Author Byron Cover is a highly-regarded science fiction and television animation writer whose work includes scripts for Defenders of the Earth, The Real Ghostbusters, Bionic Six, The Transformers and Phantom 2040 and the novels Autumn Angels and An East Wind Coming.
Arthur Byron Cover
Harlan Ellison® & A.A. Attanasio
Strange Particle Press
Digital Parchment Services
Copyright©1975, 2005 by Arthur Byron Cover
The Crawling Bird Copyright©1975 by Ron Cobb
It was early morning; orange sunlight broke through yellow clouds, and the jungle, forgotten by all but two godlike men, came to life again. The jungle: red trees, black apes, golden singing snakes wrapped around weak, crooked limbs. The jungle: on a planet ﬁve thousand square kilometers large, with a core so dense its life and atmosphere could not ﬂy off into space. Mere man would have called it a miracle, but it was much less than that. It was a toy; it had cost a lone godlike man ﬁve hours’ labor.
The demon sat in the air. He allowed the wind currents to take him anywhere. He looked down, angry that the object of his search had eluded him for several
minutes. The demon was ﬁve meters tall; he had four nostrils and he did not have a nose; instead of a mouth he had a beak. He reached down with a thin green arm and fondled the huge penis hanging below his folded legs. He had four white nipples, yellow eyes, and long red ﬁngernails that looked as if they would break should he scrape something; but they never did. He did not have joints in his fingers. His toes were three orange birdlike claws. (Yet his appearance was not repulsive; it was fascinating. Godlike men could not help but stare as he floated past them, and as he noticed them staring at him, silently acknowledging his daring imagination, he felt a warm glow of pride and conﬁdence which convinced him that it was his duty to shape the destiny of others.)
The lawyer materialized beside the demon. He tipped his black derby at his friend. He was a meter and a half tall; he carried a sword-cane; he wore a red vest, a rufﬂed white shirt, and a black suit with a plastic ﬂower in the lapel. He twirled his sword-cane and said in a nasal voice, “I found one. I believe the others are underground, trying to make a new life for themselves.”
“You mean they’re underground so they won’t have to look at the sky.” The demon rubbed his hands.
“Yes, that’s what I mean. You know and I know it won’t make much difference, but they don’t know it yet.”
“Now that’s funny,” said the demon. “It just breaks me up. I can see them now, looking at the ceilings in the caverns and wondering, as they wondered out here, how they can get up. Will they think they’re crippled bats? Will they think their purpose is to hang upside down?”
“There are bats in the caves. They’ll look at themselves and they’ll see they’re different from bats.”
“Perhaps the more intelligent will,” said the demon, turning his head one hundred and eighty degrees to look at the cliffs behind him. “You must remember that most of them are, by our admittedly high standards, retarded.”
The dapper young lawyer created a lit cigarette and puffed at it. “Perhaps, friend demon, perhaps. I don’t know.” He paused, a sudden smile coming to his face. “Did you know there are pigs here?”
“Big fat ones, with long pink quills instead of hair, but pigs nevertheless. They have orange eyes and snouts so large and so heavy they can’t lift them from the mud. I killed four of them and watched the others try to run away.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“That I killed four?”
“No. That they ﬁnd it difﬁcult to run with such huge snouts. If you had not killed any, I would have been disappointed in you.” He started to say something else, but a hasty gesture from the lawyer interrupted him.
“I don’t want to hear another joke about my hating pigs and what my birthright has to do with it.” The lawyer grimaced. Normally his handsome features, his high cheekbones, his wide, smiling mouth, his blue eyes, and his short black hair made him appear to be twenty-ﬁve years old; his skin was smooth and pale; his lips were thin and very red. But when he grimaced he looked as if he were twenty years older.
“All right, but that makes me disappointed in you.”
“Which doesn’t make it right. You should be tough-skinned by now. I don’t complain when people joke about my penis.”
“They joke from envy, not from distrust and dislike.”
“Some of them distrust and dislike me.”
“They envy you, too,” said the lawyer. “Let’s ﬁnd our bird.”
