Attack of the Temesian Hoopoe Birds
No one on the field that morning had any idea that all Hades was about to break loose.
Well, one person did.
The stands were over-crammed with students, all chirping away about their summer travels, each one trying to out-fabulous the other. But Mac wasn’t talking to any of them. (No surprise there.) Instead, he just stared at the empty stage in fist-clenching anticipation. For the entire morning, the entire summer, the entire two years he’d wasted at this gods-forsaken school, he’d been waiting for this moment. His moment of glory, of genius. The moment when he’d finally and irretrievably cross The Line— that hard-to-define boundary between tolerable and intolerable. Between a week of detention and expulsion. All he needed was for Headmaster Gurgus to blow on that shell.
Come on, come on.
Just when he thought he couldn’t wait any longer without throwing up, Mac heard the band play the opening notes to “Yielding Never,” Pieridian Academy’s absurdly overblown fight song. The Opening Ceremonies were officially underway. From his seat high up in the stands, Mac watched intently as the members of the so-called Grand Procession marched onto Garthymedes Field: the entire faculty and staff, wearing shiny red gowns and smiles full of phony reverence; followed by the honored students, also in ritualistic red, condescendingly waving at the crowd; followed by a grotesque, nine-headed Hydra. (Not an actual hydra, of course, but the school’s mascot—-basically, a wooden frame draped with snot-green cloth and garishly bedecked with multicolored streamers and jewels. Six students were needed to operate the thing—one for the heads, four for each leg, and one for the tail—none of whom could see what they were doing. And so, on the day of Opening Ceremonies, these six students would get inside this ridiculous costume and stagger, like a drunken mariner, down the center aisle.)
Lastly, waddling ten paces behind the Hydra, in all his roly-poly, four-hundred pound glory, was Headmaster Gurgus.
Make that four-hundred-and-four pounds; as always, the headmaster was accompanied by his freakishly tiny dog, Iota. But what she lacked in stature, she compensated with the frequency and volume of her yipping. Every waking moment (and most non-waking ones), from every corner of the campus, you could hear her yip, yip, yip. Mac was way up in the stands that day, and he could still hear her yipping, even with the school band playing.
Mac watched Gurgus and his pet lumber down the aisle, and for a moment, the absurdity of the visual—an elephant of a man being led around by a rat of a dog—made him smile. Then he got serious. With total focus, he studied Gurgus as the headmaster slowly, painstakingly ascended the stairs to the main stage; as he placed his beloved Iota onto a red pillow; as he straightened the laurel wreath encircling his round, bald head; and finally, as he produced, from the folds of his shimmering indigo robe, a massive kochlos shell.
It was time for the headmaster’s solo.
With both hands, Gurgus hoisted the shell over his head. At that moment, everything stopped: the band members laid down their instruments; the crowd silenced itself; even Iota the dog somehow knew to stop yipping. Satisfied he had commanded everyone’s attention, Gurgus brought the shell to his bulbous lips, puffed his already bloated cheeks to extraordinary proportions…and paused. He really stretched out the moment, to underscore the majesty of it all. Then he blew into his instrument…and let fly a sound resembling that of all ten Titans breaking their immortal wind at the same time. And on that horrific, robustly atonal note, the ceremony would officially begin.
At least, that was the plan.
For the two Opening Ceremonies Mac had personally endured, Gurgus followed the same formula—same stupid Hydra mascot, same stupid little dog, same stupid and ridiculously pretentious pause, same stupid, flatulent kochlos solo. And right up to the moment when Gurgus brought the dreaded shell to his lips, this year’s Opening Ceremony seemed no different. But Mac, and Mac alone, knew otherwise. For only he knew the preparations he had made over the month leading up to the big day…
Dawn is just breaking. A shadowy figure, feeling the early morning dew on his bare feet, makes his way to the very center of Garthymedes Field. He paces, trying to approximate where the stage will be set up for the Opening Ceremonies, before he finally settles on a spot. He takes one last look around, even though he knows he’s alone; most students have gone home for the Intercession, and any who may have stayed are definitely still asleep.
He hears the squawk. He looks up and sees, high in the sky, three black forms cutting across the early morning clouds. Just as he had hoped.
From under his tunic, he takes out a kochlos, recently swiped from the band room. He blows into the shell several times, trying to mimic Gurgus’s patented farting noise. He takes out a handful of seed and scatters it all over the field. He waits. And waits. Eventually, the three Temesian hoopoe birds swoop down.
