6 – The Wandering Birds

They descended into the town called Rottenmann and slipped into a barn tripping over a mule skeleton and rusted snowplow.  They could hear a river flow by, foaming over its banks, pine trees beating and chill wind pelting dried barn plank with gravel and stone. The wind seemed to whistle through every gutted inn and lodge in the deserted town, over the dried bones of Austrian proprietors, their families, dogs, all in a blizzard of leaves and flapping roadsigns.  Aloysius bedded down under the axles of a tireless truck, set on blocks and stripped decades ago.  Rupert crawled up into the attic, kicking trunks, dolls and moldy newspaper, heaping moth-eaten rags into a mound for a pillow. They listened to the bent weathercock spin on the rooftop as Rupert dreamt of bacon and eggs, cheese fondue, goulash, fried chicken and coffee.  Aloysius dreamt of beef jerky, potatoes, a mug of real beer.  Both held their ribs against hunger cursing the wind’s racket, and sipped from tins of mountain water, picking out sticks and floating bugs with their fingers.

Aloysius could stand any kind of racket.  In the midst of a foul night in Hoboken he routinely ignored psychopaths who poked their heads into his box.  Even they began to nod, envious of a his sweet squatter’s sleep. Yet now he flipped around restlessly, homesick for his candlelit shack, trying ruminate on the change in terrain, on how they might encounter few bald upthrusts of rock, spires, Everest or Mount Blanc summits as he understood them.  Only snow-covered peaks rounded by navigable footpaths, winding around plunging ravines.  Rupert reminded himself that tramping by foot in mountains made more sense than flat highways, anyway: threats of flash flood, avalanche, rain, muck or mud –  all meant beating thirst, and seclusion.  In concert, then, they resolved that given safety and water, nothing would exist outside their nest that night, nor outside their barn. They plugged their ears, curled up, and beat back the impulse to animate a blowy night of whirling leaves and creaking trunks with ghosts, buried their heads, and fell fast asleep.

As the barn and wind evaporated, Rupert dreamt he was flying over Rottenmann centuries ago.  He saw buildings resembling geometric wooden cones sprouting from roots in soft loam.  He hovered in his dream down from the air during a summer eve and landed on the street passed by Rottenmannians carrying jars of water.  A few farm hands strolled a river bank with fiancées dressed in kaleidoscopic petticoats.  He needed to tell the townspeople they were dead.  Yet after his gaze ranged upward to the night sky, to a solar eclipse, he found the townspeople had metamorphosed into owls.  They perched blinking eerily at him in the odd light from ledgetops their and trees flanking the river, fluffing white breast feathers, busily tucking their beaks.  Then he was in a room — a mahogany-lined parlor in the midst of a dinner party attended by what he imagined to be Neb’s court.  Neb’s face was obscured by cigar smoke but a voice curled from its plumes, growling about missiles and Empire. A teapot percolated near a fireplace crackling with wood chips. Porcelain cups convulsed close to an antique harpsichord. A storm started blowing, rattling the windows in the room  with the same tempo as it shook their barn door.  Sami appeared in a waitor’s uniform but wearing a blindfold, and whispered in his ear: “Don’t do it.”  Rupert agreed and found a revolver in his hand.  When he turned back to the dinner guests, however, they had transformed into bats.  And the scene had shifted to the barn itself as he lie beneath rafters lined with bats, fiddling their skinny wings, and twitching  gray, pointed ears.

Dawn lulled with the wind to a stop.  Rupert woke.  Sunlight was pouring through the cracks between barn planks, illumining dew on cobwebs and gilding the rags and rusted tools with its rays.  Rupert gradually drew up his socks, unfolded his raw thighs and tiptoed on tightened calves downstairs past a snoring, content Aloysius.  Rifling through the ragpiles for a wearable castoff, for trousers, an overcoat, Rupert damned it all and, naked, shoved open the barn door to stretch and breathe in the cool Alpine air.

He was not alone.  The barn was surrounded by forty thousand or so squatters, a tribe of homeless hikers packed in from barn to stream to peak.  Every inch of weed or gravel, even on the river’s surface, wading or balancing on logs lain last night, the hikers waited, impassive.  Most squatted cross-legged, sporting green felt caps stuck with feathers, exposing their palms with violets tattooed in rich colors.  Rupert rubbed his eyes against the golden light and the tightknit mob, noticing smiles creasing a few weather-beaten faces, yet still they waited — wary, determined, and conscious of their power in numbers.  Most held hiking sticks ready under their left armpits.  Many owned black hiking boots, and wore black sunglasses or eye patches or slumped down head-bands.  By contemporary standards, they were rich.  Rupert called back softly to Aloysius several times, still stunned by the ragamuffin hoard but Aloysius snored on until the hikers all but thundered one wake-the-dead word: “TAG!”, spoken crisply, in unison and ominously loud.

The tenor “Tag” was uttered with a soft or “schwa” “a”, making it sound both monstrous and polite.  Aloysius ambled up the steps bleary-eyed and whispered in awe: “I dreamt of them!”.  “I dreamt of owls and bats!”  Rupert swore, surveying the field of scruffy heads.  Rupert held up his hand to signal, as if encountering aliens, but evoked no response.  Aloysius had heard the thunderous “TAG!” and uttered “Tag!”, mimicking them.  They were blasted then by a hearty but, given the volume, colossal laugh which shook the barn to its foundations:  “Who are you?”  Rupert asked when they grew suddenly quiet.  After a pause an older hiker answered in German: “Die Wandervögel!” Then a pulsating “JA!” resounded again with a chillingly clipped self-confidence.

“What do you need from our mountains?”  A scrawny old Austrian broke ranks, wearing one eye patch embroidered with a butterfly.

“Nothing!  We come in peace.”

“We are the Wandering Birds!”  A female hiker challenged them, in English, exulting, the sun at her back.

“DIE WANDERVÖGEL!”  Thousands echoed, in one vocal wollop.

“Yea, O.K.  Isn’t it a bit early for this?”  Rupert shrank back.

“Early for us?  For the Birds?  Ha!” The same woman huffed and thousands second-thundered her: “HA!”

“Wait there!  We’ll be right down!”  Rupert cried, flustered.

Rupert ducked back in.  Both of them shrank from appearing at the ground floor of the barn in dresses before so many fanatical sportifs.  Yet when they rifled through the rags, everything they lifted crumbled to dust.  They threw on their dresses and walked out, but this, oddly, evoked no visible response.  Except for the eyepatched old Austrian who marched to the fore and stood ground.  He shook his head like a turtle, slowly, food or resin pasting the red mustache over his mouth, tips bleached by powered milk.  He seemed to have elected himself to route infidels, scrawny face set hard and juridical.  Behind him, the private rumblings of group council tittered, edgy, tremulous.  Though they were a mixed group of Europeans, Africans, Asians, Slavs and Muslims they galvanized tightly, determined to stop outsiders from pillaging their mountains to rob or rape them, and skeptical that anyone might be naïve enough to risk molestation since Collapse long ago destroyed tourism.  Rupert and Aloysius sensed the Birds would grill them, and given that most would not understand English, the inflection of their voices could prove crucial.

“Why birds? Where do you wander?”  Aloysius asked, diplomatically.

“We ask the questions, sonny!” The Austrian yowled up at him.

