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8.1.14

Wes Craven's The Birds: Part 4

So when you get the call, well, will you have the guts to go?

The call came at midnight and stressed punctuality, so I was at Five Corners at 3 a.m. on the dot. The place was spooky. The chill fog didn’t help. “Hello?” No answer. “It’s me,” I called a little louder. “Who?” someone challenged. I looked around but no one was there. “Up here, duh,” the voice said. I looked up and there was the biggest barn owl I’ve ever seen. Radar dish face, bailing hook beak, eyes like flying saucers.

“Try to keep up,” he said, and flew off for the ferry terminal, alighting on a lamp post there and turning to watch me scurry after. 

Just as I caught up with him he plunged into a patch of grass, re-emerging with a fat field mouse in his beak. “Going to be a long night. Have a nibble.”

“No, I’m good.” 

“Field to table,” he noted, thrusting it closer. “Doesn’t get fresher.”

“I’m sure it’s delicious, but it’s...”

“Not good enough for you?”

“I’m vegetarian,” I lied.

“So’s he. See where that got him.” He gulped it down and jerked a wing down at the rickety public dock.

“There’s your ride.”

I looked. The only craft there was a derelict rowboat, half swamped, a night heron hunched on its stern. It looked up.

“The yacht’s in the shop. You can row and bail at the same time, can’t you?”

I looked back to the owl. “Are you  serious?”

“It’ll be worth it,” he said, and  vanished into the night.

Great. I was already regretting accepting the invitation to see “something special.” It had been made by a shadowy bird group known only as The Murmuration. I could end up on a watch list. Security at the airport was bad enough already. And why me? I suspected an element of perverse amusement in the choice. Soon as I was in the skiff the water was up to the gunwales, and it was three buckets of bailing for every pull of oars.

“Where we going?” I asked, already out of breath and increasingly apprehensive. “Up-Island a piece,” said the heron, eyeing the water.

“We’re leaving the harbor?”

He turned and eyed me as only a heron can. It’s like being sized up by a raptor.

“Know how to fly?” he asked.

“Not without an airplane.”

 “Then bail faster. I have wings, you don’t.”

Once we were out of the harbor and into the chop, I was sure we would go down any second. And the fog was so thick I could barely see the bird slouched in the stern, absently throwing down baitfish he was plucking from our dark wake. Suddenly out of nowhere a clutch of sooty shearwaters materialized from the fog and clattered into our boat. Immediately we listed sharply. “Distribute your weight, folks!” the heron barked. “Someone back here in the co-pilot’s seat.” The shearwaters giddily hopped around and the boat was back in balance.

“Five degrees to port,” the one in the co-pilot’s seat said.

“Do what he says,” the heron snapped. “He’s an ocean-going bird. Once I’m out of the harbor, I’m as lost as you are.”

“I knew it!”

“This is nothing,” the shearwater cackled. “Try navigating in Tierra del Fuego in migration season. Insane!”

What followed was three hours of rowing and bailing, muscles on fire, me convinced the shearwater’s directions could only be wild guesses, given the thick fog. Then miraculously our prow ground into loose stones and we were ashore. 

“Hop out,” the night heron yelled. “Stay behind my left wing until your bags are returned to you, then someone will walk you to the terminal!”

I stepped off, shaken. Immediately the heron and the shearwaters flew off, cackling over the Cape Air jokes. I was alone, and cold to the bone. My stomach growled. I found myself wishing I’d eaten the damn field mouse. What was happening to me? The beach was a mere suggestion in the fog, and I was completely turned around. Nothing looked familiar, and the Gay Head Light was nowhere to be seen.

Then something wet and cold touched the back of my neck.

I spun around, scared out of my wits.

It was a doe. Solemn and tranquil, looking at me with big liquid eyes.

“Didn’t mean to startle you. I’m your guide through the woods.”

“Is there a house nearby? I’m freezing.”

“No houses here, silly,” she said. “The walk will warm you up.”

She turned and glided into the sea grass, heading for the trees.

She seemed to know where she was going, so I followed her into the woods. “You work for the birds?” I asked.

“It’s tit for tat. In boom-boom season they let me know where the hunters are, the rest of the time I tell them which feeders are full, where the cats are, what bush has fresh berries.”

She noticed I was hanging back. “Don’t worry. No ticks on me. Won’t be for ages.”

Whatever. We followed game trails through pines, beetlebungs, huge beeches, and finally into a stand of majestic oaks.  None looked younger than two hundred years old, and the deeper we went, the bigger they got. Then we stopped in front of what surely was the mother of all oaks, towering above all of them like a cathedral.

“It’s been here from the beginning,” the doe whispered. “They come here once a year for the view it gives them.”

“They” were the birds. The tree was alive with them – what looked like every species on the Island was there, from the largest hawks to the smallest humming birds. Woodpeckers, egrets, towhees, blue jays, crows, goldfinches, kingbirds and the shearwaters – all looking off to a single point in the fog.

“Up here, Pilgrim!” I looked up to see the owl from Five Corners. “Hop up – it’s almost time!”

“No wings,” I called.

 “Pretend you’re a kid again and climb!” he said.

And so I did. Easily, to my great amazement, exactly like a kid. Fearless, thirsty for the adventure. Soon I was perched beside him, and the fog was lifting. We could see the ocean, and pods of whales spouting. And above them, a great white cloud racing across the sky. It made a sound as it twisted and surged, like wind rushing through ten thousand harps. Weird.

“We’re thinking them back for a moment,” the owl said proudly. “Just for fun.”

I squinted – the sun was coming up behind the cloud now, and I could see it wasn’t a cloud at all. It was birds – a gargantuan white cloud of them, speeding by with the singular purpose of one gigantic creature.

“Passenger pigeons,” the owl whispered. “Cool, huh?”

I was stunned by the beauty of it, by the way the sun ringed their slender bodies with gold. But it was short-lived. As swiftly as they appeared, they wiped the last stretch of the sky and were gone.

That revealed the sun, now above the horizon. The view was truly amazing. We could see the length of the whole Island. It was beautiful, cloaked in great trees and garnished with spectacular boulders. But hang on, something was missing.

“Where are the houses? The roads? The towns?”

The owl turned to me, his eyes glowing in the dawn’s gold.

“Once a year we imagine what it was like back when the Island had just hatched from the ice mountain. What do you think?”

I couldn’t find the words.

“We can’t sustain it of course,” he said, and closed his eyes.

Then there was a rumble, and the tree suddenly just wasn’t there. The birds were flying and I was falling.

I lay at the base of the old stump for a long while after that. Until the ticks arrived and it was time to find a road.

 

This article is part of an eight-part series Wes Craven produced for Martha's Vineyard Magazine. Click here to read the entire saga of the filmmaker’s adventures with his avian neighbors.