Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2018  Vol. 17 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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A bird is worth the beauty of its feathers. Spoonbills, snowy egrets, herons, red, white, or brown, what matters is their smoothness, feathers laid close against the body or fanned in ruffles around the thighs. When plucking them you learn how many layers create the shape you recognize. Their bodies underneath aren’t proud at all, just frail and raw and somehow chastened.

Oddly similar to the spines of feathers, bird bones are hollow. When blown into they whistle, making soft and brittle flutes.

They are easiest to shoot when nesting. In the breeding season when the birds display their most attractive plumes, a decent hunter gathers thousands. The more there are, the easier the sport. The less there are, the more the price per ounce goes up. Thrown together inside a canvas bag, their limp necks intertwine in fleshy braids attached to breasts in piles like loaves of bread.

In a week of walks down Fifth Avenue, a man named Chapman counted thousands of feathers flouncing on the hats of passing ladies. They sported not just plumes from over forty species, but wings, and not just wings but the taxidermied birds themselves perched on fruit and flower branches. It was as if the ladies’ heads were opened to the sky, exposing spacious aviaries.

Chapman was amazed by the brutality of women: widows wearing mothers, mothers wearing maidens in open-air tombs.

The ladies always traveled in little groups of twos or threes, talking about God-knows-what. They probably never read the papers, and didn’t know or care about the decimated rookeries in the Everglades. But they were beautiful to gaze at, strutting down the pavement with their blooming busts and sleeves, black ribbons cinched around their waists and necks. Inconceivable, their ignorance, and the beauty in it. The vanity for which they’ve forever been wounded and prized.  

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