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Jack Slay, Jr. teaches English at LaGrange College, a small liberal arts school in southwest Georgia. His work has appeared in publications such as The Habersham Review and Mississippi Magazine and Strange Days. "Big Bird of Paradise" comes as a result of watching a little too much Sesame Street with his three young sons.


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All materials copyright 1996-2000 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).

Big Bird of Paradise

by Jack Slay, Jr.

 

     When the Children's Television Workshop called, Brad Thaddeous accepted the job immediately. He was desperate for work. His last role had been over three months ago, a postmodern absurdist riff by one of those confusing British scribblers. He'd been playing a cast member playing an audience member who becomes so entangled in the action on stage that he steps into the play to assume another actor's role (who is then revealed as an audience member who has become confused earlier and taken the role from another cast-turned-audience member).
     Brad had tried to fold himself into the role, but it never came, that magical stumble within himself. Instead, he found himself flustered and dizzy with all the turn-arounds and -abouts and had missed his cues, repeatedly. On the third night an elderly woman with hair the color of bruised plums slugged him with an over-stuffed purse (alligator it felt) when he stood to deliver his first line; Brad, limping, had been asked to quit.
     He was, the receptionist for the Children's Television Workshop told him, her voice harsh and mechanical, the only six- foot-seven actor on immediate call, the only one who would fit the costume.
     "It won't matter, will it, that I have only two toes on one foot?"
     "What?"
     "The big toe and the fourth one, on my right foot. I was born that way." He'd lost the others when a bull, backing out of the stud chute, had misstepped, the hoof cleaving Brad's toes instantly. He'd been six.
     "We really don't care as long as your foot fits the bird's." The voice resumed its controlled distance, though it held the lilt Brad always heard when he mentioned his foot. "Tomorrow, nine sharp--there'll be a set in Central Park West, just short of the Jackie Kennedy Reservoir. You know it? Good. We'll send a script. Questions?" The stoned-bee drone of the phone line filled his ear before he could answer.
     He'd been in New York two years. If asked, he always said it had been the cows he'd run from, the herd beyond herd of his father's dairy farm. Life in Paradise Georgia had been a stifling of predawn milkings and incessant lowing; his future had been little more than an endless procession of rubbery, hand- smoothed teats and forked, beclotted hooves. They eyed him with their slow bovine eyes and he could see reflected there a life empty.
     His father, a man hard bent into dairy farming, was the real reason he'd fled. He'd been old when Brad was a child and was now slower and grayer, his body hunched almost double by the constant stooping of dairying. Brad was his only son. He never knew his mother, gone before he was a year old. From the moments Brad could first remember, his father had groomed him toward the farm, molding him into an endless, manure-scented life. He hated it all: the drone of lowing cattle, the zing of milk against the galvanized pail, the sharp and constant odor of cow.
     When the stage called in a grade school reenactment of the first Thanksgiving (he'd played Indian #3 -- his only lines "How" and then again "How"), he had pursued readily. Even then he'd recognized it as escape. He left Paradise Georgia just minutes after the last curtain call of his senior class production of West Side Story (he'd played Jet #3, no solo, no soliloquy), leaving in the middle of the night, creeping past his father's closed bedroom door and slinking his way through the pastures heavy with the scent of cow and their massive droppings. Dipping under the barbed-wire that marked their property, he looked back to see the silhouette of his father standing astride a gentle knoll, his back to him, the moonlight casting him in soft shadows. He never turned around. The cows lowed quietly around them; it became, in memory, the sound of his leaving.
     He entered New York as Jonathan Bounderby, his birth name, a name he had (since somewhere along eighth grade and a little less than midway through waiting for Beckett's Godot) considered too plain, too bouncy, too white. He changed it his second day in the city, using Brad Thaddeous for the first time some three or four days later. In a single afternoon he found an apartment, a part-time agent by name of William Lomison (the name so close to that role that it couldn't be wrong), and a role as Mr Earthworm in a local fishing commercial. It was his first costume. The tunic, slinkylike, was tight and claustrophobic. Breathing had been a chore. He didn't own a tv so he never saw the final cut.
