As birds do (3)
By Stephen Thom
The most diminutive of birds, will fight -
Turk stewed. He paced. The old man made gun fingers and danced around his knees, overstimulated by the periscope viewing.
'Bang bang! Peow peow peow!'
Wooden birds cheeped and creaked on the shelves. Turk grabbed the old man by the shoulders.
'Stop that! That's my - he's my colleague, my friend, I - I have to get him out of there... '
The old man gazed up at him.
'They are funny people. Big muscles. Big guns. Peow!'
Turk held his head in his hands. The old man tapped him. He took his arm and guided him over the room. He slid a small door open. Turk stooped to enter.
The man flicked a light. It was a grubby underground shed. Pots of paint. Brushes. Tools. Cobwebs. Piles of assorted junk: Cogs. Gears. Copper wire. Planks of wood. Piles of wood shavings.
A large sheet was spread in the centre of the room. An enormous contraption sat upon it - a magnificent wooden bird. Strips of wood were laced intricately across its outer shell. The beak was a sharply filed point. The interior - visible through gaps in the wooden weaves - was crammed with a fantastic array of gears, cogs, springs and pulleys.
In the centre there was a musty, cushioned seat. Crude sticks and knobs skewered up in front of it.
Turk stepped forward. He scratched his head.
The old man smiled.
'Hop in,' he coughed.
The old man scurried around the giant bird. He unclipped a latch. He pulled a small door open. He clambered inside and hunched down behind the chair, wedged amongst gears. He wiggled for room. His voice was muffled.
'You want to rescue your friend! Rescue him we shall!'
Turk wandered around the wooden bird. He brushed cobwebs from his path. He gripped the edges of the opening in the bird's exterior. He squeezed himself in. He wriggled into the seat. Dust powdered. It was incredibly tight.
He looked at the levers and knobs in front of him. He suddenly felt utterly insane. Sweat broke on his forehead. The old man prodded his seat from behind.
Turk flinched. He wrapped his hands around the two biggest levers. His feet scrabbled and settled into two pedals beneath him. He pushed his left foot down. Cranks turned. Pulleys whirred. He sweated. He pedalled. The old man banged the seat and laughed.
Gears and cogwheels rotated and meshed within the bird's belly. Pulleys snapped and popped. The contraption shuddered. Colossal wooden wings spread from its shell. They beat the air slowly.
The giant bird lifted, creaking and groaning.
A circular panel in the ceiling slid open. The contraption veered wildly. It clattered into walls. Paint tins tumbled. Turk swore. The old man whooped. The bird whooshed upwards and out into the night air.
The poppy fields rolled out beneath them. The giant bird creaked. Its great wings wobbled. Turk pedalled. He sweated. He felt like a total fuckwit. The old man banged his chair and made 'peow peow' noises.
They passed over the compound. Men gathered below. They pointed. They ran. They raised their guns. They peppered the contraption. It veered. Splinters flew.
Turk spat and jerked the levers. He pedalled desperately. The old man tutted. He pulled a piece of black chalk from his pocket. He scribbled on the back of the chair. He scribbled fast. Chalk dust flew.
Jagged runes. The old man rubbed his hands. The runes glowed.
A dark trail appeared in the sky behind them. The trail became a cloud. Thousands of tiny wooden birds burst from the forest. They grouped and cycled; a dense, creaking murmuration. They plunged down towards the compound.
Shots rattled. Wooden birds exploded. Wooden birds arced and dived. Beaks pecked. Beaks drilled. Men screamed. Men flailed. Men disappeared within swarms.
The old man tutted again. Turk swung the levers forward. They dive-bombed towards the bunker. Gears whirred. Cogs clanked. Air fizzed through the giant bird. Turk's cheeks flapped. His eyes watered. He heaved the levers back.
The contraption hit the ground. It bounced. It tore up chunks of earth. It shuddered to a standstill.
The old man popped up behind Turk. His white hair was wild and frizzy. He eyed the bunker. He scrawled chalky symbols on the back of the chair.
