We have come to this village high in the mountains in search of the bird women. It has taken us all day to get here from the city, climbing the wet mountain roads so slowly sometimes I feared the truck would give up and start rolling back down the hill. Bright green banana leaves cover these dark volcanic hills and tiny red tile roofed houses dot the landscape. Even if I don’t find what I’m looking for, I’m glad to be here. The air is filled with the aroma of wet dirt and cow dung. Fog sits just at the edge of the hills, waiting to descend. It is as if the fog were some god of protection, ready to fly down and cover the trees and houses and hills for the night, guarding against harm. My guide is an anthropology professor from the capital named Jorge Mendoza. The department has loaned him an old green truck that I fear has made one too many trips up this hill. We have stopped seven times today to fill the radiator with water, waiting for it to cool down long enough for us to continue our slow, steady climb.
Jorge has focused his studies on the people of this mountainous coffee-growing region. He has never seen the bird women but like me is sure that they exist. Our shared belief in the face of all scientific truths contradicting such an idea has made us instant friends.
Jorge is the son of a rich coffee grower who owns a vast portion of the land in a neighboring region to Actalan, where we have come. Jorge tells me that he first heard about the bird women from one of the family maids, when he was still a child. As a boy, he loved the story so much he asked the maid to tell it again and again. When he went to the university to study anthropology, Jorge heard the story anew.
The small tile roofed houses seem to grow out of the earth here. Or rather they appear to have sunk their roots into the ground. There is no electricity or running water. The people depend on the sun and moon for light. If ever there were to exist creatures half human and half animal, as the bird women are said to be, this would be the place to find them.
After arriving here and drinking coffee with our hosts, the Pravia family, Jorge and I go for a walk around the village, then climb the steep path up the volcanic mountain that rises like a dark wall just beyond the small cornfields surrounding the town. The region takes its name from this volcano, thought to be a spirit watching over the valley. No one is still alive who remembers the last time the volcano sputtered several quick puffs of smoke, then vomited fire and liquid lava down her sides and out over the fields and huts. But everyone knows this is possible. The people here simply say, “If she goes, we will lose everything,” and shrug.
The sky is turning a bright pink as we near the top of the volcano. Black birds stand out as stark shadows against the brilliant sky. Jorge circles his arm around my waist, as we stop to catch our breath and take in the sunset and the rose-tinted land below. Jorge pulls me toward him and kisses me. In this atmosphere of thin air, I am too lightheaded to resist.
When we return to the village, Doña Elena, the oldest member of the Pravia family and grandmother to all ten children, serves us sweetened cups of instant coffee before dropping her frail body into a wooden rocking chair. We sip our coffee in the dark room lit only by scattered kerosene lanterns. Doña Elena rocks back and forth. A few minutes later, she begins.
“My husband, Ernesto, was sick for a very long time. He could not work anymore in the fields. One day he got so weak, he could not even push himself out of bed. That afternoon when I came in to look at him, he was breathing so hard I could hear his lungs rattle. He asked me, ‘Elena, please help him go outside.’ Then he said, ‘I am going to die and I would like to see my fields and my village and my beautiful mountains before I go.’”
With help from her two sons, Doña Elena lifted her husband from his bed and set him on a small hill at the edge of the cornfield. From the hill, he could see the village below and above him the dark majesty of Mt. Actalan. When he was settled there, he asked to be left alone, with his mountain and the wide pastel sky.
That evening when they put the old man back to bed, he was thirsty and very, very tired. But his eyes sparkled like Doña Elena only remembered them shining when he was still a boy. He tried to talk, to tell her what he had seen, but his lips moved without sound. A few moments later he fell asleep.
The next morning he told Doña Elena, “I saw the bird women.”
He described the wings as multicolored and nearly fluorescent, like those of a parrot but even more startling. The faces, he said, were half bird, half woman. Don Ernesto couldn’t say exactly how the faces appeared. There were two of them, just as in the story Jorge loved so much as a boy. They were small in stature for women, yet large for birds.
The bird women stood on the ground near the dying man and sang the sweetest song Don Ernesto had ever heard. For the first time during his long illness, HE felt the pain leave him, suddenly, as if the fire in his lungs simply flew away. The song was sad too and HE cried, the tears falling down his cheeks, dampening his worn shirt. He didn’t understand the words of the song. They were in a language that sounded like nonsense to him. But the tune made him weep and the clear harmony of those perfect voices then made him smile.