He backs up nervously as the gangly birds start pecking around the grass. Up close, the birds are larger than he had expected—almost as big as his arm—and uglier, too: black, except for scattered patches of white and pink, with a crown of erect feathers on their heads. From a safe distance, he watches them eat the seed, squawk at each other, then clumsily fly away. All in all, a successful first morning.
Next morning brings the same routine: the lone figure emerges from the mist, walks to the same spot on the field, blows into the kochlos, scatters the seed. Birds swoop down. Eat. Squawk. Leave. Next morning, same. And the morning after that. And after that, for four weeks.
Finally, on the morning before the Opening Ceremonies, the mysterious figure doesn’t have to scatter any seeds at all; as soon as he blows into the shell, the birds arrive—as many as twenty this time. As they swarm in circles above his head, the lone figure stands on the nearly assembled stage, leans on the podium, and smiles. This is going to work.
As he watched from way up in the stands, Mac almost felt a flickering of pity for Gurgus. The poor fool—how could he have known? How could he have possibly predicted, when he brought the kochlos to his fleshy lips, the glorious chaos he was about to unleash?
Almost instantaneously, as soon as the horrible blast flew from the kochlos shell, a flock of Temesian hoopoe birds—twenty-five, at minimum—descended on the stage, seemingly from out of nowhere. They squawked and flapped their giant, gangly wings, searching for the food that wasn’t there. From the stands, Mac could barely see Gurgus through the black swarm, but he could definitely hear him, shrieking like a dying Harpy as he flailed his fat arms all over the place. Through the squawking and the shrieking, Mac heard a familiar sound: Iota’s yipping. Oh, that dog was yipping and yipping like she had never yipped before, only shutting up when one of the much-larger birds accidentally bumped her off her little red pillow and onto the stage floor.
Within moments, pandemonium engulfed Garthymedes Field, as anyone on or near the stage, convinced the world was coming to an end, started screaming and scurrying for the exits. The mass exodus resulted, naturally, in mass destruction; the grass got torn up; the abandoned instruments got trampled upon; even the grotesquely bejeweled Hydra mascot was ripped in two. (The six unlucky students operating the thing had all darted off in different directions, resulting in two half-Hydras, one with five necks, one with four.)
Meanwhile, the parents in the stands were also screaming and beating hasty retreats. Not the students, though; many of them stayed put, laughing and cheering uproariously and slapping high-fives. Some young man had the bright idea of ripping off one of the wooden railings—for no reason, just because some teens enjoy dismantling things. Soon, a bunch of others joined in; within minutes, almost the entire seating area was pulled to pieces.
Through it all, only one student remained seated and silent. Expressionless save for the wispiest grin, Mac looked around and marveled at the bedlam unfolding before him. He breathed it all in—the screeching, the stomping, the raucous laughing. A frenzied, jubilant noise that he had created. In that moment, Mac felt power. But he felt something else, too: a fleeting connection with all the other students, a sense of belonging that he had never felt before.
Then something happened, something Mac hadn’t foreseen: the general commotion actually startled the very birds that caused it. And apparently, Temesian hoopoes, when startled, instinctively release their waste. And twenty-five startled hoopoes can generate a lot of waste.
They crapped on Headmaster Gurgus. On the fleeing teachers and students. On the two half-Hydras. They crapped all over the stage, the banners, the abandoned instruments. They crapped over everything and everyone on or near the field.
Yes, even Iota the dog got covered in disgusting, milky, sticky Temesian hoopoe crap.
The student body—the ones not coated in hoopoe crap, that is—considered it the most memorable Opening Ceremonies of all time. The administration, however, had a decidedly different opinion and immediately sprang into action. The next day, all students were corralled to an emergency assembly; there, Headmaster Gurgus, stern and stone-faced, began with a status report. Garthymedes Field, he informed them, was ruined. As were the stands. As were all the instruments (including his very own kochlos). As was the treasured Hydra costume—a gift from a former student named Polyphites, and one that could never be replaced. But the damage to property and material, he assured them, was nothing compared to the damage done to the reputation of the Finest! Academic Institution! in the World!