The bunker door flew open. Turk caught twisted faces. Gun muzzles. He heard a rattle of shots.
Everything was lost in a hail of wooden birds.
Turk watched the cloud descend on the doorway. They whirred, cheeped and tore. Men went down. They crawled. They covered their faces. They ran, bleeding and tripping.
The old man pulled his sleeve over his hand and scrubbed away the symbols he'd drawn. The birds fluttered to the ground. They chirped and hopped.
Turk cracked the door. He squeezed himself out. He ran into the bunker.
Bobby was strapped to a chair. His head was slumped forward. His fingernails were gone. There were shivs in both his eyes.
Turk wobbled. He tripped forward. He sunk to his knees. His hands slapped red puddles. He balked. He vomited. He drooled.
The old man pottered in behind him. He surveyed the scene. His little face darkened. He moved forward and placed his hand on Turk's shoulder.
The moon hung like a blind eye. Turk sat by the bunker doorway. He watched the dark sprawl of the poppy fields.
It felt like he had passed into some wretched dimension. Beyond that he felt the moment indelibly as a culmination of his decisions, movements and relationships during his time on earth. This was what he had made of his life.
The wooden birds fanned out in a circle around the old man. He leaned down and petted one. It cheeped and bobbed.
The old man smiled. He looked up. His eyes were moist. He rummaged in a shirt-pocket. He removed a packet of matches. He lit one and squatted. He set the little bird on fire. It wobbled and ran. The old man blew out the match and used the nub to etch something on the ground.
He stood and rubbed his hands together. Runes glowed on the dirt track beneath. The little fire-bird hop-skipped into the air.
The other birds rustled. They flapped their twiggy wings. They rose as one. They clouded together. They whirled, a seething mass. One by one they burst into flames. Red sparks popped in Turk's eyes. Fireworks.
The flaming birds plunged into the fields. The old man slumped over to the giant bird contraption. His head was bowed. He motioned for Turk to follow.
Turk pedalled through the night. The gigantic wings cracked and flapped. He choked. He tugged levers and wiped his nose. Tears ran down his cheeks.
It all seemed so pointless. Everything anyone ever did.
The old man popped up over the back of the seat. He reached and dropped a small business card onto Turk's lap. There was an address. A bird emblem.
'These people helped me,' he said. 'I make things now. I think - perhaps it's not my place to say, but I think you can make better things too.'
The contraption swayed. The fields burned below. It looked like the entire world was on fire.
How will you live? / As birds do, mother
Rain drummed the porch. The moon was a sharp knife-cut through felt.
Charlie thumbed the business card. The commune was advertised as a place of healing. He sat back in the chair. In the garden, two bird-masked men were beating a gong. The sea lapped in the distance. For a moment he was taken by the fancy that things were not passing through him.
In the morning he woke to a large false beak, hovering above his face.
Four bird-masked men helped him up. They guided him gently through the garden and down to the beach. He saw Turk further down the shore. He was being led by bird-masked figures. He looked a little bit hurt, a little bit lost.
By the sea, some twenty bird-masked people were gathered. They sat in chairs on the beach, as if waiting for some tumultuous event at the edge of the world.
Charlie was ushered into a chair. A beak swung close.
'Your mother will be here to collect you, tomorrow. She is looking forward to seeing you.'
Charlie blinked. His bottom lip quivered. He looked up.
'Why birds?' He asked.
The beak arced away. The masked man rose and dug his hands into his pockets.
'Birds are messengers,' he said. 'Birds are free.'
Charlie was instructed to look. He did so. He looked at the crests of water and the rows of fake beaks. For the first time in a long while, he felt a little bit outside of himself. He realised he was crying. A bird-masked man appeared by his face, peering in close.
'What's this?' He whispered.
Charlie scratched his arm.
'I'm not capable of being anything other than selfish,' he choked.
Several of the masked people had risen to approach the water. Morning light sent white panels over the skin of the waves. For a minute it seemed as though the sun was intent on melding with the sea.
'You absolutely mustn't give up hope,' said the bird-face, his beak close enough to brush Charlie's cheek.