Dan hid in the shadows. It was almost dinner time.
A door banged and a man stepped out into the alley. He tossed four large black plastic bags into the dumpster before rubbing his hands on his thighs. He pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket, lit it, and stood smoking it, savouring it, in the quiet dark of the night. He then aggressively ground the remains into the dirt with his heel and headed back inside, slamming the door behind him.
Dan shifted slightly so he could see the front of the restaurant. After about ten minutes, the lights went out and the man and a woman stepped out, both laughing. The man locked the door, then they moved off down the street towards the tram stop.
Dan moved towards the dumpster, his stomach growling in anticipation. This Italian restaurant was one of his favourites. The chef was very good and the meals were large. There’d be plenty of food for Dan tonight.
It wasn’t always like this. Mondays and Tuesdays were slim pickings as many restaurants were closed. Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays could be hit and miss, depending on the weather and time of year and whatever else was going on in the city. The big nights were Friday and Saturday, like tonight. There’d be a lot of leftovers and food scraps.
Dan was leaning into the dumpster, breaking open the bags, when two men came up behind him and pulled him out. One shoved him against the wall and held him there. The other pulled the bags out of the dumpster and threw them on the ground.
Dan knew there was no point protesting. Life on the street was often like this. He missed feeling safe in his own home. In his previous life, he could lock the outside out and pretend all was well. He didn’t have to see what he didn’t want to see. He missed not having to worry about someone killing you in your sleep over your miserable stash of meagre possessions.
The tv shows and movies he used to watch implied there was some sort of homeless code. A code where people looked out for each other and shared scarce resources like food and safe places to sleep. But he’d been homeless long enough now that he knew that wasn’t true. It was every man for himself. At least it was in this city. Maybe he was just homeless in the wrong city?
Dan stood there and watched the two men help themselves to the discarded food that was supposed to have been his dinner. After they left, he rooted around and found a few handfuls of nuts and some mouldy bread and cheese that would at least placate his stomach for a short while.
He trudged back to the bridge, pulling his heavy coat tight, trying to block the wintery wind. He’d been sleeping under the bridge for the last month or so. It provided a bit of protection from the winter weather and there was no one else there. It gave him a place to stash his pathetic belongings out of sight and not have to carry them around.
The next morning, he noticed a piece of paper stuck to the bottom of his shoe. He sat and leaned against the bridge pylon, then pulled the paper off. Rubbing the shiny magazine page with his fingers, he enjoyed the slick feel of it.
He took his time straightening the page out and rubbing off the dirt as best he could, drawing out the anticipation of reading something new.
It had been a long time since he’d read anything except his battered copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece was his favourite book, but it was also the only one he still had left from his former life.
The first thing he noticed on the torn page was the photograph. He remembered seeing these birds in the old days, on television and in movies. He even saw one in a zoo once, when his kids were just kids.
The bird, with its vibrant red, yellow, and blue feathers, looked so carefree and so beautiful it brought tears to his eyes. It flew, wings outstretched, in front of a blurred green background of trees. The bird’s eyes, rimmed in white, were intelligent and the beak arched strong and sharp downwards. The brilliant red feathers covering most of the bird’s body and long pointed tail were redder than anything Dan had ever seen.
The page was the beginning of an article called Saving the Scarlet Macaw.
Dan started reading.
“Scarlet macaws are one of the largest parrot species, averaging around 33 inches in length. The distinctive red, blue, and yellow plumage make this one of the most beautiful and best-known parrots in the world. Unfortunately, this also makes them popular as pets. Alongside habitat loss, the illegal poaching trade is a major threat to the future of this magnificent bird.”
Dan ran his fingers over the photo again and marvelled at nature’s design skills. Such a beautiful bird. He could understand people’s fascination, but birds did not belong in people’s houses. They belonged in the forests, bringing colour and joy to everyone’s lives.
He continued reading.
“Scarlet macaws are the national bird of Honduras and native to Mexico, Central America, and South America. They can often be heard loudly squawking, screaming, and honking to each other as they fly above the forest canopy in pairs, family groups, or flocks.”
