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Authors: Alissa York

Tags: #General Fiction

Fauna (27 page)

BOOK: Fauna
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Edal’s walking around Withrow Park when she spots the pigeon. It must have taken the wheel head-on; its insides have been pushed out in a smeary skirt around its feet. Rock
dove—the most variable plumage of any species. This one is caramel-coloured, softening in places to a dusty, speckled pink. Iridescence floats across its flattened shoulders, loops tight around its twisted neck.

Edal lingers on the sidewalk, staring down. When a car approaches, she fights the urge to step out in front of it, stand over the body and force the driver to swerve. As luck would have it, it’s a narrow miss. What about the next one, though, and the next? The pigeon could be carried off in the tread of a hundred different tires.

She turns and walks quickly back to the house. Upstairs in her apartment, she fishes a plastic IGA bag from the box beneath the sink. She has no shovel, James and Annie being the keepers of the yard. She drags open a drawer. The spatula will have to do.

The pigeon lies unchanged where she left it—still lovely, still grotesque. From the park comes the clatter of a skateboard, the Tagalog murmur of nannies gathering in the shade. Overhead, the garble of starlings. Another car comes—this one hugging the curb to soften the speed bump, leaving her no choice but to step out into the street, her spatula extended like a crossing guard’s sign. The driver slows obediently. She waves him round.

She hasn’t got long; already a dark SUV is turning onto Carlaw at the top of the block. Crouching down, she takes a deep breath and works the spatula under the pigeon’s head. She loosens one wing, then the other. Folds the body like a feathered omelette and slides it inside the bag.

Feeling shaky, she stands and takes a step back onto the sidewalk, allowing the SUV to pass. Now what? Having saved
the pigeon the indignity of the road, she can’t possibly tie up the bag and drop it in a garbage can. Nor can she take it home for burial in James and Annie’s Mediterranean vegetable plot. She hasn’t been planning another visit to the wrecking yard; she can hardly show up there four days in a row—five, if you count the nosebleed incident. Maybe not under normal circumstances, but she stepped outside normal the moment she chose not to pass the dead pigeon by.

Again she doesn’t get a chance to buzz. Billy’s lying in the shade of the pickup. He catches sight of her and comes galloping, pressing his nose to the mesh.

“Hi, Billy.” She spreads a palm out for him to smell. “You know me, don’t you. Yeah, that’s me.”

Lily comes after him, her mouth flinching up at the corners when she sees who it is. Edal feels her heart do a little jump. They’re happy to see her, both of them happy she’s come.

“Hey, Edal.” Lily fits her key into the padlock.

“Hi, Lily.” Edal steps past her into the yard, Billy snuffling the bag in her hand.

Having secured the gate, Lily turns. “Manners, Billy.” He looks up at her, and she pushes her fingers into the thick fur at his neck. “So.”

“So.”

“What’s in the bag?”

Edal hasn’t thought this part through. Any possible reply seems flippant, unequal to the truth.
Pigeon. Dead pigeon. Unfortunate bird
. In the end she holds the bag open, letting the contents speak for themselves.

“Aw.” Lily’s utterance draws a matching one from between Billy’s teeth. “Poor thing.”

“Yeah.”

“You want to bury it?”

“You think we should?”

Lily says nothing.

“I guess so. Yes, I do.”

Lily nods. “Come on.”

Billy seems to know what they have in mind. He leads the way down past the office, sidling through the gap in the overlapping hedge. While he sniffs a winding path from hubcap to hubcap, Lily reaches for the spade where it leans against the cinder-block wall. Headed for the corner where fence meets hedge, she says over her shoulder, “Guy set a patch aside for me. You know, for my birds.”

Edal comes to stand beside her, staring down at the neat rows of minute graves. It’s heartbreaking, the way she’s marked each one with a simple upstanding twig.

“We can put it here if you want,” Lily adds. “There’s room.”

Suddenly Edal’s not sure she can trust her voice. It’s crazy, fighting back tears at a roadkill funeral. Maybe she should see about counselling after all. “Okay,” she says finally. “Thanks.”

Lily does the digging, which leaves Edal to stand with her head bowed, hands clasped before her, holding the pendulous bag.

“That should do it.” Lily steps back and leans on the spade.

Billy joins them for the interment, lying down with his nose at the edge of the hole. It feels wrong to upend the bag and let the pigeon drop, but where would she pick it up—the
neck? Lily and her dog sustain a patient silence while Edal kneels and sets the bag down on the grass. The spatula is fairly kind as kitchen implements go, designed to be eased under fluffy batter, the delicate, frilled edges of eggs. She slides the blade gently beneath the pigeon again. Tilts it slowly into the waiting grave.

Following Lily and Billy back out through the hedge, Edal feels easier, almost calm. The sensation lasts for several paces, until Guy steps out of the office door.

“Edal.” If Lily smiled to see her, he positively beams.

“Hi, Guy.”

Lily looks from one to the other. “Come on, Billy, time to go to work.”

“Work?” Guy raises an eyebrow.

“Yeah, you know, you show up, you do shit, you get paid.”

“You have a job?”

“Of course I have a job. You think I’m some kind of bum?”

“No, I just never—”

She spins on her heel. “See you, Edal.”

“Bye, Lily. And thanks.”

Lily waves without turning around. Guy and Edal stand together like young parents, watching her go.

“Thanks for what?” he says as the gate clangs shut.

“Oh, I had a … I found a bird. Lily let me put it in with hers.”

“Wow. You should be honoured.”

From anyone else it would be a joke. “Yeah,” she says, nodding, “I am.”

