The idiot birds
by Ray Nayler
[ fiction - december 12 ]
The flight from the capital was delayed by fog. In the provincial airport, the ring of taxi drivers who descended upon such arrivals had grown bored. Many of them sat in the uncomfortable molded plastic chairs playing "Idiot" with grease-stained decks of cards. Others stood in loose knots outside the terminal, smoking their cheap cigarettes and spitting on the cracked pavement.
The better class of drivers, on salary from the hunters' camps, killed time watching pirated movies on flip-up screens in their imported minibuses, or smoked slightly less rank tobacco in black-suited groups. Some of them wore ties. After the second hour of delay, the ties were loosened. Among the salaried drivers were the professional hunters - blocky men in dark clothing, their wind-creased faces nodding occasionally, when a question was addressed to them directly.
In the third hour of delay, many of the taxi drivers retired to their cars and went to sleep, reclining in their seats, boots off, dirty-socked feet against the inside of the windshield. The salaried drivers exchanged anecdotes and started engines to recharge their batteries, or simply out of boredom. A drizzle began that was little more than a general dampness in the air. If it were hotter, it would have been uncomfortable. But it was October, and already leaves had begun to fall as the land died into winter.
When the plane landed, the already tired - morally tired - taxi drivers rose from their half-sleep, pulled on their boots and shambled forward to meet the guests from the capital and begin their haggling. Following them were the salaried drivers, knotting their ties, signs with the names of their companies dangling from their thick wrists. The doors from the arrival hall were disgorging passengers now - mostly men in sharply creased forest-camouflage jackets and caps, newly oiled boots. They came in groups, and immediately joined a line at Customs to wait for their rifles. The rest of the passengers - locals coming home, whose families for some reason had been unable to meet them - were swept up by the taxi drivers after a dispirited round of haggling.
The foreigners were not dressed as immaculately as the businessmen from the capital. Their hunting clothes seemed to have gotten some use. The Hunter regarded them with a guarded interest as they came toward him, trailing behind their driver, their dull metal rifle cases bumping one another. Their boots were of good quality, and not new. They had a grateful look about them. The chimera of foreign plane crashes had, perhaps, not completely faded from their minds. They were happy and startled to be on the ground. There were four of them, three men and one woman.
For some hours, The Hunter had been mumbling words in the foreigners' language. It was important to him not to look foolish in front of them. He disliked foreigners even more than he disliked people from the capital. But there were fewer and fewer people who were not from the capital. The way that things were going, it seemed, soon the entire country would be empty.
In the meantime, there was money to be made. The foreigners smiled as the driver introduced him. He shook their hands, but dumped their names out of his mind immediately upon hearing them, even the name of the woman. He disliked foreign women the most.
The drizzle still hung in the air and dampened the earth at the sides of the road to black. Birch forest rolled evenly past, bone-white and yellow-gold at the road's edge, deepening further in to colorless shadow. As the van turned off the road onto a dirt track, the forest closed around them, wet on the windows, blank in repetition, the same tree a million million times. The foreigners were chatting, building a circle of sound around themselves. On the van's radio, a singer warned that only birds sing for free. The driver wiped his hands with a handkerchief from his shirt pocket.
Soon the hunting lodge came into view - a big, raw building of polished logs the color of freshly tanned leather, in the center of a clearing. A swirl of smoke brought the aroma of meat down upon the other smells of wet earth and forest. As equipment was collected, suitcases carried in, the mosquitoes descended in a dense cloud. The foreigners slapped at them in irritation as the mosquitoes whined their blood-song in the ear and plunged, suicidal, for exposed necks and the backs of hands. A few whitening welts later, all were inside, and the gear stacked haphazardly near the door. There was a roaring fire in the fireplace, and the table was set for dinner. The hostess rotated and counter-rotated around her guests, signing with her hands and asking questions in broken parts of their language. Bags were taken upstairs, and platters of meat brought in, bottles of liquor opened. A hunting party of businessmen from the capital came in from the forest, stripping muddy boots near the entrance and hanging up camouflage jackets. One of them was accepting hard claps on the back and congratulations. His kill was on its way to the city to be mounted and stuffed. He gestured at chest level. A large one. There were few around of that size anymore. The foreigners lifted glasses in a toast as the businessmen settled among them. The hostess swirled about them all, rubbing her hands and translating.
