The urban bestiary
The old man watched the junkie returning on early morning streets; he reached for his notebook. The rare flightless bird, not content with life on the ground. He looked intently at the arms for new scabs and sores. The exotic plumage changed regularly and keeping his notes current was a constant effort. He bent to the task as the junkie scratched through its pockets for keys and let itself into the unit across from his.
His beard itched.
He poured another splash of Scotch into his cooling coffee and watched the dew beading inside his kitchen window. The world outside shifted uncertainly through the frosted surface. As a boy, he had once put a lead soldier in his mother’s oven just to watch it melt. Things slowly lose their shape the longer you stare at them. They run at the edges, become hard to define, until they leer like the creatures out of penny dreadful’s.
His beard itched. A line of ants marched their way down his kitchen wall. Eyes forward. Antennae wave, probing the air. Mute horror. Crawling slowly, inexorably forward. Never looking behind, never looking up. Honing in on some silent frequency. Following a trail of decaying crumbs, their insectile eyes vacant and staring at the top of their stalks.
King George Apartments swarmed. Over and through the building. Eyes everywhere. The building thrummed with ragged purpose. Copper veins rattled. Parasites marched back and forth, slowly devouring their host. It crumbled away from them. Loose bricks and rotting concrete fell away from their touch. The parasites searched, their vacant eyes devouring the incautious.
He pulled his dressing gown around himself and carried his coffee with him outside. Itch and copper veins. He sat on the bench outside his crumbling bedsit. His beard itched and copper veins rattled. Eyes forward. One foot in front of the other. Don’t look up.
The young mother stepped from the shadows of the building. The infant on her hip pulled her hair as she struggled to unhook the pram wheel, which had caught on the fly screen. Eyes forward as she manoeuvred the pram down the internal stairwell. Her shadow fell across him. Itch and copper veins.
Look forward. He grabbed for his notebook and scratched at it nervously.
There was an edge of desperation behind her smile.
Strange birds and flights of feathers, he wrote.
The common Peafowl of the Phasianidae family was originally found in the regions of India and Sri Lanka but can now be found in all areas of the world. Peafowl were imported along with gold, silver and ivory, considered a great treasure. The peahen is recognisably distinct from the peacock due to its drab brown feathers, a sharp contrast from the vivid display used by the peacock to attract the peahen.
Eyes forward. The young mother smiled again and walked away from the brick and copper monster, the pram screeched noisily. Crumbling… itch… no more bets… It crouched, watching, under a dangerous void that threatened to swallow everything. It kept low to the ground.
From beneath the shadows of sleep the monster crept into another day. Light streamed in through the dew-frosted window. He shuffled to the kitchenette and turned on the kettle. The world outside leered. The flightless junkie appeared at the window opposite his. The old man reached absently for his notebook but the junkie had disappeared again. In another minute its door had opened and the junkie appeared leaning against the frame. A greasy grey sheen covered its face. It looked down the wet slicked road then stepped back into the shadows. New sores had blossomed overnight on the junkie’s arms. Purple stains now reached from its elbow to its shirtsleeve and dark rings had gathered under its eyes.
Footsteps echoed loudly on the morning streets. The junkie’s eyes moved quickly to where another creature approached; similarly clad in bruises and sores. The new creature stopped outside the junkie’s door and held something up in front of its face; the junkie grabbed for the small plastic envelope but it was lifted out of reach. The junkie scratched in its pockets and offered up some bank notes to the creature. The creature ruffled through them frowning. It shook the notes in the junkie’s face. He had been wrong to think this was another flightless bird, he wasn’t sure what it was. Its neck and face had erupted chameleon-like in a brilliant red hue. Its meaty fists swung into the junkie’s stomach, who fell to the ground. That’s it, keep low. The new creature wasn’t content; it put its boot to the junkie. Eventually it stomped away, tired. The old man felt sick. Eyes forward. The junkie lay twitching slightly in his doorway as the building began to wake.
A middle-aged creature in an expensive suit slowly climbed the internal stairwell, its heavy footsteps echoed through the building. The old man watching from his kitchen window reached for his battered copy of “what bird is that?” He had been watching this one for some time but he hadn’t yet decided. He brought young women here in his expensive car. ‘For Sale’ and ‘Home Open’ signs spilled out of the expensive car’s boot. Perhaps it was some kind of Bowerbird collecting pretty things. Or a Cuckoo, they hide their eggs in the nests of other birds, leaving children scattered over vast areas to be raised unknowingly. Perhaps it was a Lovebird? He flicked to the entry:
This affectionate parrot of the Psittacidae family is named for its behaviour, the mating pairs show great affection caressing each other with their bills and remaining in closely-knit pairs. Previously thought to mate for life the Lovebird is kept in cages as a romantic reminder of commitment. Recent DNA studies have shown that given the opportunity around 30 percent of the lovebird’s offspring come from partners outside of the mating pair.
The creature in the suit looked over his shoulder and let himself into unit No 9, which had been vacant for months. Definitely an infiltrator, an exotic peacock misplaced in this setting. The old man scribbled furiously in his notebook. Soon a young girl approached No 9, soft young flesh wrapped in a cheap suit. She stood in front of the door and knocked three times in quick succession. The door opened and the creature pulled her inside.
The sun climbed high over the gently crumbling building, but its warmth never reached the darkest corners of the brick and copper monster. The void leered and insect eyes scurried everywhere tearing apart the seams of meaning that settled in intricate patterns, like a fine layer of dust. Somewhere an old man swept the halls, coughing phlegm into the morning while the dust rose in clouds around him. Inside an itch was building, throbbing in his veins.
The door to No 9 opened and the creature emerged with the young girl; she turned her back but it grabbed her by the arm before she could walk away. It pulled her towards itself and whispered something in her ear before releasing its hold; she retreated. The creature watched her go.
As the shadows again started to lengthen the young mother emerged from inside the building, an infant on her hip and tugging a young boy by the hand. She took the children a few doors down and knocked. A busty, open-faced woman opened the door and ushered the struggling boy inside. She returned and took the infant off the young mother smiling broadly at her. The young mother tiredly copied the smile and turned back towards her own unit. The old man scratched at his notebook. And copper veins itched.
The old man watched the street expectantly. Soon enough a new creature appeared, middle-aged and a little rough around the edges. It looked around nervously, then back down at a piece of paper it held in its hand. As it knocked on the young mother’s door a single feather floated down the internal stairwell. Flights of feathers wrote the old man tiredly. The door had been opened and the man entered.
Not long later he emerged. Tucking his shirt into trousers he hurried out of the building. The young mother stepped outside, her eyes vacant. The old man scratched at his notebook. She walked slowly back to the door of the older woman who took her by the shoulder and walked inside with her.
The old man took his coffee outside. Copper veins rattled deep inside the monsters rotting shell and parasites crawled across his vision. He sat watching the shadows lengthen.
A young student walked towards the building its plumage covered in anti-nuclear slogans. He reached for his notebook. And as it climbed inside the brick building he copied down its markings. They would change soon enough as it learned to imitate its peers. Feathers would fall. Our wings were the first to go, so we would learn how to crawl, but eventually there would be nothing left.
The old man sat waiting. He scribbled in his notebook:
There is nothing left. And the parasites crawled across the rotten carcass, its skin stretched and drying in the midday sun. Eyes vacant and staring at the top of their stalks they devour everything. There is nothing left. Slowly, patiently they gut the monster, unwind its tangled mystery and offer it up to the sun. There is nothing left. Bones itch and rattle inside their hollow cavity. And there is nothing left.