from the bowl like mercy itself. – Catherine Arra
Her Totem Is the Thunderbird – Lynn Mundell
Senses – Ben Berman
What owls eat – Walburga Appleseed
The Scent of Lemons – Sandra Arnold
Oh – Andrew Pryor
The Queen of Wisconsin – April Bradley
Three ways to miss you – Fiona Lincoln
Pecking Order – Shermie Rayne
Ain’t Chicken – Sam Averis
Pin Feathers – Dave Cavill
How to make a necklace from a dead bird – Rachel Smith
Under the sun – Xander Stronach
A Box of Birds – Liz Morton
Twittering Machines – Austin Conner
Cock – Foo Sek Han
Sing a Song of Sixpence… – Sue Kingham
The valley – Annette Edwards-Hill
Kotjebi – H. Boyce
Honey – Iona Winter
Bird life – Jude Higgins
Beautiful Birds – Céline Gibson
The Birds – Elaine Chiew
Migrations – Slawka Scarso
Deep Sky – Tara Lee
Mollymawk – Martin Porter
The Cuckoo of Kaitiaki Close – Sebastian Morgan-Lynch
A Matter of Self Defence – Sally Carroll
The Other Denholm – Michael Loveday
Fan Tail – SR Charters
Legion – Chris Graham
June 12th – Sophie van Llewyn
Morning Coffee – Beige Fifteen
The Shapes We Make – Linda Grierson-Irish
Pigeons Are Descended From Dinosaurs – Jonathan Cardew
Lots of sky – Rob Walton
They – Timothy Gager
Fossils – Jeff Raglin
At a Special Meeting of the Seagulls – Jeff Taylor
Evening Alone – Ramon Collins
Falling to Birdland – Patrick Pink
Feature Interview: Tim Jones talks with Best Small Fictions Series Editor Tara L Masih
Book Feature: Tim Jones’ New Sea Land
People In Our Pages: Gail Ingram and her winning graffiti poetry project
People In Our Pages: Leanne Radojkovich on her first story collection
Taking her in
My master, Foo, could sweep his cormorants, beaks full of large un-swallowed carp, up onto the raft with a long wide stroke of the bamboo pole.
I became apprentice the day he tied a snare tight around the smallest cormorant’s throat. Chanting, dancing, he shook her from the perch to make her maiden dive for our supper.
Soon, she swam back to the raft, like the other cormorants, towards the long wide hands that had stroked her downy feathers as a chick. That day, she gave up her catch into our wood bucket and he fed her the scraps.
About Gail Ingram…
from the bowl like mercy itself.
My resident raven cleans and cooks prey in the birdbath. Eviscerated mouse intestines a rubber grey heart, baby bird heads and feathers float in the broth.All living things are omnivores, vegans too, no lie. A principle learned in the womb on mother’s blood; on the playground when Katie pushes Timmy off the swing and he loves her forever; when Nancy practices everyday to keep fingers fast against envy for first-chair flute; when the teacher demotes her anyway because she refuses to march in the holiday parade; I don’t march, she says don’t parade, quits his flute and learns guitar, hugs it close, sings protest songs with Randy outside the café; when the sorority spurns fat girls and Randy dies at war anyway; when the husband can’t make the wife mind and cheats instead; when the boss plays grab-ass quid pro quo; when they water board the guy 83 times; when 900 migrants drown; when no lives matter except one’s own.
My resident raven kills with precision, talons death in a dirty instant; no cat-mouse games. All living things are prey, but my raven is crude like oil, shimmers blue, royal gold in sunlight, absorbs all colour into itself, pins it down, bleeds it into each penned feather tip and launches
↑back to top
About Catherine Arra…
Her Totem Is the Thunderbird
She thought that if an animal came to her, it would be the puma, slinky, sinuous, how she felt on summer nights when she walked the dusty town alone in a sundress and one long braid. That was when she was young, when Joe and Dean couldn’t stop looking, when even the old men whistled, when she was strong enough to scratch and bite anyone who tried to bring her down.
Later, she thought her spirit guide might be the grizzly, the fiercest of its family. This was when she had new babies, when Joe and Dean both took off like hunters abandoning a kill, leaving her in a dim house with her young, the townies pointing and catcalling at her clan – Clay, River, Billy – until she’d come roaring from her cave, a mother bear awakened from a sleep like death.
It was in her seventy-ninth year, driving North during a storm, that her totem finally came. She’d been thinking about the men in her life – lovers, sons, and strangers – and all she’d given them, with little received in return, when the sky collapsed and wept. She pulled over on the country road, left her truck, and walked into the rain boldly, as she used to walk. The clouds formed great, grey wings that beat and crashed, while lightning flashed from the storm’s two white eyes. The thunderbird filled the sky, drowning the earth and everyone on it, except for her, only her, the woman who was meant to fly.
There was a sense of exoticism to those local bus rides and when a woman came walking down the aisle selling tiny roasted birds on a stick we bought one – not out of hunger but as something to try and write home about – material and immaterial at the same time.
Maybe we’d developed a sick sense of humor to get us through our days, but we began waving those sticks in the air as though they were flags, talking about pidgin and birds in the bush, how we were about to devour our meal with the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.
It wasn’t until we put them in our mouths that we were brought to our senses – the smell of singed skin, the squish of their eyeballs, their beaks scraping the inside of our cheeks. Whatever lukewarm meat covered their chests was too rubbery to tear off and when we tried to suck them down whole, they fluttered against our tongues, refused our throats like pride.
About Ben Berman…
What owls eat
A black owl came to me last night, bald-headed and silent, heart fluttering against the palms of my hands. I cradled her all the way to my grey-carpeted childhood room where she perched on a black chandelier.
I fed her watermelon and grapes, but I knew that that’s not what owls eat. She gobbled up the ripe, ripe fruit, and didn’t miss a drop; then she sat motionless and calm. She grew plumage on her head, shiny and black, and sat there glowing in the dark.
I worried. Owls eat live mice, I thought. I’m doing it all wrong. I need to find live mice, I thought. Or else she will not thrive.
But where to find live mice?
