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Breath & Shadow

Fall 2013 - Vol. 10, Issue 4

"The Spinebill"

written by

Mark Cornell

The spinebills have returned; they always do this time of year. Another summer’s about to die, and I’m not sad in the least. The trilling is the first thing you notice about the bird. It sounds like a mini machine gun.


I noticed the spinebill during the first Autumn I was home looking after my son, Tim. When I took three years off on family leave, I discovered important things I’d overlooked when I worked full time. For instance, signs of when the seasons are changing. This tiny bird’s arrival is one of the first indications that autumn is on her way and we’re near the equinox, a time our ancestors celebrated with great gusto. We probably still do, during Saint Patrick’s Day and Easter. Some drink, others prey, some reflect, others do sweet nothing . The seasons change, according to the tilt of our blue planet and the angle of the suns’ ray.


Thanks to global warming, Melbourne’s had weeks of unusually tropical weather. When I was a kid in summer, we had a bearable desert heat which was always swept away by a cool change by around the fourth day. This weather pattern has passed now; it vanished during the last drought. My long dead, bird watching neighbor once told me the spinebills make their way across the treacherous waters of Bass Straight to return to the native bushes in our outer eastern suburbs. And, apparently, a sprinkling of plants in our neighborhood. gardens and parks are all that are left of a purple-tinged forest that once stretched all the way from the bay to the mountains.


The spinebills whistle always makes me smile. Come now autumn, with your dreaming golden light, stretching shadows and crisp, deep sleeping nights. Three spinebills dart like fairy wrens around my old grevillea bush in the driveway; their markings remind me of native finches. Be gone stinking hot summer, they chirrup through their curved black beaks. How long do these little souls live for? Perhaps they’re the children or the grandchildren of the birds I first noticed in the same bush a decade ago? Their knowledge of this old plant lives through the generations.


It’s been a summer I want to forget. The first week of January was heavenly. I spent it with my wife, Alana, and twelve-year-old son down at Port Fairy. Like migratory birds, we always return to this neck of the woods every New Year. We spent most afternoons swimming in the Southern Ocean. My darling boy, Tim, had his first swimming lessons before we left town. We delayed having him put his head under water because he was born with a cleft palette and smaller than normal Eustachian tubes. He’s undergone twelve operations. More accurately, his twelfth was called off two weeks before Christmas because the surgeon ran out of time.


We got to the hospital at seven in the morning; our boy was prepped and put in his blue gown at ten; the surgeon would ring roughly every forty minutes to say he was ready for the next child. We agonizingly watched a succession of children climb into the hospital trolley to be wheeled off and hoped our son would be next. But at two thirty, the surgeon rang to tell the nurse they’d run out of time. The ringing of the ward phone is torture; it reminds me of when the Spitfire pilots waited for the phone call to tell them whether they were going to scramble or if tea was up.


The surgeon told the nurse to let us know he was coming up to explain why he couldn’t operate. We three waited for another eternal three quarters of an hour. During this time, a fat bogan couple came in to put the stupid telly on which nobody watched, then proceeded to tell their little boy he was a scarEdy cat because he didn’t want an operation. Why are people like this allowed to procreate? Why do hospitals allow manic, moronic, commercial television to dominate waiting rooms?


I’d had a largely successful day where I’d managed to keep the idiot box off or kept the volume down, but when the two fatties came, it was the last straw. I told the nurse it was pointless waiting only for the surgeon to come up and tell us why he couldn’t operate. We chuckled as we left because Tim told us he’d felt like he’d just been let out of jail.


He swished like a dolphin down at Port Fairy. He loved torpedoing through the foaming ocean water. I showed him how to dive below a threatening wave and how to boogie board. We’d chat and laugh as we waited for the best wave to catch. His young face lit up with pure joy when he felt the sensation of being picked up and carried all the way back to shore. Trouble was, the hospital rang up a week after the debacle and booked us in for the second week of January, a week before Tim’s birthday. We didn’t have the heart to tell him straight away and thought it best to let him know only a few days before the operation. So, bathe on in merman bliss, my sea caressed boy, my sunny shining blued eyed son.


On the last day at Port Fairy we discovered our old cat, Moogal, had died. Our neighbors had frantically tried to ring us on the second day of our trip, to consult us about whether Moogal should be put down or not. The second of January was the hottest day of summer, over forty two degrees C. Poor old Moogal had a cancerous tumor in her stomach which ruptured in the extreme heat. Our neighbors found her out in the backyard struggling to get up and walk. Moogal could barely breathe when they rushed her to the emergency clinic. For some unknown reason we didn’t get their phone messages. Alana checked our mobile every night. Maybe it was because we were out of range, Port Fairy’s hundreds of miles from town, or perhaps the God we don’t believe in had intervened so that our seaside holiday wasn’t ruined. Who knows? I told my wife it was karma, something I increasingly believe in as I get older. The idea that there’s another life force out there that ploughs on irrespective of how we think or feel and it’s only with the benefit of time that we understand why things turn out the way they do.


We nearly didn’t buy Moogal, whose name was Aboriginal for pretty girl. Alana was interested in her older sister, a pretty white tortoise shell who was one of a family of five in the pet shop. Moogal, a black tortoise shell, was the runt of the litter who kept boxing up her brothers and sisters in self -defense. I admired her pluck, so we bought her. We already had two tortoise shells that turned out to be extremely jealous of the interloper. Moogal managed to hold her own against their repeatedly nasty attacks.


