The Ballad of the Sinister Mr. Mouth
by Catherynne M. Valente


There was once an island called Macaw: a little right of Martinique, but not so far as Montserrat, (where the parrots were never near so lurid nor fine.) Ah, but a name dropped on a map is lost among the slew of letters, and why should you be troubled with such arcane alphabets when the islanders themselves become confused even if their bourbon is not ready at eight in the accustomed bowls?

But there, among a brilliant shatter of bottles that never once held desperate parchments borne on unfeeling waves, the sea foams violet still on the green-feathered strand.  The patron saint of this place, with its littered beach and half-sunken boulevards, is the Leg of Laughing St. Quatrefoil. The blessed martyr herself is the patroness of nearby Greater Blue Macaw, that island of splendor and tale, that isle of light beyond grasp, that isle of sugar cane and scarlet women, that eternal older sister of poor, wretched Macaw, who makes do with secondhand honey and hand-me-down whores. Macaw possesses but the saint’s holy leg to watch over them in their sleep, and a fine old mahogany calf she had, before the parrots stole it out of her petticoat, and battered, ever valiant, the pelicans out to sea.

The endless crusades of the birds of Macaw have carved the island into long, bitter strips, where each avian tribe defends itself with terrible songs and more terrible talons, painted in fabulous designs like barbarian tattoos.

Mr. Mouth, for his part, reclined in comfort on the prow of his ship, scratching his feathers with the tip of an ivory pipe.  He was comfortable, having beaten off the particularly irritating hummingbird corps by means of cannons stuffed with shattered coconut shells and pearls from some unfortunate woman’s décolletage. He did not blow smoke rings, having held the opinion throughout his professional career that this was a gauche and pretentious habit. He thought of himself as both above and below the common man, and strove to keep the ballast of his quotidian debasements full. Thus he sat on the decks of his own ship, finer than a barrel of daisies, yet worked at his evening drunkenness in the way that some men work at whittling wood.

And thus we find him: clapping his pipe in his thick yellow beak and savoring the rich, sour taste of his favorite tobacco, almost like the flavor of a cherry pit soaked in bitumen. With one broad, lined hand, he smoothed his plumage back—for Mr. Mouth was a member of that most select caste of Macaw, folk descended from the sailors of the H.M.S. Beagle, which sank anchor off of the golden-green strand of the isle en route to Tierra del Fuego, and being men, as sailors often are, ran ashore, their lust as sea-ragged as their clothes, seeking the local distaff, fat and brown as they had been led to believe by the syphilitic bo’sun’s mate.

What they found, instead, were parrots.

Ah, the parrots of Macaw! No man may speak of their wingspan without falling into a swoon, no woman may dream of their colors without blinding her heart to all other shades! How green and how scarlet they must have lain upon the sands, vast as condors, their beaks that shamed the gold of El Dorado! How blue their tails must have shone, how pink their underfeathers! Even Mr. Mouth cannot imagine how the hearts of those sailors must have seized and lurched upon seeing the restful parrots prone on the palm-scattered shore. Need it be said that they lost all thought of what deep and sun-shaded haunches might be found further inland? Need it be described how they fell upon the parrots of Macaw, who had only of late ceased their hostilities with the green-backed herons, how they must have squawked and fluttered beneath the rutting, chilblained crew? It is said by the black-billed finches in their banyan-parlors that M. Darwin was occupied that afternoon with a tumbler of black rum and a vicious game of Gluckhaus, else he might have written very different books, once he had rolled off of a parrotess of his own.

Among these poor ravished birds was Quatrefoil herself, bless her name, bless her leg, shattered under the weight of a lieutenant’s desire and replaced by loving cousins.

Mr. Mouth let out an anguished cry as the sun sank heavy and blistered onto the back of the sea, trying to recall how his grandmother’s groans must have sounded above the surf. For in the expected time the great parrots of Macaw gave birth to the strangest of all social circles: those birds who walked with men’s muscled legs, though their heads were properly green and rose, though their beaks were as curved as rum-tumblers. Los Loros, bright they be, and black their eyes!