I imagined a mouse, twisting and jerking, tail pinched between my fingertips, an offering to Owl. I stopped breathing, and saw my Owl with her fine plumage watching me, just watching, as if to say: You know, I’m fine on fruit. Just fine.
About Walburga Appleseed…
The Scent of Lemons
He said he was sure the house they’d stayed in had been halfway between a rock at the end of the beach and the Maori pa site. He remembered paddocks opposite where the owners kept their horse. And a garden full of lemon bushes and a path that led down to the beach. The librarian brought out maps and summoned a couple of locals to help. Perhaps the house had been demolished? Perhaps there’d been floods? Erosion? Perhaps he was mistaken about the area? Twenty-three years was a long time.
They walked on the beach. Pale blue silk covered the sand where the tide was retreating. The sea was polished glass. This was what she remembered, she said, when their daughter was young. She remembered their dog-at-the-time ignoring the seagulls so he could guard the little girl, making sure she didn’t swim out of her depth, pulling her back if she did, ignoring her protests.
This can’t be the right place, he said. What he remembered was the scent of lemons. Lifting their daughter up to feed the horse. Watching her flying along the sand, arms outstretched, pretending to be a bird. The dog racing alongside, keeping close watch.
“She’d have loved our present dog,” she said.
They watched him swimming, unencumbered by responsibility, scattering seagulls, chasing their shadows on the sand, his young body quivering with the sheer joy of being alive.
“I’ll try Google maps,” he said. “Places don’t just disappear.”
About Sandra Arnold…
After the fifth time walking through the park with Happiness on my shoulder, I finally run into Jay.
“I thought you moved back uptown?” he says.
“The city is as small or big as you want it to be,” I say back. His eyes drift to my right, where my pet vulture is perched, shredding the warm-weather fabric in his talons.
“Oh,” he says.
Our toy poodle darts forward, strains against the lime-green leash, barks on his hind legs before Jay pulls him back. Happiness stares down, rocks from side to side, adjusts his red crown and settles.
I make a mental note.
Later, I lie my palm flat against orange construction paper while Happiness picks through a pile of dead feeder mice in a bowl on the floor, the ceramic bowl rimmed with dark paw-prints, groups of five unrelated circles, black holes eating each other. The part of them he let me keep.
I attempt to trace, to eventually add eyes and a beak, but it’s the smoothness that stops me, the sensitive empty space between each pair of fingers. The part of me that doesn’t react well to being alive.
I ball my fist up tight, run the colored pencil over the knuckles, and I think of Happiness flying in slow circles above Broadway, above a familiar apartment, tracing the shape of my closed fist, the capital letter clawed out from the guts of the alphabet.
The sound something makes right before it dies.
About Andrew Pryor…
The Queen of Wisconsin
Ellen reads each new text message from Cara anticipating a dizzy hit of desire: she is stupid with it. She no longer experiences the vindictive masquerade when she taps out innuendo and encouragement to her husband’s lover, deceiving Cara with her husband’s name and a fictional divorce. Ellen is her husband.
“Tell me, my dove, how do you want me?”
When Cara writes, “I want you playfully, fiercely, slowly and hard, during the quiet hours and the feverish, wild ones. I want you overwrought at work…” it is Ellen, not her husband, who gasps aloud in front of the supermarket dairy section, lit up and shining in front of gallons and gallons of farm-fresh organic milk. Awash in a Fury of passion, she is a tempered Megaera, a jealous rage undone. Her wings open and stretch beneath the buzzing fluorescent lights, no longer betrayed but the betrayer.
She types out a message on her husband’s phone. “Tell me who you are to me, Cara.”
“I am your love, your darling good girl who begs again to come and you hold me and hold me.”
Ellen closes her eyes for a moment. When she opens them, she sees all those of gleaming bottles of cold, pure milk lined up like perfect white teeth.
She feels like the Queen of Wisconsin.
About April Bradley…
Three ways to miss you
I go to your house. On the back lawn I find your gardening gloves slung on the lip of a bucket. In the bucket are sodden seed packets: basil, cucumber, beets. A fork is standing in the long bed next to a bag of compost that’s fallen, spilling its guts. The lemon tree is singing bees. From here I can hear your phone ringing. Eleven times before it stops. There’s no one home.
I see you from the bus. You’re standing at the corner, waiting to cross. Your hair is all over the place. You’re wearing a grey coat and carrying two supermarket bags, one sprouting celery leaves. I get off at the next stop and hurry back. When I reach the intersection, one hand pressed to my side to calm a stitch, you’re nowhere to be seen. I lean in a doorway and cover my eyes.
Two days before your birthday, I make a special trip to town to buy you a card. I choose the Mad Hatter pouring tea and asking, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” The message inside reads, “Because it’s your birthday!” I add something unfathomable about a spatchcock and a spatula and finish with a row of Xs. I seal the envelope and write your name, but no address. Then I post it. Two days later, I imagine you opening it and smiling, reaching for the phone. I wait all day for your call.
He caws at me before claiming the eyes. My only friend, Vasco. That’s what I call him. But really friend might be the wrong word. More like my master. See, he’s teaching me to be a scavenger.
It was five moons ago that he found me wedged behind a dumpster, cold and hungry. He pecked through the hole in my shoe until I came out. He jumped onto the dumpster and dove in, flying back out with a tied-up bag. Vasco threw it down at my feet, squawking. I tore the bag open to find a nearly picked clean chicken carcass. I didn’t hesitate, crunching bones and all into my belly.
Vasco and I travelled the dumpsters. He gave me a shoe from one and a brown boot from another, old shorts and a tattered jacket followed. I learned to climb in and smell my way around for food, often hidden in bags and boxes. Before long we moved to town’s edge, near the road. Lots of fresh meat splatters there. Being a scavenger means being the first one there. Always Vasco eats first, and then throws me the scraps.
I’ve grown strong this way.
Vasco pulls away from the rabbit’s open chest. His beady eyes appraise me before plucking out the heart. I remember that chicken carcass, how lovely it tasted. Vasco is only a bird. I’m quick. One hand to his head, the other firm on the chest, and Vasco’s neck breaks into a silence that tastes delicious.
