I followed my mother through the open-air market, weaving between stalls of wallets, pan-flutes, and knitted ponchos in crayon-garish colors. Tourists’ sunblock and perfume overpowered the stink of fresh leather from the stalls. I inhaled those foreign scents, let their promises of escape permeate my lungs and quicken my heart. They conjured distant cities, those aromas, with more skyscrapers than colonial façades. A million different futures for my teenage self. But for now, my mother and I sought gifts for my cousins abroad, trinkets for their college dorms. Llamas were all the rage over there, they claimed, but they wanted authentic ones. A table of animal figurines caught my eye. The seller, a tiny woman with two long braids, leapt from her stool and greeted me with the customary, “A la orden.” At your service. Wrinkles gathered upon her face like tree rings.
I gave her a quick smile, then examined her merchandise. In one row stood animals made of stone and, in another, of tagua nut. Behind those rested bright creatures of painted balsa wood, light as corks, nice and inexpensive to ship. I didn’t notice any llamas, but I spotted a curious birdlike creature carved with the plumage of a macaw, the great scaly feet of an iguana, and the long neck and beady eyes of a tortoise. But its beak, oh, its beak! Majestic curvature to rival that of a toucan, in flame-orange — I’d never seen such vivid, shimmering paint.
When my mother looped back to find me studying it, she clucked her tongue. “Alondra, that’s not what your cousins want.”
They always got what they wanted.
She turned to leave. When I didn’t follow, she paused. “Looks like you’ve found a knickknack for your own dormitory, and only five years early.”
My mother attempted to barter the woman’s price down, as expected for us natives. But the seller scowled, and somehow those wrinkles deepened. No haggling for this little bird. She’d charge us a foreigner’s price, which only made me covet the sculpture more. I clutched my mother’s arm, begging her with my eyes not to insult this woman. My mother sighed and opened her purse.
I’d guessed the carving was of Quetzalcoatl from the Aztecs or Maya or some other culture way up north, but back at the house, my abuelo took it in his leathered hands and, upon examination, declared it none other than Etsa, ruler of all birds. The name seemed familiar, probably from an old school lesson, but my recollection ended there.
“Ruler of birds?” I asked.
Abuelo shot my mother a disappointed look. “Have we grown so far from the jungle that we can’t bring a bit of it with us?”
She pretended not to hear him and went out back to tend the avocado tree.
He continued, “According to legend, a demon named Iwia terrorized the rainforest. He orphaned an infant named Etsa, deceived the young boy, and raised him as his own. Poor Etsa had to go hunt birds each day to bring for Iwia’s dessert.”
“Ew.” I squirmed.
He stifled a grin. “The rainforest grew quieter, less colorful without the birds. Then one day, Etsa befriended a dove who told him the truth about Iwia being a demon and having killed his parents. Etsa also learned he could bring the birds back if he blew their feathers through his blowgun.” Abuelo perched the wooden figurine in his palm, fingers open and non-threatening, as if he held a live creature. “The part of the legend you don’t often hear is that when Etsa freed the birds from the demon, the boy was transformed into this shape as a reward, to escape the sadness of his past. They gave him this magnificent beak to signify the tube he’d used to save them. They say it produces the most superlative birdsong of all, because it carries the gratitude of every bird species of that jungle.”
My pulse rushed at the thought. I desired nothing more than to hear it, that song of escape, of freedom.
That night, I placed the figurine next to my pillow and stared at it in the humid, sweaty dark.
“Please, Etsa,” I whispered, “let me hear your song.”
The beak gleamed back at me, as still and silent as I imagined the rainforest must’ve been without all its birds. My heart sank. I knew too well that feeling of a place being devoid of something missing. Whenever the topic of my future came up, I could see the resignation my mother tried to hide from her eyes even as she talked about college, as if the demon Iwia had gobbled not just the birds from the jungle but also the wealth and opportunity from around us. I didn’t want that resignation to creep into me. What would it take to restore greatness, to make real change?
“Only once,” I pleaded.
The carving moved. I bolted upright, gripping the bedsheet. I fumbled for the light switch, my eyes never leaving the figurine. As light flooded the room, Etsa stretched his wings and neck. They rippled with iridescence. He blinked at me with eyes as dark and precious as black coral. Finally, he opened his beak.
The birdsong trilled against my eardrums, channeling his memories straight into my mind. I saw the human Etsa surrounded by trees, so many branches waiting to be perches again. I watched him lift his blowgun to his lips to make it more instrument than weapon. And out from the wooden tube streamed thousands of birds — over a hundred types of hummingbirds alone, plus macaws, toucans, motmots, tanagers, and curassows. They warbled and trumpeted and chirped. The foliage trembled with their song. They fluttered and soared and dashed to freedom, sparkling like gemstones spilling across the green fabric of the rainforest. My eyes blurred with tears from the beauty, from the emotions — Etsa’s and the birds’ — that their song carried. Notes of gratitude, as Abuelo had promised, but also of sadness and of regret that things had reached this point.
When the song ended, I found myself weeping into my bedsheet, my hair plastered to my forehead and neck. The figurine had become motionless balsa wood once again. The best kind of wood for Etsa. Weightless like a bird’s bones, taking up space with the type of presence reserved only for taking flight.
I took that figurine with me when I followed in my cousins’ footsteps to college abroad, as my mother had predicted. I took it with me afterward, too, through my studies and travels, in my backpack for every hike, on my desk where I work now designing green infrastructure. Always keeping a bit of the jungle with me. True to my word, I never asked Etsa to sing again. When you hear something that powerful, and listen with an open heart, you never have to. You’ve already been transformed.