The Taking of the Birds
The taking of the birds was something that none of us had seen coming. As far as political allegiance went, there was a time when it would hardly have occurred to us to wonder which side the birds were on, but if it had, or if we had been asked, the answer would have been obvious. What did we know in those days? We knew that the crops grew tall for the glory of the nation, that the sun rose to light our way, that the swaddling seas protected us from aggressors and parasites. And if asked to say on whose side the birds stood, we would have said that they too seemed a part of the natural glory of our country: they could only be with us.
There was, after all, extremely good evidence in their favour. Since they were in our country but not in prison, they were friendly to our cause and wholeheartedly opposed to the enemy’s. Their freedom was absolute proof of their innocence, as the arrest of even a previously well thought-of neighbour was proof of their guilt. And if it could be shown, as it apparently could, that the birds spent a portion of the year in the land of our enemy, then it could only be the case that they travelled there to spy on our behalf, that while there, they sowed dissent or gathered information for our use. Because how else could they be allowed to come and go so freely?
Still, suspicion did fall on the birds, but not abruptly. Long before, as our desire for equality became serious, we went to some of those who had greater power and much more money than we did, and we demanded that these things be more evenly dispersed. To begin with they resisted, saying, as they had always said, that they had worked hard for these things and deserved them. They had accrued their wealth and power by the sweat of their brow and their superior natural attributes, and in a world in which effort and ability were unequal, as they evidently were, true fairness rewarded individuals accordingly.
This time we were not dissuaded. We argued with them. We pointed out how much of the wealth and power was inherited, and how all of the mechanisms they had devised they were exploiting to preserve that wealth and power for their beautiful children, at the inevitable expense of our rather less beautiful children, some of whom had shabby clothes and suffered from stress-related Irritable Bowel Syndrome. We pointed out that even the natural attributes that enabled them to succeed so abundantly were not things that they had chosen, but gifts they were lucky enough to have received. Their intelligence, their business sense, even their capacity for brow sweat had come from a combination of circumstance and genetics in which they had no say. You’re down here in this deterministic universe with the rest of us, we said, and we put something of the sort onto placards. (Though many of us found these clunky and made placards with our own slogans that were pithier, but perhaps risked diluting our message.)
The rich and powerful pecked at the issue of determinism, trying unsuccessfully to muddy the issue with talk of quantum physics, retro-causality and true randomness, but again we stayed firm. We pointed out that no randomness or uncertainty embedded their success in any extra-natural ‘them’ who had created their positive attributes ex nihilo and thereby earned them power and a great deal of money. We also made clear that the talking-things-through-and-making-placards part of the proceedings could only continue for a limited time before we moved on to the bloodletting and the beautiful-children-clogging-the-gutters-of-the-streets part of the proceedings. And, in fairness to them, they took this point and promised to return to us with real, substantive thoughts on how greater equality could be achieved in solidarity with one another.
In fact, it turned out that their thinking on what true equality would mean was subtler and grander than anything we had succeeded in fumbling towards with our own, more restricted abilities. And so, while many of us began with doubts about their commitment to fairness, those doubts should have been (and largely were) quickly erased by the brashness and ambition of their plans.
At times, while they discussed the matter among themselves, we would stand in the sight lines of their mansions, offices, restaurants, museums, galleries, sports facilities, farmers’ markets and members’ clubs, and there erect a guillotine, say, or spend an afternoon pointedly sharpening our axes, or we might hold up photographs of their sleeping children taken through a telephoto lens. In this way, we hoped to focus their minds.
When we met, they very graciously avoided mentioning this behaviour. They were civil and eager to agree concrete plans for how best to achieve our common goals.
The world, they had come to realise – from our conversations and from those times we had stood near their windows readying instruments of death – was a pitiful morass of inequity. To avoid being sucked into despair we would have to focus, to aim our attention. As a person wanting to strike a match must draw it with conviction in a single direction, so for our revolution to catch would require us to begin at a single point in the expanse of all that was wrong, from which we would sharply, decisively proceed.
This all seemed extremely true to us and they expressed it with a great deal of eloquence.
Where, we wanted to know, should we start?
The birds, they said.
Think of the hardships of existence as a kind of tax, they said. We don’t simply have more money than you and it is shortsighted to focus just on the economic question.
Perhaps we could begin with the economic question, we suggested, just as the match needs a single point from which—
—It would be easy, they cut in, for us to address the economic differences between us, but it would also be insufficient. Neglectful, even. We should consider all the manifold ways in which our hard-earned privilege—
—Not always hard-earned, we quietly reminded them.
—affects our lives. Many of these ways, including our money, cars, members’ clubs, art galleries, farmers’ markets, private offices and so on, are enjoyable, but many, for example the not inconsiderable psychological burden of knowing that our friends and neighbours are enduring without the same luxuries we enjoy, are difficult, trying, tiresome. And so it is with everyone’s life. The good exists in poise with the bad, and it is that poise that we need to calibrate if we are to achieve real equality, in which the benefits of each life should be reasonably balanced against its sufferances – and not just for everyone, but for every life. Look to the birds.
We looked at the birds. There were chickens in their hundreds of thousands, crammed into wire cages not much larger than the chickens themselves, each one pressed into position like a fuse into the heart of a machine. On the very first day of their lives they had been debeaked and injected, the start of a medical regime designed to adhere them to a life of unremitting darkness and squalor. Sometimes, they developed a madness that would cause them to peck violently at the vent in their own flesh from which they industrially birthed egg upon egg upon egg. Chronic pain, cannibalism, group starvation to promote laying: these things were not uncommon. These birds seemed to us to be heroes, enduring unimaginable suffering for the people of the country that they loved.
Then there were pet birds. They contributed in their own way to the public good through the happiness that they brought to their owners. Their sacrifice, though, was much smaller than that of the chickens. It was true that they had given up their freedom, and in some cases the freedom they might have enjoyed uncaged was considerable, but they were well cared for, they were loved and kept healthy. It would have embarrassed any sensible, decent pet bird to have their obligations compared to that of a chicken. The chicken, noble and selfless, endured an incredible tax on its existence, a tax more substantial than any merely financial tax levied on any person who ever lived. The pet birds, on the other hand, received a great deal of preferential treatment for what were extremely minor responsibilities.
And there were the gulls, terns, robins, quails, kestrels, pigeons, sparrows, herons, cranes, swans, geese, swallows and all the other birds that freely enjoyed the benefits of living in an advanced society such as ours. What did they contribute in return? Nothing. Only certain ineffable, accidental contributions to a well-functioning ecosystem and perhaps to the decoration of an aesthetically pleasing sky.
It gave us a lot to think about, this business with the chickens and the budgerigars, canaries and parrots, and the swans, gulls, terns, tits, cranes, geese, sparrows, goshawks, pigeons, house martins and swallows. The wealthy and powerful suggested that a good first step would be to establish a commission that could properly investigate and then provide a comprehensive report on the birds. But at the very least, the injustice was striking. Even though the chicken was suited to its sacrifice in a way the other birds could not be, no discrepancy of so startling a degree could be tolerated in a country intent on the pursuit of equality.
Several things happened next. A committee was formed and began the long process of evidence gathering. Meanwhile, some obnoxious elements on our side regrettably wasted time criticising the talk of the birds, which they mischaracterised as a sideshow, a distraction. In response, the wealthy and powerful, full of ardour for a fairer society, suggested some sensible and temporary changes to the law – measures that would allow any chatter that might derail us to be dealt with quickly and efficiently. We of course promptly agreed to these changes: this was self-evidently an extraordinary, unprecedented period in the history of our country and it made sense that extraordinary (and only very temporary) measures would be required. Using these new powers, the wealthy saw that some token arrests were made and the backchat quickly abated. Our time was freed to address the quandary of the birds, and how they could be more equitably taxed.
One Member of Parliament made a speech suggesting that the life of the chickens might be made easier. They could be allowed access to sunlight and to outside space. This would, in turn, make them less prone to excessive pecking at each other and themselves, which would make it unnecessary to shear their beaks with a heated blade. With some freedom of movement and a higher quality of life, they would move closer to the superior existence of the pet birds.
We were momentarily moved by the MP, but the wealthy and powerful, together with the media, reminded us that this MP was an idealist and pointed out how laughable his speech and opinion were. The production of eggs was necessary and the only way to secure them in sufficient quantity was by following tried and tested methods: the extreme limiting of movement and light for the birds and all else that these things entailed. If there were ways to alleviate the suffering of the chickens, then they would of course happily see it done, but, in the real world, to unburden the chickens was quite impossible.
There was also, they pointed out, an insult to the chickens implicit in everything the MP said. The chickens were, remember, heroes, sacrificing themselves for the greater good of the nation, in which everything and everybody now worked together in glorious pursuit of a single goal: the crops that grew high in the fields, the sun that lit our way, the seas that swaddled the shores and so on and so forth. To say that we could as well have managed without their efforts was to cruelly dismiss all that they had done: the deaths, the chronic suffering, the brutally pecked and bleeding cloacae.
