They weren’t birds and they weren’t people, so we didn’t know what to call them at first. They had feathers on the front of their arms and who the hell knew where else. My husband was one of the ones who was afraid of them, but I didn’t marry him for his bravery, I married him because he knew more about the weather than I ever could.
I remember it all too well, we were half-young and all-married and living in a town known for its toothlessness, it made me feel like I was in a cartoon sometimes, the way everyone walked past us, smiling with their big blank gums, and all those pets they pulled along with them too. Big pets and little pets. So many fucking pets.
I wasn’t a detective by any means, but I could tell as soon as we moved, something was going on there. The sky was loud in all the wrong places, the days were short and long and everybody said the sun could do all sorts of other things if it wanted to… I didn’t get what they meant by that. Again, I was no Sherlock Holmes.
When they showed up we thought they might be some sort of new pet too, but as soon as we got a good look at their faces we knew they couldn’t possibly be, there was too much action behind their eyes, it was obvious they knew better than to be leashed around.
While I’m telling you about their faces, I’ll tell you this too, they were round and slightly pink, and sharp in the middle. They didn’t quite have beaks, they looked a lot like people. Maybe seventy-five percent like people. I think I liked the way they looked, avian and mammalian and big eyed. Like children.
My husband would take a big breath whenever we saw one on the street. He’s always been a fragile man.
There had been a break in the summer and we weren’t expecting anything special. The garbage was piling up in the kitchen, the mannequins were on display on the street, I was trying on new ways to be mad at buildings. I used to wear my frustration on my sleeves, but then I was doing my best to cover my contempt under my clothes. As deep as it could go I guess.
My husband would tell me to take the elevator to meet him for lunch and sometimes I did. He ate a lot of salads and chewed quietly, one day he found a butterfly in his lunch bag, its wings were blue as a baby boy’s room, we laughed as it waved away. Summer was when we got along best, I bet it’s like that for a lot of couples, I don’t know.
Anyways, we were closer to black and white living than I’m letting on, it was pretty boring for the most part. I was working in a field I understood too well, sharpening equations and balancing ledgers for people who had grown up taller than me. I didn’t have a fling with my boss despite what my husband says. My hands were just too tired to get into it, even though I could’ve.
Maybe I was waiting for something larger to walk its way all over me. One way or another, I was just waiting.
My husband started to call them bird people after a few days of calling them, “them” and “they.” I kind of felt that name was disrespectful to birds and people both, these creatures were something new, and needed a new name of course, not some hackneyed mashup of their most accessible characteristics.
I tried on a few names, “flickities”, “koo koo karoos”, “laylas”, before I settled on one I liked, “curtsies” (after the ways their legs bowed when they walked). I never thought to ask them what they wanted to be called. Sooner or later they’d tell me I guess I imagined.
The big question we had to begin with was whether or not they could fly. They could, but not very high and not very far. They were better at gliding, but even still, they didn’t take to the air too often, not that I saw anyways. Every once in a while when I was driving around in my car (it was yellow) I would see one up perched in a tree, but I always assumed they just crawled up there to get a better view, it barely occurred to me they could be flying around all the time when I wasn’t looking.
I barely ever saw it happen, I don’t have a terribly good sense of my surroundings sometimes, that’s all I’m saying.
Another question is where they came from. My husband insisted they came from bad families, but I eventually convinced him otherwise. My theory was they came from some place colder and migrated here for the warm summer weather. It wasn’t much of a theory, a hog-tied kindergartner could’ve come up with it on the spot. I liked it. It was simple.
I guess it didn’t really matter where they came from, but we were curious of course. Either way, there they were, a couple of them at first, and then more and then probably somewhere between ten and twenty. It was easy to tell them apart, some had long, fat, feathers, some had tiny, prickly ones, some had skinny necks and some were stubby shaped.
Also, believe it or not, they had numbers on their backs. Big numbers, like the ones on sports jerseys. That made a lot of people think they escapees of some sort of experiment, but I just figured they liked numbers. I liked numbers, I guess probably I was projecting.