When they finished the song, they stood silently next to Don Ernesto preening their feathers and searching the sky. At that moment, HE said he knew he would not live to see another sunset; that the bird women had come to guide him to the other side. He was no longer afraid to die, he told Doña Elena, because he understood that in death he too would become a beautiful bird.
That afternoon as Doña Elena sat by his bed and watched Don Ernesto sleep, she suddenly heard the flapping of wings just outside the window and a quick strong breeze passed through the room, knocking the kerosene lantern off the bedside table and tossing it to the floor. The next moment everything went silent and still. She looked at Don Ernesto’s face and saw that he was smiling in his sleep. She laid her hand softly over his heart to confirm that he was gone.
Jorge and I arise while it is still dark and cold. Here in the mountains, as soon as the sun disappears, a chill settles on the land. We splash our faces with freezing water from the bucket Jorge has filled from the well and set off with our flashlights in the pre-dawn dark.
We have been told that the best chance of seeing the bird women is at the top of the volcano, just after dawn. Though there is nothing to fear, the cold darkness makes me tremble, and I grab Jorge’s hand to calm myself down. He stops and turns to face me. “You are not afraid, are you?”
“A little,” I answer, my voice barely above a whisper.
“Do not be afraid,” he says, stroking my hair as if I were a small child. I don’t want to tell Jorge that I’m worried we may be tampering with death in some way. That maybe certain things should not be studied, spread out on the table and dissected like frogs. Maybe some things should be left for belief. I cannot tell Jorge that I fear seeing the bird women as much as I worry that they will never appear.
We have timed our trip this morning to ensure that the sky will still be dark when we reach the top of the volcano. We want to watch the day unfold from its inception as a thin band of light at the very edge of the horizon. We want to hear the roosters crow and listen for the soft sound of the morning birds singing. We want to be part of that marvelous awakening, for in this way, we believe, we will witness the magical creatures we have come hoping to see.
Not long after I made the decision to focus my research on the bird women, I decided to share the news with my colleague and friend, Andrea Dodd. Given her interest in the Indians of the Brazilian rainforest, I thought Andrea would recognize the important contribution to anthropology that research on the bird women could make.
“Did you say bird women?” Andrea said, running a hand through her thick, streaked blond hair. “Women who are half bird and half human?”
“Yes,” I said quietly, my shoulders rounding as I waited for what might come next.
“The women in this department are having a hard enough time being taken seriously. Felicia, what do you think they’re going to say about us now?” My office mate, Dr. Fisher, was kinder but no more enthusiastic about my research plan.
“Felicia,” he said, leaning down in his chair, as if the news about my study was so painful it had caused him to double over. “Felicia, you can’t study superstitions and be taken seriously.”
Dr. Fisher is a kind older man who moves slowly through the halls like a specter. He is one year away from retirement and trying hard not to think about how he will spend his days. As a young graduate student, Dr. Fisher made a name for himself with a pioneering study of the pygmy. The talk in the department is that the early promise Dr. Fisher showed never materialized in his later work. Some days I watch him walk down the hall, his shoulders rounded and curled like old ribbon, wearing the tan corduroy jacket that has become his trademark, toting his briefcase that looks too heavy for the old man to hold, and my eyes start to fill and I must force myself not to cry.
Dr. Fisher is always giving me advice on how to make my way through the labyrinthine maze of academia. Each time we have one of these conversations, I sit in silence, nodding my head. I can’t seem to keep the image of my older self, a female version of Dr. Fisher, from rising in my mind.
Jorge spreads the blanket he has brought from the truck over the cold ground. The light is just beginning to peak out from under the black curtain of darkness. It is as if tiny fingers of light were trying to lift this black blanket and hurl it down into the valley. Whoever said the countryside is quiet should sit here now and listen. A raucous symphony of animal sounds has commenced to greet the day.
Jorge holds my hand as we sit on the blanket, yoga-style. I feel as the ancients must have felt when waiting for the appearance of a sign. The sky has turned a ferocious shade of mauve touched with orange, and I let my breath out slowly in place of applause.
