The Cassowary

There’s a park in the Cotswolds, in Bourton-on-the-Water, that might once have housed a cassowary. That park’s name is Birdland, and this is its story (according to my mother).

First of all, a cassowary, that’s a bird. It’s a bird that, when grown, weighs more than I do. It’s a great, prehistoric thing, all horn and gristle and moppish black feathers. Its head’s blue and shiny, with a crest made of bone. Its feet are enormous, with daggers for toes. It can kill you with a swipe. That’s a hundred-pound bird, to be clear, and it’s mean, and it hates you.

Here’s what my mother says happened: I was three, maybe four, and we’d all gone to Birdland. We saw the rooks and the mynahs, and whatever else they had, and I sat down to eat. Only, the minute I tucked in, a cassowary came up, and it wanted a bite. So I gave it a bite, and it wanted another. In fact, it wanted my whole lunch, and it got my whole lunch, and once it’d polished off my sandwich, it came after me. Mother snatched me away, and the cassowary ran, and apart from a pecked bum, I was fine.

Now, here’s what I remember—well, I remember the mynahs. The mynahs were fun. They danced on their perches and called me a naughty boy. They called my father one too, and that made me laugh.

At some point, I got hungry, and I got a ham sandwich. A bird came along, and that much is true. It was larger than I was, and blue, with big feet. It opened its beak, so I gave it my ham. It scoffed all of that and wanted my bread. I tried not to let it, but it ate that up too.

Once my sandwich was eaten, all bets were off. The bird forced its head up my sleeve. It went through my pockets and ransacked my coat. When it found no more treats, it thought it’d eat me, and that’s when it went for my bum. I screamed. Mother swooped. The bird did a runner, and that’s the cassowary story.

Only…it can’t have been a cassowary. It just can’t. Can it?

(Birdland does have a cassowary, according to its website. Maybe more than one.)

Except, they wouldn’t have had one on the loose, all…strolling wild and free. A bird like that, it needs a cage. Some guy, just this year, he tripped and fell and bam. Cassowary. Fucker tore him to shreds. Had his guts for garters.

Could it be one had slipped its enclosure? That I escaped evisceration by the narrowest of margins?

I had another theory, for a while, that I was assaulted by a peacock. I’d nearly convinced myself it was true. I mean, it is plausible, more plausible than a cassowary. A peacock, that’s quite a big bird, and it’s blue, and it’s crested, and to a three-year-old, it might seem monstrous. Except, that doesn’t explain Mother’s reaction. An adult mistaking a peacock for a cassowary? Unlikely, to say the least. She was afraid of that bird. She ran at it, flapping her arms. She wanted it off me, and fast.

Maybe it was an emu. They’re sort of crested, and arguably bluish.

A marabou stork? Those are bald.

I wish I remembered it better. I’ve this vague mental snapshot of some long-necked, big-bodied, hissing-beaked thing—are there blue, crested geese? I remember how it pinched me. It snaked its neck under the bench and took a bite through the slats. That’s goosey behaviour. But it wasn’t a goose.

Maybe my memory’s at fault. Maybe I heard the story a thousand times, and my mind sketched in the image of a cassowary. Maybe I was pecked by a pheasant.

Anyway, that’s the cassowary story. I’ve told it before. I’m telling it again in hopes, I don’t know…anyone know of some big British bird, something that might pass for a cassowary, while being essentially harmless? It’s just, I’d hate to imagine there exists some mirror world where that was my death.

(I had this little blue coat back then, pale powder-blue. I wore it everywhere I went. They’d have snapped that for the papers, all soaked in my blood.)

Cassowary.

13 thoughts on “The Cassowary

    1. Ha! You know, it really does. I don’t remember the bright red head, but we ARE talking about something that happened 36, 37 years ago. It doesn’t look like Birdland currently has any, but who knows what they had in the early ’80s?

      I’d believe I was pecked by a pheasant sooner than a cassowary.

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      1. Apologies for the sporadic replies, by the way. I’ve been complaining about things being uneventful, but they upgraded to “mildly stressful”.

