There’s another bird on the doorstep this morning.
Some sort of native honeyeater, I think. No more than two or three inches from long, narrow beak to delicately wedged tail, with tiny feathers of blue, red and green glowing like coloured glass in the dawn-light. It looks almost too real to be natural, if that makes any sense, as if nothing so perfectly formed and brilliantly hued could possibly come from anywhere but the vision of a master craftsman.
Only the dull, dead eye staring filmily up convinces me this was a thing that had once been alive – that, and the weirdly contorted way the neck has been twisted back and around on itself. There is no other visible sign of injury. No blood, no indication of any struggle. Not a single feather out of place. This was a clean, professional kill by an experienced hunter.
I sigh and turn to go back inside.
In what is becoming an almost daily ritual, I fetch a plastic bag from the cupboard under the sink, teasing it apart from the dozens of other bags which seem to breed like bacteria under there. Turning it inside out, I slip my hand into the improvised glove and walk back to the porch to dispose of the tiny corpse.
Using a bag feels somehow tacky. There should be an air of solemnity to the occasion, I think. I am here in my capacity as Nature’s Undertaker, helping something that had once been vibrantly, thrummingly alive in its passage to the other side. Putting it in a plastic bag and dumping it in the wheelie bin just doesn’t seem to cut it. But what else am I supposed to do? I’m thirty-three years old. My wife would think I’d flipped if she woke up to find me carefully burying a dead bird under the mango tree, or fashioning a little grave marker from paddle pop sticks.
Carrying it to the bin, the body still feels warm through the thin layer of plastic. I imagine for a moment I can feel its staccato heartbeat, hammering hard and fast at the distress and indignity it is enduring. I almost drop it, almost believe in miracles again: that maybe there is life here still, ready to burst forth gloriously from its crumpled white chrysalis and fly away into the sun.
There will be no miracles today.
The bag lands with an ignominious thump on last night’s pizza box. I make a mental note to remind Simone that pizza boxes should go in the recycling. I’m trying not to think about the bird’s final journey. Wheeled to the curb, poured into a stinking, gutter-crawling juggernaut, finally laid to rest in a maggot-ridden, crow-picked landfill with the rest of the dead, the useless, the unwanted.
I’m scrubbing my hands at the sink when I hear Simone padding into the kitchen behind me.
“Not another fucking bird?”
Yeah, I tell her. I got rid of it.
“Well, obviously. You’re washing your hands. Didn’t you use a plastic bag?”
Of course I did, but you can’t be too careful. You don’t know what might have been on it. Mites, germs, worms. What if I have something on my hands when I make Mikey’s breakfast?
“Mikey’s breakfast? When was the last time you made Mikey’s bloody breakfast? I make his bloody breakfast. I wash his shitty nappies. I take him to day-care. I deal with his tantrums. What the bloody hell do you do?”
I finish washing my hands in silence. I think an air of quiet dignity is an appropriately mature response in this situation. Plus, it drives her bugfuck.
I can feel her, standing there behind me as I carefully dry my hands on a tea towel. I can feel her blood pressure soaring, tension rising. She wants to explode, but she doesn’t want to wake Mikey. Which will it be? The lady or the tiger?
“Where’s the paper?” she says. Very, very calmly. Times like this, when she’s rigidly controlling what I’m sure is a heartfelt desire to pick up one of the kitchen knives and stab me in the back, I sometimes visualise her voice as a steel piano wire. The wire runs from her mouth to my ear, and it’s drawn so tight that it hums. If I so much as flicked it with my little finger it would thrash about the room like a dying snake, slicing both of us to ribbons.
I forgot about the paper. That’s what I was going out the front for, when I found the bird.
“How many birds is that anyway? It’s turning into an epidemic.”
I don’t know, exactly. Twenty-five? Thirty? Over the last two months or so. A hell of a lot, anyway.
“It’s one of those bloody cats. If I find out which one, I swear to God I’ll bait it.”
Simone doesn’t like cats. Never has. She likes dogs. She says dogs are loyal, obedient, good companions. Cats just go their own way, and only show you any affection when they want something.
