Jill Widner

Sabrina and the Birdman

Elizabeth stands at the edge of the yard, gaze fixed on the dead leaves and flowers blown down from the trees and scattered across the concrete floor of the ditch. Halfway down the block, the old man they call Tukang Burung is approaching.

His name isn’t really Tukang Burung. Burung means bird and a tukang is a kind of street vendor. His purpose for walking the streets of the oil camp is to coax the expatriate children to persuade their parents to buy the birds and other small animals he brings from his kampung across the river. So they call him tukang burung. The birdman.

Elizabeth presses the sealed envelope that her mother has directed her to deliver to the manager’s wife inside her back pocket and jumps across the ditch.

The birdman waves when he sees her and squats on flat feet beside the steel drum, balanced across the ditch on two planks where the garbage is burned. Elizabeth watches as he lifts a bleached cloth from the top of a bamboo frame. And though anxious to see what is concealed between his ankles, what she is more aware of, what she notices first, are the deep black cracks in his heels and that the straps of his rubber slippers are the same color as the tops of his feet.

A tall green bird stands to the side of the frame, tipping it out of balance, its yellow clawed feet gripped to a narrow beam. The top of its head is a darker green than the bright chartreuse of its wings, and its long, narrow tail feathers, which are longer than the height of its body, are a shade of green so blue Elizabeth cannot think of a name for it. The bird tips its head to the side and looks at Elizabeth with the eye that is facing her. She is surprised to see that its tongue is grey, and she watches as it pokes in and out of its curved yellow beak, which is the same yellow of its clawed feet. A silver ring, slipped like a miniature bracelet around the bird’s foot, rests against the jointed ankle. Attached to the ring, a silver chain, fine as a necklace, is used as a leash to anchor the bird to the beam.

“Bagaimana, burung ini, Tukang Burung?” Elizabeth asks. “What do you call this kind of bird?”

“Burung ini namanya burung nuri,” the old man says. He lifts his chin across the ditch in the direction of Elizabeth’s house when he speaks again. The bird flutters its wings and lifts its head, revealing a streak of red feathers at its throat.

Elizabeth understands only a little of what the birdman has said, but recognizes the words mommy and house, bird and to sell, and understands that he is directing her to ask her mother if she can buy the bird from him.

Elizabeth doesn’t know enough Indonesian to tell the birdman exactly what she wants to say, but she attempts to explain what she means. “I can’t buy any more animals from you.”

“Kenapa, ‘non? Why not?”

Elizabeth glances inside the steel drum filled to the brim with branches and leaves. Do you remember the little chipmunk I bought from you the last time?”

“Oh, ya. Kecil nian, bajing itu. That little chipmunk was very small. Just the right size for a girl such as you.”

“My brother built a cage for it out of broken down crates and chicken wire. We painted the wood green.” She points to the eaves of her house. “To match the trim.” The old man nods. She points to the tree behind the house. “We hung the cage in that tree. One morning I came outside to feed it and found it lying on the bottom of the cage.”


Elizabeth nods.

“Oh, kasihan. I’m sorry, ‘non. Barangkali kucing mematikan bajing itu. Probably a cat killed it.”

“Ya, barangkali.”

“I’m sorry, ‘non.”

“Do you know what was strange?” Elizabeth looks into the old man’s eyes and notices for the first time, how red and yellow and glazed they are. When she sees his long ears, pitched in her direction as if the better to hear, she continues. “Idi was supposed to bury it.”

“Your koki, Idi?”

“Ya, Idi, the cook. I was very sad to find my little chipmunk like this. My mother told me to take a walk. I left the house through the back gate as I did today and walked past this very steel drum. I don’t know why, but I looked inside, and there on top of the branches and leaves was my little chipmunk.”

“Oh, kasihan, ‘non. I am sorry.”

“But it didn’t look like him anymore. It looked like a dried shell of him. Like the pods that fall from the African tulip tree, but in the shape of his body.”

