Sunday, June 1, 2014

      "You could have knocked me over with a feather!" exclaims Diego, before bursting into a hearty laugh. It's a terrible joke, considering the circumstances, but with Diego, you let it slide. It wouldn't matter if you didn't - he laughs so loudly at his own humor he hardly notices if anyone else is joining him.

     I had asked Diego how he'd felt when he came home to find his house crushed by - wouldn't you guess - the feathers of the legendary Quetzalcoatl. Though his humor his sub par, his story is legendary among the local people. He is the man who lives with the snakes.

     For fifty three years Diego walked the shiftless path of a drifter, living on the fringe, a harried existence between pride and poverty. He built a shambled house deep in the woods and called it his kingdom. He lived off the land when he could, and slunk to the village to beg and barter when he couldn't. He was proud but poor, free but chained, so assured of his superiority he would answer to no one. One day Diego barred the doors of his cardboard castle and ambled to the village for another round of scrounging. After a luckless day, he returned to find his house in ruins - a single massive feather lay on top of the rubble. Diego fumed. His kingdom was crushed by a silly lilting, feather. In a brazen fury, Diego took to the trees. He climbed, bare-handed up and up and up. Into the canopy, where no-one dared to go. He did not consider that the beast whose feathers could crush houses might be worth fearing. He was angry and would have his revenge.

      But something strange happened when he came face to face with the feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl. I should say two strange things happened. The first being that he was not immediately eaten. To shout at a beast a thousand times your size is not wise. But the stranger thing that happened was this: Diego did not fume. He did not stamp his feet. He did not claim his revenge. He stood transfixed. Transfixed by the light caught in the jewel-toned feathers. At the depth of the emerald eyes that stared back at him through the leaves. His anger withered and was replaced by awe.

      For four months the village saw neither hide nor hair of Diego - the discovery of his broken house seemed to confirm that the village deadbeat was dead. Crushed by the beasts he so brazenly mocked by building his house under the shadow of their canopy.

     But then Diego returned. Or someone returned: a man that looked very much like Diego, but had a heart very different. A man carrying a armful of the most beautiful feathers anyone had ever seen. He came into the village and laid them in the market square and sold them for a fair price. He took the money and bought good building supplies and thanked the merchants very much. Then he returned to the woods.

     Diego climbed back into the canopy and began to build a new home for himself, right amongst the creatures that had cost him his old one. He began to care for the serpents - tending to their eggs and preening them of their loose feathers. The feathers he sold to grateful craftsmen down below.  

      "I climbed into that canopy to rage about what was taken from me," says Diego, "but I didn't realize that I had already been given something better. The feather that crushed my house was a gift, the first of many. It brought me to the canopy to see a beauty much larger than myself. It gave me the idea of selling these feathers. Now I have a job - imagine that!"

Sunday, April 27, 2014

     A quiet cooing is all that hints that the miracles of St. Caladrius hospital are hard at work today. 

     The stonework of the church turned hospital is of the ornate Gothic kind - the kind intended to instil awe by sheer grandeur. But like a living thing, the years have humbled it. It's grand arches are feathered with ivy, their sharply carved features worn soft by rain and hard weather. It's limestone walls, once white and austere, are clothed now, grey and green, with lichen and moss that mark its many years of service. The lofty towers, once lording it over all, have been overhung by the very trees they once dwarfed. The grandeur is gone - but this new visage, quietly submissive to the powers of nature that have swirled around it, seems to suit it better. 

     But, as I said at first, it is the cooing that floats from the stone windows that tells of the work within.

     Winding through the light-dappled passages, one finds oneself in a large hall. This was once the chapel, with rows of pews for worshipers to fill. Now rows of beds await the sick. The church has become a refuge for those who are beyond the hope of other medicines. And it's all to do with the birds.

     Caladrius - a large bird, downy white. This is why the sick have gathered here. The birds, a flock of about 30 of them in all, are free to roam in the sick room. Some sit in the windows, taking in the sun, others roost on perches placed between the beds. But most are at their posts, sitting on the beds of the ailing, wings spread over them like blankets of snow. They are not trained to do this, it is their natural behavior. No one knows why the birds favor the sick, why they softly coo for the suffering or spread their wings over the feverish. But there are many speculations as to what they are doing.