“We just walked from Croatia.”  Rupert tendered.

“Mmm … “  The front of the crowd jostled, re-crossing their legs in sequence, doubtful it possible, ready to confront a lie.

“We’re on our way to Paris, by way of Prague.”  Rupert sputtered.

“Paris?”  The Austrian repeated.

“Ja!  Genau!”  Five bass throats scoffed, nearly striking a chord.         “You must be in hurry, walking!” Eyepatch snapped.

“Wewant to join the Revolution in Paris.”  Rupert blurted out, “We have to pass through Prague first.”

“Oh we believe you!  Ja, stimmt!  Bullsheisse!  But just what do you want from our mountains?  Why would you wish to pass through Prague when a drug lord, a dictator, a murderer shits there?  Do you want to help him?  If so, you met wrong people. No, sonny.  If not, we could be on his side.  We could kill you.  If you did not plan such a fool thing — you would think us fools to believe you.”  The old Austrian laughed, proud of his bad logic but sound skepticism, arms akimbo, one eye rolling sarcastically.

“We assume the risk. We oppose Neb.  We will reach Paris.  If you know the mountains, we ask in good faith to let us pass beyond them to Prague.  If you too hate this self-proclaimed Emperor who conquered Austria and now the former Czech city of Prague, you will help us.  If you have the stomach!”

“The hind or the foresight!”  Aloysius added, confusing even himself.

“That could be crazy.  Telling us.”

“Or blunt.”

The English-speaking woman and several other Birds nodded to each other then perfomed an act which seemed, from Rupert and Aloysius’ viewpoint, quite rude.  They yanked back their red mustached and butterfly eyepatched spokesman by the neck with a shepherd’s staff and made him hold a box of violets.  Aloysius jumped down for no good reason to the grass from the barn, nervously, but was met by a titanic warning: “Warte!”

“Wait!  Stay back up there!”  The English-speaking young woman cautioned.  “We have decided also to … how do you say it?  Put playing cards on the dinner table.  We walk in peace.  We are opposed to drug dictators and people who go back on being human.  We are nomads.  We walk these mountains at night and … administer … to the wounded.”

Another member who heard and understood that much English,  repeated it in German. The whole crowd then discharged: “Den Verwundeten!”,  striking an elegiac, almost bluesy minor chord mixed with its global blast.  Indeed the sustained chord painted a masterpiece of confusion — a hymn for those recently crushed on battlefields, or by starvation following the Collapse, or from Quixotic resistance to Neb, the so-called Last Atavist, subjecting the innocent, spreading his dictatorship through Central Europe.

“You see we are the Wandering Birds!”  The young pale blonde repeated, with tearful pride.

“DIE WANDERVÖGEL!” Thousands again detonated, frying Rupert’s and Aloysius’ ear drums.  They felt these Birds’ power and the Birds knew it.  The Birds looked harmless enough, a motley of races and nationalities — not just Austrians, Swiss or Germans — but anyone who migrated here to escape the sight of communal Apocalypse, and their collective voices could rise to an assault, an on-the-cheap auditory fright-mask.  They looked like exiles.  On the run, ragged angels.  They fought for the wounded, yet they evidently had the means to isolate their enemies.  Still, the phenomenal univocalism struck Aloysius and Rupert as tragically eccentric and absurd.  Even as the group’s trust seemed to warm up with its volume, the clearing of throats, tuning up with stormy, chromatic do-ré-mi’s in German — and while several soloists fiddled with triangles and pitch pipes whipped with élan from their vest pockets — Rupert and Aloysius sensed that they were listening to a homeless flock of girl or boyscouts who had vanished as individuals into a terrible discipline, well after their wings were clipped.

“We’re proud, we’re one peoples!”  The blonde girl declared.

“Great!”  Rupert agreed, taken aback.

“Hier Hier!”  Aloysius experimented in German.

Clearly anxious for an opportunity, the English speaking girl slipped a parchment from a hollowed log.  It was a pre-translated creed in English apparently from German verse rendered roughly into English prose, scrawled on birch bark.  The Birds fell silent, and she chanted, lilting:

“We believe in purity, in chastity,

in feeding and talking to birds,

to ecstatic mountain yodeling,

epic rhapsodies, cold naked exposure

to glacial rivers, treating the sick,

the wounded or old with herbal acupuncture

and moxybustion, with smoke and wooden funnels, bark-chewing, truth-telling

cave hibernation during sleet storm or squall, virginal love trysts on snowy moonlit granite slabs at altitude under surveillance of council elders,

but more, in the adoption of the world’s homeless youth to our family,

our fold, our squadrons of Love

dedicating to walking

and choral echoing!”

“Very nice!”  Rupert clapped.  “Then you’re political?”

“Rather clean, indeed!”  Aloysius echoed.

“And now we entertain you with our quick bursts, or eagle calls?”

“So early?”  Rupert pleaded.

“Quick bursts!”  Aloysius chose, humoring them.

“Ya, Ya, Ya, Gut, Gut, GUT, GUT!” A real enthusiast danced forward in clogs, yodeling.

A bald woman stood up, with twelve emaciated choristers, and began a series of shrill, staccato bird calls, then wolf howls, then squirrel and woodchuck gnawing and clacking, cicada murmuring, woodpecker knocking, frogs croaking, dogs barking, and bears and wildcats growling.  Each expanded into extravagant improvisations conveyed in remarkable faith to the mostly extinct animals.  Aloysius had but a notion of just what animal groans and squawks they mimicked, but liked them and began to dance a little jig.  Rupert recalled the whirling birds he heard in his drowning dream off Santorini, in the Aegean sea, and as the sun edged up, the choral menagerie transported him back to childhood when he scanned books with his mother just before she died, fairy tales, which she had once scavenged from her grandma’s attic, when they had such books and allowed such childhoods.

Abruptly, the crowd broke camp.  Apparently, the Birds had divined that the Auslanders posed no danger.  Like any fellow travelers, it seemed these Americans should be entertained when greeted. This done, the Birds fell out like an army regimen.  Their first activities were domestic: chatting or whittling or sewing shoes or trousers.  Several groups passed wooden bowls around filled with imitation warm milk followed by a mulch, a fried grass concoction of flower petals and weeds broiled in vegetable oil.  Other groups tended to the sick.

Aloysius fell spellbound watching several women implant a funnel in a boy’s scalp.  They clipped away his fuzzy black hair from the crown of his skull then took a scalpel and made a superficial incision   Carefully, assorted dried herbs were sprinkled into the funnel.  Aloysius motioned to question what they were doing and he heard “moxybustion”, which meant nothing to him.  They brought flaming kindling and lit the herbs in the funnel.  One of the women explained to him in broken English that the smoke fumes were to enter the boy’s skin, his skull, then his nervous system to cure bursitis developed from strenuous hiking.  Aloysius nodded without deciphering her words, instead monitoring the boy’s face for pain as the funnel smoked stuck from his head.  It resembled a tin witches’ hat.  The boy smiled and handed Aloysius a harmonica from his trouser pocket, but Aloysius could only stare, sniffing the incenselike smoke, as the women took the harmonica and blew a few notes to encourage Aloysius to play it before placing it to Aloysius’ lips.

