‘Zugunruhe’ – Published UTS Anthology 2010

birds 2

The sky is a blank white page just waiting to be scribbled all over. I

shift from boot to boot, waiting for Oma to answer the door. Every

day she takes longer. I hate standing here while the neighbours peer

out at who I’ve become; my shiny pigtails are now purple dreadlocks

that clash with the ice-cream colours of the suburb.

I sketched Oma’s street once on a bored school holiday. Her place

I drew like a castle, high on a hill. It still feels huge, although I’ve got

to bend down now to squint through the peephole.

I pull out my piercings while I wait. One day I’ll leave them in

and she can just deal with it. But today, like every other day, I push

them into my pocket. I’m not a kid: I just turned eighteen. But she

has this effect on me. I press my sketchbook against my chest.

‘My darlink!’ She opens the door and reaches up, squeezing my

face in her cold, papery hands. ‘So be-u-ti-ful! Lily, it fills my heart

to see you.’ She pats my cheek. ‘Come, we have werk.’

Before stepping inside I take a lungful of street air, like a diver

going under. Oma’s house smells of bird shit, frankfurts and dust

frying on chandeliers. It shrinks me back to being small, to trailing

around this house on long afternoons. In Oma’s mirrors, I am just

a kid playing dress ups. I even lose my name. Lily was Oma’s sister

who was killed in the war. Ever since I’ve been coming here alone she

calls me that. It’s as if, without Mum beside me, Oma can’t place

me as her grandchild. But why I’m Lily, I don’t know. Does she think

I’m her ghost? Or maybe she thinks she’s back in the thirties, before

it all happened, which would explain the crappy old music she inflicts

on me.

The bottom of Oma’s house is dark; our footsteps echo past empty

rooms. She never uses them—rattles around in there, Mum says—

which is one reason I got sent to help. They’re paying me for it; no

way would I be here, otherwise. But I got sacked from Boost for

drawing pictures and ignoring customers, and Supré just looked me

up and down and never called back. So I’m stuck helping Oma—

and it’s nothing like I expected.

Oma shuffles along, her cottonwool hair glowing ahead of me in

the dark. I hear flapping wings and try to dodge, but the bird batters

into my head, his claws hooking into my dreads.

‘Oh, Joey!’ she laughs, as I free the squawking budgie. ‘You didn’t

see Lily!’ I bet he did it on purpose. Joey, the little brat, always tries

to shit on my head. Oma lets him get away with heaps because he can

talk. I restrain from crushing him. Just one more day and I’ll have

enough cash to leave.

Oma lets me take her elbow on the stairs. Her bones are so light—

Turning into a bird herself, is another thing Mum says. For all her

opinions, I notice Mum isn’t visiting. Oma and I are like reject book -

ends on either side of the family. It’s lucky Mum hasn’t come. She’d

freak if she realised what Oma was planning.

‘Come, we have tea,’ she says, and with shaky hands places the

silver sugar bowl beside a fan of glossy photos: the family in Israel.

‘How are the cousins?’ I ask.

‘                  Not good. Reut bought a Mercedes.’

‘And?’

‘A German car,’ she says, her seaweed-green eyes full of betrayal.

‘How could she?’

Luckily the kettle begins whistling before I get the speech. Oma

swore to never buy German products or utter another German word

because of what the Nazis did. I try not to watch as she struggles with

the teapot.

‘Well,’ she plonks it down, splashing a little tea from the spout

over Reut’s picture, ‘we are almost ready to bring them in.’

‘You’re sure?’

‘Of course,’ Oma says, smiling cheekily. I’ve been trying to sketch

that smile, but Oma’s face is hard to draw; it’s like a screwed up ball

of paper. ‘There is just one more detail,’ she says, her eyes glittering

from their creases.

