the horn bird
Our cat, Maurice, had been chasing a horn bird. We knew because he came home one morning with that tell-tale welt on his inflated belly, a huge wound that looks like an eye. He sidled his proud, sassy self through the open French doors, sank into the shade of the breakfast table and twisted onto his tortoiseshell back to show us his stomach. There was the scar for all to see. He looked like a frigate bird inflating its scarlet neck. Like a peacock splaying its tail. Like a baboon who is unaware of its startling arse.
“Look!” squealed Mama, craning over the top of baby Maisie chewing and chugging at her breast. “Look at Maurice’s tummy!” If she’d been in any position to do so, Mama would have leapt to her feet.
Little Chrysal looked up from the meticulous demolition of the last Easter egg to survive into the melting month of May. She licked a chocolaty finger and delivered the diagnosis. “He’s been after a Horn Bird.”
Even Pa made the rare move of folding down his broadsheet barricade to examine Maurice. He was itching to set Chrysal straight, but found he could do nothing but nod. “So he has,” he said, with his usual avoidance of all inflection and modulation. “So he has.”
“Well, what are we going to do about it?” wailed Mama. She couldn’t raise herself from under the 16 lb. guzzling weight of Maisie, so she raised the decibels instead.
“What do you want us to do about it?” said Pa, shrugging behind newsprint.
“There’s nothing we can do,” intoned Chrysal.
“Nang nang,” said baby Maisie, sliding off Mama’s nipple with a slippery smack.
“But my poor baby Maurice! My poor, poor thing!” Mama yowled.
“He’s no baby, darling; he’s a hunter, a killer,” corrected Pa. “You’ll do well to remember that.”
Maurice, all slit eyes and smug grin, drew up his paws to his chest and pretended not to notice he was the center of attention.
After that, Mama started wearing a strange hat and staking out the catflap. She set up a chair by the French doors and kept watch with a cup of chamomile tea (for her nerves), a copy of the English Heritage newsletter (for the pretense of reading) and a pair of brand new binoculars. When Maurice made his entrance – either an elegant one through the open doors, or a clumsy two-paws-then-two-more-paws squeeze through the catflap – she marked it in a flowery hardback notebook. There were three columns to a page – ‘time of entrance’, ‘mood on arrival’, ‘evidence of conjugation with Horn Bird.’
“Is Maurice a verb?” asked Chrysal, peering over Mama’s shoulder.
Once Maurice was in the house, Mama stopped fanning her beaded brow with the English Heritage newsletter and thrust the binoculars to her eyes. Through the glass of the French doors, she searched the skies, the shrubberies, the lawn, the skies again, for signs of a Horn Bird. She never spotted one. We all knew Maurice had been with one though, you could tell by the smile on his mottled chops. Mama just couldn’t bring herself to accept the fact. She pored over Maurice’s body language, searching for other excuses for his newfound fruitiness. She consulted books.
“Ah!” she exclaimed, extracting her set square nose from 52 Ways To Understand Your Cat. “Number 39! He’s just hunting sparrows!”
“Sparrows?” said Chrysal, who sat at the kitchen table making gemstones by dangling paperclips in alum solution.
“Look at the way he’s sitting!”
Maurice sat at the mouth of the catflap in an unremarkable postprandial puff, surveying the beating heat of the garden with a sated disinterest.
One of Maurice’s ears made an involuntary owl-like turn at the sound of food.
“And how do you explain the scar?” asked Chrysal with a barrister’s guile. “Sparrows?”
“Ah!” said Mama, before succumbing to an “um.”
“Sparrows are extinct,” announced Pa, timing his pedantic entrance to the second.
“Oh,” said Mama and inserted her nose back in the book.
“That book must have been written before all the sparrows died,” Chrysal said to Pa. Father and daughter exchanged a solemn pursed-lipped moment for the deceased sparrows.
“And before the killer heatwaves destroyed all of nature’s footholds at the equator and the Horn Bird escaped and arrived here,” said Pa, trying to be educational. Or trying to score a point. One or the other.
“Here? Where!?” shrieked Mama, catching the end of their exchange. She scrambled for her binoculars.
“You’re in denial,” sighed Chrysal.
“Ung-gah!” said baby Maisie, but Mama was too preoccupied to hear, or to feel the milk seeping through her hemp cloth blouse.
Chrysal sighed again, pushed aside her jam jars of burgeoning gems and found a bottle to plunge into her sister’s bubble-blowing lips.
