He’s a Hoopoe.”
Latin name: Upupa epops. Characteristics: monogamous, sunbather, connected with death and the underworld.
“Ah, I’ve never seen one.”
Her bird fanned its headfeathers so that they stuck out like fingers. They smoothed back into place.
“They’re quite nice,” she said.
“I’m not surprised.”
And just like that, he’d broken the ice, or she had. It made no difference at this point.
For Andrew, speaking openly and with trust was a new wonderment. It washed away the tension like the alcohol was meant to. Each of us wishes for acceptance, to have another see our flaws and shrug them away with a smile.
They talked and laughed about their parents.
“My mother and father only took up with Gothic breeds,” Melinda said.
“That’s not uncommon.”
“I suppose so. They wanted me to be a Nightingale. I disappointed them.”
“They said so?”
Melinda nodded and took a drink.
“Parents can be cruel,” Andrew said. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. And yours?”
Andrew’s father had a White-Eared Hummingbird. The old guy resented it and compensated with a drill instructor persona.
“He’d always belittle me.” Andrew affected a Southern twang. “You gotta be more than the bird, son!”
“But you like him?”
“My dad, sure.”
“Your friend,” she said, gesturing to Awaale.
“Mmm…” Andrew held his hand up and Awaale rubbed his bill against his palm. “I do. He complicates things, that’s all.”
Andrew didn’t see how she could. “He saved my life once.”
“I was coming around a corner, downtown. It was after hours.”
She watched him carefully, searching.
“Three guys came from out of nowhere. Bad news. Two vultures at their feet — the Iranian kind—”
Andrew snapped his fingers. “That’s it! Good. The things were wobbling about. You know that strange hop vultures do. The third guy had a Carrion Crow.”
“East meets West, but brothers in purpose. They came toward me, grinning at each other. Then Awaale stepped around the corner.” Andrew thought back and smiled. “They didn’t know how to read it. Nobody does.”
“Maybe they thought you’d attack. Those animals can be quite aggressive.”
“Awaale, no. He’s very tame.”
He saw her lemon drop martini was done and ordered her another. The bartender delivered it with a wink.
“So.” Melinda tasted the rim of the glass, traced in sugar. “Are they slaves to fate?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your thugs. Or, take those newscasters.” She motioned to the TV. Each of the on-screen reporters shouldered a parrot: Blue-Eyed Cockatoo, Rainbow Lorie, Eclectus.
“Are they there because of the bird?” Melinda asked. “Are those really our spirits?”
Wings are the engines of the soul. The archetypal angels, from the oldest texts, were feathered from head to toe. With a bit of verbatim, a person could actually explain a religion.
“That’s a big question for the first—” Andrew cut himself short before he jinxed things.
“It’s important. Are they us?”
Melinda sat very still.
“I don’t know what they are,” Andrew said, “but I think we’ve chosen to become them, to act out their promise. Most people have — but not all.”
Melinda looked back to the door.
“You expecting someone?” Andrew asked.
“No, I — I haven’t been honest with you,” she said. “But I want to be. I will be.”
“Remember those kids, back ten years ago?”
He knew where she was going with this. Everyone had heard that story. “Sure, they were never befriended. Parents were waiting hours, then days, then—”
“Right,” she said. “The doctors took them away, quarantined them, did studies.”
“Well, sure. The parents had a defective gene. Nothing contagious. The docs did let them go.”
She rested her hand on his. He held her fingertips, not daring too much.
“One little difference was all it took,” she said.
“I know. I’ve felt a bit of that, the edges of it. People get confused.”
“But it’s not important.”
“Why should it be? We are who we are with or without anyone’s permission.”
She turned to him.
On her other shoulder sat a second bird, the twin of the first. Andrew stared, wide-eyed.
Melinda lowered her voice and watched the bartop. “This is Cassandra.”
Andrew was at a loss. He thought his own situation was awkward. Awaale was unique, but he fit the expectations in his own weird way. But this — this broke every rule. By the world’s definition, Melinda wasn’t even a person.
Melinda met his gaze again. “Are those just words?”
Andrew thought back. “Everyone believed in Helenus, but not Cassandra.”
“The twins from Troy, yes! You read?”
“I have lots of spare time.”
“So what do they mean to you? I really need to know.”
She watched with blatant worry.
A nudge at his shoulder. He reached up without looking and patted Awaale’s head.
He forced every preconception away, as she had already done with him, and answered honestly.
“It’s wonderful they’ve found each other.”
She slipped her hand around his and squeezed hard.
Rhoads has lived in the Texas Hill Country, and the dry upper Mid-West, in both small towns and large cities. As disparate as these places are, they share qualities their residents don’t realize, tendencies which Rhoads’ own works often echo—the isolation of the rural and the loneliness of crowds.
Rhoads transcribes his dreams into prose and shares them with the unsuspecting. Somehow, his work has seeped into this locale and other unknowing venues, including: Apex Magazine, Stupefying Stories, Gaia: Shadow & Breath Anthology, vol 1, and Death’s Realm Anthology.
Currently living in Colorado Springs, Rhoads has no plans of moving. His neighbors grouse and grumble over this fact to no end.
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