     That had been two years ago and a little over five years after the first folding.
     Even now Brad couldn't think of a better description for what happened. He'd been 12 verging on 13 and his body and mind had been riot with change, much of it angry and confused. The machines were down that day and Brad, then still Johnnie, had to milk by hand. The teats felt like worn-out and empty gloves, soft and used. The cows, most of them great shuffling jerseys, a handful of holsteins, irritated him in their gentle mindlessness. Tired and late for rehearsal, Brad lay his forehead, pale and dotted with pimples, against the heaving flank of an ancient cow and listened to the slurp and dings of his pail slowly filling.
     He folded into the cow.
     A sweet prickling bloomed in his mouth and he rolled the mash over and over again between teeth now huge and flat. The cud loosened and he swallowed. Deep within him, a rumbling vexed and swelled in one of five gastronomic chambers, the lowest one it felt. Below that, he felt a gentle tugging, a sensation that filled him with comfort and warmth, a loosening. He nodded back, his head tremendous, barrel-sized, and through eyes that felt ridiculously large, saw himself huddled small and wet-looking on a three-legged stool, his head seemingly sealed to his own steak flank of cow. He was, simultaneously, both cow and himself within the cow.
     Brad had snapped his head, his real head, back in disbelief. The cow stared silently back at him. Brad stood shakily and backed away from the heifer. Before leaving the barn, he hawked deeply and spat out a wad of thickly-chewed grass.
     From that day the folding came and went. It was a kind of internal looping, a turning inside-out as if he was being pulled through a velvet keyhole. Mostly he folded into the herd, once a dog (yap! yap! yap! happy happy! yap! yap! a flea! yip!), several times nothing objects, a chair (cold, inferior), a shoe (soft and, surprisingly, love). Confused at first, Brad in time, as he had with his two-toed foot, accepted it as the oddly missed cue: something you took as it came and worked into the surrounding action.
     He tried to explain it once to his father, measuring his way carefully through his father's reproachful gaze. "It's like this, Pop --" But his father's bemused consideration -- and beneath that, Brad was sure, his disappointment -- turned him away. He kept quiet after that, harboring the folding within himself.

 

     When Brad showed up on set Wednesday morning, he spotted the costume immediately, far more yellow than he remembered from his childhood.
     He was scheduled to film three scenes, all in front of the bronze Wonderland statues, all with children. Working with kids was an unfamiliar role and his stomach rolled slowly in his nervousness. He would have been more comfortable with a herd of heifers.
     "You the Bird?" A squat man with pig eyes stormed up. He stared up at Brad, his face fluttering with tics. He hardly came up to Brad's chest and seemed a man very much in a hurry. He asked, almost shouting, again: "You the Bird?"
     "Yeah, yessir, I'm Brad Th--"
     "BIRD'S HERE! PLACES!" The man produced a miniature megaphone, almost a toy, and blasted his voice through it. "GET THE KIDS ROUNDED!" He turned back to Brad. "Why are you still standing there? Get into COSTUME!" The last word received the megaphone. He rushed off, all shout and flurry.
     A little dazed, Brad walked over to the costume lying across an old table like some beached yellow whale. He picked up the wings, wide skinflaps of feathers. It was heavier than he had imagined. The beak, the color of banana, was as long as his forearm; it bent slightly in the middle. The eyes, oversized ping pong balls with black dots painted in each center, looked crossed. He found a zipper running down the back.
     "Hi," a small voice said behind him. "See you met Lew." She smiled at him, this dainty woman, and it was brighter than the costume. "He's directed a lot of the Street this season. But man, he's tight. Unfortunately, you may get used to him-- just watch out for that voice-gun." She stuck out her hand. "I'm Allison, I play Gina. We have a scene later this morning."
     Brad took her hand. "Hey, I'm Brad. Thaddeous." He felt his face go hot.
     "So which is it? Brad or Thaddeous?" She laughed, a sound like glass chimes, the kind his father hung from the apple tree every spring.
     "Well, both. Call me Brad." He smiled and felt his head grow hotter.
