First published on Alternative Literature
One of the cages that I saw seemed very interesting so I stopped and stood in front of it for a while.
Inside, there was a small bird that was covered with bright green feathers. It seemed nervous. It moved around quickly – the way that a lot of small birds move – and made occasional little noises – like small birds make. It was a small, green bird.
But, unlike most small birds, the little green bird in the cage had a very big shadow. It looked like the shadow of a far bigger bird than the one I was looking at and, moreover, even though the bird in the cage was standing still on a perch, the shadow looked as if it was in full flight. It was the shadow of a much bigger bird.
I looked at it for a while and it looked at me. Its shadow circled over the wood chips on the bottom of the cage in a way that made me feel as though I was alone in the desert or tied to the top of a sun-baked rock somewhere that no one could find me.
The small green bird tweeted.
After a while, a keeper came by and I asked him what was up with the little green bird’s shadow. The keeper really cared about his job and spent a lot of time trying to make sure that everything was as perfect as it could possibly be. He said that the bird was called a Dark Mandevil Bird and that it was extremely rare.
Its rarity, he said, he could not understand because Dark Mandevil Birds seemed to thrive wherever they went and did well despite any bad conditions they might be exposed to. He had no idea why there weren’t Dark Mandevil Birds everywhere.
I asked him again about its shadow.
“What’s wrong with it?” asked the keeper. He sounded a bit annoyed.
“It’s far too large,” I said. “Can’t you see?”
The keeper looked at the shadow. It was a look that was more for show than anything else. The shadow was, if anything, even larger and more obvious than when I’d first noticed it. It was more like a parachute than a shadow. It sat preening its black feathers on the wood chips at the bottom of the cage. It didn’t care about me.
“That’s just how they are,” said the keeper after a while. “Big shadows.”
The Dark Mandevil Bird cocked its head and tweeted.
Again, I felt as though I was trapped in a desert or tied to a rock. This time, I felt much smaller and more confined – like I was at the bottom of a well. The bird’s shadow looked as though it could get out of the cage whenever it wanted to. It made me feel very vulnerable.
I asked the keeper whether the Dark Mandevil Bird was dangerous. It certainly felt as though it was dangerous.
The keeper looked at me.
Like everything, he said, the Dark Mandevil Bird could be dangerous. It really depended on the situation.
I wanted to hear more about the Dark Mandevil Bird so, while he was hesitating, I waited. The combined effect was very quiet, but also very heavy. It was like an unplayable piano being delivered to a top-floor flat. We both noticed it.
The Dark Mandevil Bird broke the silence for us.
“So,” said the keeper – finally sitting down at the piano. “Sometimes you do hear bad things about these birds in the wild. In captivity they’re different – this guy’s no harm to anybody – don’t worry!”
He patted my shoulder to help me stop worrying.
“The birds are pretty rare, so it’s not like you hear a lot anyway but, still, some people will tell you that they can be dangerous.”
I waited for the keeper to carry on. In the cage, the shadow was getting all worked up over something. It looked as though it was trying to use its claw to remove something that was stuck in its beak. Every time it got close to getting it out, it lost its balance and silently flapped its black wings. I tried to ignore it.
“The last time that one was reported in the wild,” the keeper said. “It was in the news. This little boy was out with his mum and sister when they saw one.
“They were down by some train tracks picking wild garlic. They were down in the South somewhere. I don’t know. The story said it was a really hot day and that they were picking the wild garlic and that, every time a train came along the tracks, they all had to stand back and get out of the way. I remember reading it in the paper because I’m interested in Dark Mandevil Birds and I wanted to know more about them. I remember thinking that the trains sounded much more dangerous than any bird could be.”
I looked at the small green bird in the cage and, for the first time since seeing it, I smiled. The keeper was right. There was no way that that bird could be as dangerous as a train.
“They were perfectly happy, down by the tracks, and were having a nice day in the sunshine. They picked a lot of wild garlic and counted a lot of trains. The boy was particularly happy; the paper made a point of mentioning that.
