The Cuckoo

The clock struck noon. What came first the cuckoo or the clock? It may not seem like an intelligent question, but that was exactly what Otto von Bismark asked as he looked to his cuckoo clock which lacked a cuckoo.

Otto’s story begins earlier on that especially warm spring day. The cuckoo bird was dormant sitting inside the clock, a monument to absolute certainty – on most days. On this day, as the clock struck midday instead of a dozen coos, his cuckoo seemingly not bothered with its most taxing task of the day simply took off with its clockwork wings and flew out the open window of their three story apartment. Astonished as he watched it glide out into the metropolis of Berlin, he put it down to hallucination from midday heat. But it continued to infuriate him – despite trying his best to ignore the now abandoned cuckoo clock, whose tiny doors still opened with a slight squeak but no longer welcomed an automaton bird. Otto complained and whined incessantly about the clock because lately the cuckoo’s cry had woken his infant son. Though it was clear that the baby was more disturbed by his father’s rages than birdsong Otto went as far as shouting that he would rip apart the clock and choke that annoying cuckoo. These comments did not go unnoticed by his wife, who forbid him to even touch the antique clock which had been in her family for generations. Neither did Otto’s rages go unnoticed by the cuckoo, who had at last escaped.

Now that the cuckoo was missing it annoyed Otto all the more. His wife would go into hysterics once she learned her beloved cuckoo had flown the coop. The crippled mechanism continued to trigger on the hour, causing the moment to replay in his mind like a gear with one especially long tooth that prodded his brain every o’clock. For half the day Otto endured this clockwork nightmare until finally, he decided to venture into the city park, the Großer Tiergarten, in search of the cuckoo. Before leaving Otto announced he was going away for a short holiday over the weekend to relax. He kissed his wife and son goodbye, who were both glad to have him out of the house.

He caught a tram to the park and felt at ease strolling under the pine branches. High above the birds observed him from their perches in the trees, among them somewhere was his cuckoo. It was the beginning of spring, the birds were nesting and wary of intruders. Even distinguished persons, such Otto von Bismarck who was a conservative statesman, were watched with caution – and perhaps more so, it depended entirely on the bird’s political leaning. Despite their stress and screaming offspring, the young couples of the Großer Tiergarten felt no animosity towards the men and women who passed through their homes. As we will see, our cuckoo had no such forgiveness and what can we expect from a creature that wasn’t brought forth from Eden’s earth – but was an idol of man’s imagination.

As Otto passed through the gardens he forgot his mission in the tranquillity around him. Here the gardens had conserved the unmistakable crowded beauty of a germanic forest without the implied threat of bear, wolf, or visigoth. The only barbarians that hid in these woods were begging vagrants who would sooner throw out an empty hat than a spear.

“Where is that blasted bird?” he asked in a sudden impatience which typically arrived when Otto found he was enjoying himself. In reply came the familiar call of the cuckoo. There it was, he froze and didn’t dare take another breath. In his dedication he created the wrong type of silence, it was the type of threatening quiet that only occurs just before disaster, death or injury. The cuckoo recognised it at once, and rode the breeze across the lake, dipping close to the flat body of water. Throwing caution to the wind he ran after the small bird to the edge of the small lake. It appeared two cuckoos were flying over the mirrored surface.

Otto mused: Perhaps it finds pleasure in this place, the flat lake which stretches out to the tree line that shoots up at a right angle, almost boxlike. A creature of clockwork could find a home in these forests of impeccable german design. In reality, it was precisely the opposite. The cuckoo hated this park. Spending its entire life on a set track designed by a god who it had never met, caused the cuckoo to despise the creator who had never asked for its opinion before winding it up and setting the cuckoo off down a one track life. That was its singular purpose as it flew out the window that hot spring afternoon – to escape. Hidden among the pine needles the cuckoo spied upon Otto, its cogs turned over a new purpose.

Otto von Bismark crept up to where he had seen the cuckoo flee. There it was! Perched upon a fallen tree. It’s feathers have grown soft, Otto observed as he crept closer. But at once he was sure it was his cuckoo, its head rotated like the hand of a clock to look at him. He shot out his hand but the machinery was far quicker than his flesh. It sprung off the branch with a flash of its sparkling jet eyes that faded into the starry night.