Then Maurice disappeared. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence. He often absconded for days, only to be found on our patio, splayed out in the sun like a chalk horse on a hillside, as if nothing had ever happened. The odd thing about this particular disappearance was that Mama didn’t seem concerned. Maurice’s growing obsession with the Horn Bird had wound her up like a ballerina’s bun. Overnight she had shook herself free. As soon as Maurice vanished, she gave up her seat by the French doors, let baby Maisie play with the binoculars and replaced her fretful silences with singing. Songs that no one recognized rang out through the kitchen, with Mama playing fast and loose with tunefulness.
“See, darling. I told you,” said Pa, without stopping his eyes from playing tennis across the pages of the foreign news. “There’s no need to be on guard for that Horn Bird…”
“Blee!” squealed baby Maisie, naked but for a nappy, sitting on the floor and shaking her new toy at a chubby arm’s length.
Mama stood perspiring joyfully at the range, continuing to warble and poking at the 21-egg omelette in the pan.
“…Maurice is a grown-up cat,” Pa went on, “he can handle himself…”
Mama sipped at a nearby glass of papaya juice, the ice cubes threatening to vanish before she was halfway through her drink. She lifted the edge of the 21-egg omelette to check its progress.
“…And you know how they say it is when a cat gets its mind set on a Horn Bird…”
Mama braced a sturdy arm, ready to flip the 21-egg omelette.
“…It’s not like some mouse in a hole, or some nest of blackbirds…”
Mama looked up at the ceiling as the 21-egg omelette went skyward.
“…You have to just let a cat pick up the battle scars and work it out for himself.”
Mama looked down at the checker-board tiles as the 21-egg omelette bellyflopped at her feet.
We all fell silent, even Pa, to honour the bubbling puddle of yellow spreading across the floor.
It crept toward our toes.
Chrysal had the bombast to break the silence. “So where have you hidden Maurice then, Mother?”
“Rah-rah-na!” said Maisie, smacking the binoculars up and down in half-cooked egg, sending a splatter of omelette onto her big bald head.
Mama refused to crack, but three days later the smell of Maurice’s litter tray led us to the wardrobe in the second-best guest bedroom.
“Ha-hah!” said Pa, triumphantly casting the doors wide open and gesturing the way to freedom with the rolled up arts section.
“Poor Maurice!” cooed Chrysal, bending down to coax our cat from his dark prison of broken clocks, demijohns and one-eyed cuddly toys. He needed no such encouragement. Maurice slalomed through our legs and Chrysal’s waiting arms with greasy speed. Tail down, ears flattened for aerodynamics, he careered out of the room and headed for the stairs. We left the shuttered coolness of the spare room and watched him make his slinky descent from a vantage point on the landing. He disappeared from sight into the kitchen and we heard the click-slap of the catflap. Then came Mama’s shrill cry – “Maurice, nooooo!” – followed by the harrumph of backside hitting chair seat.
Then the sound of sobbing, growing, quavering like an outboard motor. Even out of view and from this distance, you could tell there would be plenty of snot.
“Did you see Maurice’s fur?” whispered Chrysal as we stood rooted behind the banisters.
We’d all seen it. How could we have missed it. Usually an unfinished jigsaw of tortoiseshell, his white patches had started to take on a rainbow hue, just like the sheen on petrol. Just like the feathers of a Horn Bird – a simple white at a glance, but in reality a many colored temptation at the turn of a tail. Underneath it all, a snowy Horn Bird can be as vibrant as a Toucan. Maurice had contracted that contagious shade. No wonder Mama had turned jailer.
“Well, now we know for sure what that cat’s been up to,” said Pa.
“He’s obsessed; there’s nothing you can do,” said Chrysal, as if someone had asked her for a solution.
“Meena moh!” came Maisie’s voice from the kitchen below. Our attentions flew back to the emotional flood rising downstairs.
Freeze-framed on the landing, we waited to hear which way Mama’s sobs would go. For one moment, their rhythm changed and anyone would have assumed they were about to come to a spluttering halt. But then came an almighty mucus-fuelled primal scream.
“It’s… hic… not… blub… faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaair!”
The hallway resonated along with Mama’s tonsils, sending a curious waft of air up the stairway, ruffling the palms of the cheese plant on the landing. Chrysal nodded sagely in the aftermath, the edges of her pudding-bowl hair settling straight again once the gust had gone. “She’s finally accepted how it is.”
“You can’t question nature,” said Pa, taking to the stairs, scanning the theatre reviews as he went.
“You can’t fight it,” agreed Chrysal, making heavy feet of it in Pa’s wake.
And by the sound of Mama’s resurrected wails she had indeed made that painful decision to give in. Just like she accepted that sitting on an unchecked toilet seat made you prey to a Redback or a dip in the sea risked a brush with a Man O’ War, now she accepted what it meant to share your shores, and your cat, with a Horn Bird.
