The bird juggler

On Grimsby Street in Three Anchor Bay lived an old Italian man who was a pigeon magician. His name was Elei. Elei owned an Edwardian house but it seemed as though he merely rented a room from his pigeons. He had hand-reared generations of birds who lived in all the rooms of the house except the small kitchen at the back, where he stayed. The house was a dump. Discarded furniture littered the garden, and the windows and eaves were broken. But the show—as Elei called what he did—made the house invisible.

“I make show for twenty-seven year,” Elei once told me, “but never the people come. Just tourist maybe.”

I sat on a low wall, ready to watch him perform.

“Now you,” he added.

“Why do you call it a show?” I asked.

“For see,” he said. “This, what I do my life.”

Every day, in the late afternoon, Elei crossed the street to an empty lot while hundreds of pigeons perched on the balcony and roof of his house. He always wore the same green jersey, streaked with pigeon droppings, the same frayed gloves with open fingers, and a brown beret. In the empty lot he walked in slow circles with his arms outstretched, as though to silent applause in a ring of imagined people. As he did, the pigeons crowded the roof and the gutters of the house. They droned in readiness but did not move. Then Elei faced them and raised his hands above his head. Like a sorcerer, casting a spell, he waved them in a smear toward him.

The birds vied for space on his outstretched arms, his shoulders and the top of his head. Those who could not find a purchase on Elei himself joined the carpet of birds on the concrete around him, moving as he moved.

“Fonso,” Elei called out and pointed at a particular bird among those at his feet.

“Fonso,” he called again and tapped his head, his arm heavy with other birds clinging to it. “Come.”

Fonso flew up and landed on his head as the birds already there swooped down to join the others on the ground.

“Piccolo,” he called and pointed at another bird.

“Fonso is father of Piccolo,” he said as he waded through the birds in my direction.

“All bird has name,” he went on. “Different name.”

The birds milled about his feet while he turned slowly to find another one among them.

“Bella,” he said as he looked around. “Where Bella?”

On his beret, Fonso and Piccolo clung and fluttered as he moved.

“Bella is mother of Piccolo,” Elei explained. “She not here now.”

More birds came from the house. They dropped from the comb of the roof and glided across the street like paper jets. Bella was among them.

“Bella!” Elei cried. “Bella, come!”

Bella flew up and perched on his hand.

“Kiss kiss,” Elei cooed.

Bella pecked him lightly on the lips. She had a prominent cere and her feathers were faded.

“Bella very old,” Elei said. “Maybe fifteen year.”

He held his hand near his head and Bella hopped onto his beret, displacing Fonso and Piccolo. The birds that had clung to his arms flew up and hovered around him as he gathered Bella with both hands, folded her wings against her body and flung her into the air. Bella arced high above them and turned slowly on the drag of her tail—a stone shaped like a bird. Then, as though from an unseen branch at the top of her flight, she unfolded her wings and swooped down onto Elei’s head.

“Bird love trick,” Elei said.

Now he juggled more birds like that. They craved his touch and plunged to him after their fleeting buoyancy. Then Elei slung them upward again in a motion of such grace that he appeared to be drawing them toward him instead, fetching them down from an invisible ceiling they had briefly touched.

Just after sunset the birds flew from Elei and landed in strings on the parapet of the balcony and the roof of the house. Only Bella remained. She sat on his hand and rubbed her head against his chin. It was clear to me that the show was not something Elei wanted people to see. It was something he did to keep people away.

“You come again?” he asked.

“If you like,” I said.

Elei stroked Bella behind her neck while he struggled to find the words he needed.

“Best show is accident,” he said at length, “when no one here.”

“Did I upset the birds?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “The bird make strange thing.”

“Strange things?”

“English,” he sighed and smiled at the weight of the language he had chosen to share with the birds. “Like casino.”

“Random things?”

“The bird forget,” he nodded, “but I remember.”

Bella flew from his hand as he stepped over the low wall. She circled the empty lot to gain height and then she followed him as he crossed the street.

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