‘The Island of Birds was once famous, and will become famous again,’ I read from the Protectorate’s only tourist brochure. ‘It was here that Ferdinand Magellan first encountered the birds of paradise. The wondrous tales and the gaudy plumes he carried back to sixteenth century Europe created the first major industry for the island—bird trapping.’ According to the brochure the birds were hunted to extinction by gangs of fiercely competitive collectors, couturiers and milliners who rushed to the island accompanied by the usual evils of rats, measles and the free market. By the twentieth century the only thing left of Nature’s beneficence were the white guano plains that covered the island’s lowlands. Within fifteen years Your Green Thumb Inc. a gardening multi-national had gone over the island with industrial-scale vacuum cleaners and sucked up every last ounce of the nitrogen-rich fertiliser and transported it to green the lawns of suburban California. This enterprise, which, after royalties, licence fees, bribes and overheads were subtracted, left the dispirited islanders with nothing but an irredeemable pockmarked moonscape.
As the Voltaire chugged up to her berth, we passed tankers sunk at their moorings, rusty cranes and towers, abandoned, sewers dripping oily waste into the waters and warehouses with doors fallen open. Beyond was a little whitewashed town and then a treeless plain shimmering under the equatorial sun, and there in the distance was the single cone of the island’s only mountain, Mont de Sol, fringed in a verdant lushness.
Once landed, I farewelled the Captain and headed for the only hotel on the island, and from there to the only bar. I was starting on my second round of the local agave spirit and munching through a dish of pickled green chillies when a dishevelled little man in the remains of a white suit approached me. He said that his name was Pigafetti and that he was the only licensed tourist guide on the island and he showed me a crumpled piece of paper to prove it. So, I bought him a drink and started talking about searching the island. All of this he ignored, glowering. Then fixing me with his one good eye he reached deep into the ruins of his jacket and produced an even more disgusting bundle of rags, which he ceremoniously placed on the bar. ‘Thees senor,’ he said gesturing at the fetid bundle, ‘Thees is what you came for.’ He unrolled the package and with a flourish held up a long iridescent blue and yellow pelt attached to a dun-coloured bird’s head no larger than a ping-pong ball.
He began to tell me about the birds of paradise, and as he did he laid the skin over his fist making it dip and swoop back and forth in the torpid air of the bar. ‘As you see thees birds, they ave no legs,’ he said showing me the little leathery patch where legs should have connected. ‘So they never land but remain in zee air, blown by zee winds. They mate and raise their young all on zee vind.’ Mistaking my reticence for disbelief he became more agitated. ‘You…you theenk you know everything.’ Then he grabbed my hand, ‘Ere, feel ere.’ He made me feel about on the stained plumage. ‘Zee vooman bird, she lay her ayyg here,’ he said pointing at a small cavity. ‘And he carry it around on his shoulders until zee leedle one atches and is ready to fly erself.’ I smiled wanly and nodded, but this was not enough for the belligerent guide.
Fixing me with his other good eye and holding a provocative finger up to my nose he declared, ‘Tomorrow, I show you. You vill zee in your own eyes.’
So, we arranged to meet in the lobby at sun-up, ‘You want to meet zee early bird senor?’ Pigafetti smiled at me enigmatically. Then he wrapped the bird skin back into its filthy swaddling, re-buried it in his jacket and maundered off into the tropical night.
I don’t remember how much longer I stayed at the bar and how many more pickled green chillies I ate but I overslept and by the time my hangover and I stumbled into the lobby it was well towards midday. When I asked the concierge, I was directed with a curt nod out onto the town’s main street. The street was empty apart from an old black Humber parked beneath a spreading plane tree. A pair of ragged legs poked out from the passenger window: Pigafetti was fast asleep in his car. When I finally managed to rouse him he was even surlier than the previous evening. He denied all knowledge of our arrangement and scowled when I pantomimed his arm moving up and down draped with the bird skin. It took quite a deal of convincing (and currency) before he agreed to drive me to the foot of the mountain.
As I watched the town pass from the back seat of the Humber I noticed that the animals we passed paused and stared; the dogs trotted alongside the car and looked gravely up at me. At each farm ducks and chickens chirped and flapped and buffalo came up to the fences and lowed earnestly. I found all this attention disquieting but it amused Pigafetti, ‘Zee creatures, zay like you senor, you are naturelle.’ We left the farms behind and for the next hour the car bumped and bounced over the ruins of the guano plains: no trees, no grass, just glare and exposed bedrock. Finally, the car arrived at the foot of the mountain. By this time the mercurial Pigafetti was in high humour. Between bouts of giggling he showed me with two walking fingers that, yes, I should take the track over there, and no, he wouldn’t accompany me, but yes, he would definitely wait here for my return: ‘Two hour, two hour.’
So I climbed into the latticed darkness of the jungle. Cicadas thrummed along with my breathing, sulphurous mud squeezed up around my shoes and black monkeys hoo-hooed from the canopy. Occasionally, there would be a gap where some ancient tree had collapsed and I could peer out on the world—nothing moved in the sleepy town below, the sea was glassy and the horizon was gone in the haze. But the sky! The sky was crowded with birds circling the mountain. As I climbed higher the jungle closed closer around the track, lianas and fronds blocked my way, burs and thorns tugged at my clothes and raked my face and all the time the throb and whine of insect life matched the beat of my headache. Finally, I pushed through a thicket and stumbled out onto a grassy meadow and stood in the dazzle of midday.