My husband had these horrible glasses then. We still danced in the living room sometimes, but he was clumsier than ever. At work someone kept telling him the Earth’s poles were reversing fast (too fast!), that’s the sort of stuff he brought home at least. Our lives were less than fireworks on the rise, that’s for sure, far, far less, but there was a lot lower we could go too. My hands were still soft, they didn’t hurt like they do now.
I still believed one day there would be a stage in the sky where I would watch something spectacular happen. I’m pretty sure I don’t feel that anymore.
They were about the size of people, maybe a little smaller, about as big as me. Besides the feathers they had a bunch of other things in common with birds, they hopped more than they walked, their bones were hollow (I know because a doctor told me, a real doctor), their faces came to a point in the middle (again, not quite a beak, but not far off).
They didn’t have tails, their legs looked pretty much the same as human legs as far as I could tell. Their toes had claws though, the little fingers sticking out of the top of their wings did too.
There were good qualities about them that we recognized immediately. They sang in ways no people could possibly compete with. They could scat, and skibble, and lilt and even roar a bit. They had songs that made me feel like the tallest skeleton on earth, they had songs that made me feel like I was a kid playing jump rope with my little friends, they had songs that went on and on and on, and still nobody complained.
If you were lucky sometimes they would gather in groups of four and five and the songs they would sing then were the best. That was the sort of music that made you feel like you were falling over, it was an all out disorienting assault, a carnival of musical artillery. Boom! Bomb! Boom! You had to shake your head to settle those melodies inside of you. It’d hurt a little bit.
Could you dance to it? Yes, you could still dance to it. Even my husband could.
The closest we ever got meeting one was on a Sunday. I know what you’re thinking, no, we didn’t live in a town torn in two by chuch-folk and non church-folk. I think there might have been a worship street somewhere in the town, there must’ve been somewhere, but I can’t remember all the details. All I know is that if there was one at all, it had to be a relic, a shadow house at most. It was not a popular destination.
The one we met was just walking down the street. It was mid-afternoon and not too many people were around. Maybe three or so people that I could see, besides my husband and I, of course. The curtsey was bobbing slightly as it came towards us, bouncing its head back and forth on its neck, and taking slow, careful steps. More than anything it looked lost. Like it had wandered into a still life from the wrong century, something like that. I don’t know, it’s not like I could get into its head, this is just my best guess.
It came awfully close to us, within an arm’s length or two, and from that distance I could see the lines in it’s irises, the creases in its skin where the feathers stuck in. There was a faint, sweet odor orbiting around the creature. Kind of like one of those tropical candies they sell.
It cocked its head at me and then my husband. Not in a dangerous way I didn’t think, but by the way my husband vice-gripped me next to him you would’ve thought the creature had pointed a gun to my head. Maybe he thought he was trying to protect me, but it was a pose he couldn’t pull off too convincingly. He was holding onto me grotesquely, desperately, left arm wrapped around my chest, right arm wrapped around my stomach. Maybe it was the best he could do. I still loved him. The curtsey obviously thought it was somewhat humorous, emitting a chirping giggle that was unmistakable, even across species, as bemusement.
I didn’t know what to do, so I said, “hello!”, and waved. I kid you not, I actually waved, like it would understand the gesture. To my surprise the creature waved back, mimicking me almost perfectly, and we stood there for a while, maybe thirty seconds or so, a few feet away from each other waving back and forth in symmetry.
“Hello,” I finally said again.
“Ka-roo ka-roo!!” the curtsey replied this time. It’s voice had a slight trill, each syllable was sung a little Not in a weird way, it was pleasant, friendly. My husbands arms untightened around me.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I said. I paused for a few seconds between each word, like I was talking to a child, or a foreigner. I didn’t realize I was doing this at the time though. I did notice I was still waving however, so I started to slow down my arm and within a few seconds it was resting at my side again. At almost exactly the same time the curtsey copied my motion.