There was much handing back and forth of walking sticks, knifes, horns and light drums.  The Birds explored each others’ faces and hands, often guiding each other’s fingers up and down a string on a mandolin or balalaika fretboard, incessantly tuning the stringed instruments which many wore like bows and arrows slung over the back on a cord for convenience on the trail.  They evidently owned nothing which could not be shouldered.  Yet their activity seemed to protest that one man’s exile could be a migrant’s paradise.  Rupert recalled Undine’s story about Diogenes, that he once delivered a speech from an urn in Berlin maintaining that the homeless inherited the world.  These then were the beads which had tumbled from the shattered European economic abacus, magnetized together, like the birds in his Santorini dream, circling, navigating a lost or imaginary city which was, perhaps, always a mirage.

“That old cynic, Einbrecher!  He is among us but not with us.”  The young woman apologized, as she and Rupert threaded slowly through the crowd.

“Why is he different?”  Rupert asked.

“Well.  He does speak English.  But he had to learn English because he was stuck in prison with an American drug exporter who ground one of his eyes out — threatening to grind out both  — if he did not speak English.  He would never learn a language for its own sake.  Not Herr Einbrecher!  But ten years locked up with an enemy can leave a man kookoo.  We think it odd.  But we need him since, you see, none of us understand the world he and perhaps you belong to.  We would never talk to an outsider again.  If we never had to meet one.”

“Isn’t that misanthropic?”

“What?  Not at all.  The sighted are eating their own dead.  We’d be pecked clean alive amongst them now.  Dumb vultures! We have all been kicked from the nest and now, well, it’s an English saying, we fly by night.”

“Wait.  Are you saying to me that you are blind?”  His insensitivity, his myopia up to now shocked him.

“Didn’t you notice?”

“No, well, I, I guess it fits, somehow.  But you don’t act blind!”  Rupert hesitated, embarrassed, recalling Tiresius, then the picture of the Bird’s exile passed into perfect focus.  He struggled inwardly both against its pathetic spirituality and his own sighted prejudice.  He felt glad she could not see him blush, and resolved not to let her hear it in his voice.

“That’s good.” She remarked, sensing his struggle, and also hurrying to make up for it,  “It would be easier for the sighted to attack and grab what crumbs we have, to rape … to murder us.”

“How did you find each other?”

“Originally?  Originally … a few thousand of us were blinded by unclean water in the surrounding suburbs and in the center of Salzburg.  Though we were born sighted we were driven from Salzburg because … our fellow citizens could not tolerate us.  They drove us out!  I guess it makes sense.  They could no longer feed themselves.  We were willing to work, regardless.  But there were very few, if any, jobs.  So we were called, after some months, demons.  A few of us were burned on crosses as parasites, as Plague mongers, as foul luck charms, idols, ersatz witches!  The cause, the chemical spill, however, was clear enough to the people of Salzburg when it poisoned the water.  It was documented.  Featured in local and national newspapers.  They explained and lamented it at town meetings.  But even our families spurned us in the end, handicapped by an outbreak of hypocrisy!  They pretended to forget we were poisoned and that they were merely lucky.  I tell you their memories were very short, their amnesia eternal.  Further, because we volunteered to bury those who died from contaminated water they blamed their deaths and the spill on us!  We — who survived three days of convulsions, drank from the same taps, drinking fountains, from the same reservoir!  To celebrate that black Ash Wednesday, we assumed formation exactly a year later, divided ourselves into squadron, then took flight.”

“You originally were city dwellers?”

“I was a teenager when I drank.  It’s funny that’s how we say it … only ‘when we drank.’ And it’s funny to think my family owned an apartment in the center of Salzburg, my father was an actor, my mother a nurse, I, a student of English.”

“The Collapse came late here.”

“It did — we used to count ourselves lucky.”

“Is that why you hide from cities now, they blinded you?”

“We walk, we don’t hide.  And we honor the early birds, the ‘blind from birth’ because they saw first with their feet.  We had to wait for worldly accident.”

“A blind man in Greece got me here.  He helped me ‘bury’, my friend — ‘in the sky.’”  Rupert said, with regret.

“Ah, it is hard to bury a friend.  We are very careful not to tell anyone where we rest our friends.  Their bodies might be stripped of clothing or gold fillings.”

“Yes.”

“Did you sing him an elegy?”

“My friend?  Me sing?  He disappeared, evaporated, pooff! It looked like he walked off a cliff on the island Santorini in Greece.  Then I believed I saw him waving at me from the bushes.  I don’t know!  I’m confused. Anyway he would laugh at my lack of independance.  Even if you would not.  Besides, my girlfriend sings.  It’s funny she also has a German first name.  And when I hear you sing — it reminds me of her …”

“Where is she now?”

“In New York.”

“You love her and left her there?”

“She told me to.”  Rupert grumbled, sinking low.

“I cannot believe you do not play an instrument nor sing.”  She chirped, changing the subject, while she held Rupert’s elbow reminding him that at least he was sighted.  Rupert now glanced at the girl’s innocently terrorized face, her chalkwhite skin, her bleached lips and her functionless blue eyes, then her thin but wild shock of blonde hair stuffed with a violet under her blue cap.  She had round, muscled calves, and though dressed in the group uniform, and though her discipline, and her terror, were no joke, she was very delicate, receding, ghostly.  To Rupert she resembled fine marble which careless hands had dropped — delicate, but fissured at angles — yet still lovely, even if she had to find religion in visions of disembodied love, hiding in a closed community to compensate for her blind, nomadic exile.

“My name is Rupert. My friend over there is Aloysius … ”

“Mine is Ulrike.   Is he coming back to us?”

“I want to give him time to ponder by himself.  He’ll come along.  Sometimes … I write.”  Rupert confided, changing subjects, “Poetry.  I’m no good at it.”

“Dichtung!  It’s Dichtung in German.  Why not?”

“I may have a wad in … my skirt.”

“Good.  Please read it to me.  Wait. In your skirt?”

“Uh, dress.”

“Are you a transvestite?”  She started, scandalized.

“No, just lacking clothes.”

“Mmm.  I must admit we lack uniforms.”

“I don’t need a uniform.  I need pants!”

“Of course!  Look, when it’s sunset, we walk.  Preparations must be made.  Rupert, we will think on your problem.  We Birds are not predators.  First, you must listen.  We will walk you North and East.  But you must walk blind over unknown terrain.  You must be able to tread, to skip, trudge, leap, or wade over boulders and streams, in underbrush, on hill and over peak — all in silence and at night, with midnight footwork.  You must hear with your feet.  We will help you, as latecomers, harmonize with Group Radar, from sounds which you hear extend through the air between Birds.  You must practice our signals.  We explore extended vocal techniques.  We let each other know as a group where to step, where to leap, what to avoid and when to stop.  We train first to evade the sighted.  They no longer respect us.  They no longer feel they can support us, and they will rob us.  So we walk in their shadows or just beyond them, evading their gaze.  We make our own world, according to our own rules, marry, birth, and consecrate the dying moment of every Bird, every spirit, every comrade.”