        On a totally unrelated note, just had a dream that my late step-father came back from the dead, or rather, in the dream, from a long absence somewhere else. We never got along well when he was alive, so the dream was full of very realistic tension. He seemed milded out and respectful of my adult status, and yet trying to find any petty opportunity for criticism and showing that he knows better (one dialogue I remember went like this – Him: “What kind of a drink beer is anyway? Why bother when you can always have vodka, amirite?”, Me: “Actually, I rather like beer…” Him: (with loud derision) “What are you, some kind of a Nazi officer? Drinking beer…! Hmmmph!”). The one odd thing in the dream was that he intended to teach me about life through a boardgame, something about space pilots and trading in gold (the game included actual gold nuggets as counters). Such an odd dream.

        I have to go to Jerusalem tomorrow to help reallocate books. Not very fun sounding, but might be an opportunity to go out somewhere else.

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        1. That’s all right. Nobody on the Internet expects instant replies. You know, either people are by their computers or they aren’t. I’ve been by mine a lot lately, as I’ve been somewhat under the weather, but I’d hardly expect the rest of the world to stay chained to theirs.

          Your late stepfather sounds like this “Uncle Boris” you described. Not to be rude, I mean, but with the line about vodka being better than beer. Myself, I prefer cider or champagne, ice wine, anything that tastes more of fruit than liquor. Well, if I must drink, I mean. Ordinarily, I don’t drink at all.

          I keep having dreams that melt into reality, lately, probably because I haven’t been well, and I keep drifting in and out of sleep, even while I’m trying to work. Usually, this is harmless, but the other day, I woke up and didn’t realise I’d been dreaming, and kept trying to follow the same train of thought. In the dream, I’d been thinking about a book I’d just read. Half-awake, there was a hole in my memory where the book should’ve been. This was because the book didn’t exist, of course, but for a few moments, I was convinced I was going senile. I panicked and couldn’t remember how old I was. Then I woke up for real, shook off the dream, and went back to work. (The dream where my upstairs neighbour was spying on me was another one of those. I woke up with my heart absolutely pounding, though someone watching me sleep isn’t even that frightening, objectively speaking.)

          What is it you do, anyway? I just realised I have no idea, beyond that you’re a student. But I presume you must work to support yourself. Are you teaching, perhaps? Well, have a good time in Jerusalem!

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          1. That’s all right. Nobody on the Internet expects instant replies. You know, either people are by their computers or they aren’t. I’ve been by mine a lot lately, as I’ve been somewhat under the weather, but I’d hardly expect the rest of the world to stay chained to theirs.

            My stepfather was a field biologist, so too educated for an authentic Russian redneck persona. He didn’t drink as much as smoke, which eventually killed him (lung cancer). He could be friendly and engaging, but had a mean authoritarian streak which spoiled everything. The talk about vodka in the dream, that was just a part of “so, you’re old enough to drink now” spiel, an attempt to be friendly that quickly slid into belligerence, the sort that still masks itself as being “friendly”. I really do like beer (and occasionally scotch or wine), but hate the feeling of being drunk beyond the very lightest buzz. Caffeine is my real drug (with a clear preference for tea over coffee, good coffee is merely alright, a good tea is amazing).

            The short period of uncertainty whether a dream was real, in that groggy state between sleep and waking, is very familiar. Usually, for me, it happens with good dreams, so the general feeling is disappointment. And the thing where you keep dozing off and keep writing nonsensical stream of consciousness happened to me on a history exam once because I was really sleep deprived. I even remember bits and pieces, something about Hitler attacking the Soviet Union because it looked like a giant cow on the map and having unresolved Oedipal issues. Somehow I managed to stay awake enough to cross hatch the odd passages into complete unreadability and write the correct answer, but it was close (it was the same school where the only coffee you could get was made wholly with boiling milk and was utterly disgusting).

            Actually, I don’t even do much student-ing right now, beyond a half hearted study of college math in the hope of improving my matriculation grades to allow pursuing something in Physics or Chemistry, I’m not actually sure what I want to do. It’s all rather frustrating and uncertain. I have a very small independent income from a tiny flat that I rent out, so I don’t necessarily have to work, at least, as long as I keep living in a cheap area. Teaching is something I consider for the occasion of moving back to Jerusalem or Tel-Aviv to enroll in a university again.