Otto would have to wait until morning to restart his search. “Damn that devil!”he exploded. Frustrated, he kicked a nearby tree. Shaken from the force something fell directly on his head with a cracking splatter. He wiped a sticky fluid from his face. It appeared to be a birds egg. Otto flicked off the eggshell horns that ordained his head while muttering to himself of his bad luck he heard a faint whirring like a struggling engine from below. By now the sun had gone down so he fetched his lighter from his pocket and revealed the oily mess at his feet, he gasped at the sight. It was the half-formed embryo of a bird, but like Otto’s target, it was mechanical. It wheezed out of its broken body which spilt more of the oily goo onto his shoes, its writhing body glittered from the orange flame of the lighter. Otto felt ill but couldn’t bring it upon himself to end the pitiful creature’s suffering.

My bird must have been breeding, thought Otto who suddenly came to an epiphany: I can repair my clock with this cuckoo. It would be brought up in the clock and never know the outside world, and thus would never desire to fly out the window like its predecessor. Before leaving, he looked up to the canopy to see where the egg had fallen and spotted a raven looked down and cried out in mourning as if the mechanical embryo had been its own hatchling. Disturbed by the entire scene, he didn’t stay too long to contemplate, though he underestimated just how deeply it had disturbed him. He cupped the wretched thing’s writhing body, felt the crunch of its gears in his tight grip, and began the journey home.”I’ve had quite enough of this insanity,” Otto muttered.