     "Here, Brad, let me help you with the costume."
     It smelled of dust, the dry acrid odor of haylofts. It also had a bad case of birdmange; featherless patches worked their way across the back, exposing pimpled and wrinkled material, like chicken skin gone bad.
     "Front to the camera," Gina told him, laughing. "Carroll, who usually works this costume, couldn't come in today. Something about food poisoning, a bad duck someone said. Kept the usual costume, too. This'll have to do."
     The head was narrow and hot; inside, it smelled like someone else's sweaty head.
     "Look through the hole behind the beak. And when you nod your head this way--" her hands firm through the feathers guided him-- "the beak will look like you're talking."
     The wings fit fine, but the feet, clumsy and orange with claws, were too small. Brad took off his shoes and socks to give himself a little more room. He felt, but couldn't really see Gina staring at his toes. He shoved his foot quickly into the birdfoot. The right one was still tight, rubbing against his heel and two toes. Gina zipped him up.
     "You look good, Bird!" She seemed to be smiling but through the beak's peek hole he could see only the top of her head, a bright feathering of brown hair. The costume was a coffin, hot and tight, like he'd been swallowed by a giant worm. He wriggled against the itch of the fabric and forced his breathing to a slow pant. This was worse than Mr Earthworm.
     "Here comes Lew again." Brad tried to draw her into the tunnel vision of his sight, but Gina was gone; instead, he found the director standing in her place, a windmill of flailing megaphone and arms. He looked, Brad thought, like a munchkin on a bad hit of acid.
     "Let's go! Let's go!" Pinwheeling directly at Brad the little man aimed his megaphone and fired: "PLACES! Bird, over there in front of the Wonderland statue, behind the table. LET'S GO LET'S GO!"
     Brad hurried over, the orange feet clodding loudly; they were like thick wet sandbags and the right one was hot against his toes and heel. Behind a small table with a red and white checkered cloth, Alice loomed monstrously atop a gigantic mushroom; the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit capered to either side of her, their shadows falling over Brad and the table like black water. Taking his mark, Brad found himself amid a swarm of hyperkinetic moppets, a hive of energy and syrupy fingers. They fell on him, tripping over his feet, tugging his wings, clutching and digging at clumps of molting feathers. A tiny hand caught a brief hold of his beak and bent it further into its sad angle. Brad yelped and stepped back, stumbling over a birdfoot. His head thudded hollowly against Alice's outthrust elbow; the costume's head gave a little, slipping slightly to the right. He flung a frantic wing wide and wild and caught a birdlike hold on the Hatter's face; Brad clung to the nose until the world rebalanced around him.
     "QUIET!" Lew's voice, a dark red exclamation mark, bludgeoned through clatter and kids. They fell into a prompt order according to size, and Brad, through the tunnel of beak, could see a boy and two girls. They stood underwing, quiet, a stairway of towheads.
     "In this scene we do the difference game," Lew said, his voice now megaphoneless. "Bird, do the motions, the beak, the wings, the whole bit. Kids, watch and smile. Everybody got it? Everyone's seen the script? Good. Okay, in three--"
     "I don't know the words. They weren't in the script I got last night." Brad could feel sweat sidling down his neck and back; his wingpits were soaked. The costume itched, everywhere. He was an anthill of bites and scratches.
     The director gaped at him.
     "Don't know the words? Don't know the words?" One of Lew's eyeballs went askew, bulging. He stomped toward Brad. "YOU DON'T HAVE TO KNOW THE WORDS! WE DUB, YOU FREAKIN PARAKEET!" The megaphone's bell capped around the end of the costume's beak. "JUST FLAP YOUR FREAKIN WINGS AND CLAP THAT BANANA BEAK!" Lew stepped back and threw the megaphone to the sidewalk where it ricocheted into the grass. The director jumped up and down three times, his feet slapping loudly; small, locomotivelike grunts popped out with each landing. His mini-tantrum completed, he marched back to the cameras. An anonymous assistant had the 'phone back in Lew's hands before he was seated in the director's chair.
