The Great Flamingo Fishermen

Once there was a world on which a peculiar tradition took root.  The world was much like our own, in a previous age — an age before technology but not before villages. The peculiar tradition was this: the people of this world worshiped Fishermen from a mythical village that no one had ever seen. The men of the village were known as ‘The Great Flamingo Fishermen’ — or at least that’s the closest translation in English. These men caught and ate the flaming birds of heaven. This activity imbued them with the powers of the gods, such that they became the acme of divine authority on their world.

Their flamingos were not exactly the same thing as those of Earth. In fact, no one had actually seen these birds — which were said to be something like a living ring of colorful flames that flew through the sky on celestial errands. In essence, we might call them flying plasma-doughnuts. In precisely the same way that everyone was certain that the Great Flamingo Fishermen existed, they were certain that the flamingos existed.

The flaming aura of the birds was said to be proof of their divine origin, and those who caught, prepared, and consumed them not only became divine, but decreed the divinity of the world through their heroism. These men were the very reason of the existence of the world. The people revered them as gods. Vast offerings were made daily, children were dedicated to them and named in their honor. Wars were fought over slights directed at interpretations of the ancient traditions. There were churches as well; and the villages themselves were organized around concepts and practices that sprung directly from stories and documents of the Great Flamingo Fishermen.

The Great Flamingo Fishermen were the root metaphor of this culture. Their world was so thick with this strange idea that nary a book or thought existed which didn’t somehow connect to or reference the Fishermen.

On this world a special child was born. Like the others around him, he eventually came to believe in and revere the Fishermen. He was independent enough, however, to develop two significant problems. The first was that some of the things others thought or did in honor of the Fishermen seemed completely absurd. It was as if traditions which once held meaning had gone feral after millennia of referring to something which was, essentially, missing: the Fishermen themselves.  Which brought him to the more central problem: unlike other people, this young man was afire with the necessity of locating the Fishermen and seeing them with his own eyes.

It was said, of course, that if anyone ever did manage to locate the Great Flamingo Fishermen, the shocking awe of their holiness and power would unquestionably annihilate the witness. This served, in part, to explain why none had seen them. There were grave admonitions against seeking them in person, though it was encouraged to seek them in dreams, which many did. The resulting encounters were the warp and weave of many of their traditions, stories, and daily anecdote.

Around the time of the onset of manhood, our young adventurer left the village to wander the world in search of the Fishermen. A man on such an errand requires a cover story, and when questioned our protagonist would reply that he was searching out a great treasure which had long evaded recovery. This generated a bit of controversy, but, over time, he developed quick answers to calm the ready questions of those he met on his way.

He passed the years searching for clues to the whereabouts of village. Wandering far and wide, he had many opportunities to expand his skills and horizons during his quest. He learned to seek the company of the old, the outsiders, the wanderers — for with them he could more safely pursue the questions which burned within him. Occasionally, someone he encountered hinted that it was possible to locate the Fishermen, and on rare occasion offered some riddle or scrap of information. He carefully recorded each incident, and over time, piece by piece, the clues began to acquire a cohesive aspect.

There were scraps of rumors amongst the insane worthy of attention. Some said the Fishermen themselves were mad, that long association with divinity had warped their minds. Others said that they existed only in the past, or in some idealized place, like a superposition of their world. A sort of fisherman’s Asgard.

Finally, the road led to an eccentric woman who was known to inhabit an ancient grove of trees near the foot of a great mountain. She told the hero to desist, and warned him that the cost of his success would be too dear to sustain. Undaunted, he followed the clue that he finally won from her. The adventure that resulted is too long to tell here, but at last, high upon the mountain beneath which the woman had spoken her dire warnings, he came one afternoon upon a puzzling sight.

Around a giant pit sat 25 men. The pit was some 50 feet in diameter; an imperfect circle surrounded at regular intervals by men in the most astonishing garb. Over the finest cloth he had ever seen, they wore pieces of exotic armor of gold inlaid with images painted in precious stone; but this armor was clearly not designed for combat. It was the ceremonial finery accorded to their incredible dignity.

Our protagonist trembled as he summoned his courage and emerged from the woodland into open view. He paused at the periphery, kneeling in awe, and, shivering with urgency and anticipation, announced himself to the men. He gave his name, and told of his tireless quest. The fishermen seemed agitated and confused. The eldest of them, along with two others, approached him, and escorted him into their near presence at the edge of the pit.