She has had me hard at work for weeks. Not washing dishes or

dusting knick-knacks or whatever other lame stuff Mum imagines. I

have been tearing up carpet, shifting furniture to the garage, stapling

material over windows and collecting shoeboxes, which are now piled

up in the kitchen. Oma has written names in her curly handwriting

on each one. Last night I drew the shoeboxes in my sketchbook,

stacked up like a tower to the sky. On top I drew myself, with tiny

wings stretching upwards. The doorbell shrills.

‘Aha.’ She puts down her cup.

‘I’ll go,’ I say.

‘Show him up,’ she calls grandly as I head downstairs. Him? In all

the months I’ve been working here, Oma has never had a visitor.

He is leaning against the wall, sucking on a cigarette. He exhales

sideways, blowing smoke through the door and down the hallway.

He flicks his butt into Oma’s cactus garden and bends to pick up the

ladder at his feet.

‘Can I have a ciggie?’ I ask. To smoke on Oma’s front step would

make me feel big again. He pulls a packet of tobacco from his pocket.

‘You want I roll it?’ he says with an accent. Is he making fun of

Oma?

‘I can do it.’

I’m really bad at rolling. I assemble something lumpy but smokable,

and he lights it before I ask. He can’t be much older than me, but has

manners like some ancient gentleman.

‘What are you painting?’ I ask, pointing at the tins.

‘A sky,’ he says, and grins so wide I have to smile back, ‘for ze old

lady.’ He puts out one paint-splattered hand.

‘I’m Bernie.’

‘I’m Sophie—not Lily.’

‘Sophie,’ he repeats carefully, as if learning the word for the first

time. Goosebumps prickle my skin.

Oma is singing along to the kitchen radio and rinsing the teacups. I

tell her heis here and I will help him set up. We spread out drop

sheets, not that it matters without the carpet, but he is professional.

He has stopped chatting since coming upstairs, but winks at me when

he catches my eye. Okay, he’s cute—but totally not my type. I like

skinny, dark-haired boys with tatts. He’s got wide-set blue eyes and

curly blond hair with paint-flecked tips, and as he sets up the ladder,

muscly arms press through his t-shirt. Not that I’m into him. He’s so

not my thing. He doesn’t even have piercings. But there’s something

about him. He has the biggest grin I’ve ever seen: the house seems to

sparkle and dance around him. How would I draw him? The way he

looks doesn’t explain the feelingof him. Bernie whistles along to

Oma’s music as he opens a tin of blue paint. Its bright smell cuts

through the fug of dust as he pours it into the tray. Then he grabs a

roller and stomps up the shaky ladder, holding his tray high like a

waiter. As he rolls bold blue paint over the ancient cream ceiling I

stand and watch him work. A fine mist floats down onto my face. I

have to pull myself away to finish my own job of covering the last

windows in the house with material.

‘Lily!’ Oma calls as I am finishing up. ‘Set the table, please!’

I’ve been setting her table since I could barely reach it. I realise this

is the last time. I try to imagine myself gone. The thought twists in

my chest. I smell frankfurts bubbling and splitting in the pan, and

know that wherever in the world I end up that smell will transport

me back to this moment, placing cutlery. There is a tingly feeling in

my feet, like I’m looking down from a great height. I’m nearly ready

to jump and I know there is no coming back. Even the air in Oma’s

stagnant house is shifting; the dust particles seem to spin faster in the

afternoon sunshine.

‘Tell him lunch is ready,’ says Oma, spooning apple sauce into a

dish.

I poke my head into the lounge room. Bernie has finished the first

coat. Looking up at the ceiling I realise that Oma’s idea is beautiful.

Oma’s birds live in an aviary in the backyard, which Opa built. Mum

always mutters, Can’t believe that shed outlived Dad—as if the birds

are somehow to blame. Opa had fluffy white eyebrows that jiggled

around when he was excited. As a kid, I thought they might jump off

his face and attach themselves to mine, like leeches. Those eyebrows

bounced the most when he watched the birds.