“It was in the afternoon that the little girl reported seeing the Dark Mandevil Bird. She described a small, green bird sitting on the branch of an apple tree that they were near. According to both the girl and her mother, the bird was very small, very green and chirped the way other small birds chirped. It also, according to their statements, had no shadow.”
I looked at the Dark Mandevil Bird.
“This one’s got a shadow,” I said. “You said yourself, that’s how they are – they’ve got big shadows.”
The keeper looked at his shoes. He looked at them for a long time.
I once had a music teacher that spent a lot of her time looking at my shoes. She hardly ever looked at my face when she was talking – always my shoes. Her name was Miranda. One day I wrote ‘Hello Miranda’ on one of my shoes in Tip-ex. She never looked at my shoes again after that.
While I was thinking about this the keeper must have looked up from his own shoes and started talking again because now he was in the middle of telling me about possible tricks of the light that the paper said might have made it appear as though the little green bird had had no shadow.
“They looked at the bird for ages,” the Keeper said. “Before one of them realised that the little boy was no longer with them.
“They freaked out and started shouting and calling and looking for him everywhere.
“There was a little pile of wild garlic lying on the ground where, presumably, he’d dropped it, but the little boy was nowhere to be seen. After a while, they were just searching blindly, checking the same places two or three times or looking for him in really unlikely places, like under rocks or up trees. The little green bird stayed where it was, sitting in the apple tree, and watched them curiously.
“Anyway, they found him in the end. He was down by the train tracks, next to the mouth of a tunnel. He had his face on the ground, really calmly, like he was kissing it, and he had his neck resting on the track.
“They started shouting and ran towards him. They didn’t know when the next train would be coming through. When they got a little closer, the girl said that they saw the shadow of a very large bird circling the little boy on the ground. In the paper it said ‘wheeling’. I don’t know if that’s a very good way to describe it. It’s too noisy. Wheels squeak, and when things wheel they squeak too. I don’t know. There was no noise though. The paper said that the shadow ‘wheeled’ around him but that there was no sound at all, not even normal sounds like the gravel crunching, and that, when they looked up, there was nothing in the sky but the sun.
“They rushed to get him off the tracks and he was fine. He didn’t even try to fight them. The shadow of the big bird went away and all the little boy wanted to know was where his garlic had gone. He couldn’t tell anyone why he’d behaved the way he had – not even the doctors afterwards could work it out.
“They got him checked out and he was fine. There was nothing wrong with him.
“As soon as they mentioned the bird, though, it became a newspaper story. A passing doctor had heard something similar about the Dark Mandevil Bird and, after hearing their description of the bird, suggested that this might have been what the mother and daughter had seen. I can’t believe you haven’t heard about it!” He said. “It was in all the zoo keeping magazines for months afterwards. The story ran for ages with people trying to trace the bird.”
All the time I’d been listening, I’d been pushing some of the gravel on the floor around with the toe of my shoe. Without thinking about it, I’d dug a hole about the size and shape of the Dark Mandevil Bird.
“So it was the bird’s shadow that made him behave that way?” I asked. I’d had no idea that shadows, let alone birds’ shadows were able to do that. It wasn’t an idea I liked.
The keeper shrugged his shoulders.
“It’s just a story,” he said. “All sorts of normal things become weird if the papers get hold of them. They’re rare birds and there was a little boy involved, so, naturally, people got all worked up about it. I mean, they’re not magic. They’re not predatory or vicious. They’re just stupid birds.”
The keeper said this in a very affectionate voice. I felt as though he was defending the bird in the cage from the story he’d just told.
“This one’s been with us since he was a chick,” he added. “And he’s never caused us any trouble.”
The Dark Mandevil Bird sat on its perch. I don’t know whether it was very interested in what we were saying. It didn’t seem to be. Its shadow looped around the floor of the cage as though it was a black kite. Either that, I thought, or it was like a bucket on the end of a piece of string, doing an experiment on centrifugal force.
“Tweet,” said the Dark Mandevil Bird.
Profile: Joshua Thomas