How the Snake Bird Learned to Dry His Feathers
On a long-ago summer afternoon in the land between the rivers, Tcheecateh was enjoying a long, cat-like stretch of a nap on a fallen sabal palm until the snake bird created a raucous spectacle by running, splashing and wing flapping across the previously calm water of the swamp. Although the blissful quiet returned when the bird finally became airborne, the panther kitten hissed at a blowing leaf out of frustration and stood up to see who else was awakened by Chentetivimketv’s noisy takeoff.
Weehatkay, the kitten’s cynical water moccasin friend, lay in a disorganized coil at the far end of the log. As usual, his white mouth was hanging wide open in a rather permanent yawn.
The kitten hissed again, pretending a bear hid behind Grandmother Cypress.
“There’s no need for the pretense, Tcheecateh, my nap also came to an abrupt end.”
The moccasin’s yellow cat-like eyes focused on the young panther’s indigo eyes with a rare trace of humor in them, though Tcheecateh thought the flickering shadows from the feathery cypress leaves might be playing with his imagination again.
“Chentetivimketv can soar with eagles,” said Weehatkay, rattling his tail in the leaves for emphasis, “but when he’s too wet to easily find the wind, he exhibits less grace than a feral hog.”
“Feral hogs are tasty, but I’ve never seen one fly.”
“My point exactly,” said the snake. “While I’m dispensing wisdom, I might as well tell you my snake brothers and I don’t think Chentetivimketv looks snaky enough to be called a snake bird.”
“That’s Fuswa’s name for him,” said the kitten, wondering if the old Limpkin was listening from the pickerel weed.
“I have never seen a snake with a yellow bill for a mouth,” said Weehatkay.
“Me neither,” said Tcheecateh. “Look, here comes Ahkoluhfutcho. He can leap into the air from the water’s surface without any fuss and bother. Perhaps he knows what’s wrong with Chentetivimketv.”
“I doubt a showy duck with a green neck and orange legs knows about anything other than preening and looking at his reflection in puddles.”
Tcheecateh rolled off the log and walked over to the duck because he knew from previous conversations that Ahkoluhfutcho didn’t trust the moccasin. “Old ‘Trap jaw,’” he called him when the snake wasn’t close enough to hear.
“Sunning with snakes again, are we?” asked Ahkoluhfutcho.
“Not we,” said the kitten, “just me.”
“I have things to do,” said the mallard. “Do you want something?”
“We—the snake and I—were wondering why Chentetivimketv works so hard to get into the air when you can do it so easily.”
“When I look for food, I don’t get as wet as Chentetivimketv. My feathers are different because water rolls off them,” said Ahkoluhfutcho. “Perhaps that’s why.”
“Thank you,” said Tcheecateh, but the mallard was no longer listening because he was skittering away from the water moccasin that shot between the kitten’s paws like a tree limb flung by a spinning storm.
“I love ruffling vanity boy’s feathers,” said Weehatkay.
“My mother will stomp on that pointy head of yours if you ever slither between her feet like that.”
Weehatkay yawned. “Old Coowahchobee has lost her playful spirit.”
“Maybe so, but now I see why the other critters say you’re aggressive,” said Tcheecateh as he walked to the water’s edge for a drink.
When a school of minnows fled the sunlit shallows and vanished into the dark of eel grass and deep water, the moccasin slid into the water, encircling the bright rocks near the kitten’s mouth.
“I see the connections between all things,” said Weehatkay. “I’m connected to those minnows you scared away with your busy tongue, but I chase them toward the shore where they’re easy to catch. I suggested that Chentetivimketv do the same. Then he could eat without getting his feathers wet.”
“What did he say?”
He said, “I’m not wasting my time with minnows.” So, I replied, ‘If you must soak yourself spear fishing in the deep water, then dry off by rolling in leaves and dead grass. You’ll also discover find my old tunnels are a perfect place for hiding babies whenever a hungry fish crow arrives.”
“Did Chentetivimketv roll in the leaves?”