Another bullet hissed over the dump. Ricky missed the seagull by a mile.
He reckoned he shot good, considering the gun was tall as him. Jem wasn’t allowed anywhere near it: no knowing what she’d do. She emerged from behind a pile of rubbish, holding a can that bulged from the side. It was huge, even bigger than the ones of baked beans they cook up for school breakfast.
Jem pulled the label off and shook it in his face. “It’s a whole chook!”
“Fuck off it is,” he argued, before remembering the time she said she was going to kick him in the dick and then kicked him in the dick. Girl didn’t stuff around. “In a tin?”
“Listen.” She flicked the swollen metal and it plinked real loud. “It’s gonna blow. Watch this.”
When she chucked it at the concrete Ricky screwed his eyes shut. He opened them to dented can and a frowning sister.
“Shoot it,” she said, “I’ll hold it up.”
“Nah, that’s dumb.”
“Come on! Dad said don’t be a pussy,” she said, walking away across the dump.
He rested on a mouldy cushion and took aim. Jem held the can above her head, and the gunsight drifted around it until Jem raised an impatient middle finger.
He pulled the trigger.
The can exploded.
Jem grinned through the descending mist of bone and giblet. She held what was left to her chest – a jagged aluminium rose, blooming over her heart.
About Sam Averis…
When I was ten, my family built a house in the country. Every kid in pedalling distance was there. The backhoe was a chugging siege engine and we were conquerors on the great mound overlooking the foundation pit; bikes were fallen soldiers strewn in the crabgrass.
In her faded overalls and sun-bleached curls, Chrissie watched without a word. To me, though, she made more noise than the earthmover.
Then Tim pulled his hand from Mom’s. He tore his diaper away; squatted at the foot of our hill; scrunched his eyes; and pooped. Proud mother clapped. But Chrissie made the same face as the naked toddler when she said, “I am never coming back here.”
Seasons passed. Chrissie kept her promise.
Winter lingered the year Tim turned six. Bulrushes sparkled in the sportsmen’s club pond as the starter pistol signalled the ritual beginning of bass season. Tim readied his cast, nightcrawler kissing the ground behind him. He launched with little kid gusto and waited for the splunk of the bobber.
At the apex of the worm’s flight, a swooping robin snatched it. The bird careened like a broken kite, fluttering vainly to escape the fishhook.
Its saviour raced down the bank behind us, bundled in a lavender puffer coat. She chewed the face-flap of her hood as she freed the robin and it took to the treeline.
Still chewing, she turned to me, ruddy-cheeked, and said, “Hi. I’m Chrissie.” The frost burned away that morning and this was our summer.
How to make a necklace from a dead bird
The bones hung from his neck, vertebral bodies strung together with nylon, a tiny skull at the centre. He said it was a piwakawaka – still had its tail when he found it, the fan pinched in tight and wet with dew. He’d knelt down on the prickly grass to get a closer look, and carried it home in one of his socks, the stiff body bumping against his leg as he walked.
Sunlight arcs through the transparent bones to cast strange shadows on his skin, like the dark smudges of bruises tucked under shirt sleeves. The bones knock together softly – air filled cells lifting above his collarbones. His hand floats up to play one against the other.
He’d made it himself, at home when the house was quiet – his Dad out with his mates, Mum in bed. Googled how to make a necklace from a dead bird – pull out the soft feathers and boil in water for 10 minutes. Peel off the stringy flesh and dry bones on the windowsill until fine cracks appear on their surface.
I reach out, squeeze one gently between two fingers. It felt stronger than it looked. He would make me one, if I liked, any bird would do. I nod, imagine the bones sitting lightly around my neck, their buoyancy lifting my chin and eyes to the sky. We would run down the hill at the far end of town, reach for each other’s hand, leap and take flight.
Under the sun
Kaka are cheeky buggers, to be sure. Lively eyes, especially for birds – none of that brainless seagull hunger. There’s a spark of purpose to them, which is worrying.
Mum always said birds were bad luck: she’d curse up a storm in Greek until they left. I didn’t understand enough to catch the specifics, but I got the point: psuchopompos, psychopomps, this is a place for the living. I never knew whether the fear was Greek, Māori or something in between.
Two peoples, ages and oceans apart, came to the same fine point; birds come for the souls of the dead, to carry them into the sky. We’re scared of birds because they go places we can’t; they know things we don’t.
Kaka especially, the bastards.
The last time the kaka came, Mum was three-days dead. I swore at them in Greek and Te Reo, with English to fill the gaps. It meant nothing. They burbled and sang, and peered into the house with their clever eyes. They departed on a thermal – up into the air and off, until they were gone from sight.
The house was empty, in ways that have no words.
A Box of Birds
I work in a chicken processing factory. I defeather birds, lop them into quarters. I smell of raw poultry. My fingertips are sticky with salmonella. I wear gloves, but the juices dribble into the latex, soddening the talcum powder inside the finger sockets. We listen to Pearl Jam as we hack through gristle and bone. We drink Pepsi, putting down our cleavers now and then to wipe our noses.
I want to tell you the joke about the vegetarian who works in the meatworks. It’s not funny because it’s true. Scissoring chicken flesh all day, I became nauseous at the sight of my own skin. I conceded to a lifetime of tahini and beans.
At the processing factory we have our cuffs rolled up above the elbow. There’s this girl who works alongside me with a tattoo of her Siamese on her wrist, with a speech bubble that says ‘Hello Kitty’. I think she looks like Drew Barrymore. This one day she turned to me and said Why did the chicken cross the road? I had to run to the water-closet with a mouthful of bile.
There is this daydream. It happens when I’m on chook number 500 and in a cloud. I pick up a potato peeler, and sliver it back and forth across my thigh. And soon I’m standing in the grisly ribbons of myself.
You’re a box of birds today, says Barrymore, slapping me from my daze with a chicken breast.
Outside, the roosters cock-a-doodle-doo.
By all laws of nature, birds shouldn’t be able to fly. Their feathers are coated in oil, and too many chewed PlayStation controllers dangle from their claws.
