An Avian Dread
THE Atlantic Monthly has committed itself, through a contributor, to the statement that ‘birds are, for the most part, detestable.' I shall not contest this declaration. To the writer of ‘The Avian Superstition’ birds may be detestable; to me they are formidable, terrible.
I am not a coward. I have removed mice from traps, I have dissected the slippery angleworm, I have handled the beautiful garter-snake. But of birds, whether lark or loon, titmouse or turkey, I am afraid. Almost all birds are beautiful: I cherish the memory of swallows circling farm-house chimneys, of the grosbeak flitting through snowladen branches, with the recollection of the Bay of Naples, or of the purplish pink of England’s moors. The notes of birds are beautiful; I like even the raucous call of the peacock, reminding me of the weary yet unwilling bedtimes of my childhood. But of the birds themselves, I am afraid.
When I was four years old, I started one day to cross my grandfather’s barnyard. Suddenly, with a swoop, a gobble, a roar, a turkey-cock was upon me. Paralyzed, I fell prone upon the ground, where the dragon perched himself upon me, beating me with his wings, tearing at my clothes with claws and beak. Fortunately the hired man was at hand; he seized the beast by his hideous neck, and bravely hurled him clear across the yard.
It was not only the whole, live bird of which I was thenceforth afraid, — it was dead birds or birds’ feathers, in feather-dusters, on hats, anywhere. I suppose it was because the gobbler’s talons tore only my clothes that my family did not take my accident seriously. Other little girls, they assured me, had been flopped by turkeys, but none had ever died of it. My brothers delighted to tease: sometimes I drew my napkin from its ring to flirt a turkey feather into my face, sometimes my bare and shrinking arm met a mass of down in the sleeve of a dress. Well do I remember the night when they convinced me that there were feathers in pillows and I rose and slept on the floor!
Now, my family have ceased to torment, but they still laugh at me, reason with me. I must conquer this absurd obsession. Once my father came to me with a dead bird in his hand.
‘My dear,’ said he, ‘see this beautiful flicker; see his red crest, see —’
I looked at my father, determined upon my good; I looked around the room. The bird was between me and the doors.
‘Father,’ I said, ‘if you come a step nearer, I shall jump through this window.'
I should have done just that. I should have hated it, for glass makes ugly cuts; but I should have jumped none the less.
Twice have birds spoiled great experiences for me. One was my first walk with a young man. He was in college, he was admired by the town; an hour before the time, I was ready. The day was heavenly, no mortal was ever happier than I. Down the street we went, in sight of every one, — especially of Essie Little, who also admired him, and whom I disliked excessively, — and out on the country road to a beautiful woodland path.
Hardly had we set foot in it than we came upon a dead crow, whereupon I lost all sense of what I was saying. I had succeeded in stammering my way back into coherence, when we came upon another crow, and another. I was ashamed to confess my infirmity to my companion. I began to giggle hysterically. In this condition I continued until I reached my own door, having made a perfect idiot of myself, and having fixed my young man’s affection firmly upon Essie Little.
The second time I committed myself to greater ignominy. I had become a student at a university, where I was invited one afternoon to tea with Miss K., an alumna of the university, who was regarded by us all with great awe.
‘And now,’said she, when I had finished my third cup, ‘I am going to show you my brother Louis’s birds.’
The words strangely enough struck no terror to my heart. I knew ‘Louis’s’ birds, wonderful colored plates in magazines and books. I had one of his pictures in my room, a group of flamingoes against a gray-green sky, which was to me more wonderful than the Mona Lisa. Overwhelmed with pleasant anticipation, I followed Miss K. But she did not lead me into the library, where I expected to examine volumes of drawings; she took me upstairs, to a room lined with deepdrawered cases and odorous with disinfectants, and there she closed the door. Sickeningly it dawned upon me that the birds were real, dead birds, and not pictures of birds.
I do not remember seeing my old friend the turkey that afternoon, nor yet an ostrich, but I saw all the other birds in the universe. I am not certain that I did not see a roc. I held a South American humming-bird in my hand while Miss K. showed me the under layers of white which made the outer crimson so brilliant; protective color was made clear to me on a partridge, laid upon my lap!
Finally, Miss K. brought from a deep drawer a whole armful of bird, a flamingo, rosy, pink, mounted with hinges in his joints. Him she stood upright near me, and called upon me to admire.
‘ Louis says — ’ she began; but what Louis said I did not hear.
For the thing winked at me, and I fell, sliding from my chair to the floor.
I remember nothing about my resuscitation, except that it was accomplished with tenderness and alarm, and that my hostess reproached herself for the close, odorous room. Not even to spare her pain did I confess. I felt as if I had committed an unpardonable breach of manners, as if I had emptied my soup into my lap or eaten with my knife.
In the dormitory I sat myself down and reasoned with myself. I would cure myself or die. I firmly asserted the non-existence of fear, I called vanity to my aid, shame, ambition. I was certain that I was cured.
Until yesterday. Then, in the same barnyard, I came upon a turkey, in a wire-inclosed pen, and him I addressed with boasting, not seeing that the door of the pen was unlatched. In an instant he had thrust forth his incredible neck, had opened his terrible mouth.
I might have slammed the door upon him, I might have fronted him boldly. I did neither. I shrieked, I ran, I tore to the house, in the full view of a dozen relatives and friends, while he pursued me, roaring, snorting, gobbling his fiendish exultation.
So I am still obsessed. But perhaps I am partly cured. Perhaps I shall be able to endure sight of dead bird or wink of flamingo. Perhaps a turkey is not a bird, perhaps he is only a reincarnated dragon.
It must not be hoped from the above that I shall yield my Thanksgiving white meat to those who are braver or more sensible than I. For I do have sense enough to know that a dressed turkey, stuffed with good Maryland bread-filling, or with better Pennsylvania German potato-filling, bears no more relation to a live turkey than a marron glacé does to a chestnut bur.