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He is at dinner: not where he eats, but where he is eaten


When Sarah woke up, she fancied that the room was different from the one she had gone to sleep in. Worse than that, she felt that her face and body had altered too. A change had been effected somehow: but not by her. 

Victor sat in the bedside chair, watching her as she woke. He couldn’t understand her panic: she looked exactly the same as she had done the night before. But she seemed to interrogate everything: the room, her hands, the coverlet, him. This was worrying. 

“Where’s the book?” she said. She got up, looked round, searched under the bed and found it: a large picture-book about birds, with bright colours and thick paper. She had been poring over it for days, had read it during meals, read it as she fell asleep. He said crossly: “if the house fell down, you’d be found under the table still reading that bloody book.” She couldn’t deny it. 

As the day wore on, Sarah began to imagine some of the birds close up, and to think about them in their living state. The wren, now. The tiniest bird, the most vulnerable, the thinnest legs, the most secret nests. In her book, she learned that in folklore, the wren was accounted the wiliest creature, and in several myths was seen to fly highest by hitching rides on the back of bigger birds. The wren was worth emulating. And so by dint of trying hard and feeding her imagination, Sarah began to feel wren-like. She moved faster, sang louder, and began to sprout brown feathers. She had become tiny. But she was still tame, and hopped onto Victor’s outstretched finger. She flew away as soon as she realised that he did not recognise her. She could never chirrup for him, anyhow. 

And so a pattern emerged. For a few days at a time, she would become a new bird from her book: a  starling, a blackbird, a thrush. Not a robin, as there was too much sentimentality attached to the species. She always returned to her own body afterwards, having learned something new - how to wheel in a murmuration, how to pull a worm, how to be elegant. Victor seemed not to notice her absences (Sarah was never sure exactly how long they lasted), and indeed he was so preoccupied with his own affairs that the twigs and chaff and bird-droppings were not noticed. Good. 

The next chapter in the book concentrated on fighting birds, and there was a glossy reproduction of a painting of an English Game Bird. It was cradled by an aristocratic gentleman. He held a pair of spurs in his hand, which he clearly intended to fit onto his bird for the forthcoming cockfight. What Sarah noticed was his mouth. It was tiny, too tiny for his face, and pursed. She needed to cut him another, bigger one. She poured herself into the bird, until she became him, and she felt herself being held aloft by the fine gentleman. “And now, my bonny boy, we’ll fit you with these kickers and see how you do!” He buckled the spurs onto her feet, and at once she lashed out and tore into his face. He now had a huge gash for a mouth, he wrung her neck, and she became a heap of feathers in the dust. It was a relief to come back into her own body, and to see that Victor kept stroking his mouth, as if it hurt him somehow. 

The next chapter was on raptors - corvids, eagles, hawks, harriers.  And owls. These crepuscular beings fascinated Sarah, habituated as she was to the twilight and the dawn. There was a large barn owl near where she lived, and she went out to call for him at sunset. He settled on a post nearby and looked at her, with a mouse hanging from his beak. She thought and thought how his life was, how he must feel, and all of a sudden she managed it: she was him, silent and snowy in the evening light. Her face was round, her ears were invisible, and all the goddesses  from antiquity - Athena and Minerva - that favoured her were watching her swoop and kill. Learning how to make an owl-pellet was the best part. She left them on Victor’s desk, and when he took them apart, he did not find shrew-skulls and fur: he found shredded £20 notes purloined from his wallet, scraps of his research data, and the remains of his hearing-aid. That felt sweet. 

Sarah came to the last chapter in the book: it was on carrion-eaters. They were admirable, she thought. It was odd how cleaners in the human world had so little status: in the natural world, cleaners were of vital importance to the balance of the whole complex organism. Victor suggested that they might make the trip of a lifetime and go on a Safari, see all the wild animals and take photographs of them. She agreed eagerly, and a few  weeks later, found herself trundling across the veldt in a Landrover. They had hired it for the day, to get away from the chatter of the tour group. There was a little hill which might afford a vantage point. They got out of the van, and she struggled after him  right up to the top. There lay the mighty Serengeti spread out before them in the baking sun: the lowing herds, the prowling predators, the plentiful grass. Then Victor  turned to her and made a disparaging remark about her fitness: it had been a bit of a scramble for her up the slope, hadn’t it? He turned back to the vista. Sarah took a deep breath, made two steps back, a short run at Victor and a hard push in the small of his back. He sailed over the bluff and came to rest  below. He was quite motionless.

There was a small family of vultures perched on a tree right next to her. With all her might, with all her imaginative power, Sarah willed herself to become one of them. Her neck was bare of feathers, which was very hygienic for her coming task with the entrails. Her huge pinions could support her body. The whole group flocked down to Victor. They demolished him: liver, lights, tendons. In a few hours, he was a pile of whitened bones in the sun, and all that was left of him otherwise was his camera, his boots, and the safari suit of which he had been so proud. Sarah was the Victor now. 

Of course, the authorities came looking for them when they did not return back to camp. They found the Landrover, they found the remains of Victor. But all they found of Sarah was her shoulder bag with the bird book inside. It was suggested that the lions must have got her and munched her up, leaving no clues. But in fact, there she was all the time: eyes hooded against the burning light, sharp claws grasping the branch, sharp beak clacking in the wind. Her time would come soon enough, and she would be eaten in her turn. But just for now, everything was well. Everything was good. Everything was in order at last.

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