Sunday, January 24, 2010
I have a trained crow, which somehow learned to talk. Most people know that parrots can speak, and that mockingbirds can emulate the sounds cascading from almost anything, but few people know that a crow can learn words as easily as a bleach-bottle blonde can ignore his or her own dark eyebrows.
There are birds at sea, of course, but they tend to be only a certain type of bird, interested in surviving the vastness of the ocean, and less concerned with discourse or the arts.
On land (as I have been since dry-docking the floating atelier and holing up in my studio), the birds are different. They are no longer just trying to survive, but instead are busy cultivating their own lives. Social, musical, and industrious, birds of the land are ever active.
I first found my trained pet while trying to sketch a set of five looks for a countess from somewhere old fashioned who wanted to look new without appearing as if she was trying too hard. In her world, no one appreciates a striver; when you lack for nothing, you start to find other ways to come up short. Ambition, for her, went out the window the second she stopped needing to check the price before purchasing.
She was a great client—calm, patient, and willing to sit through the number of fittings required to nail the difficulties of micro pleated textured silk without yawning or complaining. She had typical bones, a slightly short torso, and marginally irregular shoulders (one just a touch wider than the other). She had taught herself to turn when facing someone so that her shoulder line always appeared straight and symmetrical through the subtle foreshortening. I encouraged her instead to exploit the irregularity as a calling card and trust the long shoulder forward, magnifying its elongation and embracing the louche overtones of its extension.
Grateful to find a way to enjoy her own form rather than try to hide it, she immediately adopted the change. Now, whenever someone takes a photo of her, she always appears in motion: at once alight and at rest. She mastered the new stance instantly, and I admired her willingness to go all the way for a look, right down to calculating her appearance from the point of view of others while still maintaining her individuality as a unique body and original form.
She also had a dreamy, drifting personality that often allowed her to say utterly banal pleasantries one moment and then irrevocably strange conspicuities the next. Odd comments came from nowhere with no warning or warm-up, and then disappeared again within the murmur of polite conversation. So I did not even flinch when she explained to me that on her way in she had seen a crow that could speak.
After fitting her all afternoon, chalking and re-pinning muslin, and sketching out how the whole look would come together, we took a break and went to the open-air esplanade that runs off of the back of the studio. Instead of strolling, she sat. I sat near her and was busy looking across her shoulder line, not to see down her blouse, but to calculate the radian of the circle I would use to cut a particularly tricky single-piece folding wrap jacket (like Cristobal Balenciaga’s no seam shoulder folds) as a way for her to layer her total look. In my preoccupation, I missed seeing the bird walk up. It waddled over and started squawking.
At first I could not make out what it was saying, but then the words were clearly present. He could say individual words, such as “level” “racecar” and “bob” and then would also say longer phrases such as “Never odd or even” and “No lemon, no melon.”
My client looked up at me and said, “How sad - he only speaks in palindromes.”
When I asked her why it was sad, because I thought it was rather remarkable, she explained that after every sentence, no matter how far he goes, he was back to where he had started. She gave a small smile, and then drifted away again to the vagaries of the event she was attending that evening.
The bird followed us back to the edge of the studio and stayed at the window while we worked. Hours later it was still there. Long after the countess left, the bird remained perched near the window.
The next morning, there was no ceremony to it; I simply opened the door and the bird walked into my atelier. It was as if he had been my pet all along, and I had simply not realized it until now.
How luxurious are the feathers of a crow—black and iridescent with the oil stained float of bubbles and shine. I found I could stare at him for hours, his twitching, robotic wildness easing into domesticity only to jump back to the lightening state with the crack of a door or the ring of the phone.
I started to wonder who had taught him to speak only certain phrases and not others. It would either mean only speaking in palindromes yourself, or that the bird had the option to say other words, but chose palindromes for his own personal reasons.
Conversations with him were both lunacy and genius:
Mr. Owl ate my metal worm.
I prefer pi.
No lemon, no melon.
Rise to vote, sir.
So many dynamos!
Never odd or even.
A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!
and then, at some point it became madness and I had no choice but to try to communicate rather than to merely listen. I was exasperated by the time I finally asked him why a crow would speak only in palindromes. He responded:
Do geese see God?