     "If the birds look into a patient's eyes, it means they can be healed," a fellow visitor whispers excitedly as we tour the sick room, "if they look away, then there's no hope. When they spread their wings like that, they take the sickness into their own bodies. Then they fly to the sun, where the sickness is burned away."

     That is the story, as it stands. The birds are miraculous, and their appearance was equally so. Twelve years ago, during a terrible storm, the sisters of the church came out to find a flock of pure white birds on the lawn, grounded by the violent winds. They took them in, sheltering them from the continuing rain, expecting them to fly away when the skies cleared - but they never did. No one could identify their type, nor where they came from. Rumor spread that they were the legendary Caladrius, a bird rumored from medieval days to possess healing powers. The sick were brought to the church, first from the surrounding towns, then from around the country, now from around the world. The church was converted to a full-time hospital several years ago to handle to influx of the sick.

     When I get a moment alone with my guide, Sister Miranda - one of the original sisters who witnessed the birds coming - I ask her how the coming of the birds, and the change from church to hospital, has effected her.

     "It's the same work," she answers practically, "the only difference is where the hurt is. And don't think the birds do all the work. We do plenty. We've done all we can to prepare ourselves to serve the ones that come here."

    Her slightly snarky reply leads me to ask her what her take on the bird's supposedly miraculous abilities is. I am surprised by the confidence of her answer:

     "I absolutely believe that they have the power to heal. That they are miraculous. But perhaps not in the way people think. Do they take people's sickness by some supernatural power? Can they heal in that way? Probably not. But hope is one of the best medicines there is, and that they give in abundance. The legend is that these birds will not even look at a patient who's beyond recovery - but I've yet to meet a patient who the birds did not take to. 

     People are complicated, animals are simple. People may not believe what we tell them - we can tell them that there's hope, that things can get better - but they'll think that we're hiding the truth from them or just being nice. Too many of these people come here having been told there is no hope and they believed that. But animals don't lie. If the birds believe that these patients can get better, that's enough for them. They believe it too. That's a miracle, if you're asking me. As good as any."

     I cannot think of a better answer myself. Though it is my job to root out the truth behind every controversy, I am content to leave this one be. I see the faces of the sick here, awash with peace from the attentions of a simple bird. Whether their powers are supernatural in nature or not, I agree with sister Miranda: they're as good as any miracle I've seen.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Seahorses on Parade

   May I make a confession?

      I have not always wanted to be a researcher. No, I have not always delved the depths of the sea in search of mysteries and the depths of libraries in search of knowledge. When I was very young I had but one special wish:

     I wished to be a beauty queen and to ride a seahorse in a parade. 

     And today that wish came true.

     Now before you erudites turn the page in intellectual disgust, let me assure you, my flight of fancy was in the name of research - I have not forsaken my life's work for a tiara and a pony - it's simple kismet that the two spheres have finally collided.

     Nearly 25 years ago (has it really been that long?) my mother took me and my sisters to Manza Bay – it was a long trip from our home in Samoan waters, and I’m afraid we complained unrelentingly, but when we got there we were met with such a bevy of delights that our eyes could not grow wide enough to take them all in. swirls and stripes of pinks and oranges, coral splashes on whisping fins, deep blues with starry spots and every shade of green and yellow like waves of new kelp across the ocean floor: thousands of the world’s most beautiful hippocampi, and their equally glamorous riders, gathered for the annual Parade of Seahorses in the humble bay of Manza.

     From that moment I was transfixed. And last month, 25 years after that childhood fancy took root in my heart, having attained the less glamorous, but no less desired dream of becoming a research journalist, I got a call asking me to return as a special guest – to join in the parade and – yes - even to participate in the beauty contest as an honorary contestant. What could I do? I said yes!

    Originally conceived as a sort of show-and-tell for local seahorse breeders to brag about their newest stock, the event quickly drew gawkers from far and wide. And there's no question as to why. The Stellar Seahorse - an offshoot of the common workaday hippocampus - has been bred for thousands of years to a single purpose: Eye candy. Pinks and oranges, yellows and greens, seahorses of every size, shape, and color glitter in the light of the bay. They fill the air with gasps of joy and wonder as they flutter by on their shimmering, fairy-like fins.

