The History of Feathers

The history of feathers is the story of a town.

The birds and the people lived together, here. When the chicks broke out of their eggshells, the people picked up the pieces and made lives with them: dyed the fragments for elaborate mosaics, crushed them into powders to paint with, carved them into ornaments to wear on their hats or on their faces. In turn, the people gave their neighbors ribbons of color, patterned fabrics, and shining spooled threads that the birds prized for their lightness and softness and wove into very beautiful and very warm nests.

One day the people stopped talking. It happened suddenly. In losing their voices, they lost their language. It stayed that way for a while, and after a while they realized that it was going to stay that way for the foreseeable future.  To thank the people for their kindnesses – the nests bursting in yellow polka-dots and rhinestones and red chiffon – the birds taught them to sing to one another without voices. They knew how to move their wing feathers to whir in the wind, how to make their tail feathers buzz or whistle. They knew how to boom their wings together like drums in midflight. They began by gathering the people together in groups. The knuckle-crackers. The knee-poppers. The teeth-grinders. The finger-snappers and the happy clappers. Slowly and arduously, they demonstrated their feathercraft and their pupils learned to perform in analogue. Please come quickly! Snappity-snapsnap. You’re sexy! Crackity-crack. I’m afraid, and so should you be. Rubrubrub.

From there, the birds moved to more advanced lessons and more nuanced displays. They collected and donated bits of their plumage with which the people made sashes and headbands and bracelets. Flick your wrist back and forth in precisely this rhythm: I’m sorry. Center your feathersash and brush your chest with your fingernails like I’m doing with my beak: You are good enough. It will be alright. The birds quietly peeped to their chicks, before they were born, to be more careful when breaking through their shells, and they saved the larger pieces to make wearable chimes that the people strung across their foreheads. Turn your face this way when the wind is just right: I love you. They gave back some of the ribbons. The people grew their hair long and cut it into intricate patterns and invested in electric fans and made a kind of soft and subtle music by dancing their hair to and fro.

It wasn’t much to start with, but the people found that they didn’t need much. Relationships grew in gusts and gestures, or fell away in patterns of cracking joints and whistles. They wore their language into the wind, draped their bodies with it, shook it loose, and bent and stretched it into being. In time they taught the birds some lullabies they had made with whispering puffs of down. In time they would have realized that their voices had come back if anyone had tried to use them, but nobody did and so nobody noticed.

 

[To return to The Elizabeths, dance over this way.]