The Hunter would remember later that he viewed the coming of the foreigners as the beginning of the end. Before it had been only the businessmen from the capital, some of them with asses made wide from sitting in front of computers, some of them fit and trim from regular morning swims in their company pools. Some of them were hesitant shots, but others were surprisingly more cold-blooded. The Hunter had learned that you could not tell: he had seen pale office hands deftly sighting a rifle, eyeglasses lined up with its scope, waiting for the perfect shot and taking it, downing the bird on the run with a clean shot through the breast.
The hostess's daughter came down with a guitar, and now the mixed party was around the fireplace, brandy in their hands, and the young girl was playing for them. The foreign woman was a blonde. Not beautiful, but there was something in her face tilted over a snifter of brandy. The Hunter watched her, and sensed a tension growing within himself. He would not have been able to name the emotion he felt.
The hostess laid a hand on his wrist and nudged him toward the company. "It's part of our job, you know. These evenings. Part of the package."
The Hunter put on a stiff smile and joined them.
The next morning The Hunter rose before dawn. Outside, the cold cut through his night clothes, stopping only at the high line of the rubber boots he had thrown on. The woods were pre-dawn silent, but in the distance he heard the mournful, rising call of one of the birds. A few seconds later, there came a response, further off. He filled a rusty bucket from the tap. Stripping to his waist, he splashed cold water on his face and chest and, with a soap he had used for all his life, scrubbed vigorously. The feeling of cold in the morning was the thread that tied him to every day that had come before, a thread running back to his childhood - in a time when things had made a very different kind of sense.
The fog that had delayed the arrival of the plane from the capital had settled back on the forest. As The Hunter led the group of foreigners quietly along a rutted jeep track, the mist clung to the low branches. Like cotton soaked in turpentine, it smeared the colors of the woods. The blonde woman, walking now just behind The Hunter, tried to say something to him. He silenced her with a finger across his lips. Somewhere far off in the trees there was a shuddering crash, and then the sound of fierce, unmistakable movement through the underbrush. The group stood rooted to their places for a long moment afterwards. Their faces wore open expressions of anticipation, flushed cheeks and pressed mouths, eyes widened in the early gloom. Mosquitoes whined and dived and rose again, chemically repelled from their targets, and retreated in frustration to a spiraling distance.
They reached the outskirts of the village after an hour's walk. A steady drizzle had begun, and the group paused to cover their rifles in plastic. The rutted jeep trail was here reclaimed by grass. The first of the low wooden houses, with its gingerbread trim broken off in places, its windows smashed, and its roof staved in by a fallen tree branch, was on the left. To the right was a broken-apart pig pen, its half-finished posts fallen and smothered in blackberry bushes. The rain made a low, constant sound, accented with high notes where it hit scraps of metal among the ruins.
The Hunter was glad for the rain, which would cover the sound of their movements. Occasionally a small sliver of sun showed. He felt his own heart beat slightly faster. Today would be a good hunt. He could feel this at times, and he was nearly always right. It was not magic, not a sixth sense: it was simply years of experience gathering up and processing the almost invisible factors which spelled success or failure in the hunt, and processing them through a surreptitious calculus somewhere at the edge of his awareness.
Far off, smaller birds chirped and cried in the trees. All of them in a slight crouch and moving slowly, the group moved past the first house and toward the heart of the village. They stayed off the road, moving through backyards that had once been kitchen gardens and now were choked with berries and vines that clutched at their camouflage. Through the back windows of the little village houses were glimpses of disarray - smashed crockery and broken furniture, gleams of broken glass in the darkness, all of it abandoned to decay. The Hunter pushed open the back door of one of the houses.
"We shoot from here. Good blind."
