June 5, 2020 by downwardlymobilewoman
I was barely hatched when the tall tree my parents had chosen for their nest that year was felled by the council. The supervising tree surgeon spotted the remains of our home, containing my Mum, who was concussed, and three of my brothers. He scooped them up, jumped into a silver car and drove away, leaving me and my brother, Sartre, alone on the cold hard ground, where we had been thrown from the nest by the fall.
Dad found us on his return from foraging for food and philosophical enlightenment. Sartre was injured. I huddled close to him as he shivered, listening to his tiny cheeps of pain. He died within the hour.
“No more high trees,” Dad said, when he had stopped weeping. He found us a home in an abandoned barrel in a nearby fly-tipping area where the council never ventured.
The search for my mother and brothers was the biggest investigation in Special Branch history. Every silver car for miles around was examined. So-called sanctuaries for birds, veterinary surgeries, zoos and garden sheds were put under surveillance. They even hacked into the computer files of the Arboricultural Association to find the addresses of all affiliated tree surgeons. There were no leads.
The Special Branch Chief sympathy-songed us to say she was calling off the search.
It was just me and Dad now.
Dad enjoyed tailoring his teaching to his children’s names.
“Another bite of worm, Miss Maslow. Then I shall further reinforce this nest. You may help by looking out for predators such as cats and tree surgeons. Our physiological and safety needs must be met.”
Perhaps I was lucky. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provided a clear chick-rearing model and the interior decoration of the barrel benefited from the colourful triangular diagrams on the walls. I did not experience nearly as much epistemological confusion or existential angst as some of my siblings from other nests. They all thought I had it easy.
Maybe so. But I did not have my Mum.
Dad talked about her all the time. He told me of her flying prowess, her amazing beetle fritter recipe, her passion for her eggs and fledglings. He waxed lyrical about the beautiful greens and blues of her wings and her beady bright black eyes.
“Your Mum achieved self-actualisation, Maslow, and being with her was a peak experience. Do not doubt that. Emulate her in all aspects.”
I tried, but it was a lot to live up to. Like everyone I had my strengths and weaknesses.
I found learning to fly difficult. I was clumsy and the barrel nest had no natural launching spots. Dad built increasingly tall rubbish mounds with the contents of the fly-tip, from which he encouraged me to propel myself into the air. I achieved proficiency slowly but watching my belly flops often induced Dad’s high infectious giggle, which I loved to hear.
I had a natural talent for cacophonous screeching, honed by hours of hyper-vigilant alone time in the barrel, watching out for threats while Dad was out hunting. I knew sounding an effective signal to call him back was my only chance of survival if danger came.
Dad and I became accustomed to our life in the barrel without the rest of our family. I forgot there was ever a time when it was not just me and him. I adored him but it was a responsibility being his only relation. Other magpies left home to join one of the gangs as soon as they could fly and hunt but I turned down all offers, reluctant to leave him alone. It was not until my friend Amina came by and told us about the murders that I felt pushed into spreading my wings.
“They think it’s a serial killer, Maslow. The bodies are popping up all over Jessop Park. At least twelve birds this week. He got Cara the other day. Left her dead on the bowling green, bumpy from the plucking.”
“Oh no!” said Dad, his dark feathers drooping. “I’ve known Cara since she was a speckled green egg, back in the first springtime of my youth.”
“He takes their feathers. Leaves them cold and bald. They think he’s a pillow maker.”
“Really? I thought waterfowl from Hungary were generally preferred for bedding. Is he targeting a range of birds?”
“Only magpies. My bet is he’s into burlesque and needs gothic feather boas for his dancers.”
“A speculative hypothesis, Amina.”
“Serial killers are always niche… Hey, Maslow, we’re going to stake out Jessop Park and catch him.”
Amina was in a gang known for having their wingtips on the pulse.
“That sounds like something that might interest you, Maslow,” said Dad.
He was right but I couldn’t even look back and wave as I flew away from home for the first time. I didn’t want to see Dad standing all alone outside our barrel.
Amina and Gloria were the bait, dancing on the spotlit bandstand at the centre of Jessop Park, as dusk started to fall, shaking their feathers with energetic, beautiful fervour.
The rest of us were hidden in position.
I still had no head for heights, so they posted me in a flowerbed of purple pansies and hot pink snapdragons. I was keen to make my mark but kept getting distracted by worms weaving through the earth beneath me. I did not even notice the other magpie until I lifted my soil-smeared head from a hastily dug dinner-hole and came face-to-face with him.
He was a strange-looking chap. If it had not been for his black darting eyes and chunky beak I would have found it difficult to be sure he was a magpie at all. A little bouffant of glossy black down adorned his crown and a single blue-black tail quill stuck out from his rump. Apart from that he was featherless. As bald as an inverted coot.
He eyed the worm dangling from my bill.
“That is too disgusting, honey,” he said.
“Hunger is a basic need,” I said, feeling ashamed of being caught snacking on the job.
“Hunger is one thing, darling but surely we’re evolved enough not to eat worms?”
“You don’t like worms?” I said, shocked. “What do you eat then?”
“Oh this and that. Mostly black coffee and cigarettes when I’m out with Dad,” he said.
He tipped his head towards the bandstand and I made out a tall human shape with a large net, lurking in the shadows, tiptoeing towards Amina and Gloria.
I blasted out the most resonant, amplified, high-pitched screech I could muster. My companion fell over, whimpering in pain as sound waves crescendoed out of the flowerbed and echoed across the park.
