A vulture was hacking at my feet. I punched it in the throat and it flew away, up to a corner of the cage, where it perched, furious. I was furious too. I let myself out of the cage, clanging the door behind me, and went straight to the bandagerie. It was shut, which made me more furious. I took a plum from my pocket, ate it quickly, and threw the stone at a whinchat. I missed, but the act of throwing calmed me down.
Leaving a trail of blood from the wounds in my feet, I crossed the site to my cabin. I was about to go in when the hooter hooted, deafeningly. We are trained to stand absolutely still, chin up, hyper-alert, all wax removed from our ears, to await whatever announcement – or command, or diktat, or ukase – will follow. When at last the sound of the hooter died, I heard the grating voice of Grandma Pipstraw ordering me – me! – to report immediately to her at the központ. It was the first time I had ever heard my name spoken aloud by Grandma Pipstraw, and I felt a curious admixture of pride and terror.
I sprinted to the központ as fast as my vulture-hacked feet would allow. The security git scanned the identity number tattooed on the side of my neck, and shoved me along a passageway to the inmost hub. Grandma Pipstraw was sitting on her musnud, knitting. She looked up at me, and I saw reproach in her half-blind eyes.
“We have CCTV footage of you punching Geraldine the vulture in the throat,” she said, “What have you got to say for yourself? Actually, don’t answer that. You will only whine, and I can’t stand whining. So a vulture hacks at your feet? What do you expect? Birds are savage, wild creatures. A woodpecker will peck you, if you are made of wood. A swan can break your arm, according to Tim Henman. A vulture will hack at your feet. Deal with it. But you do not punch Geraldine in the throat. You’re fired. The security git will escort you, roughly, off the premises. Now, begone from my half-blind sight!”
And that is how I lost my job as an Aviary Assistant at Grandma Pipstraw’s Lovely Zoo.
Unemployed, penniless, and hopeless, I wandered from seaside resort to seaside resort, jostling with seagulls as we scavenged for scraps. Then one night, when the seagulls were asleep, I was rummaging in a municipal seaside dustbin and I found a discarded copy of Dobson’s pamphlet Things To Do When You Have Been Dismissed From Your Job At A Zoo (out of print). I wondered what qualified the twentieth century’s greatest pamphleteer to expound on the subject. As far as I was aware, Dobson had never been employed by a zoo in any capacity. So I approached his text with a measure of caution.
I was bowled over. The prose was hysterical and jarring, but Dobson really seemed to know what he was talking about. Over forty closely-typed pages, he suggested two “things to do” for somebody in my predicament. I can’t remember the first one, possibly because I did not understand it, but the second suggestion was absolutely brilliant. I will not quote the pamphleteer directly, on legal advice, but the gist of it was “run away and join a circus”.
I tossed the pamphlet back into the dustbin and I ran away, oh how I ran!
Some weeks later, I eventually arrived, panting, at a Big Top pitched in a mud-stricken field on the outskirts of Pointy Town. While running, I had had plenty of time to devise a circus act which, I was sure, would see me welcomed with open arms. Before going into the tent, I brushed my hair and removed all the wax from my ears. Then I pranced through the tent-flap and presented myself before the circus ringmaster, who went by the name Baruch Spinoza.
“Hello!” I chirped, “I would like to join your circus!”
“I see,” he said, “Who are you and what is your circus act?”
“I am Little Minnie Pipstraw, The Amazing Vulture-Puncher,” I said, “I punch vultures in the throat”.
“That sounds highly entertaining,” said the ringmaster, “You’re hired”.
I would like to say that I was an instant success at Baruch Spinoza’s Big Top, but in truth it took several years to perfect my act. Initially, I had a great deal of difficulty finding an available vulture, and had to make do with a toy one made of marzipan. My punching technique, with my dainty little fist, won the crowds over, and when I upgraded to a papier-mâché vulture, the applause was thunderous.
It so happened that one muggy summer’s day, we pitched our circus tent in a mud-stricken field slap bang next to Grandma Pipstraw’s Lovely Zoo. I could not resist paying a visit. Though years had passed, the same security git stood on guard at the gate. He did not recognise me. When I tried to enter, he stopped me.
“The zoo is shut,” he said, “Grandma Pipstraw passed beyond this mortal realm last week. She became hopelessly entangled in the ravels of wool she was knitting, with fatal results. We shall not see her like again. To pay her funeral costs, we are selling off the zoo animals and aviary birds at bargain bin prices. Can I interest you in anything?”
Of course, I jumped at the chance to buy a real live vulture for 35p. I took it back to the Big Top, happier I think than I had ever been. Goodbye marzipan and papier-mâché! From this day on Little Minnie Pipstraw, The Amazing Vulture-Puncher really would be amazing!
But in my glee and excitement, there was one thing I had not accounted for. It is a signal fact, at least in this work, that vultures have a sort of hereditary memory, passed down from parents to hatchlings. Thus, a hurt inflicted on a vulture will be “remembered” by that vulture’s offspring, and their offspring, and their offspring, yea unto every generation. And Dennis, my bargain bin 35p vulture, was a direct descendant of Geraldine.
That night, in the Big Top, I pranced into the ring with Dennis by my side. As the crowd gawped, I punched him in the throat with my dainty fist. He flew away, up into a corner of the tent, where he perched on a tall circus pole. And there came swimming into his vulture-brain the inherited memory of his great-great-grandmother, Geraldine, also punched in the throat, years ago, by Little Minnie Pipstraw, whose feet she was hacking, as any vulture would hack. Dennis was furious. He fixed his vulture-gaze on me, standing in the ring below accepting the wild applause of the circus crowd, and he swooped. He descended upon me at dazzling speed, and plunged his beak down my throat, a vulture avenged. Falling back, I was relieved to feel him drowning irretrievably in my blood, which was filling every depth, flooding every shore.
The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Tania and James Stern. Everything in between was not.
There is much sapient doctrine in these pages.