This story was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
Most summer mornings, before the concrete got too hot, their mother would hand both sisters a bucket of chalk and they would trace around their hands, around their legs and between their toes on the concrete. They would draw all the houses on their street, and all the families that lived inside them. They would draw their mother drinking wine and their father watching television. They would draw the beach, and the sand and tiny rock pools with all sorts of creatures in them. Sometimes the creatures would have twelve eyes or a foot with seven toes, or wriggly little hairs on the tops of their heads that had mouths of their own and could sing the happy birthday song. These mornings were made up of knotted hair, pyjama shorts, pinks, blues and yellows that danced through their backyard in a wonderful chaos, then faded away by the afternoon. Now, they couldn’t see any of those colours, or people, or creatures. Now, the girls could only see the dented wing and the open beak of the pigeon they had hit. That the scooter had hit.
The scooter still lay on the ground beside them. The front wheel, smeared with red and tufts of grey feather, had now ceased spinning. Leftover blood gathered at the base of it in one large droplet before falling to the concrete below. It seeped into the lines between the tiles, and only washed away two winters later.
Both girls stared down at the pigeon, then looked to each other. What now?
In retrospect, they should have told their parents, or perhaps a neighbour. They could have told the other birds to look away, or the ants to scuttle back to their mound between the vegetable boxes and the spot where the concrete began. They could have asked the passionfruit vines to grow over it, to cover it all up, and should have told the sun to stop beating down on the pavement so harshly, baking the poor bird in a summer oven.
Luckily it didn’t smell. Yet.
The younger sister began to crouch down, extending her hand to stroke the bird’s drooping wing. Her curls always smelled sweetly of lavender from the bushes in their front yard – she would spend hours out there flattening the dirt around the flowers to make beds for the weevils – and she was known to always have at least one grazed knee at any given time. After a while, her parents stopped bothering to apply plaster and antiseptic. This was partly due to her kneecaps having developed a thick, calloused layer of skin, a protective sheath made of scars piled on top of scars (so the bleeding would usually go away quite quickly), and partly due to economic reasons: it used up too many Band-Aids.
“Don’t touch it!” said the older girl. She grabbed her sister’s wrist and squeezed it a bit too tightly.
Of course, neither of the girls meant for this to happen. They quite liked the company of the native birds of Northcote – those that flitted between the eucalypts and those that pecked away at the plum trees in their neighbours’ front yards. In fact, there was a particular group that liked to hop around the paved section in their backyard as the girls rode in circles. One sister on the skateboard, one on the razor scooter, and the wheels would roll over the smooth stone tiles in the same small circles, following each other until someone yelled, SWAP! and they would switch vehicles and continue rolling. It was fun when the birds got close. It felt like they were playing too, like they were part of the game. The mudlarks would perch on the side fence, while the mynas and the crested pigeons usually got a bit more involved, walking right up to where the wheels would whip past, and those few light marks on the ground where the breaks from the scooter had scratched the tile. Perhaps those birds enjoyed the fun. Perhaps they liked to live dangerously.
Their Grandma used to tell them not to feed bread to the ducks at Merri Creek. Apparently, their stomachs would explode. Well, that image just seemed too absurd. And even now, they knew that it wasn’t true. Birds don’t explode. They squish. They crack. They squelch. They flatten. They’re sturdy and alive, and it takes much more than a slice of Wonderwhite to knock the life out of them. The girls looked at each other again, their throats dry.
It felt like the sun was getting hotter. The older girl took a blue hair band from her wrist (one of many) and tied her hair back to keep the heat off her shoulders. Her sister looked up at her then, expectant and hoping that her big sister would know what to do from here. Usually, she did know what to do. She liked to think about the superheroes in her dad’s comic books – they were special books because you had to wash your hands before you touched them – and she thought about the heroes that stand with their hands on their hips. The ones that have big chins and muscles to help them defeat the baddies. She liked to think that she was strong like them. But, she thought, this bird looked so small. You didn’t need big muscles to help small things. And, clearly, you didn’t need big muscles to kill them either.
Bending down slowly, gently, the older girl picked up the pigeon. Cradling its neck, she noticed how light it was, how weightless it felt. Was that the key to flying? Weightlessness? Or perhaps that was just a symptom of being dead. Together the girls carried the bird into the kitchen. The younger one selected a tea towel, one of their mother’s favourites, printed with a scene of an Italian streetscape and thick block letters that read R O M E. She wrapped it carefully around the bird in her sister’s hands, and the two of them carried their sad little parcel across the road and down to the creek in silence.
As they approached the stream they could hear the ducks chattering. They were noisy and happy, gliding over the water and bobbing underneath it, but maybe they would have been sad if they had known about the pigeon. Nearing the water, the girls picked some mint bush flowers, vibrant purple and wildly fragrant, and gathered fallen branches, pieces of native brush, and the brightest plants they could find. They adorned the bird with these things, placing each leaf and stick so lightly that they hoped the sky would stop the wind; they didn’t want it all to blow away just yet. Both girls held the bird as they lowered it tenderly into the water. Once released, it hovered in front of the two of them standing solemnly on the bank of the creek, only for a moment, before it was slowly carried off by the pull of the stream. Among the reeds and the soft petals, its wounds obscured by the leaves, it looked like one of their beautiful sea creatures, all wisps and tufts and garbled shapes, slowly drifting away into the afternoon like the rest of them.
That evening when the girls returned home, their father had begun cooking meat on the barbecue outside. Other families could be heard too, prattling happily, yelling across fences and exchanging brief greetings and pleasantries – “Smells good over there!”, “Wouldn’t have a spare pair of tongs, would you?” – the sounds of neighbours all grilling their various meats in the cool dusk air. The girls sat with their parents on the outdoor furniture, eating burgers their father had prepared. All sat there silently and chewed, the meat juices leaking out of the bun and down through their fingers, dropping onto the concrete below. It would wash away later, like everything else.
When it came time to wash up, the girls picked up the plates and brought them to the sink. Their mother had to use an old tea towel to dry the dishes because her Italian one was nowhere to be found. She gave her children raspberry icy poles for dessert, and they slurped them outside as they watched the sun go down, the red staining their lips and the corners of their mouths.
The night was lively, and as the girls looked up to the gumtrees in the house three doors down, they heard the birds call to each other – their soft coos, babble and chatter. It was a song that could be heard through the whole suburb as the birds got themselves ready for bed. ▲
Isabelle Carney is a first year student at the University of Melbourne, majoring in English and Theatre Studies.