The gang descended from the trees, swarming the man en-masse as he stepped onto the bandstand, toppling him backwards. The attack was brutal. They beat their wings, pecked and clawed at his flesh and splattered him in black and white excrement.
The bald bird jumped out of the flowerbed and made to run towards the bandstand, flapping his naked wings uselessly.
I caught him by the tail feather.
“Let me go! They’re killing him.”
He seemed familiar to me in a way I couldn’t quite pin down. It made me feel protective of him.
“Don’t go up there. You’re vulnerable without your feathers. They’ll peck you to pieces.”
“He needs help. That vicious mob will finish him off.”
“He’s a serial killer,” I said. “He’s killed at least twelve birds. He ripped every feather from our friend’s body and left her carcass to rot.”
“It was an accident. He panics and squirts too much diazepam up their nostrils when he’s trying to sedate them. It upsets him dreadfully. He hates himself whenever he harms a magpie.”
“How can leaving a trail of dead bodies be an accident? Any idiot knows tearing out a bird’s feathers will kill them.”
“Not necessarily. Look at me, I came through fine. But he hasn’t perfected the epilation process for non-consenters yet.”
“So he took your feathers too? Why does he want feathers so badly?”
His funny bald face took on an imploring expression.
“Darling, I know you want to talk and so do I. But if we don’t do something he’s going to die.”
I wasn’t convinced he was worth saving but I’m more squeamish than the average bird and I retched as I saw Gloria gouge out his eyeball and gulp it down her gullet with jubilant relish. I belatedly remembered I don’t believe in the death penalty and emergency-songed Special Branch at top decibel.
The Chief arrived. She congratulated the gang on catching the killer before ordering everyone to disperse. Humans dressed in green appeared with a stretcher and crowded the bandstand. They swathed the murderer in bandages.
“I’d better go and get Mum,” said the bald bird. “She’s still locked in the Aviary. I don’t know what we’ll do now.”
“Bring her over to our barrel,” I said.
Dad and I considered what to prepare for dinner.
“The bald bird nearly threw up when he saw me eating worms. He said he only likes cigarettes and coffee.”
“I see that we are grappling with the perennial conundrum of how to fulfil everyone’s needs when conceptions of the good life differ. Fortunately, that is one of the few philosophical problems to which I have found a definitive answer.”
“Yes. We shall cook beetle fritters to your marvellous mother’s recipe. No one can resist her beetle fritters, believe me.”
We had made a large pile of aromatic golden fritters by the time I spotted the bald bird approaching with his Mum.
“They’re here, Dad!” I said, cuing him to issue the welcome that etiquette demands from the head of the nest.
For once Dad seemed lost for words.
He stood stock still and his beak dropped open. Then a sudden onset manic delirium took him. He started hopping and dancing, raising and lowering his head feathers, sticking his tail perpendicular in the air. He began crooning a song in a low, sensual tone.
I had never felt so embarrassed in my entire life.
“What’s wrong, Dad? Stop it!” I said.
He did not seem to hear me. He rushed towards the bald bird’s mum, pulling back his shoulders to make the white of his chest feathers expand. She looked at him with bright black eyes and began to mirror his dance moves, responding with a song of her own.
“Good grief. This is disgusting. Get a room!” said the bald bird.
Dim memories from my earliest days flooded back as she sang. It was the voice I’d heard constantly as an egg and then a tiny chick, huddled between my brothers in our high nest, before it was just me and Dad. She was my Mum.
“You’re my brother!” I said to the bald bird as our parents danced off together. I was jumping up and down on the spot in excitement. “Which one are you?”
“I’m Plato,” he said.
We chest bumped and brushed our wings together. My feathers tickled his bare skin and he started giggling- a high infectious giggle, just like Dad’s.
“I can’t wait to meet Mum,” I said.
“She’s going to love you, honey. You’ll be her favourite. She’s been angry with me since I gave Dad my feathers.”
I felt a little peck of anxiety in my belly. I realised I was desperate for my newly reunited family to love each other and live happily ever after.
“That murderer man isn’t your real Dad, Plato. You’ve got your proper family back now.”
“I know. I’m so happy to meet you again, Maslow. But what about Henrick? He’s always been there for me. Hobbes and Weber died and Mum was in a coma for days. It was just him and me till she recovered.”
“He destroyed our home and tried to make you an accomplice to his murder spree. He even stole your feathers. That’s not being a good father, Plato. You’ve got to give our real Dad a chance.”
Plato looked pensive.
“But he loved us, Maslow. Doesn’t that count for something? He wanted to turn himself into a magpie so we’d be closer as a family. That’s why he was collecting feathers. He thought Mum would be won over and stop trying to escape.”
“Putting on a stupid feather suit made of murder victims doesn’t make a man a bird. Or a father.”
“I don’t know how I feel. Aren’t you nervous about meeting Mum?”
“No,” I said, very firmly, determined to be the role model my brother needed on how to be reunited with an absent parent. “I don’t have identity issues. Meeting Mum again will be a peak experience and help me achieve self-actualisation.”
“Dream on, darling. We all have identity issues. It’s the human condition.”
“I’m a bird, not a human. And so are you, Plato.”
“What is a bird but a man with feathers?”
“Whatever, birdbrain. Let’s eat.”
Dad was right about the beetle fritters. Plato loved them. I felt our bond grow and grow as we gobbled them down and waited for our parents to come home.