As the sky lightens, Jorge and I stand and separate, and we each walk around this spot looking in all directions. I am wondering now if to see the bird women a particular frame of mind is called for, as in meditation. At this moment my mind is cluttered with thoughts, not the least of which centers on Jorge. In all of our months of correspondence after I read his fine article on the origins of the bird women myth, I wondered what he would look like and how well we would get along. I don’t know how much of my feeling for him is real and how much is colored by the haunting beauty of this place and the excitement and mystery of our joint quest. Whatever is the case, I find myself wanting to touch him at every moment, to feel his breath on my neck and to watch his lips when he talks. Though the sunrise is splendid, our first morning in search of the bird women brings us no sight of the mythical creatures. When we are ready to begin our descent back down to the village, a question I haven’t asked Jorge crosses my mind.
“Have you ever wondered,” I ask him, my hand on his arm, “why you are so interested in the bird women?”
Jorge looks at me and then rubs his dark unshaven cheeks and chin. “Yes, I have thought abut this. Many times. You see, people have accused me of being obsessed about the bird women. At first when I heard this, I became angry. Now I think they are right.
“One girlfriend of mine said to me, ‘Jorge, you are looking for the perfect woman but she doesn’t exist. Only imperfect women. Human women. So you have now this obsession with bird women. You can only love a fantasy woman, not a real woman.’”
“Do you think she was right?”
“I think maybe there is some truth in it. I did not think so at first.
“There is something else, though, that I can explain. I think this life that I wanted so much is not what I want at all. But I do not know what it is that I would have instead. I come here to this place and I feel alive. I am not alive in the city. The life here is very, very hard. I know that. The people would give anything if they could send their sons to the university to study and become professors or doctors or engineers. I do not want to romanticize this life, but the people have something that I have lost. It is something inside that all the books in the world can never replace. Maybe this is what I am looking for. Maybe this is what I will find if I ever get the chance to see the bird women.”
I put my arms around Jorge’s neck and pull him toward me. He wraps his body around mine and hugs me so hard I feel as if my body might crack in two. There is no need to tell Jorge that I am here as well to fill some empty place that grows bigger each year. I understand now why there is such ease between us, even though we are practically strangers.
Jorge loosens his arms and runs his fingers through my hair.
“I wonder if you, Felicia, are the bird woman I have come to see.”
Doña Alicia is the oldest woman in the village. No one knows her exact age. Her oldest son Pedro died two years ago, at the age of seventy-three. Even her great grandchildren have children.
Doña Alicia is so frail she almost disappears into the rocking chair she is sitting in when we step onto her porch. In this early evening light, her dark gray braids appear almost blue. The skin on her face is brown and lined with years of living. When she smiles, she displays a new baby’s naked pink gums. Doña Alicia waves us to sit on two of the empty rockers. When we are seated she looks at us long, with the boldness of a child. Then she turns away and the three of us rock in silence.
The only sound is the squeak the chairs make moving back and forth and the jittery cry of crickets somewhere nearby. In the ten years since I began studying the myths of these southern mountainous regions, I have come to accept the long stretch of silence before any conversation begins. It is as if in the silence we come to know each other a little before speaking.
As the oldest woman in the village, Doña Alicia is the repository of myth and history. Throughout her life she has passed the stories on to her children and grandchildren and even to her great grandchildren. Since we are here in search of the source, we want to hear the story from Doña Alicia herself.
“I was born here in Ocotal,” Doña Alicia says, her thin voice wavering like a violin string after the bow has passed heavily across it. “I cannot remember how long ago I was born but I know that I have lived a very long time. When you live a long time, you see many births and you see many people die. I will die soon, I think. I sometimes get too tired and so it seems that one day I will go to sleep and not wake up.”
Doña Alicia talks about her life as a girl in Ocotal and then grows silent. I see that her head has fallen to one side and a little forward. A few moments later I hear the quiet percussion of Doña Alicia snoring.
We visit Doña Alicia five days in a row before she finally tells us the story of the bird women.
“There was a woman, Clara, who had a very bad husband,” Doña Alicia says, leaning forward in her chair and speaking in a loud whisper. “This husband Dario liked his liquor too much and his women too.”
Doña Alicia shakes her head back and forth and gives us one of her toothless smiles.
“This man he was no good for anything. He would drink all night and sleep the whole day. Clara had to work in the field by herself. This man he wanted very much to have a son. But every time Clara lost the child, they say from working too hard in the fields. And Dario when he was drunk, he would beat her. Clara thought if she could have a son, maybe her husband would be happy again.” Doña Alicia stops for a moment and rubs her forehead, looking off into the distance. I fear she has forgotten the rest of the story or has grown too sleepy to go on. She looks down at her hands, as if searching for the rest of the story there, then takes a deep breath and continues.