Contrary to Otto opinion, it doesn’t seem so insane when you’re familiar with the cuckoo, who is famous for its clock but is also famous – or rather infamous – for its nesting habits. The cuckoo sneaks its egg into the nest another species of bird, the cuckoo fledgeling hatches quickly, pushes its adopted sister out of the nest and is raised by the host mother. It is strange and sad to see a mother feeding a cuckoo, the murderer of her children who sings a different song and wears a different plumage – it’s mark of Cain for all to see. This is exactly what the cuckoo had done over the spring, sevenfold. In its hatred of structure and order, it laid its eggs and warped fate in blatant disregard to His design. Like all lives, the cuckoo’s had been written far before it lived them and the cuckoo skittered between those sacred lines, skewing the ink that tied our destinies together. Expertly hopping from one fated thread to another, from which the angels wove their tapestry, it stitched itself where it had no place to be nor its parasitic children.

~~~

Berlin’s workers were heading home for the night. Factory workers mixed with clerks and accountants in the churning masses intent on entering the trams. Otto joined the sea of people and hopped into one tram that was especially packed, he clasped tighter onto his prized cuckoo. A woman with a pram and a small boy holding onto her dress followed immediately behind him. The woman wedged the pram into the crowd to make space for herself and her boy. The hastily pushed pram jutted into Otto’s protruding.
“The lengths mothers will go for their children,” Otto thought with a guffaw. The cupid face boy peeked out from behind his mother’s skirt with a grin that melted his previous annoyance. Otto smiled back as the boy approached slowly curiously eyeing his clasped hands. Perhaps the boy thought he had a sweetie or a toy hidden, the possibilities captured his young imagination. The boy pointed again eager to see what was hidden behind this portly man’s clasped hands. Hesitant at first, Otto relented at last. What harm would showing the boy his fantastical bird do?

Otto opened his hands to reveal the windup cuckoo. The boy’s jaw dropped, but not with delight, his eyes betrayed a sickening disgust which spread to the rest of his face as it drained of blood. The boy wailed and caused his infant sibling to begin crying. Heads turned towards the commotion. Otto looked down to see the mangled corpse of a baby bird in his trembling hands. In desperation, he fondled the featherless wings trying to feel the gears and cogs which he had felt clicking moments earlier. Sickened onlookers had begun to notice and started moving away from him, most with simply too shocked to speak but many shouted abuse. Otto looked up in utter confusion. The mother screamed at him: Ach Gott, ach Gott! Du ungeheures Ungeziefer!

Each syllable rang out in perfect clarity but Otto couldn’t understand a word. The tram had taken on a different appearance and the people too. Now the entire world appeared to him as a mechanical system. All his life he had been staring at an optical illusion and now the veil had been lifted – the inner working could not be unseen. The wailing boy’s eyes blinking with tears appeared to him like a strange puppet show. Feeling lightheaded he clung to the open window. He saw the trams blindly following their route, eternally attached to their tracks. And the men and women shared this automation eternally attached to their jobs and to this city. The factory worker’s faces are as greased as the assembly line equipment they operate, and the clerks too, they’re ink stained finger extensions are simply extensions of the pen that rules them, they are just another cog in the machine, as vital and as replaceable. The boy’s tears are rolling down his face but this doesn’t cause Otto to remember the many times he wept when he was a boy, instead, he witnesses a reaction: the release of a sodium and dihydrogen monoxide from emotionally distressing stimuli. He has completely forgotten the spectacle he has created by parading around a dead bird to children but the passengers hadn’t. Men crowded around him, grabbing and shoving him towards the exit. Otto was more focused on the sensation of being pushed and spun rather than resisting. He rolled out of the tram to a clamour of further abuse being hurled at him. Face up, lying on the pavement, Otto looked to the stars but saw only cyclical constellation, running in circles pointlessly. While the entire world spun around the sun it was forever chained to, Otto finally felt something. It was a minuscule feeling at first that grew and grew, but he still couldn’t identify it. Everything was silent at once. The stars disappeared.

The feeling pounced, he heard somewhere in the distance the noise of a man sobbing. “Who is crying?” someone asked. No answer came. Just like Otto’s broken cuckoo clock – the universe and all who live in it are part of a system that runs perfectly but when the tiny doors open up they revealed nothing: no purpose, no command from above, just the vague hanging void. Like slipping out of a dream, Otto realised it was he had asked who was weeping, and he it had been he who was crying. The moment of madness seemed to be over, he still clung to the bird’s corpse which was now attracting flies. Gathering himself up from the gutter, he walked the short distance to his apartment under the glare of the morning sun.

Otto crawled up the stairs, fumbling with the key that slipped in his blood coated hands. He entered his apartment which was dimly lit. The shadows were stretched thinly across the walls. Déjà vu assailed Otto as if he had walked into the suffocating silence, he felt he had taken these same steps a thousand times before . It was the wrong type of silence, though Otto did not flee from the suspect danger. Instead heard the sound of a struggle, a muffled moan from behind the bedroom door. His mind reeled in all the possibilities, sprinting through vivid images of his wife and child strangled and their soft bodies contorted and mangled. As fast as his mind was, he legs seemed to sink into the the floorboards as if stuck in mud. They slid about, making precious little progress towards the bedroom door where his beloved wife and son lay to the mercy of the world. “How could I have left them!” his hysterical mind screamed. Finally, after an eternity he crawled to the foot of the door and pulled his body up with the door handle. The door handled turned with extra force. Slowly, while supporting his weight on the door handle, he entered the room.

Otto saw his wife, naked, her back arched back in agony. Her mouth agape in horror. But the corners of her mouth curled upwards into a smile. Her mouth was agape in ecstasy. Her back relaxed and slide back down to the ruffled sheets of the bed, next to her lover. Otto let out a small gasp, the sight of it crushed him. His wife didn’t notice but the lover did, who stared at Otto with jet black eyes. The stranger’s face held no expression, not as if it felt impartial but almost as if it was incapable of producing any expression at all – despite this Otto felt the face was grinning nonetheless.

Otto couldn’t bear to look any further at his adulterous wife and he simply stood motionless his eyes to the ground. A cold breeze blow in, still in shock Otto automatically feared his son would catch a cold. Just in front of the window was the crib, he walked towards it and broke out of his trance, he gazed upon his son’s crib which was all but empty except for an enormous egg. Otto cried out, his throat shuddering with fear. He approached the open window and knew what he would see yet he still stuck his head out. There, at the bottom of the street lay his crushed baby boy fallen from his nest, lost in a slumber of crimson sunder.

In grief Otto looked to his wife, she lay alone – her lover had disappeared. A cuckoo called in the distance, and Otto let out a mad laugh because he knew at last that everything had been unavoidable. Otto would follow his sewn fate to the last moment. He grasped the glittering string before him and stood on the window ledge looking down to his son below, he saw at the end of his thread lay a golden noose weaved by angels with harp string and all. Like the cuckoo, he would escape out the open window on a warm spring day. It was a pity he lacked wings. The clock struck noon.

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