“Roo-roo roo-koo!” The creature started hopping a little, like it was excited. Its eyes were glimmering and big inside its bobbing head.
I’m not going to lie, I wanted to touch it. Pet it. I don’t know. Maybe it’s for the best I didn’t, but I wanted to. I felt like something had brought us together. From up close the curtsey looked so much more human than it had before, its forehead had wrinkles, it had small ape like ears no bird possibly could, it had eyebrows made of light hair. I hadn’t noticed any of these details until I met it there.
I remembered I had an orange in my coat pocket, so I reached in and grabbed it. I held it out to the curtsey, unsure if it would grab it off my hand with its mouth or tiny hands or if it would even be interested in all.
“Here, take this!” I said enthusiastically. I didn’t know what to say.
The curtsey flapped its wings a few times, something that looked sort of like a smile curled up its beak. My husband took a step forward for once and stepped out from behind me. He had a smile on his face too. The creature started to peel the orange as it sat on my hand. Using the tip of its beak, it ripped strip after strip off the orange’s skin and dropped then on the ground. It worked fast and kept saying “kooo kooo ka-rooo” as it peeled. Within half a minute or so it was done. Then it did something that surprise me.
Instead of taking a bite, the curtsey reached its wing over and using the fingers sticking out sliced the orange into quarters. It took the first quarter and then threw it high in the air, ten or twenty feet and then placed itself perfectly to catch it in its mouth. It giggled and hopped in delight as it chewed the bit. The second quarter the curtsey threw even higher, forty or so feet, so high I could hardly see it, but it didn’t position itself quite properly, and the orange landed on the back of its beak and fell on the ground. The curtsey reached down and grabbed it and was still giggling.
When it had finished chewing, I offered the curtsey the last half of the orange I was holding, but it didn’t seem interested. It looked me right in the eyes and then pointed its head to the sky and then to my hand then to me again and again. It was easy to see what it wanted me to do. I tossed a quarter of the orange a few feet in the air, not nearly as high as the curtsey had, and arched my head back. The slice landed right on my nose, dripping juice into my nostrils. I was coughing and laughing so hard I almost fell on top of my husband. I was laughing out of embarrassment and because I didn’t know what to do. I could barely stand. I didn’t know what I found so funny.
Either way, the curtsey was flapping its wings again and trilling and hopping along with me, which just made it even more overwhelming. I gave my husband the last bit of the orange and told him to try, while I collected myself.
To his credit, my husband was a good sport when he wanted to be. He threw the orange a good distance in the air, shuffled his feet a bit while trying to gauge its trajectory and then caught the bit in his mouth. He was grinning as he held it between his teeth, and clearly proud of himself. The curtsey seemed impressed too, spinning in full circles in front of us.
And that’s pretty much what I can remember. I don’t recall how we left or what else we said. I can just remember best this creature pirouetting faster and faster, and my husband smiling and the smell of oranges in my nose.
From then on though, whenever I saw a curtsey on my way to work, or on my weekend walks, I would at least wave. There was something going on in their heads, I had to give that to them.
For the most part, I didn’t see a lot of the curtsies though. After their first few weeks in the town they’d found subtler places to hide, and I would spot one only ever so often. Life kept lingering on lightly and lazily enough, it was still summer after all. There were other parades pulling their way through the main streets. Not that we went every time, my husband and I, but we had our opportunities.
I was growing more and more outgoing at work too. I wasn’t the smartest employee,or the most suspenseful, but people treated me alright. I understood the popular mechanics of office behavior, I knew this meant everyone could tell I wasn’t a threat, which was exactly what I wanted. I kept filling spreadsheets and filing alphabetically, I tried to walk at the same speed as everyone else through the hallways.
I did my best to remain as unnoticeable as I could, imagining myself as a paper weight in people clothes. It’s not like I was planning anything, I didn’t have the energy for that, I was only hoping to fall into a routine of pleasantries. I wanted the whole experience to be something I didn’t have to think about. Autopilot for eight hours and then out.
