SCI FICTION, April 14, 2004

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"On Display Among the Lesser" by Carol Emshwiller

"On Display Among the Lesser" by Carol Emshwiller is a story of enslavement, love, and freedom told from the viewpoint of a majestic bird of prey.  Emshwiller's prose is lyrical and lilting, soaring and wheeling as effortlessly as her airborne characters coast the heavens.  Proud and fierce, these avian lords and ladies of the sky have a simple philosophy, perhaps savage, but unmistakably elegant:  "All others are meals."

The Grand is the largest and most beautiful of his kind.  He fears nothing and no one, haughty in his superiority.  Until one day he is captured by dirt-dwellers, lesser creatures notable only in the sweet succulence of their meat.  They confine him in a tiny cage, starve him, and clip his wings so he cannot fly.  And then, most outrageous humiliation, they force him to dance.

The dance is strutting, flapping, a display of virility and love.  It is a joyous duet, meant to attract a true mate, the one and only for life.  The dirt-dwellers mar the honor and sanctity of it by making The Grand dance solo for their amusement.  They shed tears of admiration as they watch him, but when the show is over, they lock him away until the next performance.

But The Grand isn't alone.  There is another prisoner of his kind.  She is a draggled and sorry creature, one whom The Grand would never have glanced at, much less given his name to before.  But together they share what comfort they can in each other's presence, enduring their slave's existence.  And when their time  comes, they dance.

"On Display Among the Lesser" is a lovely, turbulent tale.  In the hands of a less skilled writer, the total immersion into such a brutal psyche, one that pushes siblings to their dooms in the natural course of development and prefers to devour still-squirming prey, would be a difficult one.  But Emshwiller is adept and sure.  The only complaint I have is that there is so much of the Earthly familiar-foxes, snakes, rats, owls, bats-I kept trying to determine if Emshwiller intended her sky people to be Earth birds and if so, which ones?  But there is enough of the alien-mobbers, dirt-dwelling lessers-to throw that speculation askew.  In the end, my curiosity niggled, but wasn't enough to mar my enjoyment of the tale.

Definitely recommended.