We flew so long across the desert I thought we would never make it. The flight was exhausting for all of us. We kept asking each other if this was possible, the distance seemed to grow longer every year. It was getting more difficult to reach Europe. The desert stretched endlessly with no tree or grass to rest and yet we still had the sea to cross. By the time we reached it, some of us were already too tired to continue. But my partner and I held on. I looked at Robin, he seemed tired and worn out. I was worried we might not make it, but tried to be strong for him, tried not to complain as we all took turns at the front to push our way through the skies and then at the back, where the flapping of the wings was easier. I tried to stay in front of Robin as much as I could. The birds in the front cut through the wind which creates a path on which the others glide smoothly.
We finally landed in Portugal. It was early spring when reached the nest we had left the previous winter. It was still there, hidden in the bush of a pleasant garden. We liked that garden for it had a cabbage patch with many juicy worms. I was looking forward to a dainty feast after such a long time with so little food and rest.
I noticed my companion had become very skinny. He had barely recovered from the journey back to Africa last autumn after his injury. He still bore the scar a cat had left him in this same garden, at the end of the summer. It had not healed properly, and I was perhaps overly concerned, though I never told him.
The only trouble with this garden was that it belonged to two cats. One of which did not represent too much of a threat. It was a tabby cat that just enjoyed sleeping amidst the mint leaves or standing guard at the door of its humans. But the other one was a vicious black cat, so dark we could barely notice it at night, save for the little white spot on its nose and its long white whiskers.
The cat’s humans added a bell to its collar after my partner got caught last year. I remember I was frantically flying around and calling for help. A kind human managed to pull him out of the cat’s mouth. I guess the bell was to protect us, we could then hear it coming and fly away before it had a chance to get at us. But the scar on Robin’s back still showed where a tuft of feathers never grew back.
One of our chicks was also eaten while taking his first flight out of the nest. I watched helplessly from a distant tree as he soared up the sky before plummeting down, right in reach of the black cat. I stood on the tree branch, too terrified to help, and witnessed my chick being snatched away, unable to save him.
I gazed at the garden in awe as we finally fixed our nest with new leaves and branches. The flowers were blooming beautifully. Worms were building galleries underground. The broccoli already had big heads and the lettuces were slowly growing. The parsley had not been picked and had turned yellow with big stems. Passion fruit flowers spread their fruity scent. A few bees buzzed around, but spring had not come yet. The grass was wet and overgrown. So was the hedge. The leaves had grown back on the trees. Even the palm tree had new, smaller, and greener leaves to it. The gate was still broken and probably still creaked. Some clothes were hanging outside to dry but were drenched from the many showers. The clouds were heavy and grey. We could smell the leaves, the flowers, the rain, and the sea breeze, somehow, better than ever. Somehow it felt invigorating to be here. Yet, I still felt the sharp pain in my chest as I pictured the spot where my chick had dropped. How could we still call home places that conveyed such grief?
After a feast of worms and a restorative sleep, I glanced around to make sure all was safe. This spring looked different, I realised. There was stillness in the air. All was quiet. Human machines were all stopped, and windows and doors locked. What was going on? Usually, streets bustled with humans but only very few of them were outside and they were standing in line apart from each other and covered in layers of clothing, hiding their faces, moving carefully, and ignoring one another. Their attitude had changed, it seemed very odd. Humans were normally like ants, frantically walking in the same direction all together, doing the same thing at the same time.
Suddenly I spotted lots of cats at a street corner, eating from a big plastic bowl a human put down for them. How many were they? They seemed to be coming from all over the place. Most of them looked scrawny and unkempt, but some looked like fat housecats seemingly out of place. Some started to fight over scraps of food. There had always been a few stray cats in this town but never that many and never so close to our stream and our garden. They often stayed with humans because that was where they got most of their food.
-Robin! Come over, cats are here! Loads of them! I shouted. Robin was washing himself in the stream.-What are they doing? Where are they? he inquired.