Not that I didn’t have my favorite moments there. It’s amazing the things will confide in you when they’re missing the person they actually want to talk to. I stumbled into a few near secrets from my coworkers, things that weren’t too too crazy, but unusual nonetheless. Like the man with the horrible breath who told me about his Q-tip compulsion, every time he saw a box in a bathroom, no matter the situation, he had to use one. Or the man who ran over his own cat and tricked his neighbors into believing they had done it, just so they would buy him a new cat. He laughed as he told me that story.
And my absolute favorite, one woman, the only woman who noticed me as far as I could tell, she told me about the one time her kid pooped on her pants in the car before work and she didn’t have a pair to change into so she just wore the pants for hours until she could go home for lunch. She was breathing heavy as a freight train as she told the story, like someone had died in the middle of it. The things people will tell you! I couldn’t believe it.
I guess though, work was work. When these strangers weren’t opening up themselves beyond their control, they mostly just left me alone. I don’t know what I expected, we didn’t have much in common except for our ability to arrange numbers rapidly and that can only take you so far. The closest I had to a friend there was a man named Paul.
Paul was a larger man who lived all alone. He was middle aged, a bit older than me, and wore lots of fleece. Red fleece, blue fleece, big zippers too. Paul had been working there for a couple years and liked to eat pastries for lunch. He had a flimsy moustache, short, stubby, brown curls for hair and thick glasses. He wasn’t a looker by any means.
His voice was crooked as a road along the wall of a canyon. Squeaky and staccato and cracking in a lot of directions at once. It was pretty weird to hear, it didn’t sound healthy. I say all this only to tell you I liked him, but not a lot of people gave him a chance.
At first we bonded over our interest in small electronic equipment. Electronic readers, multipurpose scientific calculators, stuff like that. It wasn’t that exciting, a marathon of small talk, but over time I realized Paul was a lot more clever than he let on to most people. One time I asked him what he liked about a new phone he had purchased, and he told me, “It was made in Hungary. That’s where the first telephone exchange was invented. And the Rubik’s cube too.” If ever there was a reason to buy a phone. His wit was dry like that, we got along pretty well. We both liked puzzle games and oddities of history and classical music (Schubert especially). Paul had theories about the curtsies too. He didn’t believe they were aliens though, like some people did. He thought they’d evolved a long time ago but had become excellent at hiding, kind of like bigfoot or yetis.
When I asked him why they had finally come into plain sight, why after so long, they decided to show up here of all places, he said, “My guess is they aren’t stupid, they won’t stay here for long. Maybe there’s something here they absolutely need. It’s always risk versus reward, for all animals. They must’ve thought they could fit in here.” He shrugged as he told me this, as if things like happened in this town all the time.
So that was as good as it got there, I didn’t feel like I needed to stay any longer than I had to.
I was spending more and more time with my husband as the summer stumbled along. One day I went up to his office and saw him fast asleep and drooling on blueprints. I knew this couldn’t be the first time. Blueprints were all he believed in for a while. Buildings and buildings. I woke up him by putting my hand on his shoulder and whispering his name and he groggily shook his head a bit and looked up at me.
“What are you doing here?” he said. He didn’t seem surprised to see me, just tired.
“I told you I was coming this morning. For lunch. Don’t you remember?” I had told him. He wasn’t usually the forgetful sort, but to be fair I guess he had just woken up. His hair was frazzled all to one side.
What were you working on? What are the blueprints for?” My husband liked questions about work, it was like conversational quicksand.
My husbands yawned, and then blinked his eyes a few fast times. Then he had a smile on his face. “Well, we’re building a city of blankets. It’s a new kind of city, a way of getting people into the sentimentality of it all. Temporary of course. A winter thing, when people barely have any breath to lose anyways. Anyways.”
My husband wasn’t always planning these sort of things, but I’d seen enough of him to know they weren’t exactly uncommon. He almost never stopped tapping his fingers against his thighs. The company he worked for had a reputation for attempting the impossible and pulling it off. That’s one of the things I’d loved about him at first.