The old one, venerably ancient and clearly their leader, spoke.

“How did you get across the gap between our worlds?” asked the elder. The young man declared what he understood to be the truth: that he had crossed a great river of fire in a vision, and he awakened from his vision in their world. They exchanged questions for a time. Finally the youth asked about their sacred work.

‘You are those who catch the flaming birds of heaven and consume them to give life to the world?’ The ancient one affirmed this. The youth was beside himself with awe. But he was also confused. ‘Why do you fish in a pit for what must surely lie above us in the sky?’ The old man looked deeply into the youth’s eyes and he spread his arms toward the pit as he explained: ‘This is the mouth of the world and it leads to the heart of the sky’. The youth was mesmerized by the obvious and ironic truth of the worlds of the elder. He had always wondered how their fishing lines could rise into heaven to catch the flaming birds.

The mind of the youth broiled with urgent questions. ‘How is it that your fishing lines are not burned up?’ The ancient smiled. ‘We prepare them in a sacred way. And the flames of heaven… are not those of our world…’ The mystery implied by the ancient’s final implication stunned the youth; but this was interrupted as a shout went up among the men on one side of the pit. They began calling out and dancing around one of the men whose long pole was deeply bent as he worked to raise something from deep within the pit. Finally, amid nearly deafening celebration, the fisherman raised his prize into view.

The youth was profoundly confused, but waited until things had quieted down somewhat. There was a complicated ceremony involving the old man and the catch. Finally, he had a chance to ask questions. ‘This thing you brought forth from the pit. What is it?’ The elder’s eyes sparkled wildly. ‘That is a flamingo.’ The youth’s confusion deepened. ‘The thing the man raised from the pit, that is one of the flaming birds of heaven?’ ‘Yes. It is. Tonight we shall consume it, and the worlds will be renewed, and our heroism sung far and wide.’

The youth cleared his throat and thought for a moment. Unfortunately, his forthrightness and the urgency of his emotions got the better of his capacity to clearly predict social outcomes. ‘With all due respect, I cannot but tell you that what I saw raised from the pit was not a bird at all. It was a collection of offal and slime — wretched and filthy, horrific to behold. It appeared to be wrapped around the partially decomposed corpse of some hapless animal that had died in it. Surely you do not mean that this is a flamingo — one of the flaming birds of heaven —’

The men stopped utterly in their discussions. All eyes were upon the ancient as he pondered the words of the youth. The men exchanged confused glances for a moment. They looked at the flamingo, at each other, at the elder. A murmur arose as understanding began to dawn silently upon the assembly. The ancient one himself was clearly astonished. But finally, a new agreement emerged, also in silence. With nothing more than a glance from the ancient, the youth was roughly seized and quickly bound. The men returned to their preparations and fishing while the ancient addressed the interloper.

In a low whisper, he spoke. ‘Long ago, our ancestors did catch the flaming birds of heaven, but there was a great cataclysm when our world was broken off from heaven. None can remember this and none are even aware of the story anymore.

Although you were insightful enough to see through what these men cannot, you are also stupid, and will die this day for your ignorance. The reason is simple: even if you are correct, you must see that no one can admit it. What would we become in our own eyes if we admitted what you have discovered? What would happen back in your world if this truth were known? All of history would be wrong. All the great stories would be revealed as lies. The toil and adoration of our ancestors would be shown to have been wasted on a fantasy that was, in fact, closer to its opposite than its ideal. Who do you suppose would allow such a revolutionary thought to come forth, to emerge into the world, to proceed? What would we become tomorrow if we allowed or embraced your revelation? Fishermen? We would not even be men. We would be… utterly and completely destroyed.’

‘I would speak,’ said the youth.

‘Your have said too much already.’ The ancient motioned. Two of the fishermen approached and packed something into the bound youth’s mouth. The ancient nodded, looked briefly into the defiant eyes of the young man, and gestured. The fishermen carried him to the edge of the pit and threw him in.

The other fishermen pretended not to notice. They had carefully forgotten everything about the events of the day. It was, indeed, as if nothing had happened at all. Except that, on the very same day, in a village near to the one where the murdered youth grew up, a girl was born.