-Out there, a human is giving them food. Where do they all come from? There are more cats than humans, that cannot be!
-Stella, if they are well fed, they won’t chase us, so why do you worry? he asked after swallowing a big gulp of water.
It irritated me. How could he still be confident after what had happened last year?
-I don’t know. Something’s going on. I feel it. There are more cats than ever. I can hear them. Listen! They are fighting. You know what this means? It means danger! Where do they all come from?
-With this weather, I’m sure they’ll go back to their humans soon. It’s quite wet and they don’t like that. They only come out in the sun.
-They’re all out now! Something isn’t quite right, I’m telling you. I can smell it.
-Stella, I know how you feel, you haven’t forgotten that black cat, but this is our home. We flew a long way to get here. Where else would we go?
He flew up to me and wrapped me up in his wings. I knew Robin was trying to reassure me and I felt safe with him so close. We stayed still for a while, quietly staring. We were hidden from predators, but we were so small, we did not have claws or muscular jaws to fight off our enemies and we had not completely recovered yet from our journey. We had to eat well and gain strength. I needed to make sure he would be alright. I held on to him. I could feel his heartbeat, a soothing sound. I closed my eyes.
-Maybe we should ask Vinicius. He understands human.
-He does. He speaks it too. At least that’s what he says.
-Should we go and find him?
-Let´s just enjoy the view for a while. Nothing’s going to happen now, no one can see us here. We’ll go to Vinicius later, ok?
Vinicius was a green parrot. He had been brought here from a faraway land. A place he called Brazil and we had never seen. Over there, many birds looked like him. Here he stood out. He was different, so colourful, even humans stopped and admired him. He had spent years in a cage, unable to fly, and had learned to communicate with humans. He could imitate their sounds. He knew how they lived, their habits. One day he managed to escape and fly away but by then, he had become quite acquainted with their ways, he was almost human himself and had forgotten how to search for his own food or how to build his own nest. So, he decided to go back to his humans. They were so pleased they no longer locked him in a cage and let him fly about freely. He always came back to them for food and shelter as well as for a chat. He was proud to know their language, and all birds respected him and thought him incredibly wise indeed. Whenever he was asked to tell us what he heard and what humans were up to, he just shrugged and said they only talked rubbish and lacked intelligence, nothing they ever did or said was worth mentioning. All the birds always nodded in approval for Vinicius truly knew the ways of men.
Determined to find out what was going on, the next day we both flew to the telegraph pole the parrot liked to sit on. From there he could see all the way to the sea and his green feathers stood out against the blue sky and above the grey wires. Vinicius looked happy to see us.
-Hey, my little friends! It’s good to see you back. Stella, you’re looking good.
I knew he was saying that to be polite, I still felt tired and ragged. Vinicius gave me a big hug. I was so small he could cover me entirely in his strong emerald wings. The tip of his wings were bright yellow and three bright orange feathers shone on the top of his head. He was proud and fearless.
-Vinicius, is something going on here? Things feel different, I asked
-Do you feel it? Take a deep breath… Isn’t the air fresher?
-It is! I answered. Robin sniffed and looked at us doubtfully.
-That’s because the humans stopped going out, Vinicius told us.
-Why? Inquired Robin
-They say there’s a disease spreading. It’s killing a lot of them. Particularly the old ones.
-Isn’t your human old?
-Oldish, I guess… she won’t let me in anymore. She just leaves me some food at the window. She’s worried I’d contaminate her. I can’t figure out why, if you ask me. The disease came from a bat, not from a bird. But you know… humans! They can’t tell the difference. A tiger got it too in some far away land. That’s why they’re throwing all the cats out of their houses. They don’t want to get infected!
-Cats are not tigers, that’s ridiculous! laughed Robin.
-That’s why they are so many of them, I said.
The thought of it frightened me and I flew to a nearby branch.
-Don’t worry Stella, not all humans do that. Some have a bit of sense, shouted the parrot.