     Brad watched, bemused: his first director's tirade; the big leagues, he thought. Lew reminded Brad of his father, and for a second he could see him, alone with his herd way down in Georgia. Brad took a deep breath, forced his head clear. He tried to think bird thoughts. Be the Bird, he mantraed quietly to himself. Be the Bird.
     Lew raised the megaphone and Brad, the head still kiltered to the right, asked, "What's my motivation in this scene?"
     For a moment Brad thought Lew had swallowed his tongue; then the megaphone bounced off his left ping-pong eyeball. He heard the eye crack, an egg snapped against a counter lip. Brad jerked to the right and the head flew free, pulling backwards over his face to hang by its zipper, a loose flap of feathers and beak flopping between his shoulder blades.
     The children shrieked, a henhouse pandemonium. "The Bird dead, the Bird dead!" a bland-featured girl, her face contorted in horror, screamed over and over. He had become, Brad realized, the thing under every girl's bed, in every boy's closet, a revulsion, this decapitated oversized bird. He fumbled to reattach the head and the children screamed again as a flock of assistants landed about them and herded the children away. The head finally situated itself, snugging firmly into place. The tunnel vision seemed narrower and darker, but through it Brad could see clearly Lew's twisted face--mostly gin-blossomed nose, rimmed eyes and a bit of the slash of mouth. Lew was amazingly red.
     The director, his voice tourniquet-tight, forced through the cut of his mouth, "We'll move on to the next scene."
     He turned away, lifted the megaphone, and screamed, "GINA! SET!"
     Gina, her hair bouncing and her teeth a row of perfect smile, walked over and settled against the toadstool. A shuffling herd of assistants migrated over and moved the table, then rearranged lights and camera angles. One of them lightly patted at Brad's headpiece with an oversized powder puff.
     "Hey, Bird, rough morning?"
     "Yeah." Brad felt like a capon on a slow rotisserie. "Still settling into the role I guess, trying to get my fix on it. This suit--"
     Lew appeared between them, jamming his megaphone into Brad's chest, dinging his wishbone. Even through the pads of bird stuffing, it hurt. Brad took a small bird step backwards.
     "Okay, you two, let's get this one right." Lew's eyes, hard red diamonds, drilled in through the beak tunnel. A slow crimson wave swept his face, bottom to top, and he screamed. "YOU GET IT RIGHT!"
     The blown first scene had been his fault Brad knew. It wasn't like him to spoil a set. Even back home, on the set or in the herd, he acted with compassion and composure, the cattle often mooing before him, a bovine ovation for a just-delivered soliloquy: "Tomorrow and tomorrow and--" He had stopped his pastured posturings when he folded into an orangish holstein with hoofrot and had seen himself through her overly large eyes, a frantic and spindly creature with dull hair and no teats. It didn't help that his father had seem his performance as well; he'd turned and walked away, muttering to himself: "Acting. Shit." The words stung.
     "ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME YOU FREAKIN PARROT?"
     Lew capped the megaphone over Brad's beak. Deep inside the padding of feather pillows, his stomach gave a soft lurch and a low gurgle crept its way up his throat. He belched softly and tasted the eggs he'd wolfed for breakfast. The bell disappeared and Lew's face blocked his beak vision. It seemed even hotter i the costume.
     Brad slid into character, and for a split second he folded into the Bird, a frantic, madcap yellowishness, a fruity joyousness! He cocked his head at the director and said, "How about a birdseed shake?"
     Unfolding in the same instant, Brad heard something pop in Lew's head; the deep red drained from his face like a thermometer plunged into cold water. Lew screamed again, a shrill cackling of cluttered words that even Brad, standing this close, had trouble deciphering, something about Lew wishing he'd stuck with Zoom!
     The small director, both middle fingers aimed at the sky, spun and stomped into the small crew surrounding the cameras and lights. The megaphone rocketed out of the middle of the crowd and sailed toward Brad's head; he ducked and it bounced off Alice's small chest. An assistant, the same one as before, came from nowhere to catch it on the second bounce.
