November 2016

The power
of the bower

by Martin Pattie

Shortlisted for the 2008 My Child/Parenting Express Short Story Competition for Parents

 

It started off with a bit of verbal jousting regarding a minor plumbing chore.

“Where's that thread tape?” I asked.
“Dunno . . . it was here,” said Roo. “Did you take it?”
“No – I left that roll here specifically for this occasion.”

The prime suspect was rounded up and interrogated. Name: Willow. Age: 15 months. Priors: Attempted laundering (in dog’s bowl) of favourite CDs and the pre-meditated massacre of aloe vera plants. Willow also had a spontaneous inclination, when the opportunity arose, to run off with undies.

Secondary suspects and/or accomplices: 3½ year old twins Lily Jo and Meg, who proved to be of equal value to the investigation, but their status as suspects was exactly that – suspect. Priors: Toilet roll and dental floss debacles. Anything that is able to be unraveled will be, and evidence of the said unraveling can be spotted from space.

So the trail went cold quickly and predictably until midweek when a rare quiet moment materialised. Roo had the girls up at the horse paddock, so I perched back under the big frangipani with a cold ale. The only sound pervading the air was a gentle wind rustling the top leaves of the poplar gums. Now, we knew he was about; that unmistakable shrieking and hissing in the early mornings. He was vociferous but seldom sighted yet here he was. Oblivious to my silent and still presence he hopped across the yard to the sandpit, dutifully and watchfully, straight for a piece of pink Lego. He picked it up and was gone . . . disappearing away through the scrub behind the bore pump.

“Cheeky bugger!” I muttered with a sly grin.

Chlamydera Nuchalis. Sounded like an affliction from the sub-continent, but it's the scientific name for the Great Bowerbird of Far North Queensland. The male Bowerbird is unique in how he ‘courts’ a potential mate. He builds a large bower of twigs which he decorates with stones, shells, glass and other shiny objects. The more decorative the bower, the greater the potential to lure a mate. The power of the bower. He also lines the inside walls of his bower with saliva and vegetable matter . . . mmm . . . nothing pulls the chicks in like a bit of spittle running down the walls, eh?

So I finished my beer, and meandered down through the trees in the direction from where he took flight. It didn’t take long to find his bower situated underneath a thicket of lantana.

“Wow!” I whispered. It was truly impressive. It was adorned inside and out with half a dozen pieces of pink and red Lego, a collection of various coloured pipe cleaners, some old used bits of tissue, a couple of steel hose clamps, a calling card from the Jehovah's (believe it or not), a couple of bleached dog bones, a roll of plumbers thread tape and an 8mm socket. I was amazed – maybe it was a blokey thing but I was in awe of the lengths this fella had gone to in order to ‘pull a bird’.

“Do you want to see something special?” I asked Lily and Meg when they returned from the horses.
“Yeaaah!” they squealed in unison. “Where we going, Dad?” Lil asked as I led them down to the bower.
“We’re gunna see the Bowerbirds house with all its decorations.” I replied, as all three of us crouched down in under the lantana. It was exquisite how each item was strategically placed for maximum affect, maybe like some sort of ornithological Feng Shui.

“Daddy my toys!” Lily had distress in her wail.
“It’s okay sweetie,” I said. Meg was po-faced but her actions, as was her want, spoke louder as she began to crawl in under the lantana to retrieve her Lego. “No Meg!” I barked in a whisper. “Come here.”
Meg looked perplexed and Lil began to cry. The appreciation of the intricate us of Danish plastic to pull a bird was lost on three year olds.
“The Bowerbird stole my toys!” Lil wailed, and we heard him screech from a nearby limb as I led my distressed girls away.

After the comfort of a cup of milk the quivering chins and protruding bottom lips subsided.
“Can we get our toys back, Daddy?” Lily asked
“We can, but can the Bowerbird play with them first? You have got a whole box full of Lego,” I said.
“But why has he taken them?” she asked. A means to an end, obviously, but I needed to be careful, calculated, protective yet still truthful.
“Righto, he’s a Bowerbird Daddy and he’s borrowed your toys to make the Bowerbird Mummy happy,” I smiled. “And when the Mummy is happy with Bowerbird Daddy’s home we can get your toys back.”
“The Bowerbird Mummy is very lucky,” Roo chimed in. “The effort he’s put into his bower for her.” She looked at me smiling. “When I first met your Daddy all he adorned his bower with was a spray of empty Fourex cans,” she grinned.
“It worked.”

So every few days we’d all visit the bower and quietly remark upon any new additions to its decorative adornments, and Meg and Lil would articulate to each other how their Lego was bringing Mummy and Daddy Bowerbird together in happiness. Then one day Roo and I, both hot and tired in the sapping tropical heat had a spat, and as she stormed off up to the duck pen Lil tapped me from behind.
“Here Dad – to make Mummy happy again,” she said and handed me one of her pink pieces of Lego. The power of the bower indeed.

 

© Martin Pattie

“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown. In my heart it don’t mean a thing.”*

As our children grow and become more independent, we might become a wee bit complacent about their existence, lost in the daily grind and focusing on the world outside the home. But it doesn’t take much to realise how shockingly fragile human life is, and how quickly childhood will be over, though the connections and feelings that bind us will remain for eternity.

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* Tony Morrison (American novelist, editor, and professor)