Part 1 - setting off
So it was just one week after the opening of the duck hunting season I found myself reaching for my trusty double-barrelled Hoving and Hockney binoculars and casting off silently into the slow-running streets of the New York ornithology scene in search of some easy prey.
By God, it was a marvellous sensation. I felt the hairs on my neck stand on end and my nostrils flare in the misty downtown petrol fumes, and using the Cherokee Indian 'silent lope' my original instructor recommended ( I have always insisted on stalking in the western way ... it sorts out the men from the boys ... the limp wristed, mincing, nancies, from the real men ... so I tell my son).
The lad hadn't quite yet captured the frontier spirit. He just stared morosely into the misty dawn and asked: "Papa, what's a Lesser-Spotted Trump look like? Is it dangerous?"
The question hit me like a rock. I suddenly realized I had never come across one in the flesh, so to speak, not that I recalled anyway. Still, not to worry I told the boy as we took a breather in a graffiti streaked, Pollockish no-roof bus shelter (or was it graffiti?). "We'll soon find someone who can describe what one looks like. There's bound to be other hunters searching the VIP loungers and hotel foyers. Everyone will be out looking for them now it is open season. If not (I confided in an effort to keep his spirits up) we could always hunt for the Silver-crested Clinton or the red-quilled migratory Trump". Though I admitted to myself no one had sighted one of those since the Blue-plumed Democrats were all shot out.
Shortly afterwards we came up to a rather modern studded steel door set in a glass wall that proclaimed itself as a VIP lounge of some sort.
We strode inside and asked the middle-aged man who seemed to be in charge if he knew of any Lesser-spotted Trumps around the area.
He seemed almost amused at the idea. He was adamant we would not spot one. "Not in these parts," he proclaimed proudly. "Anyway, they are a rare breed these days. They tell me there used to be lots of them but they were almost wiped out by an overabundance of photographers and journalists who trampled down their natural habitat.
"Then the few remaining healthy collections were blighted by a burrowing ear-wig that made them shriek loudly and eventually led to their demise. They never really recovered." He further speculated that the only creatures we were likely to come across were the wedged-tailed Goldman-Sacks, a plump sleek creature which infested the area in swarms and was recognizable by its constant loud barking cry, a sponge like species that can be seen in large flocks gorging themselves in outdoor lunchtime restaurants. As our local expert pointed out: "Even though these are extremely friendly to the spotted Trump they also attract the very carnivorous Brested Taxwobblers. And these are extremely hostile to the spotted Trump. They won't tolerate them in the same restaurants or even a public parking lot." It seemed he was right and we moved on.
Later, in a backstreet beside a greasy takeaway joint we edged ourselves through a rather grand but run-down portico with 'Endangered Species Museum' cut into a huge overhead plinth. I swung back my cloak exposing the twin barrells of the Hoving and Hockney binoculars and we tiptoed through the half-light so as not to disturb any of the thick dust or cobwebs. "Ah, the natural habitat of the lesser-spotted Trump," I whispered to the boy. "Keep a sharp lookout."
I steered the boy along till we came to an ancient old crone, who was either in charge of the place or measuring long-term rigour-mortis. I asked if she had seen any lesser-spotted Trump or wedged-tailed Goldman-Sacks in the area.
"Whaaaa... " her lips trembled in shock. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Part 2 - the hint of a trail
'Whaaa...t!' said the old crone through trembling lips. Who are you, what do you want? 'enry, come quick, we have some cccc....ustomers!'
The way she said 'customers' made me think the last ones might have just jumped aboard Noah's boat before it departed.
'Pa look!' My boy stepped back a pace or two as an even older creature appeared from even gloomier depths. He moved with a funny sort of hop and shuffle you mainly only see in 1930ish hunchback horror movies.
I plunged a hand into my pocket and removed one of my more impressive business cards. It was the one that described me as a famous artist, writer, hollywood producer, stunt man and house-trained feminist. I stepped forward and I offered it up. The old man whipped it from my grasp and placed it on the desk so he could peer at it more directly beside the flickering candle.
'It's blank!' he straightened and fixed me with his one good eye.
'Turn it over,' I said.
Ah... so you've gone and wrote somethin' on the back! He exclaimed with the all the gravity of venture capitalist discovering my web site. Then he lurched into a tirade.