Robin asked him if dogs were kicked out too. But Vinicius explained that their humans needed the dogs to go out for walks. They probably felt safer with them. Maybe the dogs protected them from that “virus”.
-What’s a virus? asked Robin, coming out of his reverie.
-That’s what they call the disease. It’s a tiny invisible creature that seeps into their bodies.
Vinicius always liked to use important words he picked up from the humans to sound important, forgetting he always said they only spoke nonsense.
-What do they do inside the bodies? Robin insisted.
-They make the humans extremely sick. Many of them die. Then the bodies are stacked over that hill, added Vinicius as he pointed to a distant place.
-To burn them. That’s how scared humans are. They burn their own kind.
-All that because of a bat?
-A bat they ate, would you believe it?
-Humans eat bats? asked Robin doubtfully
-Oh, they eat anything. They’d even eat you if they had nothing else.
-How can an invisible animal do that? I don’t believe you.
-It’s not an animal; I told you: it’s a virus.
-Enough, thank you Vinicius! I shouted from my branch.
I did not want to learn more. That was enough to frighten me and if humans too were scared, then it was truly something terrible.
I watched Robin and Vinicius chat casually, as if that bit of information were of no importance. Then Robin joined me and told me not to look so worried. It had nothing to do with us. We were safe. We flew back discreetly to our nest, one at a time, going first to the palm tree, then to the chestnut tree down to the rose bush and quickly to our nest. We had to be careful and keep it hidden from predators.
-We must tell our flock, I cried.
-Stella, why are you always so dramatic? You overreact, said Robin sternly.
I looked down at the garden and stopped talking. I did not want to argue with Robin. He was the only one I wanted to be with. I hugged him tightly. Our bodies kept each other warm and the smell of the fresh leaves and branches we had gathered filled the air and I lingered a while in the heartening scent. I had to trust him and stop worrying so much. This was our garden, our bush. We knew our way around it. We were small and the colour of branches, we could hide easily. Here we had water and plenty of food. The air smelled purer than ever and I loved to listen to the sound of the water running down the stream. I could sometimes see a fish swimming peacefully. Last year humans laughed and splashed one another there. Dogs liked to play in the water too, and cats usually kept their distance after a few attempts at catching the fish. Cats hated water.
Days went by. We never mentioned what Vinicius had told us. We just went on with our daily lives and waited for the warmer weather.
One morning, I awoke to a strange desperate cry. For a second, I thought it was my chick, that he had not been eaten after all and was there, calling for help. What gave me this foolish impression? I flew in the direction of the noise. It came from the balcony of the nearest house. The one where the two cats lived. The second I stood on the edge of the balcony wall; I realised my mistake. It was no bird. I glared at the black cat sitting and chirping in a corner where it could not be seen. In a flash, it left its corner and pounced on top of me. I could not even let out a scream. I could not breathe. My whole life flashed before my eyes. How could I have been so gullible? Instead of fleeing, unable to move, incapacitated by my own body’s instinctive reaction to freeze in response to danger, I lay there like dead in the most terrifying darkness. The cat dragged me around the room, playing with my body as if it were a rag. I could see my own feathers flying but I could not feel anything. My mind had left my body and was watching my own death from afar. But my time had not come yet.
The door opened. A human came in and immediately spotted my feathers scattered around the room. It ran to the cat, hit it, shouted things I could not understand. I felt so dizzy, I did not have the strength to reach for the window or find a place to hide. The cat was chased out. The human slowly came to me, hushing in a soothing voice. After fumbling around for some time, it finally picked me up and put me carefully in a box. I was trapped. I thought I heard Robin’s voice from outside. He was calling me from the partly open window.
I tried to answer but could not utter a sound. I attempted to flap my wings and fly to him, but there was not enough space and I only hit my head on the box. My left side felt numb. I tried tapping my beak on the lid of the box, but it was not loud enough. I needed to let Robin know I was still alive. What would he do? Was he going to take care of the eggs in my absence or abandon them to look for me? Would he manage alone with three chicks? I felt so worried and lonely.
