Winning story: Sparrow’s Eggs
Alexandra man Alan Whitaker was the deserved winner of the Lakes and Central Otago short story competition with this entry, The will publish the stories that were placed first, second and third in the senior and junior competitions over the next six weeks
The tree was gnarly, bark like varicose veins, the branch he gripped bled with sticky sap. He placed his other hand and swung up one leg, secured it on the lowest branch and heaved himself up, balanced for a moment, and then reached up.
Three contacts his big brother said; two legs, one hand, or two hands, one leg. Slowly, breathing evenly, he spiralled up the tree, stopping every branch to rest for a moment before pushing upwards.
Eight was a good age for climbing. He was a climbing machine, the top of the tree the only thing that prevented him from reaching the clouds.
He pictured the eggs in his mind; river-stone speckled, five or six, sometimes more. All nestled together as if the contact cemented the bond. He’d collected a million such eggs, a wonder there were still sparrows flying.
A few times he’d found youngsters, with their semi-naked pink forms like little fat-bodied winged dinosaurs. Skin said if you handled them the mother bird wouldn’t return but he couldn’t resist picking up one or two. Their scrawny little bodies had been warm in his hand and their little beaks had opened in mute insistence as he’d looked and marvelled before gently placing them back.
When was he up this tree last? Weeks? Months? He’d forgotten. His breathing was not as even as he expected. His legs also felt rubbery.
He thought of Frank. He missed him. He’d gone away overseas. Where? Why could he not remember where he’d gone? Something bad had happened but what was it?
He’d stopped. He looked out through the branches, over the roofs. Funny, he’d not noticed before that the farm had been planted in houses. The creek was still there though, although its border of willows was thinner now. There were even mown slopes where there used to be flax. He sighed. Things change.
He refocused and got moving again. The sun was low in the sky and every so often caught him full blast and made his eyes water.
He’d wear his cap next time. His favourite black one with the silver fern on it. Tomorrow, if it were still sunny, he’d bike down to
Pott’s Creek for a swim. The big log across was just perfect for shallow dives and great bum busters. He loved the slow, brown water with its stony bottom and fast trout that darted away like flitting shadows. Skin reckoned he’d seen a big fat eel on the bottom last summer. You could believe only half of his stories. He told some whoppers. You couldn’t tell him though; he got the pip, big time.
He was here now. He jockeyed into a balanced position and tentatively placed his right hand through the opening in the side of the haystack nest. Eggs. Heaps. Carefully he eased his hand out with eggs. Nowhere else to put them. So he rolled them into his gob. The warm, metallic taste was familiar. Maybe it was bird shit. He felt the eggs rattle against his teeth. All done.
Down. Going down was the hardest bit. You had to look down and the eggs rattled in your mouth. Saliva gathered and you just had to swallow, carefully with a skull’s grin to keep your tongue from flicking the eggs back.
Slowly. Foot, hand, foot, hand, always three in contact.. The sweat trickled down his arm-pit in an
amiable, tickling rivulet. Foot, hand, foot. Nearly down. As he reached the last branch and placed one foot on the ground he felt a sadness . There, was just him, the eggs and the tree. Now, the world rushed in and he was lost again.
‘‘What the hell are you doing, you silly old bugger?’’
‘‘Ge’ing eggs.’’ He cupped his hand under his jaw and dribbled the sparrow eggs out. Six. He spat with satisfaction, handed over the eggs.
‘‘You have them. I can get more.’’
He couldn’t remember now why he’d got them. It felt good. His legs were tired now and he wanted to lie down and rest.
The man looked up, incredulous.
‘‘Did you go up to that nest, there? Good God.’’ He shook his head, and then laughed out loud. ‘‘Good God.’’
‘‘Come on Pop, we’ll take you back home before you do yourself some damage.’’
He led the old man back through the gate to his home. It would have been good if the poor old bugger had slipped from the top, he thought.
❚ Next week we will publish the winning entry in the junior competition, ‘What is Happiness?’, by 12-year-old Sophie May, of Arrowtown.
Winner of the Mirror Lakes and Central Otago Senior Short Story competition Alan Whitaker, of Alexandra.