Monday, May 20, 2013

Bird Myths, Pt. 5: Sinbad and the Rukh

       In The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars (see the Prologue and first ten chapters here), I made Capt. Robbin Nikalishin a birder. What better qualification for the man who will head up the mission that encountered the first intelligent lifeform known to humanity -- and who happened to be big birds? During the mission out, there was a lot of boring downtime and one way the crew entertained itself was by telling bird myths, each crewmember telling tales from his or her own culture. Now, this section will be cut or drastically emended if I ever get that monster ready for publication, but I did too much research and had too much fun writing it to let it all disappear, so what better place to display it than on a blog devoted to myth in literature?
       The following passage continued Prf. Linna Katsopolos's narration.  She had just asked the crew, "Have any of you people ever heard of Sinbad?"  Some knew the tales, but many had not.  (Parenthetically, I saw a trailer last evening on the SyFy channel advertising an upcoming series called "Sinbad," so this post turns out to be quite pertinent!)

The Rukh
(Public domain in the USA)

None of those who knew the tales objected to hearing them again and so Linna launched into her narrative.  “Back in the days of ancient Arbia, there was a young man named Sinbad, who was a merchant by trade and lived in the fabulous city of Bagda.  Bagda was actually a real city that existed for millennia, until it was wiped off the map during the 24th century depredations.  Sinbad is one of those resourceful trickster characters who are so common in folktales; he was always going on trade voyages to distant lands and getting into trouble.  So, during his second voyage it happened the ship put in at a deserted island for a while and Sinbad fell asleep under a palm tree.  When he woke up, there he was, alone!  The ship had sailed off without him!  He fell into despair, for he had no food or other provisions and he felt he would surely die there.
“Presently, however, he began to explore his surroundings and he climbed a tree to get a better look.  And off in the distance he saw a great white dome.  Heartened by what he thought was a human habitation, he made his way toward it, only to be disappointed and perplexed.  It turned out to be a full fifty paces in diameter but completely smooth and lacking any evidence of windows or doors.
“At that moment the sky went dark, even though it was a cloudless day.  Looking up, Sinbad was horrified to see an enormous bird flying down toward him, big enough to block the sun with its wings … yes, sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  Suddenly Sinbad remembered tales he had heard of the rukh and how it kills elephants to feed its young, and it dawned on him that this white dome was actually a rukh’s egg!  And indeed the giant bird settled down upon the dome-egg and began to brood it.  It had not even noticed Sinbad, who must have appeared to it as insignificant as an ant to an eagle.
“Presently night came on and the rukh went to sleep.  Sinbad got an idea, so he took off his turban – that long piece of cloth that people from that part of the world sometimes wind around their heads – and used it to tie himself to the leg of the rukh … right, Avi, just like the hero did in your tale!  In the morning the bird rose up and flew away.  It carried Sinbad to the top of a pinnacle, where he untied himself and dropped off.  The bird then seized a giant snake as prey and flew away.  Shades of Garuda!
“Sinbad immediately began to look around and he discovered that he was boxed in by impassable mountains.  He began to wish he had stayed on the island, where at least a ship might have come by.  A deep valley spread out below him and, when he descended to it, he found the ground paved with diamonds!  And then all of a sudden the skinned carcass of a sheep fell to the ground near him from the heights above, and he recollected a story he had heard – how in the Mountains of the Diamonds, the jewels are inaccessible, and so the people throw down the flesh of slaughtered animals, to which some of the diamonds adhere.  Then they wait for vultures to come and seize the carrion in their talons and carry it back to the heights above, where the people drive off the birds and collect the gems.”
Robbie interrupted.  “Now, no good natural historian came up with this tale, because unlike eagles vultures have very weak feet and couldn’t possibly pick up something as large as a sheep carcass.  They would simply have eaten it on the spot.”
“Now, Robbie,” scolded Linna, “don’t lose the spirit and go all scientific on us!”
“Sorry,” said Robbie cheerfully.  “I’ll just regard the bird as some imaginary raptor!  Please do go on, Professor.”
Linna cleared her throat.  “So Sinbad filled his pockets with diamonds and then bound himself beneath one of the carcasses, and sure enough a … yes, I’m going to say ‘vulture’! … came along and carried the meat and the man up to the top of the cliff!  There, people were waiting to harvest the gems and you can imagine how astonished they were to see a man crawl out from under the carrion!  Of course, Sinbad went on to sell the diamonds and become rich, whereupon he returned to Bagda and lived a comfortable life.
“That wasn’t the last of his voyages, however, or of his encounters with the rukh.  During his fifth voyage, his ship stopped at a different island.  While the crew disembarked to draw water and explore, Sinbad remained on board.  Presently, someone ran to him in great excitement, calling him to come and see what they had found.  ‘We thought it was a dome, but it seems to be an egg!  The men are breaking it even now!  We can have a feast!’ 
The merchants break the egg.
(Public domain)

“Well, Sinbad knew exactly what they had found and he knew they were making a disastrous mistake.  He rushed out, but he was too late.  The fluid had already poured out, revealing a immature rukh, which the men were about to butcher.  And at that moment the sun was once again darkened as the parent circled above them.  Naturally, it was highly incensed at the destruction of its egg.  It shrieked to call its mate, and soon there were two giant birds bearing down upon the hapless sailors.
“The men rushed madly for the ship and put off from the island while the infuriated birds pursued them.  But then the rukhs disappeared and the ship, beating rapidly out into the open ocean, appeared to be safe.  But not so – the birds had only gone away to pick up big boulders in their claws.  The male rukh’s stone missed the dodging ship, but the female’s stone landed on the stern and broke the rudder, and the ship sank to the depths of the sea.
“However, like all the Sinbad tales, this one has a happy ending – our hero was able to swim to land, and ultimately he garnered even more riches for himself and returned home to live contentedly until his next adventure.  And so comes the end of my narration …   Don’t you all make those disappointed noises – our purpose is to tell bird tales, and there are no more birds in Sinbad’s story.  If we complete every tale no matter what, we’ll be here for the whole thousand and one nights!”
“All right, Professor, I’ll concede that!” said Robbie.  “So – now we know all about the rukh, and it seems to be a lot like Lt. Oman’s Ziz bird.  That just leaves us with Lt. Brokenbow’s story.  Have you got anything that can match all these others, Howie?”
Coming next:
Native American Bird Myths 
But first we'll learn something about the
Aboriginal Ammeriken Enclave

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