'Bloody luxury I say! All you young folks with your upside-down cards and your endless demands. When I was a boy we'd have given an arm and a leg just to have been sent to prison. Instead, ma and pa come home each night and beat us unconscious with a rolled up copy of the UN Charter of human rights, which was very thick I tell you. And, you know what, we'd never complain. Complain? We used to beg to be treated like that. We didn't even know the meaning of the word ‘complain’. But we never grumbled. We had it tough. Every morning we were woken up by a pack of howling wolves and made to walk a hundred miles through three feet of snow to school. Summer and winter both, an' when we got there we were made to work for 14 hours digging latrines with a spoon. And we were never paid a single cent....'
Fortunately a fit of coughing brought the old man back to us.
'Well Mr ... he peered down .... Mr Wimp what do ye want, exactly?'
'Does the museum ..... ' 'A dollar each, that's my starting price, take it or leave it.' '.... have any Lesser-spotted Trump's, maybe even stuffed ones?'
He scratched his long beard. ‘What do you mean stuffed? I never head of one that stopped talking long enough to be stuffed’.
Suddenly he went even paler, and began to hiss like a punctured tire. 'We sold our only live spotted Trump to a spiv, a commie, a Russian snake oil businessman who had a card like yours. And for what? For some plump young wedged-tailed Goldman-Sacks’ and a brace of Brested Taxwobblers, and I've never had a moments peace since I bought them birds', he paused only to let out a long high howl. 'Accursed and bloody things that they are, they will not be content till they have sucked the life-blood out of my body, sold the roof over my head, and sent me to the pauper's grave to perish. Merciful God,' he wept, 'it's fearful, it's awful, it's cruuu...el that I should be afflicted thus in my old age. How much, just how much more?' His eyes roved wildly and his gnarled arthritic hand tore at his rooster like throat.
'Now don’t get excited 'enry, the wispy old lady pleaded tying and untying her own arthritic hands, it was only a Trump after all.'
'Only a Trump! God save Israel!' he screamed. 'But I'm ruined.' he began sobbing in burlesque sniffles, and to pace randomly about. 'Took my beautiful Trump and some Brested Taxwobblers and left me with this gawking rubbish. He swept his arm randomly about.
'Your’ a fiend out from hell,' he cried .....', plunging forward and grabbing for my throat. 'Cruel and criminal monster is what you are asking for a Spotted Trump, you will put us all in the ground before you are done.' Suddenly he fell backward with a howl of terror. Obviously he mistook me for someone else and now the blinds had flapped up he realized his mistake.
'Umm Russian you said ...?' I prompted.
'Dammed greaser ... still got his card'. Henry then produced a tatted card with a name and an address in Hollywood. Suddenly I realized that if I could get a hold of this one spotted Trump maybe I could lift the moral and intellectual level of American ornothology at least an inch ... and perhaps two. But then again I might just be dreaming, seeing myself as Don Quixote again.
I turned to my son. 'I wish they would wake us up from this nightmare.'
' Pa’, he replied. 'Maybe there's nothing, and maybe there's nobody there to wake us since Ma left with her girlfriend last year.'
I looked at him with pride, the boy was a chip off the old block, a philosopher and realist ahead of his time.
'I don’t care ... it's Hollywood for me' I exclaimed with all the gravity of a St Bernard who'd caught the scent of a buried skier.
be continued .... Next stop .... Hollywood (maybe)!
Part 3 - getting there
They almost had the plane to themselves as Hollywood was not a popular destination at this time of the year, particularly flying No-Sweat airlines (also known as Delta). Sitting in his isle seat he dozed away considering the mistakes of his past life. He was a bird lover and had married a ‘bird’ lover and any casual observer would usually think that would be sufficient for happiness. One of his friends from those days even went so far to proclaim it was a marriage made in bird lover's heaven.
Alas, but it was not to be.
It turned out she was a post- dodoist, more interested in birds of prey like the wedged-tailed Goldman-Sacks or the Tan-crested McCain chicken killer and the stooped-Comey water-foul, all no doubt singularly interesting but none as rare as the Lesser-spotted Trump.
Now the book and the boy were the only things left from his past life.
He glanced down at the torn, tattered and pale cover of 'A birdwatcher's guide to Reagan, Clinton, Trump and other exotic game birds' (5th edition 1993) then sighed as he looked across to the sleeping boy. Soon it merely became a vacant stare which was only broken by the shadow of a passing cloud that momentarily swept the window seat and across his son's angular face.