“So what Clara decided to do was to have another woman carry the baby. She knew by this time that her body was no good. One night she asked her sister, Estela, to lay in the bed on the right side where Clara normally lay, pretending to be asleep when her Dario stumbled in the door. This night when Dario came home blinded by rum, he did not know that the body in the bed next to him had changed.
“They say there was something wrong with the twin girls born to Clara’s sister, Estela. They say the babies had human faces, but instead of round little arms, they had wings. Instead of soft little toes, they had feet like a rooster. And instead of smooth brown skin, they had feathers.”
Three days pass before Doña Alicia has the strength to tell us the rest. Three days in which the afternoon rains come down in wide sheets and turn the dirt pathways into rivers of mud. And after the rain, the sun returns to heat the dirt pools, causing them to steam.
“It was bad enough that Estela had a girl and not a boy,” Doña Alicia says, shaking her head. “It was bad enough that she had two girls. What good were two girls when Clara wanted to give her Dario a son? But there was something very wrong with these girls.”
Doña Alicia sits back in her chair and rocks. I look at her face and I can see that her mind is on something painful. She looks for a brief moment as if she might suddenly burst into tears.
“Then Estela did a terrible thing,” Doña Alicia tells us, shaking her head and lightly slapping the skin on her forehead with quick flicks of her fingers. “She took the baby girls up to the very top of the volcano and left them there to die.”
Doña Alicia stops and looks at me, as if silently urging me to respond to Estela’s terrible deed. I shake my head back and forth, mimicking the movement of Doña Alicia. I turn to Jorge and see that he is doing the same.
“But the babies did not die. They grew to be women, but not ordinary women. They grew to be bird women.
“The first person to see the bird women was the oldest man in the village, Don Fernando, the day before he died. After Estela heard Don Fernando’s story about the bird women, she walked up the volcano to find them. She was very frightened. She stayed at the top of the volcano for five days. No one knew what had happened to her. The men searched all around, but she was nowhere to be found. When she came back to the village, she would not tell anyone where she had been, except her sister Clara, and she made Clara promise never to repeat what she had heard. But Clara told her friend Maria Elena and Maria Elena told her mother Doña Liliana and Doña Liliana told her husband Don Alfonso and that is how we have come to hear the story.
“It was only on the fifth day that Estela saw the bird women. She was weak from hunger and thirst and thought she was going to die. There were moments when she lost her sight. Instead of seeing the green coffee leaves and the flowers covering the ground, she saw many faces. She did not know who the faces belonged to, but the eyes were big and afraid and she could hear the people crying. Later she knew that these were the faces of the dead.
“All of a sudden, instead of these faces there appeared two beautiful birds. She had never seen such birds before and felt happy, even though she was suffering. One of the birds began to talk and she knew that they were not ordinary birds, but the bird girls grown into beautiful bird women. The same creatures that had come from her very own body.
“‘Do not be sad anymore,’ one of the bird women told Estela. ‘Being the way we are, we could not have lived the life of girls and women in the village. We needed our freedom and this is what we have found at the top of the volcano. We live in a place of clear air where we have a view of everything that goes on in the world.’
“Then the bird woman leaned down and whispered in Estela’s right ear. ‘We are able to fly to the next life and come back again. We can visit the dead and lead the living to that place, so the journey will not be such a sad one.’
“‘Am I going to die?’ Estela asked, and the bird woman who had done all the talking said, ‘Yes and no.’ Estela did not know what this meant and asked her to explain. The bird woman said, ‘The Estela that you have been until now is dead. A new Estela will be born to take her place.’
“They say that after Estela got lost those five days on the volcano she was never the same. She was always smiling and singing. One day she said to her husband Esteban, ‘I do not want to live with you anymore.’ That afternoon, she took her five children and went to live somewhere near the top of the volcano, where she stayed the rest of her life.”
It is dark and silent this morning as Jorge and I slowly make our way up the side of the volcano. The sky is so black that the stars look like tiny silver eyes winking in the sky. One of the myths of this region says that the stars are all the moon’s children and that some of them were once babies who died when they were too small to walk. Tonight the moon is only a thin white sliver, holding the promise of filling her belly with light to give birth to a few more stars.
