There once existed the strangest town where the people made their living in the most treacherous of ways.
They were the bird men and women of Uckentuck.
The town was isolated on the coast by a wall of surrounding mountains. This made the people safe from foreign attack, yet it left them vulnerable in the harshness of winter when no more fish in the sea could be found.
Luckily, at that time there still existed a kind of bird that no one alive could even dare to imagine. Its beak and claws as sharp as razors. Its wingspan up to forty feet wide. Unlike many other birds, it only nested in the dead of winter on the cliffs of a distant island, surrounded by stormy seas. Yet the people of Uckentuck survived their winters only by their ability to capture the eggs of the most fearsome bird to live upon the earth. For the eggs contained the richest yolks that have ever been tasted. It is said that the eggs were so rich in nutrition that the smallest drop could feed you for a week and that invalids at death’s door could be cured overnight.
Just ten eggs a year could sustain the entire town through the longest and darkest of winters.
Each team of bird men consisted of three important roles.
First there was the bait man. The ‘bait’ was often the most dangerous role for a bird man to play. His job was to distract the bird long enough for the egg man to get the egg down the cliff to the safety of the boat. So many bait men died that the women of Uckentuck would neither court nor marry one until he had helped to capture an egg, as he must do to be promoted to a better role. In turn, every bird man must be a bait man first, so that all who sought wealth and glory would have to volunteer for the danger.
Next, there was the egg man himself. His job was to capture the egg and to carry it on his back in a specially woven sack down the cliff face to the waiting boat. This could be perilous too, avoiding the attacks of a giant bird as they clambered down the rock face.
Finally, there the ‘spike men’ who protected the bait from the beak and wings and talons of the mighty bird with ten-foot pikes, sharpened from the strongest wood that they could find. Each man made and sharpened his own pike, for if one snapped then the bird could crush his skull or fling him from the cliff with a single flick of its wing.
Those who returned without an unbroken egg would live their lives in shame while those who could achieve the feat were showered in honours and glory of the greatest kind. Women would queue up to marry them. Queens would invite them to eat at their table. Fatherless kings had been known to make them heirs to their thrones. To conquer the bird was to rule the Uckentucker’s world.
Over time the competition of the bird men grew. The skills and techniques of the bird men improved. Yet the number of eggs that returned diminished. The fear of failure that had once scared all but the rashest and bravest was replaced with desperation for the ever-thinning slice of glory that would save the town for another winter. Soon every young man in Uckentuck was raised with the ambition to be one, while the number of birds left began to quickly dwindle.
And so one cold winter’s morning, unbeknown to all involved, fully fifteen of the finest crews of bird men set off in search of the last of the great bird’s eggs.
Over the course of a week they raced each other to the island. Some set fire at night to their rival’s boats, forcing them to turn back or freeze and drown in the icy depths.
Once they reached the island, the game was no less fierce. Spike men poked at each other as the teams now climbed the rocks. Some threw stones from the beach and many fell to their deaths. Others hacked at their neighbours’ boats so that return from the island would be impossible.
Eventually a crew that had managed to arrive unseen on the rougher waves of the backside of the island clambered to the nest at the top of the cliffs.
They were met by the last remaining bird and surely one of the biggest ever seen. Years of fighting birdmen had taught her well and she immediately swept their bait man off his feet, clutching the poor young man in her talons. The others watched as the mighty bird soared on the ocean wind to a terrible height before dropping their screaming crewmate many hundreds of feet to the rocks and waves below.
Thinking quickly, their egg man took the opportunity to go for the prize, sacking the egg (as the locals called it) in a matter of seconds. He had barely made it a few metres down the cliff before his spike men came tumbling past him. The swooping bird piercing his ears with the horrifying sound of untold avian rage.
With the crew of his closest childhood friends and relatives lost to the hunt, the egg man’s only hope was to somehow make it down the cliff to his boat without being seen and to scuttle his rivals’ boats before they could chase him.
The bird circled the island’s cliffs, soaring and bombing at the egg man and his sack but the speed of his descent was too nimble for the giant bird to outmanoeuvre.
Once on the beach, the egg man rounded to the other side of the island, dodging the waves as he hacked at the tow lines that stopped the other boats from stranding his fellow bird men. He told himself that he would return to rescue the survivors, but any experienced birdman knew that anyone left for a week alone with that bird was as good as dead even if they didn’t starve.
The guilt neither slowed nor deterred him and he rowed with all his might into the smallest gap between the heaving waves.
By the time the other bird men had noticed the sabotage it was too late. Some dove into the water to try and chase their only hope of escape. Others launched rocks and spikes in a bitter last attempt to sink the boat of their enemy. All was to no avail. In the last and darkest chase of all the bird men, more men died than in any other single expedition.
Nursing the giant egg in his lap as he rowed, every wave risked cracking or toppling the last of the egg men’s precious cargo. To make matters worse, the bird had not yet given up on its hatchling. For many miles, the egg man battled the waves and swung his oar at the diving bird until finally it gave in and left him alone to struggle the final gruelling miles to shore.
As he washed up on the beach, shivering, he struggled and staggered with all the strength he had left to carefully carry the egg up the rocky beach to where the entire town had gathered to greet his arrival.
The Queen and current ruler of Uckentuck stood at the front of the precession. Her expression was grave and the contrast of the ragged, freezing, exhausted, bird man with his clothing scratched to threads and the monarch in all her jewels and finery was a sight for all to see.
“Bird man. You have beaten all rivals, you have met all challenges, you have overcome all obstacles and we thank you…”
Even in his wretched state, the bird man could sense some hesitation.
“But tell us, are the sailors’ stories true, that there are barely any more eggs to capture?”
“It is true my Queen,” the bird man replied, “for this is the final egg and I am the one who has captured it.”
There was silence as the bird man waited for the crowd to cheer.
“Then I’m afraid” the Queen replied, “that you must put it back!”
The onlookers gasped.
Then, in shock and exasperation, the bird man lost his grip and the crowd looked on as the last remaining hope of their town’s survival smashed against the pebbles and sand.