Highly Commended short story: Feathers

The little body lay in the cup of my hand. Finches are very light. Her green and grey feathers were a maze of intertwining threads making an intricate web that would keep her warm, dry and in flight. (I shall call this creature ‘her’ because I have no way of knowing the gender and so I will give her my own).  I had heard the all too familiar deep thud on the windows of the turret from the kitchen. I was bottling beetroot and some of the beetroot juice from my cradled hands stained this little bird’s feathers. It is that time of year when young birds think they can fly through the turret as they are able to see through the windows on both sides and I believe, they don’t see the glass. Perhaps it would be better if I didn’t clean those windows so well. Anyway, they fly straight at it and that sickening thump means I will find either a body or a stunned bird amongst the buxus at the foot of the turret. When I picked her up she was warm with one bright bead of an eye open and the other partially shut. I put my free hand over the top of this little bird, the same way as I have done with plenty of others in this predicament. Those who haven’t broken their necks that is. As she lay there I could note the amazing beauty of her being and the delicacy of this little bird’s features. A hard, piercing little beak the colour of horn, the stick like legs held straight back at the moment and that criss-cross of intricate threads that made up her feathers. Those feathers stood away from the body and that gave me some hope for this little one. With her cupped in both hands I took a seat on a lounger on the deck and began the wait. It could take up to twenty minutes for these birds to recover and all I can do is give them safety and warmth while they, hopefully, ‘come around’. It doesn’t always work.

The day was hot and clear. We have had sunny weather for some time now and the grass had begun to crunch under my feet as I walked about. It had dried out that much that it breaks. Our few sheep were finding very little new growth but they had plenty of acres in which to find it so they weren’t in the trouble of some livestock. My little patient made the slightest of stirrings and I blew warm air onto her body through a hole in my hand-cocoon. I kept this up for a while as I thought it would give her extra warmth which I knew was good for shock. After a while I started stroking her head and neck and kept blowing down on her. I had to lift her to my face for this and used an open mouth to direct my warm breath onto her. Then cover her again and wait.

Our cat, Tom, wandered by on his way to the water bowl under the apple tree. He had a short drink; his ginger fur spiking about his shoulders as he dipped his head into the cool water. He was a favourite of ours, born on the property and was still a kitten in many ways even though he had seen his first year. Sprawling in the sunshine, racing up the trees, following us down into the paddocks and sitting lion-like in the long grass. I didn’t like him sleeping on my gardening hats.

My small bird moved. Both her eyes were open and she was making some attempt to move to a more comfortable position within my hands. I helped her wiggle about. She made no attempt to do more than that and I felt she was happy to keep within my safety house for a while yet. I got up from my seat and wandered into the vegetable garden. I wanted to see the progress of a dozen larkspur I had planted yesterday – how were they handling the heat. Still my patient nestled there, quiet, content. She was quite alert now. I noted how the pumpkins were travelling over the tomato plants and made a mental note to ask Ted to cut them back.  Another small movement in my hands and I lifted the top hand off for a moment. No wish to go, so I covered her again.  By the time I was over by the new hedge of manuka, planted some three months before and finding it tough in the hot conditions, she moved again, showing more strength this time. I lifted my hand and after a moment’s hesitation, she flew out on a low flight path, heading for the bush of gum and mimosa trees. She disappeared but not before I could see that she was flying comfortably. I smiled, turned and went inside. I would tell Ted about her at dinner.

The next morning was again fine and warm. I opened the back door and Tom and his mother were there pleading for their breakfast. Then I noticed the small form of Tom’s catch of the day. It’s head was missing, but its feathers had the colour of a little beetroot.