A crawling bird rested at the precipice. His tiny, darting eyes surveyed the treetops below. He whimpered; something inside him wished he could ﬂy to the singular tree that had grown twice as tall as the rest, almost parallel to the edge of the precipice.
The godlike man who had built the jungle eons ago had given him the instinct to ﬂy; he did not understand what ﬂying was, nor did he understand why he felt empty and useless; he only knew he wanted to spend hours looking at the yellow clouds and wishing he could be close to them, feeling their mist on his wings, and looking at the treetops, seeing them from above. His plumage, save for his red wings, was deep blue; his brittle beak and claws were yellow. The only hunger he felt was to ﬂy; he desired few insects and worms. He could neither hop nor walk; his legs hung uselessly behind him. His wings were equipped with primitive appendages used to grasp rocks and stumps, and to drag him in the direction he wished to go. Because the ground he usually crawled over was covered with sharp pebbles and thorns, his belly was matted with mangled feathers, blood, and broken scabs.
For the ﬁrst time in his life the crawling bird was alone in his misery. The collective intelligence of his kind had discovered a possible cure for their suffering, and the crawling birds had left the surface for the caves. He had once had a mate, and the closest they had ever known of peace was their mutual consolation. They had sung to each other, trying to forget the incomprehensible desire which haunted and pained them. Now he had no one to sing to but himself; and he did not know if he would receive any comfort from that.
Not knowing what else to do, he sang. The golden snakes in the forest below heard his hideous wailing, and they were angry because one crawling bird could sing louder than a hundred of their kind. The snakes fought back in the one way they could, by singing their songs of evil. The crawling bird heard their song underneath his and, shocked, he stopped singing. The snakes laughed at him; he could hear them even though he was far above them. Their laughter grew louder and louder as his silence lengthened. The bird had no desire to sing if the snakes were to be his only audience. He wondered what else there was for him to do. He had to do something to stop the gnawing inside him.
He crawled down the path leading to the jungle. He whimpered, no longer able to ignore the pain caused by the pebbles and thorns. He halted, realizing he had been crawling too fast. He felt fortunate that he could not lift himself and bend his neck to look at the wounds on his belly. He groped toward a sapling and pulled himself toward it; he would take his time now.
The crawling bird looked up, intending to gaze at a yellow cloud, and saw instead the demon hovering above him. He whimpered; something inside, something which did not quite communicate to him, was envious of this strange new creature. He reached toward the demon and whimpered again. He realized that no matter how hard he tried, he could never touch the demon.
He stared at the creature wrapped in black that was materializing beside the demon. He whimpered. He tried to understand their language, or anything about them, and could not.
“Do you think he suits our purposes?” asked the lawyer, ﬂicking away his cigarette. The cigarette landed beside the crawling bird, who backed away from it.
“Indeed I do. He’ll have to be cleaned up. And look at the trail of blood he’s left behind him. Oh well, that won’t take much effort.”
“Yes, yes. No question about it.”
And they took the crawling bird to Earth, home of the godlike men.
The crawling bird found himself in a silver-walled apartment adorned with paintings of scenes from Hell. Each painting had been signed with a pentacle by the demon. One depicted a lovely woman kneeling in front of the devil; the devil bent over to touch her breast; his erection touched her stomach; a troll knelt between her legs and drank torrents of blood. Another depicted trolls’ delight in scurrying over the devil’s throne; they ignored the ﬁres burning their heads. A third illustrated a minstrel singing to the devil’s mate, a medusa with tremendous breasts that sagged below her navel. Yet a fourth, the most puzzling of all to the crawling bird, was of a huge black bat crashing into a cavern wall and of trolls and witches laughing at it. The bird was ﬁlled with a disquiet he could not understand. Finally he could look at the paintings no longer. He crawled to a corner, delighted by the sensation of the furry rug on his belly. He noticed that for the ﬁrst time in his life his belly was cured, whole. He did not feel whole inside, but at least it was good to feel whole outside.
The bird wanted to study the two creatures who had brought him here. He wanted to understand them or their language, though he doubted he could. There was nothing to do but watch them and feel the gnawing inside.
