THE BIRDCATCHER

'Mind if I sit down here?'

Giovanni and Campanella heard a kindly, gravelly adult's voice behind them.
The voice had come from a man with a stoop and a red beard, dressed in a shaggy brown overcoat and carrying his things in a huge bundle that was wrapped in white cloth and slung in two equal halves over his shoulders.

'Fine with us,' said Giovanni in reply, shrugging.

The man smiled faintly through his beard and lifted his bundle carefully onto the baggage rack above.

Giovanni was feeling immensely sad and lonely as he stared in silence at the clock in front of him. Far up ahead what sounded like a glass flute rang out and the train moved smoothly forward. Campanella was examining the ceiling. A black beetle had come to rest on one of the lights, casting a monstrous shadow. The man with the red beard was staring intently at the two boys as if something in them were taking him back to somewhere or some time else. The train gradually began to pick up speed, and the pampas grass and river alternated in lighting up the air outside.

'May I enquire as to where you boys would be heading?' asked the man timidly.

'Further than anybody,' answered Giovanni sheepishly.

'That's really something. That's precisely where this train is going.'

'So where are you going?' asked Campanella suddenly and in a quarreling tone that made Giovanni smile.

Then a man across the aisle, sporting a pointy cap and dangling a large key from his waist, stole a look at them and smiled too, making Campanella blush and smile himself. But the man with the red beard didn't look angry in the least, and his cheeks twitched as he said...

'I'm gettin' off a bit down the track. Birdcatchin's my line.'

'What birds do you catch?'

'Why, cranes an' wild geese. An' herons an' swans, too.'

'Are there lots of cranes here?'

'Masses. They were just yelpin' back there, didn't ya hear 'em?'

'No.'

'If ya listen you can still hear 'em now. Prick up your ears and listen.'

Giovanni and Campanella raised their eyes and listened carefully. Amid the soft echo of the chugging of the train and the swishing of the pampas grass they heard the bubbly frothing and gurgling of water.

'How do you catch a crane?'

'Do you mean cranes or herons?'

'Uh, herons,' said Giovanni, not really caring which.

'Easy as pie! Herons are made of congealed sand from the Milky Way's bed, an' they keep comin' back to the river in a constant stream. If you wait on the bank all of them come soarin' down with their feet out like this, an' I pluck 'em off like sittin' ducks just before they reach the ground. Then they curdle up and pass on serenely to, well, greener pastures. Everybody knows what happens next. You press 'em.'

'Press 'em? You mean like flowers or specimens?'

'They're not specimens, no. I mean, everybody eats 'em. You boys know that much, don't you?'

'Sounds funny to me,' said Campanella, cocking his head.

'It ain't funny an' it ain't dubious in the least. Watch.' The man stood up and brought his bundle down from the rack, untying it with a nimble twirl of his fingers.

'Feast your eyes! A fresh batch.'

'They really are herons!' blurted out the boys.

There were some ten of them, somewhat ironed out, their black legs crumpled in under them, lying in a row side-by-side as if carved in relief, their pure white bodies radiating the very light of the Northern Cross that they had passed.

'They've all got their eyes closed,' said Campanella, gently touching a bird's white eyelid that was the shape of a crescent moon. They even had their white crests sticking out like spears.

'See what I mean?' said the birdcatcher, wrapping up his catch again, folding the cloth and securing it with twine.
Who on earth around here would eat a heron?
This is what Giovanni thought as he asked, 'Do herons taste good?'

'Good as goose! I've got orders flyin' in faster than I can fill 'em. But the wild geese, I should say, are in greater demand. Geese have much more breeding, an' what's more, they cause no trouble in the handling. Here.'

The birdcatcher untied the other bundle. Inside it was a row of yellow, off-white and speckled geese with their beaks lined up neatly and their bodies slightly flattened out, just like the herons.

'These geese may be gobbled anytime. How about it? Dig in.'

The birdcatcher gently pulled the yellow leg of a goose. It came off in a nice clean piece, as if it were made of chocolate.

'Eh, how about it? Have a piece on me,' he said, breaking the leg in two and giving them a half each.

