A Short History of Birds
inspired by the exhibition 'The Wonder of BirdsÓ
at Norwich Castle  Museum, Summer  2014

The Taxidermist's Apprentice

Forbidden to marry, play cards or dice, drink with the lads at music-halls or taverns, Fred Ashby's enjoyment is contained in the moment he lifts to his mouth the fried soft innards he has pulled and scooped from the creatures he wires and wads. 
One wire through the leg, up into the body, coiled round the head.  This is my way.
Tomorrow Mrs Maud Drayton's milliner will come to collect more songbirds to perch on her creations.  He has never met Mrs Maud Drayton but he feels he can see into her soul.

Your hat is a killing field; I wager you have hidden bruises under your silks and satins. Your revenge is the death of little things.

In the yard the chickens scratch and mumble.  Jungle fowl he whispers.  They watch him with mean, homesick eyes, shrug their sooty feathers.  He plucks one or two for the milliner.  Wooing is not marrying he says, licking smears of warm blood from his thick fingers.

Darwin's Last Egg

He dips his quill, carefully writes C. Darwin on the tawny tinamou shell like an eager schoolboy with his first exercise book - My book, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, The World, The Universe.  A vision of bright yolk and runny albumen dribbling from the blown egg makes his stomach tremble as The Beagle clambers yet another wave.  His sun-touched brain sees huge eggs hatching bulging-eyed predators.  Like an omniscient conductor, his hands weave the whole story of creation into the fusty air.  But he is only human after all.  He mixes the raw egg with a tot of rum to clear his head.  Elixir of evolution.  The egg cracks as he presses down on the lid of the only box left in his festering cabin. 

The Christening Cap

is worked on holliepoint, holy point, a lacy dove in flight.  Through the pricked holes the priest can see a saffron crust of cradlecap.  He anoints the child's head where fine lawn meets mottling skin.  The only beautiful thing about the poor babe.  The mite struggles to open disease-gummed lids, a mouth rank with the smell of milky vomit.  The priest turns away to take three swallows of sanctified air.  When he turns back the boy has already gone, still and blue-tinged as a song-thrush egg.  He frowns, that beautiful cap is plain now, homespun. Out of the corner of his eye the priest sees a pale flutter, oh yes, another soul migrating to the moon.

Molly Dancers

Hunt the little king, jenny wren, dryw; kill the little thing, jenny wren, dryw.  Twist its hot, beating neck for today is the day of the Feast of Stephen.  Misrule.  Turn the world on a cartwheel.  Nothing is unlucky today, not even the murder of that tiny heart.  The owls cannot touch me with their cold Minerva beaks.  Today I am your woman-king and you are my man-queen.  My quilty breasts are all I possess.  Turn, turn, turn the world on its head.  Turn, turn, turn from the glint of the long knives.

Passenger Pigeon

In 1866 a Canadian woman stepping into her yard sees a single flock a mile wide, 300 miles long, 3.5 billion birds - mild, brown, they are a fluttering eclipse across the century, a beating skein, thinning, thinning.
   © Sue Burge 2016