The lawyer twirled his sword-cane; he stopped when the cane almost hit and shattered a glass statue of the demon sitting on an ebony pedestal. “This is a cheery place,” he said.
The demon snorted. “It’s better than the bright world outside. The only reason I have green bedspreads is to remind me of dead babies. I need some contrast in my life. Do you want something to drink?”
The lawyer sat in a Morris chair and rested his sword-cane on his lap. “Lemonade, if you please.”
The demon conjured a glass of lemonade into the lawyer’s hands and then sat in the air, folding his legs and making sure his penis was comfortably dangling below. He stared at the crawling bird cowering in the corner. He rubbed the tip of his beak, pricked his ﬁnger, and watched the black pus oozing from the cut; it welled up, he turned the ﬁnger over, the pus formed a tear and fell, making a spot on the rug.
“I wonder,” said the lawyer, sipping his lemonade.
“About this creature. I wonder just how much he understands. He appears to inspect everything, no doubt searching for a clue to the meaning of his existence.”
“Right now he’s inspecting the light ﬁxture,” said the demon. “In that respect he’s like a moth.”
After ﬁnishing his lemonade and causing the glass to disappear, the lawyer said, “That doesn’t answer my question.”
“I didn’t know it was a question.”
“Well, to answer your speculation,” said the demon, “I say he probably understands very little. And he’ll understand even less when we’re ﬁnished with him.” The demon paused. “Something else to drink?”
The lawyer burped, belatedly covering his mouth with his ﬁngertips. “No, thank you.”
“To whom shall we show him ﬁrst? On what segment of godlike humanity will he have the most effect?”
“Eternal children, if they weren’t artiﬁcial, immature brats.”
“Women, if they weren’t quickly given to pity.”
The lawyer drummed his ﬁngers on his sword-cane. “We do have a problem. And our problem is that we have a probable solution and no way to use it.”
“Something like that,” said the demon.
“We need help,” said the lawyer, pressing a button and looking at the silver tip of his sword. “We need help desperately.”
“We’ve reached a moment of indecision. Very bad for godlike men with hobbies such as ours.”
The lawyer pressed another button and the blade withdrew into the cane. He opened his mouth and stared at the demon. His blue eyes were wide and full of fear. “What about the fat man?”
The demon drew back in shock. “The fat man?”
“Can you name a better ally, one more respected by the dull, unthinking masses? Can you name someone else who is more a manlike god than a godlike man? A more gifted master of intrigue? A more imposing ﬁgure? Think of how much help he could give us! Why, even his tactful approval would set forces in motion which ... ” The lawyer’s voice trailed off; he was deep in dreams of ambition.
The demon scraped the dried pus from his ﬁnger with his beak. “But there will be nothing in it for him. There’s certainly nothing in it for us.”
“Only satisfaction and hope if we succeed. The fat man needs no hope, but he loves to be satisﬁed.”
“I don’t know if he will want to work with us,” said the demon, causing his ﬁnger to heal. “I have my doubts. He cares nothing for my beloved appearance of evil and sorcery; he cares nothing for my lifestyle.” He caused the spot on the rug to vanish.
“He has a grudging respect for you.”
“But he admires you, friend lawyer, as he showed when he bailed you out of that despicable affair with Kitty last year. If we get to him, you must do the talking.”
“He cares for my schemes, but he cares nothing for my talking,” said the lawyer.
“That’s true. Your voice does grate on the nerves. If your voice became more piercing, one could crucify oneself on it.”
The lawyer ﬂushed. He lifted himself four inches from the Morris chair and pointed a thin ﬁnger at the demon. Before he could reply there was a knock on the door. Immediately forgetting his anger, the lawyer said, “That sounds like a fateful knock. Do you want me to answer it?”
“It would be nice.”
The lawyer opened the door and the fat man entered, taking off his large white Borsalino and tossing it on the golden hat tree shaped like the ancient demon Behemoth, an elephant who walked on two legs, who had a tremendous round stomach and hands with six claws. The Borsalino landed on one tusk and spun about; on the other tusk was the lawyer’s derby.
“The fat man!” exclaimed the lawyer.
“The fat man!” exclaimed the demon.
