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)