“We survive by strict purity.  Disease starts in the senses.  This we are taught.  There are diseases of sight, corruptions which cancel or infest the spirit.  Each is a cancer, a Plague, which misleads the sighted.  A few elders amongst us once saw newspaper photos of casualties of a civil war which distanced them from feelings of loss, from smelling battlefield gore or feeling real hunger or enduring real wounds.  We work these illusions out!  One could once watch revolutions and wars on screens, munching potato chips on couches — we know this happened.  They had sex magazines and erotic holographs for the very rich to replace nature and love, their original felt global spirit, which we now we can only sing of, creeping over vacant mountains and lakes by night, and living in a hollow, in the dreams and night-time valleys of our group mind.”

“Is that part of Die Wandervögel’s creed?”

“Yes.  We take time to talk, to memorize.  We have to survive.”

“Good, but with all that theory, I could still slip and bust my ass.  You know, fall from these higher altitudes.”  Rupert laughed, seeing if he could amuse her.

“Ha. Ha!  You’ll be fine!”  Ulrike smiled, feeling Rupert’s face for the first time.  Rupert could now sense the warmth behind the ghost which so delicately read his face.

“You say that you walk at night?  Do you have maps?”

“How could we read them?”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t be sorry.  We protect ourselves and make a better go of it by tramping when and where no one can see us.  We migrate everywhere.  We know these mountains.”

“Well, how about contour maps?”

“Don’t need them.”

“How will we possibly walk with you tonight?”  Rupert shook his head.

“You have to listen.” She smiled.

“Do you mean that we must walk in the mountains without seeing the path, or our feet?”

“If you want to go with us.”

“Are you going toward Prague too?”

“Yes, because there are others who are migrating now.  The victims of Nebuchadnezzar’s scorched earth madness will be flowing South now in particularly thick formation.  We can help, I believe, some of the wounded, if our way is not obstructed.  We do not choose whom we help, by the way.  There will be many, of every color and religion and former nationality.  We have heard of this new exodus.  There are several other things we can take care of too, but we will not enter Prague.  We never enter cities.  We will just flow into the north beyond the old Czech border.”

“How is it possible?”

“We will train you, then guide you.  And perhaps somehow, someday you will return our favor.  But, please, never reveal us to other sighted people.”

“Of course.”

Neither Rupert nor Aloysius were then allowed to chat.  They were fed the breakfast mash, cleansed, then instructed on how to stretch their muscles.  A Pole named Friedrich sporting a walrus-like mustache had them assume long, paced episodes of static stretching as athletes once did, to lengthen their ham strings, groins and calve muscles.  Gradually they loosened up.  Friedrich explained, through Ulrike, how stretching broke up by-product lactic acid as blood coursed through and separated sore fibers.  Then after two hours they were given a lesson in rudimentary calls which, unlike the thunderous morning demonstration, were developed to blend in quietly with forest sounds.  These understated signals were to roll from one member to another and warn of upcoming obstructions on the trail.  After attempting the calls, whistling, cooing, and humming, they were blindfolded and led around the barn and into the woods.  Ulrike and Friedrich guided them over logs, slippery rocks, to the edge of imaginary ravines, then finally waded them into the ice-cold river, where they were told to endure patiently.  Then they were dried off, wrapped in heavy pelts and their blindfolds removed.  Aloysius and Rupert realized that the other Birds had melted into the wood’s hollows. There was not a shred of evidence that anyone had ever been there.  Ulrike explained that they had crawled into or under the barn, beneath rock overhangs, under spreads of mulch or pine branch camouflage.   Even the brown winter weeds had been fluffed, their footprints filled in, needles strewn or unwedged from having pressed into the earth.  Rupert and Aloysius sat exhausted, and amazed, on the grass, alone with their guides and coach, thawing under heavy pelts.

“Why did they disappear?”

“They’re sleeping!  We walk by night!  We have to sleep sometime!”  Ulrike smiled.  “Besides, now we meditate to expand spatial imagination.”

They were then again blindfolded, and instructed to imagine a point just beyond their brows, crossing their eyes, then to stretch that point out while letting go every thought or sentence which existed “behind” or crowded the visual image.  That point, before their brows, was to elongate, widen, then they were to imagine climbing into and walking through that space.  Rupert felt Aloysius’ mind concentrate while he worried about Undine, mourned Diogenes, and anticipated Paris.  He could not imagine the point and fretted that he would die by falling over a cliff when the real hiking began at sunset.  Aloysius could also cross his legs.  Rupert only felt awkward and pre-occupied.  Ulrike straightened his spine and once gave him a quick slap in the face, sensing his distraction.  Friedrich had disappeared.  He evaporated into a trance and gone with him were his gentle coaching explanations and his thick-accented humor when he experimented with English.  Aloysius seemed to follow as he too relaxed and Rupert could feel Ulrike do the same, passing from concerned guide into profound reverie.  He then had a vision.  First an after-image of pine trees waving, of grass flowing like waves over windblown lakes, then of Aloysius wearing a visor in a regressive series of knightly armors when a phrase burned into his mind:  “Pretend you are that dream; now, who dreams?”  The wind murmuring through trees, the grass, and leaves over the stream, merged then into an “ah”, a woodwind “ah”, an ancient, cellolike moan, which seemed to have waited forever as an “ah” behind the sky.  Perhaps the dead were waiting for him and Diogenes had experienced this “ah”?  Then Rupert involuntarily began to weep, and withdrew from shame.  In all his life he had never before heard his mind.

“O.K.  We break now.”  Ulrike said, rising to catch up to Rupert with Aloysius’ help, while Friedrich, work done, vaporized into the woods for a nap.

“You heard something didn’t you?”  Ulrike asked him.

“Yes, I suppose I did.”  Rupert confessed.

“Then why did you leave?”

“I can’t really say.”

“Should we rest now?”

“Please.  Please, I do need a rest.”

“Good, return to your barn.  We’ll rouse you two at sunset.”

That evening, after they spent the afternoon in a corner of the barn Rupert took out the map he grabbed in the water off Santorini — and Tiresius had dried out and flattened before handing back to him.  It was not simply a map — as it turned out — of Prague.  Folded inside were two orders for his and Diogenes’ execution –  entry passes identifying them as “special emissaries”, as Alex and Dora, Assassins For The Empire, and ordered to return within a week to Neb’s court.  He stuffed them back into his pocket reflectively, then napped lightly before they were firmly, quietly roused at sunset.  They then followed the entire legion of Wandering Birds into the mountains, and at a good clip.  They could not see their feet nor the rocks nor the vines nor the water-rutted trail.  Their ankles twisted.  They stumbled and fell without knowing where they would land, often risking their necks.  The radar, so-called, a whoosh of feet, faint chirps for boulders to be climbed, a whistle for streams, a frog croak for mud, a muted eagle’s cry for steep inclines, all helped, but a sixth-sense for “seeing” the woods evaded them.  The Wandering Birds had not only an inner topological blueprint of the trails memorized, each footfall of the group was familiar to their ears since they walked in strict formation, an auditory clue to the art of sidestepping voids was essential for their survival.  Rupert and Aloysius could only fear when they stepped, or stumbled, and trust where they leapt, and at times, when a ravine or cliff gaped open beside them, with cold drafts of pure space yawning outward, when a branch slapped in their faces and they slipped sideways or forgot a signal, they felt death chill their spines, and they again forced themselves to hear, think and walk blind.  Aloysius fared better, it seemed to Rupert.  There was always something adaptably unconscious and instinctive about him.  Aloysius expected nothing from life and accepted everything, however weird, and adopted to whatever fell into his lap.  Rupert, however, stumbled often and had to force himself, every meter, and had to be dragged back into line by members who then had to stop the whole group, including the front runners, by a series of signals so that the pace and the communications would not be dashed.  Now, however, they were traveling quickly, dancing over rocks, as they eventually walked hundreds of kilometers over the next week, all at night.  There was nothing they could do but learn, ignore all conscious second-guessing, trust their guide’s senses, and make it gradually to Prague.

