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Karen Bateman

First Runner-up

The Infinite Birdcage

Writing Competition

Crooked Heart.

By Karen Bateman


There is life and there is death. It’s that simple. Bookends to an existence, either long or short, but all ending the same way. In the ground, in a furnace, on a pyre, it’s all disposable in the end. Bone dust on the wind, mangy maggot food, fleshy strips in the mouths of vultures. 

I followed the Welcome Swallows at dawn. Across the desiccated paddocks, across the marshland, I watched their greedy acrobatics. I watched them weave through the insect fugs, swooping in figure of eights, in deep dives and short pull ups. Tail streamers catching the early breeze, short beaks funneling food. 

I swoop flew into them and caw cawed at one, then another, then another.  I lassoed around them and under them and through them. I flew further, further, further still. I flew across the paddocks to the drab suburbs. I flew across housing tenements and playgrounds. I flew across church towers, across cities and continents. I flew across rivers and seas and oceans.  I flew to the sun and back. 

Back to the half-dead gum tree on the small rise. The small rise at the edge of a paddock, the paddock at the edge of a small town. I scraddled up the bark with my click clack claws and ruffledy feathers, picked insects out of crevices, ate spiders from curled leaves, snick snacks. I fixed my eyes on the bark wounds. The dark wounds. The knife words of long dead hopes. Rough cast crooked hearts. John loves Ella. Max loves Clair. Teenage fancies, rainbow reveries. Boring, snoring. Half-baked yawning. 

I caught the morning southerly and flew to the trees, to the pale ground near the creek, near her house. I tip tapped on the window, one two three, and out she came and fed me milk bread and fixed me with her glare, her fierce stare, her stone face. I flew, smooth, gentle, up her crepe paper arms, slight nick, no fuss. I placed a feather in her roost, slotted it in just above the tender part of her ear. 

I tell her how yesterday I saw the pretty parrots, screechy and showy in their depthless splendour. Flapping from tree to tree. Such slap dash attitudes, bound to the mirror, chained by their beauty. I told her how in its simplest form, beauty is a curse and a lifelong burden and those who have it are reluctant to give it up. I told her how I swooped them.  I chased them down.  I craw-crawed in their ridiculous ears.  I flew back and forth, back and forth, across the surburban gardens, across the rose gardens, and searched for nest boxes and when I found them, I pecked and scratched and beak-sawed my way in and saw the pretty little eggs, dusky pale, and I crick cracked them open and ate the worm limbed babies. 

I tell her don’t snish your mouth at me, at least I am an honest carnivore, but she shoo shoos me away so I scare the doves from her bird bath and shit on her gardening shoes.

I watched her once, take off these shoes and scrunch her toes into the ground. Push her toes into the dirt and wait, and wait, and wait and hold her palms out to the windy sky and stomp her feet flat hard on the ground and smile a secret, sly smile. An arrogant smile. No crumpled old persons home for her. No shackled death. No fusty rooms and stale cake. Give her the sky! Give her the warm earth and loss and love and pain. Her blood runs hot! Give her the gift of loneliness over the snare of security. I loved her then, in my dark bird heart. In my ancient bird heart.

I perambulate and ramble. I promenade and fluff a bit then at dusk, I flew towards the furious wind. Across the barley grass and lavender, along the stone mouth near the water’s edge, I rode the storm surge, I rode the wind currents. Whooossshh! Along the curve of the southerly, sea spray and salt wind. The magnificent fury! I braced into the rain thrashing wind, flung out my feathers, flung wide my wings and screamed my bird scream. 

Back, back through the rain gleaming streets, past the lamp lit windows where the truth comes out. Where the shifty humans, take off their day faces, their smirky grin day faces. You can’t trick a trickster! I see them come home at the end of the day and remove their grin and bear it faces, their neat as a pin faces and they sprawl! They lounge! They scratch! They leer and lust and belch. They sneer.  They take pills with whisky and look up old loves. They wallow in their blue funk and regret. I see their clean faces, their true faces. You can’t fool a fooler!  


Then on the distant highway, a soft thud. Hot blood on the roadside, splattered on the verge, splattered on the leaves. Fur and bone and flesh. I stuffed my head into the stomach and pulled out the still-warm entrails. Stuffed my head into the brain space and hopped around a bit. I wiped my beak on the grass and listened to the night treats. The papery rusk of the trees, the snuffle of some small creature, slight moan on the breeze. I smelled moss, the mushroomy earth, salt fret on a smoke wind. An owl swooped.

 I soft glide back and clawed at a branch on the half dead gum tree, on the small rise, the small rise at the edge of the paddock, the paddock at the edge of the small town and I listened. I heard the powdery sigh of a compelled moth, I heard the sorrow-bark sigh, I heard the love-past sigh, I heard the little death sigh.  I heard her sigh of ache, of age and loss and I flew.

 I flew under the brilliant concentration of night, the magnificent stars, the slip of a moon, back to the trees near the pale ground, near the creek, near her house. I snook across her pillow and placed a twig, careful, careful, wove it in her roost, between some threadbare memories.  I told her how earlier, by the creek, for a moment the wind stilled and the stones, in their ancient wisdom, sat quietly as the water journeyed back to the source and the graceful willows swayed. Then a flurry of wind, a smatter of rain and a twig broke loose and came crashing and tumbling through the trees, scatter-catting the possums and the rats, rattling the cows and sheep in the paddocks, in their docile slumber. And I tell her how sometimes the idea of fear is enough, is all it takes to scatter cat a forest, a town, a people.

 I beak whisper into her roost, remember when? When you knifed open the oysters, your sun-warmed salty skin, your obedient fingers. The smudge of fire at the beach edge, the cold flash of the midnight swim. Remember your blood running hot. Remember your toes in the dirt. Remember your supple limbs, running, dancing. Remember running with the wind, running along the beach, dancing in the garden, dancing in the kitchen. Remember being at the edge of reason and jumping. And I tease back into her the bloom, the oil, the red sweep of life. And I tell her secrets, all the lovely secrets. I whisper them to her in the night. In her dream ear, in her night eyes. And I remind her again, again, again and again, that she still has wings. She’s always had them. So fly.

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