The Marvellous Travels of Captain Averell P. Saunders
Or, A Time among the Bird-People; Or, the Wonders to the West; Being Excerpts from His Travel Journals for the Edification and Wonderment of His Fellows. Being the Second Edition, with Updated Glossary Accounting for the Elapse of Ten Best-Selling Years.
I had been sailing with the Strigokocra for several days, exploring their peculiar vessel and observing their habits. They sail only at night, which serves several functions: first, their people have astonishing eyesight at night, and prefer to live when the sun will not hurt their eyes. Second, they must avoid the depradations of other ships they may happen to meet, and night sailing is their preferred method. The sails of their ships are a dark green colour that blends with the jungles on the shoreline or even the sea at night. Third, the Strigokocra navigate with incredible skill by the stars—I believe our own astronomers could learn much from them. This is the first voyage for their young navigator, Ko, a favourite companion of mine since he is always pleased to answer my questions. He was the one to explain their policy of lowering sails and vacating the deck whenever another ship passed by: again, to draw as little attention as possible. This I quite understand, since pirates and merchants alike can find that glorious plumage too tempting to resist violent theft.
At all other times, however, these are gentle and convivial people, with a peculiar brand of humour. For example, I have never quite understood the constant jokes about berries which seem to replace the usual sailors’ bawdy quips. The men seem to particularly target young Ko for their hilarity, so I like to spend as much time with him on deck as I can, watching him identify star patterns. He has explained to me that the Strigokocra gods are forces of the natural world. They do not live among the living, but interact only with their souls before and after death, controlling natural forces throughout the world. Our own Amonte and Ocoro are familiar to them as the great spirits of land (Roko) and water (Koru), but if they pray at all, it is most certainly to Kirikonapa, the western star. She points the way home for sailors and shines brightly over the western sea. When the Strigokocra die, their bodies are burned except for a few feathers, which are kept by close relatives and friends. They believe that Kirikonapa then gives their freed souls the gift of flight, as their ancestors once had, so they can fly to join her in the stars. Ko tells me that since his death, his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather has been the star Koruko, the “sea star,” which guides sailors who circumnavigate their native peninsula while fishing.
As I learned more about the beliefs of this gentle and wondrous people, I had one lingering source of confusion: a bowl-like feature in the fore-deck of the ship, facing the prow. As we approached the Rikiki peninsula, the Strigokocra homeland, the jungle by the shore thickened, and I could see a glorious bloom of red berries in the undergrowth. I began to notice sailors taking their turn in this strange depression on the ship deck, from which they would make a strange deep throbbing sound almost below my ability to discern. It took me some time to make the connection between the sound and the depression, but once I had I could no longer hold in my astonishment.
I approached Captain Strigo (a great honour, I understand, to share the name of his people—it was awarded to him in adulthood for his valour in freeing several captured Strigokocra from a malicious feather-harvester) with my confusion. He laughed at my naïveté and explained to me that it is their custom to indulge in excesses of mating behaviours whenever the red berries overtake the jungle, which may happen only once every two or three years. That is why a ship was to be found for my trip at all: it would seem that all Strigokocra abroad had received a warning that the berries were ripening and they were on their way home. The booming was an alert to the capital that a shipful of quite ready men were on the last leg of their return journey. What strange customs, but how joyful! The berry jokes make much more sense in retrospect. I gather young Ko is the object of so many of these jokes because he has never before, er, met a lady friend during a berry season. Let me tell you, when I return to my lady wife after a journey of several years I am quite ready for a return to the . . . comforts of life on land, let alone for these gaps in intimacy to be the case at all times!
. . .