For eight years Edith and he had been together. Eight years while she winged and whined and came home reeking of the scent from the women she so casually enjoyed. Then one day she had moved out, and, on that same day, he realized just how miserable the last eight years had been. Like a prison sentence. Like a loss of life. When she walked out she took a part of him with her (which part he was not sure) - eight years of his life, and all his smiles. She had buried the carefree lover of the lesser-spotted Trump under the weight of her criticism, cut him with the knife edge of her tongue, and stolen his confidence, sucking it from him into the vacuum of her contempt.
She had left nothing - only the boy, and the book, and the bronze medal he received from the local writing group for the best piece of irony.
As the aeroplane levelled out he let the book fall open on his knee and began to read .... 'Lesser spotted Trump; US game bird of the late 19 century especially prized for its delicate flavoured white meat and brilliant plumage. Much sought after by gourmets and hunters alike as the liver was an essential ingredient in that most famous of entree dishes 'boilione in aspic' while the tail feathers were fought over as fashion accessories for those rich and fortunate enough to afford such exotic luxuries. Fast becoming endangered and thought to be unique.
His knees moved slightly letting the book close as he felt the moistness gather in his eyes. It was almost too painful to contemplate the loss to humanity and the forlorn hope that directed his footsteps along the faint trail he now followed. Would he ever find a live Trump ... or was it just a pipe dream? Suddenly a distant voice was crackling over the intercom. 'No Sweat Airlines hope you have enjoyed you flight to Hollywood and we shall be landing as soon as we get ground clearance, or before then if our gasoline runs out, just my little joke. Now those of you who ate the rare steak with pepper sauce please go to the gate marked 6b. We are sorry for the inconvenience but we have since found out that the horse died hard and may have had unusual owners. Please buckle your seat belts.
Fortunately our hero had not actually ever unbuckled his belt so there was no necessity to do anything but to take a deep breath and keep his fingers crossed.
Next … the chicken farm from hell.
Part 4 - why
Escaping the airport was a nightmare!
Six hours later we were installed in the Seven Stories Hacienda under a creaking, wobbling fan that threatened decapitation any instant. The boy was asleep and seemed destined to remain so for a long time. I removed the business card from my pocket and decided to do a little reconnaissance without the boy.
In the front of the hotel I showed the card to five cab drivers who seemed to arrive the instant I stepped onto the street. There was no haggling as only one would consent to drive me to that address and he only with the greatest reluctance. 'I need the pesos,' he explained.
'Alphonse Gomes' the card said,' breeder of rare birds, Behind/ 99 Cent Only Store , Mercado Mexican Market Area,' I read aloud as I settled back on to a lumpy, sawing rear seat and was determined to enjoy the ride.
But my mind wandered. Why was it so important to find this rare bird, this spotted Trump? Redemption was why. I can feel the stares even now. I know what you all are thinking, looking back on my ornithological career and drawing the obvious conclusion. I was on the take, and deliberately collecting rubbish, low grade specimens.
Naturally, it was tough for me to keep my talent hidden. In ornithological classes my desire would want me to collect the rarest species before my conscious mind could intervene.
Few, if any, of my fellow students were aware of what was going on. I would walk back to the dorm, laughing on the inside as their taunts surrounded me. To me every word was money in the bank. If they only knew I was already signed up to a cutting-edge ornithology museum where big bucks were just waiting to be made.
Sometimes even the museum curator would be startled by the audacity of my plans. Species with six claws, double beaks, technicolor feathers. Are you sure people will find that believable?'
'Relax,' I would tell him, 'with me in the museum folk will believe anything'.
Was I content with perfection? No way. I'd just keep trying until I got it all wrong.
By the time I graduated m commitment and hard work was paying off. At the end I had the whole ornithological department convinced I was perhaps the most pathetic student the department had ever seen. They were a traditional lot back then, innocent of the ways of the real world - the world of cheating.
"Ya, spasto,' my fellow students would yell, happily punching me about the head and neck, and giving me an affectionate kneeing in the knackers. My hand would snake down to my pocket, where the museum's check lay folded. Of course I could have fought back, flooring them all with a single punch, and the odd superb karate kick. But that would have revealed my superb eye to hand co-ordination to the world and jeopardized my budding career.
For me though it's nearly over now and my one aim in life to find something humanity will appreciate ... - the long lost Lesser-spotted Trump. Maybe I can offer mankind something truly naturally useful to remember me by.