The mountains felt wonderful, however.  In the dark they could feel that solidarity of the Birds which had everywhere disappeared from earth, now that poverty proved an avalanche.  Through his fear Rupert could feel a spirit which he knew he had to find elsewhere.  He was tired of walking through life alone.  Even if Aloysius had been a great tramping friend, the Birds’ community acted as a salve on his tired knees, calves and lungs.  He felt his breath regulate with the others.  Felt the pace by which he steered his way under trees and over ruts or rocks, assumed an identity with an audible spirit before him and felt the purpose of their walking with nearly the same intensity by which he loved Undine, or respected Diogenes.  It was as if the wine and altitude of their comradeship had made him drunk and he could do impossible things, as he was now, when his conscious fear melted, and the radar kicked in.  He knew now that the silly, even shameless sentiment of which The Birds sung, indeed felt everyday, was a chimera to outsiders, but the world was also blind with self-interest, blinking at oblivion from its twilit perch on the wrong side of Collapse.

By the seventh night, questions had germinated in Aloysius’ and Rupert’s minds.  Friedrich and Ulrike whispered with them in a safe nest under birch trees.

“Why do we have to keep so quiet now when you were so loud when we first met?”  Aloysius asked.

“Couldn’t you have attracted thieves when you blared at us when we first met at the barn?”  Rupert whispered.

“Let us admit something,”  Friedrich tried, “O my English!  Italian, if you knew Italian!”

“Friedrich knows Polish, German and Italian,”  Ulrike explained. “But English — ooo la la!” Ulrike shook her hands, flapping the fingers slightly, ribbing Friedrich for his love of Italian:  “He learned his beginning English from reading in raised print, and from being read to by a rather famous composer after he drank.  You know Emerson?”

“No, I can’t say I do.  Do you, Aloysius?”

“Yea, in Hoboken.  I saw a guy named Emerson bite off the end of a bottle once.”

“Well, anyway, we had scouts out, listening.  We knew you were coming.”  Ulrike interrupted. “Indeed, that night we intentionally made it noisy to … pre-spook you.”

“It worked.”

“Are you sure we are safe?”  Aloysius asked, smoothing Ulrike’s hair with his fingers as a comb.

“Yes, Aloysius.  We’re safe as long as we keep our voices down.  We have never encountered people in this area before.  There were even fewer times that we heard the sighted around that little town Rottenmann.  We took the chance that we could scare you without giving ourselves away.  Thank you Aloysius.  That felt nice.”

“Friedrich, why are your sounds different than the others in tone?”  Rupert asked.

“Oh Friedrich is a natural musician,” Ulrike interceded after translating.  Friedrich waved his turn to speak, “He is our composer.  He has mastered counterpoint, theory, solfage.  And he is our finest arranger, our only genius, though he is a bit of a skeptic.”  Ulrike hugged Friedrich with sisterly admiration.

“More than a bit.”  Friedrich managed.

“So?”

“So?  He has music in his bones!  Not just because it helps us walk.  When he makes a signal it has nuance, tempo, it’s a sliver of an inner symphony.”

“Gracie.”  Friedrich whispered.

“Tell me this, then, why are you walking us all the way across Austria?  Into the dragon’s lair?”  Aloysius asked.

“And why did you trust us so quickly?”  Rupert added.

“Ulrike?”  Friedrich deferred.

“Well, we could … need you.  We might need an Auslander, a foreigner who knows nothing about the Balkanization, as it was once called, of all Central Europe, about our ethnic, which are really economic, feuds.  Dambursts of blood have flooded us since The Collapse.”

“Tell them Ulrike!”  Friedrich nodded.

“We frankly loathe Nebuchadnezzar, The Great Whore, Last Atavist, Slaughterer of the Innocent.  He has sent expeditions against us.  Anyone who has the guts or cultural naiveté to say, outloud, that they oppose him, we will help succeed.  Secondly, we need eyes but don’t wish to admit it.  We just had a member, a young boy, strangled on the outskirts of Gratz.”

“You do better than we do, in wandering, finding your way.”

“At night.  But there are things we cannot quickly respond to.  I hope we never have to use your eyes.  But we may.”

“What about …. I don’t know how to say it … sex?”

“Do you mean children?”  Ulrike asked innocently.

“Yes.”  Rupert lied.

“We do have children, but naturally, embarrassing as it is, we know we will lose many when they grow up.  They are rarely born blind, because most of us were blinded when we drank. They drift away when they make their mid-teens.  We encourage them to stay, even though they are sighted.  So far, a majority have left.”

“So, what happens between lovers, let’s say, in the winter?”

“Oh, Rupert!”  Ulrike exclaimed, hugged him and ended his leading questions with a kiss.  She walked away, and found her own place in the woods with the women, leaving the men in a hollow, charmed by her wit, warmth, minds flying with unBirdlike imaginings …

The next dawn, the Birds stopped in a secluded valley.  Since Rupert and Aloysius were assigned by Group Council from their first day to be adopted by Friedrich and Ulrike they had few contacts with other members and fewer demonstrations of their collective power.  Now, as the Birds rested in safe isolation they prudently chose to sun, and to sing.  Rupert and Aloysius looked up to each occupied hill then heard a warbling flow and pass over their heads.  Then bright trilling washed from one hilltop through their valley to the next, each throat, each voice rising and ebbing in volume so as to effect a slow-motion echo.  The tone colors grew brighter as the echo no longer seemed to originate ahead of Rupert and Aloysius but to vibrate into a center above their heads, from mid valley.  Then real birds began showing up at the fringes of the bowl created by the two hills.  First swallows glided in, winging high, twirling, doubling over, then starlings then bluejays then wrens joined until they added their song as if in a vocal mating dance or banquet.  From separate mountains and valleys, from miles around, glittering in an air electric with wings and feathers, different species, many instinctual rivals, or competitors whirled in concert in the makeshift forest amphitheater.  Then the Wandering Birds let up and listened to the real bird’s performance.

Rupert and Aloysius stood silent.  The music suggested a febrile, modulating chaos which sent shivers up their spines.  Rupert felt that his dream in Santorini had come true.  This too was a mirage city, mirroring this exile troupe, a  phantomn from the past, a silhouette community in echo and colorful striations of sound, which seemed prophetic, even as the Birds turned away to scrub and sun their chalky hides, and as skies above the valley emptied of real birds, winging home to their separate nests.

Rupert called to Ulrike, she having disappeared after taking her part, his head full of colors and warblings, when he came to a stream and spotted her bathing with dozen or so other women.  At first he started back, not wishing to be rude.  The women splashed, naked, and only he and Aloysius could possibly see them.  Aloysius pulled up even with Rupert just as he backed up and bumped into him, both feeling like peeping Toms.  As the sky was still dotted with the streamers of starlings and cardinals they both felt doubly filthy, from their nights of hard hiking, and because they were staring at women who could not stare back.  Regardless, Rupert could not take his eyes off the women’s firm bodies, athletic from years of brisk hiking, and pale from ever dwelling in the night.  Even the few black women’s skin had an ashen pallor, yet an almost lunar luster from solid health.  Ulrike too was well endowed as she soaped her full, pliant breasts, her blonde hair tossling around her shoulders, the stream lapping at and between her firm legs moistening her blonde vagina.

