An ostrich on the loose in Shijiazhuang – fiction by Tom Pellman
Ed: This story was read out at Scotch & Stories night at the Beijing Bookworm, accompanied by a tasty Glenfiddich 12. We'll be drip feeding the stories onto the site over the coming weeks
The tiger suit stinks. It smells like dried sweat and grass clippings. They make me wear it when we practice catching escaped animals at the Shijiazhuang zoo. The last time, two weeks ago, they chased me for almost twenty minutes straight, waving their snares, until I fell into some bushes. I tore a small hole in the leg and now I have to remember to stay on Director Wang’s right side so he doesn’t see it. He says rules are rules. If the suit gets ruined when I’m wearing it, I have to pay for it. That’s a rule. Another one is: last person who joined the team wears the suit.
“It’s not fair,” I whisper to Lao Li, who is sitting next to me in the back of the van. Lao Li is like my grandfather, but kind. “Why do I have to wear it? This isn’t some training. This is the real thing.”
Lao Li shrugs. “Ostriches are afraid of tigers.”
I look down and stick a finger in the hole in my suit. “No, ostriches are afraid of people, with guns.”
“Most people with guns,” says Yu Zhong, loud enough for the whole van to hear. Everyone bursts out laughing.
“C’mon, Hui Ming, of course you have to wear the suit,” he goes on, tears still in his eyes. “If that bird ever sees your face again…” He can’t finish, he’s laughing too hard.
“It didn’t even break the skin!” I protest, but it’s no use. They can’t hear me over the howling.
I try to ignore them by turning back to Lao Li and asking him about the bird. I’ve only seen it once and, yes, I was a little scared.
He says he doesn’t know why the bird comes back to the same place every time it escapes. All he knows is that ostriches come from Africa, so it probably likes the sandy gravel out in the Hi-tech Zone, where everything is still under construction.
“But why does it always go there?” I ask, meaning the Oriental Pearl Hotel.
“It’s a five-star hotel. He’s got good taste.”
Lao Li is pleased with this crack but everyone’s done laughing. I study Yu Zhong for the rest of the ride, watching as he leans back and stares out the window, cradling one of the guns in his arms like a child. He joined the zoo only two months before I did, so he never had to wear the suit.
When we pull up next to the Oriental Pearl Hotel, Director Wang yells for us all to wake up even though no one’s sleeping. The scene outside looks like a storm blew through — tables overturned, bits of flowers trampled, a dirty red carpet. From inside the hotel, on the other side of the glass door, there’s a row of people peering at us. Director Wang climbs out of the front seat and holds up both hands in greeting. Meishi’r, he yells.
Lao Li starts dividing up the gear — a black fishing net, three lengths of rope, a few long bamboo poles, a motorcycle helmet and the second gun. Yu Zhong slings his over his shoulder without discussion. Then he tucks his shirt into his camouflage pants. Everyone is wearing camouflage except for me.
“Where’s your head, Hui Ming?” Director Wang says.
“Do I have to wear it? I can’t really see.”
“It’s for your own protection.”
“You won’t scare the bird if you don’t wear the head,” Lao Li points out.
“At least give me a stick,” I say, fixing the giant tiger head to my suit.
“We only brought three.”
I turn away in disgust toward the building. Inside, a little boy is waving at me frantically. His face is beaming. I don’t wave back.
“Can we just get this over with?” I say finally.
Sigh. No one understands anything I say when I wear the suit.
Director Wang turns from us and marches up the red carpet to meet the hotel manager scowling at the entrance.
“Just make sure he doesn’t shoot himself this time,” he calls over his shoulder.
Our little militia crosses the wide, empty road to the adjoining construction lot, the one where we found the bird last time. I walk behind them, one hand tugging down on my neck to keep the eye holes in place, the other gripping my tail like a hose. I’ve worn the suit enough times to know you have to keep it away from your feet.
“There!” someone shouts. A black blur shoots past on my left, close enough that I can hear its claws in the gravel. But by the time I swivel my head, it’s gone. I can only make out silhouettes of earth-movers and cranes as we take crunching steps forward.
“He’s back there,” Lao Li whispers. “We need to flush him out into the open. Hui Ming? Where are you?”
“The silent predator,” Yu Zhong snorts.
I already know what Lao Li is going to ask me to do.
“And just remember,” he finishes. “The bird is the one that’s afraid of you. Just be careful of the claws. They’re like a chicken’s, but sharper.”
The bird must have heard me coming because when I peek around the cement mixer, he’s already standing at attention, head bowed, huge wings spread. When he starts hissing, I turn and give Lao Li a panicked look, which of course he can’t see. Instead, I see Yu Zhong pointing his gun at his foot and pretend to shoot. Ha ha. My face turns hot with anger. They can’t see that either, of course.
When the bird raises its head, it seems different. It looks ridiculous standing a full two meters tall on those plucked legs. Tiny head. Wild hair. Long eyelashes. What a stupid-looking animal! It has no idea what its put me through every day for the last six months. I can’t say exactly why but I feel an urge to grab it by its delicate neck and squeeze. Yu Zhong doesn’t believe I could do it. No one does. But I know I could kill it if I wanted to. That would show them.
And then I’m charging toward the bird — screaming, groping, stumbling forward. I see a flash of fear in its giant eyes – I’m sure I see it – but it trots away easily when I’m still ten meters away. Once it’s gone, I sit down on the dirt, take off my head and wipe away the sweat with my dirty paw.
The chase takes about twenty minutes but Yu Zhong is the one who finally shoots it, of course. By the time I join the others, they are standing in a circle around the thrashing bird, smoking, waiting for the drugs from the dart in its thigh take hold. A few of them are still breathing heavy.
“That was harder than last time,” someone says.
“Dumb fucking bird,” Yu Zhong mutters. “Why does it keep doing this?”
Lao Li is squatting closest to it, inspecting its scratched neck. “He’s not dumb. He’s clever to have escaped so many times.”
“It’s dumb. So dumb it can’t remember that it’s got nowhere to go.”
When we finally get it loaded into the van, Lao Li uses one of the ropes to lash a few sheets of newsprint around the bird’s neck, to stop the bleeding. Its white tail feathers are stained with blood and dirt. We tie the bird’s legs together and someone puts a paper bag over its head.
“God, what happened?” says Director Wang when he sees us. “It looks like you’ve kidnapped it.”
“It keeps him calm,” Lao Li says. “He’ll be fine.”
For a few moments, we all listen to the bird’s steady breathing, crinkling the paper.
Then, Director Wang yells.
“Hui Ming? Come out here!”
I feel my face get hot again, sure that Director Wang has finally seen the hole in my suit. I notice a group of children has followed him outside into the sunshine. They look cautious, half-frightened.
“No, Hui Ming, keep the suit on,” he says. “Listen, I want you to stay here this afternoon. The kids love tigers. You’ll stay and entertain them for awhile. I owe the manager a favor.”
I feel the crowd of squealing kids press in on me. One of them tugs at my tail. Director Wang is still talking to me, but I’ve stopped paying attention. For some reason, all I see is their delicate necks.
“Hui Ming?” Director Wang says. “Are you listening? Where is your head?”
Tom Pellman lives in Beijing and is fiction editor of the Anthill