The cab jolted to a stop and my daydreaming ceased in similar manner. The driver showed a gummy smile and pointed to a four room adobe house with a bent TV antenna and a dusty yard. There was not a tree in sight. A sign on the door read Gomes and Daughter, Gang Marriage Counseling and Dealers in rare birds.
It was here I first met Maria Gomes who changed my life and knew more about nineteenth century American birdlife than anyone dead or alive.
NEXT ... a strange discovery in the market for used cockfighters.
Part 5 - the market
I won't go into what occurred in that tiny adobe hut only to say that if you superimpose a chainsaw massacre over Romeo and Juliet and give it 6 hours to blend then you will well understand how, when I escaped I had already made certain promises regarding the combined future prospects of Maria and myself that no decent advocate would care to dispute. The good news was that Maria thought she knew where I might buy a rare Spotted Trump.
When we visited the bird market the next day, the first bound lines of cocks were being brought out and held aloft by their handlers. Free of their tiny cages they blinked in the scorching light before being hooded. Like most other commodities this late in the season, their ranks were thinned and fewer than two hundred specimens were on offer. Most of those remaining were old or frail, thin with sickness, scarred and bloodied from fighting or almost henpecked bare.
The birds were in even worse condition.
There were a sorry lot and buyers always chary of a bird over-scarred as it usually indicated a modern style of bird, incorrigible in personality, not amenable to learning. A poor plucked Swamp Pheasant or a bow-legged Hawk.
Previously, when passing through such markets, I had averted my gaze, had tried to avoid studying the birds, my repugnance and pity too troubling. But now, with the boy and our Mexican guide, the sultry and heavily tattooed Maria, we took up a position that enabled us to make a quick scan as the birds passed by.
There were two or three in the line who seemed to be of the type I was seeking, long necked and strong despite their bound feet and leather hoods. But when I touched Maria's decorated arm and glanced across at her in inquiry she shook her head impatiently.
‘Nothing?’ I asked, quietly despondent.
The last of the handlers were filing past, and Maria had so far shown no interest in any of them. 'Our bird is there,' Maria contradicted me, 'but the handlers are watching us. I feared to point him out.'
I half allowed my spirits to soar. 'Him' I thought ... it's a cock! The birds were lead to their tethers around the square and each was tied to its post. The handlers took their seats in the shade, wealthy men, complacent, raggedly dressed, attended by their gang member bodyguards, who brewed coffee and lit the fat cigars that were reputed to have been rolled on the thighs of Cuban virgins (now, like the Spotted Trump, in short supply). Eyes slit and sly, they all watched the two gringos and the Mexican madam as we made a slow circuit of the market.
Maria stopped midway along the first line and examined one to the birds, a big cock and a warrior of many fights by its looks. The handler pulled off the hood to show its comb as if it were some undiscovered masterpiece. 'Not more than three years of age senorita, the man said. "Look at those spurs and legs - another ten fights in that bird. Tobacco juice dribbled from the side of his mouth that had remained clutched to the fat cigar. I thought it a miracle that he could speak at all with such an impediment.
Maria blew a gentle breath at the head of the bird, but it just stared back like a dumb flightless Dodo. She shook her head, and we passed along to the next bird to repeat the performance. Other times she would whisper to the birds in a dialect ancient to the primeval forest before moving on.
I realized she was slowly working her way toward the cock she had already selected. I looked ahead, trying to guess which bird it was, and then, with a sudden certainly, I recognized some features described in my book and attributed to the lesser-spotted Trump. The bird in question was featherless except for a few broken wing quills, a medium sized bird with a slightly bloated body. There was a layer of fat or soft flesh on him. His comb was damaged but firm blond and jutted forward somewhat, but his eyes were bright and piercing.
Gradually we approached the group in which the bird was tethered, we were all careful to feign disinterest in the bird Maria had chosen. We inspected another cock nearby, then much to the chagrin of the owner, we made as if to move on.
As if in afterthought Maria turned back to the man with the tethered Trump. "Show me his craw and spurs,' she demanded of the owner who nodded to his assistant. Between them they grabbed the bird's legs, turning the bird horizontal, and offered the feet to Maria for scrutiny. Maria concealed her satisfaction and I my joy. The spur was a cerulean blue and the first talon had worn nails. 'This is your bird,' Maria muttered to me in English but made it sound like a rejection. I shook my head as if confirming the rejection. We turned away, leaving the disappointed owner staring after us.
'What about the feet?' the boy asked me, without looking back. What is it that has marked them in that way?'
'The delving,' I replied curtly.