‘Zugunruhe! Zugunruhe!’ he’d yell, pressing his face against the

cage. ‘No English word for it—the migratory restlessness, the yearning

to go. Look, Sophie, how they move in the same direction, as if to

migrate, as if in nature!’ And I would hook my little fingers around

the cold mesh, watching the birds swirl as one as he babbled about

navigation and the earth’s magnetic field. My first drawings were all

of birds, I used every coloured crayon down to its stub, until my

fingers smelt of blue and red and green and orange and flight.

Now Opa is gone, Oma talks to those birds every day. She fills

them in on all the family gossip. When I feed the little shits I know

they are squawking their opinions about me quitting school and

partying every weekend. But I promised to look after them. Mum

blames Oma’s pneumonia on her talking to the birds—Feed those

birds over winter, and I’ll make it worth your while, she’d said. And

the money has piled up. I’ll be on a plane before anyone realises Oma

has released those hundreds of birds inside her house. Maybe as I take

off I will draw a picture of Oma drinking a cup of tea as the birds

swirl above her like a multicoloured thought.

‘And Jacob saw the ladder leading up to heaven,’ says Oma, poking

her head around the door, gazing up at Bernie’s legs.

‘Oma!’

His calves are covered with blond hair, so soft that you want to run

your fingers through it. Not that I’m looking. But Oma sure is, she

nearly dropped the potatoes. I take the bowl from her hands. As I carry

it to the table, it comes to me in a rush. I would draw Bernie from

below, his legs poking down from the sky as he paints the universe,

stars falling around him. I shake my head to loosen the image.

‘Come, young man. We eat,’ Oma calls.

The ladder shudders as he descends in his big desert boots. Joey,

who has been freaked out by all the painting, comes to sit protectively

by Oma’s plate. She breaks up pieces of potato for the little brat to

peck and beckons Bernie to the head of the table. I could die of

embarrassment, but he seems to be taking it well.

‘So how did Joey get his name?’ he asks.

‘After my late husband, Joseph.’

I put down my fork and look at Oma. She never told me that.

‘Would Joey like I paint some clouds on the sky?’ asks Bernie.

‘He’d love it,’ says Oma, pushing the frankfurts towards him.

‘Now eat.’

‘These look good,’ he says, piling them on his plate. ‘Just like

home.’

‘And where is home?’ she asks.

‘Germany.’

What scares me is how she doesn’t react.

‘They are made in Australia,’ she tells him primly, and then she is

quiet, leaving us to stumble through conversation about backpacking

and the beach. Bernie says his visa is nearly up, but he would like to

come back. Oma chews her food in silence. As soon as the food is

finished, she stands.

‘Come, Lily. We have werk.’

Bernie goes back up his ladder, and we take the plates. I can hear the

chandelier jingling as Joey jumps from bulb to bulb, watching Bernie.

As we dry the dishes, Oma finally says, ‘Son of the ones who got to

stay. I should push him from his ladder.’

‘It was a long time ago,’ I say carefully.

‘You remember what the Germans did, don’t you, Lily?’

She looks me in the eye. My heart starts hammering. Although I

can scream any terrible thing at Mum, I hate dropping one word that

might hurt Oma.

Eventually, I say, ‘Oma, I wasn’t there.’

‘Of course not, Sophie,’ says Oma briskly, wiping down the bench.

‘But you help me keep Lily’s name on my tongue, don’t you?’ I nod

dumbly. ‘And you will keep her memories in your head when I am

gone.’

I am still standing there, stupidly holding the tea towel, as she

scoops up an armload of shoeboxes and heads out the back door. She’s

really going to do it—box up those birds and transport them inside.

I grab a stack of boxes and follow.

How can the birds know their names? But they do. They circle in a

whirl of colour when Oma enters the aviary, but as she calls their

names they drop, one by one, and gently hook their talons around her

thin white hand. They are gutsy neon budgies, shy blushing lovebirds,

finches with shrewd brown eyes and screechy rosellas. She speaks to

them individually as they land.

‘Ah, Ruth, you lived next door,’ she says, stroking one lovebird’s

chest. ‘We made snow houses for the fairies so they wouldn’t get cold.’