A sharp blade punched some holes into the lid, maybe intended to allow air to breathe but terrifying me even more. The light streamed through the holes like flashes of lightning frozen in position just like I was. I had no sense of the passage of time but gradually, my frozen state of fear melted enough to allow me to move from my unnatural prone position onto my feet. In my struggle to right myself, I was able to use my right wing, but the other hung limp by my side, useless and nothing but a source of searing agony. I looked at it in disbelief. A bird that cannot fly is an easy target and has no chance of surviving.
My box was lifted, and the lid taken off. Beyond the edges of the box I could see the bars of the cage which was to become my home. The human’s claws closed around my body and no amount of pecking with my beak on its flesh was able to stop it. It tried to be gentle as it lifted me out of the box and into a cage. It was also gentle when it touched my left wing and taped it in a folded position which eased the pain for me.
In the house, I could smell the cat’s presence in the distance. My left wing hurt when I tried to move it. I was scared. I tried to call Robin, but it was pointless: How could he hear me? And he would certainly be killed if he tried to rescue me. I checked around the cage. There was something soft and cosy like a nest and at the other end there were some seeds and water. It seemed like this was going to be my home from now on.
As time passed and they brought me food and water, I gained some trust in the humans.
Sometimes the black cat with the white whiskers would peer at me from outside the door, but the humans never allowed it to enter. I heard its terrifying chirp, pretending to sound like a bird. Where did it learn to do those sounds? every time I heard it, I forgot I was in a cage and instinctively tried to fly away and banged myself on the bars of my prison. Fortunately, the humans were careful and always closed the door behind them. They placed my cage high up on a shelf away from their dazzling lights and never let the cat in the room. I spent my time observing them. I noticed they did not leave the house at all which I thought strange because last year I had seen them outside many times.
Only one of them occasionally left, with its face completely covered and changed clothes when it came back in. Vinicius had told me about the clothes. Humans covered themselves in different fabric every day and shed it off before going to sleep. He said it was because they had very few hairs and no feathers to protect their skin. They seemed to need extra protection now with all the layers the human added before it went out. Each time it came back, it brought in food and wiped every item before letting it into the house. It was a very strange habit. They even did this on food they would then give me. Sometimes they even took me out of the cage and back in the box. When they put me back in the cage there was always a new nest and fresh seeds. But every time it terrified me, and I could not get used to their strange practice. I had no idea how long I had been trapped. I had lost track of time.
The human that occasionally went outside fell ill. It stopped going out and just stayed in the room. Its tone of voice changed. It would often let out a throaty sound that shook its body. It was clear from its hoarse voice that it was unwell. It sounded like something uncontrollable, its body was bent over every time it let out those horrifying noises. It was impossible for me to get used to that loud bark that always took me by surprise. The human once had such a violent fit that I thought its mighty body would explode like an overripe fruit. As time progressed the other humans also started to sound wheezy but by then then the first one could no longer lift itself up from its prone position on a sofa where I could see it. Just like me they brought it food and water, but unlike me, this human did not get better. As I felt the pain in my left wing wane and started to move it again, I heard the human gasping for air. I could not figure out what was troubling it so much. It did not seem to have any broken bone. It had not been attacked. One night, the gasps became rapid like panting and yet shallower and shallower until it was taken away by human-shaped creatures entirely wrapped in white fabric. Those creatures were terrifying. They had no eyes and moved rapidly. What was going on? Was it the disease Vinicius had warned us about? Were they taking it to the hill to burn? Was this what they had in store for me too? Were they keeping me here just to watch me die? What kind of creatures are the humans? They trap us and heal us and yet watch us die…. They show care and destruction in equal measure.
The other humans continued to feed me, but I felt sadness all around. Their eyes were red, and their sounds were different. I did not understand their words, but I could see that they were suffering, and it frightened me. What I did grasp was that they were locked in and they were anxious, too, just like me. We were the same, I was trapped in my cage and they in theirs. One of theirs had be taken away and had not come back yet. I could feel pain and grief. I had to get back to get away from here. Something was wrong. What could a mighty human be so worried about?
