“The Underground Bird Sanctuary,” by Kuzhali Manickavel

Fiction by Kuzhali Manickavel from our Winter 2011 issue.

Kumar’s bones were pushing up under his skin like silent hills. His ribs rippled up in hardened waves while his shoulders and wrists stood out in knotted clumps. In the afternoons, I would count Kumar’s bones while he tried to sleep.

“You’re counting the same one twice,” he would mumble without opening his eyes.

“Well it’s poking up in two places. A lot of them are.”

I was sure that some of them had already broken through his skin. Sometimes I would slip my hands under the back of his shirt, expecting to feel his spinal column falling into my hands in a shower of bony coins. I was always a little surprised when that didn’t happen.

Kumar was angry and disappointed in everything and I believed that this was what made his bones so rebellious. He wanted to join the Naxalites, mainly because he had heard that one of his uncles had done that as a teenager. Unfortunately, Kumar couldn’t find any Naxalites and he didn’t know where to look for them. He was here, in this small, crumpled town because it contained a few Tamil Tiger supporters and that was about as close to the Naxalites as he could get.

The only thing that did not anger or disappoint Kumar was dying birds. He liked to bring them home and he liked to get upset about the fact that they were dying. His mouth would set in a weak line and his breath would come out so crookedly that it sounded like he was wheezing. He would overfeed, overwater, and over-everything them until they died, their beaks slightly open as though they were surprised at Kumar’s suffocating love. Once they died, he asked me to bury them. I wrapped the bodies in cloth, then newspaper, and buried them in the strip of ground behind Kumar’s one-room house. The strip was peppered with finches, mynahs, colored chicks, crows, and a small paradise flycatcher, all buried in sloppy ditches topped off with tiny piles of broken brick and gravel. I called it the Underground Bird Sanctuary and sometimes Kumar laughed at this but usually he didn’t because he said it didn’t make any sense.

One night, Kumar brought home a kitten that was covered in mud and panting, which alarmed me because dogs were the ones that were supposed to pant, not cats.  It took all night for the kitten to die and when it did, there was nothing to wrap it in. We finally used one of Kumar’s shirts, knotting the sleeves across it like an oversized bow on a present.

“Now I need a new shirt,” he said, frowning at the tiny, awkward bundle.

We decided to take a bus to town the next morning, buy him a new shirt, and then sit on the rocky beach and share a paper cone of peanuts before going back home. While we waited in the moist, heavy heat of the bus stand, I wondered if the kitten meant that the sanctuary was about to diversify. Maybe he would start bringing home dying monkeys, civet cats, and those tiny black piglets that ran so desperately up and down the road. Maybe when we ran out of space outside, we would start burying the bodies inside.

I turned to Kumar and told him I needed to go to the bathroom.

“Here?” he said, raising his eyebrows. “You want to use a bus stand bathroom?”

“I really need to go,” I said.

He shook his head and shrugged. I walked to the other side of the bus stand, bought a bottle of cold water and caught the third bus I saw. I wondered how long he would wait before he realized I was not coming back.

When I was with Kumar, I used to dream of Naxalites. They had large, black moustaches and Spanish accents and I dreamed that they were digging up the Underground Bird Sanctuary and setting all the birds free. I would ask the Naxalites if Kumar could join them but they would always say no. Then I would chase them, asking them to please reconsider, but they would just keep running and shaking their heads. After I left Kumar, I started dreaming of birds. I dreamed that my arm was splitting open like a fish cutting through water and that ravens, small eagles and sparrows gnarled and twisted around my bones. They fell out of me with a heavy sound, like wet cloth hitting the ground. The dead ones just lay there, their runny eyes staring at the birds that were still alive. The live ones picked themselves up, shook out their wings, and walked away.

Sometimes parts of Kumar’s body would fall out along with the birds. Once his hand fell out, sliced cleanly at the wrist, clutching a tiny purple chick. Another time his entire torso spilled out, speckled with beaks and feathers. Sometimes his mouth would fall out and I would find a small finch nestled underneath his tongue.

One day, I called Kumar.

“I’ve been dreaming about you,” I said. “You and the birds.”

“What birds?” he said. His voice sounded slightly unfamiliar, like a shoe on the wrong foot.

“The Underground Bird Sanctuary,” I said. “Remember? Your birds?”

“They aren’t my birds.”

“Well, no. They aren’t anyone’s birds I guess.”

I asked if I could come down and see him and he said no. A couple of weeks later, I asked him again and he said yes.

Kumar would not meet me at the bus stand because of what I had done to him last time. Instead, he waited for me near a tiny shop where we used to buy green bananas. He was wearing a neat pair of dark blue trousers and a white button-down shirt. He looked at my bag but did not offer to carry it.

“So what’s all this?” I asked. This was the first time I had seen him wearing something that wasn’t baggy shorts or jeans.

“They’re pants,” he said.

“Are they new? They look new.”

