Moyra Kincaid's bantam cock, Apollo, greets the dawn every morning with a cry far bigger than one would expect from such a little bird.
On her eighth birthday, she lies in bed, watching the daybreak seep through the hole in the curtain that her Ma tried to mend once more, listening to the first few caws as he clears his throat. Then his serenade starts; louder than usual today, she smiles, knowing he's wishing her a happy birthday.
On and on he sings, until she hears Pa grumble to Ma, 'Shut the bird up, Alice, or I'll do it.'
There's a squeak--her parents' bed is as old as her curtains--and a sigh. She scrambles to her knees, watching through the window, as Ma comes out the back door, hair mussed from sleep, her faded pink nightgown flapping around her slippered feet.
'Shoo!' Ma's noise doesn't even cause a hitch in Apollo's voice. He croons even louder, until a slipper nicking his tail feathers ends his performance.
Laughing at his disgruntled squawk, Moyra scrambles back beneath the covers. She'll wait until Ma comes in. Pretending to be asleep, she'll let Ma wake her, bringing her the present. Never big, it's always just something small Ma makes. A doll's dress. Or a special cake. It's not much, but to Moyra, it means the world.
This year there is no present.
'Your brain will freeze, sleeping so late,' Ma says, and pulls open the curtains. Moyra peeps at her over the top of the blanket, straining to see what she's carrying. 'It's a school day. Hurry up!' She turns, and Moyra sees her hands are empty. 'And you must feed the bantams before you go--we want them fat and juicy, don't we?'
She sees the beginnings of a smile on Ma's face. Relieved, she smiles back. This must be a game. Ma knows it's her birthday, and she wants it to be a surprise. So, Moyra plays along, slipping her skinny legs over the edge of the bed, so they shrivel with the cold of the cement floor as she says, 'School finishes early today.'
'I know,' says Ma, and her smile gets broader. 'You'll be home in time for lunch.' She runs a hand through the tangled hair on Moyra's head. 'You're getting to be such a big girl now,' and the child wonders why her mother's smile suddenly looks sadder.
But she forgets that in the excitement of rushing to school; of seeing her class gathered at the school gates, holding hand-painted cards that say 'Happy Birthday, Moyra!' There are no presents--none of them are rich. She's heard Ma complain to Pa, that she never wanted to live in a poor neighbourhood, to be so poor it's a battle to put food on the table, but today Moyra lives in the richest neighbourhood in town. The teacher makes a paper crown for her, and the class sings happy birthday, even awful Billy Jones who, every day, steals the jam sandwich Ma packs for her lunch.
Today she's not shy Moyra Kincaid, with freckles and her curious, nosy-parker mind. Today she's one of them.
Closing her eyes in bliss, she thinks of Apollo and Daphne, her best friends. When they hear the rattle of the corn feed against the aluminium bucket, they crowd around her, seeming like twenty not two, in their eagerness to peck the golden kernels off her palm. She laughs in time to their cackling and whispers her secrets to them as they search busily for the last few grains of corn.
'It's Sally-Anne's birthday party on Saturday,' she says. 'But I'm not invited.' She scratches Apollo's head and he gives a comforting chirrup. 'It's my freckles.'
Or, 'I got full marks in the algebra test. Teacher likes me but,' she tells Daphne, throwing a handful of seed to the little brown-and-white hen, 'the others hissed at me.' When the bird only ruffles her feathers before scratching busily at the ground in search of more food, it makes an odd sense to Moyra. We love you, Daphne tells her, it's not so important that they like you.
But today, on this special day, she can tell them that, for once, they aren't her only friends. Today the whole world is a friend to Moyra Kincaid.
When the bell rings to free them from school Moyra, still flushed from the excitement of the day, dawdles. She lingers, extracting the last joy from the day, before carefully removing the paper crown and putting it in her satchel so it won't tear before she gets it home to show Apollo and Daphne.
Ma and Pa are waiting for her at the gate and, until she sees their smiles, she wonders why Pa is home from work so early.
'Happy Birthday, Moyra, love,' they chorus as she unlatches the gate, and they fuss over her crown and tell her how big she's getting.
'Go and wash up, lunch is nearly ready,' Ma says, and smiles the same smile she did when she woke Moyra. 'I've cooked a special treat for your birthday.'
