Newcastle Herald short story: Bloodstained by Jessie Ansons

WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story competition. The winner will be announced on January 28, 2017. Picture: Simone De Peak

WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story competition. The winner will be announced on January 28, 2017. Picture: Simone De Peak

When a semi-trailer thunders towards you, it’s usually best to get out of the way.

But the bird’s face made me hesitate on that particular day.

It looked so sad.

Cacatua sanguinea. Or blood-stained cockatoo. Rather ironic, really.

I was probably driving over the speed limit.

But I was wearing that silly fascinator that covered half my face in tulle. Janie insisted it would be “the perfect accessory”. Like today was some sort of fashion parade.

I shuddered to think what Janie would be wearing.

To her own father’s funeral.

My husband’s funeral. The one I never imagined I’d have to attend.

That’s the other reason I was over the speed limit. I wasn’t thinking straight. The three glasses of sherry I had for breakfast could have contributed. It’s hard to tell.

As I rounded the bend I saw a huge flock of corellas on the road ahead. They waddled about, crunching their bulbous beaks on seeds dropped from trees above.

It’s surprising any survived.

In the end I hit just one. Thump, bump. Its bent face slide up my windscreen and over the roof of the car.

I jammed my foot on the brake and leapt out so quickly the white feathers were still settling on the ground around me.

I threw myself down on my hands and knees to take a closer look.

The bird was dead. Sprawled in the middle of the road with its wings outstretched. At least I didn’t have to put it out of its misery.

Little did I know, the misery had only just begun.

The flock had disappeared. Moved on elsewhere. Oblivious that they’d lost one of their own. But, you see, corellas mate for life.

One solitary bird spiraled down and landed on the road. It hopped quickly over to the dead bird and bent down at the glassy eye that stared up at nothing.

The bird then turned to me, with a look that was way too familiar.

I’d experienced it all just five days earlier. George had been a truck driver his whole life.

I’d spent hours worried he’d fall asleep at the wheel and kill himself. I insisted he take regular breaks. Told him to always stop, even if it meant less money at the end of the week.

And the good man listened. Five days ago he’d stopped at a roadside hotel and choked on the roast of the day. Chicken.

The bird looked from me to its mate and back again. The blue circle around its eye had paled. Its grey beak opened and closed in what seemed like disbelief. The remnants of a seed it’d been eating just moments before were hooked over its tongue.

They’d called Janie first. George always put her down as his next of kin. He thought she’d handle it better. And I guess he was right.

Janie came round and sat me down with a cup of tea and a biscuit. I took my first bite and she bluntly told me the news.

Then in true Janie style she whipped out a pile of brochures from local funeral homes. She rattled on about whether she should invite Aunt Nora because “Dad always said she smelt funny” and her eyes grew wide when she realised that my black fascinator would be “the perfect accessory for the grieving widow”.

I didn’t say a word. I merely looked from Janie to the funeral brochures and back again. My mouth opened and closed in disbelief, that first bite of biscuit sagging on my tongue.

George. He’d sit next to me at the end of the day with a cup of tea. We’d sit in silence and stare at the pale blue wall in front of us. I’d turn to him and he’d give me a wink.

That’s how it was with us two.

In a busy world of trucks and chickens and fascinators we’d always, over anything else, choose to enjoy this one simple pleasure.

The deep blast of a horn shook me from my memories. The bird was walking circles around its mate, frantically bobbing its head.

The blood-red colour around its beak flashed up and down.

Cacatua sanguinea. The bloodstained cockatoo. George and I looked it up once in a book we got from the library.

We were always keen lovers of animals.

On my hands and knees, dressed in my black best, the tulle tickled my nose. I could see the truck approaching.

They say in your last moments your life flashes before your eyes. The birth of your children, their first day of school, that sort of thing.

But all I could think of was that blank blue wall opposite our lounge at home. The one I would never want to stare at again.

The bird stopped circling and looked up at the approaching truck. The driver blasted his horn once more and the compression brakes screeched.

I’d always said that I wouldn’t be around to attend my husband’s funeral. Maybe this was destiny’s way of making that happen.

I looked at the bird beside me. It seemed overcome with a new wave of confidence. It stood tall and looked straight at the truck, accepting its fate.

I’d already killed one bird today. And something inside me couldn’t bear see another one die.

The wind from the approaching truck blew the fascinator clear off my head. It was a sign. I clasped my hands around the body of the grieving bird and leapt off the road. The truck missed us by no more than an inch.

I had 57 missed calls from Janie that day. I had switched my phone to silent when I was at the vet getting the bird treated for shock.

That evening I sat quietly with a cup of tea. I avoided looking directly at the wall, but I didn’t feel alone.

When I glanced down at the little corella in the box by my feet, it looked up at me and winked.

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