     A scurry of assistants broke from the flock and surrounded Brad; another descended on Gina. They ruffled and fluffed his feathers, flapped and brushed his wings, dabbed, for some reason, at his left birdfoot. Someone fanned him with a clipboard. Another two plucked off his right eyeball and then reattached it with a glop of what smelled like Elmer's glue. It felt somehow crooked, cockeyed. Just as quickly the assistants, like a gaggle of geese spooked, disappeared.
     Gina sidled over to him.
     "Hey again, Gina." He smiled but the beak, he knew, probably didn't convey it.
     "Allison, I play Gina."
     "Oh yeah, right." The air in the suit heated up. It felt as if it were shrinking, wrapping him in a Saran wrap of feathers and pimply chicken skin. "I knew that--it's just that--" It was getting harder to breathe; the air coming in through the beak tunnel tasted pre-inhaled. His head seemed to balloon to twice its size, the beak becoming a vice, wedging his face into a compact version of itself, scrunching his forehead down into his cheeks, his chin up into his jaw.
     "--just that with all the confusion--"
     His legs weakened and bowed outward; he leaned backwards into the toadstool. Through the rough down of his breast he felt Gina's hand stroke across him. His foot hurt.
     Then, as though through tiny birdlike ears, Brad heard her ask, "Hey, you okay? Bird? Bird?" and then from even farther away came an even tinnier voice, "All set? In three--"
     From deep within his gullet, he felt something give, a breaking as if a hollow bone snapping. Gina's face came into the tunnel. She moved in slow motion.
     "THREE," he heard.
     "Bird, you don't look--"
     He vomited. It felt as if everything he'd ever eaten, everything he'd ever thought about eating, rushed out. It funneled down the beak and gushed, niagralike, into and over Gina's surprised expression. In the birdseconds before it hit her, Brad saw her expression turn to horror, as if she had just seen a giant hand coming to squash her. A wet smacking sound filled the air. Brad doubled over, a talonlike pain clutching and releasing and then again clutching his abdomen. Vomit splatted across the sidewalk and into the grass with a wet meaty sound like someone striking the pavement again and again with a raw steak. A final pain roiled through his stomach and then, after a final, condorish gush, the spewing slowed, slowed, stopped.
     Brad remained doubled over (it hurt less), his hands shakily gripping his knees. He hawked deeply and spit something hot and phlegmy from his beak; it stuck to the tip, and he wiped it away with a feathered forearm. A thick puddle spread before his feet. Looking at it closely, he could see what appeared to be tiny scatterings of birdseed--and at the edge of the puddle, snaking around a clump of seed, was a halfeaten earthworm. Brad wasn't surprised.
     He looked up to see Gina disappear into a crowd; he started to call for her but assistants swarmed about him with brooms and a hose, blocking his view and path.
     Brad turned back to Alice and her toadstool and Lew filled his beak vision. He wasn't screaming; he looked tired. A blood pressure pump dangled from his right arm; it flopped lifelessly as he raised then lowered the megaphone. He said softly, "Can we do the last scene, please?" Lew looked into the beak and then up into the sky. His face had a dreamy, distant look, the same one Brad's father had worn that night in the pasture, the night Brad turned his back on the farm and headed north toward the stage. "In this scene," Lew said, "you talk about the number nine. Got it? Good."
     The puddle had disappeared. In the corner of his birdvision, Brad saw an orangeness, then a yellowness even brighter than his own trundle past. He wiped his beak again and looked for Gina; she was gone. His stomach seemed to have settled into place. His foot, though, ached horribly; he could feel blisters, egglike, on both toes and his heel. An assistant hopped over and winged him into position behind a low table directly below the Hatter. Beside him two small figures, nehi orange and banana yellow, cavorted above the counter as a flurry of arms and faces beneath them manipulated their nether regions. Brad recognized them from his childhood; even then they had seemed little more than a constant prattling and a mean tire-hiss laugh. He looked away and focused on a tree in the middle of the park, its leaves browning and sparse. He thought himself into the costume. Be the Bird.
     The children reappeared and were herded into place. They shied obviously from his ping-pong gaze, and, once, one of the girls, the smallest, jumped when a feather brushed her cheek.