Dan chuckled to himself. He barely said a word to anyone these days. He’d found out pretty quick that you don’t want to draw attention to yourself when you live on the streets.
He missed the old days of talking loudly and excitedly to friends and family. The only time he spoke out loud now was to complain when someone stole something from him or to apologise when the police moved him on. His voice was croaky from disuse and didn’t sound at all like the Dan he remembered.
Dan read some more.
“Somewhat unusually for such brightly coloured birds, the males and females look very similar. The vivid scarlet feathers that give them their name cover much of their bodies, including their long tapering tails. Just as intense are the blue and yellow feathers adorning their wings. White skin surrounds intelligent eyes and the strong curved beak has adapted for breaking hard-shelled seeds and nuts.”
Dan looked down at his own clothes. Drab and brown and dirty. Perfect for blending in. I’m the complete opposite of a scarlet macaw, he thought. You couldn’t not look at a bird like that. Dan knew all too well how invisible he was to everyday people. He felt a bit like a banner ad on a website. Eyes slid over him and around him, never quite focussing on him, never acknowledging his existence, no matter where he went.
Dan kept reading.
“Living in pairs or family groups, scarlet macaws form lifelong monogamous bonds. Couples stay together all year round and both parents care for and teach their young. The chicks stay with their parents for up to a year learning all they need to know to survive in the forest.”
A tear trickled down Dan’s cheek as he thought of Cheryl and Michael and Katie.
He felt a kinship with the scarlet macaw in the photo. Cheryl had been gone five years and he could never imagine himself with anyone else either.
He and Cheryl were high school sweethearts. They married just a couple of years after graduating. Thirty wonderful years, he thought. I’m so sorry that had to happen to you but I’m so glad you can’t see me now, my love.
He wondered where his kids were now and hoped they were happy. Michael and Katie had both moved away for college. Last he heard, they had good jobs and friends and were starting their own families. He often thought about them, but they had their own lives and he couldn’t stand the thought of them seeing him like this. They’re better off without me, he thought, dashing the tears from his eyes.
Dan read on.
“Primarily herbivorous, eating mainly seeds, nuts, leaves, and berries, scarlet macaws also aren’t averse to the odd snail or bug. They are also often seen on riverbanks partaking in clay. Some scientists believe the clay helps them digest toxic materials, while others believe it is a source of salt.”
Dan’s stomach grumbled reminding him he’d barely eaten anything for days. He reached for his bottle and swallowed a mouthful of water. Sometimes that would quell the hunger pangs for a while.
He looked at his filthy, arthritic hands, shaking as they gripped the sides of the page. His hands ached and shook all the time now and the bones stuck out. The sickly shade of grey made them look like skeleton hands with a layer of thin papier-mâché stretched out over the top.
Dan imagined the scarlet macaw in the photo delighting in finding a stash of snails. He knew what snails tasted like. They weren’t pleasant but sometimes they were better than nothing.
He kept reading.
“The world population of scarlet macaws is in serious decline. The main threats to the future of these beautiful birds are habitat loss and illegal poaching. What a senseless shame it would be for human greed to cause these wonderful birds to disappear forever.
"Logging and deforestation continue to have devastating effects on scarlet macaw habitats. They tend to return to the same nesting site, even when the site is reduced to a substandard level. Already having a low reproductive rate, the birds, along with other macaw species, have become locally endangered in some of its native territories.”
The thought of this magnificent bird returning to destruction and danger rather than comfort and security filled him with overwhelming sadness. He sniffled, rubbed clumsily at his eyes, wiped his dripping nose on his sleeve. My eyes are probably as red as your feathers, he mumbled sadly to the bird in the photo. I really am just a silly old man, aren’t I?
Reading about lost homes made him nostalgic for his own. He carefully folded the page he was holding and put it in his coat pocket to keep it safe. Standing up, he started the long trek towards his old neighbourhood. This was a ritual he followed a few times a year. It always upset him but he couldn’t stop. Like the scarlet macaw returning to its old nesting site expecting it to be patiently waiting for him, unchanged. But it never was.