A Horn Bird will hide in the shrubland looking as serene as a heron, its throat as elegant as an egret, the jolly comb of a cockatiel upon its head. Then once it has lured its cat, its fox, its stoat or its weasel, it will lengthen its dinosaur neck, its crest bristling with anger, before sprouting horns and challenging for a duel in the sky. And there’s nothing no man can do about it. That’s just how it is.
Mama cried for three days solid and on the fourth day her diaphragm spasmed from dawn until dusk. The sound of those hiccups, as regular as a metronome on a slow plod, became a reassuring soundtrack to the day. In the evening, when the last of the sunlight was sucked back under the French doors, the spasms stopped and everyone checked themselves, feeling something was missing from the house.
To celebrate the end of her tears, Mama made a vat of hot chocolate. Her nose, still dribbling after 72 hours of constant blubbering, dripped every so often into the bubbling brown mixture. Eyes glazed, she stirred the dribbles in and to keep the peace we all pretended not to notice.
Maurice had spent the afternoon curled up in Pa’s sock drawer, chuntering in his sleep, as if speaking in feline tongues. But as we sat supping in chocolate-moustached unison, he entered the kitchen. Delirious and still gabbling, as if sleepwalking, Maurice posted himself through the catflap. Only the fluorescence of his eyes, hot and aroused, confirmed he was truly awake and walking with purpose.
We all watched Mama as she watched Maurice. No one dared bring a cup to their lips.
“More vanilla essence next time, I think, don’t you?” said Mama at last, licking chocolate from her teeth. And we all smiled and nodded back. Even Pa, who was obviously suppressing the urge to suggest a smidgen more nutmeg. In fact, Pa would probably have given in to his compulsion to speak out if it hadn’t been for Chrysal leaping up and standing on her chair.
Gone were all thoughts of vanilla and nutmeg, as we took in the scene in the still-warm dark of the garden.
There it was, the Horn Bird, Maurice’s Horn Bird, luminous on its perch in the gnarly chestnut.
“Wow,” said Chrysal.
“So that’s what they really look like,” said Pa, forgetting to know everything for a moment.
“It’s…” said Chrysal.
“It’s…” said Pa.
“Doo na-na!” said baby Maisie.
“Isn’t it!” said Mama.
Maurice was cutting a swath through the foot-high lawn, a commando in the grass, belly low, eyes set on the Horn Bird, his jaw juddering with the promise of what was to come. He seemed convinced that his approach had gone unseen, but it was soon clear that the Horn Bird was wilier than that. Before Maurice could make it to the base of the tree, the Horn Bird made her descent. Giving us the full effect of her enormous wingspan, she spiralled down to the ground, bracing her broad, clawed feet for a possible landing – or attack. Maurice was left with no choice. He had to pounce. His soft paws with hidden claws were left grasping at stars as the Horn Bird twisted away at just the right moment.
We drew closer to the French doors, our breath growing more rapid, steaming the glass. The light rebounding from the down of the Horn Bird was intoxicating. We could see why Maurice could not resist.
The Horn Bird was treading night sky above our cat, unfurling the crown of feathers on her head, two sinister knots of bone as sharp as skewers emerging from within. Maurice was entranced. Powering up his hind legs with a purposeful jiggle, he propelled himself higher than we’d ever seen him leap before. Higher than the lip of the bamboo cabinet in the hallway, higher than nextdoor’s Clematis fence, and this time the Horn Bird was within grasp.
It was then that Maurice began to fly, as we always knew he eventually would. Goaded on by the Horn Bird, who effortlessly spun free of Maurice’s claws, the pair turned and tumbled in the sky, going upwards and upwards, challenging the stars and the planets with their glare.
Chrysal’s mouth was gaping.
Pa hadn’t noticed he was dribbling.
Maurice and the Horn Bird somersaulted higher and higher, until they were nothing but a dot of brightness in the sky that eventually popped to black. The garden fell dark.
Eventually I broke the silence.
I was the one who spoke first.
“We might never see him again,” I said, close to tears.
Mama took her eyes away from the sky and looked at me, the first time she’d really looked at me in weeks. Chrysal and Pa, and even baby Maisie, turned to see me anew with flabbergasted faces.
Mama tipped her chin to the heavens once again and smiled.
“But did you see how beautifully he flies?” said Mama to me. “Oh my, how beautifully he flies.”
julie mayhew is an actress and writer with a novel on the boil but she just can’t stop writing short stories. She has co-written two comedy plays, both staged at London’s King’s Head Theatre, and also works as a freelance journalist for websites, magazines and the UK national press. Her fiction has appeared in The First Line and Litro, and been read at Tales Of The Decongested at Foyles Bookshop, London. She lives in Berkhamsted, UK.