Giovanni took a little bite and thought to himself...
Hold on, this is cake! It even tastes better than chocolate. This man is pulling our leg when he says that these geese can fly. He's just a cake salesman out in the field somewhere. But I do feel sorry for him, taking his cake and eating it too.
But even so, he didn't stop munching away on it.

'Have a bite more,' said the birdcatcher, reaching again for his bundle.

'Thank you just the same,' declined Giovanni, who really did want to have another piece.

So the birdcatcher offered it to the man with the large key in the seat across the aisle from him.

'Much obliged, but I shouldn't really be dippin' into your stock,' said the man, tipping his cap.

'Don't mention it,' said the birdcatcher, adding, 'Well, how're things goin' in the world of migratory birds?'

'Great, we're runnin' at full capacity. Just day before yesterday, during the second shift, calls kept comin' in askin' me why the light in the lighthouse was on the blink, blinkin' at irregular intervals, you know, so I says to 'em, heaven only knows, it's not my doin', but it's the birds migratin' in big packed flocks passin' in front of the light, so what can you do? Ain't no good come complainin' to me, I tell 'em, take your complaint, I says, to the big fella with the long narrow beak an' the spindly legs, the one wearin' the cape that flutters in the wind! I gave it to 'em, I did! Ha!'

The pampas grass was gone now leaving the field outside shining with a new radiance.

'What makes the herons so hard to handle?' Campanella had been meaning to ask this from before.

'Look,' said the birdcatcher, turning back to the boys, 'you see, if you want to eat a heron, you've gotta first hang him up for a good ten days in the liquid light of the Milky Way, or you can bury 'em in the sand for a few days. It evaporates the mercury and then you can eat 'em.'

'This is no bird, it's really cake, isn't it!'

Both Giovanni and Campanella had been thinking this, but it was Campanella who had taken the plunge.

'That's right, this is where I get off,' said the birdcatcher, looking frightfully rushed. He then stood up, grabbed his big cloth bag and was soon nowhere to be seen.

The boys looked at each other, their eyes saying, 'Where did he go?' But the lighthouse keeper was all grin, leaning in front of the boys to peer out their window.

Out there they all saw the very same birdcatcher who had been with them a moment before. He was standing on a riverbank surrounded by chickweed that was giving off a lovely yellow and eggshell-white phosphorescence. He was staring up at the sky with a determined look, his two arms stretched out like wings.

'There he is! It's so weird. I bet he's got his eye on the birds right now. If only they would fly down before the train goes by!'

No sooner had those words left Giovanni's mouth than did a veritable snowfall of herons, squawking and calling, come fluttering down from the barren dark violet sky. At that, the birdcatcher, chuckling with glee that things were really coming his way now, spread out his legs on a 60 degrees angle, taking in the birds by their black legs hand over fist, pinning them down in his cloth bag. Once inside the bag the birds flickered blue, on and off like fireflies, until, in the end, they turned a hazy white colour and shut their eyes.

Most of the birds, however, were not caught. They came to a safe landing on top of the sand by the river, and as their feet touched the sand their bodies curled in, flattening like melted snow, spreading along the surface l ike molten copper fresh from a blast furnace, their forms clinging momentarily to the sand, turning light and dark, light and dark, until finally blending in without a trace.
The birdcatcher, now with some twenty birds in his bag, suddenly lifted both arms skyward, like a soldier who had been hit by a bullet and was on his last legs...when, in a flash, there was no sign of him outside and Giovanni heard a familiar voice coming from the seat next to him...

'Ah, I feel like a new man. Yep, nothin' like a hard day's work, best way to earn a crust!'

It was the birdcatcher himself, making rows of the herons which he had just caught and stacking them in a neat pile.

'How did you get back here in such a flash?' asked Giovanni, feeling both that he had expected the man to do it and yet that it was something quite miraculous as well.

'How? 'Cause I wanted to, that's how. Now, where on earth was it you two boys said you hailed from?'

Giovanni was about to answer when he realised that he couldn't for the life of him recall where in the world he came from. Campanella, too, had turned bright red trying to remember.

'Well, from a long, long way off, anyway,' said the birdcatcher, readily nodding, as if he knew all about it.

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(c) Roger Pulvers 1996
The original, ' "Night On The Milky Way Train" in English (Bilingual Edition)',
was published from Chikuma Shobo.