new work
Illustration from What is the Full Moon Full of

Shulamith Levey Oppenheim

Cricket Stories

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"The Cave of the Oilbird"

We live in a house with a red door and green shutters on the edge of a rain forest on the island of Trinidad. There are pots and pots of flowers on our porch. My father manages a cocoa and coffee plantation, and my mother was a schoolteacher at one time, but now she's at home taking care of my two little brothers and two little sisters. And me. Manuelo, my oldest brother, is seventeen. He is studying to be a rain forest guide so that he'll be able to show all the people who come from all over the world the wonderful plants and animals and birds in our forest.

I'm nine years old today, and Manuelo has a surprise for me. "Happy birthday, Carla," he calls when he sees me. "I am going to take you into the rain forest today! Deeper and farther than you have ever been, because I want you to discover the cave of the oilbirds. That's my present to you." He puts a flashlight and mosquito repellent into his back pocket. "We'll need these," he explains. I can tell from his voice, he's excited. I'm excited, too.

I have a question. "Manuelo, you've been to the cave, and many other people have been to the cave. How can I discover something that has already been discovered?"

My brother squats down beside me when we talk, because he is very tall. "Every time someone sees something for the first time," he answers quietly, "it is a discovery." I think Manuelo is very wise.

We start down the path that leads away from our house into the forest. The sun is shooting golden arrows through the canopy of thick leathery leaves. Some of them are shaped like canoe paddles. Manuelo and I walk slowly. I love my rain for-est. The earth is moist and red, and there is no grass or shrubs, The bulging roots prop up ancient trees with names like milk and monkeypot and incense.

Suddenly my brother motions me to stop. "Look." He points to the ground. Across our path leaf-cutter ants are marching in a long, long line, carrying pieces of leaves like surfboards above their bodies. They will use the leaves to build their nests wider and wider.

"Do they spend their whole lives cutting up leaves and dragging them to their nests?" I ask.

"Their whole lives," my brother answers and takes my hand. We walk on. The path begins to wind downward. "Listen." Manuelo stops again. A dull, dark clang sounds high above our heads, far out in front of us.

"The campañero," I whisper. "The bellbird."
Manuelo nods.

"I've never seen it," I say and try to keep my voice low.

"I have seen it two, maybe three times," Manuelo says proudly. "I'm learning to follow its call. The bellbird perches high in the tangled canopy-I don't think it wants to be seen."

"It sounds like a hammer on Mama's soup pot," I say, and Manuelo chuckles.

"That's the male calling out," he explains.

We walk on. Tiny white-bearded manakins chirrup to each other. They buzz and snap and rattle. "They want us to notice them," I tell Manuelo.

"They do. They are a favorite of mine," Manuelo whispers. -Vines as thick as Papa's legs dangle from the treetops. Hummingbirds and honeycreepers are drinking from the _ vine orchids that wind round and round the trunks, and from the passionflowers that clump beside them.

"When will we get to the cave?" I look up at Manuelo. "Wait." Manuelo puts a finger to his lips. I think I know what he means. In the rain forest you really should not speak. You look and you listen.

We have been walking for a very long time. The path is dropping sharply now. 1 hear water gurgling. I want to race ahead, but I don't. Manuelo peers through the trees. He walks a short distance into the forest, then comes back to the path. He once told me that if you hurry in the rain forest, you could miss something very interesting and very beautiful. And he's right.

Suddenly we are standing in front of a rock cliff with shallow water bubbling over brown and yellow stones. In the cliff is a dark opening. The bellbird clangs out. My heart is pounding, and I hold Manuelo's hand tightly as we step from one slip pery stone to another, till we are close to the mouth of the cave.

Manuelo turns on his flashlight and runs the light along the cave walls. At first 1 don't see anything except sharp rocks sticking out from the sides of the cave. I open my eyes as wide as I can, till I feel wrinkles in my forehead. I peer and peer.

Then! I see two red dots appear-two more and two more. And then! Around those red dots faces begin to shape. Faces with stiff whiskers pointing downward on each side of hooked beaks. The faces are still as stones, not moving even one bit, and the eyes are staring without a blink.

"The oilbirds!" My brother mouths the words. He has the same look on his face as the time when the motmot bird perched in the immortelle tree outside our house. Manuelo still moves the light up and down the walls, and I can see another pair of eyes and then another and another. And more and more heads appear around the eyes-serious heads with whiskers and hooked beaks-silent and still like statues. There must be hundreds! I feel goose bumps rising all over me. Are the oilbirds staring at me? I shiver, and Manuelo pulls me close to him. There isn't a sound except the water gurgling over the stones.

I don't know how long we stand in the cave of the oilbirds -but it must be a very long time. When Manuelo turns off his flashlight, we start back across the stones and up the path.

"Did you like the oilbirds, Carla? What have you been thinking?" Manuelo asks me.

I don't answer right away. But I have been thinking.

"Oh, Manuelo, that was the best birthday present ever," I whisper. "Will you take me here again, please, please?"

He smiles. "Of course I will. There are very few oilbirds left in the world. We must protect them so that other children can discover them."

My brother is very wise. I don't think I will make another discovery as special as this one for a long, long time.

Author's Note
The famous German explorer Alexander von Humboldt first described the oilbird colony in 1799. He came upon it in Northern Venezuela. In those days the Indians took the young oilbirds, killed them, and boiled them down, using their fatty oil far fuel and eating the meat. Oilbirds are the only known night feeding, fruit-eating birds in the world. They are found in Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Trinidad.

The Amerindians called them "guacheros," those who mourn and wail. I think they mourn their young who for so long were stolen from them. Today, happily, all oilbirds are protected by law.

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