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            1. Your stepfather sounds a lot like my actual father, then, right down to the smoking, though it hasn’t killed him yet. He traded his pipe for cigarettes a few years after I was born, then cut those out slowly till his habit was gone. I wouldn’t be surprised if he still secretly smokes, but who knows? I haven’t seen the man since I was eighteen. One of his favourite hobbies was trying to outwit me. He always wanted me to know he was smarter than I was. Maybe that’s so: he was a professor; I write fuckbooks. But I happen to know he WANTED to be a judge.

              I’m glad to hear it’s not just me who gets days like that, drifting between sleep and wakefulness. Whenever I have a few in a row, I start to think I’m dying. You hear about that, people on their deathbeds sleeping more and more, and you see it in old dogs. So when I can’t stay awake, I think I’m done for. I didn’t write down ALL that nonsense, by the way, but some of it did find its way to the page. Some of my sleep breaks were longer than others, like…proper, deep sleep. The one where the Duke had Munchausen’s by proxy, I must’ve slept for an hour. That one was detailed, and it made sense in my dream, and I woke up eager to write it all down. It didn’t fit at all, of course, so I abandoned that plan when I’d brushed out the cobwebs. (Sad, though. The arsenic might’ve been a fun twist.)

              Ah, I see—you’re an evil slumlord, then. Ha, ha! Living off your tenants’ despair while you pick a career at your leisure. (I’m joking, of course.) I’d go for chemistry, if it were me. Physics is more interesting, but chemistry has better jobs. Hey, you could be Walter White! (Or, y’know, not. Preferably not.)

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              1. Wanting to be a judge sounds pretty much like wanting to be a politician but with an even stronger “buying into the system” component. Maybe, he wanted to outwit you precisely because he felt that you were smarter than him… Many people can’t have that, their children outsmarting them. Also, the moment you try to prove that you’re smarter than someone else, is the moment you automatically lose, can’t think of the least smart thing to do. Fuckbooks is something that people enjoy, professorship is just a title.

                Sleeping a lot and thinking that you’re dying sounds a lot like depression tbh. Or maybe some sort of vitamin deficiency. Can you take time off work? To get back on your feet kind of thing… Or is the management draconian and liable to think of replacing you at the first opportunity? The one phrase that caused a strong mental image was “weeping grease like pus”… Greasy food IS awful.

                Chemistry also needs slightly less math, apparently, though you still need to understand Quantum mechanics to do anything significant. I’ve just talked to a friend who takes the same University prep course I took years ago, and they’re being taught calculus and statistics, something we weren’t (when asked for it the admins told us that “not enough people were interested”). Now, I have to figure all of that stuff on my own because I’m greedy/broke. Meh… I feel like sounding like a grumpy old man most of the time these days.

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                1. Ah, it would do my father a disservice to say his career was just a title. As professors go, he was one of the good ones. The sort who knows how to inspire. I think, for him, being a judge would’ve been about understanding the legal system, more than anything else, a series of puzzles to be solved. I doubt the authority would’ve interested him so much as the law itself. Then again, I really don’t know him too well.

                  Who knows if I might’ve outsmarted him? He liked to remind me I wasn’t that bright, which I found confusing, as I could get good marks with little effort, in nearly any subject. Maybe he was referring more to my life choices. I never thought to ask him. I was too busy being irritated. He had a talent for finding the moments when I might’ve felt some pride and utterly ruining them with his carping. I think that was the point. Can’t say why he did it. Maybe to keep me from having an ego. But I wasn’t a popular child. Being the smart kid was my thing. I disliked him poking holes in that.

                  I don’t think depression is my problem. I suspect malnutrition. I haven’t been able to eat much lately. I’ve been surviving on vitamin drinks and Gatorade again. I always get dozy when I’m not feeling well. I think it’s the body’s escape from pain, like “let’s not do this right now.” Time off work might be dodgy, as I have deadlines to worry about, but I could take a break in a week or two. Sleep all day for a while. Start to eat again.

