Eilish Harkins: Black and White Hawk-Eagle

“Late again, I jumped out of my bed. I put bird fat in my hair and slicked it back into the regulation bun. I quickly ran across the metal landing and down the stairs to the flyers’ room. There was no time for breakfast, which was a shame because balut was on. The texture of the squishy surprise inside! Nothing can top it.

The flyers’ room was the loudest of them all, as you could hear the last call of the bird before darkness embraced it. Not to mention the slice of the quick metal sliding down the wooden guides. I was at station 7 today. It was a big upgrade: I was usually in charge of the flightless birds, but today Ines was ill so I got to fill in for her.

They delivered my first bird. I’d never really done this before. It was a black and white hawk-eagle: it had bright, yellow claws and a sharp, curved, beak of a vibrant orange. It must have come all the way from Argentina; wasn’t I in for a treat? Usually they only give this type of bird to the experts, as they are extremely strong flyers. The strong flyers are normally put at the front of the pack.

The bird was locked in a plastic box, with its head poked through a hole created to hold it in place. It looked up at the blade, begging it not to fall. Then it looked to me, with a glimmer of despair in its eyes. They were striking, a piercing yellow surrounded by black plumage.

A strident call shattered the air, louder and more desperate than the others. That’s when I let the blade drop. With a satisfying thud the bird’s head fell on the table. I unlocked the plastic box and removed the body, which was enveloped in a thin layer of sticky blood.

I picked the carcass up by the neck and took a plastic tube. I threaded it right into the jugular vein and took a blowtorch to it. The plastic melted right in, sealing the wound.

The tube delivers blood to the body to make the wings flap. The head is cut off to remove any chance of rebellion, to take away the bird’s autonomy, thoughts and power. It was then time to fuse the legs. Having both legs moving separately can sometimes scratch the tubing, so to avoid that, we bond both of the legs together to create one limb. We pull the claws off and make a cut on the inside of both legs, creating two wounds which we then sew together to form one leg.

Bird after bird I got, head after head I chopped.

Before I knew it, it was feeding time. We all gathered in the feeding hall. We were having whatever birds had passed that morning.

After afternoon feeding I was back on the flightless birds. I was assigned to hook up a cassowary. I was in the blood chamber in the belly of the aeroplane; the cassowary was sedated on a roll-away table. I took the butterfly needle and inserted it into its throat. The tube was connected to the churners, two cylinders attached to every aeroplane that hold the blood. The churners are spun by owls: their heads are attached into a mechanism where they turn them from side to side to side. They spin it so that it doesn’t clot. Whenever it does clot, however, we all get bird blood clot soup for lunch. It has a funny texture: it’s very slimy yet not cold in the slightest, as they heat it up beforehand.

I locked the cassowary in one of the plastic-screened boxes lining the wall of the blood chamber. The door had a hole in it for the bird’s neck, in order to ensure that the tubing isn’t ripped out. It woke up half an hour later and panicked, as expected. It banged its body against the walls, twisting back and forth. This part was critical. I had to make sure that the tubing remained intact and that it couldn’t retract its head back into the box.

It started to growl. The cassowary has a strange call, a sort of dinosaur-esque growl. It sounded like a song of sorrow. No matter; its blood will fuel the plane for at least 30 years. Usually they live to about 60, but fuelling really sucks the life out of the birds, causing them to age faster.

I then went to the blood chamber in the next aeroplane, as there was a problem with the tubing. A rook had escaped and chewed through a quarter of all of the tubing. I had never heard of this happening before; a bird has never gotten out in the 5 years that I’ve been here. There was blood everywhere, birds squawking and screeching but worst of all, a ton of work to do. The rook was nowhere to be found. Probably dead somewhere. We sent out squadrons to capture it.

A team of three in my squadron and I rewired the blood chamber. It took hours. Thirty of the birds were dead, the rest were nowhere to be seen. Most of them flew out the second we opened the doors; the others bled out on the floor. I had never seen anything like it. By the time we were finished, I was starving and exhausted. I went straight to the feeding hall and got my portion of chicken broth with a side of talons. I was surrounded by hushed, curious conversations. Everyone was in shock; nothing like this had ever happened at the factory before.

How on earth had that rook escaped? We tested the cages so many times. They were supposed to be proofed against this.

As my head hit the pillow that night, I couldn’t help but think about where that rook had flown off to. I wonder if it knew how much chaos it caused? Of course it didn’t; it’s just a bird. A few hours later, I finally fell asleep.”

Their mother puffed out her chest, put the book down and sighed. She was wearing a pigeon-breasted blouse, with an impeccably-made skirt. On the tip of her hooked nose, balanced very delicately, were a pair of pince-nez glasses.

 ‘And that, my nestlings, is how the Great War began,’ she said softly. ‘This diary entry was taken by one of the Great Master of Espionage’s closest friends. The Master of Espionage was captured after his wrongful exile by the jealous King. The humans bundled him away and tried to make him work on the aeroplanes. They locked him in a cage and stole his blood. He was stuck there along with many other brethren.’

She continued, ‘Then he escaped: he destroyed the wiring in the aeroplane, taking with him countless others. He flew all the way to the Great Assembly, he pulled the sheep out from our eyes, allowing us to see again. He explained to us all the atrocities he saw there; he wanted to take action. However, the King and Queen were cowards, so he killed them.’

She spoke with a rush of pride: ‘He took over as our leader and led us into war. He created not only a united population but also an army! He gave us all tasks and duties, he made a place for us all.’ Then her voice took on a tone of warning: ‘One thing you need to learn, my nestlings, is that humans are never satisfied. They have legs, they walk. Then they want to swim, because walking isn’t enough. After swimming, they want to fly, so they steal that. They tried to strip us of our flight, but we will not have that. We will drop our droppings on many a human to come. We will grab garnets by the thousands and we will devour doughnuts aplenty! Because that means war.’