by Richard C Elder
strong black coffee with plenty of sugar
In the garden of the house opposite mine, there’s something small and bright in the unkempt grass. It’s not moving now, but it was; that’s what drew my attention. Maybe it’s a balled tissue rocking in the breeze. There it is again: small flicks and turns within the forest of shining green blades. Could be a mouse. The woman who lives there, Liz, she’ll want to close her front door. Ah, not a mouse, a bird, a small bird. Its wings blurred but it didn’t fly.
Then I see the cat. It’s lying on its back in the garden next door, dozing in the August sun.
Coffee slops over the rim of my cup when I set it on the window sill and make for the hall.
Two adult house martins are swooping in turn to the mud pellet nest in the gable of the house, feeding their brood. Earthbound, the chick stumbles through grass and daisies. The martins spot their offspring and scythe through the air above it but never land, fearful of the cat, respectful of its ability to hook even the quickest and slam them to the ground.
The cat stirs, opens its eyes and watches the martins fly. Rolling onto its feet it takes a spine-cracking stretch: front legs and claws extended, back bowed. Pulling velvet lips back from needle teeth it opens its jaws wide and yowls. Now it begins a slow, loose-limbed walk down the hot tarmac driveway, shoulder blades popping up and down, its black head swiveling from side to side looking for anything of interest. For the moment the chick is safe, screened by a small shrub.
Running across the road I shout at the cat, ‘Leave it be, go on, leave it, sisssssssssssss!’
Mere inches from the chick the cat drops to its belly in the grass, glaring at me, its white-tipped tail metronoming with irritation. It doesn’t retreat until I’m very close. Hunkered down I focus on the bird. It’s quiet and unmoving, looking at me with black pinhead eyes. The cat waits less than six feet away. I think to lift the chick, take it to safety and nurse it back to health. Then I see the infestation of insects, like armoured spiders, scuttling across the blue-grey plumage covering its head and back. I try to flick them off but they’re attracted to my fingertip, rushing toward it, thirsty for blood.
This tiny creature fallen to earth is exhausted and beaten, on its way from what should have been to oblivion.
There’s a length of wood stuck into the soil of a planter near my elbow. It looks like a piece of brush shaft. I pull it from the soil, feel the weight. It’s about eight inches-long. The cat waits, yellow eyes wide and staring.
There’s no one else on the street. Grass shifts and rustles in the warm breeze. Dart-shaped shadows streak across the tarmac and the martins cry, powerless and distraught. Their hearts and mine are breaking. Whispering, ‘I’m sorry,’ I raise the stick and strike. The chick convulses and flips over, revealing its snow-white breast. I strike again and it stills, its body deflated and limp. I push it under a vibrant azalea and go home, sick to my stomach.
The cat creeps forward and sniffs the bird, then lopes away.
Back in my kitchen, I fill a tumbler with water and down it in one. My hands are trembling. I can’t get the bird’s death throes out of my mind.
‘Saw you over the road, Mum, in the lady’s garden.’
Turning from the sink, I shake my head as my eyes fill with tears. She rushes to me and throws her skinny nine year-old arms around my waist. ‘Mum?’
‘I’m okay, love. Really. A little bird died.’
‘That horrible cat. I saw it lying in the grass. I hate it.’
‘No, Caitlin, it’s a cat. They don’t know any better.’