He looks away toward the flight cage, then back. “I was just going to feed Red. Want to watch?”

Fixed on its branch, the hawk eyes the small grey box in Guy’s hands. Not even a glance at Edal as she shoves the cage door closed behind him. Maybe it can hear movement inside the trap, squeaking, even a pitiful wail.
Stop it
. The red-tail is a predator, the rodent a species of prey. Mice breed in the numbers they do for precisely one reason—to blanket the world with food.

Still, her heart sinks as Guy sets the trap down in the dirt. Lifting its little hatch, he backs away quickly. She opens the door a crack to let him squeeze out.

The mouse has been locked up for who knows how long. Still, it knows better than to burst from the trap into the dangerous light of day. It pokes out its nose, whiskers working. Black eyes now. Translucent ears. It emerges in unbearable increments, front paws groping, as though the creature they belong to is blind.

Edal forces herself to look away, transferring her attention to the bird. It hasn’t moved—not a feather—and yet it is changed. The difference between a closed hand and a clenched one. She’s conscious of Guy breathing beside her. Feels fleetingly, absurdly, as though he’s breathing for her too.

Movement splits her focus—the mouse making a break for it, the hawk lifting off, becoming its own killing gaze. A second later the red-tail brakes with its wings, strikes hard with its reaching feet. The mouse is stabbed through, strangled. Wholly dead as the hawk gathers it up in its claws.

Edal expects the hawk to rip into the mouse—either that or bolt it down and carry it back to the dead oak in its crop.
Instead, it holds the little body to its breast and lowers its head.

“Wheep,” it says softly to its food. And again, this time scarcely audible,
“Wheeep.”

Guy lets out a low whistle—of admiration or plain release—and the bird looks up sharply. Staring, it lowers its kill to the ground. It stands motionless for several seconds, one foot on the mouse, before it moves. Hop, pivot, hop—an awkward, counter-clockwise shuffle. The red-tail is showing them its back.

Incredible that spoken language should ever have evolved, when even a bird can communicate so clearly without words. The hawk stoops forward and opens its wings, halting at half their span. The message is mixed, part tenderness, part sinister intent.

“Guess he’d like a little privacy.” Guy hooks the padlock in place and snaps it shut. “You okay? You look a little pale.”

Edal nods.

“Want a coffee?”

“Coffee.” She considers the hawk’s hunched form.

“Okay, then, how about a beer?”

Stephen’s walking out to the loader when a mouse makes him jump. It’s gone before he can get a good look, disappearing down the chute of a truncated tailpipe into a warren of scrap.
Gone
. But the sensation it evoked remains.

The camel spider made him jump too.

No one had warned him how much of his tour would be spent standing around, trying to keep alert in the heat. It was
a tough slog for a boy from the wet west coast—white-hot mornings, forty degrees before your boots even hit the ground. Come the full of day, troops unable to keep to the shade started dropping, drunk with sun. He’d never dreamt his body could call for so much water—half a dozen litres on milder days, triple that when the sun did its worst.

It was blistering, the day the camel spider appeared in the corner of his eye. His platoon had been briefed on the big arachnids and other indigenous fauna upon arrival at KAF, the sergeant making a meal of the topic the way only an east-coaster could.
It’ll feel like the bugger’s stalking you, but he’s only after your shade. He can give a healthy bite, right enough, but only if you go asking for it, messing him around. Even then there’s no venom to speak of. No, it’s the vipers you want to watch out for, and wouldn’t you know it, the filthy fuckers like to hide
.

Four months in, Stephen had yet to lay eyes on one of the deadly snakes, though he’d seen his share of Afghan animal life. Pigeons or something close lined the rafters of the old Russian-built hangar at KAF. Horses were in short supply throughout the region, but there were always the hobbled, hopping donkeys, the reeking, skin-and-bones goats. Once, during a cordon search of a village, he came upon half a dozen rabbits in a corner courtyard. He didn’t spot them at first, their fur the same powdery brown as the little baked houses, the many winding walls.
Fresh meat
, one of the others said hoarsely behind him, but Stephen could think only of scooping one up and holding it. Clutching it to his hammering chest.

Once he got over the small shock of the camel spider’s presence, Stephen decided to test the shade theory for himself. Stepping to one side, he found the creature came too, riding
the slim carpet his shadow made. Another step saw it dog him again. He’d heard they were big, and sure enough, this one was the size of a toddler’s hand. He’d heard they were ugly too, but that wasn’t strictly so. There was a delicacy to the way it fingered along after him through the sand. It was pale, soft grey and ivory, with pointed feet and a fine, almost formal design. Not so much a child’s hand as an X-ray of that hand come to life. The longer he watched it, the lovelier it became.

It stuck by him throughout the long afternoon, even followed him back to the LAV when the order to move finally came through. He considered pointing it out to his fellow soldiers but thought better of the idea. It would only take one startled soul, one boot brought down with a nervous laugh. He lagged a little, making sure he was the last one up the ramp. The camel spider kept on alone. As it vanished into the gloom beneath the LAV, Stephen said a rapid, silent prayer. Let it keep clear of the wheels, he thought. Let it live.

He’s forgotten what he was doing, where he is. The sun on his face is confusingly pleasant, the armoured vehicle before him all wrong. The fork is what sets him straight. Loader, not LAV. He’s on his way to shift the cars he flattened earlier, start a new stack along the eastern wall.

Talk about a cheap date—one beer and she offers to make dinner? She’s not the world’s worst cook, but when was the last time she made a meal for other people? Guy didn’t protest
the way anyone else would have. If he had, Edal might have come to her senses and backed out.

BOOK: Fauna
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ads

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