This is our last trip to the top of the volcano before we leave Ocotal and drive down out of these dark mountains back to the city. In the month that we have been here, we have heard countless stories of the bird women. Each day we see many species of birds. But though we have climbed the volcano a good dozen times, we have yet to meet the bird women we have come hoping to find. Last night before we fell asleep on the thin straw mats the Pravias kindly provided us, Jorge whispered, “I think you should come down here and live with me.”
I felt my face grow warm and my mouth suddenly became dry.
“Why do you say that?” I whispered back.
I heard the steady breathing of all thirteen members of the Pravia family as I waited for an answer from Jorge. I heard myself swallow several times and the straw mat made a crunching sound as Jorge turned. I felt his hand blindly search through the dark for my hand. I listened to the steady rhythm of his breath for hours before I finally drifted off to sleep.
Jorge has not said another word about my living with him. Almost since our arrival here in Ocotal, I have been preparing myself to leave. I knew since the first moment we came to this small village sheltered by the shadowy arms of the volcano that when the time came, I would not want to go. But several days into our stay, I felt something happen between me and Jorge. In the days and nights that he and I have spent together, we have been floating in some warm sea, rising from time to time to take in air. We have reached for one another’s hands when walking or just before sleep, like children or old lovers.
We are both silent this morning as we make our way up the volcano. There is no need for words, as I’m sure we are both thinking the same thoughts. When the words finally thicken the air, I fear the tears will dampen my cheeks like afternoon rain.
We set the blanket down just at the edge of the precipice. One false step here in the dark could send me hurtling down to the valley below. The thought of dying in this place does not frighten me. I am only afraid when I think of dying at home, some incurable disease eating away inside me.
The rooster crows this morning long before the first hint of light splits the horizon line. What a noble job, I think, to be the one assigned to sing out the start of another day. That is, I suppose, why the rooster is such a proud bird, strutting around the dirt yard for the admiration of all the chickens. Once the rooster has finished his percussive yodeling, the other animals awaken and join in, filling up the silence vacated just moments before by the thick gray spirits of the night.
In these mountains, it is believed that in the first moments after midnight, when the living are all safely asleep in their beds, the spirits of the dead come out and roam the earth. What releases the dead are the dreams of the living. The people here say that they are often visited by loved ones long since dead in their dreams. The people fear sleep because they know that is the time when the dead can decide to take them away from this life.
I watch the sky paint its marvelous morning canvas today, knowing this will be the last time I witness it. The beauty is so breathtaking I feel as if my body has suddenly filled with air. I turn to Jorge and rest my hand lightly on his arm.
“You may be right,” I say, a little out of breath.
“I may be the bird woman you have come to find.” Jorge looks at me in silence, trying to discern the meaning of what I’ve just said.
“Right now I feel as if I could fly,” I say and flap my arms in preparation for imminent takeoff.
This morning we stay at the top of the volcano long after sunrise. Neither of us wants to say the words that will signal the disappointing end to our quest. I have sharpened my senses to a fine point this morning by listening to my breath. Exhaling loud and slow until there is not an ounce of air left, then inhaling, following the breath in my mind on its journey down to the abdomen, then back up and out again.
Today, the singing of the birds is what I most notice. There are birds that hold their notes long and there are others with nervous twitters providing a steady percussion for the melodious songs of their neighbors. I am wondering how the bird women would sound and whether I might be able to hear them if I listened hard enough.
“It does not really matter,” Jorge says, the sun having warmed the skin on our bare necks.
“What doesn’t matter?”
“That we have not seen them. I do not need to see them to believe that they exist.”
“I don’t either,” I say, and wrap my long soft wings around Jorge and begin to sing.
About the Author
“Bird Women” was inspired by the people and landscapes of Nicaragua, where Somlo lived on and off during the 1980s. The manuscript of a book she wrote about Nicaragua, Painting Without Brushes: Art and Culture in the New Nicaragua, is contained in the Lucy R. Lippard papers, housed in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Her short story, “Found in Nicaragua,” was a finalist in the 2004 Tom Howard Short Story Contest. Somlo’s work has been published in numerous literary journals, newspapers and magazines, and in the anthologies, Voices from the Couch, VoiceCatcher 2006 and Bombshells: War Stories and Poetry by Women on the Homefront. Her short story, “Mountain Tapestry,” is forthcoming in the anthology, Rainmakers Prayers. Somlo received an M.A. in English (Concentration in Creative Writing) from San Francisco State University. She lives in Portland, Oregon.