Vinicius had warned us about the humans. If even they were powerless against a tiny virus, what chance had I got? It would probably spread. Maybe these humans had gotten ill because they had not chased their cats away like so many others had. Maybe I was carrying one of those tiny viruses in my feathers too. I despaired and even though my wing was healed, and I could stretch it out without pain now, I lost all interest even in food.
Finally, one of the humans took my cage away from the dark shelf and put it on the windowsill. The warm sun on my body felt so good. I had nearly forgotten what it was like. I looked up and the sun nearly blinded me. It shone so bright. Spring had come at last. I let the warm air caress my wings. I opened them to warm up and stretch my bones. I felt stronger. The human opened the little door of my cage. I did not know what to do at first, fearing it might be a trap, but it released me back into the garden. After my initial joy to fly to a tree in search of Robin and our nest, I understood that the humans had tried to save me, so I went quickly back to the human to thank it. I saw it watch me and smile. Then I soared through the sky, free at last.
Robin was in our nest. He had taken care of everything in my absence. He jumped up when he saw me, and we hugged happily. I had longed for this moment. I was back in time; our eggs were soon to hatch. He said he knew I was alive for he had often pecked at the window and the humans had put out seeds every time. He had stood guard by the wall for a while only to fly away each time the black cat came out. Once he was there, trying to peek in through the window when the black cat pounced on the car next to the wall. He had heard the bell just in time. He noticed the cat was angry and went to fight the other one, the fat tabby cat that never bothered us. After a while, Robin stopped waiting and went back to mind our eggs. He only left the nest to eat and drink from time to time. He had to keep the eggs warm. He looked somehow stronger than before. I was proud of him. I did not know what I would have done in his place, alone with all those cats prowling in the distance. Then I told him what I had been through and how the humans had saved me from the cat and what had happened to them.
Robin told me I was brave and that we were going to start a new life and we would be more careful from now on. He helped me settle in before flying out to get us some food. I watched him take off, tried to relax but then, as I looked around at the empty streets, I noticed other white covered human-shaped creatures going into a building. I shivered as I remembered the human that had been taken away and had not come back yet. Those white creatures must have had something to do with all that.
I freaked out. I had three eggs in my nest. That was too many. How would I take care of those chicks? The same thing that happened to those humans could happen to us too. I could be infected too, having spent so much time with them. They might also be eaten by one of the cats again before they ever learnt to fly.
In a moment of despair, I pushed one egg to the edge of the nest with my beak. It was about to topple over, only one little branch was keeping it from falling. At that instant, I felt Robin push me away as he held the egg back with his wing.
-What are you doing?
-I ’m not ready for this, I cried. I don’t know if I can go through this again!
-You are just scared and confused after what you’ve been through. We will change, we will be careful and take care of all our chicks. They’ll grow into strong birds.
-What about the cats?
-We are fast! We can fly. You are braver now. I’m happy and I’ll help you. We are survivors. Did we not escape twice already?
-We did, but what about the virus?
-That will not affect us, I promise you. If it did, you would have died from being in contact with them.
Gently, Robin pulled the eggs back into the nest. I buried my face in his neck. He looked at me with a saddened eye. Was it sorrow? Had I disappointed him?
-I’m so sorry. I’m not strong enough, I whispered.
-You are stronger and braver than you believe. How many of us get to go inside a human house and come out to tell the story?
I did not want to know. I wanted to forget cats and pain. I stood quietly at one side of the nest. I did not tell him he was the brave one. He had not let me down and he had tried to find me. I couldn’t be sure that I would have done the same for him. I tried to convince myself we would be fine. We would take care of our chicks and teach them to fly.
Strange Spring, What we wrote in self-isolation, Short stories collected by Anette Pollner, available at : https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/56393984-strange-spring