“There’s another thing too though. An aviary. A bird cage for the bird people. Here, let me show you,” he shuffled around the top few blueprints and pulled the plans out from underneath. It was shaped like some sort of see-through silo. Like a zoo exhibit, high quality, sort of the Space Needle of zoo exhibits, but a cage nonethless.
“If there was a point, I think you’re missing it. And please, could you not call them bird people,” I said. I kept my sigh sticky in my mouth. His eyelids were heavy and his posture was limp, he looked tired.
“Look closer, I think they’d like it,” he replied.
I stared as hard as I could, I went inch by inch all across the page. I wasn’t sure if it was going to take forever to see what he was trying to show me. I smiled and said, “I don’t think I see it.” Captivity was a challenge I hadn’t considered yet.
I met one secretly once. I’ve never told anyone before. It’s hard to think I’ll never get another chance again. This time I was just hanging on to my day, my favorite month was more than half over. I was crossing through a park on my way home.
There was a chirp and a trill or two. Then I watched one come down from a tree, step by step along the trunk, slowly. It seemed unsure, not scared. Myself, I was excited, like I said, I was having a bit of a rough day. My boss had bullied me off a project I was more than capable of handling. He was still bitter about the affair we never had. Or maybe my work really was as he said, “slipping, quite remarkably fast.” Either way, I was second-guessing a lot of things.
Anyways, there I was in the park watching this curstsy crawl down a tree and quite happy about it to be honest. We didn’t see a lot of them at ground level by then. The summer had reached it’s ceiling, in terms of heat and humidity, they spent most of their time up in the shade of the trees. This one coming towards me had a back of dirty green feathers and then a thin strip of red feathers running along its spine. It was slightly smaller than the one I’d met before too.
Finally, the curtsey reached the ground and turned towards me. Right away I could see a mess of wrinkles on its face, one after the other after the other, so much so that the face looked almost raisin like. Shriveled. This one was older, much older than any curtsey I could imagine. It ambled towards me, head bobbing ever so slightly. We were only a stone’s throw away but it was taking minutes. My excitement had turned to nervousness towards the creature. I’d thought of them as these majestic and mysterious creatures, like some sort of legends brought to life. This was the first time I’d been forced to confront their realness in any sense.
The curstsey’s body was covered in scars and splotchmarks. Big brown patches around the chest and trough-like pocks and craters along the neck. The ribcage looked sallow, sunken in. On its arms there were fresh scratches and patches of feathers missing, like it had been ripping them out of its own skin. And then of course, at last, that face, all that almost mummified flesh right in front of me. I gulped a little, I wasn’t easily frightened but everyone has their limits. My hands had been shaking a bit as it walked over to me, by the time we were in breathing distance, they were nearly uncontrollable.
I almost ran away. I would’ve but my shoes felt stapled to the sidewalk. I couldn’t move, I was too much in shock. I wanted to run anywhere, home, to the edge of the town, to the next city over. The curtsey flexed its shoulders and grimaced as it walked. Blood dripped from the side of its left wing. It looked darker than mine. A blackish burgundy.
“Ka-roo. Kar-oo,” I tried to say. My lips and throat had dried out, like the heat had stuffed them shut. I could barely gasp out a “karuuuhhhh.”
The curtsey looked me in the face. It was snapping its “beak” open and closed. The wrinkles under its eyes looked so deep you could drop a coin in them. I know that’s an old saying, still, it’s the best way I can explain it. The curtsey shook its head back and forth, just a fraction of an inch each way. It seemed more interested than angry.
“Ooo-ooo-ka-roo,” the curtsey trilled out after a moment or two. There was an audible sigh split into each of the pitches, a long exhale behind every syllable. The curtsey’s eyebrows were raised about as far as I imagined they could go, trapped on all that parched skin like that.
It looked at me expectantly, shuffled both its wings slightly, then looked down on the shadows our bodies cast on the ground. I noticed they were overlapping quite a lot. We were standing very close to each other. I could see the hunger in the curtsey’s features, the outline of its bones imposed a visible architecture to the surface of its skin.