Eyes blazing now, his round face getting redder and redder the longer he spoke, Gurgus roared that he did not regard the bird swarm to be an omen from the gods, as some had theorized. No, he had an anonymous tip that a student—yes, one of Pieridian’s own—had perpetrated this vicious attack. School security, he announced, had launched a full-scale investigation into this travesty. The culprit, naturally, would face the severest of consequences.
Mac figured as much; in fact, he had counted on it. He had finally done it. He had played pranks before: stashing a crate of rotting fish in the auditorium, giving the statue of Aphrodite a butt enhancement thanks to some strategically placed clay. But these acts of mischief only edged him up to The Line. This time, he didn’t just cross The Line. He didn’t even gleefully breeze right past The Line. He did to The Line what those hoopoe birds did to the field: he took a massive dump on The Line—on the entire school, really, and everything it stood for. Mac knew this was the end of the road for him. It had to be.
But for seven straight days, no one came to question him. He almost thought, with grave disappointment, he had gotten away with it. Then, on the eighth morning, a messenger showed up at his door—woke him out of a sound sleep, in fact—to escort him to the Main Disciplinary Chambers.
Soon, Mac found himself sitting in a cavernous room used for handing down sentences for all manner of crimes against the school. Before him, on a raised platform, sat the nine members of the Disciplinary Committee—nine wrinkly, self-important men in their wrinkly, self-important cloaks—and in the middle stewed Headmaster Gurgus himself, leveling Mac with a furious glare. To the headmaster’s right sulked a freshly cleaned but muted Iota; apparently, the bird attack had so traumatized her that she hadn’t made a yip since.
If the large, echoing Main Disciplinary Chambers was meant to intimidate students, it didn’t work on Mac, who remained—on the surface, at least—as unflappable as ever. At first, he said nothing, just studied the unsightly globules of spittle collecting in the corners of Gurgus’s mouth and legitimately wondered if he should point them out. When the committee questioned him about the Opening Ceremonies debacle, Mac kept all his answers clipped and vague, making sure not to deny sabotaging the proceedings but not exactly owning up to it either. Why make it easy on them, after all? He expected his school advisor, Asirites, sitting to his left, to fill in the gaps with some impassioned plea for mercy, as he had always done for Mac in the past. Only this time Asirites, like Iota, was uncharacteristically silent.
Finally, after what seemed like hours of questions and evasions, the committee ordered Mac to go into the hall and await its decision. Giving them a mocking smile and an exaggerated wave, he strutted out of the room and into the hallway, plopping himself down on a wooden bench next to the Chamber’s big, black marble door. And for a long time, he sat on that bench next to that door, in that long hallway filled with benches and doors.
He tried to listen to what they were saying, but he couldn’t decipher much. Every once in a while, though, one of the administrators would bellow out something loud enough for him to hear, some insult naturally directed at him. Mac began rating these insults, in terms of both creativity and venom.
“Delinquent!” (Eh…not great…)
“Godless punk!” (Getting better…)
“Arrogant, unworthy barbarian!” (Now we’re talking!)
Of all the terms emanating from the other side of the door, only one legitimately got him angry: “that boy”—as in “That boy is lost!” or “That boy has gone too far!” It seemed dismissive to him, belittling. First of all, he wasn’t a boy; he was sixteen. Second of all, could a “boy” have had the resourcefulness to pull off a stunt like that? Don’t think so. Third and fourth of all, he was still a prince, not to mention the son of their most famous graduates. So…sure, he’d ruined their Grand Procession and made a total mockery of the school’s most time-honored ceremony…but that didn’t mean they couldn’t show him some respect.
He looked up from his slumped position on the hard wooden bench to see a girl who seemingly materialized in front of him. He blinked a few times, struggling to place her, until it clicked: that girl, from last spring. What was her name again? And what could she possibly be doing here?
“I heard,” the girl began, as she nervously pulled at the ends of her long, dark hair. “It’s going around that they caught you and you might get expelled. Well…I just wanted to say…I know we don’t know each other very well, and we haven’t talked since…well, you know…” She trailed off and looked at the ground before continuing. “Anyway, I just wanted you to know, in case I never see you again, that I…well, I’m never going to forget you.”
Mac wished he could disappear. What could he say to that? That she absolutely should forget him? That he wasn’t worth one moment of her time, let alone a life-long memory? Or he could be even more brutally honest. Tell her he was thoughtless and did stupid things sometimes. Being with her felt good at the time…but it didn’t change anything. It never did.