It was a one-room house like most of the others, the right corner of the house taken up by an enormous oven, long since gone cold and damp. The bedding and clothes of the former inhabitants were wadded in decaying piles in the corners and strewn about underfoot. Parts of the wooden floor had collapsed. The Hunter pointed to the front windows, their glass long ago battered out. The roof dripped in several places. A smashed clay milk jug rattled loudly as one of the men kicked it aside, and The Hunter put his finger to his lips. This was their gesture, and they seemed to understand it. He brought his rifle down from his shoulder, and the others did the same. One of the men peered out the window. Another was examining a broken picture frame on the floor.
The woman looked at him questioningly. He shrugged at her. He put his binoculars to his eyes and scanned the overgrown track that ran through the center of the village. In the center there was a clear trail, and here and there, caught among the brambles, a clutch of feathers. He focused in on a clear set of prints in the wet earth. One of them had passed this way recently.
"Is birdpath here. Now we wait."
The blonde woman had found a small and torn doll, a pathetic thing made by hand, and was fingering it carefully - as if it might, at any moment, come alive in her hands. The Hunter took it from her, gently, and laid it in a corner.
"Now we watch. You have rifle ready."
In his head, the story was already beginning. The voice was his great-grandmother's - thankfully long dead. Her voice rose from the dark places inside him that were lost to his mind most of the time. It rose with increasing clarity, and began its recitation:
Many years ago, in a certain village lived an old couple, who had just one daughter. They lived in quite a small cottage, but they were comfortably off. Yet trouble came to them too, for the mother fell ill, and she realized that she was near to death. So she called her daughter to her, and gave her a small doll.
"Listen, my dear daughter," she said. "Take great care of this little doll, and never let anyone else see it. If you ever get into trouble, give her something to eat and ask her advice. She will eat the food and will help you in your trouble."
He looked superstitiously at the doll. Lately, his mind had not been quiet.
It was the blonde woman who spotted the bird, while it was still a long way up the path. She waved a hand, and The Hunter came to the window. The bird was about 100 yards away, digging in a patch of brambles. It lifted its head and great clumsy beak as if searching the air for something, but The Hunter could tell that it had not taken notice of them. Everyone in the house was still, controlling even the sound of their breathing. The bird started down the path. Though unable to tell from here, It was almost a meter and a half tall - a very large one, and not young - one of the old ones that had been around at the time of the Change. it walked with that typical wobbling gait they had, its legs thick, scaly trunks beneath the body of gray feathers. Occasionally it stopped and looked about, shaking its small, useless wings. The blonde woman took a slow step back and raised her rifle. The Hunter could hear her quick, excited breathing.
"Wait for her to get closer."
But it was too late. The rifle bucked, and The Hunter saw the bird stagger.
"Again, again!" The Hunter was raising his own rifle now, but the bird had already gotten over a low fence into one of the yards. A second shot rang out - one of the men had pushed open the door and was firing from one knee, like something in a film, but the bird was gone behind the row of houses now.
The Hunter swore to himself. The blonde woman's mouth was an open "o." Which of theirs was she? Even this was not clear among these people. At least the businessmen from the capital did not take their fucking women along with them. The Hunter went out the door and started up the street. How far the bird could get depended on where the bullet had hit it.
The blood splatter was clearly visible on the brambles near where the bird had been hit. He went over the crumbling fence to where he had seen the bird go behind the houses. He was thankful for the light rain - the fresh prints the bird left were clearly visible in the earth. They were large creatures, and ungainly. The idiot woman was lucky it had not been a deer, which could travel far - maybe all day long - while wounded. But the thought of one of the birds suffering was much worse for him than a deer's pain. Though the deer was a beautiful animal, it had never seemed to him wrong to kill it, nor had its suffering touched him. It was right to kill the birds, but not right for them to suffer.
He was aware of the group behind him, following him sullenly, like scolded children might trail a parent at a distance. Eventually he would have to deal with them, but now he wanted only to find the bird.
The tracks led toward the edge of the village. Here, behind a gingerbread-trimmed house that had sagged low into the earth, the forest rose like a solid wall. It could take hours to track the bird in there. The blue paint on the carved windows of the little house had faded, but was still bright after all these years against the dark and weather-stained wood of the unpainted cottage. The windows were unbroken, though the door hung open and off its hinges.
And now he saw that the bird's tracks led inside the house. On the crooked flagstones at the entrance he stopped and wiped at a drop of bright blood. Inside, something stirred in the dark.
