'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
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
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
'Masses. They were just
yelpin' back there, didn't ya hear 'em?'
'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
'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
'Feast your eyes! A fresh
'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
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
'Don't mention it,' said the
birdcatcher, adding, 'Well, how're things goin' in the world of
'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
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
'Well, from a long, long way
off, anyway,' said the birdcatcher, readily nodding, as if he knew all