White-Eyed Bird with Red Beak

It is inevitable that some of the stones will hit me but since I must traverse the gulley in order to reach the storage facility, I stand in the mouth of the cave in my usual state of trepidation and prepare myself.

What would Darinda say?

Darinda would tell me that the ghosts are real. That grapes don’t grow on mountains. She would talk a lot of nonsense about Time stretching to infinity if you find the right tunnel. I believe none of her notions. Would I tell her to walk off the cliff? Probably. Probably not. Probably. Sometimes I hate her. She is nevertheless a friend, and reliable.

Firstly, I pull on the leather gloves. I do this first because I frequently forget to do it, and a stone landing at speed on a knuckle has been one of the most painful of my injuries. I check the bungees that fasten the book trunks onto the trolley. They’re taut and firm. I’m already wearing the padded jacket. Finally, I fit the wide-brimmed hard hat, adjust the chinstrap, and grip the pole of the trolley.

The stones are falling repeatedly. They’re not large, I wouldn’t classify them as rocks, but they are more angular than pebbles, and most are from two to five centimetres in length – big enough to cause damage to flesh and bone due to the speed at which they travel. The stone showers are fairly light today, and it’s early so the floor of the gulley, which is cleared by the nightly flood, is passable and will remain so until lunchtime.

In a quiet patch, I make a break for it, tugging the heavy trolley, and running to gain momentum. The trolley judders over the scattered pebbles. The trunks are full of the most momentous tomes. It’s back breaking work. A stone lands on my hat. It’s a solid knock that resonates along my cheekbones, into my jaw. I shake my head to disperse the pain. Several more stones land on my shoulders like small jabs. The trolley jarrs and almost stops. I pull harder. I often wonder if a sleigh would be more effective than wheels. I should mention it to the authorities.

In the middle of the gulley that separates the mountain ranges, the shower is lighter but I resist the urge to pause. I want to check stonefall but I will never look upwards. A stone in the eye may cause permanent blindness, all the pullers know this, it is in the warnings.

Haricot would have something to say if I told him about the urge to pause. He would tell me it’s essential to pause. I agree with him in theory, but there are times, such as now, when to pause would be inappropriate. Haricot is inappropriate. I would say he is the most inappropriate of my acquaintances. From his battered hat to his scurfy skin, from his blasphemous eulogies to his fiendish aptitude for penance, Haricot is everything that inappropriate should be. I love him for that, although he doesn’t recognise love.

The next stage is more dangerous because the trajectory of the stones is slanted towards me. I cannot look ahead and must lower my chin so the brim of my hard hat shields my face. On the downside of this, my neck is left unprotected, which, in my opinion, is a design fault of the padded jacket. I must mention it to the authorities. Perhaps I should write a letter. As I incline my head to provide protection for my neck, I am knocked on the brim so my hat tilts forward and as I attempt to push it back, I am hit on the wrist, simultaneously stubbing my toe on a larger embedded stone.

In spite of all the randomly located stabbing pains, I press on. Fortunately, there is a slight downward slope from the centre of the gulley to the entrance of the storage facility, which has been set in the mountains of the western range because of the snow.

The trolley increases speed and I have to run to keep ahead of it. At last, I reach the safety of the canopy and drag the trolley up to the runway, hitch it to the winch and press the red button.

As the trolley trundles up the slope, I sit on the small concrete wall and take off my protective gear and pack it into my rucksack. I rub my neck and massage the back of my hand. Fortunately, my injuries are not serious, except for a sort of jarring that wriggles up thoughts of justice, and iced cakes, and the terrible thunderstorms of necessity, force and debt.

Bardot would have something to say about that. I haven’t seen Bardot for years. He left after one of the meetings and was never seen again. I suspect he was sacked. He was always giving trouble with his mad, generous ideas and cheery jazz. There is no room for ideas. At first you think there is. They look at you with curiosity, nod and agree. Often they will smile, show their teeth and open their eyes encouragingly. But when they confer amongst themselves, it is to decide how to avoid implementation. Change, in the sense of the light green of Spring or the aroma of a suddenly crushed juniper berry or a dash of sugar in almost anything, is never on the agenda. Upheaval, on the other hand, they can’t have too much upheaval. I miss Bardot. I still consider him to be my good friend even though I haven’t seen him for more than a decade. I wish him well. Sometimes I wish I’d gone with him. If only he had asked.

