An excerpt from

The Iron Bird

Robert Woodshaw

Let me make one thing clear at the outset: I am a lappet-faced vulture, dear.  Of course, the species has more than one name. Indeed, I understand there’s a specimen in another institution that insists on being introduced as a Nubian vulture. But I am afraid one is reluctant to regard oneself as Nubian. Goodness me, no.

There’s nothing wrong with the adjective ‘lappet-faced’. There is not. Oh, I dare say it might not conjure up quite the most attractive image, but make no mistake: the expression is innocuous compared to some of the other language that’s been directed at me over the years. You see, I am sometimes called the most horrid names: a harpy, a milk-snatcher, a cold-blooded carnivore that dines on the dead… It can be most upsetting. Naturally, one tries to push such spiteful comments out of one’s mind. One carries on. One has to; after all, there are more important things in life than being liked.

But even so.

It still hurts to be dismissed as a contemptible creature — of course it does; it hurts just the same. In fact, if I might share an intimate secret, sometimes it reduces me to tears.

Does that come as a surprise? The confession that I occasionally weep. Yes, I can see that it does. What was that? What was that? One is a little hard of hearing. Do speak up.

You’d been expecting a more resilient specimen? You’d assumed that I was a tough old bird?

I see. Well, I shall take that as a compliment, dear. I used to be tough. Goodness me, I used to be as tough as… Not old boots. One hesitates to compare oneself to an old pair of gardening boots. Let me choose another noun: I used to be as tough as iron. But I must admit the truth of the matter is that the onslaught of old age has rendered me rather frail.

What was that? I didn’t catch the question. Don’t sit there stuttering. Come on, dear, this institution belongs to the brave not the chicken-hearted. Spit it out.

How old am I?

I see it is no longer considered impolite to ask a bird her age. Next question, please. The creature sitting over there. The specimen scratching its flea-bitten coat. That’s right. You.

What’s the average lifespan of the lappet-faced vulture?

Well, I must say, that’s a good question, isn’t it? We seem to have a would-be ornithologist in the audience tonight. Albeit one with fleas.

The average lifespan of a lappet-faced vulture? Oh, at least 80 or 90 I should imagine. No one can be sure. But I am afraid there is no escaping the fact that this old carpetbag of feathers and bones is falling apart at the seams. Sometimes I am too tired to unfurl these tattered wings. Sometimes I forget… I forget things, dear.

Perhaps I should get out more often. Indeed, I dare say I spend too much time cooped up behind the bars of this cage. Not that one is complaining about one’s accommodation arrangements, you understand. Let me make it quite clear: I’m delighted to have a crooked tree, delighted to have a nest made out of a dismembered birch and bits and pieces of broken furniture: a leg from some old sideboard — and what’s this? Goodness me, the arm of a gilded chair.

Of course, it’s all one’s own work. This magnificent nest of mine. I acquired the materials and bound them together with bulrushes and mud, and then as soon as the mud had dried, I lined it with laddered stockings and other old rags. I made it as comfortable as I could so that I’d be able to sleep at night. But sleep eludes me, dear. In fact, I’m afraid most nights I just sit here and stare out at the zoological gardens. Sometimes I sit and stare until all the gas lamps strung up above the promenades of cages and enclosures have guttered out and I am engulfed in darkness. I let nothing distract me. Nothing. If a sudden squall rushes in through the bars, I compensate for the movement of the nest as it lurches up and down in the wind and rain, so that I can continue to stare out, alert to the slightest movement at the entrance to this cul-de-sac of cages and enclosures. But no one comes.

I am alone.

Times change, of course. It is 2010. I am told the animals have put the past behind them. I am told the zoological gardens has moved on. But it seems that even the Order of Carnivores has forgotten — or at least found it convenient to forget — that their old Commander-in-Chief is still here, propped up under these overarching bars. Still here. Not dead. Remember me?