Art by Nanri Tenney
I will always remember the moment when, just like that, the rainbow birds surrounded me, embraced me in flight, soaring on currents of air that made gliding effortless. Birds of such magnificence could not exist on Earth.
Each individual bird was arrayed in her own unique, luminescent hue and, together, they were a living, flying rainbow mosaic evoking the beauty of all the most stunning visions on the planet. My soul ached to be one of them. If I were, I wondered, what would my own color be?
I caught a glimmer below me and gazed down into the reflection of a pond on surface. I saw my own face in the water’s mirror, though the face of a bird, not a human, and I understood that I need yearn no more. I only remembered ever being a woman, but somehow I was now a bird, gliding a thousand feet up without fear or regret at the loss of my humanity. I was awed by my feathers that echoed the azure of the noonday winter sky and the delicacy of my shell-pink beak.
For decades I had walked on two feet, bound by gravity to the surface of the Earth. The memory of those years weighed on my spirit and I began to descend against my will. If my arms and hands were now feathered wings, how would I gather the herbs and mix them into potions to comfort and save life, or boil the tinctures to apply as I sat by the rasping shell of a loved one fading from the Earth? Who would care for the children I had midwifed into life and nurtured with nature’s healing plants through every illness?
When I was young, all summer I would wander the forests, letting my mind drift with the clouds, never wanting anything more than to simply walk on the soil. In winter I would sit by the fire and watch the blaze, entranced and at peace. But one day I could not help but notice the misery that was life within each small dwelling I passed on my way to the wild each day. Grief, disease, hunger, sadness, exhaustion from endless labor, one loss after another till nothing of value was left — into this ocean of suffering that was the every day lives of my family and neighbors I dove and never again, it seemed, looked up to the sun.
For ten or twelve hours every day for half a century I toiled. Eventually my body and mind broke like the delicate shells of the birds eggs that would fall from the trees outside my window, spilling onto the stones below. My shoes had become tattered, my larder empty, my body tired, and my mind forgetful.
Still, I never regretted how I had chosen to spend my life, as a connection between the bounty of the Earth and the people of my village, which was my only world. Often I thought of dying and wondered if I would be admitted to the heaven the priests talked about for it seemed not to be for people like me, who longed to be for eternity in the woods rather than a church. Perhaps, I thought, I have died and this flock of rainbow birds are people like me whose eternal reward was the freedom of the sky instead of a church paradise. I didn’t know by what witchcraft this transformation had happened, but I was grateful.
In time, I recognized some of the rainbow birds, seeing something in their eyes of someone I once knew. Others, one by one, told me their stories as we would glide in our own paradise, admiring the resplendence of places we had never in life known existed. I learned that all the rainbow birds had been women healers, shamans, teachers, nurses, home health aides, family caregivers, and other life and spirit-givers who were never honored, remembered, or recompensed in their own time for all they did. Some were even persecuted for their craft, only escaping death by disappearing to journey here as the smoke obscured their rescue. These you can tell because they are arrayed in the most iridescent royal purple plumage.
What we all have in common is our deep need to heal ourselves by healing each other. We had all thought ourselves alone, especially at the end of our land-bound lives before. As rainbow birds we now know we are one of millions of women who, over tens of millennia, have made magic in one way or another for the benefit of others and that it has now been returned to us in the joy of our new being as rainbow birds. …
You may wonder why you have never seen the rainbow birds if, as I say, there are millions of us. That is because we fly in a sky that is both of your Earth and not of it, in existence, but not within your horizon. The land we fly over has mountains and rivers, oceans and plains, endless forests and gardens. We have everything we need to feel whole and fully embraced by the understanding that the world is good and all living beings are part of one spirit, one Goddess, and that Her breath enlivens every being.
