I was surprised to learn that circling birds are a symbol of danger for a character, that this is a predatory act foreshadowing doom rather than a delightful aesthetic touch. Circling birds, flocks of screeching galahs, are a breathtaking sight, how could they be viewed as apocalyptic?
Charlotte Wood’s Stella Prize-winning novel The Natural Way of Things, opens with kookaburras calling like ‘lunatics’ across a pre-dawn sky. This chaotic noise is our first introduction to the remote facility the women have been locked up in, disorientated, trying to find their surroundings they are assaulted by not just kookaburras but screeching galahs. But it is the birds they don’t know that worry them, Yolanda gives them names and in naming them dissipates the fear. In The Natural Way of Things the birds don’t just mirror the female protagonists mental state, they represent freedom, able to fly easily back and forth across the electrified fence that holds them captive as they struggle to live, to eat, to understand in their new apocalyptic position.
Earlier this year I wrote a story about the relationships between a woman and an ibis in a post-apocalyptic world. It was largely influenced by my sister who, after I jokingly referred to an ibis as a bin-chicken remarked that it was a derogatory term. That the ibis actually had a distinguished history only to be reduced to bin-scavenging by human society.
This led to a lot of research on the ibis and its tumultuous relationship with humans. The delicate monochrome water bird was worshipped as the god of mathematics and time in ancient Egypt and one dig site uncovered over one million mummified ibis. In America they are renowned as the bravest of animals as they are the last to take shelter before a tornado and the first to reappear once it has passed. At the end of my block they roost in the last slice of wetlands, covering the few remaining paperbarks like fluttering leaves.
My short story ‘The Noble Ibis’ focused on a woman, Claire, trapped in her home by an undefined event, sans electricity, becoming slowly enthralled by an ibis that visits her back yard daily. Claire reads about the ibis in an old encyclopaedia and slowly begins to share her rapidly defrosting food. The story permeates with a slow panic as Claire both fears the prospect of being found by other survivors, and also of being alone. As her mind deteriorates the ibis becomes both a godlike figure and a tormentor of freedom. Until finally she catches and eats the ibis.
I should point out that this story was written prior to the mandatory lockdown that we experienced this year. Editing the story during lockdown I became deeply aware of the parallels between the unnamed apocalypse of ‘The Noble Ibis’ and the loneliness of covid isolation. The way the days slip in and out of each other, overlapping like waves on a beach. My day job is in hospitality, like many struggling artists, and without work to go to I tried to focus on my writing. But the entire time had an air of slow panic. The creeping uncertainty of when the languid bubble would be popped, made me, like Claire, unable to act. I produced less work in lockdown than I did when working full time.
Of course, unlike Claire I had the added pressures of home-schooling and finding toilet paper, of drive-by birthday parties and play-dates over zoom. ‘We are so lucky!’ I would manically chant as we watched YouTube videos of people without yards playing tennis through high-rise windows with no balconies. I ordered boxes of vegetables and fruit with no contact delivery as I tried for the hundredth time to write my thesis proposal for Honours on consumption in fairy tales. Like Yolanda the fence around us had become our limitation and was breeched only once when one of the neighbours kids, hanging in a tree to talk to my children, momentarily tumbled into our yard.
One dusk, when the children were asleep, I heard a noise in their bedroom. The sharp squeak of a bird call, intermittent but persistent like a smoke alarm with a low battery. I dismissed it but the next morning I found a baby honeyeater, alive, legs tangled in spiderwebs, behind the bed. I cleaned off the tiny claws and placed it outside where the parents came eagerly. The tiny chick had crossed our threshold, breached the barrier between human and animal, and unlike Claire’s ibis it lived on. I told the children about the bird later, but they found the story hard to believe and demanded to see the chick that was long gone.
And all the time the flock of corellas circled us at dawn and dusk, settling in the Norfolk pines down the street. And the two doves in our yard that our children nick-named ‘piggyback birds’ because of their propensity for one to jump on the others back regularly, made a nest in our gutter and had a baby. The children spent a day researching and sketching them before writing a short story about the birds going on an adventure and I consider this the highpoint of a very unproductive home-schooling period.
Like Claire and Yolanda food become a focus of our time, a way to mark the passing of the day in meals, trying to eat the things that wouldn’t keep first. Making do with alternatives ingredients because we couldn’t pop to the shops. Unlike Claire I did not resort to eating defrosted bait.
But in the back of my mind I thought of the ibis god measuring, calculating our time, waiting for the last moment to disappear ready to remerge when the storm has passed. Will we know it is time when the birds start circling, or, like the sudden silence in a forest when a predator approaches, will we know our time has come when they fall suddenly silent?
Tiffany Hastie recently graduated with First Class Honours in a BA in Writing and Children’s Literature, receiving the Plantation Award on graduation. A two-time winner of the Talus Prize in 2017 and 2019, Tiffany’s focus on speculative fiction explores futuristic worlds and hidden private lives revealing the dark underbelly of the id. Published as a winner in the Margaret River Press anthology Pigface,Tiffany has been a featured author on stage at both the Margaret River Writer’s Festival and The Australian Short Story Festival, reading excerpts from her stories and talking about her writing process