Monday, January 24, 2011

How To Heal Everything

He looked doubtfully at his wrist, eyes veiled slightly by tears- watery babies conceived in the hurt and ready to slither out onto his fat red cheeks in a messy unnatural display of waterbirth. He wasn’t sure if it would profit him to cry- it always seemed to create a bigger problem- a runny nose, no tissues, damp sleeves and a hoarse throat. Whenever he lost control like that, the panic that someone would see him and he’d be forced to confess that he lacked the ability to tough it out would take away any feeling of satisfaction from opening the emotional floodgates.

So, instead, he watched. Looked at the small frayed cut that split open his skin and had the tiniest of ruby necklaces at its perimeter. Delayed the inevitable- the sting of the cold water that he had imprinted on his mind as a reaction to hurting himself- \Wash it off, make sure you get all the dirt out… His mother’s voice. It’s not so bad. Do you want a plaster? She’d say, keeping her voice calm and moderated, perhaps as a forced measure to calm him, or maybe she really didn’t think it was that serious. No, he’d not wash it just yet- the boy in him wanted to see if he’s bleed to death. Unlikely- it wasn’t nearly deep enough- not like that time at school when bigger kids had tripped Justin Willcox on the stairs, and the cut in his belly had been so deep you could see the yellow fat below the skin glistening like the custard inside the Danish pastries they sold in the tuck shop.

He could feel the breeze tugging at the ragged sides of the cut, the pain made slightly more intense by the cold and he shuddered. No, he certainly wouldn’t die, but if he had, well, that would have served them right. As his ghost, or soul (he hadn’t really decided how those things worked) hovered above his dead body, he’d have had the last laugh as his friends and family gathered around to see the proof that his heart was finally empty, and there was nothing they could do to bring back all the times when they’d told him off or teased him. That’d serve them right. He wanted to say something rude, so he experimented. Dammit, he whispered. The rudest word he could bring himself to say. Dammit, he said again, more loudly, but his dry lips made the word seem foolish and empty.

It wasn’t bleeding. So no arteries. Well, that was good. Granted, he’d just snagged it when sliding out of the tree, heading home to bath, so it was hardly a potentially fatal injury, but boys usually took the most fantastically circuitous route home in their heads, and he was no different.

Do you want a plaster? She said again, in his mind.

He didn’t think so. He was so active that a sticking plaster seemed to have a very short lifespan on his body. Within hours of being smoothed over a cut, flesh-coloured and stretchy, the thing would be peeling back over itself, dirt ingrained into the twists, and even the cut would be black with dirt. He’d pull off the last remaining sticky bits, which tugged at his downy body hair, leaving exposed a small patch a little whiter and oddly damper than the rest of him.

No, he didn’t want that. He wanted to see the blood turn black. Later, in bed, he’d worry at the scabs until they came loose, and hopefully, in time, he’d have a scar. He’d wait for people to ask him where it came from, and the story would gather density like a snowball- it would start something like the truth- a tall tree, a dangerous slip- and end up being a death-defying dive through the canopy of the rainforest, huge tropical spiders and snakes scattering to either side as he plummeted to the safety net of the dank forest floor.

If he was really honest, though, he wanted her to come back. He wanted to hear the words which seemed to undo pain, darn up holes in his soul.

Mummy kiss it better?

He was growing up, now, and he knew that those words were just words, and not some charm handed down in the maternity wards of hospitals, but he still wanted to hear them- knew, deep inside, that unless he did, the hurt would never truly heal.

He wished he could hear them. Just one more time.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Icarus Personnel Agency

It took many hours. Hunting in the heat, with the relentless white disc radiating down on him as he dragged his sack across the coarse rocks and thorns. The thorns were as randomly placed as mines, perfectly camouflaged against the orange sand and the shadowless dirt. The sack had no handles, just the open abrasive neck which stripped the skin from his cracked hands. Hauling it everywhere, everyday was a reminder of a riddle he’d heard as a child- one he had no inclination to find amusing anymore: Which is heavier? A ton of feathers, or a ton of rocks?

As he collected the feathers out on the plateau, then down onto the plains, he knew the answer. A ton of feathers was heavier. A ton of rocks would take a half an hour to collect, but a ton of feathers meant a slow trudge across unforgiving miles of wastelands- back and forth, back and forth, bending to squint at what seemed to be barbed quills, but what turned out to be just husks of dried leaves: ghost plants.