“No,” he said as he started walking. “They’re not new.”

At home, we ate biriyani that tasted stale and oily. Kumar took his shirt off and spread a plastic bag on his lap so he wouldn’t get his trousers dirty. He ate quietly and industriously, placing all the chicken bones and boiled egg white in neat piles at the side of his plate. I looked at his jaw, the swell of his arms and chest, the curve of his thumb. His bones seemed to have submerged completely inside his body. He was a stretch of gentle undulations now.

Kumar was no longer into dying birds. When I asked him why, he said things like “rabies” or “bird flu.” I asked if he would buy me a black molly fish to keep and he said fish made him nervous.

“Besides,” he said. “It’s just for a few days.”

“I didn’t know fish made you nervous,” I said.

“Well, now you know.”

He left early the next morning while I was still sleeping and left me a stack of moldering English novels to read because there was nothing else to do here. I had leftover biriyani for breakfast and lunch and spent the day looking at his clothes, his bed sheets, the things he kept in the kitchen. If I looked closely, I could see that everything had changed. Even his towels looked different and I couldn’t understand where they had come from or why they were there. But if I took a step back, everything looked exactly the same.

In the evening, we both walked to the nearby ice cream parlor and had orange ice sticks. I told him about my dream and the birds that spilled out of my arm. Kumar said a gang of monkeys lived in a nearby cell phone tower and kept opening taps and draining people’s water tanks. He said that if he had a gun, he would shoot them.

“No, you wouldn’t,” I said.

“Yes, I would. You don’t know,” he said. He started chewing on the wooden ice stick, making a grating noise that was surprisingly loud.

“Do you have a gun?” I asked.

I waited as he chewed on the stick some more and then tossed it to the side of the road. But he didn’t say anything.

A few days later, the stack of English novels was gone, and I couldn’t find anything to eat. When Kumar came back in the evening, we didn’t go for orange sticks. Instead, we walked to the railway station and looked at train timings.

“There’s one tomorrow morning, at eight,” he said. “And another at eleven. And then at three. After that only at nine, so maybe—”

“What are you doing?” I said.

“You can take a train, trains are comfortable,” he said, scribbling down random letters and numbers on the back of an old receipt. “You won’t be tired when you get there.”

“But why?”

“What do you mean, why?”

“Why do you want me to take a train?” I said.

Kumar stared at me and it looked like his eyes had turned into marbles, shimmering under a thin skin of water. Once I had told him that his eyes were like chocolate and he had laughed and said nothing about my eyes, even after I had asked him to.

“So what do you want to do then?” he said.

“About what?”

We walked back home and Kumar would not speak to me for the rest of the night.

Kumar did not go out the next day. He brought me coffee, vadai, and pongal for breakfast along with a newspaper. Then he said there was a bird sanctuary a few hours away, a real one, above ground, and he laughed in a sparse, sharp-cornered way that reminded me of how his collarbone used to jut out of his chest. Two buses, he said. He pulled out an old travel bag and packed a bottle of water, two hats, and the newspaper. He told me to bring my stuff, just in case, but he didn’t say in case of what.

The first bus was crowded. Kumar was forced to sit at the very edge of our seat with his arm around my shoulders so he wouldn’t fall off. Romantic Tamil movie songs warbled and stretched unevenly through the speakers. Kumar started talking to a man who had a broken arm, saying that he had broken his arm too, even though I was pretty sure he hadn’t.

We got off at a small bus stand that consisted of a few pillars plastered with movie posters from two years ago. The righteous anger on the hero’s face was fading to yellow while the heroine’s face had already disappeared completely. A small tea stall leaned precariously to the left, threatening to keel over at any moment. Hidden in the depths of its thin shelves, I could see bottles of discontinued cola and dusty packages of biscuits. Kumar bought me a bottle of Bovonto and insisted I put it in my bag.

While we waited for the bus, he talked about the bird sanctuary and how he wished he had a camera. Then he talked about the monkeys in the cell phone tower and how people were throwing firecrackers at them now and it seemed to work, though some monkeys were getting singed but that didn’t really matter because they were just monkeys.

“I thought of making a sign once,” he said. “You know, for the yard. Underground Bird Sanctuary. I thought of taking a printout.”

“You got a printer?”

“No, but the guy at the Xerox shop said I could take one for free.”

“Sometimes they charge seven bucks for a printout.”

“Yeah. Or I thought maybe I’d just write it out in pen or something.”

I nodded and looked at his wrists. They were heavy and rectangular now, like blocks of wood, completely free of bones.

Kumar told me to wait while he went to find out about the bus. I watched him walk away, the sunlight falling off his shoulders and pouring slowly down his back. And then he was gone.

I waited for him, the hero from the movie poster frozen with faded, yellow rage behind me. I waited and waited.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This essay is featured content from the Winter 2011 issue.

For ordering information or to find out more about the contents of this issue, click here.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Leave a Comment