Remember the Cinnamon Birds

It is an ordinary day market, one like so many others in this nondescript Taiwanese neighbourhood. I pass by the stand where I occasionally buy cardamom seeds and also avocados when it is the season. Today I just wander and look around. Fall has begun and even though it is still warm I delight in the fact that the hot season is over.

The woman at the stand is busy with customers so she lets me be. With her – I never saw him before – sits an old man, maybe her grandfather, sparse grey hair and weathered skin, a face like whittled from walnut wood. It is as if a shadow of recognition flies across his face though that cannot be because I’m sure we never met before.

On the table before him lies a plastic bag with cinnamon sticks. The attention I pay to it seems to increase his interest in me. Not many Taiwanese enjoy the taste of cinnamon even though the spice is known to be healthy and I wonder if he gets many customers here. He watches me intently, with the eyes of a child eager to learn but also those of a man who has seen it all. His friendly stare is comforting and when he smiles I return it with ease.

I look at the bag and wonder… does he know that cinnamon used to come from the springs of the Nile out at the end of the world? In ancient times cinnamon sticks were fished with nets out of the waters that fell from the heights of the Ethiopian central mountain range.

It was one of my distant ancestors who travelled up the mountains to the lands of the cinnamon birds who use the sticks to build their nests. Others had done the same but few had returned and those who did wouldn’t speak about what they had seen. That ancestor had, within a year, lost his entire family to tragedy and sickness. I suppose he did not care much about what would happen to him. All he wanted was to add some meaning to the remainder of his life. So he also travelled to those mountains and ascended the heights.

I myself have not journeyed much in my life so it must be the faraway memory of that ancestor passed down to me in some way. For it is as if my own eyes have seen those birds, giants of their kind, with swan-like bodies and long beaks like those of storks, collecting cinnamon sticks from the surrounding mountains and building their nests right were the springs arise from the depths.

The birds do not appreciate the visit of strangers – as if they guarded a greater secret, high up in the mountains. But no wish of his own remained in his mind and that must have been the reason why the birds let him pass.

He entered the mountains and for more than a year lived among its people. I know this because I have seen it as if with my own eyes – a silent land, of peace and tranquil minds. His soul healed there and he later retuned to the lowlands where he made his home at Lake T’ana. There he married a second time and fathered three children. Had the birds seen he would tell about his time with the mountain people they would not have let him leave.

I am not a person who speaks a lot and don’t mind knowing things that no one will believe. And after all, it is said those mountains and its people have since descended below the lake. Who then could manage to visit those realms these days? Still, even today the birds gather the cinnamon, building their nests by the springs of the Nile.

“Duo shau,” I ask. (How much?)

He considers my question for a moment and then seems to make up a price on the fly: “Yi bai wu.” (Hundred fifty.)

I give him two bills and he returns a coin. We smile at each other once more. I may never meet him again.

I have at home a small bottle of glass, more like a capsule, five centimeters long, a finger thick. The glass has turned cloudy with time but is still semi-transparent. The vessel contains bark from the original cinnamon trees, sliced and cut to size so they fit into such small a space. I know, should I open it, they would instantly turn into dust. But for a timeless moment my eyes would see again the cinnamon birds and I would hear their song. I would ascend those ancient mountains and smell the springs of the Nile.

And if the birds see that I will tell about it they will take me with them.


by Ralph Jensen © 2016. All rights reserved.


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