“Oh, kasihan, ‘non,” the old man says again. “I’m sorry. I think maybe your koki, Idi, made a fire for your little bajing. This may seem cruel and unkind to you, but you can think of it in another way. Even as the branch of a tree on a fire burns, still it retains its form. Even when this burning branch cools to a coal, still you can see the shape in the ash.” The tukang burung flattens his hand and blows across the palm. “Even when the wind blows this ash into the air, the branch that once was can remain in your mind. So it can be with your little bajing.”

Elizabeth looks from the old man’s face to the steel drum and then to the sky. “Anyway, I can’t have any more pets. Maybe someone else would like to buy your burung nuri. Do you want me to walk with you?”

“Ok-lah,” the old man says. He takes the perch in his other hand, and the green bird walks to the end of the beam, shifting its weight and unbalancing the frame, to pick a seed from the container.

Elizabeth and the birdman cross the street and walk in the direction of the river. On the corner stands the sewage pump house, a locked blue shed on a raised concrete platform. The American kids call it the stink-house and sometimes congregate there to rest in the shade of the corrugated iron roof.

To the side of the stink house, a girl called Sabrina is crouched over the shallow ditch that carries the rain mixed with the gray-water from the drains of the houses the length of the street. Sabrina is in Elizabeth’s class at school. Her hair is cut like a boy’s and she dresses like a boy, without a shirt in an over-sized pair of shorts. She’s also forward like a boy and, because of her accent, she sounds like an adult when she speaks. Her mother is South African, and her father is one of the British doctors, employed by the oil company. His work doesn’t require him to communicate in Bahasa Indonesia; the Indonesian nurses speak English fluently enough to interpret and translate when necessary, but in the company of Indonesians, Sabrina’s father prefers to speak Indonesian, and he expects the same of his children. And so Sabrina stands apart.

The birdman hoists himself onto the concrete platform and props the bird on the perch against the wall.

Elizabeth stands on a dry strip of grass in the shade of the stink-house and watches Sabrina, who is inspecting the floor of the ditch. The ditch water, which is coated with a rainbow-stained film, pours through a grate and into a pipe that descends underground, where it carries the contents to the river. Typically the grate is blocked with sticks and leaves and the pods from the African tulip trees the children use as boats, but today it is overflowing with an upsurge of brown foam.

A layer of algae grows against the floor of the ditch, and long threads of waterweed wash back like hair as the water runs past. Here and there, caught in the green strands, flat bits of metal sparkle like shards of gold. Sabrina pokes at the waterweed with a stick and lifts a clump of it into the air for Elizabeth to see.

Her bare back is very brown, as is her chest, Elizabeth sees, when she turns around. Elizabeth stares at her nipples that stand out against her chest like tiny limpets.

By now the birdman has climbed down from his spot in the shade to see what is holding their interest. He holds the perch to the side and the bird walks to the end of the beam, tilting it out of balance. The old man clucks his tongue impatiently at the bird and runs his finger over the slivers of metal scattered in the waterweed that hangs down from the stick. “Emas,” he says.

“Gold?” Elizabeth asks.

“Selihat seperti emas urai, tapi menilai mana yang emas mana yang loyang. Barangkali emas ini liplap.”

“What did he say?” Elizabeth asks.

“It looks like gold,” Sabrina translates. “But it’s probably imitation. You’ve heard of fool’s gold? But he says it might be gold. What he actually said was, only some can distinguish gold from brass. It’s a saying.”

The birdman motions for the girls to sit with him in the shade on the concrete platform. He hands Sabrina the bird on the perch to hold while he tightens the shirt wrapped around his waist like an apron, then lowers his buttocks to the floor, and rests his back against the wall. Sabrina hands Elizabeth the stick and sets the perch on the floor between her open knees. The bird squawks a few times in protest. Sabrina runs her hand softly down the back of its head, and Elizabeth twirls the stick, mesmerized by the splinters of metal that might be gold, gleaming in the wet green strands of the waterweed.

The birdman reaches inside his breast pocket, and the bird makes a clicking noise as it grasps the seed in its beak and cracks it open. The bird squawks, and then cocks its head as if showing off and whistles twice.

