One bird in hand

Dad took me to catch finches.

I waited behind a bush. He picked a lone thistle in a clearing. He propped up the framed net with a stick. He covered it up with leaves and twigs. It looked like a bush next to a thistle. He tied his best male finch to the thistle. The bird had had its fill of hemp seed. It was high as a kite. He scattered some seeds under the net. He came back. He sat beside me. He gave me the string.

We waited.

The finch sang. Other finches came. They flew round the thistle. They landed. They started eating the seeds. There were a dozen of them. Dad nodded. I pulled the string. The stick pulled free. The net fell on the birds.

We picked the birds free from the net. We caged them. I walked back to the hiding place. Dad put the net back up. We caught a dozen more birds. No more came. Dad called it a day.

We went back home. He clipped the birds’ wingtips. I put them in the big cage.

I went for a walk by the sea.

I met a new boy. He picked up flat pebbles. He tried to skip them on the water. They didn’t skip. They sank. I picked up a handful. I skipped them well.

“You’re good.”
“I know.”
“I guess you get a lot of practice.”
“Yeah.”
“Do you live here?”
“Just up the road. There.”
“Good.”
“Why is that?”
“Only, you get these boys, you see. You know. The ones from the shanty. They come on the bus. And they give me a hard time.”
“Why is that?”
“I came from the village, you see. My dad’s the janitor in that apartment block over there. And I get the piss taken all the time. The way I talk, I think.”
“I’ve got hundreds of birds.”
“No you don’t.”
“I do too.”
“Nobody’s got hundreds of birds.”
“I do. Do you want to see.”
“As if. I’ll come anyway. I have nothing else to do until the evening. I’ve helped dad do his rounds.”

I took him to our house. He heard the birds.

“You weren’t taking the piss, were you? Your dad’s the birdman, isn’t he?”

I took him to the cages. I put seed in my hand. I stuck it in the cage. Birds came to me.

“Can I try?”

I didn’t let him.

“Have you got a new friend?”

Dad walked in. He had on his sleeveless vest and his stripy pyjama bottoms. He had flipflops on his feet. One flipflop had a broken strap. The other had birdshit on it. His toes were all hairy. I don’t want hairy toes when I grow up.

“You’re the new janitor’s lad, aren’t you?”

His toenails were all jagged. One of his small toes looked like it had broken and healed all twisted up.

“Those are nothing. Just stray birds. I’ve got a parrot in my room. A talking parrot. You want to see?”
“A real parrot?”

Dad had hard white bits on the back of his heels. The boy had dirty feet. His shoes were too big for him. He had folded the heels down. He used the shoes like slippers.

I fed the birds some more. The birds got bored with the seed. They nipped at my fingers. I took my hand out.

The boy came out. He carried his shoes in his hand. I gave him a bird. The bird pecked at his fingers.

“Don’t tell dad. He’ll kill me.”

I opened the door for him.

Dad woke up. We took the bus to the main square. I carried the cages. The birds kept flying around. They banged on the bars. Dad carried the trestle table.

There was a finch on the side of the road. It lay in the dust. Its head was crushed. There was a stone next to it. It had blood on it.

“Animals. They are all animals, these people. What did they want from a tiny little bird? What did it do to them? But you, you’re not like them, are you son? You’re a gem.”

Dad smacked the nape of my neck. It was his friendly smack. It hurt. I didn’t say anything.

Dad set the table up by the marble steps. For a copper, you can feed the birds some seed. For a silver, you can set one free. People cup the bird in their hands. They kiss it. They let go. Some say a prayer. It’s their good deed for the day.

I went round the square with the small cage. The birds were scared of the cars. I picked them up. I put them in the cage. One was lost. A bus hit it. It fell down. The bus ran it over. Another one perched on a windowsill. It did not come down.

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