When the book trunks have safely rolled and clunked their way into the storage facility, I await the truck that runs on the narrow-gauge railway through the mountain. My afternoon is to be spent in the Forest of Chimes. My work there is to gather the birds that have fallen in the night. It isn’t as difficult as one might expect and is really a rescue operation because the birds will be released. And then they will return, inevitably.

I am keen to find the white-eyed bird with the red beak. It has been a regular of mine for as long as I can remember, and is due back.

The truck is never late and always takes twenty minutes. As soon as it stops, I climb into the single empty carriage, and sit on the bench. Before long it begins to move. I hold onto the rail, my only protection as the truck swerves out of the storage facility.

I close my eyes on entering the tunnel, and concentrate on listening to the high-pitched whine of the generator and the rhythmic clank of wheels on rails. I smell the bleakness, the damp urinous odour. I hear the echo as the truck enters the caverns, and feel the warm wind on my face as it picks up speed in the tunnels. Here I summon images of leaping leopards, quarrelling monkeys, mountainous waves, the sound of the wind in the full-leaved branches of great beech trees. I have seen none of these, although smaller beeches grew at the bottom of my garden when I was a child. The cocktail of images quells my fear of the tunnels, a necessity because who would know if I were to be lost in here, who would guess where I might end up, who would care?

The truck drops me off at midday and I climb out. The forest is mostly stone and deafening. The chimes wrack the thin air, bouncing from rock to towering rock. Fossilised leaves spike towards the pale blue sky. Bark like barbed bone is carved into the rock by silt on the wind. It is warm. I take off my jacket and put on the visor, insert earplugs, pick up the cage and head between the trees.

I find the white-eyed bird with the red beak halfway up a column of rock, and although he is dazed by the gathering heat of the day, I manage to coax him into the cage without difficulty. He is around a metre in height. He has grown since we last met and takes up most of the cage. I would like to feed him but I haven’t seen any mice for a while.

A few smaller birds are scattered on the forest floor. I manage to fit them into the cage too. They appear to be unconscious. It’s the chimes that do that. They can’t stand it and who can blame them. The small birds…

Etla will tell me the cups aren’t clean. She always says so. I’d do anything for Etla. Of course I would. But our container is small. When Darinda has gone, Etla will play with her dolls, her princes and divas. I will clean the cups again. When we turn off the light and open the doors beneath the arch, the yellow moon will cast a golden glow on the river and I will tell her to look at the jaunty silhouette formed by the distant chimneys on the horizon.

I climb to the top of the high tree where there is a platform, and fasten the cage and myself to the zip wire. The view from here is daunting because of the spikes in the forest below us. The forest appears endless and as I step off the platform into the desolation of space, I look into the pale blue sky.

“Nothing to worry about.” I tell the white-eyed bird with the red beak, because he is stiffening as the zip wire picks up speed. “Look up at the sky. You’re as safe as you can ever be.”

The white-eyed bird with the red beak spreads his wings making the cage swing, and settles on top of one of the smaller birds.

The zip wire returns me to the cave with its lines of trolleys loaded with book trunks waiting to be dragged through the stone showers at the other end of the tunnel. I release the white-eyed bird with the red beak, and he hops off without glancing sideways. I lay the smaller birds in a line on a wet grey slab of granite that shimmers in the sunlight. Their little hearts still beat. And that’s what counts.

I drag the trolley into the darkness of the tunnel.

Amanda Oosthuizen’s stories and poems have been published online, in print, in galleries, in Winchester Cathedral and pasted up on the London Underground. Recent successes include the Winchester Poetry Prize and The Pre-Raphaelite Society’s poetry competition. Work is forthcoming in Riggwelter, Prelude, Storgy and Under the Radar.  She has an MA with distinction in Creative Writing from the University of Chichester where she was joint winner of the Kate Betts Prize, and earns her living by writing and arranging music and teaching woodwind in Hampshire, U.K..