A bird pecked my window whenever I got back from school, asking me for the answers on the homework. I once let the bird – bent steel beak, muddy rubber talons – into my room, but it just kept tweeting and spewing out smoke, and I realized I could never keep birds. Never clean up the paint peels they leave on the carpet or pick up the dried copper they left in the backyard grass.
I went to my window and told the bird what my dad told me when I was thirteen: “You know you can’t fly, right?”
It twisted its head and its eyes flickered like an on/off button. It cawed in my face and its engine sputtered, and it took a leap off the windowsill. It didn’t fly. It just fell. The grease on its wings shone in the sky, then it hit the asphalt and splattered into a mess of brakes, pipes and transmission fluids.
I sat on the roof of my house. The birds crowded the skies with rusted wings, never shutting up, each one saying, “Why don’t you fly with us?”
And I said, “No one can fly” and waited for all the other birds to crash in the basketball court at the back of the middle school.
Foo Sek Han
Serama roosters – bright, flamboyant, self-assured little shits. You have only owned one for three days now; it still bites the hand feeding. Other than for hurting you, it seems fairly useless. Just like the previous owner.
You wouldn’t say he is useless. But you’re watching his casket being carted to an incinerator. Like a thing you put in an oven. You won’t even get bread.
The noose was fashioned from year-old football jerseys and shorts, never worn. Maybe if he put one on instead of being naked, he would leave your parents with a statement. That typical teenage dream of ‘now that I’m dead and gone you’ll see how wrong you are except I’m not here to savour it, haha’. Couldn’t even muster that. They would have more than just disappointment.
You inherited that – and as written on the back of a 7-11 receipt (one coke) – the only thing he loved. He called it [His Name] Junior, entered it in rooster pageants, zero wins.
He never wore the shoes you bought him. They weren’t even the right type. He never bothered correcting you.
You hold the bird in your lap, and wonder if it knows what it’s witnessing. Just reducing the only person who ever loved it to ashes, nbd. You are thinking of new names already, and you know you are not entering it to rooster pageants.
You hold it, your fingers around its neck, trying with every fibre of your being not to twist it around.
Sing a Song of Sixpence…
I walk around the bed on which they’ve laid Mum out. Soft folds in the sheet hang over the end, like the excess pastry on one of her pie crusts. When I was small, I stood on a stool at her kitchen bench while she taught me how to trim away the surplus. I’d turn the trimmings into leaves or flowers to decorate the top and then she’d take one of my fingers and press it around the edges, creating small hollows that filled with egg wash and milk.
I can see her china blackbird in my mind’s eye. She pressed it into the middle of her pies to release the steam, saying while the pie cooked the bird would sing. I’d peer through the glass into the oven wondering what sort of songs it preferred: nursery rhymes, hymns, jazz?
Next week I’ll have to pack it – its open beak a void.
The sound of the shot would rip apart the silence of the valley, the pasture streaked with the tawny feathers and the red of the hawk’s blood. Mr Harris said he had the best aim of any farm boy he’d ever had and nodded his head when Charles told him he was planning to enlist.
The memory warms the back of his neck as he waits holding his rifle, water trickling down his collar. The horizon is not visible in the rain that hasn’t stopped since Charles arrived but he’d walked through the village a week earlier and knew that for miles there was nothing but flat land, now raked into mud by war and rain.
Charles had tried to make sense of the land by reading the map in the drizzle of dawn. There were references to valleys and woods, landmarks of nonexistent trees, burnt stumps, flat planes of mud. He realised then that once out of the trenches there was no map, he would follow the boots of the soldier in front of him. Head down, feet dragging through the muck.
The tremors of machine gun fire in the distance are constant now. Charles holds the butt of his rifle against one ear, pushes his hand against the other, he waits.
In the valley of the farm, closed in by the hills, protective and silent, the hawks circle. Charles pulls the trigger and shakes a little. In the distance the hawk falls to the ground.
We crowd around the train station downtown and take anything we can. Usually, we’re unlucky, but sometimes the foreign teacher walks by with food in her hand. We’re supposed to run past and grab it without acknowledgment. I wish I could thank her, but we wouldn’t understand each other, anyways.
They call us swallows. I’ve never seen a real swallow – they were all probably eaten. Moran told me swallows wouldn’t taste good, anyways, but I didn’t understand. If we can eat something, we do.
Moran was my sister for a long time, but she died. I was small when I joined the other swallows by the station and she was kind, so I called her my older sister. She died last year when we had no food for a long time. I couldn’t help her. The others didn’t see right away, so I took her hat and what little there was in her pockets, and I walked away. If she had died this year, I could have spent time with her body and sang a song or something, but it was too cold last winter. Too dangerous to linger.
I see the foreign teacher coming. She looks like everyone else, but I know she’s foreign because she says strange words to her yellow-haired friends and they say them back. I lower my head and run past her before anyone else sees, snatching a lump of bread from her hand.
“Hello,” she whispers in my own language, but I can’t reply.
The road turned to dirt after she got off the bus, late.
I watched powdered gravel cake her shoes in a thick film, and then when her shoulders rose armour cloaked her.
Pīwakawaka darted across the road. She had disrupted their dinnertime and apologised under her breath as I had taught her, ‘Aroha mai ngā manu, aroha mai.’
By the time buildings came into view every sound, ngahere, manu, Tāwhiri-mātea, flowed into, along and inside her like ants atop a saucer of honey. Inseparable, as we once were.
I watched men smoke ciggies outside the tavern; kicking stones as they stared at her with fathomless eyes.
‘Kia ora,’ she said, hand raised half-mast.
They nodded in unison, but said nothing.
As she continued towards my whare at the end of the road, all she heard was blood pumping in her ears.
‘You’re late,’ I whispered.
She lifted the latch on the gate, let it screech open in rusty protest and slam shut behind her. On the verandah she hugged a wooden post; its thick layers of paint exposed like a Neapolitan ice cream.
‘Kia ora, anyone home?’ she called out.
The front door was closed. Wet sacks on the fence dripped and swung in the breeze. Her nose caught the smell of hemp, salt, and damp earth.
I watched her walk to the back door, and glance over to the urupā on the hill.