“He did not,” said Weehatkay. “He does not trust the word of a snake even though ‘snake’ is part of his name. But he trusts playful panther kittens, and that is why I think you’ll be the one to tell him how to find the wind in a less disruptive manner.”
“How could I know such a thing?” asked Tcheecateh. “Mother has taught me to climb to the top of the tallest trees in the land of Uchennacluccko and to look down upon the Apalachicola River from the high bluffs where the wind is almost strong enough to carry a tiny kitten such as me into the sky. If you have watched Chentetivimketv find the wind when he is dry, then you’ve seen him dive into flight from his best perches. But I would never think of doing such a thing because I have never pretended to be a bird.”
“You are learning fast, my friend,” said the moccasin, gliding out of the water after swallowing a minnow with minimal effort. “Chentetivimketv won’t listen to me, but he will trust a panther kitten who knows nothing about flying. Now, I am ready to return to our palm tree for another warm nap.”
“Sleep well, Weehatkay.”
After Weehatkay left, Tcheecateh watched Ahkoluhfutcho dabbling for slimy swamp plants. Even though the mallard thrust his head and upper body under water, he found the wind quickly whenever he wanted to fly. But Chatifutcho, who had a reddish head, dove farther beneath the surface and had to run across the water to take off into the sky. Plainly, too much water made flying difficult. But why did water roll off a green headed duck and not a red headed duck? If Chentetivimketv ever wanted to dry his feathers, he needed to talk to Fuswa or Alolochate because limpkins and herons knew how to fly when wet.
Then, as so often happened when Tcheecateh was thinking very hard about something, that something showed up. In fact, two somethings appeared. Alolochate flexed her legs and leapt into the air, flew over the water on steadily flapping slate-grey wings and disappeared south over the wire grass and old pines that led down to the Gulf.
To the north, there Chentetivimketv descended over the tops of the dwarf cypress trees. He landed on his belly in the deep water and sank like a boulder, only to emerge closer to shore with a sunfish impaled on his long, yellow bill. He shook it several times, tossed it into the air and caught it headfirst, and swallowed it whole.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were awake,” said the gleaming, olive-black bird. “I would have shared my fish.”
“I ate a fish once,” said Tcheecateh. “It tasted bad.”
“To each his own, I always say. Weehatkay’s own is sleeping on your favorite log. You are also fond of sleep, yet here you are.”
“Some flapping bird woke me up.”
“I’m sorry,” said Chentetivimketv, walking closer with his wings out for balance and his legs stepping high and purposeful. Then with in a chattering whisper, he leaned close to the kitten’s ears and said, “Duck laughs at me, Limpkin who seldom flies asks why I bother to do so, Heron tells me I’m trying too hard, and Snake dreams up absurd techniques.”
“So I’ve heard,” said Tcheecateh. “Perhaps you’re eating too many fish.”
“Are you suggesting I’m fat?”
“No, just large boned.”
“You may well be right. When I’m in the water, I sink. It’s always been that way. In fact, I learned how to sink and swim before I learned how to fly?”
“Not so odd when you remember my nest was on a cypress limb that reached out over the water. When I fell out—or was pushed out my one of my brothers—I hit the water and had no choice but to figure out what to do about it.”
“I fell in the water once when I was little,” said Tcheecateh.
“You’re still just a kitten.”
“So Mother reminds me. I fell off that same limb and when I hit the water, I learned how to swim before Mother knew I was wet. Very cold and very wet.”
“I feel that way every time I fish even on sunny days like today,” said the snake bird.
“Time passes very slowly when a bird like me is wetter than wet and colder than cold.”
“Why can’t you lie in the sun?”
“You want me to pretend I’m a panther or a water moccasin and lie down on a log?”
“You would need to stretch out like this,” said Tcheecateh, standing high up on his legs while sending a slow rippled down his body from head to tail. “And then like his.” He flopped down and rolled over.
“I would need two more legs to stretch like that and being upside down is against my nature and my better judgment.”