Mr. Mouth puffed his pipe, and listened to his lines creak and sway under a spray of stars like sailors’ seed.

It was a Thursday evening, blue as feathers, when Mr. Mouth’s yellow-decked ship, the Charlie’s Thesis, pulled alongside the poor schooner-scow King’s English. It was a wretched boat, with sails like cheesecloth and a hunched old wreck at the wheel, his captain’s hat flattened by winds. The crew was more drunk than ill and more ill than awake. Sores broke open along their lips and they had clawed at their sagging throats in the throes of thirst. They lay about the decks like the dead. Mr. Mouth knew well this was no challenge, those poor souls had had a rough passage, their cabins littered with women’s shoes and orange rinds, but it was not a challenge he sought—his gambles were of a more refined, aristocratic breed. In piracy, he preferred ease. Despite his long legs and taste for oysters, he had not quite escaped the parrot’s predisposition to scavenging, and when he stepped aboard the ramshackle King’s English, he bobbed his head and chortled in his emerald throat like a magpie.

"Oh, ho! My captain, my captain!” bellowed the superlative Mr. Mouth, his palm-bark coat clapping in the sea wind. “Captain of flapping sails and poor rigging! Captain of the creaking boom! Captain of milk-cut half-rations! Where is your cargo, my dashing dear? Where do you aim, my debonair master of barnacles?”

The old captain raised his salt-encrusted eyebrows, new wrinkles forming in his forehead as the ocean-rime which caked his haggard face buckled and cracked. Behind the squared and downy shoulders of Mr. Mouth, several spectacularly violet and turquoise headed Loros ground their beaks and cawed happily at the cannonless ship.

“I’ve heard of you, you know. The Crown ought to send a hunting party down here and serve you up to a table of princesses en brochette,” the senescent captain hissed through lips chapped to bloody.

Mr. Mouth opened his generous arms wide, the first pale blue stars shining like St. Elmo’s Fire along the thin stripes of green feathers which snaked down to his wrists. He enclosed the captain in his hummingbird-slaying embrace, nuzzling the skipper’s brine-shrimp infested ears, tipped in barnacles like earrings, as a pet would nuzzle its owner.

“I am not to the taste of princesses,” he hummed, and clipped those ropy naval arteries with his burnished beak. The blood was dull, tide-salted. As he let the mariner’s body drop onto the deck like a net of silver fish, he squawked roughly and the blue Loro gathered round, their meaty arms ringed with conch-bracelets. “Haul up the cargo, my chicks, for my scalpels are restless in their case!”

The cerulean Loro gave leaps and kicks that any country girl would be proud to count in her dancing repertoire. Along their bare backs slight traces of lavender feathers arced in graceful lines, never quite amounting to wings, but suggesting the memory of flight. Poor little ducks! How they long to fly, to dance and turn mid-air like their uncles and their cousins, who cross the width of Macaw in little more than a minute! Instead they are forced to this, to shambling, shuffling reels that display like crossed pistols both their joy and their shame.

From the depths of the King’s English the parrots dragged a clutch of women and young men bound together at the ankles by predictable iron fetters, their hair matted and ragged, but fatter than the crew and almost entirely without running sores at lip or eye. Their clothes were colorless and rough, but their cheeks had blood in them, and Mr. Mouth bent to examining their throats, one by one, tipping back their heads like the lids of treasure-chests. He moved his fingers around the face of one woman with bright blonde hair, bright as the dreams of locksmiths, and nibbled at her chin ever so lightly. The stately Mr. Mouth kicked at the ribs of a sail-mender until he groped with wastrel-strength at the toe of the offending heron-skin boot.

“For what purpose, young stitch-minder, have you dredged a furrow in the sea and hauled these poor bedraggled swans through it?”