As we approached the harbour, Captain Strigo informed me that the revels and celebrations in the capital would be an unusual sight, for they occur only at these berry-bloom times. During this season, Strigokocra abroad and throughout the nation pour into the capital for a month of festivals and revelry. In the usual course of things, the Strigokocra are quiet and hearthbound, preferring their small villages and familiar faces to the cosmopolitanism of cities elsewhere in our imperial world. That is why their democratic ruling body meets only during berry season—they have inherited the ancient system of full enfranchisement, with all adults participating in momentous votes—so in-between, they are ruled by an elected Regent. The current Regent, Keaki the Wise, will host games, parties, feasts, and so on, all while leading the deliberations of the full government for the first time in years! Ko tells me she is quite a magnificent woman—before this I had not thought Strigokocra could blush—so I look forward to meeting her. These festivals are a frenzied time, but it sounds like a most sensible system for a people who are, after all, not interested in high society in usual times.
. . .
I have seen the capital, and it is a sight I could not have imagined myself had I had the oratorical gifts of the ancient poets. It is called Koru-stri, the “water city,” for it is the only large Strigokocra settlement built by the salt-water, and is as such the site of all ship-building and trade. Although the Strigokocra wings are vestigial, they have incredible skill in scaling heights and can glide, to some degree, as they descend. Their city is carved in the most enormous trees I have ever seen, and in the festivities these trunks swarm with the brilliant lustre, the glimmering sheen, no, the vibrant, mirage-like wonder of their extraordinary plumage a match for the glitter of the night sea below. No cloak can capture this sight, dear reader, and I urge all who covet this beauty to buy a painting or a local craft rather than seize the glory of this sight from our children in perpetuity. Captain Strigo informs me that even in his lifetime he can remember celebrations much grander and larger, for their numbers have been sadly depleted by the rapaciousness of pirates and unscrupulous traders.
But these are melancholy thoughts, and Koru-stri was not at all a melancholy place as we approached. Captain Strigo went to groom himself for his meeting with the Regent, so young Ko took his place by the rail beside me, his navigation duties successfully completed for this, his first voyage. I asked if it was important to complete such a task before participating in the berry season, but he says no, he was simply too young during the last one. He seems very eager, but also nervous, and has taken perhaps more than his fair share of turns in the bowl of the ship calling to the shore, but the other sailors are good-natured about his youthful exuberance. We came in to dock a few hours before dawn, and Captain Strigo asked if I and my young friend might like to come along to his meeting with the Regent. I readily agreed, and of course Ko would not refuse such an honour!
I expected pomp, but perhaps I should not have, from what I learned from the sailors. One sailor, Tiko, was from the nearest the Strigokocra have to an aristocracy, a line which had produced many regents, but he defied the tradition of politics to pursue a life at sea instead. He dressed like any of the other sailors and groomed his feathers about as little as his brethren while we were at sea, so that he was quite salt-incrusted by the end. I had thought he was perhaps a renegade or outlier, but it would seem that in general these people do not put much store by ceremony and displays of wealth. Their great wealth is their plumage, and this they do groom for special occasions. Indeed, when we at last met with the Regent at the centre of the bustling clearing at the base of the great trees, I immediately saw what Ko so valued in her: her feathers had a very rare blue streak in them that made them even more iridescent and shimmering, with a deep lustre like none I have seen before or since. Even the stalwart Captain seemed struck, and I am sure he was glad he had taken the time to clean the salt off his own quite commendable crown before disembarking!
Keaki the Wise greeted us with kindness and hospitality, offering us some of the red berries, which are called Araki-kor (“Araki’s gift”) to eat in greeting. This is traditional for those returning from a journey during a berry season, to eat of the fruit as their first food at home. I saw her brush a forefeather over the Captain’s wrist as she served him, so I would not be surprised if the dawn finds them bedded down together in some cozy nest . . . forgive a weary man his speculation, but I was amused and overjoyed to see my friend the Captain so struck, and by such a worthy woman.
Some of the Strigokocra had gathered round and I could hear their astonishment at my baldness: I am sure I seemed quite deformed to those of them who lived inland and had never seen a human in their lifetimes. Keaki the Wise introduced me to those gathered nearby and I am sure the news will spread even before the dawn sees everyone settled. I presented the Regent with a gift from my homeland, a belt of golden links, and she seemed quite pleased. She immediately asked the Captain to secure it around her waist—flirtation indeed! The Captain also brought young Ko to the Regent’s attention, and she commended him for his successful voyage and declared he showed promise for a long career in navigation.
