Feast by Annette Ong
A crow surveys the scene; cocks its head to the side and eyes its kindred circling above. With hunger unabated, their squawking increases as the single crow stands sentinel over its lifeless prey, shielding its form. Claiming ownership, it claws at the lifeless body of a rat; its tail the length of its body. Nudging the rat inches down the footpath, it is hopelessly exposed to the scavengers overhead. Instinctually, it snaps the rat’s already loose neck in its beak and lifts. Airborne for a short distance, it struggles to get proper lift-off. The dead weight weighs it down. The crow tries a second time; desperate to escape, it clutches the rat’s neck tightly in its beak, the still-warm body hanging, a sack of blood, flesh and bone. The crow expands its brilliant wings to full length and this time, manages ascension. Higher, higher, slowly, it flies. Landing softly on the branches of a tall pine tree, hidden by green, it lays the rat’s body down. Its beak has punctured the rat’s neck; a hole the size of a ten cent piece, gapes red and inviting. Sliding its sharp beak into the hollow, it pulls back on tender meat and sinew. Holding the body down with its claw, its beak meets bone. The crow feasts. It takes its fill until the rat’s body is turned inside out. Stepping back, it inspects the carcass. With a belly full, it carefully preens its wings, while the call of its kindred rises from the below the branches.
High above the city streets, shadows lose strength as the sun begins to rise. The crow perched comfortably, listens, as machines churn to life, traffic begins to spill into the streets and the rats… the rats, are awaking.
Rubbing sleep from his eyes, the clock flashes and the alarm screeches alive. He springs upright in bed, remembering a news report he’d read in the past, stating the dangers of being jolted awake. Something to do with letting your body wake naturally; a shock to the system is never a good idea they’d said. Listen to your inherent body clock, they’d said. If he did that, he’d never get out of bed. No, maybe a shock to the system was a good idea.
World weary and its only six a.m. Shuffling to the bathroom, he washes his face, brushes his teeth, shaves a little and tugs a comb through what is left of his hair. Inspecting his balding head in the mirror, he is reminded of Moses parting the Red Sea. His remaining hair stands on both sides of an ever-expanding patch of sunburnt scalp. He rubs sunscreen in and hopes it works.
He dresses mechanically; sniffs at yesterday’s shirt and puts it on. He grabs his battered briefcase and shuts the door behind him. On the way down, he meets others. They nod to each other in recognition as they descend the apartment stairs. They don’t know each other’s names but they know each other’s lives. Together they are channeled out into the street, under the growing sunshine, and into the maze.
Entering the fray, he walks with little purpose; defeated by the day already. Bodies on both sides of him, scamper from one side of the footpath to the next. Some whistle down taxis, others natter pointlessly on phones, while some stare down from the grubby windows of passing buses.
Arriving at his desk, he sits down and can’t remember how he even made it there. He can’t recall getting up this morning, let alone entering the office building. Everything is a haze of foggy memories, with no sharp edges, nothing to grasp and hold on to. He suspects it’s like this for most; as he sees the young girl from Accounts sit resignedly in her chair, her eyes blank and lightless, as her computer screen flickers to life.
The cubicles begin to fill. Together, they live and die by the clock. Glazed eyes survey the big hand, willing it to chase the little one faster, faster, faster. The hours pass but he can’t remember what he’s done all day. He has no memory of lunch; however, a half-eaten egg sandwich sits on his desk suggesting he must have got up at some point to buy it from the staff canteen.
When five p.m. comes around, he stands. They all stand. Together, they emerge from tunnels of different hallways to wait for the lift. Those with little patience take the stairs. He takes the stairs. Exiting the building, he heads home. Bodies merge as one, as neighboring buildings expel workers for the day. He stops off at his local supermarket to pick up dinner.
The automatic doors slide open to welcome him. Walking to the Deli counter at the back, he can’t recall how he arrived there. He takes a ticket from the machine: Now Serving 65, it flashes. He fingers his ticket stub; he’s number 75. He waits with the others as they survey the meats on display under glass countertops. A teenage boy wearing a hair net weighs five hundred grams of salami for a woman with a screaming toddler attached to her left leg.
There is a special on roast chickens: five dollars a bird. There’s only one left and it looks like it’s been there all day. The unforgiving glare of fluorescent lighting makes it look even sadder as it spins languidly on the rotisserie. Under hot orange lights, the oil drips from its headless body, resulting in a stagnant river of fat, reflecting its grossness in all its glory. He welcomes the rush of saliva in his mouth, as he desperately eyes the carcass.
He shifts his weight from foot to foot, growing secretly desperate as the numbers flick by and the chicken remains spinning. 71, 72, 73…the seconds feel like minutes and the minutes like hours. New customers join the queue and eye the bird with the same focused intent. He inwardly screams “It’s mine!” as he begins salivating at the thought of tearing into the white meat. They circle the counter, fidgeting with anticipation.
“75!” yells the teenage boy.
He approaches the counter, gives the boy his ticket and grandly asks for the chicken. With the bird safely wrapped in its heat insulated bag and tucked under his arm, he spins on his heel and the scavengers’ part, cowering to the sides as he marches down the aisle.
Slamming the door to his flat behind him, he can’t remember making the journey home. Standing in his kitchen, flinging his briefcase to the floor, he opens the sliding doors to his tiny balcony. Rolling up his shirt sleeves, he sits and places the still-warm chicken on a chair in front of him. Ripping open the bag, he tears a drumstick from the lifeless body. Biting down on the flesh sends him into raptures; he feels a gnawing hunger being satiated, albeit temporarily. He pulls off another drumstick and chews down hard. Chicken grease coats his stubby fingers as he splits the body in half; a hollow cavern within. Sucking the bones dry, he flicks them to the street below. There is nothing left but soggy skin.
Belly full, he leans back and closes his eyes. Shadows begin to form shapes on walls and in corners, as the sun loosens its grip on the day. A stale wind wafts from the street below and above him in darkening skies, a murder of crows circle.