'But one foot only?'
'The Spotted Trump is an ancient and gentle bird and like the beautiful Lyre-crested Cowdisley of the Australian rain forest,' I explained, 'the male delves a hole in the forest floor for the hen to lay her eggs. Strangely the Spotted Trump it does this with the right leg only an only by the light of a full moon.
My boy had difficulty visualizing this. 'It must be a strange sight,' he muttered.
We completed our leisurely round of the market, before casually returning to where the little man stood. 'He is double tied, at feet and spur,' Maria pointed out in her perfect English. 'And look at his body.' We all looked at the half-healed scars that crisscrossed the bird's pale skin. 'The Brested Taxwobblers and the Blue-plumed Democrats have pecked him savagely, trying to break him to their will, but you can see by his eyes they have not yet succeeded.'
Maria circled the bird slowly, peering at the pale plucked body and the proud erect head and whispered and blew slight breaths on the bird. At first the cock's eyes seemed sullen and uncomprehending. Now Maria switched again and tried making soft clucking sounds with her tongue. This time the bird started and turned his head to stare at Maria in confusion and amazement. Then he made a tiny sound.
“That is his call,' Samaria explained to us, in whispered English, 'the unique call of the Spotted Trump. Sounds much like ‘geatagan’ in English.”
I accepted the owners invitation to drink a Tequila and a beer chaser, the essential accompaniment to any civilized session of bargaining. Within a very short time, I sensed that the owner was eager to rid himself of the ragged and truculent merchandise, and he was able to press the advantage. After an hour of haggling, the owner threw up his hands in despair and said in Spanish. 'My children will starve. You have ruined me with your intransigence. You leave me a pauper, but take him! Take him and my very blood and bones with him.'
.... next will the Lesser spotted Trump regain its plumage and amaze all and sundry .... or will I run out of energy for this saga....?
Part 6 - home!
Search for the spotted Bougereau .... part 6 and final.
One of the hidden talents of the Lesser Spotted Trump is its uncanny ability to converse. Well, that is what all the historical ornithological literature said anyway. But our particular bird, for the last century trapped in a foreign prison, harried by common chickens, severely abused, underfed, ignored and unappreciated seemed in no mood to begin blabbering platitudes to all and sundry. It was as if something in its tiny bird's brain remembered snippets of the past, repressed memory during terrible times, distant flashes of being pampered, aloof, courted, indulged at every whim, it all came flooding back. This accelerating as the bird's health improved, its plumage slowly filling out and brilliantly colored feathers began appearing on crown and wing tip.
And in no time it was strutting about the house as if it owned the place.
"Talk about sniffy," pouted the my boy to me as he scooped up another of the bird's droppings.
"Shhh" I warned, afraid the bird might hear and react badly. I had watched in ornithological awe as the bird's health had been restored, it's brilliance a regal display of unparalleled luminosity made specially invited birdwatchers gasp in disbelief. Yet, I was increasingly disturbed at the birds bad attitude and worse vocabulary. Every other word was an expletive. Those that weren't expletives, were to say the least, rude. I had tried hard to change the bird's attitude and was constantly saying polite words, playing soft classical music by Mahler and Schubert, records of Joan Bayez and the Seekers, senate speeches, in fact I was doing anything I could think of to try and set a good example...
Nothing worked. I yelled at the bird and the bird yelled back. I shook the bird and the Spotted Trump just got more angry and more rude. I played tapes of Clinton/Gore election speeches and Glen Campbell singing, pinned up photos of Jake Tapper, Rachel Madow, lined the cage with posters of Meryl Streep movies, I ran 'Star Wars II' and' Love Story' on the video, but nothing seemed to calm the haughty Lesser Spotted Trump.
Finally, in a moment of anger and desperation, I put the recalcitrant bird in the freezer. For a few moments I heard the Trump squawk and kick and scream - then suddenly, there was quiet. Not a sound for half a minute. I was suddenly frightened that I might have hurt the bird and I quickly re-opened the freezer door.
The Lesser spotted Trump calmly stepped out onto my extended arm, bowed his head and said, "Sir, I believe I may have offended you with my rude language and actions. I will endeavor at once to correct my unseemly behavior. I really am truly sorry and beg your forgiveness."
To say I was astonished at the bird's change in attitude would be an understatement. I was about to ask what had made such a dramatic change in his demeanor when the Lesser Spotted Trump continued, 'Please, may I ask what that chicken in there did wrong?'
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