The boy coughed, a dry, smacking sound, with no moisture at all in it. His eyes rolled in his head.

“There was a storm, and no fresh water—“

“Yes, yes. I don’t care. The swans, my boy.”

The sail-mender shaded his rheumy eyes from the moon, which burned him even as the sun. “Brides,” he rasped finally. “Bound for Trinidad, for the cane farmers, for the plantations. We kept them healthy—see their color? Everyone needs a wife. The cocoa-breeders pay in gold and sugar for these whores—and their daddies back in England sold them for copper.”

“What about the boys?” The discerning Mr. Mouth inquired.

The sail-mender shrugged and smiled weakly. “Not everyone can afford a woman. Some send away for the lads, special. Their daddies sell them for silver, but they’re all gold in the end.”

“Not these,” chuckled the bobbing, grotesquely gorgeous parrot-head with its blaze of orange over the nostrils. But it was not the beak which slashed down to the neck of the toothless wretch. Mr. Mouth crushed that nautical larynx with a slow press of his green-heeled boot, and the Loros around him fluttered into action, stomping through the remaining prostrate crew and rifling the cabins for their wages. A cobalt female with ropes of coral around her neck crowed as she held up a brass-and-mahogany sextant. A pink-crested male juggled three compasses.

The woman with such bright hair, bright as plumage, did not look at the debonair Mr. Mouth. She had learned her lessons at the hands of the barnacled captain, and looked no one in the eye. She closed them and thought of sugar and cocoa growing green in the sun.

“What a pretty songbird,” Mr. Mouth warbled.

The north sliver of Macaw is entirely occupied by cages. They hang from the boughs of banana trees and swing among the coffee-leaves. They are twisted together from vines and ship-lines, palm-bark and driftwood, myrtle and mangrove. Occasionally, the Loros have raided ships which were the pale ghosts of the Beagle, setting upon hapless naturalists with ravenous and vengeful pleasure and beaks painted ritual-red with the blood of hummingbirds—and from these brigs, crawling with specimen-scorpions and turtles in mating pairs, they have taken any number of iron and copper and oak cages, which once held such diverse fauna. One discerning shipboard scholar even kept a tall golden cage for his favorite flamingo, a stunning bird whom he had loved from the moment he saw her, crook-legged in a steaming swamp. Unwilling to be parted from her rosy ministrations, he kept her ever by, until a Loro with an eye for scrying perversion bit the tendons of his ankles in two and tipped him over into the brine. The flamingo keened in her mourning, and all her feathers turned to black. She drowned herself for her white-wigged love off the hull of the Jupiter’s Shuttlecock, and the cage went into the collection of the sagacious Mr. Mouth.

It was in that very cage that the bright-haired Trinidad bride sat, her sunburned shoulders shaded in almond leaves. Her yellow hair was braided once, and is still knotted and bunched, falling to the backs of her knees. Mr. Mouth came to her on a balmy evening not long after the King’s English had been sunk to the blue world that abides beneath the clear water. He brought a little doctor’s case with him, black and shining, rescued from the kit of a wartime surgeon with a taste for frog’s livers soaked in milk. Mr. Mouth had let his Loros divide the man’s soft, amphibian belly between them. Thus equipped, the nimble Mr. Mouth ascended the crimson-berried nance tree to rest beside her in the teak-bottomed cage. She looked at her hands.

“Now, my dear and dulcet bride of sugar! What is your name?”

“Clare,” she said softly, her voice swallowed up by the trees of Macaw, “Clare Lamp.”

“Ah, Miss Lamp, Light of Reason, Hope of my Heart! I am most happy to make your acquaintance. I have reason to believe you will be a great success of mine, perhaps the crown of my career—do you know why?”

“No, Sir.”

“Because I have asked the other ladies, and not a few of the strapping young boys, and they tell me your mother was a penny opera soprano, and your father was a bass—he played the King of Spades in Il Inferno della Gioc-Scheda, did he not?”