The curtsey looked back up at me and said, “ooo-ooo-ka-roo” again, this time with even lower tones. My body shook, I balled my hands instinctively.
I started to slowly back away, somehow I had gained control of my legs again. The curtsey kept walking towards me. I could see the nightmare my husband saw in them then. The way their faces were close enough to humans that they forced you to imagine yourself in their place. Snared and stuck between species, or something new entirely, but out of place either way, and desperate. Seeing one like that, dying from a destiny it never had a chance to avoid, it was a coarse reminder of what happens when the walls finally cave in on you.
The curtsey didn’t let me get away easily. It was slow and unsteady in its steps but it kept up with me for half the park, moaning and bobbing in front of me like some sort of lonely old man in a monster costume. “Ooo-ooo-ka-roo,” it kept whining. Over and over and over, with long, exasperated, wheezing breaths.
It was terrifying to come face to face with something that didn’t have any reason to hide its sighs. I took bigger and bigger steps backwards. After I’d put more than a house lengths of distance between us I finally ran. I turned my head just once to see the curtsey standing there. Streaks of blood were stained on its knees and feet, it’s head was tilted upwards at a forty-five degree angle. If there was ever going to be a stage set in the sky it would’ve been then.
A flock full of curtsies would’ve come out from behind the clouds and carried this one away, take it back to where they came from, where they belonged, where it could decay in peace. This curtsey wouldn’t have to chase after strangers for food, it wouldn’t have to stand there bleeding with no one to take care of it.
But, the sky stayed as simple and unmoving as ever, there was no theater of miracles trapped behind its blank blue curtain. There was just the curtain and only the curtain. Knowing that terrified me too.
I was still somewhat scared and recovering by the time the season had neared its end. A month or so had passed and I’d just got home from the office again. I had to stay late unlayering equations until I found the easiest way to afford investments. It was unrewarding work, something that should have been automatic, but took me too long. Maybe out of fatigue, maybe out of disinterest, I couldn’t tell which. The walk home had been cold and boring, the summer weather was all but ready to spread itself over some continent to the south instead.
I found my husband a shrugging lump in our bed, his eyes were like circles of spilled milk centered in his head. His jaw was fat and slack, but he was still handsome for a has-been in training. I did love him. I was flattening ahead of my body by a few years too, sometimes more, depending on the amount of daylight in the room. So, alright, we had more in common than I tend to let on.
There was a TV in our bedroom and my husband was watching one of the two channels we got. Someone on the local news was training raccoons for relay races, the station showed clips of the little critters passing batons between their skinny fingers. A man with a dumb, gummy mouth followed the animals around the course, offering all too-real encouragement. My eyes rolled in my head just a bit, I couldn’t help it.
“That’s some fucked up shit,” my husband muttered. I had to agree with him. We’d only just got there and it was already impossible to tell what this town was coming to, quirk by quirk, it seemed determined to tear me apart. What it had to be doing to my husband must’ve been even worse. I took a deep breath and took my place beside him in bed. I put my hand on his thigh and calmed his tapping hand. He put his thumb and pinky around mine and turned off the light with his other hand.
A short time later, my husband was falling asleep when I heard him whisper, “I want to move some place where parking lots have the same rights as people. Where buildings get to vote.”
Maybe the summer had burnt the structure out from under my skin, because by then I felt as fragile as he ever could. So soon, two weeks later or three weeks later, we moved.
3 thoughts on “the curtsies”
found a story i wrote 12 years ago
I really like this, but what do I know? It’s really my type of thing, but too long for my attention span. I am looking for somebody who isn’t afraid of comments. There isn’t anybody to talk to out here in the Mojave Desert, certainly nobody who will listen to my bullshit.
Excellent story, I enjoyed it so much! It was bizarre, entertaining, and perhaps because I’m a horror fan, a little unsettling in a perfectly vague way.