     I had one of my own for the day – a frisky yellow seahorse flecked with coral-red spots. His name was Hibiscus and he, as well as a matching crimson gown and my very own seashell tiara, were gifts from the Pageant Coordinator, Mahiri Sarr.
     “Shameless bribes,” she joked when she showed them to me, “we can’t have a scathing article giving us bad press!”

     If they are bribes, I accept them - judge me if you must. Like many beauty pageants and breeder shows, the Parade of Seahorses has had its share of scrutiny. Many believe that the selective breeding of hippocampi for beauty leads to bad husbandry practices and unhealthy bloodlines. But the pageant has strict regulations on breeders and the health and viability of the animals is a key factor in their judging.

     But today I was too swept up to worry about such controversies. As I waited for the festivities to begin in the technicolored crowd of seahorses and riders – floating there like living parade floats – I was filled with pure joy at the breathtaking display of natural beauty. It is mind boggling to me to imagine how such intricate patterns of color, phosphorescence, and luminosity have come about in nature. Human hands labor and strive to bring beauty about – weaving it in cloth and penning it to paper, yet these carefree beasts simply grow into it without effort or thought. But before my mind could wonder further, the parade had begun and I was whisked away in a blur of cheerful participants.

     It may sadden you to know that I did not become Miss Seahorse: 2014 and my faithful mount, Hibiscus, did not take Best-in-Show - but it does not sadden me. Miss Hanumi Sibale took that honor, and deserved every bit of it. She, too, was a first time participant and, in her victory speech, she told of a time as a child when she dreamed of this day – a dream that we shared and that I’m happy to have lived vicariously through her.

     So you have suffered through my bought of childhood wish-fulfillment, and I thank you for your indulgence. Now that all my dreams have come true I have need of a new set of wishes, haven’t I? I don’t know what those shall be, but I am excited to find them out.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

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Monday, March 24, 2014

The Fish that Almost Ate Guam

     I got a rather testy letter back from my editor when I sent her the drafts for this story. She hired me to write fact, she said, not fiction, and fish tales were Talisa’s department - not mine. But I’ll remind her that she also hired me for my curiosity and adventuresome spirit, and how could I boast such qualities if I willingly let pass a chance to investigate a story with such a title as “The Fish that Almost Ate Guam”?

     I was sitting in a beachside tavern in Guam, just a few days into my tour of the Pacific islands. The trip had been uneventful and I was in low spirits – too many coconuts and not enough excitement. But I happened to overhear a band of girls saying they were off to “sing to the fish” – as if that were as natural a thing as taking in a show or grabbing a bite to eat. After some good natured prodding, I coaxed the girls into expounding. Their tale was good enough for print, so I’ll relate it to you mostly unchanged:

     When Guam was young, before it had been discovered by the outside world, the people of Guam lived happily on their lovely island home. But as outsiders began to come in, bringing with them unrest and dissention and ideas of war and conflict, the native people began to suffer. The fishermen of the island began to notice that the island itself was suffering too – the bays on either side were getting larger and the land between them, smaller. A giant fish, they speculated, was slowly eating the island in half. The people felt helpless, for no matter how often the men set out in boats, they always came back empty-handed. The fish had a hiding place and could not be found.

     At that time, it was a habit of the young maidens of the island to go down to the springs to wash their hair with soap oranges and lemon, and let the peels float out into the bay. One day a girl noticed some of the peels floating in a bay on the opposite side of the island. Telling her friends, they concluded that the monstrous fish that had been destroying their home must have tunneled its way beneath the island itself, and have a home down there. They devised a plan: since the fish had eluded the men for so long, it must be shy and wary of fishers’ nets. So they wove a net from their hair instead. Going down to the spring, they began to sing to the fish, to coax it out. When the massive fish, intrigued by the noise, came out from beneath the island, the girls threw out their hair and jumped into the water, trapping the fish and saving Guam from certain destruction.

