The boys flock screeching to the locker room, their faces red and wild from the cold. One runs, arms outstretched, as though attempting to take-off. Another rushes, flapping, to his locker. A third hops onto the benches at the centre of the room and, his head thrown back, croons loudly. His throat swells, victorious; his was the winning football team.
One boy follows afterwards, calmly and more quietly than the rest. He does not screech or flap his arms, and if his face is red or wild from the cold, it is because it is his face, and helpless to be otherwise. He cannot change his face, although he has wished for this many times before.
The room fills with the flutter of sleeve arms as the boys begin to get changed. Socks grow long where they are pulled from the toes; longer, longer still, until they tear from ankles and snap like synthetic sinew through the air. It is early afternoon and the autumn wind is playing with the tree outside the window. Red leaves press like outstretched hands against the opaque glass.
The same boy pauses, his sweatshirt around his shoulders, and studies the scarlet palm-prints. Their redness reminds him of other things: burst berries, flushed cheeks, the colour of split lips and the stains down the arms of his school shirt. He wonders how a colour can be so many things, how it can mean so many things, and still be beautiful. It is just a colour, after all, the same wherever it is seen.
He stares intently for several seconds, the world around him fading beneath the bright red of the leaves. Then he loses himself once more in his sweatshirt. The name label, which tickles his neck and then his face, reads Bran Thomas. The room smells damp and feels cold against his goose-pimpled skin.
Around him, the others prance and preen. Sometimes their faces are expressive, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Other times, it seems, they barely have faces at all. One is studying himself in the mirror above the sink, moving left, then right, his reflection doing likewise in the glass. From where Bran stands there is no nose, no mouth, no face that can be seen, but he imagines a sharp beak and two unblinking eyes in their place. He knows that beak. He has felt it before, or one like it, and the ceaseless peck of its words.
Shouts ricochet from the locker room walls. When they reach the communal showers they distort, in that way all sounds do when they bounce from bathroom tiles. Bran hears jubilation in those sounds, and taunts, and mimicry; so much mimicry. It is cacophonous in his head. He wishes that worms turned in the ground beneath them, or that the pink throats of their parents hovered above, come to regurgitate food into their mouths, silencing those hungry beaks for one solitary minute!
The shrieks escalate, grow shrill. He steps back to his locker, which is already open, and shields himself behind the metal door as the boys fly into a flurry of movement. His little heart rattles, like a cage of frightened lovebirds in his chest. He fears for his sanity in the midst of such madness. He fears he is the mad one, the outsider of the flock.
He thinks of lovebirds, and wonders why they are called such. Do they love? Are they more than birds because of it, or indifferent except in name? What of scaredbirds too, and deadbirds, and whatdoesitallmeanbirds?
One of the boys falls into his locker, so that the door swings into Bran’s face. It is a senseless gesture, accident or otherwise, and Bran feels reaffirmed. He feels pain too, where the door has struck his nose. He sinks to the floor. The rich metal-taste of red fills his mouth.
The tiles are cold beneath his feet. Blackness encroaches on his vision, then whiteness, growing from the strip bulbs above. The bird-boys circle overhead, beaks clacking, and he hears malice. He hears stupidity and joy and inconsideration. If there is an apology, he cannot hear that. He does not think there is.
Bran’s toes scrunch slowly, over and over, feeling the mud that has been trawled in from the playing fields. With conscious effort he takes a long breath. The fluttering in his chest begins to slow. The grit between his toes is grounding. It is a moment, the moment, in which he realises he is not like the other bird-boys. They hop and screech and peck for giblets, their beaks black, like the crows in the ditch behind the football field. They are a faceless flock, drawn to shiny things, or thrashing insects in the ground. Their bones are light. Their forms slight.
Bran’s chest is heavy with petrified lovebirds. They sit like stones behind his ribs and he knows he will never fly. He will never be as the other bird-boys: the crows, the magpies, the voracious playground vultures.
They swarm from the locker room, these other boys, the corridor ringing with their shrieks and the beating of their feathered arms. Bran is left alone, with the grit between his toes, the slap of scarlet at the window and the taste of the colour in his mouth.
~ Thomas James Brown
© Copyright 2012 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.