She closes her other hand around the bird’s body. I pass the shoebox

labelled ‘Ruth’, and she places the bird inside.

‘Oh, Herbert,’ she says to the next bird. ‘You kissed me once in

the woods. Your family was the first to be taken.’ Herbert is placed

in his box. He scuffles momentarily, then lies still.

‘And you must remember Leon,’ says Oma, turning to me as a

lime green budgie alights on her wrist, ‘the kindest old man in the

village.’

And somehow I do remember: Oma has gone on heaps about

how old Leon always gave the kids lollies from his pockets. I decide

I will draw Oma, Herbert and Ruth sitting on a blanket in the woods

with a huge jar of lollies between them. With watercolours I can paint

the tastes of barley sugar, licorice and nougat in their mouths. I will

draw them barefoot, sitting cross-legged, hands touching, like little

kids. But I will make their faces old, with peaceful eyes that never

saw hell, and contented smiles that say they got to be friends their

whole lives.

When I go in for more boxes I hear Bernie laughing from up in

the painted sky. The ladder wobbles dangerously.

‘Paint fumes got to you?’ I call up.

‘No, no—the bird,’ he says through another fit of giggles, and

now I see Joey perched conspiratorially on Bernie’s shoulder. ‘It talks!’

‘Yeah, I know. It says, “hello” and, “how do you do”. Oma taught

him.’

‘It says “scheisse”!’ The ladder judders violently as Bernie laughs.

‘Is it a word?’

‘Ja, it’s German, for “shit”!’

‘But who would have taught him?’

Bernie peers down at my shocked face and starts laughing again.

The ladder lurches sideways.

You’re gonna fall!’

‘I come down. We smoke!’

I hold the ladder steady for him.

We creep out the back door and behind the big gum tree.

‘Your grandmother swears much?’ he asks, grinning, as he passes

me a perfectly rolled ciggie.

‘No, never!’ I say, and then we burst into giggles and huddle

around her secret as we light up. I don’t add that she never speaks

German, either.

‘You have sky on your face,’ he says, stroking a rough thumb

across my cheek.

‘The paint,’ I answer. It comes out in a whisper.

‘I don’t just paint the houses,’ he says suddenly, straightening. ‘I’m

an artist. I make big paintings, with oil paint.’ He throws his arms

wide.

The grey afternoon hovers around us, waiting for my response. I

want to tell him about my drawings, about the way they come in the Zoe

night and I have to sketch until dawn trying to hold them down.

None of my family gets it. But the fear he won’t either stops the

thoughts on my tongue.

‘Aren’t you cold?’ I say instead.He is only in a t-shirt and shorts.

‘Nah,’ he says, ‘this is nathing! In my town we have snow like

this—’ He gestures up to his neck.

‘Maybe I should go to Germany and check out a real winter,’ I

say. The words shoot out suddenly, like fresh breath into a place

that has been stale for so long. Germany was a lump in Oma’s

throat, a place closed and bitter, but he has opened it up to me with

his grin.

‘Ja, come visit me!’ he says, and takes my arm and writes his email

on my skin. Something flutters inside, beating for release.

Guiltily, I rush back to the aviary with the last of the boxes. I hold

the first one up and read: ‘Lily’.

‘My little sister, Lily,’ calls Oma, and a small brown finch lands on

her hand. ‘You would have loved her, Sophie. She was always with a

drawing book, making her wonderful pictures, right until the end.’

‘Really?’ The box seems to heat up in my hands. ‘What did she

draw?’

‘She drew the places she would go,’ Oma says, smiling, as she

passes me the bird. I take it with one hand and feel its heart beating

fast against my palm. ‘Lily dreamed to travel.’

Zugunruhe,’ I say, and the word tastes sweet.

I put down the box and open the aviary door wide. And a picture

draws itself, swift and complete in my head: a view up through the

mesh of a little bird with charcoal wings flying up into an endless

blue sky.

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