He was a birdcatcher. He caught birds and gave them to pet shops and zoos and private animal collectors. He fished the skies with invisible nets, and kept his quarry in bamboo cages. The place he fished was a migratory path, so he never wanted for variety.
He did not think himself a cruel man. He would pull each bird from the net by hand, shushing them, cradling them, making sure they knew he would not hurt them. He called the birds “sweetie” and “darling” and spoke to the caged birds as he did his household work. He ate simple meals and lived in a modest hut far away from other people and thought his a fine life indeed.
He caught tropical birds and native birds and introduced birds and admired them all equally. He did not own a single book, but he knew some birds by sight. He had to. One could not sell a shrike like a finch. Sometimes he could not identify a bird by sight alone, and sometimes he released those. But some were far too beautiful to pass up.
On this day he thought a piece of colored foil from a candy wrapper had flown into his net on the wind. Even when he laid hand on the golden bird he barely believed it. The thing was not just a bright color, its feathers had precious iridescence. There was a small comb on its beak, and its talons were long and unkempt. A male, he thought. The king of birds.
That tickled what little fancy he had. He collected the other bird in the net, a plain brown little thing, and brought them inside in the same basket.
He had a large cage for parrots and the like, he put the golden bird there. The brown bird went into a cage with others of its size, finches and tanagers and on. They immediately clustered together in the corner. The golden bird (the bird-king, he decided) had nowhere to hide. There were no nests in the cages because he liked to see the birds from all angles. Bird-king’s plumage was too big. It couldn’t move well around the cage. He fed it a mixture of dried insects he gave to all birds and poured water in a dish and left to go tend to his nets.
A storm was darkening the sky. On his small motor scooter, he suddenly felt very small. He hadn’t seen the storm brewing that morning. Compassionately, he thought of the birds still in the nets and revved the motor.
A medium-sized black bird was halfway through an opening in the net. He had never seen anything with such oily black feathers.
The bird twisted its head to look round at him. Its blind white eyes gave him a start. The bird let out a chuffing distress call as he twisted it out of the net. He held it carefully, afraid of its serpentine neck and sharp beak.
The bird surprised him in another way. It puffed out its breast feathers, revealing white reflective patches that mimicked a face with bared teeth. He nearly dropped the bird. Instead, his hands slipped and the bird’s wings were free. Now as it flapped he could see more iridescent patches, something that looked like slashing claws as it flapped. The shapes made an uneasy feeling in his stomach. He let the bird go, watched it fly erratically as it chittered like a bat.
Moving down the net, he saw a flame-bright bird with a small, nondescript grey head. No, he realized as another head rose from the opposite end, two birds.
The smaller clung to the bright bird like a small child, nearly invisible in the plumage. The larger bird had bright yellow eyes and violet cheeks, and it fanned out a bright red crest as he approached.
The smaller bird was not stuck in the net, he realized. It clung to the larger bird, but it would not leave. Was it a mother and child?
No. Years of experience had taught him that it was the males who flaunted bright plumage, to attract and distract from their plain mates. He laughed as the little lady flitted away and back again. He had never seen such a pair before. Perhaps if he set the male in a basket, the female would follow.
No. As he lifted the male from the net, the female flitted out and back again. Her beak must have been razor-sharp, for she opened a gash on the back of his hand. He cried out, dropping the male. Both birds took wing, the female orbiting her mate.
The next one was a duck. He rarely sold a duck as a pet, and he would never sell a bird as food. So he had no intent to capture it as he drew closer.
The duck was pudgy, with teal plumage and mad little red eyes. It hissed at him. He made shushing noises as he drew close. The duck began sounding in its chest, a low rumble better suited to a large bird. When he did not withdraw, the duck began extending its neck. And he saw that it was not a duck.
No bird had ever had a neck this long. He had seen flamingoes, herons, storks, and shoebills. This one was almost all neck. Its little body would have been comical if it hadn’t started thrashing wildly about, hissing the whole time. He backed away, but it continued thrashing until it broke free from the net. It flew away with a piece of netting still necklacing its throat.
The next bird was very nearly at the end of his nets. Its black and white plumage made a disc-like crest around its whole head, so that it looked like a coin. He approached it with caution.
It did not knife him with its long, straight beak. It just stared at him with its white eyes, pupils expanding and contracting as he worked to free it. He cautiously took it from captivity, one hand pinioning its wings, one hand grabbing its head just above the neck.
The bird looked at him through one eye. Its beak curled back, curling open outwards like a steamed pea-pod, opening to reveal comb-like rows of teeth.
He shouted a little and threw it. The thing recovered marvelously, tucking into a dive before swooping back to dive-bomb his head. He ran for the scooter as the thing followed, screeching. He didn’t bother to cover the scooter when he got home, just killed the engine and ran for the hut with the thing close at his heels.
Once the door was shut, he breathed easier. The first drops of rain hit the roof. He lit a fire and heated water and prepared for the storm.
The birds huddled in their cages, the finches in their little cluster, the bird-king in his corner.
He rested hands on the cage and felt sad for the bird. What kind of home could such a magnificent animal hope for? Would it fall into the hands of collectors? He had a vague notion that someone might like to study it.
As thunder rolled across the sky, he decided that science was better suited for other things. The bird-king belonged with someone who appreciated it, who would feed it and take care of it for the rest of its long life.
He made tea as wind shook the hut. Today had been a strange day. Strange birds. Strange weather.
The afternoon grew dark as night as he lit a lantern and sat with his birds. The finches he would sell to a pet shop. The tanager had a private collector waiting for her. The Treepie had a place at an aviary.
Something knocked on the window. He looked out and found the disc-headed bird, beak deceptively straight again.
He sat in place because he did not know what to do.
Something knocked at the door.
Before he could get up, knocking started on every surface of the hut; the tin roof, the thin walls, even the door.
He flattened himself against the back wall. The caged birds became agitated, sounding and flitting from perch to perch.
All except for the bird-king.
He looked at it long and hard, the kind of look that drinks in every detail. Then he opened the cage.
The bird-king cried out and struck his hand. He did not curse or strike back, because that was not his way. Instead he shushed it as he firmly but gently pressed its wings to its body.
He tucked it under one arm and walked to the door. Beyond the screen door were hundreds of little mad eyes. All different sorts of birds, all clustered together on every available surface.
He considered the moment, that all men must hold a precious thing for just a little while before they must free it, before he opened the screen door.
The birds surrounding his house immediately took flight. He let the bird-king go and it followed, sounding.
For one single moment, the wind ceased as the golden bird flew with bedraggled feathers. Light broke through the clouds, and the bird-king swam through them as it called. Then it was a yellow spot on the horizon. Then it was gone.
The wind picked up again.
The birds were back, sounding trills at every window, every door. He backed into the hut.
He had let the king go. Surely they would see his good intent, forgive the blasphemy?
Something trilled behind him.
The finches stood apart now from the little brown bird, such a dull, plain brown that it might lie for days in a field undiscovered. It moved its head from side to side, studying him from wise, black little eyes.
And he considered, in that moment, about how sometimes the more important things are hidden in plain sight until the wind tore through the hut like the downdraft of some immense pair of wings.