23: It’s a Bird! It’s a Beast! It’s... an Ostrich?

Cyrano has heard a lot about neo-Aristotelian physics from his fellow zoo-mate, Domingo Gonsales. Unfortunately, the knowledge is not going to do him a lot of good in a courtroom: the examiners won’t answer questions, and the jury figures “If it looks like a bird, walks like a bird and talks like a Moon-being, well, two out of three isn’t bad; it must be a bird.”

That’s pretty much how we passed the time. The little Spaniard was quite intelligent. We talked only at night, between 6 a.m. and evening; otherwise we would have been distracted by the large crowds that came to look at us in our dwelling place. Some of them threw stones at us; others, nuts; still others, grass. The town was abuzz with talk of the King’s animals.

We were fed regularly, and the King and Queen quite often enjoyed feeling my abdomen to see if I weren’t pregnant; they were extraordinarily eager to have a whole family of little animals like us.

Perhaps I was more attentive than my male companion was to their facial expressions and tones of voice, but I learned to understand their language and to speak it a little. Immediately the news spread throughout the kingdom that two little wild men had been discovered. We were smaller than everybody else because the wilderness had provided us with such bad food. And it was a genetic defect that caused us to have forelimbs that weren’t strong enough to support us.

This belief gained strength through repetition despite the priests of the country. They opposed it, saying that it was an awful impiety to believe that not only animals but monsters might be of the same species as they.

The less impassioned added that it seemed more likely that domesticated animals would participate in the privilege of humanity because they were born in that country; it would seem less likely to be true of a monstrous animal that said it had been born somewhere or other on the Moon.

And consider the difference between us and them. We walk on four feet because God would not want to entrust such a precious thing to a less steady posture. He was afraid of accidents, which is why he took the trouble to provide us with four supports, lest we topple over. But he did not bother with the construction of the two animals and abandoned them to the caprice of nature, which did not worry about losing such trifles and supported them on only two feet.

Even the birds, they said, have not been treated as badly as they. At least they have feathers to make up for the weakness of their feet and to fly when taken outdoors. By depriving the monsters of a pair of feet, nature has made them incapable of escaping our justice.

Not only that, look how they have their heads turned toward heaven! They are like that because God has deprived them of so much. Their supplicatory posture shows that they are complaining to their Creator and beseeching him to allow them our leftovers. But we have our heads turned downwards to contemplate the wealth over which we are masters, and our condition is so fortunate that there is nothing left in heaven to desire.

Every day in my quarters I head the priests tell those or similar stories. They finally swayed public opinion, and it was decided that I would be considered only a plucked parrot. They confirmed believers in that opinion because, like birds, we had only two feet. Therefore, by express order of the High Council, I was put into a cage. Every day the Queen’s birdkeeper took care to come and whistle at me as we do to starlings. And I was very happy, because my birdhouse did not lack for food.

However, by listening to the tall tales that the onlookers deafened me with, I learned to speak their language. When I had become well enough acquainted with it to express most of my ideas, I told them even taller stories. People were soon talking only of my bons mots, and they esteemed my wit so highly that the clergy was forced to publish a decree that forbade anyone to believe I was capable of reason, and it expressly commanded everyone of all ranks to believe — no matter how intelligently I might act — that I was guided by instinct.

However, the town was divided into two factions over how to define what I was. The party in my favor grew by the day. Finally, in spite of anathema and excommunication, by which the prophets tried to frighten the people, my party requested a general assembly to resolve this religious conundrum. They spent a long time deciding who would speak, but the judges eased tensions by appointing an equal number of speakers on all sides.

I was brought with great show into the courtroom, where I was closely questioned by the examiners. Among other things, they asked me about philosophy. I told them all I had learned from my teacher about religion, but they had no trouble refuting it with a lot of quite persuasive reasons. When I realized I was completely convinced, I fell back as a last resort on the principles of Aristotle, but they did not serve me any better than the sophistry I had used before. The examiners revealed the error in short order, telling me that Aristotle had made principles fit his philosophy rather than make his philosophy fit the principles. And he should at least have proved that his principles were more reasonable than those of other sects, and he had not been able to do so. That is why the good man will just have to put up with it if we kiss him off.

Finally, since they saw I was telling them only that they were no wiser than Aristotle, and since I had been forbidden to argue against those who denied his principles, they arrived at the consensus that I was not a man. Perhaps I was some species of ostrich; I did hold my head upright like an ostrich. The birdkeeper was ordered to take me back to my cage.

I passed the time enjoyably enough, because I now spoke the language correctly and the entire royal court had fun making me talk. The Queen’s daughters, among others, always slipped some treat into my basket, and the nicest of them had become something of a friend. She was so overcome with joy when I secretly talked to her about the mysteries of our religion, and especially when I told her about bells and relics, that she said with tears in her eyes that if I were ever able to fly back to Earth she would gladly go with me.

You make a quick stop by the table where Lucretius, Descartes, Pascal and Cyrano have been joined by Domingo Gonsales. The Spanish guest is conducting a physics experiment. He raises a glass and drinks some wine: “ No fish.”

You cough politely and interrupt: “Bona dies, señor, messieurs... would you be interested if next time I brought someone to explain the intelligent and purposeful design of nature and the universe?” They all stare at you with varying degrees of incredulity. Lucretius thinks aloud, “Our guest claims to be from the future?!” Then Cyrano cracks an ironic grin and chuckles: “But of course, it will be a divertissement... How do you say? ‘Fun’, n’est-ce pas ? And on the way, please invite monsieur Voltaire.”

You suddenly realize you have just given new meaning to the expression faux pas. In an attempt at salvage, you continue: “Or perhaps someone to talk about evolutionary biology?” Cyrano answers first: “That will be fascinating. Does that have anything to do with teleology?” As you make your escape, you say, “I’m not sure. I’ll check. Au revoir, messieurs.”