The old man holds another seed in front of the bird, praising its manners, and directs the girls with his eyes to watch his hands. “Kasih kaki,” he says to the bird, extending the tip of his forefinger. The bird reaches one foot forward as if preparing to step onto the finger, but the old man pulls back. “Kasih kaki,” he says again. “Give me your foot,” and the bird lifts its claw.

“It shook your hand,” Elizabeth says. “I didn’t know a bird could shake hands.”

“Feet,” says Sabrina.

“This bird knows many tricks,” the old man says. He offers the bird another seed and, murmuring praise, strokes the back of its head.

“Give me the stick,” he says to Elizabeth, changing the subject again. He combs his fingers through the long green strands of waterweed, flecked with the gold-colored slivers of metal. “Now I will tell you about the gold. Do you know where is Tatang River?”

Sabrina nods. "It’s a tributary of the Musi,” she says and explains that she has been there many times. “With my father. Chinese people live on Tatang River.”

Tukang Burung smiles widely. "You are right. Long ago, Tatang was a Chinese settlement. The name Palembang appeared for the first time in the writing of the Chinese scholar Chau Ji-Kau. This was in the year 1225.”

“Are you a teacher?” Elizabeth asks.

The birdman laughs and dries his eyes on his sleeve.

“Tell the American girl I am not laughing at her suggestion. I am laughing at the spelling this Chinese Chau Ji-Kau gave to the city of Palembang. He wrote it Pa-Lin Fong.”

“Tell me,” the birdman says to Sabrina, back pedaling. “On what occasion have you visited the village of Tatang with your father?”

“Sometimes he lets me go with him when he visits the outlying kampung. Sometimes we go to Tatang. Sometimes we go to the leper colony at Kundur.”

“To Kundur? Why is this? Why would your father take you to such a place?”

“Sabrina’s father is a doctor,” Elizabeth explains.

“Dokter?” The birdman looks longer into Sabrina’s eyes. “Which dokter is your father?”

“The one who swims the river.”

The birdman nods his head. “Oh. We have heard about this. Your father must swim very well. The Musi is more than two kilometers wide.”

“He uses fins.”

“Nevertheless. I did not know this dokter was your father.”

“Everyone knows.”

“Oh yes. Everyone knows this dokter. That is because he will treat anyone who walks through the doors of the clinic. With no charge.”

“Sometimes he charges. It depends.”

Elizabeth can pick up only some of what the birdman is saying, and is envious that Sabrina seems to comprehend every word.

“He was going to tell us about the gold,” Elizabeth reminds Sabrina.

“Yes,” the birdman says. “The gold. We call this emas Belanda. Dutch gold. It is very yellow, this gold. Very soft.” The old man rubs the ends of Elizabeth’s hair between his fingers. “Like your hair,” he says.

“The dark yellow color is because it’s twenty-four carat,” Sabrina says. “And it isn’t the color of your hair.”

“It is very fine, this gold,” the birdman continues, and then, as is often the case, his story takes an unexpected turn. “Palembang,” he says in a lowered voice, nodding in the direction of the river, “is a very old city. It is said that the name Palembang originates from the word limbang. Melimbang, you may know,” he says more to Sabrina than to Elizabeth, “means to separate one thing from another. Dirt from rice, for example,” he says, using the word beras, the unhulled rice sold in the 50-kilo burlap bags in the toko and pasar.

Every few sentences, Sabrina translates for Elizabeth what the birdman has said.

“Pe-limbang is the implement used for the washing, though it can also refer to the one who does the washing.”

“It’s called winnowing the rice,” Elizabeth says. “Romi does it and, before Romi, I used to watch Mina do it. She would hold a flat, circular-shaped basket and lift the rice into the air and let it fall back into the basket. They do it to clean the rice. To get the sand and bits of gravel out. To make the husks fly out. And sometimes insects. Fina told me.” She looks at Sabrina, who is waiting for Elizabeth to finish. “A long time ago. When we lived in the guest house. In old camp.”