     "Hey look!" one of the puppets, the orange one, screamed, his voice a dull bullfrog. "It's the kids!"
     "Yeah, I been waiting all day for them! Hey kids, whatcha doin?"
     The three sparrowlike faces lit up immediately and, Brad and his costume forgotten, they huddled around the two halfpuppets, honking noses, tugging sparse patches of topnotch hair, stroking bright felt faces. The halfpuppets stroked, tugged, and honked back. Brad felt a jealousy that wasn't his roll through him. He ignored the feeling, envisioning a juicy worm. Be the Bird, be the Bird.
     Lew talked quietly to one of the assistants. Brad inched in closer for the scene.
     "Hey, watch that oversized canary--he's been known to lose his head! Kheh-kheh-kheh!" The laugh was like air leaking out of the world.
     "Yeah, he's a real birdbrain!"
     The kids squealed in delight and three tongues, pink triangles of tease, flapped in Brad's direction.
     "Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah," they chanted. He shook his head and, in a hatching of self, he folded into the Bird. It was an oozing, a slow motion bending of chance and worlds and being. It was a slow tickling, as though a thousand feathers had briefly caressed his body, a gentle trickling, as if he were melting from the inside. The folding was as it had always been, the cows, the puppy, the chair, all at once and an eon wide; it was hard and pliable and full of light. He felt as though he was being pulled inside-out. His face was suddenly long and gravel-hard, his feet tiny and fragile, his fingers fused and feather-light. He knew he could soar. At the last second something else swept through him: anger, heated and rank.
     With his head moving in jerks and twitches, he found the pair, his sight no longer through a tunnel darkly but wide and clear, vulturine. He focused on the bright colors of the two below him and again a cold anger rushed through him.
     They'd stolen it, taken it when he was at the peak of birdness, when the show was his, only his. His tiny birdbrain churned in a caldron of avian abhorrence. With their petty arguing, their stupid prattling about bottle cap collections and rubber duckies, they'd romped clumsily in and taken all. How stupidly puppetish! Before he'd realized it, kids from all over, kids all sized and shaped, had clamored for these two and no longer for the Bird as they always had before. Just like these three urchins now, squealing and blathering. They'd taken it all! They'd stolen his show!
     "Thieves!" His scream was a harsh caw. The set fell instantly quiet, and in that brief lull, from seemingly far, far below, as though he were circling clouds and everyone else was in a chasm deep, he heard a man's voice, almost a whisper, "Not again."
     Anger ran over him in a stampede of tiny birdlike claws, digging and stabbing into his goosed flesh. His head reeled and his wings felt heavy and flightless. He'd been plucked bare by their popularity--the mere thought of their ill-shaped and false- colored heads drove him over an edge, a penguin hurled from the floe. His foot throbbed and his stomach flipped queasily and now even his head hurt. His beak was cracked and useless, his wings mangy and cumbersome.
     Something -- light, feathery -- snapped.
     In a single stumbling move that was both fluid and clumsy he stooped and fumbled the oversized slipper from his aching foot. Wildly swinging the foot, he charged the duo. He shrieked their thievery, but his voice was little more than a wild squawking, an hysterical cawing, indecipherable to the nonbirds that crowded around him, pressing clumsily on all sides. He was aware of them, from the corners of his bird vision, malformed and awkward shapes; they fled like sparrows before the hawk.
     The foot, in a swing both wild and furious, caught the yellow one just below the nose. The most pleasant of ripping sounds came from the puppet's neck and the head sailed upward, upward, ricocheted off the White Rabbit's pocket watch and landed at the Bird's feet, spinning.
     The three children screamed in unison. The smallest one, the girl, pointed at the head and shrieked, "Kilt Bert! Kilt Bert! Kilt Bert!" The other two simply wailed and jabbed their fingers at the head.
     Then their eyes, as one, lit on the foot, the one uncovered. The two toes, throbbing visibly, had swollen to twice their normal size. Both were covered in tiny white pustules and the big toe had a blister the size of a duck egg.