As she grew, it so happened she shared the wonder and urgency of the by now long-forgotten stranger’s secret quest. Finally, one day, she found her way to an old woman who lived in a grove at the base of a mountain. The woman warned her to desist, that the cost would be too great should she succeed at her desire, but the girl would not be moved. The woman advised her: ‘Do not approach them. If you should succeed, watch from a distance until you understand.’ The girl took heed of the woman’s warnings. The elderly woman provided the crucial clue, as she had done before.

Many adventures and visions later the girl found them. She watched until a catch was made, and the air filled with an awful stench. She was silent as she realized that they were not catching birds at all, and that what they were catching was horrific. She departed the scene and headed for her village, ruinously disillusioned, that night she dreamed of bathing in a light that spoke to her of a new world for her people and their children. She awoke passionately determined to see that her people would stop worshipping this. Perhaps later, they could go to the fishermen themselves, and help them to recover their own personhood and dignity. Perhaps, too, their sacred mission.

She arrived at her village and convened a council of elders who met in the Church. She was well-liked and selected the wisest and most trustworthy members of the community to attend. They were excited by her return and the urgency of her request.

She carefully explained her quest, and what she had, at great risk and cost to herself, discovered. As she did so, she noticed that one of the men went to the front and stood by the door. Others began to seem very concerned, as she expected. Finally, when she concluded her presentation, the people exchanged a few worried glances and some whispered conversation.

The long and short of it was this. They secretly killed the girl, and buried her behind the church, and nothing was ever said of it again.

And that day, another boy was born, in a nearby village. When, decades later, he found an old woman living in a grove at the base of a mountain, she did not attempt to dissuade him. ‘If you find them, keep your distance. If you learn their secret, you must be very careful what you do with it, or it will be your end.’ The young man listened carefully, wondering at the import of the old woman’s words. The old woman provided the secret clue.

When he found them, he watched from nearby. It took time to understand what was happening. He camped nearby, and observed them over and over again. Finally, he realized that if he approached them and told them what was happening, they would most likely kill him. What else could they do? After all, if they were merely fishing for offal, how would they understand themselves, the meaning of their lives — what would they do beyond the moment of revelation?

Then, he began to think even more deeply about the matter. He realized he could not return to his people with this news. They would face the same problem. How would they understand themselves if they realized that the great flamingo fishermen had not been catching and eating the flaming birds of heaven but the stinking wretchedness of the underworld? All of their precious stories, fables, paradigms of knowledge and the very structure of their culture would explode. They could neither allow it nor participate in such an atrocity. The man went to sleep. When he awoke the next morning, he knew what to do. He made preparations for travel, and returned to his village.

He did not gather elders. Instead, he had assembled a variety of toys, made out of wood. He went around the village and with the toys, he discovered which of the children were most capable of sudden insight. Six or seven of them came out into a field with him and they sat down in the tall grass, completely out of sight from the adults. He taught them a series of games that seemed innocuous superficially. Then he showed them that hidden inside the games were clues about the Flamingo Fishermen and what they were really up to. He explained very carefully that this was a secret that only children could understand, and that adults must never be allowed to discover it. The children understood.

He went from village to village in this way, sowing children with the understanding that the story of the Very Confused Flamingo Fishermen was a story about adult minds in general. The children understood. They patiently put up with all of the strange ceremonies involving the Flamingo Fishermen and did not tell the adults what they actually understood about the problem.

Over time, however, these children grew into adults. They remembered the strange man with his toys and his stories, and they raised their children with the subtle understanding that the strange traditions were soon to be transformed, even if, for now, they must be borne in quiet understanding. Some of their children became toyMakers, and storytellers.

Slowly, their world transformed.

Some generations and a few wars later came a day when a large group of young people found an old woman in a grove at the base of a mountain. She gave them the clue without hesitation and did not attempt to dissuade them from their purpose.

What she said, instead, was truly wise: “Be gentle with them. Their ways are from another time, and they do not understand their own ceremonies. They will need your help to find new ways to be Men. New ways to be great men. New ways to be the Heroes they have so long known themselves as.’

All of this the children understood with subtle clarity. When they found the great Flamingo Fishermen, and joyfully surrounded them, a strange an unexpected thing happened, which was this. As the fishermen left the pit, never to return, they saw, to their shock and delight, a flaming bird, flying down from heaven, leading them back toward their village, and into a future rich with the treasures of their birthrights, and impoverished of lies.

© D.D. 2002

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