“Rupert?  Aloysius?”  Ulrike called, having heard their slight rustling in the bushes, “Is that you?  Why are you standing over there?”

“Uh, we just wanted to talk, you know, about the sound of the birds.”  Rupert sputtered.  Aloysius pulled on his arm trying to draw him back, feeling it unfair to mingle with women who could not return their gaze.

“Why don’t you take off those filthy dresses that you’ve been stuck in since you lost your clothes in Greece, enjoy the sun and wash up?” Ulrike shouted.

“We’ll go over among the men.”  Aloysius volunteered.

“Why?  Just jump in.  You’ll appreciate it tonight when we walk up some high mountains and you build up a sweat regardless of the temperature.”

“No, we had better not.”

“We’re working up a funk.”  Aloysius interceded.

“Funk?  What is a funk?”

“He enjoys stinking.  His own smell inspires him.  Makes him feel tough.”

“I don’t see why.  What’s so tough about smelling bad?”

“Don’t do it!”  Aloysius whispered, “We’ll get ourselves in trouble.  This could wreck everything. If we offend anyone or get to deeply involved, we’ll never make it to Prague.  Remember what Tiresius said.”

“What?”  Ulrike called, “Aloysius why don’t you want to be clean?”

“Another time.”  Aloysius shouted, then added to Rupert as he left, “don’t do it.”

“You jump in then Rupert.  I’m ordering you!”  Ulrike half-joked.

“O.K.”  Rupert shed his dress and began dipping it in the water to stall.  He was wondering why he so much wanted to jump in, because he needed a bath, or that Ulrike was insisting, or that he felt aroused.

“What are you doing?  Don’t be so dainty!  Jump in!”

When he did just that surfacing beside Ulrike he quite nearly went into shock.  The water seemed more like liquid nitrogen, much icier than back in Rottenmann and as he trembled, chattering his teeth, Ulrike rubbed a valuable bar of soap under his arms and over him as he began to involuntarily whimper,  barely able to catch his breath.  His breathy little plaints amused the women who stood in the freezing currents.  Ulrike soaped his entire body and reached his penis then said something in German which sounded like a joke after which the women buckled from laughter.

“What did you say?”

“I really couldn’t translate it.”

“What?”  Rupert whined.

“I said your little animal has shriveled to a button.”

It was the eighth night, however, when catastrophe caught up with the swift moving Birds.  Rupert and Aloysius, mindless of the signal to lean left and avoid a washed-out break in the trail beside a deep ravine, stepped off an overhang and fell against several uprooted trees, then to a gnarl of vines and branches.  As they twisted above the thousands of meters between them and the violet silhouette of tree tops and the flecks of scattered pearl from a mountain stream below, the half-moon masked by the racing clouds shed barely a clue to the sheer drop, to the snapped spines, pierced ribs and mortal concussion to come.  As Rupert and Aloysius hung, suspended, as the river rumbled and vines unraveled, as the last rocky summit they had sweated up hours before stood like an upside-down sentinel, and as stones dislodged around the roots of the weighted trees and the wind swung them slowly, they knew their death would be a blind, convulsive plunge.  Meanwhile, the Birds had assembled and Ulrike raced, broke their silence, and cried: “Rupert!”

“I’m here too!”  Aloysius shouted, dangling from a net of vines trying to snag a branch with his foot.

Rupert hung by one leg tangled in a vine gnarl.  Neither of them heard the alarm the Birds relayed on their behalf.  The radar had left Rupert.  His belief in it as a sighted man seemed pure folly, the blind-leading-the-blind, a cliché, and to this end he chose an accident which had to happen, had to impale and speed him toward death.  Saliva dripped from his upside down mouth to the tops of pine trees — jagged shadows against the “ah” of the pencil-thin, mercuric river below.  That ‘ah” ! He had meditated, experienced a precursing intuition, but had heard the sound and circumstance of his own death and had imagined it wise! The otherworldly dreams of the blind!  “Ah”, his omened death-knell.  He cried out cursing himself and screamed just as Aloysius shouted to Rupert and bid him goodbye.  It was then that a real net was cast, weighted by a rock, and whooshed past his face.  Another followed it down and nearly grazed Aloysius’ nose.  The nets were tied to rocks and tossed down just far enough for Aloysius to sling an arm into and crouch under it as they pulled him from danger.  Rupert stuck his free leg through the net and was tugged vigorously skyward.  Finally they were both panting on their knees safe on the gravel trail, on earth.

After they had caught their breaths and stopped trembling, Ulrike approached: “We don’t want you to walk tonight after stumbling.  You will imprint the fear of this accident and forget everything we taught you.  There are horses which wait for us.  We feed them, and have trained them in an area rather close to where we now stand.  It’s only hours before dawn now.  We are a hundred kilometers across the old Czech border.  We will walk you down to the horses then you can ride them.  But we must move.  This caused much noise and we are in a much more populous district than when we first met.  Horses, generally, make too much noise no matter how we work with them or pad their hoofs with cotton and tape.  We use them at risk but we do feed them, and when there are emergencies, we employ them.  You must ride the horses when we meet them and we will meet them soon.  Please get up.  We’ll walk slowly.”

After they followed the Birds through the dark forest, from the peak of the accident, they descended gently for an hour, then they sloped down steeply and stopped.  Ulrike was right.  Two horses stood grazing near a stream in a cool willowy grove, sleepily neighing at the approach of the thousands of quiet Birds drifting through low-lying mist.  Rupert and Aloysius were hoisted onto their backs, then the horses were pulled at the rein by Friedrich and Ulrike until just before daybreak.  They reached a wild berry patch, then an alcove full of mint and wild onion grown over with moss.  The air smelled of algae from a river in a deeper valley below.  They searched and found few footprints then evaporated silently into the moss, recesses and hollows, to hide from the gaze of the predatory sighted.

That night Aloysius had a dream.  He dreamed of  Rupert’s dog Virgil wagging its tail before him in purple forest shadow.  The dog led him sniffing to a row of gravestones and newly filled-in plots.  The horses’ breath steamed through a green halo around their heads as they snorted and grazed on cellophane. He saw the wraiths of Dora and Alex watch them from the ether.  Then Virgil stopped over a grave where the horses, leaving off grazing, kicked over a first marker.  Aloysius, on his knees, cleared away the clay and discovered Diogenes’ corpse, and its eyes opened.  Frightened, but following the dog, the horses kicked over another grave and Aloysius clawed off lilac and weed from Ulrike’s face and she too opened her eyes.  He then tripped over Einbrecher’s body but his hand grabbed and tripped Aloysius, and he fell directly, eye to eye, on Friedrich’s corpse which had opened its eyelids, yet his sockets were hollow, like caves, emitting blue light. Virgil barked and Aloysius peered curiously into those hollow sockets, into the violet caves, and saw inside, another world, a Necropolis of skeletons in blaring blue light and underground graveyard fog.  He was clawing away a heap of skulls when he started awake, jarred by guns discharging not twenty yards from the burrow in which he had chosen to sleep, not far from Rupert.