Now, many people would have surrendered to the sheer drudgery of the task within a day or two, but Russ never even considered giving up. There was no other option. The markets didn’t sell what he was looking for, and nor did he have money to buy it. Instead he fixed his mind on the grid he had created. From the flat buttes in the North, to the windswept anthills in the South, he crisscrossed, crisscrossed, crisscrossed.

In the time he’d spent in the wilds, he’d become an outcast. A man no longer, but a shadow, barely human, the dust of the desert seeming to want to convert him to dust even as he lived. If you saw him at rest, which he did when the heat overwhelmed him, you saw nothing but a forlorn rock, and nothing helped to shake that image off until he twitched in the sun, a fly spiraling off his ear, perhaps, or a scorpion tickling him with its inverted malevolence.

Yes, he was single-minded. He’d watched how it was possible: In the orange and purple dawn, he’d see the eagles against the sky near the cliff-faces. They’d float like black sheets of ash, lifted by the currents and masters of their surroundings. They’d dwell in unapproachable eyries, and raise their young off the flesh of small skittish creatures that unsuccessfully tried to hide in shallow burrows or clefts in the rocks.

He’d spent so much time watching these masters of the desert, and knew that he was owed that freedom. There were the eagles- magnificent, yet insensible- and there was he- capable of invention.

He didn’t lack much- there was nothing to lack out here in the void, and so little distracted him from his mission. One day, as suddenly as it had started, it was complete. He took the sack, now worn almost through by constant dragging, and looked inside. Thousands of black eagle’s feathers lay together- inside the sack it was like looking into a starless night- the darkness seemed infinite- and yet as he plucked each single feather from its dark sanctuary, he was able to add it to his masterpiece.

After months of weaving- and half blind from peering through dust-scratched eyes at wefts and weaves, it was complete. Taking this treasure made from the discarded currency of others, he climbed to the top of the flattest, tallest mountain overlooking the widest, most desolate part of the plains, and stretched out his arms. His eagle’s wings tapestries unfurled beneath his worn, bird-bone arms, and he followed their actions precisely. Lifting his head to the sun, he leaned into the currents, and stepped into the air.

A small gasp seemed to blast through the desert valley, a puff of dust rising from the foot of the cliff. The hot wind nagged and worried and blew at the pile of feathers there, scattering them to the widest, furthest parts.

Out on the plans, a young man strode. He was strong, proud and hopeful. Behind him he dragged an empty sack, but he knew what he had to do, and, even though there were discontented voices within, he argued with himself that surely it was possible- not just possible- but inevitable- that he would succeed.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Little Brown Jobs

In response to this request: “2000 words on sexism in avian communities in the Northern Hemisphere” which was some kind of writing test meted out by a friend:

Little Brown Jobs

You may be an amateur ornithologist. I’m not. But if you’re a reader (or your teachers at school forced you to be) you’ll have a little knowledge of birds. More than you realized. Whether you are hanging upside down on the bottom-most curve of the globe, or teetering at the top with the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, you’ll be familiar with certain species of bird even if you have never seen them.

In nursery rhymes and children’s stories there are robins, blackbirds and thrushes. Wagtails, gulls and even chickens and geese flock about those pages, whose ragged library spines flutter with feathered words and bright illustrations.

You’ve heard about birdsongs and can tell the difference between raptors and waterfowl. In fact, many of you even eat eggs every day for breakfast without considering the ancient sacrifice which has made that possible.

For most of us, however, ornithology stops at the endless pigeons which mill around town centres, or the flighty, nervous dips of little ones into our gardens. We may see a duck or two on a longer drive, and, occasionally, something which could (maaaaybe) be an eagle, or a hawk (or a crow) planing across a blue sky in silhouette.

That’s normal. Most of us take for granted the presence of a certain amount of wildlife around us, and could care less about their migratory patterns or the origins of their popular or Latin names. Those who take the interest any deeper seem to be doomed to hover on the fringes of society, unable to share their learning with the ignorant.

This isn’t about that. What I hope it will do, though, is help you to take a quick peek into the way birds can, in a way Hitchcock understood, be sinister.

In birder-speak, you get something called “little brown jobs”, or LBJs. Those are those hard-to-spot, yet common creatures that flit about gardens, hedgerows and meadows with predictable frequency. They don’t have amazing tail feathers or striking plumage, they just look like, well, birds. Brown ones. It takes great skill to be able to identify one species from the other, and most of us aren’t up to learning it. Who really has the time to study behavioral patterns or different birdsong pitches? Anyway, the fact is, LBJs are everywhere. Agreed?