     So if Guam was already saved from this island-eating monstrosity, I questioned, then why were the girls off to “sing to the fish” today? The girls would only giggle – but they invited us to come along and see. We followed them to their favorite bathing spot – Agana Springs – and watched the age old practice play out. Washing their hair out, they sang silly songs about the fish, in one verse taunting it in another mockingly praising it – interspersed with snickers and giggles. Soon I saw bubbles rising from the water, followed by rocky looking spears which breached the water’s surface – these were our deadly island-eating fish, our hosts pointed out, laughing. 

     What I had expected of an island eating fish, I’m not sure – gnashing teeth, rock-smashing jaws, fearsome fins? But peering into the depths, a wall-eyed, long-nosed, clownish-looking school of wormish creatures peered back at me, quivering happily to the beat of the girls singing. Comical as they were, the fish were large – ranging from 10-20 feet – though hardly of island-eating proportions. Nor did they seem to be of island-eating temperament, bouncing about in the water, sputtering at the sound of the merry voices on the shore.

      “I don’t think there’s anything to the stories,” said one girl of about 15, “It’s just an old tale meant to make our ancestors look clever and to warn against outsiders. Some people say there are bigger fish living under the island and if we forget to sing to them or let too many foreigners into the bay, they’ll come out and start eating again – but I think we’d have seen them if they were there.”

     When the girls packed up and went home, Timmy and I stayed behind to explore some of the tidal caves around the bay. We found tunnels of every size: some large enough to walk through, others smaller than a finger’s width – these fish were island drillers, if not island eaters. The light of our lanterns brought fish slithering out of their holes and peering up from pools in curiosity. 

    Though I was eager to plumb the depths of this mystery and find the monster fish of legend right then and there, Timmy was equally eager not to be drowned by the rising tide, so we left much of the cave system unchecked – let it not be said I don’t make compromises. Taking a final look out over the bay, I thought I caught a glimpse of a large shadow in the depths and a rising wave above it – the island-eater itself? It passed too quickly to be sure.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

     In a meadow in North Berkshire, a soft breeze and the smell of pastries lulls me into believing that I've finally taken my oft delayed sabbatical. But this picnic - and quite a picnic it is: blanket, tea, polite conversation and all - is strictly business. I am meeting with the Ladies Saddle Club of Berkshire to hear their side of a grizzly and controversial tale. Controversy is nothing new to Juba and I, as we've been researching for the Hot Topic column of BB for nearly a decade together, but to have it served with cucumber sandwiches and pecan tassies is a first.

     The ladies arrive in style on their prized mounts - some side saddle in classic fashion, others astride in the modern way - their mounts well fed and glistening in the spring sunlight. It seems like such a club would surely be the pride and joy of any small town in Berkshire, but each day opposition mounts against these ladies - opposition I am not sure they are undeserving of.

     It is only on close inspection that the secret is revealed - beneath the flowers and bows, the daintily crafted leather of their bridles, the impatient chomping of the horses at their bits reveals sharp fangs where equine molars are expected. These are no typical saddle ponies - they are of the Thracian breed. The infamous man-eating mares of Diomedes.

     That is just a name, of course. These horses are many generations removed from the mares owned by the giant Diomedes of Herculean legend - and, in fact, many of them are stallions, not mares. They've tasted no man-flesh in their lifetimes, but eat a less compelling diet of kibble and scrap meat like the hounds the ladies keep in their stables. But the stigma that hung about those four fabled mares still hangs fresh in the air about the Saddle Club - no matter how aromatic the ladies make their picnics.

     Three weeks earlier a carriage horse was bitten quite savagely by one of these horses, adding strength to fears that have been building in Berkshire for years.

     "If it had been a dog," quips Marlene Thatcher, head of the Saddle Club and my host for the afternoon, "there would have been no story. Dogs are biting horses - and people - in a county like Berkshire on a weekly basis. This is the first instance of one of our horses doing anything remotely aggressive. And it wasn't unprovoked. The papers don't tell you that."

     I sip at my tea - a little too sweet for my taste, but then everything about the Ladies Saddle Club seems more sugary sweet than necessary. The ladies in their genteel floral hats are doing their best to keep conversation light, but Thatcher is on point.