“Uh…this isn’t the best time to talk,” Mac gestured at the big, black door behind him.
“I could wait with you?” she suggested, hope evident in her eyes.
“No—” he said immediately. He never really enjoyed any kind of company, but he especially didn’t want any now. “Just leave me alone,” he snapped. Then he looked down at the stone floor, unable to meet whatever he’d see in her gaze: disappointment, anger, disgust. He kept looking down, listening to her footsteps scurry away, and only when he heard the last click of footsteps did he remember. “Gia…right…” he mumbled, as he finally summoned the name.
He almost wished he didn’t remember her name, because it reminded him that this nervous, awkward girl was an actual person, with actual feelings. On the other hand, he figured he was doing her a favor. Why should she waste her time on someone who was already gone?
After the girl left, it occurred to Mac that he had been out in that hallway much longer than necessary. What could they possibly be debating behind that door? He trained a bunch of birds to defecate on them! Shouldn’t that be enough? In an attempt to calm his nerves, Mac stood up and started pacing down the long hallway. As he walked along, he glanced at the marble statues lining the walls—tributes to gods and former instructors. Eventually, he found himself among some newer, shinier monuments, marble busts depicting the heroes of the Trojan War. Menelaus. Achilles. Agamemnon. Odysseus.
Mac paused at the last one and looked into the bust’s cold, marble eyes, eyes that seared into him with penetrating disappointment. More than ashamed, Mac lowered his head, to the plaque at the statue’s base. Its inscription read, “Son of Ithaca. Hero of Greece. Bravery, Courage, and Cunning. From a noble horse comes a mighty victory.” Mac had heard descriptions like that before, for his entire life, in fact.
But who are you really? he wondered, risking one final glance into the marble eyes.
And then it hit him: they were right, those nine guys behind the big, black marble door. Everything they said about him that morning was absolutely correct: he really was a punkish, unworthy boy. He didn’t deserve their respect, and he didn’t belong at this school—not now, not ever. Maybe he didn’t belong anywhere.
He turned around to see a bushy-bearded man in a rumpled robe standing in the corridor: his advisor, Asirites. He was leaning heavily on his cane, as if beaten down by the Disciplinary Committee’s outrage.
“Right here,” Mac sighed, as he walked back down the hall. As was routine, he stood to the left of Asirites, offering his arm.
“Let’s go,” Asirites ordered, pointing with his cane. “My office.”
At first, Mac led their way through the ornate halls in silence, each one—student and counselor—waiting for the other to speak first. “So,” Mac finally began, “did you help them see the humor in the situation?”
“Not yet,” Asirites deadpanned. “I think Tartarus will freeze over before that happens.”
“You gotta admit—as far as pranks go, it was pretty resourceful,” Mac quipped.
“Actually, I don’t have to admit that. Conditioning a flock of birds to destroy Garthymedes Field and defecate all over the headmaster? I don’t think I’d call that resourceful. Reckless, maybe. Pointless. An act of willful self-sabotage. But ‘resourceful?’ Not quite.” Mac grimaced, as Asirites gripped his forearm harder than necessary.
“Well, I didn’t anticipate the crapping on him part,” Mac shrugged. “That was a bonus.”
“You don’t get it. They’ve had enough. The pranks, the poor attendance, the lousy grades, the whole world-weary act you’ve been putting on for the past two years. Unfortunately, up until now, you’ve been smart enough, ‘resourceful’ enough, to know exactly how little you need to do in order to squeak by. But they’ve finally had enough.”
Mac buried the attitude and put his head down. “So what did he say?”
“Gurgus? He said a lot of things, most of which I don’t feel comfortable repeating in front of a child,” said Asirites, keeping his pale blue eyes locked on the nothingness before him. “Bottom line: he said you’re not worthy to be a Pieridian student. He said you’re nothing like your father.” At the mere mention of his father Mac winced, as if punched in the gut. Then Asirites stopped, forcing Mac to stop as well, before adding, “He said you have to go, Mac.”
They had reached a small bridge overlooking the quad. Not wanting to look at Asirites (who had an uncanny ability, though blind, to peer into his soul), Mac stepped to the railing and watched the students milling about down below, on their way to class or their residence halls or wherever. As always, they traveled in groups—two, three, four. Rarely did a kid walk alone. “Well,” he sighed, gazing over the edge. “I guess that’s that, then.”