Now. Think of the birds you can identify. Amongst the species you can pick out of a crowd, you’ll recognize certain features- songs, patches of colour, and nesting habits. Here’s the point: Most of the birds you can identify- you’re thinking of the male of the species. A female blackbird, terdus merula, is not black. She also lacks the striking yellow bill of the male. She’s brown. You know I’m right- the female of the species is not necessarily more deadly, but certainly more dowdy, than the male. Take a chicken, for example. The cockerel is assigned gubernatorial powers in the barnyard- he struts and lifts his chin to less significant fellows, his head crowned with a crimson mass that would be ridiculous on any lesser bird. The female chicken- well- she just darts around pointlessly, stabbing at seeds or worms, until finally she disappears to lay eggs or into the pot.

Let’s face it. Brown is not the new black. Brown is just, brown. Whether it’s dark, rufous, rusty, ruddy, beige, fawn, sandy or rich chestnut- it’s brown. It has a brief time of popularity on the catwalks of Europe during the Autumn collections, but then it’s swallowed up by reds, yellows, oranges, greens and blues.

The leftover crayon is always brown.

What’s odd about this trend towards the browning of the females in bird species, is that it’s opposite to what we do as human beings. Men’s clothing in most department stores tends to be in various conservative shades of brown, while women’s collections tend to embrace explosions of pinks, purples and reds. We are not birds. To state the obvious. We do our posturing, as men, on sportsfields and in bars, and it has more to do with loudness and brute strength rather than our outer appearance.

So why do female birds put up with it? They should be heading to the parliament of owls and handcuffing themselves to the fence, only handcuffing is tricky when you have no hands. They instead seem to be there to flatter the males with their bloated chests and outrageous songs during the mating season. They hide behind the tangled twigs and sticks of their insecurities while the males bully each other out in the open.

Too often it is the female who is left warming the nest and the eggs while her mate is off sniffing the plumage of another, and, sometimes, he doesn’t even bother to make her a nest, but leaves her to parasitize the nests of others, as in the case of the cuckoo.

I like this quote about the Bearded Tit, panurus biarmicus: “The male has a pale blue-grey head with a conspicuous black moustache extending down below the eye. The female’s head is plain brown.”

Or how about this one, about the Greenfinch, carduelis chloris: “The female is duller than the male, and lacks the bright yellow markings.” Plain. Dull. Lacking. There’s something sinister about the use of those words for something. You don’t immediately get upset about them, because they seem to be true. Who gets upset about plainness? Who gets worked up about something dull? Well, it’s an insidious evil- to condemn the entire female population to being just boring. Too boring to defend or describe. The writer of that book may as well have said “The females are just too boring to describe- brown, brown, brown. Yaaawn.”

So why does it happen this way? Why should some birds lose their entire names to the male population. She isn’t a female peacock- she’s a peahen. While you’re all leaning over trying to get him to fan his obscenely colourful butt so you can pluck a keepsake, she’s just beaking around the bushes trying to find food. Nobody is making table decorations using a peahen’s feathers.

Is this something that can ever change? Human beings can, by force of will and some resilience to being mocked, pioneer new styles and fashions. Women can be leaders in terms of appearance. Women can construct society so that they can work, mother and play in greater and greater extremes, and not necessarily to the detriment of anyone around them. Birds are just birds. You can read about birds in antiquity, and, with a time-machine, dump them in your gardens and parks and not see a single difference. They aren’t socially evolving or adapting, they’re just staying the same.

That’s comforting to a degree- what you see is what you get- but infinitely sad, too. Until brown is imbued with value in the currency of attraction, the females of most bird species will be condemned to a back-seat role. The males will swoop and strut and sing their way into stories, novels and films, but the females will do nothing more than warm the nests that nurture even more males.

Think of your friends amongst the birds- the wren, the pipit, the swans and herons. Picture the swallows, the warblers and the chaffs. Remember that behind every successful male bird is a dowdy brown mess, quivering with a beakful of worm on the nest. Is it too much to hope that the female revolution will take place? That brown will be replaced with the shimmering blues and purples of the underbellies of mating males? That brightness and excitement will be the clothing of the future? Maybe all it will take is for one small brown female to buck the trend and the pigment genes and sprout a crop of green tailfeathers. Let herself be expressed, and the males be damned!

Let the females not just be the little brown jobs of the little brown jobs.

It wasn’t 2000 words, but it sure felt like it.