We’ve been having encounters with birds.
Orphaned on restaurant tables. Dying contentedly in the street. Swirling like an airborne spin cycle round the Courtyard of the Lions. Adorning the skies above Tarifa in tiered rank – by echelon; the eagle, the vulture, the hawk and falcon, the kestrel, the stork, the swallow.
They hang over the hills, hovering in strong head winds; flit amongst the houses, amongst the trees; glide over the water, pad along the sand. Arced flight paths are etched into the air above us like a web woven in three dimensions – a net of intersecting curves and turns. Their song is the music of our days; melody in even our silences.
It’s a bit annoying. A proper silence would be nice from time to time.
The terrace is covered in shit.
At least in the cool, pleasantly dim rooms of our thick-walled apartment we are safe from the swooping, singing, feathered, shitting things. This is not their domain; it is ours. Until today that is.
It started this morning with a sound.
I turned to K to ask her where she thought it had come from but she was already looking back at me and she had her “we have a problem” face on. It’s always “we”. She doesn’t have an “I have a problem which I am going to go ahead and deal with so you just sit there” face.
“We have a problem.”
I put my pen down and sighed heavily, despairing of what was to have been my Sunday.
“There’s another little bird. It’s got itself stuck in the cold sink.”
The middle of our building is an open air courtyard; too small to use but a blessing all the same – it ventilates the rooms with the cool air it traps. The window in our hallway opens on to it and I leant out and looked down. Next to the leafy palm were two starlings – one of them very little – on the bright green rubber paint surface. A mother and a baby. They were deep in conversation.
“Klaagh! Klaagh!” said the mother.
“Klaagh!Klaagh!Klaagh!” said the baby.
“Klaagh!” said the mother.
We looked at each other across the outside of the window. The little one launched itself upwards in a desperate flurry of wing flaps but the space was too narrow, too vertical. It bounced off the wall and landed next to mother again.
“Klaagh!” said baby.
“Klaagh!” said mother.
“Klaagh! Klaagh!” said baby.
The mother flew up to roof level – just above us – and disappeared from view.
“Klaagh!” she yelled from somewhere up there.
“Klaagh?” said her baby.
“Klaagh! Klaagh!” was her reply.
Another frantic take off, another bump.
It went on like that for a while. We leant back in. A nice day of course was inconceivable under these circumstances. Something had to be done; one look at K was enough to tell me that. She wasn’t about to have another bird bite it on her watch. No sir.
But there was a problem. Only the apartment below ours had access to the little courtyard at ground level, and that apartment was occupied by four chaps who had arrived home – singing – at eight o’clock that morning. It was now ten and the singing had stopped.
I watched as K tied two sheets together and hung them from our window.
“Maybe it can climb up. Worth a try”.
Feeling that we shouldn’t rely entirely on K’s sheet plan, I kept my eye on the little bird and spotted it squeeze through the wrought-iron grille and on to the internal staircase.
“Give me a shoebox”.
I crept down to catch it but it saw me and hopped back outside. When I got upstairs K was leaning out of the window again talking to someone below. She was trying to explain that the bird couldn’t take off vertically enough to get out of the shaft. Then she stopped and leant back in and looked at me.
“What? What did he say? Is he trying to get it?”
“He said ‘fucking birds’ and shut the window.”
I silently wondered whether he had been referring to the starling. Dammit! We were alone with this now. I glanced at the sheets.
“What are we going to do?”
“Let’s sit down and think. Give it an hour or so. We could feed it something.”
I sat down and K went looking for something to put a little water in. When she came back she didn’t have anything and she was on tiptoes.
“Over here” she whispered, “it’s come upstairs.”
We went to the front door and opened it a crack. The little bird was just across the landing, looking for all the world as if it was waiting for somebody in the next apartment to answer the door. In its desperation instinct had kicked in – Up! What does a bird know about steps? And yet on each one it had obeyed the imperative – Up! Now here it was. If we could chase it up the next flight of stairs it could get onto the roof and into the open air. I readied myself. This was my moment.
The instant I moved my subalterno handed me a towel and I lowered myself down three steps to the landing in one fluid motion. My movements liquid, my stance defiantly proud; I began to circle it, instinctively loosening my fingers to release the fold in my muleta and let it drop to the floor. I eyed my adversary, brooding in its querencia; that part of the arena where the animal feels safe – in this case, next door’s welcome mat.
They can’t help you, little one.
Everything but it and I had faded away – we were aware of only each other; estornino y estorninero. I could feel my heartbeat synchronising with its, my breath quickening. Was that music I could hear?
Now what? I had to make my pass and get the measure of this creature, but which pass? A veronica, a revolera or molinete? A chicuelina? A farole? A gaonera? I moved in and steeled myself once again. With an almost imperceptible tug at the towel/muleta I performed el flamear – the shaking of the red rag to provoke my foe.
And up it leapt! The beast was riled! How many estornineros, I briefly wondered, have lost their lives at a moment just like this? Unaware. Cocky. I stood my ground. There was no fear. Ok, a little bit. But I stood my ground!
At this point the little bird’s Up! Instinct deserted it and it flew straight into our place. It seemed on the face of it like a very poor decision that would further complicate the day.
So now here we are. I step back in and click the door shut quietly.
There is a starling in the apartment.
Not for long. It takes a couple of bounces off the living room wall, and a couple off K. Then it lands – fortuitously – on our little balcony. I step over and close the glass panelled doors behind it. We stand watch over it like concerned parents.
It sits on the edge of a plant pot and flexes its wings ineptly. This isn’t looking good. I have visions of a fatal plummet. My heart is in my mouth for the little thing. Is it any wonder I can’t eat chicken?
It is just one step from either freedom or death. One tiny decision.
It isn’t going anywhere. Maybe it’s exhausted – I go to get it some breadcrumbs. When I open the door to toss them in its direction it makes that decision and leaps from the plant pot into the open air. For a couple of feet it dips and flaps and struggles and then the old voice speaks – Up!
I hope I can make that decision when it’s my turn to leap – I hope instinct kicks in. It rises on its own steam till the end of our street and then takes what is probably the first left turn of its young life. When it disappears from view it is still going in the right direction – up.
“Klaagh!” it calls.
“Klaagh!” calls Mom from somewhere on our roof.
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