‘I’m too late,’ she said.
And she ran.
About Iona Winter…
You know the way a bird thuds against the window and falls to the ground and you leave it, hoping it’s just dazed but instead the impact has knocked it dead and there it is on your birthday – a perfect fledgling thrush, feathers sleek, lying by the front door on a mat announcing ‘Welcome’. You wonder at the irony – how something so new will never have a birthday and then you think it’s sentimental to imagine the birthday of a bird. You try to avoid sentiment.
It’s light, so light, hardly an impression on the shovel and your husband takes a photograph although it’s an image you’d rather not remember, especially today. But he said it reminded him of the time you left for a year, soon after the baby blackbirds in the flower-pot nest on the porch were attacked by a sparrow hawk and he had to spend the first hours of your absence scraping guts and matted feathers off the pebble-dash.
You didn’t ask if he went upstairs afterwards and lay alone on the bed with the curtains drawn, his heart bruised so much, it was as if he’d hit a solid wall of glass when he thought he was travelling through space. You didn’t ask if he’d rather have been knocked into oblivion too.
Or if he’d recovered.
The student stopped, perplexed. Water streamed haphazardly as the sparrow struggled over the hose to topple in exhaustion, inches from her gumboots.
The seed-sower stilled the machine needles. “It’s poisoned. The boss hates birds.” She indicated the grain-filled lids dotting the weed-mat. “They get hypothermia; it’ll be dead by tonight.”
The bird trembled, shivered in the vast house of glass. The student protested on its behalf; the seed-sower shrugged, began the trek back to her machine then stopped. She pointed towards the germination tents.
“It’s twenty degrees in there – always.”
At smoko there was speculation on the boss. “He’s taken the family to Bali,” said one. “A shopping holiday,” said another. The seed-sower peeled her apple with a knife. “The younger, the better,” she said, flatly. The blade sliced down to reveal split core and white flesh.
When clock-off sounded its final blast, workers massaged aching joints as they plodded from tunnel houses. The seed-sower and the student entered the germination tents.
The sparrow had vacated its nest of frost cloth and rags. It fluttered about the trays of cabbage, celery and lettuce seedlings, oblivious – only wanting out. The seed-sower pulled the roof shutter cord. The sparrow blinked at the beckoning blue then soared for the gap.
“The girls have a regular smuggling operation in here,” murmured the seed-sower, closing the shutter. “Mum’s the word.”
On her way to the car-park, the student lobbed a bag of lids into the skip.
The birds fall, flinging bony ribcages against our window-panes, wings spread open against the updraft. They make dull thuds; sometimes their open beaks scratch the glass like nails on blackboards, but otherwise they float soundlessly down, a mass grave on the terrace deck every day.
Jan’s work with the aviation authorities will conclude soon and the data from the crash site will be submitted. Then all the photographs will disappear from our study. At night, Jan rubs his temples and asks me what I’m reading next. I tell him it’s always fiction. I don’t tell him about the birds. I collect the tiny bodies and bury them in the backyard where our dog Malcolm was buried.
Jan comes back one evening, his face strangely unearthly. Jan tells me about a little boy flung from the plane into a field of flowers. He was beautiful, Jan says. The very nature of beauty raises the spectre of the inevitability of death, does it not? he says. His eyes swim behind his glasses, and then he sobs.
From the birds, I gather some feathers. The feathers accumulate, first a pile, then a bundle, now a solid hillock on my work desk. I connect each one with thread, stitched up into a flat sheet that fans out as a memorial of archived feathers. To wear like skin. To reclaim what was taken.
The sky’s a pristine blue, mirrored in the sea. My thumb’s pressed hard against a hole in the rubber.
“My finger feels numb,” I protest.
My mother looks at me.
“Press hard,” she says.
Cupping her hands, she throws seawater out of the rubber boat. Waves have brought the water in. In exchange for my little brother.
I change finger, make sure no air is lost in between.
For hours she had been rowing against the waves, until one swept my brother away. I saw her leap towards him, his tiny hand slipping. Then it was gone.
His cries still screech in my ears.
My mother lost an oar then. It slipped, or perhaps she let it slip. I cannot ask. She used the second one to fight against the waves.
And now the waves are gone. The sea is calm, as if it never knew any rage. The oar now makes us go in circles.
“We’ll follow the current,” my mother says, as if it were part of the plan all along.
A cry. I look up: a flock of migratory birds flies above our heads. Teacher said they know where they go, no matter what. I wonder if my brother can see them better, from where he’s now.
“What if the current takes us back?”
“Press your finger against the hole.”
I am a sea-crow. I live in the sea.
I breathe salt-taste and kelp-scent. I watch the ponderous motions of boat bellies and pity the mariners who orient themselves to the light of long-dead stars. I understand something humans do not: that in is up and out is down. I soar through the crushing heights of the oceanic abyss and feel the comfort of the Earth’s crust above me.
You are a human. You don’t belong here.
You fall up, into the deep. You are very still. Curious. I spread my wings and glide in slow spirals, tracking your ascent to the ocean floor. I imagine you are a heretic, one who forsook the out-is-up delusion of your kind.
Maybe, like me, you want to press your chest against the convex roof of the world and ponder the pulse of molten iron. You are very still, so I perch on your frigid shoulder and let you carry me for a while.
We rise to where celestial worms drink God’s hot breath. You come to rest in the sky, beside a heavenly vent. The water is darker than my feathers. You are very still, face down in silt, so I leave you to pray and contemplate.
Not one to be outdone, I spread my wings and descend toward the cold, blue rind of the world.
The very oldest age the least.
It is no coincidence that survivors become the founders.
The remainder are dead.
As she gazes at the fishmonger’s slab, tears well up with her memory. She dreams of cruising currents of pelagic wind, wings tipping the white blades of breakers billowing in the wind. She has been looking for riches across the oceans, in the sea spray, under the sand of lost atolls. Now treasure grows within.
She glides with the prevailing wind. She scents the tang of shore pine twisted and bent over to pluck medicinal thyme for healing. She tastes the saltiness of the thin gauze of spindrift. She walks the binding of land and strand, between the trees, foot on grass, foot on cool grass. She is half monster, living in the marginalia of the book of the world.
