I am waiting in the schoolyard; I’m perhaps seven years old. My brother is there but he doesn’t emerge from my recollection much. There is just the knowledge that he is somewhere, close by. We are completely alone; lost to the buzz of idle bees and gravelly voiced mowers struggling against parched lawns.
The school building is square and modern, significant only as a place of confinement and unwelcome expectations.
I wander among fat bushes, craning to be taller to reach their waxy flowers dripping yellow powder, white frocks crumbling with the end of summer. I’m searching for underground passages, hunting among grass-tangled roots for trees holding hidden doorways. Here Zephyrus whispers incantations and secrets hide everywhere: in the cut grass and pollen air: in the warm breath of enchantment creeping over me. I dance a wild jig, spinning faster and faster, I am free, I am safe.
Somehow I know I’m watched, somewhere in the spinning green wall of bushes. In the circling shadows edging the dizzy sky there’s a small dark stranger.
I stop, frozen, even my breath is loud. I sink to the floor, the air in my lungs straining to escape, pressing my fingers into rough dry grass.
A fledgling stands there, shaking in heartbeats, eyes unblinking; flattening itself to the ground, pitiful in my unwelcome attention.
I inch forward, sliding clumsily over broken glass, scraps of litter, gradually becoming more conscious of the pain, white-hot, searing, the feeling of warm blood trickling on raw skin. But I do not cry out. I’m fixed on the tiny being before me.
The bird opens its beak, choking on single notes, as I stretch forward with grimy fingers. It’s so close now. Perfect feathers glossy, unsullied, creep out between stray tufts of baby down, eyes burning with reproach.
Yet I long to touch it, to make it my own. Closing my eyes I tremble with effort, trying to reach it with some primeval force. I mean no harm and do not understand its fear.
Shuddering under my gaze it drops wet faeces. Desperate I lunge forwards like a guileless puppy. It flaps and scrapes the ground with untrained wings, limping awkwardly to its shelter.
A sleepwalker entranced, intoxicated with the thrill of the chase, I lay in the dirt, side-eying tiny feet. It cowers in the darkness as I tear off sticks, filling my mouth with dust. The splintering wood sends my victim in another direction.
The bushes are dense and sharp and my skin pulses hot with threaded scars. I struggle out spitting strands of hair caked with soil. Leaves and twigs shower down on me, snatching at my clothes, but I am dead to all but my creature.
I jab at the undergrowth viciously. My prey loops out over open earth, always just a little ahead, hopping through dry paper hedges, leaves crunching, under small scattering feet.
Frustrated tears smart on torn skin. Massaging my nose with a sleeve, dirt mingles with blood and salt. I bring the stick down hard on the bush; clouds of insects erupt, catching in my throat, my eyes. I scrape blindly at the air. Then, at my feet, a dark crumpled thing falls. It is loose and broken, a small bundle of splayed feathers and parched skin.
Part of me lurches backwards feeling my stomach empty somewhere, though I’m still as death. It’s like there are two of me and one is crying silently and that one knows it, but won’t tell. Even then I know this is not my bird, its rotted body is old, its eyes dry holes, it’s ugly limp and dull. I know it, but the shame does not, it envelopes me, filling my mouth with running salt. I can see myself in those sad remains, drunk with self, uncaring and cruel. And I know with a child’s certainty that God will punish me.
I never told. I walked home with my guilty secret, like a rock in my belly.
Many times I dreamt of it, my poor little bird calling for its mother because I had frightened her. Its presence haunted the place between sleeping and waking, forcing me to follow, fixated, terrified. To hold it till it came apart in my arms, its grey raisin eyes staring accusingly; a rotten corpse, choking me in a cloud of flies.