Page name: The Emperor's Birdkeeper [Exported view]
# of watchers: 7
A short story for the Mythology Contest
about the Emperor's Birdkeeper who spends his whole life chasing an extremely special bird, only to find something completely different in the end.
Once upon a time, in China, there was a man. He looked neither ordinary nor very special, but everybody knew that behind his common beard and his patient eyes, he carried a great deal of importance with him.
When the emperor had finished building his enormous zoo in the heart of Beijing, he had personally appointed the man to be in charge of the gigantic aviary which was his pride and joy. In the years that followed, the man traveled all over China to look for the finest and most precious birds for the emperor. He brought them back to the zoo one by one until he had found the last of them. The emperor would visit the huge birdcage every single day to admire his collection, to feed the birds from the palm of his hand and to compliment the birdkeeper on his accomplishments.
One day, the emperor walked into the aviary with a troubled look on his face. Instead of feeding the birds, he sat down on one of the benches and stared into nothing. The birdkeeper was slightly troubled by the sight and eventually gathered enough courage to ask the emperor if something was wrong.
“I had a strange dream last night,” said the emperor without looking him into his eyes. “I dreamt that one of the gods spoke to me. He said that I had the most beautiful collection of birds he had ever seen, that he had seen every kind and every size. As I thanked him for his kind words, however, he mentioned there was one bird I was missing. Saying this, he released the most beautiful bird I had ever laid eyes on. When I tried to capture it, it flew out of my window. All I could do was look at its magnificent wings and tail.” The emperor sighed heavily and then looked up to the birdkeeper. “I want this divine bird in my aviary, no matter what.”
The birdkeeper nodded trembling, relieved that the emperor had him not beheaded on the spot for overlooking the most beautiful bird of all. He promised to start looking for the precious bird at once and bid his emperor farewell. After he packed a few of his belongings, he began his journey and left the city gates of Beijing far behind him.
The man walked and walked. Through endless fields of rice, through dense forests and misty morning fogs. In every village he came he asked if people had seen the beautiful bird. Sometimes he received answers of vague sightings, but more often the people claimed they had never seen such a bird. “After all, what would a divine bird do among common people?” they all asked themselves. “High in the mountains, where the gods live, that is where you will probably find your bird,” they said.
And so the birdkeeper ascended on the largest mountain he could find. He climbed for weeks at a time, advancing stone by stone, until he finally reached the top. There, not bothered by the snow, sat an old man with a white beard. As the birdkeeper approached him, the man began to speak. “Come, my friend,” he said with a wise and ancient voice. “Sit down and tell me what you are looking for.” The birdkeeper sat down on a rock and told the old man that he was looking for the most beautiful bird in the world. The wise looking man stroked his beard and thought for a long time. Eventually he took a deep breath. “The best way to find what you are looking for is to stop looking for it.”
This answer confused the birdkeeper greatly. “How am I supposed to find something I am not looking for?” he replied to the old man. Or so he thought, at least, for the old man had strangely disappeared. The birdkeeper sighed and began to descend the mountain again where be continued to look for the bird. Years passed in which he traveled through swamps, rocky landscapes and fields of tall grass.
One day, as he was hiking through an overgrown and ancient valley to protect himself from the burning sun, he sat down on a rock near a waterfall, his feet bathing in the cool water. Because of the terrible summer heat he quickly fell asleep, terribly longing to return to his aviary. When he woke up hours later, the old man he had seen on the mountain sat next to him with a fishing rod deployed in the pond.
“Well, my friend,” he spoke with a calm voice, “did you find your bird yet?” Surprised to see this man again, the birdkeeper replied with caution that he had not yet found the last addition to the emperor’s aviary. The old man stroked his beard again and concentrated on the fishing for a long time. “Remember what I told you so long ago, my friend,” he said. “You will not find what you are looking for unless you give up your search.” The birdkeeper stared into the water and before he could reply, the old man had vanished once again.
After the second encounter with the old man, the birdkeeper thought long and hard about what he could have meant. He kept thinking about it as he passed through deserts, strolled along the seashores and walked along the great Chinese wall. Many years passed. The man slowly grew old and wary, his face became wrinkled, his beard grew long and white and his vision became blurrier with every year that passed.
Finally, when he felt that his feet refused to carry him any further, he sat down on a fallen tree on the side of a road. After a little while, another man came from the opposite direction, who sat down next to him. The birdkeeper looked up and vaguely recognized him as the old man he met two times before. “You look like you have traveled all over the world to find this bird,” he spoke softly, “But even after almost a lifetime of searching you still haven’t found it.” The birdkeeper stared at the ground in silence.
“But there is no need to look for your precious bird anymore, my friend,” the old man continued. The birdkeeper looked up at him, his eyes full of surprise. “What are you talking about?” he asked. The old man smiled patiently at him. “But have you not heard that the emperor died last week? As a last wish, he released all the birds in his aviary so they could fly around freely again.”
When the birdkeeper heard these words, he felt a sudden pain in his heart. It was the realization that he had spent his entire life wandering around, looking for this bird, all in vain. He lowered his head and began to cry that he had wasted so much of his precious time, tears rolling down his wrinkled face and his white beard. All had been for nothing.
At that moment, a beautiful bird landed before him, its wings and tail filled with magnificent colors, its eyes looking at him with wisdom and understanding. This bird, it was the one he had been looking for all his life. Suddenly he realized what the old man had tried to tell him all along. When he turned to speak to him, he caught a last glimpse of the old man, ascending high into the clouds like only the gods were able to do.
The bird never left the side of the birdkeeper again. After his death, his body was put to rest in the heart of the gigantic aviary in Beijing. The divine bird still flies around there, although it can only be found by those who are not looking for it.
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