It’s not yet dawn and there’s screaming coming from my backyard, that’s right, actual proper screaming.  I should just close my eyes, I think, and do what I always do when I can’t sleep: recall the time when I was happiest, a boy on holidays in the mountains, only the smell of pine needles for company.  But the screaming – it doesn’t stop.

I must get out of bed, I must see what’s going on.

With this recent warm weather and all there’s been no need for bedclothes, so I grab a towel from the bathroom, wrap it around my waist, and then fumble my way down the hall.  I open the backdoor.  More screaming, though I now realise that it’s better described as screeching.

My eyes adjust.  The tin garden shed to the left.  The small patch of lawn.   Then I see it, at the base of the Hill’s Hoist.  It’s football-sized.  And brownish.  Off to the right is something else: Cat the Ripper.  He must have escaped from the house by using a series of ropes and pulleys to climb up and out of the chimney.  Perhaps.

But that shape.  Keeping a hand on the rim of my towel, I step over to it.  It’s a hawk.  Or an eagle.  It’s badly injured, of course.  When I get down on my haunches to have a closer look, I see that it’s not a hawk or an eagle – it’s a chook.  Fangs for Brains must have somehow broken into a neighbour’s run.  How Mission: Impossible of him.

My hands are too delicate to do what’s needed at a time like this, so I go into the shed and look around for something, anything.  I find a mattock.  Don’t ask.  I go back to the half-bung bird.  It screeches some more and tries to flap its wings.  I screech too, and flap my wings.  But I am a man, so I pick up the mattock and swing it high, look away, close my eyes, screech again, then bring it down hard.  Thud.

I take a peak.  A motionless chook.  Oh thank God.

But then the bloody thing shoots off across the lawn.  I run after it, screaming at the top of my lungs (could it have been this that I’d heard before, due to some kind of nocturnal time-warp caper?).  Over and over, I lunge the mattock at the flailing shape, the towel sliding to my feet and then leaving me completely.  The Ripper’s left me, too.

After a few circuits of the yard, the bird gives up the ghost.  But then the ghost comes back for Round Three.  Screeeeech.

Realising the mattock was always a bad idea, I return to the shed.  There’s a cardboard box.  And this is what I think: the bird won’t see me or the stars, it won’t see anything, just endless black, it will think it’s dead and it’ll die, if it’s covered – the things our brains come up with!  So.  Back outside, I carefully place the box over the bird.  Then, stark naked in a suburban backyard, I rest a foot up on the box like all great hunters do, and I look into the sky and listen to the night slowly but surely coming to an end.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, March 22 2008)

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