“Stretch out your wings, then, so they catch the breeze and all the sweet warmth the sun has to offer,” Tcheecateh said, knowing full well that wing stretching was probably the silliest thing he’d said in a long time.
Chentetivimketv scratched his head with his right foot as though he either had an itch or an important thought.
Finally, he said, “Even though you’re only a kitten, you might be growing into a smart panther. Let’s see how smart you are.”
“Okay,” said Tcheecateh, a bit flattered.
Chentetivimketv walked over to Grandmother Cypress’s lowest limp and climbed up on it as though he were a sure-footed squirrel and walked along its twists and turns until he found a sunny spot. Then, he stretched out his wings as though he were showing a young snake bird what flight looked like once he found the wind. His wet wings, and especially the white streaks on his back, caught the light and shone brightly like the first rain drops of a morning shower.
Tcheecateh sat down to wait.
Time passed, and Ahkoluhfutcho walked out of the water, noticeably keeping Tcheecateh between him and the awakening snake. Ahkoluhfutcho glanced at Tcheecateh and then he stared at Chentetivimketv. Chentetivimketv said nothing. The duck made shrill “kwek-kwek” sound which Tcheecateh thought indicated disgust, though the shifting breezes and rasping tree branches might have been playing with his hearing.
Ahkoluhfutcho waited. More time passed. Fuswa emerged from the pickerel weeds, hopped up on the limb and said, “Chentetivimketv, if you are pretending to be part of this tree, you aren’t fooling anyone.”
“I’m sorry,” said Chentetivimketv, “I am not standing here to fool limpkins, mallard ducks, panther kittens or water moccasins. I am warming myself and drying my feathers.”
“Who suggested such a silly thing?”
“I’m not surprised after all the time he spends learning pranks from Weehatkay.”
The moccasin glided along the top of the fallen sabal palm until he was a few feet away from Tcheecateh. Ahkoluhfutcho stepped closer to the water’s edge.
“Fuswa, I say our playful kitten, son of the venerable Coowahchobee, has spoken with wisdom today. Watch and wait. Wait and observe. We will stare with wonder as Chentetivimketv flies away without causing a noisy turbulence across the face of the waters.”
“We shall see and hear or not hear,” said Fuswa.
For the second time that afternoon, Tcheecateh felt flattered, but he remained silent for fear he’d give himself away and hear Weehatkay call “vanity boy.”
How much time was soon? Before soon arrived, Fuslalucho, the blue jay landed in a higher branch and waited. He said nothing. That was surprising, for saying nothing was against his nature. The great blue heron, ever austere, appeared as though by magic and stood in the shallow water, watching and waiting. So, too, the red headed duck, a young alligator and an old deer.
“It is time,” said Chentetivimketv.
He climbed higher and stood where his old nest used to be. Without further preparation, he dived toward the water, moving so fast that Tcheecateh was sure the trusting snake bird would disappear beneath the surface, break his neck on a rock, and then be carried away by a nasty gar fish. But no, he swooped up. His wings carried him into the wind. Sooner than soon he was far out over the dwarf cypress and then flying in a wide circle over the wiregrass in one long, graceful and very silent demonstration.
“Oh my goodness, little kitten,” said Fuswa.
“This day will be long remembered across the land between the Apalachicola and the Ochlockonee Rivers, and even south across the bay to the barrier islands,” said Weehatkay.
The moccasin leaned against Tcheecateh’s right leg as they all watched the sky. The black speck with scattered clouds became a bird. The bird became Chentetivimketv who glided low above the heads of those who gathered there to see him dry his feathers and take to the air like a normal bird.
Tcheecateh guessed the snake bird was too exhilarated to land and discuss what it was like to be dry. He hoped his guess was more true than imaginary. But then Chentetivimketv wiggled his wings at the kitten as he by swept overhead, and that was real and thanks enough.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of Sarabande, The Sun Singer, Garden of Heaven: An Odyssey, and Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire.