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Jackie Hangman

For Grant.

Every morning, as the rising sun burns the mist hovering over the still water of the dam, bachelor Jackie Hangman stares longingly at the object of his affection. He barely moves from his perfect vantage point, a few trees away from where she sits.

He is a shy bird, failing miserably at contributing to the much feared reputation that birds of his kind have managed to cultivate over the years. While the other shrikes invoke terror into the hearts of the small veld creatures of the forest, who know at some point they will succumb to a gruesome fate, Jackie simply invokes a sense of bravery in them. The pluckier lizards have begun to treat him like a simpleton; playing a form of chicken as they attempt to lure him from his perch. A silly and dangerous game as he could quite easily awake from his love-stupor and spear a foolish lizard onto a thorny branch. He has recently moved into the area, in search of his life’s mate. Shrikes are serious birds, monogamous birds, and he’s long pushed the boundaries of appropriate singleness.

He’s been watching her for a week now, not yet able to go over and introduce himself. She’s a quiet one alright. From morning until the darkest part of the night, when he can no longer see her small, dark shape, she sits with her back to him. He has yet to gaze upon, what he imagines, is the beauty of her small face. Day in and day out, his eyes travel the contours of her body – his eyesight is not quite what it used to be, so her blurred edges give her a softness that conjures in him a sense of warmth and womanliness. He thinks, from her lack of activity, that she too is a thinker, someone who feels deeply, who likes to sit on her perch and contemplate her thoughts. Each day she stares off into the distance, her gaze fixed upon the expanse of blue water in front of her. He’s tried his best – he really has – to gain her attention. He’s strutted along his branch – up and down – his plumage fluffed and on display. He’s sung constantly – his harsh, grating call reaching beyond its capacity. But she has not turned. She ignores him with the same intensity that he wooes her.

One morning he awakes, stretching his wings and shaking his feathers, to clear the night’s cobwebs away. As his bleary eyes rest upon the dark feathers of his lady-love, he is jolted out of his sleepy glaze. She is not alone! Next to her sits a rather large and stunning looking shrike. His black feathers are glossy, and there is no mistaking the sultry notes he emits. He rubs up against Jackie’s one true love – who has not even raised her voice in protest, nor attempted to deter the scoundrel’s physical advances by pecking his eyes out! Jackie’s heart sinks. Once again, his timid nature has failed him. The other bird continues valiantly with its preening antics, but after some time, it becomes clear to Jackie that his love is simply not interested in the posturing of the ridiculous bird. Jackie watches as the bird grows bored and flies off in an impressive display of aerial acrobatics. He breaths a long sigh of relief as he realises he’s being given a second chance. A chance to both claim his heart’s desire and overcome his debilitating shyness.

He takes the opportunity seriously – fluffing himself up to twice his size, practices a few come-hither warbles and mentally prepares himself for his first encounter with his soul mate. He flies from tree to tree, stopping at each to gather his courage about him like a cloak. Finally he flies into the tree where she is perched. He looks down upon her, and notices for the first time that she is actually dun coloured and rather round for a shrike. No matter, he thinks, as he prepares to swoop over to her in a grandiose display of agility. He’s decided he will simply drop in casually beside her – females are not quite as territorial as males, so he feels it will be quite safe. He executes a perfect swan dive off his perch and comes to rest gently next to her. As he turns his head to deliver his well-rehearsed speech, his loving glance, ready to take in every glorious feature, falls not upon the beauty of her countenance, but on the bland features of a pine cone, fixed firmly to the spot that Jackie has been mooning at all week.

***

There’s a cottage in the Midlands – with a lake out front and a stand of pine trees off to the side. Each day a common fiscal shrike sits on a branch next to a solitary pine cone. The shrike seems to find comfort or friendship in the pine cone; they sit silently side-by-side or he chatters away, seemingly oblivious to its inanimate state.

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