Phryne raised up on a wing tip, black edge flashing silver in the morning sky. All about her was rough wind, air rushing everywhere. One always heard the air, like swimming through water. It had a life of its own, it made its noises. Yes, air and water had their tantrums, their tornadoes or their hurricanes, but on their good days, each breathed, murmured, gulped. That was how it was for the fishes beneath narrow dun sandy beaches of the rock creek and for the fowl flying above its white perforated tree tops. Lush, dusty canopy dazzling with gray city sky, or the tops stone buildings and metal towers of the city.
Trills and peeps of other birds flushed through the air, over Phryne’s head, and beneath her neck when she needed to hear one thing or another and she pointed her beak and cocked her head mid-flight to listen. No, that was a sparrow, not a pestering mockingbird… This was what she listened to.
Phyrne sometimes swept over people with their heads bowed, and what looked like runny egg whites coming from their ears, threads going into black slick boxes in their hands. Called… phones. It went “phone” or “I have to take this,” or “ring-ring-ring” or “bip-beep” and the most confusing… sometimes the damned things tweeted like birds… But humans always said “phone” when they gestured with the black box in hand, or when they were about to use it. Like Phryne played with sticks sometimes, when she wanted her mate to know she was about to start fixing the nest… What were people always listening to, sticking the white stuff to their phone and their ears, when everything that really was, was already going, was on outside? In the air. Phyrne believed that creatures who spent most of their time scrabbling along the ground and never dealing with the sky, unable to fly and get away from obsessing over ground-things, were fairly stupid. For example, cats were fairly stupid.
Of course birds could talk. Well, not in exactly the way humans did, their teeth cutting beneath their lips flapping, and then they gaped at each other wide-eyed like fish, or laughing, really shrieking like crackles…
Phryne flew over a strip of trees beneath a hill of rowhouses. At last, she passed over the stone blocks shaped like Z-O-O, and wheeled left, to circle over a pond by a red-roofed house. She was far out of her territory. Phryne went low for a time against the dark green shade of the park trees, unwilling to raise herself above the canopy and attract rival mockingbirds, hawks or bored eagles… or, unfriendly crows.
Seemed nobody was about at this hour—most were busy on their morning routine of checking this place or that, for the first meal of the day. But, Phryne had found a nest at first light, sparrow eggs in a clutch of twigs in a crag between two house rooves, ate those, then left her mate to finish up. It was then that Phryne had decided to fly down to the creek, because it was rare in a bird’s day to have time for leisure. Which, for Phryne, meant a fully belly, and a nice chat with her best friend.
A tall white crane watched Phryne alight, and then the crow rocked to keep her balance on a black fence encircling a coy pond by the red barn. Phryne was excited, cocking her head this way and that to see if Blanca had started yet.
Blanca was really funny. She was nutty and bold with humans, braver than Phryne or most crows dared. The first time Phryne watched Blanca do this, it was awful, she kept ducking her head thinking one of the workers would run and shoo her. Or, throw a rock. It was the worst when people threw rocks at birds… but now, as Blanca did then, the white crane took a quiet step and leaned down to look at the fat orange and white coy fish so packed in the pond that they were nearly swimming over one another, and so fat and used to being hand-fed, they could hardly help themselves. Of course, coy could tell the difference between a human worker and a two legged white crane who was a natural enemy, but these fish were particularly fat (Phryne assumed they were tasty, to a crane at least), and they were also stupid. But the thrill was that these were fish the people kept—their fish.
Even birds could sense that.
A bird who ate what humans wanted for themselves, that was crazy.
Blanca raised a crown of feathers on her head, so they stuck out everywhere, and Phryne bobbed up and down, now giddy over it. She cawed a few excited times, but Blanca flapped wings angrily for
Phryne to calm down. Phryne huddled wings over her back and lowered her head. Oops, she’d forgotten. Too easy to scare the fish.
Blanca was suddenly dipping her head back up, a lump in her throat. She’d caught and swallowed one.
Phryne shuffled down the fence and looked around. People were coming. People were nearby. But, did they see? Were they going to do anything? Phryne turned back to her friend the crane, and
Blanca was already swallowing a second fish. She raised white feathers on her head and clapped her beak that it was so good, then shook out her snaking neck. Then, Blanca rested a bit, preening, while a pair of humans walked near. Phyrne froze.
A man and a woman. They wore caps and loose clothing in blues, reds, greens. Not workers. Just wanderers. They looked at Phryne, who decided she was going to be as brave as Blanca for once.
