Chapter Thirteen: The Birds

In the middle of the road there stood a robin. It was larger than the ones that Nyssa had seen back home, pecking at the lawn; this one was at least the size of a volleyball. Nyssa stopped before she could run it over. "Excuse me," she said. "I don't want to hurt you, could you please get out of the road?"

"Avoiding hitting birds in your path isn't actually about wanting to prevent harm to them," said the robin.

"Excuse me?" Nyssa said, blinking.

"If you actually cared about the welfare of robins," it continued, "you'd find a way to pursue the fulfillment of that value in your daily life, but actually you're only paying lip service to that interest because your friend the half-hour there is watching, and of course to avoid feelings of guilt. Even if you were alone, you'd still be just trying to convince yourself that you live up to your ideals of being the sort of person who helps, or trying to solidify your understanding of yourself as part of an ascendant anti-running-over-robins-with-your-curiosipede faction."

"I don't think I've ever heard of a robin welfare charity," said Nyssa, bemused.

"Well, charity isn't about helping, anyway," said the robin.

"Wait, what?"

"Donations to and volunteering for charities can seem to be about helping others," said the robin, "but really most charitable behavior is driven by other motives. People want to feel good about themselves, and they want to be in with the groups that donate to these charities - either just for the pleasure of group membership or because explicit perks like charity dinners and social events are exclusive to donors and volunteers. They feel nearly as rewarded by donations that do nothing useful for anyone, donations that do a little good for a few people, and donations that do a lot for many people, and don't usually do any research to tell which is which. If someone tells you that they donate a lot to charity, what goes through your mind?"

"That seems nice of them?" Nyssa said tentatively.

"But of course they could say that whether or not they gave to a charity that helped people. They might donate to policy campaigns you'd despise," said the Robin. "They might pour massive amounts of funding into an art museum, while gallery basements are full of astronomically valuable pieces they refuse to sell and have no interest in displaying. They might be foisting off canned goods on a soup kitchen which could better be spending pennies on the dollar if they just received money and could make the purchases themselves. All of these donations serve equally to make you think, 'That seems nice,' and elevate the donor's status in your eyes and give them the opportunity to more closely affiliate with you. You might say it's better to pretend that charity is really about helping, but if honesty is important to you, you'll look at the real patterns of behavior and you'll notice just the same thing that I have."

"Look," said Nyssa, "I really do need to get by you, so I can go rescue the Princess."

"Rescuing the Princess isn't about the Princess's freedom," said the robin.

"- what?" spluttered Nyssa.

"You think - probably correctly - that if you rescue her, she'll act in ways that benefit you, or at least appease people whose regard you care about," explained the robin. "Then, you can reap direct compensation, and claim credit for her presence, and gain status and acclaim vastly outstripping what is necessary to earn it - in this case a single rescue mission. It seems very likely that if the Princess were instead an ordinary non-royal person mostly known for sitting at home and making paper snowflakes, with no one who especially missed her and no political questions that hinged on her absence, you'd leave the job to someone else - more likely no one at all, of course - and do something else that would better improve your material well being and cement your social position. Or maybe you'd talk a lot about how someone ought to save the poor woman, but only the potential to claim as much influence as the Princess has actually gets you moving, you see? I expect this is the first person you've ever gone on a quest to rescue in your entire life, and it's no coincidence that it's a Princess."

"She'll still be rescued when I'm done," said Nyssa crossly.

"Oh, of course," chirped the robin. "I'm not condemning status-seeking! It's behind everything we do, including many genuinely good acts, and of course also my talking about it. For example, I certainly wouldn't deliver this speech if I expected it to make my friends hate me, although I do fancy that my awareness of this motive means I can apply it a little more carefully than most people who just blindly rationalize their purely political motives."

"But there's no one else around," said Nyssa, "it's just you and me and Pomodoro."

"Look again," suggested the robin, and Nyssa looked up to find that the trees around the road were absolutely covered in birds. The birds varied; there were ones that resembled species at home, like the robin, but there were stranger, more colorful ones with strange tufts and plumes of feathers or no feathers at all, bizarre combinations of colors, outsized feet, necks and legs many times longer than the rest of their bodies...

"Some of these birds," said Nyssa in a whisper to Pomodoro, "remind me of Grice. Remember him, in the Observation Deck?"

"I remember," Pomodoro whispered back.

"Oh, I know Grice," said a yellow bird the size of a flamingo. "Grice and me, we go way back. We're like this." She completely failed to make any corresponding gesture, since her wings were the size of matchbooks. "He's an old pal, we used to get up to the darndest things, me and Grice, but we've fallen out of touch lately! Good old Grice, how's he holding up? I -"

"He's making a nuisance of himself," said Nyssa tartly, interrupting when it seemed the yellow bird would never let her speak of her own accord.

"Oh, good old Grice!" cried the yellow bird. "He always used to make a nuisance of himself way back when, too! He -"

Another bird, a blue hummingbird barely as big as Nyssa's thumb with an outsized voice, interrupted: "Grice is a disgrace to the name of Bird! He has yet to master the honorable Art! He is a stain besmirching our glorious reputation! People all over the Realm may hear of the noble Prolix Birds, and think to themselves, 'Ah, yes, like Grice, that repugnant discredit to the brand! That disreputable vermin! Surely the other Prolix Birds are all like him, with the same ignominious manner, deserving of the utmost opprobrium, reproach, and contempt!"

"Oh," said Nyssa, "so you aren't all just looking to annoy people?"

"Of course some of us annoy people," said a purple bird with a tail like a fan of knives. "To be specific, we each have a specialty, which in no case is per se 'annoyance' but in many cases may cause annoyance as a side effect, neither intended nor avoided. That's not the problem. The problem, by which I mean the issue many of us -" it gave the yellow bird a dirty look - "take with the individual Prolix Bird going by the name of Grice, is this: he simply doesn't keep talking long enough to deserve the name - that is, while he is indubitably a bird, he fails to be a Prolix Bird, being as it is that the meaning of Prolix is -"

"Unnecessarily lengthy! Wordy! Elaborate! Long-winded! Talkative! Discursive! Turgid! Chatty! Loquacious! Voluble!" squawked a naked bird with a comb and wide-clawed toes, bouncing with every word on the end of a bendy tree branch.

"And Grice has his own gimmick," sneered a white bird with black speckles and violently orange feet, "but he just doesn't keep it up. He's a few words short of a bird. The lights are on but not enough paragraphs are home. You can always get a word in edgeways. Not enough beating around the bush. I'd say he was economical with the truth. He -"

"Relies much too much on other people to talk," said a plump brown bird with a crest as tall as the entire rest of its body. "Doesn't have the virtues of independence and, and, what was I going to say, it's on the tip of my tongue, don't anybody interrupt me or I'll quite forget, what was it that I was going to say here, there were definitely at least two virtues, independence and, independence and, oh, dash it all -!"

"I see," said Nyssa. "I'll remember to judge Prolix Birds I meet individually, then, thank you."

"Judging Prolix Birds isn't about how good company we are," the robin before her said.

"Oh, get out of the way," Nyssa said, and she picked him up and set him on the side of the road and continued.