There is stillness in the continual beating of the waves. She has taken root, Princess Anemone on a rock. No longer mollymawk, no longer wanderer, she is woman. Once albatross, wings outstretched and huge, eyes keen and knowing, drifting from birdhood to maturity. Today, she flies. Tomorrow, the invisible hatchling will root her, unseen through the mists of hope, the need for soft nest and security, the touch of earth beneath the soles, the touch of firm earth beneath the soles.
It is fruitless listening for the sea in the empty conch.
All migrants are voluntary exiles, traitors betraying their past.
All children emerge from the shattered egg.
The Cuckoo of Kaitiaki Close
My 18-month-old son George stumbled across the devastated living room, a tiny giant robot in search of new cities to destroy.
“He’s just so luscious,” said creepy Janey Morrison who’d just moved in down the road, leaning forward like a conspirator. “I want to literally eat him alive.”
At my expression she leaned back on the creaking bentwood in my front room and sipped at the tea I’d given her.
“Sorry we didn’t have any biscuits,” I said. “I need to get to the shop. What did you say your husband did?”
Janey shrugged. “He flies a lot, for work. Importing and exporting… I just spend his money, hahaha!” Her laugh was like a cellphone ringtone.
George crashed into a bookshelf and toppled to the floor. Janey bounded up to grab him with a rapacious yelp and I drained my tea while she wasn’t looking.
“Oh is that the time,” I said brightly.
I hoped she’d fly on out of our street but she didn’t. Sometimes she’d come in the morning with a mock tui whistle squawk, sometimes evening with a bottle of wine. And always her eyes on George. Touching him with her eyes.
Then one day she did fly away. I went and looked – her house was hollow like a gourd.
The first week George cried, and the second he sniffled, but then one afternoon a tui sang on the flax in the back yard and George finally laughed, a laugh like a cellphone ringtone.
A Matter of Self Defence
The letter from work measures approximately 30cm by 21cm. I sit down on a park bench to examine the contents. “Unacceptable behaviour…” it says. I take my first sip of coffee to consider the accusation when a woman perches her plump figure beside me. I act like a statue, except for my eyes that I move to my left, observing her avian appearance. A fluttering of air chills my skin as she puffs up her yellow top, which plumes over tight leggings. And then an annoying rustling sound, as she forages in her handbag, plucking out, from what I can see with my peripheral vision, a wholegrain sandwich. She points her long nose at me as if to stab my head and I lift my chin feeling exposed like a worm under binocular vision.
“I’m not intruding, am I?”
I stay silent. I turn. Looking at her directly I conclude she is, unquestionably, one of those beady-eyed specimens. Her tuft of hair, secured by an orange ribbon, reminds me of my dead mother’s ridiculous scarf. She pecks at her sandwich while cocking her head, trying to read my letter. I fold it immediately and sit on it. My muscles tense. My coffee is cold. I tip it out, splashing her footwear. She flaps her arms at me; her nose protrudes into my body space. I squash my cup on the bench. My fingers seize, and tighten. Her neck is larger than my mother’s.
The Other Denholm
Apparently, she found it as a fledgling, listless and transfixed by the rose bushes in the front garden, flapping purposelessly, a startled energy in its eyes. She tells Denholm she’s convinced it was hit by a car windscreen or it flew into a window pane, rendering it concussed, or brain damaged – it seems a bit slow-witted. (Hence, she says, the name). Her eyes thaw every time she speaks of it. She keeps the pigeon in a budgie cage, waiting for its strength to grow, hand-rearing it via socks soaked in milk. She wants her husband to build a bird-box on top of one of his garden sheds, and believes she is training the bird for independent adulthood – by flapping her arms in front of it and leaping like an excitable tree frog into the air. Yet it seems to have decided its chances of survival are higher here, where milk is plentiful and his wife’s empty palm is warm as a nest. Denholm the pigeon now vies with Denholm the husband for the position of Joan’s confidante: at dinner times, it coos in response to her chirrups, patrolling the kitchen table while she cooks. (Denholm stalks it from the shadows, watching for proof of its filthiness). It harbours a penchant for feta, and pine nuts, crushed and drizzled with olive oil. Denholm, precious, is your memory returning? Denholm, my darling, will you ever learn to fly again?
They’re flocking, twittering when he lands. Flying behind him in shrill frenzy through the marble echo of Arrivals, hopping ahead to ambush with hooked predatory beaks, sharp talons. He runs, head down, toward the waiting car, reaches it alive, though hat and scarf are lost, some hair torn out. His smile infuriates them. They dash themselves against the glass, shrieking, pecking, peering in with narrow eyes.
At the hotel, watchful and forewarned, they rise in one vast murmuration as his car passes the palms and fountains, the fluttering banners, the white façade. Flapping, squawking after him, they crush their breasts in frustrated ecstasy against security grilles clashed closed.
He bathes and dines alone; avoids television, the telephone and windows. But throughout the evening, despite double-glazing and headphones, he discerns the reverberant rumble of their song, its rise and fall. Eventually they roost and in brief, transitory silence he sleeps.
Then he wakes, showers early, goes naked onto the balcony, peeping over. The instantaneous rousing ululation of the night-watchers, the piercing crescendo of their chorus, their avid hunger. He waves, scattering crumbs.
Later, he escapes through the service entrance, dashing fast into the waiting car, speeding off to distant suburbs in sunglasses and a beanie pulled down. Only a short stroll to the restaurant, but he underestimates their mass mind, their migratory speed, their desperation for a piece of him. They’re on him in an instant in their thousands, in their bright plumage with their vicious rallying cry: Arree! Arree! Arreeee!!
Leaves crackled underfoot as he stumbled through the flickering shadows. His eyes had failed him, many years ago, but he still saw. Not clearly. Not with the certainty of two ever-so-similar perspectives laid one atop the other, but with a shifting amalgam of dozens that circled distantly overhead. His world drifted, rippled, and occasionally, briefly, came apart entirely.