As I expected, the Regent made subtle and polite excuses to send Ko and I away while she “spoke” with the Captain, so Ko took me to a nest he shares with his sibling, an older and calmer young woman named Kea. Apparently when young she had had an interest in the sea as well, but the Strigokocra do not allow their women to leave as sailors. As far as I know, no female Strigokocra has left the peninsula since the flood, and before that only if the legends about female adventurers are to be believed. Kea has instead become a shipbuilder, and Ko proudly tells me she is well on her way to becoming a master builder. She has also informed Ko that he took too long coming home, and the friend she had hoped to introduce him to has already found a partner for the season. Poor Ko! I can see now he was relying on his sister to provide an introduction for his first season. Having spent the first years of his adulthood at sea, he can hardly have formed friendships or connections that might give him a chance on his own. She only laughed and promised to ask around for another unconnected female.
By this time I was exhausted, and Ko and Kea offered me a cozy, downy cubby in the wall of their nest. I was familiar with these constructions from the ship. Reader, I tell you, there is no sleep so deep and sound as the one you will find when you are cradled in a circle of woven boughs lined with soft leaves and the downy tufts of Taku flowers. I imagine this is as close as one can come to returning to the womb—or the egg, as it were.
. . .
We are three weeks into the festival and although I have seen a debate in the Parliament, have eaten wondrous meals of fish and spices and fruits, have bathed in a most magnificent waterfall with creatures whose very bodies are colourful artworks of feathers, have swum by the light of the moon next to the giant Torokoki squid, have learned of the four great families and met new friends of every walk of life—all this I have seen and done, but I have not seen Ko find a woman. The poor boy is nigh despairing. I can only imagine the taunting he will receive on his next voyage if he does not manage to share at least a few days with a lissome young Strigokocra. I gather that first matings rarely produce young, but it is a mark of adulthood to have participated in the season, and poor Ko arrived too late, and has too little stature, to have yet found a partner.
He tells me that his parents were a rare couple who came together for multiple mating seasons—about two or three in all, so that Ko and Kea are full siblings. Siblings and half-siblings will often share a nest because families are formed by the existence of children, even if the parents choose not to mate together again. The bonds between siblings are generally stronger than those between parents and children, which seems most unusual to me but makes perfect sense if you live in a unit with your siblings, I suppose. Ko and Kea’s parents were the exception of course, but Kea tells me they left a few months ago for a mapping mission on the western coast. To think, only a few generations ago my own people had forgotten that there was land that way at all! Now the best maps we have come from the Strigokocra, though this is an open secret, and it would seem Ko and Kea’s parents are renowned mapmakers. Perhaps that is where they both derived their love of the sea! Kea has been quite lonely, since her first mating last berry season did not produce a child, but she has found a likely young shipbuilder named Rimu, and she has spent most of her time these weeks off with him. I find him cocky, personally, but to each her own, and perhaps this time she will begin to grow her own nest, as it were.
Back to Ko’s plight: he was showing me how his people climb the trunks of their great trees. He was going quite slowly, so that I could see the motion of his claws and the way he used his wings for stability, so when a shrieking young child tore past at full speed he was jostled. As if in slow-motion I saw him begin to fall—though of course he would be able to straighten himself out, if not gracefully—with his wings, when suddenly a felt a rush of air past my shoulder and a young Strigokocra woman arrived at the peculiar hopping run of their kind. Reader, I tell you she caught him from the air! I later learned that her name is Aki; she is an athlete from their northern island, renowned for her speed and her strength. They hold races through the treetops in which the competitors use their wings and toes to propel themselves from branch to branch at frenzied speeds, and I could see how her powerful legs and well-developed wings might belong to a champion of the sport.