                  I get dreams like that, with the cheese-pus, when I feel sick. I dream about eating, because I’m hungry, but the food is awful, because I’m nauseated. I should be grateful, though. At least I’m not dreaming of my favourite foods. That would ruin them completely.

                  I always liked organic chemistry, back in uni. It was interesting. You’d need maths, of course, but it’s mostly the interesting sort of maths, not, like…putting-up-drywall maths, where you’re doing it with your brain half switched off. Might be up your alley.

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                  1. You know, these attempts at keeping children “humble” usually have the opposite effect. I know for certain that my tendency to have a large ego has accumulated precisely because of moments like this, when someone (close family), tries to bring down or belittle your achievements. All unpleasant traits are defence mechanisms run amok.

                    Whenever I’m not hungry but I know I have to eat, I just whip up a small portion of shredded wheat porridge kind of thing. It’s not really a porridge, because I turn it off before it gets mushy, and mix it with passata from the fridge to cool it down and make it immediately edible. It seems to work as a “nutrient” kind of thing without being too heavy. I’ve never had celery salt. And speaking of frozen desserts, I’ve recently seen someone on the internet mention eating vanilla ice cream with habanero Tabasco sauce… And well, it DOES work. Spicy ice cream. Can you eat spicy foods though, or is it another heartburn risk?

                    You’ve just made me realise that I never ever had unpleasant food dreams. Food in general very rarely appears in them, but when it does, always in a positive light. Might be the inherited memory of previous generations living in Russia, where food was scarce and you were always happy to see it.

                    You were probably stung by wasps, not bees. Bees are really reluctant to attack you because for them, it’s a suicide mission. In fact, if you get too close to them and they feel uneasy, they warn you to back off by headbutting you first. We have those big scary Vespa Orientalis hornets flying around everywhere, they’re usually pretty docile, but I’ve heard that they can confuse certain deodorants and perfumes for their danger pheromone, and attack en masse unprovoked. In Haifa specifically though, you get even more carpenter bees. They look like large black bumblebees with blue metallic sheen and no fuzz. Very pretty, living jewellery sort of effect. And they practically never sting.

                    Lounging in a chair in a big floppy hat like that looks very stylish, maybe the bees/wasps are just envious of your debonair nonchalance.😉

                    Also really enjoy the profusion of creepy, toothy, multi-eyed things in the doodles.

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                    1. Ha! Who knows what effect it had on my ego, but it certainly made me like my father less. I get along fine with him now, but there was a time when I thought how easy it would be to frighten him to death, sneaking up behind him in my socks. (I kept accidentally scaring him by coming downstairs to get food, and walking behind him unheard. My shadow on the wall would send him hurtling across the room in terror. I never did this on purpose, but it occurred to me I COULD….)

                      Shredded wheat porridge. That sounds, ah, terrible. Ha, ha! Whenever I’m not hungry but know I should eat, I nibble poppy seed crackers. Or I wander back and forth from the fridge, taking bites from whatever pasta salad or chickpea dish I’ve got from the deli. Sadly, I can’t have either ice cream or spicy foods, though. Spice of any sort gives me heartburn, and I can’t touch milk at all.

                      I think the only time I dream of food at all is when I’m too sick to want any. I don’t remember ever seeing food in a dream in any other context. It’s a shame, rather, as food’s a real pleasure, something to look forward to—but I suppose you can’t taste anything in dreams.

                      As far as bees go, I’m not sure what we’ve got here, but there’s certainly some sort of aggressive, stinging creature on the loose. I really only saw the second one, as the other two got me in my sleep. And I wasn’t wearing my specs. All I could see was something black and yellow on my foot, something that stung and ran. It did leave its stinger behind, though, which is why I thought it must be a bee. It left it under my skin, and I had to tweeze it out. The other two didn’t do that. So maybe I got stung by one bee and two mystery pests. Or one bee and its two vengeful brothers. Well, I’m working outside again today, so let’s see what happens, eh?

                      My mother tries to throw out my big floppy hat every time she visits, because it makes me look like some weird urban farmer, but I like it. It keeps the sun off (and, really, that’s its only job). Plus, it’s the only hat I have left, since Ilya Nikolayich Dolgonosov stole the other one, or it blew away, or whatever happened there.

