Short Story: Something Soft Underfoot
Two boys found the hatchling. Okie was the first to see it as a speck by the trunk of a paper bark tree. It appeared frail in design with thin ankles and rickety wings. It had no feathers to fly with. There was nothing between it and the open planes of grass and bitumen. Yet it still sidled close to the trunk, burying its head into the folds of bark.
Randall knew Okie had seen something because he saw Okie’s eyes narrow. Their school bags had been bouncing to the rhythm of their steps. Lunch boxes rattled inside their bags and the zippers chimed. And then there was silence. Randall only acknowledged the existence of these sounds by noticing their absence. That was when he knew something was off.
Okie walked ahead while Randall scanned the grass. He crouched by the trunk and scooped the bird into his hands, discovering the bird’s skeleton could be felt just beneath the surface of its skin. The joints were delicate. Toothpick-like limbs bent under the slightest pressure. Okie stroked the back if its head with a forefinger, brushing the stream of hair this way and that.
Okie turned to show Randall. For a moment Okie recognised someone else. The person standing there was hunched into shape. There was something in this boy’s face. Something sharp in the eyebrows, or round in the jaw. Okie stared, following this thing as it travelled around Randall’s face. He tried to capture it, to pin it down and figure out exactly which curve had deepened. Every time he came close it slipped between his fingers.
It was forbidden for anyone else to touch the bird. Not through any words did they decide this, but through an unspoken pact that ensnared them from that moment on. The hands of others’ held the same greed as thieves. Casting an eye on the bird for too long was an act of perversion, one that might set fire to its back and diminish its value in some proportionate way.
The boys agreed to keep the bird at Okie’s home. He lived only with his mother and she often retreated from rooms in silence or loitered in the kitchen. Okie loved the long hallways and deserted rooms. The absence of life in these places made them vast, untouched, and free to roam.
Randall’s home, however, was always bursting with noise. People came and went from rooms without knocking. Once, the two friends had been laying belly-down on the floor of Randall’s room, colouring in the shapes of animals, laughing and trading crayons. Randall’s elder brother busted into the room. He trampled the bits of paper and did not stop to notice how he’d creased the pages and torn the edges. No, Randall’s family was far too dangerous for his home to share with the bird.
In the laundry Okie gathered several towels together. He placed the bird in the centre and placed the bundle on the lounge room table. The table was made from glass. Okie watched the bird sleep and if he squinted just right he could see it resting on a cloud in the sky.
After Randall went home Okie walked around the house with the bird in his hands. Together they explored the rooms. They discovered the underside of beds and tables. They used the slope of the bathtub as a slide. Okie watched as this new thing brought life to the house – to his house. Okie would linger his eyes on the bird, perplexed and overcome by this new meaning. The bird would blink and Okie believed, in his bones, that it understood him.
When his mother was home Okie kept the bird out of sight in a shoebox under his bed. He punched holes in the lid with the sharp end of a pencil and lined the inside with feathers he pulled from his pillow. Several rubber bands worked as a lock, keeping the lid together with the box. Okie repeated these details back to Randall, who appeared at the front door one morning.
“Is it safe?”
Randall stood a little too close to Okie’s face as he asked. Okie saw right into Randall’s face. Into the frown of his mouth. Into the wetness glazing his pupils. No matter what Okie said he knew Randall would think he was lying. And because Randall believed it, Okie began to doubt his words. That maybe he was keeping some vital detail hidden away.
Okie took the stares to his room two at a time after school that day. An irrational fear gripped him. What if the bird was no longer there? What if it had escaped? What if, at that very moment, it was being crushed under the wheels of a car - or worse, the neighbour’s cat was toying with it? Okie lifted the lid and the sight of the sleeping bird flushed him with relief.
Randall, no longer satisfied by Okie’s words, went to his house after school more often. Almost every afternoon Okie’s ears were wrapped with a sharp knock on the front door. One day, two weeks after he found the bird, Okie noticed it was growing dark outside. Thunder cracked in the distance. The atmosphere had begun compressing the air in the house. And there was a sharp knock on the door. Okie flinched. He stood still and silent, knowing it was Randall, and pretended not to be home.
This time, instead of waiting on the porch or walking back down the street, Randall pushed his face against the window, his eyes peering inside. In the dark hallway he spied Okie’s toes.
‘Let me in!’ Randall tried calling over the trees as they complained against the wind.
His whereabouts was revealed. Okie had no choice but to unlock the door. Randall pried the door open faster than Okie could open it. He ran into the house, his schoolbag bouncing and jingling. Randall pulled the shoebox out from under Okie’s bed. He created the nest of towels, placed the bird inside and moved the prized bundle to the coffee table.
Okie stared, held in place by what he saw. Unable to move closer, he walked outside.
Randall sat on the carpet with his shoes and socks off and gazed at the bird, committing its yellow beak to memory and counting how many seconds passed between blinks. Out here in the open the bird could breathe. Couches faced the bird out of honour. Decadent lamps bowed out of respect. It was the centre of all things and it was the axis on which the house spun.
Okie returned from the garden with dirt under his nails and dark spots on his jumper from the few first drops of rain. Dying worms squirmed in his fist as he cleaned them in the sink. He stood on the ends of his toes and craned his neck to watch the bird. It was curled up, sleeping. He could see it breathing – its small chest rapidly rising and falling. And beside it was Randall – always Randall.
Randall pulled out leftover food from his lunch box. He watched as Randall bit a bruised green apple into tiny pieces. And he watched Randall chew them with an open mouth and spit them into his hands, covered in saliva. Randall then began pushing the mush against the bird’s beak.
Okie, who had been watching very silently until now, dropped the dead worms and ran at Randall. Surprise and frightened, Randall made a confused attempt to get to his feet. But it was too late. The boys collided and intertwined. They toppled. They came down on the glass table, the bird beneath them.