He looked over his shoulder at the party of foreigners. They were hanging back, near the main part of the village, the crumbling church with its pigeon-shit coated dome and cross hanging crookedly over them, casting a shadow now that the clouds had thinned a bit and the sun had begun to whiten the world. Looking back later, The Hunter was always struck by the beauty of that moment - how the rain had stopped, how the abandoned village looked quite peaceful and still and empty - how except for the rifles over their shoulders the foreigners could have been simple tourists. How simple the world sometimes was - everyone could be happy, every human being, at a change in the weather.
He went into the dark of the house. The birds were not usually dangerous, so he was not afraid, in a physical sense. He was not afraid for his own safety, but perhaps he had a premonition - why had it not gone into the forest? The forest, where he would never find it?
It was a house like almost all of the other houses, though perhaps less beaten than the others. Still, inside it was a wreck, scattered furniture and a stained stove, shreds of clothing, and cheap Chinese-made pots scattered across the floor.
Except that they were not scattered, he saw as his eyes adjusted. They were placed under places where the roof had sprung leaks. There was a broken flowerpot on the floor that had a plant still in it, and beside this a bucket.
By the large stove in the corner was an old iron bed, and it was there that the bird lay. It had managed, with its clumsy beak, to get the covers pulled mostly over itself.
But the doll replied:
"Do not cry. Better go and lie down to sleep. You will feel better after a good sleep."
As soon as the little girl had dozed off the doll cried:
"Little birdies, tomtits, sparrows, and doves, fly here and save us from harm."
At once all sorts of birds came flying up in great numbers. Trilling and cooing, they set to work to sort the millet, putting the good grain into a sack, and the black grains into their crops.
And his grandmother would pull the covers up to his chin, and continue.
The bird stared at him with one eye. Its ungainly, stupid-looking head with the heavy beak conveyed no expression, but the eye regarded him with intelligence.
Decades ago, before the Change, she must have lived here, carefully twisting cans of preserves shut, sealing them for the winter. The paint was immaculately trimmed along the ceiling's border, stencilled in flowers and vines, over and over. This one would have hung cheesecloth from the ceiling beams, would have potatoes in the kitchen garden, tomatoes and radishes. All that careful work - saving, getting by on what little she had. And then the Change had come in the villages. But somehow, this one had kept something of what was before. Something human. How had that happened?
The red stain spread on the dirty blanket. He had to turn his face away when he shot her.
Outside, under the sun and the dome of the church, the foreigners stood in a knot, quietly watching him. He should do something dramatic - burn the house down, scream at them. He wanted to scream at them. But after all whose fault was it that they had come here? If you sell something, people will come to buy. They will come until the thing is gone. And this was almost over . . . the villages were almost empty now, hunted to emptiness, and it grew harder and harder to find the birds. The hunters had come in streams for decades now from the capital, ever since the Change. The foreigners had only begun to come recently. The birds, the idiot birds, did not reproduce quickly, and of course they could not fly, or even run fast. They were of no use to nature. A novelty, that was all.
Soon the last of them would be gone.
The foreigners looked at him questioningly as he went by. He saw that the blonde woman had been crying. Even the men seemed visibly upset, though of course they understood nothing. One of them caught him by the sleeve.
"Shouldn't we haul it off? To have it mounted? After all . . ."
The Hunter shook his head.
"This is not how is done. Against rules."
"Rules?" The man said.
The Hunter felt very tired, suddenly, and very ill. Soon, he would change professions.
"Not honorable," he managed finally, fishing the foreign word from the darkness where his grandmother's fairy tales, his language lessons at school, the happy days of his youth, and all his life before the change lay.
They all nodded to one another, seeming to understand. After all, there were rules in the world that needed to be followed.
They began the long walk back to the lodge in silence, but soon the anticipation of dinner and drinking and the guitar by the fireplace warmed them, and again they made a circle around themselves of comforting sound. The hunt was only a part of the ritual.
The Hunter trailed along behind, trying to remember the end of the fairy tale. But of course - it always ended with a wedding. And with him, still a boy and safe, drifting off to sleep.