                      Thanks, by the way, about the creepy, toothy, multi-eyed things. I’ve been enjoying those. I think my blog doodles are evolving. The original ones were nearly all birds, and I made some attempt at colour and texture. Now, there’s more creepy shit, and I haven’t bothered with colour in a while. Except red.

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                    2. I used to accidentally scare people in the kitchen too, when we lived in a house with stairs, I walk very quietly which creates the effect of appearing out of thin air behind people’s backs. Usually though, their startled reaction startled me back as I was about to absent mindedly rummage through the fridge. There was also the time when my cousin tried to scare me by hiding just behind the entrance and jumping out with a loud shout, but it was so sudden that I didn’t have time for a proper scared reaction, just an “oh, it’s you”… He was really disappointed.

                      Re shredded wheat porridge, I might have mistermed that. What I actually do is add in turmeric, laurel leaf, many garlic cloves, a bit of mint, and boil it for the shortest period of time with the smallest amount of water so it doesn’t get either watery or mushy. So you get these spicy al dente grains, that you mix with cold passata to cool them down. It’s basically kind of like wheat biryani, but without the meat.

                      Speaking of dreams, I’ve just had a dream about getting chased by zombies through a dark, medieval-ish labyrinth. It felt very much like a video game, because beside zombies the labyrinth was patrolled by several other kinds of undead (the most menacing being skeletal floaty things in red hoods and with glowing eyes – very obviously magic). We were a band of survivors escaping from some enemy camp, and the zombies weren’t pursuing us directly, but rather lagged somewhere behind as we tried to navigate the labyrinth and leave behind booby traps to slow their progress. It wasn’t heartpoundingly scary, but tense in the same way as trying to find a way out of an abandoned building at night would be (if you knew for sure you were being pursued). In the end, we got out through a series of storage units and public toilets (that began to look increasingly modern), and somehow ended up in front of a gate built into a cliff, and I woke up just in mid attempts of trying to open it.

                      Dreams like that are frustrating to try and describe, because the most important thing about them is the feeling that’s very difficult to put a word to. A sort of all pervading anxiety that leaves a lump in your throat and at the same time feels a lot like the sense of wonder you had as a kid, the sort that you had when in unfamiliar and exciting environments. And a bit of pinching nostalgia mixed together with it all. I tried to go back to sleep and finish the dream, I wanted to know how it ends, I liked my companions, though not remembering what they were like.

                      You should hide your favourite clothes when your mother comes visiting.

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                    3. There was one time my mother absolutely scared the bejesus out of me. I think I mentioned it on Facebook. She was visiting, and she’d gone to bed, and I was in the kitchen getting a drink. As I was opening my drink, I turned around, and she was RIGHT THERE, nearly standing on my feet. I just about died. Ordinarily, nobody manages to sneak up on me, but I was very interested in my drink.

                      The shredded wheat porridge does sound a lot better, put like that. I was picturing some kind of…horrible mushy oatmeal with passata on top, utterly without taste. I’d have to be well and truly starving to eat something like that. Isn’t it odd, though, how when you’re really hungry or thirsty, things that ordinarily taste bad or have almost no flavour suddenly become delicious? Like if you’re dehydrated, water tastes sweet; if you’re starving, even a cracker explodes with savoury deliciousness? Maybe it’s the brain’s way of encouraging you to keep eating or drinking when you need to.

                      I know the feeling you’re describing, from your dream. I love dreams like that, the ones that really ground you in some place or time, even if it’s not a real one. The only dream I can recall from the last few nights, I was a police officer, and some guy threatened to hit me, and I decided I wanted to kill him. So I kept goading him and goading him till he took a swing, then I punched him in the throat, let him fall, then “accidentally” trod on his throat, breaking his hyoid bone. It wasn’t a good dream. I don’t like to watch myself doing these things.

                      You know, my mother even threw out this one ugly old dress that I’d saved for more than 20 years, as it was the only memento I had of the year I spent in Texas. She insists she didn’t do it, but I know she did. It annoys me every time I think about it. I’d never have worn the thing again, but I didn’t want to throw it away.

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