by Nick Norton

Rats on wings Dad calls them. One claw will have two toes, all gnarled like hooks, another will have just one remaining. Some toes look puffy and swollen as if the scales are ready to pop off. I think the birds eat each other. Perhaps they just eat their own claws. Dad says they can produce milk all year round, which means that the young birds are breast fed. Why eat feet when there is milk to be had? The pigeons without claws must be orphans.

Mum told her friend how I liked to feed the pigeons and her friend said that they carry lice. Sometimes a claw is raw, and the dirt sticks to it. Might that be why? In their frenzy to reach the seed and cake and bread they will nip at each other’s feet. They do eat each other, only it’s accidental. They’re close to starving. Impossible for them to let a single crumb pass. One I saw yesterday, its left leg looked like a ball of chewed over bubbly gum. Its other leg was fine. This bird must have stood in a pool of acid. Dad was shouting about that. The rain is acid and it will eat us up.

Some look all glossy with greens and pinks in their slate grey plumage, these seem remarkably well fed. Others can’t cover themselves even when they fluff up their feathers. They look oil soaked and thin. There’s one I see every time Mum takes me through town. Its legs have gone completely. It wobbles on its belly, sort of using its wings as crutches. It’s never been able to take off, not while I’ve watched. Mum always wants to drag me away, says it is disgusting. But even the scraggy rat birds with raw wounds on their long reptile necks will pick on this one. They try to peck out its eyes. I chase them so they all arise in a great flap. They set down a few metres away and watch me feed the bird without legs. To make sure it gets all my sandwich I keep stamping my feet to shoo back these hopping, twisty clawed bullies.

I have soda bread. Dad cooks it every week now and Mum doesn’t mind me throwing it to the birds. She told me to take as much as I wanted. She was slamming cupboard doors at the time. She said we would let Dad think we all loved the stuff. Slam! It tasted too salty; dried up my mouth as soon as I put it on my tongue. Proper sliced bread is not allowed. He has banned all detergents also.

The pigeons have spotted me. They are corkscrewing down, spinning out from the fronts of buildings. Feeling small and dizzy, I stand still and allow this flapping cloud to descend on me. The swoosh and crack of wing, the deafening rattle of their cooing chests. I half shut my eyes, hair whipping around my face in the commotion. Birds thump onto my outspread arms and some even jab their uncertain weight onto my head before scrabbling for the food. I have emptied two whole plastic bags of torn and crumbled bread. A gritty dune heaped around my ankles. More birds are descending. Crumbs are falling out of my hair, seeping from holes in my jacket pockets and from in between the creases of my shirt. I open my flies and shed stale crusts. My trousers fall to the pavement and a frenzy of beating wings raise a flicking mass of flaky pastry. I sink amongst the cracked wheat of my body. Skin erupting in dusty coughs, I fall forward beneath the birds’ fury, palms slapping the concrete paving slabs.

And it has lost the feathers from its chest, raw pink flesh above its two brown stumps. On knuckled over wings the bird heaves towards me. And its beak is sharp, with stabbing motions left and right it clears a path through the tumbling rat birds. And they have destroyed my thighs and will not stop pecking. My good school jacket is streaked with bird lime. I roll over, deafened by clacking beak and cracking wings. And in amongst a stinking swirl of feathers, raised on fleshy wings above its stumps, I see the King of Rat Birds staring down at me. And his eye is red. And milk flows from his naked breast.

Recent prose by Nick Norton may be found in Shooter, Bird’s Thumb, Zeno Press, Epoque Press, The Fiction Pool, Storgy, The Cabinet of Heed, Idle Ink, The Happy Hypocrite, and elsewhere.

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