The crawling bird was frightened by the arrival of this new, imposing ﬁgure. Although he had understood nothing the demon and the lawyer had said, something inside had hinted that he was the pawn in a childlike game. He sensed that the fat man had suddenly endowed the game with a sinister aspect. He had hoped to somehow comprehend the events swallowing him; he now knew he never could. He pushed himself tighter into the corner and hoped the fat man would ignore him. He shivered, wanting to whimper or sing. The gnawing inside became worse, much worse, and the bird wished he could look again at an orange sun and yellow clouds.
The fat man smiled, showing four gold teeth and a tongue wriggling like the tail of a snake. “You are surprised to see me? You should not be. My gunsel is everywhere and he informed me that you have a proposition to make.”
The fat man patted his great bulk, admired the lawyer’s sword-cane, and took off his white gloves. He was dressed completely in white except for his black tie and grosgrain leather spats. He was balding and had deep green eyes that suggested he had no compassion anywhere in his heart. His eyes were not deceptive. He looked down at the lawyer. “I realize that Morris chairs are your favorites, but they are mine also. If it will not offend you — ?”
“Of course not,” said the lawyer. “Sit down.”
The fat man did, crossing his thick legs at the ankles and pulling his trouser cuffs over his white socks. “I have a grudging respect for you, demon. I always have a grudging respect for someone whose schemes are not concerned with fame and/or glory. Unlike you, I believe that the best way for a godlike man to serve the devil is to ignore him. That is all he deserves — and you keep your immortal soul in the bargain. Speaking of bargains, what of this proposition?”
The lawyer opened his mouth and the demon opened his beak at the same time, but before either could speak, the fat man silenced them with a gesture. “One at a time, please. I deplore eagerness.” He noticed for the ﬁrst time the crawling bird in the corner. He smiled and pointed.
“May I suspect that your proposition has to do with this rather emotional creature?”
“You may do more than suspect, friend fat man,” said the demon. “You see, we don’t have exactly a proposition, but we’re asking for advice. We want the masses to see him and learn from him.”
The fat man steepled his sausage ﬁngers. “Learn what?”
“Depression,” said the lawyer.
“Depression. There has been none of that since the old days. Disappointment, dissatisfaction, yes, but no genuine depression. Everybody is happy; which is as it should be. You two are not living in the past, are you?”
“I disagree with your views,” said the demon. “Without depression, what good is happiness? These days happiness is no longer a goal, but merely another state of being. As for myself, I ﬁnd no joy in seeing other people happy. The race of godlike man has become lazy. The only ambition is for fame and glory. There is no striving for unobtainable goals. There are no adventures. And may I remind you that our very identities come from the past? Why shouldn’t they come from our own culture, our own present? And what is our future?”
The fat man rubbed one of his chins. “I do not care for your goals. I, for one, am completely satisﬁed with things as they are.”
“And for eons,” said the lawyer, “you have been concerned with petty intrigues. Why, a man with your skills in the old days would have fought and schemed for a planet, for a solar system, for more! Your skills are wasted on this dreamless planet. With the return of depression will come the return of dreams, of hopes for better times. All godlike men will be searching for something, and then your skills will not be wasted. You will be at the top of a young and worthwhile race.”
“You would appreciate my wife,” said the fat man. “She has hinted as much to me, but she is very dull and stupid. You two are bright and philosophical; you express things directly. I like directness; I like the way you two come right to the point. It is as if you are running out of time.”
“I assure you,” said the demon, “we have all the time in the world.”
“Don’t we all?” The fat man stood up with difﬁculty and pointed at the bird. “An unusual creature. I am the only one who could possibly be unaffected by its predicament. I think I can help you.”
“How?” asked the lawyer.
The fat man put on his gloves and retrieved his Borsalino. He admired an ivory lamp carved in the shape of a voluptuous mermaid. He walked to the door and turned around. “We shall hold a carnival, a rodeo, a fair. There has not been one for centuries. The crawling bird will be our main attraction.”
“And what is your price?” asked the demon.
“One hundred per cent of the fame and glory.” He closed the door gently behind him.
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