After a few weeks they shot up into funny little twisted trees, branches shooting out every which way so fast there were those that swore they'd watched them grow and still we paid them no mind, save perhaps as a curiosity.
It wasn't until the Sunbirds began to beat themselves against the boughs of their cages that anyone thought to question them. Night and day they'd beat, beat, and the branches of their cages would bend but never break. Then, finally, we stopped to think, and we feared them. We spoke of them often--in whispers, for reasons none could ever really explain, always in whispers--and so word spread quickly when one young man, brave and foolish, announced that he planned to try one.
Although the whole village was stunned by his reckless audacity, no one tried to stop him; everyone was just as curious to find out what would happen. So one day, about a week after he had made his announcement, when we'd all started to whisper that he wouldn't do it, after all, he scrambled high into the canopy, plucked a ripe gold fruit, and took a bite.
That first bite, he told us later, was as bitter and terrible as he'd expected; but then, as he chewed, something strange and wonderful happened. The fruit changed in his mouth, until it was the sweetest, purest thing he had ever tasted, and before he knew it he'd eaten the whole thing.
At first, the fruits seemed to have no effect on the young man. Over the next few days, however, he became more and more restless, eyes constantly darting about, feet relentlessly tapping the ground. He was often seen staring longingly out into the forest, fingers picking nervously at the hem of his shirt. We all kept a careful watch, of course, but one day, for all our scrutiny, he vanished.
We tried to search for him, but everyone was afraid of venturing too far into the forest. Its familiar winding paths had been hopelessly obscured by the strange plants that grew from the fruits' shining seeds--enormous, twisting vines that covered everything else, choking out the ancient trees. At first, they looked innocent enough, but as they thickened they developed weird, bulbous growths that reeked of decay. The plants grew so closely together that even the light from the Sunbirds became dim.
So we waited, helpless, as the forest grew darker and stranger, the Sunbirds grown few and ragged from their constant assault on the bars of their cages. Months passed, and even the staunchest among us fell into despair, and then finally, one day, the man returned.
His months away had changed him, almost beyond recognition. His once-neat clothing was tattered and ragged, and hung off him limply, for he was so thin it seemed his bones were all that was left of him; his hair and beard grew long and tangled, grown inextricably together with countless leaves; and, strangest of all, inside his eyes burned something clear and fierce and joyful.
He was raving, we thought, he was mad. We listened in fear as he told us of his journey, describing monstrous things as if they were Eden. His head was filled with the most absurd ideas; he said we were trapped, he said we were caged, he said we had to destroy the Sunbirds' cages. "Set them free"? The man had lost his mind. We couldn't comprehend why the birds would want anything else; we gave them shelter, all the food they could eat, and protection from the cats that stalked the forest for prey.
We set a watch on him once more, doubly vigilant this time, and while we did we began building another cage, bigger than the Sunbirds', big enough for a man. When it was done we hung it high on a vine-choked tree branch. That night when he slept we picked him up, softly, softly, carried him up the tree, and did our best to forget about him.
But only a day passed before the shaking started.
It started quietly, no more than a trembling in the treetops, but it grew more and more violent, accompanied by frenzied shrieks that crescendoed until we had to cover our ears from all the noise--the man's manic screams, the trees' boughs creaking and snapping, and the birds, the squawks, whistles, and screeches as the birds battered themselves against their cages in increasing desperation.
After hours of this, hours of fury so great it seemed the forest itself was trying to shake us free of its back, it stopped all at once. We who had thought we would be relieved found instead a great dread growing inside of us, keeping our throats closed tightly and our voices trapped in whispers. Then, as if to echo the silence that had overtaken the forest, pitch black settled around us.
The man descended from the trees, then, and it might have been the surrounding dark but it seemed like something of the fire was gone from his eyes. He told us of how he had freed the Sunbirds, one by one, and how they had flown straight up, up, so far above the miserable forest that he could no longer tell one from another. We are told they fly far and fast each day, in their exuberance, so far that by the end of the day they've come back to the forest, but the vines grow so thick now that no light ever reaches us. No other plant grows here, now, so we are forced to eat the fruit of the plant that was our undoing; only the old and trapped can stay here for long, and even they grow mad and restless. And that, my child, is how night came to the forest, and why I am going to leave in the morning.