A Visit to the Bird King of Pomperol: From Suldrun’s Garden by Jack Vance

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“The days passed; landfalls were made and departures taken. Later Aillas recalled the events of the voyage as a collage of sounds, voices, music; faces and forms; helmets, armor, hats and garments; reeks, perfumes and airs; personalities and postures; ports, piers, anchorages and roadsteads. There were receptions, audiences; banquets and balls.

Aillas could not gauge the effect of their visits. They made, so he felt, a good impression; the integrity and strength of Sir Famet could not be mistaken, and Trewan, for the most part, held his tongue.

[…]

King Deuel’s madness was harmless enough; he felt an excessive partiality for birds, and indulged himself with absurd fancies, some of which, by virtue of his power, he was able to make real. He dubbed his ministers with such titles as Lord Goldfinch, Lord Snipe, Lord Peewit, Lord Bobolink, Lord Tanager. His dukes were Duke Bluejay, Duke Curlew, Duke Black Crested Tern, Duke Nightingale. His edicts proscribed the eating of eggs, as a ‘cruel and murderous delinquency, subject to punishment dire and stern.’

Alcantade, the summer palace, had appeared to King Deuel in a dream. Upon awakening he called his architects and ordained the substance of his vision. As might be conjectured, Alcantade was an unusual structure, but nonetheless a place of curious charm: light, fragile, painted in gay colors, with tall roofs at various levels.

Arriving at Alcantade, Sir Famet, Aillas and Trewan discovered King Deuel resting aboard his swan-headed barge, which a dozen young girls clad in white feathers propelled slowly across the lake.

In due course King Deuel stepped ashore: a small sallow man of middle years. He greeted the envoys with cordiality. ‘Welcome, welcome! A pleasure to meet citizens of Troicinet, a land of which I have heard great things. The broad-billed grebe nests along the rocky shores in profusion, and the nuthatch dines to satiety upon the acorns of your splendid oaks. The great Troice horned owls are renowned everywhere for their majesty. I confess to a partiality for birds; they delight me with their grace and courage. But enough of my enthusiasms. What brings you to Alcantade?’

‘Your majesty, we are the envoys of King Granice and we bear his earnest message. When you are so disposed I will speak it out before you.’

‘What better time than now? Steward, bring us refreshment! We will sit at yonder table. Speak now your message.’

Sir Famet looked right and left at the courtiers who stood in polite proximity. ‘Sir, might you not prefer to hear me in private?’

‘Not at all!’ declared King Deuel. ‘At Alcantade we have no secrets. We are like birds in an orchard of ripe fruit, where everyone trills his happiest song. Speak on, Sir Famet.’

‘Very well, sir. I will cite certain events which disquiet King Granice of Troicinet.’

Sir Famet spoke; King Deuel listened carefully, with head cocked to one side. Sir Famet fnished his exposition. ‘These, sir, are the dangers which menace us all – in the not too distant future.’

King Deuel grimaced. ‘Dangers, everywhere dangers! I am beset on all hands, so that often I hardly take rest of nights.’ King Deuel’s voice became nasal and he twitched in his chair as he spoke. ‘Daily I hear a dozen pitiful cries for protection. We guard our entire north borders against the cats, stoats and weasels employed by King Audry. The Godelians are also a menace, even though their roosts lie a hundred leagues distant. They breed and train the cannibal falcons, each a traitor to his kind. To the west is an even more baleful threat, and I allude to the Duke Faude Carfilhiot, who breathes green air. Like the Godelians he hunts with falcons, using bird against bird.’

Sir Famet protested in a strained voice. ‘Still, you need fear no actual assault! Tintzin Fyral stands far beyond the forest!’

King Deuel shrugged. ‘It is admittedly a long day’s flight. But we must face reality. I have named Carfilhiot a dastard; and he dared not retort, for fear of my mighty talons. Now he skulks in his toad-wallow planning the worst kind of mischief.’

Prince Trewan, ignoring Sir Famet’s cold blue side-glance, spoke out briskly: ‘Why not place the strength of those same talons beside those of your fellow birds? Our flock shares your view in regard to Carfilhiot and his ally King Casmir. Together we can rebuff their attacks with great blows of talon and beak!’

‘True. Someday we shall see the formation of just such a mighty force. In the meantime each must contribute where he can. I have cowed the squamous Carfilhiot and defied the Godelians; nor do I spare mercy upon Audry’s bird-killers. You are thereby liberated to aid us against the Ska and sweep them from the sea. Each does his part: I through the air, you on the ocean wave.'”

Image: Air by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1566

Mermaids: From Suldrun’s Garden

“She moved down through the garden. Just so must a dryad feel, thought Suldrun; just so must it move, in just such a hush, with no sound but the sigh of the wind in the leaves.

She halted in the shade of the solitary old lime tree, then continued down to the beach to see what the waves had brought in. When the wind blew from the southwest, as was often the case, the currents swung around the headland and curled into her little cove, bringing all manner of stuff to the beach until the next high tide, when the same current lifted the articles and took them away once more. Today the beach was clean. Suldrun ran back and forth, skirting the surf as it moved along the coarse sand. She halted to scrutinize a rock fifty yards out under the headland, where she once had discovered a pair of young mermaids. They had seen her and called out, but they used a slow strange language Suldrun could not understand. Their olive-green hair hung about their pale shoulders; their lips and the nipples of their breasts were also pale green. One waved and Suldrun saw the webbing between her fingers. Both turned and looked offshore to where a bearded merman reared from the waves. He called out in a hoarse windy voice; the mermaids slipped from the rocks and disappeared.”

– from Suldrun’s Garden, by Jack Vance

Excerpt: Summer in Streetsboro

Summer in Streetsboro: hot and humid and hateful, this is nobody’s favorite weather. There’s a quality in the summer sunlight here that, like fluorescent lighting, seems to lay bare some essential ugliness inside of whatever it touches. Everything looks flat, angular, laid out in sickly yellows and blinding whites. Look at the sunbaked roads, pitted, with long stitches of tar covering up the cracks; the little lawns, either mottled and half-dead or artificially lush; the corrugated industrial brickwork of warehouses and big box stores and gas stations baking in the insane light. The sky looks stunned and flat white, like a mirror catching the sun full-on. Sunlight pollutes everything so completely that even a clear blue sky looks as white as clouds.

Sometimes, on that immaculate, maddening surface, a bruise will bloom: the start of a storm. People walking back across the parking lots with grocery bags hooked on their fingers, or flipping through a People at the Great Clips, or filling up their pockmarked car at Sheetz, or walking their dog past a neighbor’s house, fussing over their pet, trying to politely not make eye contact – they’ll all look up at a flicker of lightning, or turn at the sound of thunder bowling its first frame, and under ancient obligation will look around and find some stranger to break the silence with and say:

“Looks like it’s gonna rain.”

“Weatherman said it might.”

Then the rain will drop like a stage curtain, and you can hear the trees catching its million blows on their leaves, the thunder and the slow tear of cars over wet roads, and behind everything the rain’s authoritative static; then it’ll slow and slow and finally stop, and the hidden sun will infect the thinning clouds again, and sometimes a haze will rise with the petrichor and haunt the few low places briefly, like a ghost with some little business left here on earth, and the trees, wherever progress has permitted them to be left standing (usually at the corners of minor intersections, or in thin lines in the neighborhoods, dividing lawn from lawn) the trees will drool for hours, and it won’t be any cooler.