     "We take precautions - we keep our distance from traffic and give people fair warning - that carriage driver was getting pushy and trying to squeeze in where there wasn't room for him, his horse would have gotten bitten or kicked by even the tamest old nag."

     The photos in the paper showing the carriage driver comforting his bleeding horse certainly made no effort to be unbiased. But the question remains as to whether these animals belong on city streets.

     The modern day Thracian Mare has been domesticated for many thousands of years - but that domestication has not rid it of the wild, unpredictable, and sometimes vicious nature of its wild cousins, who still run free in the undeveloped regions of the Thracian Plain. In other domesticated equines such qualities would have been selectively bred out over generations, but in the Thracians, who were historically the chosen mount of warlords and conquerors, they were passed down as favorable temperaments.

     So why do the ladies of Berkshire choose such a mount for their afternoon exercises? They will not deny it is a form of fashion - the modern woman, they explain, wishes to be both genteel and wild, delicate and dangerous. The Thracian mares reflect that. One can admire their attempts to redefine themselves, but when the general safety is put at risk, it seems there would be other, less dangerous forms of self expression.

     "We didn't intend to cause any uproar," says Thatcher in a quiet moment when the other ladies are attending their horses, "it was a whim and we didn't think anyone would care much, other than to gossip a little. But now we are quite attached to our poor beasts, so what are we to do? If the county decided to ban them, well - well, certainly they're not the ideal city-dwelling creatures, but they are dear things - it would break our hearts to have to get rid of them."

     Her admission is the first compelling argument I've heard today, and, I know, the most heartfelt one. Whatever their behavior on the streets may be, today on the lawn I see an exchange of affection no less real than between other riders and their mounts. What the fate of these beasts will be I do not know, but it is a uncomfortable stalemate to be sure.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Ketea Indikoi

     Like most of the creatures we are sent to report on, the Ketea Indikoi are little studied and reports of their appearance and behavior have grown, like old fish tales, to wild proportions.

     The most popular descriptions of these beasts mark them as having the heads of a variety of animals – lions, leopards, wolves, rams – sometimes even of humans and satyrs – with fins and scales and great coiling fish tails to finish off their forms. Many of the self-proclaimed hunters of sea monsters claim that the ketea indikoi are closely related to hippocampi. Having studied hippocampi myself, however, I doubted there could be such correlation between the fishy hippocampus and these creatures that are, if their descriptions can be trusted, clearly mammalian.

     As I expected, the reality of the Ketea Indikoi is less titillating to the seeker of legend than was promised, though no less fascinating to students of animal behavior and adaptation. These creatures, though slow moving and surly, proved to be inquisitive and intelligent opportunists upon closer acquaintance - and unlike many of our other, more reclusive, subjects, that acquaintance was freely given - they showed little fear of man or beast or mermaid.

     These lions and leopards of the sea, are, in fact, a giant cousin to seals – the smallest would dwarf even the largest of elephant seals. Their coloration makes it clear why sailors mistook them for jungle cats – the males, with manes of thick blubber wrapped in dark fur do strike a lion-like chord and the leaner, fawny-speckled females might well look like a leopard to a sailor with too many days on the sea.

     As for those coiling fish tales, I must report a falsehood - their tails and flippers are indeed larger in proportion and more tactile than their common cousins, but they are as mammalian as the rest of them. 

     The real joy in these animals, however, is not in their physiology, but in their behavior. Though I normally keep safe distance from my subjects as a rule, it was impossible with these friendly sea-bears. They have a great curiosity and thronged about us as soon as we came to shore – first to sniff and chuff at us, then simply to laze about us as we took our notes and sketches. This natural curiosity and fearlessness make the Ketea Indikoi excellent scavengers. We observed them feeding on a variety of delicacies – clinging to rocky outcroppings with their massive paws to munch on crabs and anemones, shaking trees with their curling tails to bring down fruits and dates to eat, and even, in a naughty turn, snatching a loaded fish net from a hapless boat. 
     Though it would be a joy to linger with these bumbling beasts for longer and learn all the secrets of their comings and goings, I’m afraid with this job a short study must do. Other mysteries await us, to be briefly discovered and quickly left – such is the life of the monthly reporter.