Except today. Today they were focussed, united, staring down upon a towering oak as its edges rusted, slowly, inexorably. Its leaves were thick, obscuring him from view, and so he stumbled, one trembling hand outstretched in the open air, until his shoulder collided with the tree trunk and he slid down onto the damp earth.
A sharp throbbing stemmed from the sides of his head, but he kept his eyes clenched shut. They would come for him, of course. The deal had been made: his for theirs. He was not fool enough to believe branches and bark would get in their way and yet still, he hid.
He imagined a man lying crooked against a twisting, hardwood pillar, his breathing laboured, scrabbling at loose dirt with the tips of his fingers, bracing himself for the oncoming barrage of beaks and talons. He had the luxury of merely imagining this. He could not see himself, and as the tree burst into a flurry of mottled green and shards of auburn, he celebrated that smallest of victories. They could not make him watch.
Not for long, anyway.
Sophie van Llewyn
The couch is so narrow that I can only sleep on one side, but in the bedroom I feel like the sole survivor of a burned down village. In the living room, I can begin stirring these stiff, aching bones, with my Spanish Timbrado’s gleeful chirping. He has taken to it again since I bought a replacement for his beloved. I named her January 15th, like the one before her. Like the day I lost my summer baby.
After I brew my coffee, a fragrant pool of darkness, I enter my private paradise. The giant cage is moist and tepid, a womb, but this one, unlike mine, is full of life. As I come in, the birds unsettle and the air fills with colours: yellow, grey, red and blue, a flurry of wings and feathers.
Only my darling, June 12th, the Black Palm Cockatoo, is hiding in a tree hole. I reach for her, but she pinches me. Then, I know. I push her aside and feel the carved wood to find two warm, porous pearls hidden inside. I can barely contain my trembling.
June screams and beats her wings. By the time she tries to peck my eyes out and my hands rise before them, shielding, the soft core of the eggs is dripping through my fingers, golden tears on the dry earth beneath my feet.
My coffee is cooling and I am watching the pigeon beside me on the pavement. It is a grey morning and cold gusts leaf through my open newspaper on the table. Part-time job vacancies circled in pencil. Obituaries. I was twenty pence short for the coffee but the girl let me off. She knows my circumstance.
I hope this pigeon’s life is more than roosting and foraging for food. I tip the crumbs from my finished plate onto the floor and the bird walks closer and pecks at them. Pigeons have a bad name but I am more sympathetic to them. Would it feel content with a fuller stomach; respite with more time to roost?
The cafe sign blows over on the street corner and it breaks my reverie. I cannot make rent this week. My daughter despises me. My wife was buried before I could make amends. My coffee is cold.
I wonder if birds can recognise people. This pigeon – could I pick it out from a throng? And would it come back to me when I return tomorrow if I could provide it with crumbs?
I look in through the window and see the girl at the counter. I accept her food each morning but I insist on paying for the coffee. She is kind to me and when she sees me in the streets she smiles and says hello.
The Shapes We Make
The horizon splits the sunrise and our expressions, uncovered, have to remake themselves. He’s driving, I’m staring. Towards the brightening edge of nothing. Above us, a speckling black arrowhead of geese. How do they decide, I wonder, which of them should hold the wounding position, the tip? They soften into a diving dolphin snout; the hierarchy disintegrates. Daylight thrusts a microphone into our faces.
“How goes it, driver?” I say, having exhausted the interior possibilities at journey’s start: the CDs, his comfort, the now empty back seat.
He rubs an eye, his throat twitches. The birds construct a bear’s jaw, yawning around a tiny white cloud.
“She’ll be fine,” I say, as the cloud is swallowed.
“We should have taken more of her books,” he says.
“Soon,” I say. “Next visit.”
I drop my hand onto his knee. ‘Let’s go back’ hammers in my head. His mother was a seamstress, she stitched people together across fraying borders. Her house, and then ours, threaded through with fellowship. She served up the world at our table; the man who stared at the ground as if his homeland might sprout through the floorboards; the girl who fashioned mashed potato minarets with a crown of peas and then consumed her own memories. When his mother started mislaying parts of her mind the house roared with echoes.
“We’ll all be fine,” I say.
The geese break apart, lose cohesion. They are as scattered and aimless as feathers from a spilt pillow.
Pigeons Are Descended From Dinosaurs
I sat on a bench in the park we never visited. It was the kind of park with history – statues and the like, decorative wrought iron gates telling stories, old-style cannons and men on horses with swords charging at other men on horses. I couldn’t tell you which war.
The bench was uninteresting. Wooden slats arranged in the usual way. You would have said something interesting about the grain. You would have run your hand along the top and found my shoulder.
A pigeon flew out of the sky. It was grey – unusually so. It ruffled its feathers, as if to say, “I just did that.”
The pigeon walked around like it had its hands in its pockets.
I watched it for a minute.
I was drinking a chia seed drink. It was disgusting. It had chewy bits and a green liquid completely without flavour. I was hoping it would do me good. I tipped some onto the ground for the pigeon, but it stuck its nose up at it. It went over to a pile of dry leaves and pecked at them half-heartedly.
I kept on thinking about the last time we had sex in Chicago.
“Pigeons are descended from dinosaurs,” you would have said.
Lots of sky
They were collecting all the feathers in the house, brought home from uptight beach walks, unhappy countryside trips, and miserable zoos. The feathers fell from dull gulls and somehow-sad peacocks, but mostly from birds none of them could identify, sometimes through lack of knowledge, but mostly through lack of passion.
Toni had asked them all to help. The older son refused, her husband caught himself up in pointless memorabilia and the younger boy set to with rediscovered oil pastels. He drew his mum and his sister at the top of the page with the other family members spread around facing different ways. They would get a lot of mileage out of that picture one supper sometime soon.
Toni worked with Millie, one week away from her seventh birthday, and they got some feathers together in a dusty pile.
“It’s medium-sized, Mummy.”
“So let’s stretch them out and make the biggest wings we can.”
“Can we fly away?”
“Maybe, honey. Come on. To work.”
They stitched and threaded and tied them to their coats.
They walked to a hill.