Three hours later, Dan stood where his house had once stood. In his mind, he still saw a bustling community full of families and laughter and hope for the future. With his eyes, he saw the reality: an ugly multistorey monstrosity, surrounded by concrete and steel. A shopping mall and offices that the local council decided were more important than people’s homes.
He stood in the spot that used to be his front yard and looked at the ghost house only he could see. He remembered Cheryl’s excitement when the bank approved their loan. The first time they stood here together, holding hands, knowing this red-tiled roof and these creamy brick walls would shelter them and keep them safe. This block of land was where they’d bring up their kids.
He smiled, remembering the windows Cheryl made him paint black at the same time every year. She refused to let their home look rundown or faded or old. Much like herself.
He pictured Cheryl pottering around in the garden. The front yard packed with flowers that bloomed all year round. The backyard with its prolific vegetable garden that fed them well.
The kids spent every daylight hour in that backyard or pedalling their bikes up and down the street. He smiled through the tears now streaming down his face. He remembered teaching Michael how to mow the lawn. He remembered Katie laughing as she sprayed them all with water on hot, windless, summer days.
This was the only home he’d known for most of his adult life. The pittance the council paid the homeowners for their homes was laughable and didn’t last long. He spent so much time trying to stop the inevitable loss of his home, of everyone’s homes, he'd neglected his job. They put him off soon after the eviction.
Oh Cheryl, Dan thought. I’m so glad you don’t have to see what they’ve done to our place.
He pulled the page out of his pocket and rubbed his hand over the scarlet macaw photo again. Dan wept as much for this bird’s losses as his own. Do you cry, I wonder, when you see what they’ve done to your home, he asked the bird in the photo. I bet you do.
Dan shook his head as if to clear away the memories. He was so emotional these days. He never used to cry this much. He stood in the carpark, barely noticing the cars winding around him, even when they impatiently beeped at him.
He continued to read.
“In 2019, the scarlet macaw was listed as endangered under the United States Endangered Species Act. This provides some protections, such as prohibiting the import, export, and interstate and foreign trade of wild birds. This designation still allows the import, export, and trade of some captive-bred birds provided specific international conservation agreement requirements are met.”
Dan thought he himself might be endangered too. He didn’t know how many more years he could live like this. The winters seemed colder every year. As he lost weight, he struggled to keep warm even in his heavy coat. He imagined living in a warmer climate, like that of the scarlet macaw. He wouldn’t need a coat or ratty gloves that barely made any difference in warmth to his misshapen hands.
He read on.
“The demand for scarlet macaws as pets has devastated the numbers in some regions. Many of the birds taken illegally die during capture and transportation. Some local Honduran communities now partner with conservation organisations to monitor and protect the nests. They have also established a centre for rescued macaws. These patrols have been very successful, but this is only one area. More work needs to be done, particularly by local governments, to stamp out this devastating trade.”
The human race really is a blight on this planet, he thought. We don’t deserve you.
Dan rubbed his hand over and over the photograph. He imagined stroking the silky plumage, felt the wind from the strong wings push his hair off his face, and the weight of the bird on his arm. The bird would look him in the eye and tell him…what? What would it tell him?
He read the last three paragraphs of his ragged magazine page.
“We cannot let these magnificent birds disappear forever. In a world as dull and colourless as ours has become, the macaw brings a message of healing and hope. We need to do everything we can to keep these colourful symbols of sun, summer, and fertility in our lives.
"Help us spread the word. On the next page, there is a list of organisations that are helping in the fight to save these birds from extinction.
"Please consider donating money or time, whatever you can spare, to ensure the survival of these glorious birds.”
A car horn honked behind him, but he refused to move. He stood there with a ghost bird heavy on his arm and wept for all that this bird had lost. He sobbed uncontrollably, the tears seeming to come from a bottomless well in his heart.
Eventually, his tears dried up and the ghost bird smiled at him. Surprisingly, he found himself smiling back. He thought of all the people working to ensure the survival of the scarlet macaw. While there were people willing to put themselves on the line for a bird, all was not lost. It couldn’t be.
This vibrant, intelligent bird was telling him not to give up hope.
Behind him, a car door opened and shut. Strong hands gripped his shoulders and turned him around.