Miss Lamp looked up with pride in her light eyes, a peculiar shade of green not unlike a messageless bottle bobbing on the sea. “Yes, Sir, that he did. And I was the Knave of Diamonds. My mother was the prettiest ingénue they ever saw, even when she had her three babies and not a line on her face hadn’t been caked with greasepaint more times than rouge. She was the Queen of Clubs in Gioc-Scheda, and she carried a black staff as big as a man!”

“I’ll bet she did!” crowed Mr. Mouth, and his green feathers puffed up with pleasure. “And you, my treble clef, my eighth-note, you can sing, can you not? In your Knave’s costume, with your red pantaloons and your spangled cap, you sang most sweetly, didn’t you? As sweetly as a bird?”

“Oh, I did, Sir. Better than my sisters, better than half the dancing corps. They clapped for a quarter-hour after the Knave’s aria. My Papa would never have sold me, except that costumes are so dear, and painters so hard to come by. It hurt him, he had tears in his mustache, but what can a theatre man do? There are always more girls to be found. He told me I’d be a fine lady, Queen of Sugar-Spades, with a lace fan and mint liquor in a little glass every day at three.”

“I am sure you would have been, Miss Lamp. I can just see you now, with peacock feathers in your hair. But alas, your ship was poor, your captain poorer, and by mere chance, you know how to sing.” He grinned as a parrot may grin, a pink-grey tongue flashing out and back. “But there is yet cane for you.”

Mr. Mouth opened his gleaming black case and removed several objects from its depths. He laid before the young woman seven scalpels of varying lengths and sharpness, a dark, heavy awl, and five pieces of thick, fibrous sugar cane, oily and solid. Mr. Mouth was at that time the preeminent surgeon of the isle of Macaw, ministering to the Loros wherever they came to harm. And it was in this capacity that he pioneered—let no one say that Macaw was a backwater, let no one malign her crystal shores where such songs echo!—an extraordinary surgical technique. Culling the likeliest subjects from his maritime adventures, Mr. Mouth perfected his methods in much the way any doctor will, and by the time he hovered over the quavering Miss Lamp was quite a sure hand.

“It will hurt, I shall not lie to you on that score,” he admitted. “Once, when I boarded a clipper by the name of Plebiscite, I was not nearly so quick on my feet as the day required, and my Loros and I spent a full summer in the service of a captain so thin you could see the moon’s edge through his ribs. He took a man’s kind of pity on me and plucked my feathers with his fingers like grass blades, one by one, from my scalp, determined that underneath all my verdancy he would find the head of an upstanding fellow, with a clear enough brow. He strapped me down every day, swore it would not hurt me, no more than a mosquito’s sting, and administered his depilatory treatment among a dozen hanging cages filled with songbirds trilling out the hours. But, my little Knave of Diamonds, when he had pulled the last gall-green feather from my brow, he found only a parrot’s skull beneath, naked, bald, shriveled, prickled with bird-blood. By autumn we lured enough of the crew to our side to safely snap the thin captain’s spine like the stalk of a lily. I opened all his songbird cages to the breeze, and I spent the better part of an afternoon plucking each hair from his head.”

“But, please, Sir, I am not sick,” said Miss Lamp, her gaze fixed on the scalpels.

“Did I suggest you were?”

After a protracted skirmish some several summers back in which the green herons were driven from their roosts, the Loros claimed the strand between the almond groves and the coconut clutches. Under their callused hands and through their menagerie of seafaring goods, it became a long boulevard of raised deckboards, lamp-posts fashioned from masts with flaming lanterns swinging from their crows’ nests, and parrot-women in palm-frond hoop skirts dancing with parrot-boys in cacao-buckled breeches.

Along this boulevard the lordly Mr. Mouth led his charge. Her throat was bandaged with a navigator’s chart, and her eyes bruised with weeping. He led her with her hand tucked into the crook of his arm, lecturing like a Cambridge man as they strolled, patting her fingers every now and then.