Poor Ko could only gaze up at her in embarrassment and wonder. He confided to me later that he found Aki’s forest-green plumage and extravagant wingspan quite beyond beautiful. I tell you, he will make me blush with his mooning about. At dawn yesterday he disappeared and I was left alone in the nest for the first time since we arrived here. He came back at dusk starry-eyed and with a self-satisfied lift of the beak. He could not stop gushing about Aki, so that I had to walk out to the pool of the Torokoki to get any peace in which to write. Ah, young love!
Strigokocra = “city-living-birds”
The Rikiki Peninsula
Koru-stri (“water-city”), the capital
Keaki the Wise—Regent for fifteen years ending five years ago.
Captain Strigo—national hero and ship captain, freer of captured Strigokocra
Tiko the Far-Sighted—new Regent, as of five years ago. The first Regent ever to have travelled the world, making him ideally suited to these changing times. I had the honour of sailing with him on several voyages
Ko—now an experienced navigator
Kea—master ship-builder, with her own workshop
Aru and Kiti—father and mother of Ko and Kea, mapmakers and explorers
FOUR GREAT FAMILIES / TRIBES
Strigokocra do not marry, although they sing legends and songs of great loves who chose to stay together for their lifetimes instead of finding a new partner at each berry season. However, if a couple conceives of a child (and this by no means happens every time), they become part of each other’s family-group. Over time, these groups have coalesced into four major families who are settled in different regions of the Rikiki peninsula:
The Riki—live in the lands surrounding the capital. Because the kings of old came from their family, they give their name to the peninsula. They emphasize trade, shipbuilding, technology, politics, and culture.
The Oro—live in the middle lands. They produce many diplomats and politicians, but also farmers and craftspeople.
The Tiklo—live in the southern lands. They are inward-looking and do not participate much in international trade or politics. By Strigokocra standards, these are jungle yokels, but they are important because they are always the first to witness the Araki-kor berry bloom in the deep jungle, and they spread the word that the berry season is coming.
The Korunu—live on the northern island. They produce many sailors and fishermen, but also tend to take the lead in spiritual matters.
GREAT SPIRITS OF THE STRIGOKOCRA
Roko—land (male). He usually sleeps. He can only be awakened by Araki when she is in an amorous mood, and their mating heralds a berry season.
Araki—love/sex/cycles/time (female). She is the spirit of fertility for both the Strigokocra and the land. Without her, no flower would bloom or tree would bear fruit. She likes to tease the other spirits, and their reactions often call new things into being.
Koru—water (male). He walks on the ocean floor. When he gets upset, he waves his wings about his head, causing storms at sea. One day, Araki was throwing flowers into the sea, disturbing the patterns of light as they fell across Koru’s face. To clear the debris, he gave the flowers the power of movement, and they became the different types of fish in the ocean.
Anoki—jungle (male). Son of Araki and Roko. He prowls the deep jungle, but in his gentleness is the protector of travellers over land.
Go—life/life force (without gender). Every living thing has a piece of Go within them, and Go is the sum of all living things.
Itiku—wind (female). She is the patron of messages, writing, communication, and music. She was lonely because she could not understand the speech of birds, so she gave the Strigokocra the gift of words so that she could understand them as she flew by. It is customary to shout or sing into large gusts of wind to appease her and keep her company.
Kirikonapa—the western star (female). She shines the way home for sailors who have travelled east. When Strigokocra die, their bodies are burned and she gives their souls the gift of flight so they can join the stars.
Koruko—the sea star (male). Ancestor of Ko. He guides sailors and fishermen around the Rikiki peninsula.
FLORA and FAUNA
Taku flowers—blown dandelion-like flowers, but as large as a man’s head. These are used to weave clothing and to line nests.
Araki-kor (“Araki’s gift”)—the red berries which bloom once every few years and herald a mating season.
Torokoki—a giant squid-like creature that lives in freshwater pools and ponds. Not dangerous to Strigokocra, but I had to wear a dark suit with some feathers sown on, lest he mistake my bare legs for the large fish he prefers to eat!
Tirikiri—lovely, rainbow-hued fish, and a staple of the Strigokocra diet, especially at sea!