Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, Part One: “I Would Like to Have a Word with You about Songbirds”

Rainbow Captain America and Nebula

When Rainbow Captain America and the Green Squiggle finally confronted Ondcain the Lord of Bluebirds, Rainbow Captain America spent much of the time getting the piss beaten out of him.

Rainbow Captain America lived with his sidekick, the Green Squiggle, a single-dimensional literal green squiggle, in a neighborhood called Fertile Crescent, quiet save for the delightful daily songbird polyphonies, and their neighbor happened to be a villain called Ondcain the Lord of Bluebirds. Despite being composed of songbirds himself, he was a powermongery sadist who got his jollies playing practical jokes on neighborhood songbirds. The “Lord” in his name implied he liked to lord things over his own kind mockingly, as if to say living inside a human house made him a better bird. At first Ondcain was merely dressing the other songbirds in human clothes (business suits and dresses), and he laughed as if to say, “You are not as human as me!”

Rainbow Captain America would come home carrying groceries and see these little business-suited songbirds, and Rainbow Captain America would shake his head (the Green Squiggle had no head to shake because he was a one-dimensional literal green squiggle).

“Somebody needs to teach Ondcain a lesson,” said Rainbow Captain America.

“Maybe he’s just a weird hobbyist,” said the Green Squiggle. “Can you imagine the amount of patience it takes to put a business suit on a songbird? That’s pretty incredible.”

“I guess you’re right,” Rainbow Captain America said in a skeptical tone and continued to stare at the littlest besuited bird who seemed to be screaming in distress.

Then, one day, it became clear Ondcain was supergluing birds to branches. The little birds tried to flap to fly away, stuck fast by this Lord bastard. “That’s it, I’m not going to tolerate this anymore!” Rainbow Captain America said and threw the groceries on the ground.

The Green Squiggle said, “Not cool, dude. My Milano cookies are in that bag.”

Meanwhile, Rainbow Captain America knocked on Ondcain’s door, crossed his arms, tapped a ragey foot. He repeated the knock-and-tap routine until Ondcain opened the door, and Rainbow Captain America said, “I would like to have a word with you about songbirds.”

Long story short, Ondcain beat the piss out of Rainbow Captain America. He didn’t really have a chance.

The Lord of Bluebirds was a conglomeration of thousands of bluebirds, roughly gorilla-sized roughly and gorilla-shaped (as much as a conglomeration of thousands of birds can be any shape). Having a couple dozen bluebirds in the shape of a fist come down all over your body is no picnic. The other problem was Rainbow Captain America had no superpowers or even physical toughness beyond mountainous moral conviction.

He was a fortuitous recipient of a shape-shifting wish from an angelical monster who felt bad for the pathetic little guy, but when the angelical creature asked him what shape he wanted to be, he blurted out, “Rainbow Captain America,” but he should have specified the shield should be invulnerable or that he was at least a little stronger than normal, so he wound up with a shield that was just a bony outgrowth of his arm covered in skin with as many pain receptors as the rest of his body and a body as weak as the body he always had. Still, the yearning to embody the greatness of the identity he chose drove him to always do the right thing.

During his career as sidekick, the Green Squiggle had to witness a lot of unpleasant and painful losings, but as a one-dimensional literal green squiggle, he never actually had to receive any beatings himself, and he had to resist intervention because his one-dimensionality meant he sliced right through whatever fleshy body he’d try to fight. Fighting Ondcain, who was made out of thousands of birds, meant slicing him to a thousand dead-bird bits which seemed hypocritically to be far more songbird-cruelty than they were aiming to prevent. The Green Squiggle had zero anti-murder compunction, but he knew the boss would never go for the Ondcain slaughter. Still, he always made the offer: “I could totally just kill this dude if you wanted me to,” he said to Rainbow Captain America, splattered on the ground, redder than his normal rainbow. “I could slice this dude to pieces with very little effort.”

“No, we do not kill,” said Rainbow Captain America pulling himself together and standing through the pain. That’s the sort of guy he was and one reason the Green Squiggle agreed to be his sidekick. “As long as evil stands, we stand against it.”

“Your morality can be such a pain in the butt sometimes,” said the Green Squiggle. If he had eyes, he would have rolled them. Still, he couldn’t help loving a poor, beaten-down dude who talks about standing against evil when he keeps comically collapsing over his own lawn ornaments.

It happened again the following day even though Rainbow Captain America was totally bandaided up, but the Green Squiggle knew his partner would keep going forever if he witnessed some sort of injustice. He knocked again on his neighbor’s door, said, “I don’t believe you listened to my point yesterday regarding the song birds,” and he got another similar beating.