“Take a photo when I jump, honey. Try to get no ground and lots of sky.”
They took turns at taking the photos and leaping up until their legs wouldn’t work and they collapsed on the grass, looking up.
“I don’t know everything but I think I know that there’ll always be lots of sky.”
In the autumn, before Lake Michigan began to ice over, Tracy would stare at the dark water, with their whitecaps, thinking her face might crack it was so dry. The Bonaparte Gulls’ faces were as black as the water and when they ducked under the water, she wanted them to reach down and pull up the body of her brother.
Tracy never understood why they referred to gulls as seagulls. There were no such things as seagulls. Some might say ‘lake gulls’. Bonapartes were one of only five black-headed gulls in North America and they preferred plankton, insects and fish to garbage dumps. Tracy knew this because she had the time to research everything about them.
They never found him.
“Who are they?” Tracy thought every time she heard that word, but the question was only lost in the wind. They also never found his flannel shirt, fishing pole, lunchbox, or any of his personal items, just a bobbing wooden rowboat and one of the oars. “Oh, brother, my great protector, you are gone,” she thought at the wake. Her mother sobbed. Everyone there said how much the three of them looked alike. “I can never return the favor.” She imagined whispering to Tyler’s body, his face with caked on make-up and black hair parted in a way he never would have; it was always wind blown into swirls. But we wasn’t there. He was gone, completely gone.
Listen. Stop crying, just for a moment, and listen.
Birdsong lasts forever. That warbling melody the wren sings to its mate was first composed by a young boy in eleventh-century Burgundy, who never lifted his voice but when he was alone. The birds listened, learned, and sang, and kept singing after he went to die in a fool’s war a continent away. There are songs turkey vultures sing that go back to when they were dinosaurs, the mourning dirges of cousins dying by hundreds and thousands in the long meteor winter.
She’s done loving you. You’ll run into her at a Thai restaurant that opens in three months and both of you will pretend to be doing well. Your paths will cross again in two years, and you’ll say the same words, actually meaning them, while one of you lies about the beauty of the other’s new baby. Or maybe you’ll move to Chicago and she to Austin and that will be that.
In a hundred thousand years, when humanity is gone, dead or uploaded into dense computational slime orbiting Saturn, the birds will abide. And as they fly through the forests that grow where time ground cities to dust, they will sing, sing the last artifacts of humankind apart from indecipherable plaques buried under lunar dust. Don’t let the staccato rhythms of your sobs join the ballad of the car alarm as the species’ final testament.
Birdsong lasts forever. Stop crying, just for a moment, and listen.
At a Special Meeting of the Seagulls
“Okay,” the Chairgull said. “This Most Popular Birds poll. We sucked, man! Second to bottom, just above buzzards. They reckoned all we can do is squawk, shit and scavenge!”
“Yeah, pity we don’t migrate or something.”
“Or dived spectacularly into the sea like gannets. Gently alighting is so boring.”
“Look, we need an image. Kiwis have a fruit named after them, and they can’t even fucking fly. All we’ve ever given humans is the word gullible.”
“That’s right. Look at your wise owls, your soaring eagles, your peaceful doves.”
“Yeah! Hey, and there’s laughing kookaburras, proud peacocks, song thrushes, paradise ducks!”
“What if we get a crap one though? Like sparrow-fart, cold turkey, or chicken-livered.”
“Or thieving magpie, silly old coot, hen-pecked!”
“Quick shag!’ Yuk!”
“What about a song then? There’s Rockin’ Robin, Bye Bye Blackbird, Pretty Flamingo?”
“Hey, I know!” the Chairgull chirped excitedly. “A film, exclusively about us! With a whole soundtrack of songs! We’re sea birds, remember, so country’s out. Rock’n Roll? Heavy Metal? Jazz? Blues?”
It’s unanimous. Ballads win. Deep and meaningful.
“I know the perfect person,” says the Chairgull. “We just need someone to approach him. The songwriter’s name is Diamond, Neil I think.”
A volunteer flicks up his wing.
“Everyone, put your wings together for Jonathon Livingston!”
Sharon arrived at the beach to the squawks and swoops of seagulls. One settled on the nearby seawall.
She glanced sideways. “Do you have Christmas mornings and birthday parties?”
The gull strutted a few steps down the wall.
“Please don’t go,” Sharon said. “Stay and talk.”
The gull stood on one leg and cocked its head toward her. She rubbed a knuckle under her eye.
“I need your advice.”
The gull put its foot down, stretched its wings out and swept into the salty breeze. Sharon stood, crossed the esplanade and stopped at the water’s edge.
“Do you have Christmas mornings and birthday parties?” she asked an incoming wave. It turned and swirled back as she walked away.
Darkening clouds broke now and the setting sun peeked over the horizon like a half-drowned orange.
In the sand, light glinted off a gold ring.
Falling to Birdland
Kārearea was told she could never return to Birdland through avian or mechanised means. Mr. KnowGood said this after he shot her down then clipped her wings during one of his many protestations of love. Air travel was grounded since the coup had deadened all machines severing the umbilical between the worlds. Life was now muck and mistrust.
Mr. KnowBetter said there was a way if Kārearea possessed a daring heart. The feathered woman tried not to scoff at her current earth-locked lover. Mr. KnowBetter couldn’t comprehend the art of soaring with its textured vistas and zephyrean symphonies. He still saw the sky as terrain to tame and conquer. Kārearea knew differently. Air and body held no distinctions. Her heart beat bold and swift. It knew no other way.
Miss KnowBest promised the patchwork balloon’s stitches would hold. The craft was ancient but airworthy. Kārearea preened her aerostatic paramour one final time on a purple winter’s dawn. Frost starred the field. Their breaths clouded together. Fire heated the bound space. Sandbags were severed. The basket began to shift and creak.
Gravity was a law Kārearea learned young. Its workings coursed the currents in her veins. It had presence and familiarity. Earth tested its tether. Kārearea realised man-made contraptions only rose so high. She shook out her butchered wings. The wind thinned. Dawn revealed herself like a lover’s sleepy smile. Kārearea told her wild heart that falling and flying differed mostly by a why before she leapt into the known.