The Wandering Birds heard the rifle shots.  Yet no one stirred.  The man who fired was shouting in German with a loud, drunken Bavarian accent.  Neither Rupert nor Aloysius understood them but Ulrike and Friedrich did.  Every member of the Wandering Birds listened as their nightmares came true that dawn.  Ulrike, Friedrich and all the Birds crouched, carefully assessing their tormentor’s chilling demands:

“C’mon outta there!  C’mon! We heard your horses last night!  We have ‘em here.  And we have a prisoner here and we gonna kill him, if you don’t, to the last one of you, crawl out of your little hiding places.  We gonna kill him!  Then we gonna flush everyone out and waste every last one of you ghosts.  Achtung! We gonna play blind man’s bluff!  That’s right, c’mon, Raus, even the little kiddies and grandmas!  That’s right, you stupid blind fucks!  Pull your sleepy spook heads from your hiding nooks and save your crazy scout, and save your own ass.  C’mon out!  Now! Or we kill him right now!  Then everyone else too — if you don’t get out and march right up here.”

“We could kill you Wandering Birds.  But we only want your stuff.  Now save a life.  Your own.  What?  His name is Einbrecher? You hear that?  I’m pulling out his eyepatch now and snapping it.  Hear that?   Mmm, maybe his other eye works?  Maybe we’ll gouge that out too if you don’t hurry up?  Oh that’s it! Now you’re coming.  C’mon, oh we knew there was a lot of you, but don’t hide now.  C’mon! That’s it!  My how you know how to burrow!  We just want you to give over a little of what you have and we’ll go away.  You keep hiding and try anything and we blow you away, one by one, every last ghost with a rifle up your ass!”

“Oh we gonna tell the Big Neb in Prague where you are unless you cough up every last one of your goodies after showing us what you got.  Oh there’s a pretty girl.  Pale.  Blind!  But, mmm, so pure!  C’mon that’s it!  Wow!”

Rupert and Aloysius peeked up and saw the thieves meant Ulrike.  Yet they had no chance to attack.  They too had to emerge and could not to look directly at the two men who stood beside the horses, holding two rifles and a revolver.  Aloysius and Rupert stood next to the rest of the Birds, who were shocked from their sleep, and in terror had to line-up, waiting to be shot.  The problem was that the two men were standing at least twenty yards away with an old iron fence at their back and a river below them, so there was no chance to ease up from behind them.   Einbrecher was on his knees before them, whimpering, begging for his life and fawning over them, appealing to the two fat gunmen’s vanity.

“Look at them!  That’s right!   Line up by touching each other’s pinkies.  Get away Einbrecher and shut up!  Look, Jenz, wave your rifle around a bit.  O.K. here is the game!  Right?  Every party has a game!  And this is the game:  We challenge you to see who we are going to shoot.  Now looky here, come on group leaders, you tell us who we are pointing at now.  If you can’t we gonna rape your women and dash grandpa’s brains.  Now look, the barrel’s go’n around now and if you don’t tell me, who we got gunsights on, what their name is, what they look like, we gonna blast them to feathery heaven!  You know, we used to have infra-red scopes which woulda tracked you ghosts long ago!  But we got you now! And now, we gonna sell your little girls off after we had them blow us.  We gonna extract all your instruments and sell them after we beat you over the head with our silver and bronze.  We gonna execute every man who will not carry our take, and shoot them if they steal from us.  And … if you seeing Dogs of the Night don’t know exactly who we are pointing at we gonna execute that person.  Got it? If you are so smart-ass organized to live away above the poverty of the rest of us, live above us, you gonna have to see it our way! Now do you get the message? Point that barrel now Jenz, that’s it, now, who, am I, are we now pointing at?  Say it or that ghost is gonna to die!”

Rupert, while not understanding German, could quite clearly see the gun still pointed at Einbrecher from his peripheral vision. They had noticed the one-eyed Einbrecher and it was their intention to kill the sighted man regardless of what they claimed, as they would kill Rupert or Aloysius if they did not act blind.  A mere two men, but at twenty yards and just above the river bank they had forded, they had so distanced themselves as to be able to control the Birds with one hostage.  Then suddenly Einbrecher was shot.  The retort clapped through the hills and the old man fell, his fist jacked up in an Italian fuck-you, first to his knees, defiant, swearing. Finally, he fell on his face.  The Birds heard Einbrecher fall and followed his last desperate cry.

“Now look here this man’s been shot. You should have guessed.  You could have saved him.  Now you are responsible!  His blood is on your hands.  Now, we also have to hold a trial.  But, he had eyes.  Now if any of you have eyes for us we gonna shoot you.  Our justice is blind!  He He!”

Jenz, the other gunman, spoke up:  “Just think, these horses you trailed in here can see and you cannot.  Mmm.  Look’n good, “  He patted the horses, “… we have no horses and you think you fuckn blind ghosts gonna ride right past us?  Don’t you think they’re greedy Uli?”

“Greedy, sneaky, eerie, dead! That’s right, you know the horses can see who are they looking at, but you cannot.  You’re dumber than these animals!  Now, which one of you are the horses looking at, your own property, the clompers who gave you away?  What are you then you ghosts — walkn, driftn, walkn, driftn — human horse ghosts …  or whore’s goats?  Hee, hee.  I have heard of the blind girls you got and I’m going to ride them like horses!   Ooo my friends, my blind friends, my dreaming idiots, you gonna give me some of that blind nookie and I here gonna tell my buddies legend is true.  ‘All cats look gray in the dark!’  Now …” Just as the gunner left caressing the horse, it bridled, nervously, shivering its back and lifting a heel and stomped.  Then Friedrich, anxious and outraged, shouted: “Not the horses!” and the whole group thundered, in unison, at full volume: “WARTE! Not the horses!”. The two gunmen both shook from the deafening shout but they had heard of the sounds which the Birds were capable of, and, though trembling, they held their shaky ground, with guns pointed.

“Shut up! Shut up or you all get killed!  I said shut up YOU FUCKING BLIND FREAKS!” The one called Jenz pointed now at Friedrich.  “We gonna show you blind geese, if you don’t think killing one of yours is enough.  If there are any more shouts, every one will be shot.  Now, we gonna hurt your horses!  If this horse like this blind fucker here wants to resist, we got plenty of new games for you, believe me.  When we see that you feel this, we will know the pain of your being blind.  He He.”  The left hand man, Jenz, unwrapped a long thick leather whip from a burlap bag and whipped the ponies’ eyes viciously, and as it shrieked in pain, the whole group knew the pain of their own exile over again.  The gunmen were crude and barbaric, but this torture was well chosen.  For, with all the Birds’ discipline, the act of whipping an innocent animal’s eyes seemed to retell their whole exile backwards, and to mock their innermost agony.  Knowing this, Friedrich rushed, with incredible speed at the horse and knocked the gun out of the one called Jenz’s hand.  The other gun, however, which was trained on him, invisible to him, gutted Friedrich as he desperately hugged his arms around the horse’s neck and clung fast, until kicked dead by Jenz’s boot.