The Green Squiggle had to find a way to convince Rainbow Captain America to stop cultivating constant losing/beating/breakage, but during this particular beating, the Green Squiggle noticed every punch from the conglomerated bluebird monster broke the necks of a dozen birds that made the first layer of the monster’s knuckles.

He pulled Rainbow Captain America aside, pulling carefully at his rainbow-colored costume at a point before his poor partner lost the ability to stand, and he said, “Look, dude, we got into this business to save songbirds from superglue chicanery, but look at all the mass bird death our confrontation is creating.”

Rainbow Captain America looked around at the bluebird carcasses (wiping blood from his eyes to see better). Ondcain stood aside, agreeing to the momentary pause, breathing hard (or imitating hard breathing) like a dancer too-caught-up in dancing so that the pause gave him an otherworldly disorientation, and dead and bloody bluebirds fell from his fists like dripping blood.

“It’s a no win, buddy,” said the Green Squiggle. “A no win. Let’s go.”

Rainbow Captain America stared at the scattered dead a long time, panting (more legitimately) from the beating he endured for the sake of similar little birds. He finally limped away in silence, clearly knowing his inability to win presently was actually an inability to ever win and an inability for humanity to ever win anything (though the Green Squiggle might’ve been projecting this last point).

“Good,” said the Green Squiggle following him away, uncertain that was the right word.

The bluebird monster laughed as they parted, wiping knuckle blood across his chest (blood from Rainbow Captain America and from the dead blue birds who made up those knuckles), like a badass and also like a terrible person. He laughted the same sort of laugh as all bullies who win.

Rainbow Captain America just moped around the house for a few days after the no win. He fed his chinchilla too many times. He ate cereal for all three meals. He watched a Three’s Company marathon for no reason and never laughed. All his rainbow colors looked a little ash gray.

“Hey, buddy,” said the Green Squiggle patting his back (carefully). “You’re starting to look a little shadowy, buddy. Wanna go throw the frisbee?”

But he didn’t answer until hours later: “Why bother?”

The Green Squiggle had to do something. One advantage of being a superhero is you know a lot of folks with superpowers. The Green Squiggle had this idea to solicit a shapeshifter to cheer up his buddy and flipped through the superhero rolodex under “S” for shapeshifter. He went to this one shapeshifter he knew called the Sea Yak and said, “I need you to imitate this bluebird monster, so I can cheer up my buddy.”

“What’s in it for me?” said the Sea Yak (most superheroes seemed the Green Squiggle like self-centered little glory-loving assholes like this dude).

“What’s in it for you is I don’t kill you. You should thank whatever sea yak deity you pray to every day I don’t slice you to ribbons. How’s that for a deal?”

“You’re a sucky superhero, bro,” said The Sea Yak, but he agreed to do it (he wasn’t wrong about being a sucky superhero which is why he couldn’t let his buddy slip into ashen darkness).

The Sea Yak showed up on time outside of Rainbow Captain America’s window pretending to be the bluebird monster, mimicking the conglomerated bluebird body perfectly (at least he was good at this one thing), and shouting “America is dumb.” He was improvising on the script the Green Squiggle had given him. He may have been a good shapeshifter, but he was a terrible actor. “Also, I tricked you into thinking the beating I gave you hurt the, um, the birds in my knuckles. My beating doesn’t hurt anybody. You only fell for my trick because you’re dumb. That means America is dumb. Because you’re America I guess?”

Rainbow Captain America couldn’t take anymore. He put down his cereal bowl, turned off the Three’s Company marathon, unwrapped the bathrobe and towels he cocooned himself and his unwashed rainbow costume in and marched out to the street, ready to beat some bluebird monster tail.

But he was very bad at fighting. It wasn’t just the complete powerlessness. It was the total lack of skill. He was like an old man doing kung fu if he only saw kung fu on television. The Sea Yak shrugged and dropped and said, “You got me, dude.” Still, Rainbow Captain America kept savaging the monster as best he could.

Rainbow Captain America was deep in the fury and could only release awkward and unpleasant gutteral snarls and slobber until the fed up Sea Yak, bothered more by slobber than the beating, said, “You got me, dude. That’s enough. I’ll never do evil again.” He walked away. Rainbow Captain America stood there panting, his own knuckles bleeding from the ecstasy of monster beating.

The Green Squiggle hoped he’d see his buddy smile again given this chance to beat someone for the first time. But there was no smile, and the color remained ash gray.

Rainbow Captain America did get some of his old color back over time for no reason other than the normal numbing of past misery sinking deeper into the sea of personal history. When he called the Green Squiggle to more adventuring, villainy abating, morality disseminating, all the old inanities, the Green Squiggle said, “Why?”

Rainbow Captain America said with no smile or irony, “Why not?” a certain ineffable misery eternally stuck in the bassline gravel of his response, but that was good enough for now.

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