We’d been married two years and Moogal was our first kitten. Alana now readily admits Moogal was her baby substitute. When we moved house we lost her for six weeks. Our puss had somehow managed to attach herself to the chassis of my car. When I went to buy some petrol, I heard something bumping behind me, then through the rear viewing mirror I saw my cat race across Canterbury Road. I slammed the brakes on and ran to where I last saw her near the railway track. I searched the scrub forever. Alana and I looked for her every night for six weeks. We photocopied hundreds of pamphlets, and letterboxed the area around the train line. My mate, Luke, told me cats seldom stray from where you last saw them. Alana and I knocked on people’s doors, searched through gardens, crawled beneath houses, and responded to people’s phone calls. While everybody else was secure in their homes watching the telly, we were out in the darkness, catching colds, losing weight and crying sometimes at night.


Alana got a phone call one day from a lady who worked for the local swimming pool company. She told us she’d seen a cat fitting Moogal’s description sometimes sunning herself on one of the pools decks. Alana and I were a bit numb by now because we’d had calls about black cats like this before which had all turned out to be fruitless. We even had some stupid kids ringing us up pretending they had Moogal and making meowing noises. Alana bought a piece of chicken with her and started calling Moogal’s name. A furry black sniffing head cautiously appeared from below the decking of a pool. It was our girl! Alana cuddled her, then raced off to the vet.


Somehow Moogal had managed to get her collar stuck underneath the base of her front leg, and the rubbing created an infected wound full of maggots. The infection was life threatening, so we had to leave her at the vets for a week. We knick named her Lazarus after that. Luke was right; the swimming pool company was only a couple of yards away from where I last saw her.


She was never a lap cat, but a rather grumpy puss who barely tolerated a pat before biting you. She must have known towards the end, because she’d always jump up on the couch and head butt my hand to demand a pat, my last novel was written with Moogal sleeping and purring next to me. However she also became incontinent. Our lounge regularly stank of cat piss, shit and vomit, which I inevitably had to clean up before getting stuck into my story. I miss her smell when I write these days.


We threw our bags in the house after the long drive back from Port Fairy then collected our cats’ frozen body from the Vet. We discovered she was in the fetal position when we un-wrapped her. The same position our ancestors buried their loved ones thousands of years ago, with food, drink and prized possessions by their side to accompany them to the afterlife. Moogal was in this position in the last photo Alana took of her before we left for Port Fairy. Moogal used to love curling herself up into a ball and sleep in the afternoon sun in our backyard. Our first kitten died in the arms of our gentle neighbor, Amanda, who confirmed she had a peaceful death.


Our other two cats were curious about Moogal when we buried her. Zoe, our oldest, crawled down the hole I’d dug to sniff Moogal’s body. When she got out of the hole, she bit our other black tortoise shell, Evie on the backside as if to say, “Go pay your last respects woman! ” Evie wearily went over to Moogal’s grave and sniffed. The vet was right when she said both girls would be subdued for the next few days. Cats know; that’s why I love them. I couldn’t hold back the tears when Tim read the words to George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass over our cat’s grave. I pictured Moogal as she used to scuttle across the kitchen in our rental flat. She was an expert fly catcher; if we ever had an annoying blowy in our house Moogal always caught it. Alana lit incense sticks and placed them around Moogal’s grave. Tim found a rock that looked exactly like a headstone, wrote an M on it, and gently placed it at the top of the grave.


Our boy had to wait three and a half hours before his last operation. He wailed like a Banshee on that morning. We got to the hospital at seven, encountered a bit of bureaucratic bullshit by being sent to the wrong ward, then waited. Tim was very good, we attempted to keep him busy with his Nintendo but then he’d break down and cry. Alana and I tried to comfort him as best we could, emphasizing this was his last operation and that he’s got Puffing Billy to look forward to on his birthday in a week’s time.


The man finally arrived with the trolley. Alana and I were right there by his side as they wheeled him to the operating theatre on the floor above us. Alana gowned up and went in with him as they gave him the anesthetic. My heart was in my mouth.


Tim had a red rash all over his body as he lay in recovery. By the time the anesthetist arrived to investigate, it had disappeared. As our son regained consciousness, we whispered how brave he was and that this was his last operation. Sometimes now when we go out with friends, he holds water in his mouth then bows his head right down to prove the water no longer leaks through the roof of his mouth into his nose.


Alana and I speculate that perhaps it was fated we became his parents. Both of us have been, and still are, outsiders. Alana migrated from America when she was a girl. She’s tall and skinny and as a result was mercilessly stirred by her Australian classmates. I’ve always been a poet, a teller of stories and was regularly poofter bashed at school. So we understand our boy when he says he feels different. We try to teach our son not to dwell too much upon his cleft palette and that you must keep moving, just like the tiny birds who overcome the wildness of Bass Straight to then sing about the glory of life in our driveway during the birth of autumn.

Mark Cornell is of Irish ancestry. As a child, he grew up listening to stories; either in the form of tall tales told by his extended family, or the lyrics of his favorite songs on the radio. He started writing poetry when he was seventeen. He has traveled to Ireland twice and during one of these visits was married to Kimberly in a Registry Office in Dublin. Mark has been writing Short Stories and Novels for a number of years. He took family leave for three years to look after his son Thomas. He now works as a Conciliator with Consumer Affairs.

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