The nest

The nest

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Illustration: Sarene Chan
Illustration: Sarene Chan

This story by Rachel Ho Yuen-yi, of Yan Chai Hospital Law Chan Chor Si College, took third place in the South China Morning Post and RTHK fourth annual Top Story competition - Junior Category. 


As I got older, I was allowed to go down to the playground near our house with my grandma. She would sing old songs to me in the Teochew dialect as we walked to the playground. She would usually just sit on the bench, watching and smiling at me. I always thought she was having a better time than me. 

There was one particularly odd day, when my father decided to take me instead. I remembered the straight road to the playground seemed longest that day. I watched as he walked ahead. He was walking quickly, so quickly that I had to jog in order to keep up.

As my father sat on the bench, I looked up to the horizontal bars and decided that I'd try them for the first time in my life. I grasped the iron bars, putting all of my body weight onto a few metal bars. 

When I was about halfway through the monkey bars, I jumped down and patted the sweat on my palms, smirking. A group of kids or, as they called themselves, a gang, came up to me. The chubby boy in the centre said to me in a piercing voice: "Is that all you can do?" I took a few steps back, unable to see his face under the ferocious sun. 

I fell on the coarse ground, and my heart jumped a little when I saw my reddish wrist. I got up, seeing their sneer. My ears were burning. It was then that my father walked towards me, telling me to go home. The group dissolved in an instant. 

"It's time to go," my father ordered. I followed him home, swallowing back the tears.

That night, while my grandma was putting a plaster on for me, I said to her: "They do not want to play with me." 

But she just patted my head and replied: "You can always play on your own, sweetie."

I realise now that I was constantly alone in the playground. I wouldn't say that they were bullying me. It's just that I wasn't welcome in any of the "cool" kids' games. I would sit on the swings and watch them from afar. They would deliberately keep away from me so I guess it does count as bullying. Most of the time, I walked home with my grandma following behind me.

Some days after that, instead of going down to the playground, my grandma chose to take me to another park, a park full of birds. The paifang at the front entrance read, "Yuen Po Street Bird Garden", under a roof covered in green tiles. 

"I hang out around here sometimes," she said, her eyes crinkling at the sides. She took my hand, and she continued, her silver teeth shimmering behind her lips: "I used to bring your father here. He got so excited when we got a little bluebird."

"What happened to the little bluebird?" I asked her as we weaved through the crowds of bird fanciers and old men. 

"It got killed ... by another bird," she almost muttered. I slowly relaxed my hands as I looked up to the birdcages hanging on both sides of the stalls throughout the marketplace. All sorts of birds were inside these cages, chirping along with the boasts of their elderly owners who flaunted their delicate hand-crafted cages to the others. 

I remembered being as jaunty as the colourful birds there at the time; but now that I look back on all these things - the incessant squawking of parrots plucking out their feathers in small cages, and the distinctive odour that permeated the garden, I don't think I'd want to go back there very often.

We stayed in the garden for a brief moment before my grandma slowly dragged me to the exit. And so I waved goodbye as the music died down. 

That day, I decided that birds are better than humans, as I trotted down the street, swinging my grandma's hand, and we both let out a squeaky giggle. 

To be honest, at that time, I thought my grandma was the only one who truly loved me. 

When my grandma came to pick me up from school the next day, she took out a big fluffy cotton ball from her sewing basket, with a baby sparrow nestled inside. It was only about the size of my tiny hand; I lifted it up with both hands, watching as it paced across my palm, toddling about with its streaked wings.

"Where did you get it, grandma?" I asked softly, glancing down.

"I picked it up, on the terrace," she replied in an usually high-pitched voice. As I pulled it closer to my chest, she continued, lowering her voice, "Its mum probably took it out of the nest."

"Oh! Poor thing!"

"Yes! The mother sparrow must've flown away and left it. It almost fell to its death!" she told me while stroking my head. Her grey eyes stared right into mine.

I frowned at her, feeling confused at the time. It was fine. It was an unfortunate sparrow, which had become something I could play with.

 I stuffed more cotton into the basket, laying my favourite pink floral towel on top. It was already a delicate birdcage. I fed the sparrow when it was hungry, kissed its little beak, and fed it even when it wasn't hungry, though it refused to open its mouth. I remembered carrying the basket around the house. My mum would just laugh.

I told myself that I would never set foot outside the house again. I already had my grandma and baby sparrow - that was enough for me. I didn't need anything else in my life!

Later that day, my father came home from work. In my memory, he was never a talkative person; he would just sit quietly at the end of our long dining table. But at dinner that night, when the chirrup broke through the air, his gruff voice broke the silence: "What?"

"It's a sparrow," I replied slowly, looking towards the moving white cloth in the basket.

"Give it to me!" he ordered. His grumpy voice pounded in my ear. His shoulders leaned towards me, as he stood before me like an angry ox. 

Before I knew what was happening, he had thrown the basket away. The basket flew straight past me and into the shrubs on the terrace.

Naturally, I cried, letting the tears run down my face. I didn't dare to wail. I wouldn't want to be beaten and spanked again. My mum, although sometimes enduring a few punches for me, was standing behind my father this time. She, on occasions like this one, would always side with my father and tell me to go to my room, and this was no different.

I remembered crying myself to sleep while burying my face on my grandma's lap at my bedside, when my grandma patted my head and said: "I should've never brought it home." She paused abruptly for a second then told me: "It was a sparrow that killed your father's bird." I stopped crying that night.

 My dad ended all talk of the sparrow the next morning by announcing: "You should never mess with these cunning little things!" 

I nodded at his words. I never did find out what happened to the baby sparrow but I'm sure that it's out there somewhere. When I saw my father picking up the sewing basket from the shrubs on our terrace, I knew that it'd be out there somewhere. 

I see sparrows flitting through the polluted air of the bustling city, and I know that the baby sparrow from 20 years ago will have gone on and started a family of its own. 

I did hate my father, all those years ago, when this sort of thing would happen in the Lee household all the time. 

I know now that behind his gold-rimmed glasses, the whites of his eyes were yellowing. They told me it was his kidneys. I didn't understand then, but I understand now.

As I get home, feeling sweat on my back, I bend over to greet my kids with a warm embrace.

 

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Rachel Ho Yuen-yi's story, The nest, tells a tale of birds, family and new beginnings

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