Phryne raised her neck, just as Blanca now did, looking confident. Blanca turned a little, regarding the humans. The man shook his head at Phryne. The woman pointed at Blanca and covered her mouth.
“Can they… just do that? Don’t the zookeepers come?”
“Wow, it really is eating the coy. You see, I told you.”
“Why would they let it do that?”
“Well, maybe the fish are… they probably put poison to stop the heron.”
“That’s not a heron. Looks kind of like a swan. Though, I know it’s not a swan.”
“Swans are so much shorter, Helen! Haha, they’re like, on the floor.”
“Right, but they’re both white and water birds… they’re in the same family, probably. That’s definitely not a heron. Aren’t all herons blue? And cranes have like… little… red caps or spots on their heads?
Like in those Japanese paintings?”
She’s a damned crane. What’s the big deal? Phyrne thought, when she observed the pale human woman and the dark human male gesturing at Blanca like fools, mimicking her. Phyrne had no real idea what they were saying, of course, birds don’t talk the way humans do… but she’d seen such strange arguments before, in this park. People standing in front of the animal cages and pointing at the animals and bickering over something that wasn’t food, wasn’t water, wasn’t mating… so it must have been about the animal itself. The animal that was way over there and didn’t care what they thought anyway. Phyrne observed that humans could get so into phones, so into details… things that couldn’t possibly matter.
Unless they were being mean to Blanca—who was just a hungry crane!
Blanca had turned around too. Phryne hopped to rest on the other side of the black fence, Blanca’s side, and faced the people with her friend. Though, Phryne wasn’t as elegant about it and flapped her wings again to get balance.
What were the people going to do? Throw a rock? Call for help?
The woman shooed hands at Phryne. The man called, “Hey crane, those aren’t your fish. You can’t eat zoo fish!” To Blanca.
Both birds glanced at one another then, black and white head cocked. Decided this was a showdown.
Blanca crept near to the edge of the coy pond again. Phyrne turned sideways, keeping an eye on the humans and her friend. As she waited, Phryne saw a person dressed head to toe in gray, a worker coming. The crow’s heart raced.
“Don’t they see that zookeeper?”
“Oh my God, Montel, this is so wrong…”
“Haha—is this like them… spray painting on a wall, or something?”
“Montel—what in the heck are you talking about?”
“Like, you know, a gang tagging a wall. Saying, ‘Hey, man, this is the birds’ turf.’”
Then Montell got his phone out and started sliding his thumb over the surface. “Tough old birds… this is hilarious. I’m gonna post this…”
The zookeeper quickened footsteps when he approached the fence and saw them, opened the gate.
A plastic container of fish food was under his other arm. Phryne could smell it.
All around the park that the humans built was a forest and the rock creek, Blanca’s home. Blanca must have sensed the zoo worker was only steps away by now. Soon, he could reach out and touch her, grab her.
Blanca dipped her head beneath the surface of black water, snapped up her third fish. The zookeeper held his plastic container with both hands, eyes big as a coy’s too. Blanca took her time, swallowed the lump in her long, elegant neck.
Phryne cawed victoriously and flapped her wings like mad. Blanca backed off, then pumped big white wings to fly away. Only then, did Phryne fly away too and leave the humans to it… whatever they did when they lost a war. The zookeeper put down his container and had a seat right there, on the ground. He nudged up his cap to snatch off glasses and cover his face with the other hand.
Blanca flew off to the trees, her long crane’s legs hanging down awkwardly the way she always did.
Blanca would follow the winding copper creek back to her next hunting spot deep in the proper forest where fish weren’t so easy to get. Phryne turned on a wing’s edge and headed back up to the lines of rowhouses, letting the trees grow more sparse, back to Mount Pleasant and the tricky sparrow and pigeons’ nests, and the opened trash cans there, where her mate was waiting.
The man was a dot on the ground, laughing like mad while he played with his phone.
“Montel, so was really that a crane, honey? Google doesn’t say they eat coy, specifically…”
Montel put up his phone and scratched stubble on his chin while he smiled. “Those birds were pretty gangsta.”
Helen walked quickly ahead of her mate to set a good pace out of the zoo, to get them back uphill, to grab a late brunch in Mount Pleasant.
This is based on a true story, by the way… One morning, I walked down to the National Zoo, about brunch-time, and was stymied by a white crane that stood there, eating a breakfast of coy in the Children’s Farm pond…