     Again all three howled and the littlest changed her chant to "Monster foot! Monster foot! Monster foot!" With arms flailing and eyes as wide as goose eggs, they ran a quick and frantic circle around the Bird, Alice's statue, the head, the headless torso and his companion; somewhere behind the toadstool the other two picked up the chant.
     The orange one screamed, something about freak canaries. The halfpuppet, really no more than a head and arms and empty cloth, flung itself upward and clamped itself around the enormous beak. Its tiny arms lashed and flogged at the face of feathers; foam fingers, three, clawed at oversized ping-pong eyes. Wings, in a storm of molting, snatched the bundle of puppet rage and tossed it, like a down pillow, to the sidewalk.
     "Die puppet die!"
     The Bird, sasquatchian, stomped a rabid flamenco over the lifeless bundle. It sounded like chicken bones in a garbage disposal.
     The blister, slicing across the ridged edge of a button eye, popped; pain jolted through the foot and shocked its way into the costume and through the bird fury--and Brad tumbled back into himself, a snapping of synapse, a reversal of folding, a sensation of upside-down butterflies dipping and swaying through knotholes. He stood there, his head swimming through foggy and brackened waters, looking down at the puppet carnage below his feet. Somehow the yellow one had gotten caught in the melee. under Brad's feet lay a battered and torn patchwork of felt and hair and stripes. Brad turned, his arms outstretched--
     --and watched his son's back dwindle into the dark pasture. His heart welled and his breath caught in deep hitches and gasps. He wanted to cry out to him, to beg him back. But as a father he realized, too, that this was Johnnie's time. Just over a crest, only his shoulders and head visible as if he were treading in a sea of grass, Johnnie turned and waved, his hand making lazy waves in the starlight. He returned the salute and the meadow trebled, becoming a blur of warping shapes. His herd moaned around him and Johnnie disappeared. His heart hammered and all he wanted was his son and time, time, time.
     Brad refolded into himself just as a shadow, dark and hairy, fell over the puppet shambles and swallowed him, an amoeba swilling around a microscopic morsel; he had just time to think big before his world bowled over.
     He felt himself lifted and thrown, a ragdoll. He experienced the briefest sensation of flying and then his beak and shoulders met Alice's toadstool; what felt like her bronzed kneecap smacked into his face. His beak snapped off and both ping-pong eyeballs burst. It felt as if one of his wings may have been broken.
     He lay heaped below the statue, not daring to move. He looked up, slowly and no longer through the beak tunnel. Towering over him, straddling him as if daring him to make any false birdlike move, was Snuffle-uppagus. The creature, its elephantine shadow thrown long and hard over Brad, glared down at him, its eyes plastic softballs of hate.
     "You got him?"
     "Yeah, he ain't goin nowhere," the front half of the Snuffle-uppagus called back over its shoulder. "Want me to trunk im one good time?"
     "No, just get him up and outta here." The voice was Lew's.
     The trunk snaked out and twined around his left wing, yanking Brad to his feet. The Mad Hatter's nose speared into what remained of his tail feathers. Behind the Snuffle-uppagus, the Street crowd stared in wonder.
     Brad waved and stammered, "Hey, I'm sorry ab--"
     "Shut up. Get going." The command was mammoth, hairy. Brad shut up. He edged slowly from around the creature and saw Lew sitting in his director's chair, legs crossed, an ice pack strapped firmly to his head. Again Brad raised his hand in a small bird salute.
     The director megaphoned in Brad's direction: "Keep the costume. It's yours."
     An assistant took a wide berth around him and began to pick through the remains of the two puppets. Brad loosened the Bird collar and took off the Bird head. The air felt good, wide, and the sun was surprisingly warm on his face. He kicked off the other bird foot and left it where it landed.
     He walked slowly away from the set, his hands already remembering the shape of rubbery teats, of warm udders, his nose again smelling the sharp dung scent of cow and Paradise mornings, his mind blooming with his father's folding. Brad, now more Bounderby than Thaddeous, tucked the Bird's beakless head under wing; he shook his own head and smiled. "This acting guano," he thought, "it's for the birds."

THE END