The Book of Birds
Walking carefully, eyes down, I pick my way through the broken umbrellas that litter the streets like dead birds. They are always black, wet and mutilated, congregating in large numbers as if a murder of crows has been culled in flight, the skeletons of an airborne memory.
I haven’t seen a bird in flight for many years. They began to disappear from the sky when the rain started its relentless attrition of the city and it’s inhabitants. The birds fell from the skies, exhausted, after weeks of frantic searching for ever diminishing dry spaces to rest, or nest.
I remember the first time I saw one drop. It landed in a puddle in front of me as I crossed a road and as I stared at the small bundle another landed nearby, then another and soon countless more had rained down until the ground in every direction was feathered by fragile dead bodies. I recalled, at the time, a story I’d heard long ago about an incident in China during the reign of Chairman Mao. The Chinese citizens had been roused to frighten the sparrows away from newly sewn seeds during times of great famine. For several days and nights people had shouted and banged pots and pans until the birds dropped with exhaustion and the skies became empty and silent, as they are now. The only birds in London today are the ones the street vendors keep in rusty cages to attract the attention of passers by. Sparrows, finches and robins have become curiosities as fascinating as the bird of paradise and as enigmatic as the phoenix.
Very little inhabits the sky these days since the blue closed up and sealed itself off from the earth with a suffocating blanket of cloud. The last star to be seen in London was the North Star, sometime in August 2037. For several nights this was the only visible star and it shone so brightly children all around London wished on it every night innocently unaware that it wasn’t the first star, it was the last, and their wishes would never come true. As the blue disappeared, and life clouded over, it seemed that a colour blindness descended on London as the contrast levels were adjusted to almost zero. A psychologically toxic miasma now fills every internal and external space causing a collective, and perpetual, state of somnambulism as people’s reality gradually dissolves into a cycle of lucid dreaming.
These liquid days, with no shape or form, are filled with menial tasks and activities in an attempt to define each twenty-four hour space in time. This day will be shaped by the delivery of a book to the Artefact, Relic and Community Centre to be catalogued and stored for future reference, although it was an unspoken accepted knowledge that this was unlikely ever to happen. Since the sky clouded over people’s minds have also become nebulous places. Heads full of grey clouds have no space for enquiry, curiosity or imagination. Ideas get lost in the fog and clear thinking becomes an exhausting pursuit that few people can sustain and so it seems that finally man’s thirst for knowledge has been quenched. A million years of intellectual and industrial evolution is gradually being washed away by the tide of indifference. The flotsam and jetsam of the last epoch is being collected and displayed in various community centres all over London but it’s only the very old that go to look. As they stand blinking with watery eyes at flickering screens they try to remember a narrative, but too many chapters are missing.
I flick slowly through the book as I walk. I know these streets so well I could walk them blind fold. I know which roads are now canals, and which parks have become lakes, and with such little traffic about these days I barely have to raise my eyes to navigate. As I study the book, searching for something familiar, it becomes increasingly difficult to read. The print seems to be fading, and the colour is slowly disappearing through a white haze as if the pages are slowly erasing themselves.
Looking up, I realise that the air has become opaque and I am walking through a fog so thick I can no longer see more than an arms length in front of me. This peculiarly dense mist is disorientating, I can’t see anything in any direction and it is impossible for me to find my way. This is unknown territory; my familiar urban environment has evaporated and I am left standing in the vapours, or perhaps I’m suspended in a cloud seconds before the chilling realisation that I am dead.
I need to find a familiar landmark so I begin to walk slowly through the fog and as I surrender myself to it it feels strangely comforting like warm goose down as I sleepwalk my way through the white nothingness. A formless shadow suddenly appears in front of me and as it gradually sharpens into focus I am confronted by a spectral stranger who reaches for my book
“I’m taking it to the community centre” I say “It doesn’t make sense to me any more”
The stranger opens the book then looks at me and as our eyes meet I feel the clouds in my head clear. Her eyes are ocean blue and I see in them a grainy cinematic rendering of every apocalyptic event the world has witnessed. I see continuous rainfall and floods of epic proportions. I see famine, droughts, plague, ice ages, volcanic eruptions and meteors showering from the skies. I see great processions of fabulous beasts and flocks of birds fleeing in terror. I see human pilgrimages and diasporas and I watch time fast forward, pause, unravel and reverse. In one fragment of a second I see the history of the earth reveal itself and realise that she has witnessed it all.
“This is a very special book and like no other,” she says. “It has many narratives and can be read in any language or direction; forwards, backwards, inverted, or along any trajectory your finger might trace. Every reader is confronted by dead ends, intersections and diversions and each reader navigates a different journey and reaches a different conclusion. This book is an isotropic network of potential; it shows you how the crow flies and tracks your journeys, past and future. It tells you where you have been and where you are going. Many people have got lost in this book but if you know how to read the codes, and if you ever stray from the path, this book will lead you home.”
“ But I know where I’ve come from” I say “and where I’m going, I just don’t know where I am”
“You are here,” she says, holding the book open and pointing at a page. I make my eyes focus on the spot she is pointing to. It is the margin at the very edge of the page, the blank white space that runs parallel to the text; a place specifically for the inscription of a personal subtext.
“You are here, in the margins,” she says. “But I can help you find your way out.”
She takes my hand and leads me through liminal obscurity until the whiteness clears and the veil is lifted. I feel her hand slip from mine as I emerge from the mist but when I look back for her I trip over the metal skeleton of a dead bird and drop the book in a puddle. A passing gust of wind opens it and leafs through the pages as if searching for an alternative route. Then, one by one, each page is torn from the book and a flock of paper birds with printed filigree wings takes flight filling the dull grey skies with an ancient A-Z of London. I watch their reflections in a large still puddle until the birds disappear over the city, and then I begin my journey home.