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.)