The early morning damp makes me shiver as much as the wet mud underneath my feet. I stand outside the shed, listening to the low moans that trickle out of it. The sound always makes my feathers shiver right down to their roots. I shake off the dew settling on my body and slip into the darkness of the shed. As my eyes adjust, I am struck anew by how much the smell of the place disgusts me, stinking as it does of human waste and sweat. It hangs in the air like a toxic cloud, making me rub my beak and wish for a mask.
As I make my way tentatively over the rough wooden floor, shapes emerge from the darkness. I walk to the back where my work for the day awaits me, prepped like patients before surgery.
The feeding pen is enclosed by a picket fence short enough for me to step right over. There is no risk of the humans escaping, not from here. Two pails of the corn slush stand side by side in front of the tethered humans. There are three new ones today, brought in as emergency replacements after the last batch was decimated by a slew of deaths. Back at the farm, they blamed it on the ever weakening gastrointestinal tracts of human beings, which made it increasingly difficult to fatten them up adequately before they died of a burst oesophagus.
I didn’t say anything when the routine inquest happened but one of them died in my arms while I was feeding her. The food didn’t kill her. Sure, she was gagging for a while but they all do that before swallowing eventually. No, it was that look in her eyes that told me what went through her head moments before she entered the void.
I am distracted from my thoughts by movement just ahead of me. I curse silently at whoever was responsible for setting the humans up and the shoddy job they did. One of them is clearly awake. I try to walk softly as I get closer.
It is a male, a specimen in the prime of his youth and if all goes well, a rich source of food. He is stark naked, his stubby toes barely grazing the floor as he hangs from what we have casually come to call the cross. It is a simple framework that immobilises them completely, raising up their arms and pinioning them to wooden planks on either side of their body. Thick leather straps secure them to the lumber that supports their back. They are tilted to the back slightly, a better position to feed them.
I walk up to him and grab hold of the gavage that hangs ominously over his head. He follows my movement with eyes that are wide open and quite clearly sober. I normally like to be in the feeding pen before they regain consciousness. It is easier to feed them when they are still groggy and struggling to shake off the effect of the drug.
Now he is clearly not going to like it when I prise open his jaws, stick the metal tube in and ease it slowly into his food pipe. I press his head back against the board but he shouts out, a discordant sound that makes me stop trying to inch the nozzle closer to his mouth.
They all start with these desperate pleas for mercy, the sincerity in their voices never ceasing to baffle me as they seem to believe that I will actually change my mind if they beg long enough. But being in the throes of drug induced stupidity, their protestations are often vague, as if they are unsure about what’s happening to them except that it is unpleasant.
Now I’m looking into the face of one whose eyes tell me that he knows exactly what is about to befall him. He doesn’t struggle against his bonds but looks at me intently with those large black eyes. And without meaning to, my thoughts go back to that female. The expression on the face of the male is the very same one that was etched across the female’s just moments before her heart gave way. An intense, and quite unpleasant sense of déjà vu throws me off balance. He takes my hesitancy to stretch his head as far forward as he can without snapping it.
Please. Don’t do this to me…
I know I should be getting on with the feeding. The others around him will start regaining consciousness soon and then I will have a real fight on my hands. And yet, I cannot bring myself to pull the funnel any lower. I stand there, my mind racing through thoughts that resemble half-remembered dreams, the kind that prance around just beyond your grasp, teasing you to come after them with intangible promises that are nevertheless oddly enticing. I feel like I’m on the verge of something here, something momentous. And the answer is in that shared expression between the dead female and the sobbing male before me.
Then it hits me with such force that I snort involuntarily through my beak. It isn’t the fear that they exhibited that was troubling my mind because even the lowliest creatures can feel fear. It was that they experienced the very same fear. That they are capable of a shared understanding of a universal emotion strikes me as being incongruous. It goes against the grain of everything that I have ever believed about the humans, of their primitive brains and self-centred lives. That they are capable of empathy puts them on a pedestal that is uncomfortably close to my own kind.
I take a step back, my talons clicking on the floor. As I look at the sorry form of the human before me, it sinks in that I will never see them in the same way again.
Ajay Patri is a twenty-two-year-old law student from Bangalore, India. He loves reading the works of Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, J. M. Coetzee and Neil Gaiman and can be found scribbling away whenever he has free time. His short stories have been published in The Literary Yard and Spark.