25 Sept, 2020

A bird in a hand to illustrate this short story from the future.
Photo by Razvan Narcis Ticu on Unsplash

Bird in the Hand

A story from the future.

I dreamt about a bird. I had to keep it until it was time for cooking. It sat on my chest, wrapped in a tea towel, as I lay on a couch and felt its bones and feathers rustle beneath my fingers. Eventually it became quiet and we slept together through the heat of the day.

When I woke my hands still gently trapped the bird, but I sensed it trusted me now. Suddenly I realised she was female and she understood me. I imagined a mouth sucking the meat from those bones. Although I knew it wouldn’t be my mouth, the image was too sad to bear. The despair increased until I could hardly breathe. I had no choice but to whisper to the bird.

“We captured you to eat, but now I’m going to set you free.”

In the dream I heard myself speak as if it were a movie, and I wondered why I told her that. I should have just let her go and said nothing.

My hands released her from the cloth and she looked into my eyes with shock and an overwhelming disappointment. Instead of feeling righteous, the sadness grew even greater and I closed my eyes.

She flew away before I opened them again, leaving a lonely hole in my chest. I thought I should be happy about my decision, but all I could feel was regret.

When I woke for real the aching grief remained, although it took me some time to remember what it was all about. Straight away I knew what the dream meant. It meant all the good choices we had made were too late and not enough. It didn’t matter that I was never going to eat the bird. Inaction had made me an accomplice.

Now life is over and our choices are irrelevant.

Most species of animals and birds did not survive through the past couple of summers. Humans war over water. Trees recover through winter only to be burnt again in spring.

We can’t live in the desert. We can’t live near forests or the raging ocean. The safest places are hills where fire has already destroyed everything and creeks have not completely dried up. Here in northern New South Wales we are extremely lucky. It still rains occasionally and sometimes it is possible to grow food.

I live with my husband and ten-year-old daughter on top of this hill. She does the gardening and collects water, while he defends our land against intruders and I go hunting. There is not much left, so I’m usually unsuccessful. Once I found a pig, but usually all I manage is a scrawny wallaby every month or so. Sometimes it strikes me as hilarious that I used to be the vegetarian in the family.

One day as I lurk near the creek, I hear the thud of a wallaby approaching. Silently, I crouch behind a fallen tree. The wallaby hops closer and peers in my direction. It probably knows I’m here, but the sun is so hot that the poor thing has decided it is worth risking death to get to the water. My stomach rumbles.

Part of me thinks I should let it have one last drink before I kill it, but another part knows that all this creek water belongs to my family. As its head turns away from me, I leap over the dead tree with my arm held high, ready to sink the machete into its back. The instant I move its ears twitch as it bounds sideways and out of my sight in a few seconds. I hear it thump away and it reminds me of the sound of my heart.

Don’t be sentimental, I tell myself. Your child is hungry. 

I am hungry too, but there’s nothing I can do about it now. Sighing, I step down to the creek to drink. I would like to wash myself, but the water’s not deep enough for that.

As I wonder what I’m going to do next, a gun shot blasts the air, followed by a high-pitched scream. I gasp and run up the hill, tripping over rocks. I try to be quiet but the panic swelling in my throat makes me clumsy. Strange voices are shouting and when I smash onto the ground they immediately go quiet.

I lie motionless, praying my colourless clothes will camouflage me here in the dirt. The strangers speak again, softly now. It sounds as if it is a couple of men and a woman. I can’t understand what they are saying. They get closer and then further away. I remember to breathe.

For hours I lie still in the rubble, until the sun goes down. The only sounds are insects and a breeze in the bushes down at the creek. When I am convinced that the people have retreated into the little shack we built, I rise carefully, my bones cracking and spikes of light piercing my vision.

When the blood has returned to my brain I creep towards our garden, numbing myself to whatever sights I expect to encounter. I am certain I will see the end of my world and I do. My husband is on the ground with a hole in his forehead and my daughter is face down in the lettuce, covered in blood and stab wounds.

They didn’t need to waste a bullet on her.

I turn away and walk down to the creek to hide. All I feel is hungry and tired. I squeeze beneath a thorny bush, oblivious to my ripped skin, and lose consciousness until morning.

A gurgling sound wakes me. It comes from my stomach; I have never been so ravenous. The next noise I hear is birds chirping. I crawl out from the bush and sit on the bank of the creek, my mind empty.

After a few blank minutes about five small birds flutter across from the other side and three land in the bush next to me, one very close. With a start, I realise it is the same as the one from my dream.

It looks at me and peeps confidently while I imagine sucking the meat off its bones. Before it can finish its song, my hand darts out to grab it from the branch. For a moment I feel bones and feathers wriggling under my fingers until I twist its neck and it stops moving.

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