Put like this, it was clear that the MP had misspoken badly. It was also not long before some unsavoury information about his personal life arose in the press. Disgraced, he was removed from office and later arrested, under some of the new legislation that had been implemented.
In place of his ridiculous, unrealistic and ultimately treasonous suggestions, the matter was left in the rather more serious hands of the committee. They continued to explore ways to make conditions more equitable for the birds, and these efforts included rounding up small numbers of volunteers selected from the budgies, pigeons and finches to see if they could be managed in conditions more similar to those of the chickens. This was done even though it would have little practical value, even if the eggs produced in unnatural quantities by such treatment would be worthless and have to be disposed of, for a reason much larger and more noble than mere utility: to provide these birds with the opportunity to be as heroically selfless as the chickens and find purpose in our great, shared toiling for equality.
An ugly period followed. Some of us went to the rich and powerful because we were troubled by the mistreatment of the volunteer pigeons, finches and budgerigars, troubled by the ever larger number of arrests that occurred under the new and no longer very temporary legislation, and troubled that, despite the promise of a spark that would become an all-consuming revolution, the committee was still years from delivering its initial report on the best way to achieve bird equality, while the rich and powerful were still as rich and powerful as ever, but now with additional legislation that we had realised lacked oversight and due process, and which they could wield against us as they chose, and with more committee positions that they shared amongst themselves.
The rich and powerful sat us down. They asked us if we thought the adjustment from the grotesquely unjust society we inhabited to the gloriously fair society to which we aspired would be easy. And when we replied that we knew it would not be easy in the least, they explained to us why they had to remain rich and powerful. The reason was simple: for as long as we were pursuing equality, we would need strong tools at our disposal and we simply could not afford to do away with their accumulated wealth and power. It was precisely these things that would allow them to carry out the hard work of the revolution for us, to flatten mountains and with them plug canyons. Nothing was more valuable to our cause; nothing less than the whole effort depended on these reserves of strength. They had told us that their lives included both good and bad effects of their money and power: well, this was the heavy burden that they carried for us. Much as it might please them to give it up, to do so would be the same as a soldier laying down his weapon when confronted by the enemy. Whatever happened, their money and their control over the country would have to be maintained until all else had been corrected, or we were doomed to failure.
We said we needed some time to think this through. Of course, they said.
When we had fully come to terms with the reasoning of the rich and powerful, we had to admit that they were right. We wondered why we had not come to it ourselves: of course their privileges represented an increased capacity for achieving reform, of course they were our only hope for winning justice. In fact, it was clear that anyone fighting to reduce their wealth and power, as some of us still were, could only be seeking to undermine the revolution. Inspired, we suggested some of the ringleaders of this movement for arrest. This won us some favour with the rich and powerful, at the cost, unfortunately, of some of the unity of our own group. Insults and thrown fists became common, disharmony burbled and plashed menacingly, liable to grow more serious. And then the transmission was intercepted.
The transmission came from a government official in the country of our enemy and in it, they claimed for themselves the fealty of the birds.
What did we know? We knew that the birds were free to come and go in our country and had not been arrested. This was clear evidence of their loyalty to us and their commitment to our cause. However, they were also free to come and go in our enemy’s country, which must seem to our enemy clear evidence of the birds’ loyalty to them.
But we also knew that in as corrupt and failing a society as that of our enemy, the institutions could only be staffed by the mentally diseased, the inadequate and the reprobate. In such a rotten state, the understanding of justice would be so depraved that honest people must surely make their nests in prison cells: it would be nothing short of treasonous to suggest that the judgement of our institutions was no better than the judgement of the enemy’s. Therefore we could be confident of the birds’ loyalty.
But articles began to appear in the press questioning the birds, suggesting that they may have had their minds warped by exposure to the political blasphemies and insanity of our enemy. That these articles were published was a sure sign that the rich and powerful had grave doubts about the birds.
How exactly all this will end, none of us can say, but we hope for nothing but the best, though some of the birds have begun to be taken.
Alan Trotter's debut novel, Muscle, is forthcoming via Granta Books in the near future.
In the meantime, you should buy his e-book.
The Taking of the Birds was originally published in Somesuch Stories #2, a few copies are still available here.
Photograph by EstuaryPig / Thinkstock