“You see, my dear, the importance of parrots to the world. Off Macaw, we are pets, we are playthings. We are the songbirds of grotesquely thin men. We sing and make obscene gestures towards speech. Even on Greater Blue Macaw, where the parrots were always small and they worship a saint none of them has ever seen, we are showpieces. And it is the creature which shows his pieces which is the greatest, not the one whose pieces are shown. I think this is elementary, don’t you agree? No tribe can rise to the level of nation when they are given fresh seed and water promptly at four only so long as they whistle ‘God Save the King’ when the master snaps his reedy fingers. Who can be great while sitting on the shoulders of eyepatched men and cawing idiocy at the sky? But here, on Macaw, we are beset on all sides by birds who do no recognize our superior nature, seeing in us only the playthings of men. I have devoted myself to proving them wrong, to raising the Loros up, to sit beside men on the veranda of God, to sit beside sailors and naturalists and archangels.”

As they entered the main thoroughfare, Miss Lamp could not fail to see that the finest cages were here, hung along the sidewalks, side by side. In each one was a man or a woman or a child, hunched over and hiding their eyes. They wore sailors’ clothes and whores’ clothes, the clothes of a baron’s son or the clothes of a captain, gamblers’ rags and catamites’ silks. As Mr. Mouth passed, dozens of hands fluttered to their throats. Miss Lamp trembled, and their shadows fell on a silver cage which contained a single wooden leg of ruddy mahogany. It was small, a bird’s crutch, resting on a pillow of parrot-down. Mr. Mouth crossed himself with fervor.

“She alone does not sing,” he intoned, and with a firm press of his hand guided the bright-haired woman towards the crest of the boulevard, where herons deep in the brush glared and fumed, and where the cage of the lovelorn flamingo had been deposited by burly Loros with ear coverts of lurid yellow. In it had also been placed a captain’s chair with a low canvas seat. The surgeon directed Miss Lamp to sit upon it, and helped her to keep her back properly straight, assuming rightly that her mother had not taught her such niceties.

He removed the map-bandage from her throat, and a silence fell over the bustling street as each Loro in their strange-ventricled heart strained to hear. For the brilliant Mr. Mouth had cut away the crystalline larynx of the child of the penny opera, and replaced it most expertly with five strips of sugar cane, with neat holes awled in their thready thicknesses. He smoothed her hair and kissed both her cheeks with his rough and painted beak.

“My dear, my pet, my showpiece! My ballad, my threnody, my opera!” He said breathlessly.

With a blazing faith and pride in his black eyes, Mr. Mouth leaned in close to Miss Lamp, who would one day quite soon be called the Light of the Lane by every Loro with tongue to speak it, and blew very gently across her sugar-throat. A sound filled the air of Macaw like the weeping of seraphim, a high, pure flute, sweeter than clear water. Tears streamed down the poor girl’s face. She turned her eyes to the deep violet sky, where flocks of finches flittered across the impassive face of the moon. The sinister Mr. Mouth closed his own eyes and, hands trembling in triumph, played a simple minuet, sad as the ache of a ship too long at sea, on the throat of his best and newest songbird.

Along the boulevard, the caged folk cried out, anguished in their seedless prisons—but their breath through their cane-paneled throats only sent up further notes beneath Miss Lamp’s perfect voice, low and broken, flawed and sharp, bent and flat. All Macaw was filled with cacophonous music, and the herons shivered in their nests.

As one, the many-colored Loros stepped up to the rows of cages and, squeezing shut their beady eyes in rapt ecstasy, put golden beaks to so many throats.



About the Author:

Catherynne M. Valente is the author of the forthcoming Orphan's Tales series, as well as The Labyrinth, Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams, The Grass-Cutting Sword, and three books of poetry, Apocrypha, The Descent of Inanna, and Oracles. She lives in Virginia with her husband and two dogs.



Story © 2007 Catherynne M. Valente.