In the twilight hours here you may recognize the goddesses of flight whose wheelings and aero-acrobatics make a luminous dance in myth and dreams. Brigid races across the sky as a winged being, now not provoking war, but simply to enjoy her grace. The wild Colombian owl goddess Huitaca soars overhead, reminding us to find exuberance in every moment. Her owl sister Athena holds court in the highest branches of trees. Many, many others, their names and stories long forgotten, offer endless enlightenment.
Yesterday a new rainbow bird, perhaps startled to find herself here, lost her air current and plummeted to the Earth, most likely to the place where she had once lived. Since no one knew when and where she had come from, we all swooped down to the place of our own origin to search for her and bring her home.
She was quickly found, dazed but unharmed, in a forsythia bush in New England. A flock of her fellow Americans carried her gently back to her nest and we all returned to our afternoon leisure in paradise.
Most of the rainbow birds thought nothing more of it, but I could not get all that I had seen in those few moments on Earth from my mind. I had not been to Earth in centuries, and saw every living being anew. The humans walked as if burdened by invisible chains. They spoke as if imprisoned in a cage of hateful assumptions about life they had been taught as children and then carried till death. Their impulse towards freedom and instinct to experience life jubilantly had been stolen from them by angry rebukes and accusations, pointless fears, and threats of eternal punishment. The planet and her plants and animals had absorbed as much of this misery as they could, generation after generation, to try to liberate the humans, but were overwhelmed and became more and more poisoned.
As I contemplated all I had seen, my heart broke for the first time since I had become a rainbow bird. The connection binding me to the Earth’s living creatures that I thought I had severed once again pulsed, filling my soul with sadness and a determination to make Earth the paradise I now knew it could be. I flew back to the planet’s surface.
I found that in the weeks since we had descended to save our sister, the humans had begun to change. The humans themselves may not have noticed, but every few minutes they looked up as if searching for the rainbow birds to return. And in scanning the horizon above over and over, a small crack in their prison had opened. Their speaking to one another was gentler, the words they said more hopeful, the sway of their bodies as they walked more joyful.
Even so long after our visit, I heard humans everywhere in the world recounting their experience to one another over and over. “The skies were instantly filled with flocks of birds in all the rainbow colors flying in such numbers and with such speed that all I could see was beauty and amazing life. Then after a few moments, they all flew high up above the clouds and simply vanished. Where did they come from? Where did they go? When will they come back to us again?“
I focused my attention on one woman who seemed not to have experienced this tiny mite of liberation. Her body, mind, and spirit stooped towards the ground. Her eyes never left her feet. I could see around her a millennia of anguish experienced by her ancestors that weighed upon her fragile shoulders like boulders.
My reflection in a pond caught her eye and she spied me. I looped in the air and made circles and spirals just for her. She smiled and lifted her gaze to the sky beyond me, then imitated my movements with her feet on the ground, dancing in circles with arms outstretched and a smile on her face. She may have even levitated a few inches, but I cannot say if that is true.
I saw myself in the pond and noticed that I was no longer just blue but that my feathers had taken on all the hues of the rainbow. I was now not only myself alone, but truly one with all my rainbow bird sisters, of even the cosmos itself with its own rainbows made of water and light and the Earth with its infinite variety colors of land, plants, and animals.
When I first became a rainbow bird, I thought that paradise was the final reward for my labors that I would never find on Earth. For others it seemed like a sanctuary of sorts, a place to recover from the continual assault that their lives had become. But now I see that we were always doing the same work of healing in the sky as we had when we were human women, but in a different way. Our mission is now not only what we do, but more especially who we are, women or rainbow birds, inspiring and leading the way with our vision. We were rainbow birds long before we rose into the sky. We were rainbow birds from the moment we were born. We and all living creatures on Earth can be rainbow birds forever. We offer our paradise to you.
Nanri Tenney is an international artist and graphic designer who has lived and studied in the US, Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. She currently lives in Maynard, Massachusetts, and works as a logo designer, and creative arts and meditation teacher. Her company is Nanri Studio. She holds a BFA in graphic design from the Rhode Island School of Design.