Ulrike screamed out “Friedrich!” The whole of the Wandering Birds knew now they had lost him.  Both of the thieves then aimed their rifles carefully through their scopes at Ulrike as she hovered over Friedrich’s cooling body, his walrus mustache stained with blood now running Ulrike’s blouse red, as she repeated over and over a phrase in Sanskrit, “Om nama Shivaya”.  The thieves ordered her to shut up.  Rupert could see that they hesitated to shoot her so that they could rape her.  It was her very beauty, her innocence, and culture which they had never seen in a woman, even if she were blind.  But then he realized, that in their scavenged, filthy dresses, and looking quite ugly as women, he could thread through to the front of the Birds with Aloysius and seem both too weak and too ugly as women to their predatory minds to be interesting.  Rupert tugged discretely on Aloysius’ sleeve and they made it unobtrusively to the fore.  Then Ulrike shouted in German: “He was our finest musician.  Our violet composer!  O Friedrich heights you saw they will never sniff, you saw the Heart of Light, heard the ‘ah’ behind the sky, you, you dwelt in Sunyata, you, enlightened, now dancing past the stars!”  When she repeated the same phrase in Sanskrit to consecrate his death, the whole of the Birds absolutely exploded in volume, discharging an auditory lightning flash, like a cluster bomb, growing in defiance and seeming to be coming from all angles in the valley and behind their tormentor’s backs.  Just at that moment, when the thieves struggled to block their ears, then gave up, their ears now bleeding, they retook aim at Ulrike as the cause of it all.  Rupert and Aloysius, their pulses out of control, hyperventilating as the crowd’s outrage reached full throttle, grabbed a steel flute and mandolin, and sprinted for their respective men, exploding upon them in rage.  As Jenz and Uli squeezed the trigger, desperately firing at Ulrike, they were each struck hard in the face and across the shoulders.  Their shots discharged upward, further driving them back over the iron fence, falling into the swollen river.

They bobbed then disappeared beneath dark rolling waves.  The Wandering Birds quieted, and listened to the currents, the rush of waves, rocks, eddies and white water which swallowed their enemies.  They murmured a dirge for their interpreter, Einbrecher, and artist, Friedrich, and gave a low murmur, then a wash of shadowy sighs, pulling in then out their collective breath, exhaling until they fell silent to bury their dead, slipping again into the night, hiding: ghosts, spirits, blind wisps invisible to a jaundiced world.

That evening, they buried Einbrecher and Friedrich and low horns accompanied bangos, guitars and zithers, and dirges were sung in several languages, especially in Italian. They lowered their dead into notches carved into the base of two trees, avoiding the roots so that each body would germinate growth in the tree which grew over it.  And as Friedrich’s music gently eased into the air, smoke rose over the valley from low smudge fires.  Below, since they were far into Czech territory, the victims from Nebuchadnezzar’s scorched earth raid on the dwindling countryside of Central Europe scrambled from their burnt-out squats, subsistence farms and fallow land.  From the mud, asphalt pens and killing fields of their raided homes thousands migrated towards future exile and homelessness in former Austria.  From apartment corners, former schoolhouses or deserted churches, those who had nothing to offer a self-proclaimed Emperor but resistance, old age or disease were shipped off by gunpoint or slinked away to begin an ill-begotten pilgrimage, trudging the soil below into muck.  Some sank staggering to their knees.  Some stood screaming, eyes gouged out and stomachs bloated.  Some had been shot, winged, castrated or gassed.  Some managed on crutches or were pulled on rough drays or cardboard boxes by family member or friends.  They too wandered, though stumbling as a hoard.  And as night approached they would sleep in squalor hiding from the vultures of Collapse like the Birds did, from small armed bands which would pick them over, rape their women, or dig into their mouths while still alive for metal wiring or fillings.  Their cries were not lost in the light dropping over the hills, however.  As twilight spread across the amber mountains and passed into violet — the color of the sacred Wandering Birds’ flower — the lowlander’s smoke, their howls, their pleas and cries of pain would mix as they rose with the incense of the funeral dirge Friedrich had once composed for other exiles.  As the Birds spurned the power that now ruled Central Europe, shrank away to nurture myths, to administer to the wounded, to pray for lost comrades, the shifting of two groups seemed like a mirror of two worlds reflecting each other, filtering through red embers and smoke.

Ulrike laced her violet into Friedrich’s hair and left the ritual. She found Aloysius and Rupert watching the multitude below.  She shuffled up in silence, her cheeks flushed, her delicate lips trembling and her blonde hair, now without her blue cap, straggling down her white brow.  Taking her hand, Rupert dried her tears while the valley smoke rose and she listened to the painful cries of the migrants and squeezed his shoulder.  Aloysius surveyed the exodus below and behind them, passing as night swallowed the valley migrants like fireflies in a glass, and as the moth of death stained the purified flock of the blind.  Ulrike whispered deep into Rupert’s ear, pleading: “Rupert, don’t go out there, amongst the predatory sighted!   The Birds will help the wounded. You know these men were just imitating Nebuchadnezzar.  Mimicking him because he has power.  Neb is far more evil!   I know you can’t, but please, please, stay!  Better, take me to Prague.  Take me to Paris! I want to be in a Revolution.  I can’t stand the Birds much longer.  With Friedrich dead, what more is here for me?  If you don’t, I will walk myself!  No, I don’t mean to threaten you.  Oh, I’m sorry!   But, you see, we are only a preparation for you.  For the great things you will do.  And why can’t the Birds be only a preparation for me? Why can’t I contribute to a real community, not stuffed into clumps of weed by day or roaming through shadows by night.  Why can’t I do something beyond my friends, something beyond the closed circle of my group?  Can you tell me that Rupert?  Can you?”

“I wish I could.  Yet, Ulrike, I don’t know a thing.  Not yet.  About myself.  About why the world we are born to is snuffing us out.  Killing us.  It’s I, Ulrike, who am blind.”

“I don’t see it that way Rupert.  Those nights walking with you, listening to you, forcing myself to sleep with the other women!  I felt something different in you, and I know … I can’t bare to take Friedrich’s death alone!”

“I began by killing a man and now … now I have wrecked your life!  Without us here Friedrich would be composing music.  Were you in love with him?  No, don’t answer.  Listen, I never saw any goodness in this world before.  I never encountered anyone reasonably organized.  I will remember this.  And everything you showed me.  I will bring it with me to Paris.”

“Rupert, you could wander this whole world and find nothing but evil.”  Ulrike pressed herself against Rupert for the first time and he felt the delicate femininity of her breasts and the light frame of her hips and burned to stay, to be taken care of, and care for her, and be part of the Wandering Birds; then he forced himself to withdraw.

“How far do you suppose it is to Prague?  Can we make it by tomorrow evening?”  Rupert changed voices, chiding himself to save both of them further pain.

“Yes, take the horses … ” Ulrike answered.

“A lot of good they did you.”  Aloysius muttered, walking up.

“A lot of good we did you.”  Rupert apologized.

“You did us fine Rupert, shush!” Ulrike put her fingers to his lips.  “Rupert, take me to a Revolution!” She whispered, having drawn his head then his ear to her lips, warmly breathing, kissing his ear.  Then she too suddenly withdrew.

“Goodbye!”  Aloysius hugged her.

“Aufweiderhoren.”  Rupert whispered.

“Aufweidersehen.” Ulrike replied.