I like cats, probably for the same reasons Simone doesn’t. I like their independence. They seem so proud, so aloof, like nothing can touch them or get under their skin. I once heard someone say they liked dogs because you can kick a dog and it will come back to you. A cat wouldn’t come back.
Last year I thought it might be nice to get a kitten as a Christmas present for Mikey. You know, something for him to play with. Learning to form bonds. That sort of thing. Simone put her foot down. She thought we should get him a puppy. She said it would be great for the four of us to go to the park together and play. I put my foot down. Mikey got a fire-truck and a blow up pool for Christmas.
Simone’s right about the birds, though. The body count is starting to reach epic proportions. She’s probably right about the killer being one of the neighbourhood cats, too. What else could it be? Although it’s kind of strange that the bodies are always in such perfect condition. Surely when cats kill birds it’s because they want to eat them, right? I’m not sure about this. I like cats, but I’ve never actually owned one. Who knows what cats get up to at night when nobody’s watching? Maybe it’s an instinctive thing.
I picture a sleek black cat, prowling the empty streets and dark suburban gardens. Well fed and cared for, it still possesses the psychopathic needs and desires of a born predator. Bellying close to the ground and testing every step, pupils widened to catch any stray ray of light, this stone killer seeks out its latest victim, striking swift, silent and deadly.
I go and get the paper, mummified in industrial strength gladwrap, and start slicing bananas and cooking toast for Mikey’s breakfast. I’m going to be late for work again. Simone says she’ll ban me from using the coffee machine if I keep burning the milk.
When I get home from work Simone is busy chopping vegetables. My parents are coming around for dinner tonight. I’d forgotten. I was supposed to bring home wine, but I’d forgotten that too. I dress Mikey up in the smart tartan suit my sister bought for him in Scotland and put him in the stroller. We’ll walk up to the local shops and see if they have any half-decent wine. And crackers. And dip. And rosemary. And all the other things I’d forgotten.
Mikey burbles away as we walk. I have no idea whether he’s talking to me, or himself, or maybe just the trees. He’s at that point where he’s fallen in love with the sound of his own voice, but doesn’t know any actual words yet. I thought I heard him say ‘Daddy’ the other day, but according to Simone he was just trying to let us know he needed his nappy changing. I stop to get him out of the stroller and I carry him the rest of the way, his little legs clenched around my ribs and his arms around my neck. I’m surprised by how heavy he’s gotten.
Dinner seems to last for a very long time.
My mother wants to know why I’m still working in my dead-end job. Apparently I should be more career-minded now that I have a family to think about. I should finish my law degree, abandoned in my early twenties. I should be a better provider. What if Simone got pregnant again? Would we be able to survive without the income from her part-time work at the council offices? Don’t I owe it to Mikey to make sure I can provide properly for his future? And I should start by getting a haircut. How could I expect any decent employer to take a second look at me when my haircut makes me look like a thug?
My father sniffs suspiciously at his wine and lights a cigar without asking whether it’s OK. He doesn’t talk much, although he does want to know whether I’ve chased up the landlord over the drainage problem in the bathroom, and he reminds me that if I were better at saving I would have had the deposit on our own house together well before Mikey was born.
The desert is one of Simone’s latest discoveries. Gluten-free, lactose-free, sugar-free. Taste-free.
Mikey throws a major hissy fit. He’s not used to being up this late. I take him outside and walk lap after lap of the yard while Simone shows my parents his latest artistic endeavours. I actually quite like his work. He has a naïve knack for colours and shape. Stick some crayons in front of him and he mutates into a midget Monet. But maybe I’m biased.
When my parents have gone we put Mikey to bed, do the dishes, and sit up watching tellie for a while. I sit in the Jason Recliner Simone’s parents bought us while she curls gracefully on the floor at my feet. Neither of us says very much. When the show finishes – one of those banal, chatty things where second-rate comedians dissect the current affairs of the day – we shower and go to bed. I’m feeling guilty about forgetting dinner, and I roll over to give Simone a little cuddle. She stretches lazily and pushes me away, muttering something about it being too bloody hot without aircon, and how she has to get up early because she’s working tomorrow. I roll back to my side of the bed, and lie staring at the wall for hours before I finally fall asleep.
There’s another dead bird on the doorstep next morning. I think it’s some sort of finch.