And Moyra laughs as she remembers her momentary fear of this morning, that Ma had forgotten her birthday. Quickly changing out of her school uniform, hanging it up neatly as Ma has taught her. Carefully arranging her paper crown on her hair, she hurries into the backyard, pausing only to collect a bucket of corn.
'Apollo! Daphne!' she calls, rattling the corn in the bucket. When they don't come, she clicks her tongue against her palate, her special call for them. 'Apollo?' She shakes the corn round and round, the noise loud enough to call them from the farthest corners of their backyard kingdom. 'Daphne?'
'They're gone,' her Pa says from the back door.
'Where?' she asks.
'In there.' He jerks his head back towards the house, sniffing the air like a bloodhound on a scent.
She sniffs, too, not smelling anything except the special lunch Ma has cooked. 'Did Ma let them in the house for my birthday?' she asks.
Pa guffaws so loud, he has to take his crisp, white handkerchief out to wipe a bubble of spit from the corner of his mouth. 'You could say that,' he chortles, 'but only as far as the kitchen.'
It's then that she sees the pile of bloody newspapers by the dustbin; a few feathers sticking out from the haphazard folds. 'No-o-o!' she cries, and the aluminium bucket clutters to the ground as she drags her hands upwards to cover her eyes and block the sight out. 'I won't eat! I won't eat!' she cries, a litany of pain searing her heart.
'You will,' Pa says sternly, 'or you'll go hungry, birthday or not!'
'They're my friends.'
Pa looks at her strangely. 'They're stupid birds,' he says. 'They can't be your friends.'
How can she explain to him what they meant to her? She doesn't even try. She knows Pa won't change his mind. 'I won't eat,' she whispers. 'How can I eat them?'
Clumsily, Pa pats her shoulder. 'You'll get over it,' he says. 'After all, they're just birds.' With one last pat, he turns back to the house. 'Tidy up here. Lunch will be ready soon.'
As he disappears into the kitchen, she hunches down and picks a feather up off the ground. Forlorn white fluff, speckled with brown, she weighs it in her palm. So light, she can hardly feel it. Beyond this, did Apollo and Daphne exist outside her mind? Did she dream their friendship? Or was it as insubstantial as the weight of the feather she holds?
An hour later, when Pa calls her to eat, she lets the feather fall. A breath of wind lifts it, sucking it through the ragged wire fence. It snags for a second, as if saying a final goodbye, but then the wind picks up speed, stinging her bare legs with the remnants of scattered corn.
Absently, Moyra rubs her palm first over the faint patch of red on her calf where the seed scratched her; then wipes the last of the moisture from her cheeks.
'Coming, Pa,' she finally says, as he calls her again.
She goes to wash her hands--removing her paper crown, she crumbles it into a discarded ball--and returns to the kitchen. Sliding into her usual seat at the table, she's mortified when her tummy growls loudly at the warm fragrance seeping from the casserole dish as Ma lifts the lid.
'Are you hungry, love?' Ma asks, smiling. 'It's your favourite,' her mother adds, 'Chicken casserole, especially for your birthday.'
Ma heaps her plate high and the saliva gathers under Moyra's tongue. Waiting, as Ma serves the others, she idly picks at a sliver of chicken from her plate, moist with thick brown gravy. Is this Apollo, she thinks? No, she tells herself quickly, it's just a stupid bird.
As she holds out her plate for a second helping, she doesn't yet realise that this birthday is the one she'll remember for all her years to come. For it's the day she puts aside her innocence. Chickens, she learns, are just birds; they aren't for loving. Love is a foolish dream, too dangerous for the heart. Oh yes, she grows up that birthday, for she never again allows herself to love.
Except, perhaps, for the old photograph she buys at a garage sale twenty years later. Old, the glass cracked across the top corner, she pays the price without bargaining. Back at her apartment, she gently dusts it off, and hangs it in her bedroom, where she can see it from her bed.
There's a wooden rail, with a small bantam rooster perched proudly on it, looking down at his brown speckled hen, busily pecking golden corn spilling from an up-ended aluminium bucket. Not everyone's ideal photograph, but Moyra adores it.
'Hello, Apollo,' she whispers, then touches a finger to the busy little hen, frozen in eternal motion through the lens of a camera. 'Hello, Daphne.'
And, for the first time in years, her heart flickers with more than loneliness. She calls it heartburn, blaming the hamburger she ate for lunch. Others, though, would call it love.
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