Suddenly, Asirites appeared at his side. “No, that’s not that,” he said, accenting the second “that” by thumping Mac, with remarkable precision, in the head with his cane.
“Ow…” Mac whined, as Asirites seized his arm once more and started walking.
“I didn’t spend the last two hours getting screamed at so you can throw everything away with a ‘That’s that,’” Asirites continued. “I made a bargain with the Disciplinary Committee.”
“Oh, not this again,” Mac balked. “What, I have to maintain certain grades and—?”
“It has nothing to do with grades. Everyone knows you’re a genius. It’s your character that stinks. So this is what we’ve decided: you have until the next Intercession—three months—to prove that you deserve to be here, that you’re worthy to be here.”
“And exactly how am I supposed to do that?”
“You have to prove that you are your father’s son.”
“My…father’s son?” Mac floundered. “Father’s son? What does that even—?”
“Do something your father would do. Something to honor his legacy. If you can’t do that at the end of three months, you’ll be expelled.”
“Well, that’s easy: I don’t need three months,” Mac said. “I’ll just leave now.”
“Don’t you know what you’re saying? When you were devising your brilliant scheme to ruin the Opening Ceremonies, did you even once think about the consequences? You are the prince of a kingdom without a king. And someday, those people—your people—are going to look to you to lead them. Do you think those people are going to accept as their king a kid who was kicked out of high school?”
“You honestly think I care what any of them think of me?”
“Maybe you don’t, but they’ll be depending on you,” Asirites said with a growing sense of urgency. “The only thing worse than a lost king is a weak king. Your enemies will be watching and waiting. If they don’t respect you, then Ithaca will always be vulnerable. You can’t afford to fail.” Asirites pointed his cane at Mac. “You have three months. Three months to prove you are your father’s son. That’s the deal. No more chances.”
“What makes you think I want any more chances? What makes you think I want this chance?” Mac said, more defiantly.
“Don’t do this,” Asirites said. “I fought for you. Not just in there. Not just this week. For two years, I’ve been fighting for you.”
“Well, who asked you to?”
“Oh, I forgot. You’re Telemachus. Prince of Ithaca. Son of the great King Odysseus. And the most aggressively lonely person I’ve ever met. You don’t bother anyone, no one bothers you. I’ve watched you systematically shut yourself away from anyone who might’ve become a friend, an ally—insisting instead on doing everything on your own, without help from anyone. Somehow, you think that makes you brave, but even I can see how scared you are.”
At this point, they were standing outside the closed door to Asirites’s office. “You think this prank shows how little you care,” Asirites said. “But I know better. I know you’re desperate to care about something.”
Mac didn’t respond, just looked down at his own sandals. When he finally looked up, he noticed the gray hairs that had sprouted in Asirites’s beard and wondered how many he had put there. “You’re wrong,” Mac finally answered. “I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. I don’t care. And you shouldn’t either.” His voice fell to a whisper. “Just let me go, will you?”
“Go?” Asirites asked. “And just where do you plan on going, exactly?”
Mac fell silent. Truth is, home was the last place he wanted to go. “I don’t know,” Mac finally said. “Anywhere but here. A place where no one knows me…or the great King Odysseus.”
Again, Asirites stared at him—through him—before finally giving in. “OK. If that’s what you want, then…OK. Just one thing: who’s going to break the news—me or you?”
“Break the news to who?”
Asirites nudged open the door with his cane. Across the pristine expanse of the office, Mac saw a woman, gazing out the window, her back to the door. He couldn’t see her face, but he immediately recognized her slender frame and her long, raven-black hair tied back in a series of brass coils.
Suddenly, it dawned on Mac why it took eight days for the Disciplinary Committee to call him in. Obviously, they didn’t need that long to identify him as the culprit; it just took a little bit of time to send word to Ithaca.
Immobile, Mac fixed his eyes on the woman across the way. “That’s so…cheap,” Mac muttered to Asirites, who smiled slyly.
Over a year had passed since Mac had last seen his mother, and he could tell, from her slumping shoulders, things had changed. She used to be such a defiant queen—weakened by circumstances, but strong in will. Now, she looked like a sad, defeated, disappointed mother. His chest tightened as he realized, for the millionth time in his young life, that he was the one to make her feel that way.
“Go on in,” Asirites said. “She’s been waiting for you.”
© Mark and Sheri Dursin, 2017