“Eh?” the old man asks, lifting his chin for Sabrina to translate.

Sabrina quickly summarizes what Elizabeth has said and nods for him to continue.

“You are quite right, ‘non,” he says to Elizabeth. “But melimbang can also refer to the kind of sieving that separates gold from water and mud. Many years ago, one of the livelihoods of the people of Palembang was panning for gold at Tatang River.”

“Real gold?” Elizabeth asks.

Sabrina frowns at her for interrupting and motions for the birdman to go on.

“That is all, really,” he says. “According to history, this panning for gold at low tide continued for many centuries. People still did it when my father was a boy. That was not so long ago. Not much was found by that time, but people still talked about it. And this is why what you have found in your ditch may be true gold. It is quite possible that fragments of gold rose from the mud flats at high tide and washed with the backflow through the sewer pipe and into your ditch."

“My father told my brothers and me a different story,” says Sabrina.

“A different story about what?” Elizabeth asks.

“About how Palembang got its name.”

“Let us hear it,” says the birdman. “I will tell you if I know this story.”

Sabrina hands the old man the bamboo perch and, the bird, who seems disturbed at being awakened, ruffles its feathers and walks to the other end of the beam. The old man strokes the top of its head until it lowers its beak to its breast and relaxes again. Quietly, he sets the perch on the floor and raises his knees, which he grasps in the palms of his hands, giving Sabrina his full attention.

“Many years ago—I can’t say exactly when—I’m not very good with dates.”

“N’dak apa-apa. Never mind if you’re not precise.”

“Many years ago,” Sabrina continues, “explorers were sent from the Kingdom of Majapahit to the Strait of Malacca where the mouth of the Musi flows into the sea.”

“Oh, You have heard of Majapahit.” The birdman, claps his hands. “Majapahit was the greatest empire in the history of Indonesia. A kingdom of islands that once reached across all of Southeast Asia. It was this necklace of islands that formed Indonesia’s first boundaries. Ma’af. I am sorry to interrupt. Please continue.”

“The explorers were sent to the east coast of Sumatra to start a colony. But just as they entered the mouth of the Musi, their ship sank.”

The birdman thumps his chest with his fist.

“Not everyone drowned. Four brothers survived.”

“How?” Elizabeth asks.

“The ship was carrying a cargo of coconuts.”

“Coconuts,” says the birdman. “Yes, coconuts would be a likely cargo.”

“But when the ship went down, the coconuts floated away. Only one could be retrieved. So the four brothers used a machete to cut the coconut into two halves and they used the halves as vessels.”

“Vessels?” Elizabeth yelps.

“Boats,” Sabrina explains impatiently.

“I know what a vessel is. How did four men fit in a coconut shell? They couldn’t have.”

“You’re so literal, Elizabeth. I don’t know how they fit. Maybe it’s like being able to lift a piano in an emergency.”

“This is so,” says the birdman, nodding his head. “Many inexplicable things can be achieved under duress.”

“Maybe they took turns,” Sabrina argues. Two at a time. Each with a half. While the other brothers swam.”

“It’s impossible,” Elizabeth mutters.

“Maybe they didn’t sit inside the coconut. Maybe they held onto it. Like a float. They had to do something. The Musi is a long river.”

“Eighty kilometers from the Strait of Malacca to Palembang,” the birdman confirms.

“Did they make it?” Elizabeth asks.

“Of course they made it,” says Sabrina. “I’m telling you how Palembang got its name. But this is where my story is different from yours, Tukang Burung. In my story, the name Palembang also originates from the word limbang, but for a different reason. Limbang-limbang can also mean to bump along,” she explains to Elizabeth. “You know, like when a skiff bumps over a wake. In my story, the four brothers lurched and bumped and bobbed along through the rocky current until finally they reached a place they christened Pa-limbang. Spelled with an 'i,'" she adds, ever precise, “which was later changed to Palembang, spelled with an 'e,' the way it is spelled today."

The old man claps his hands together again. “This is a very good story,” he says to Sabrina. “I have not heard this meaning of limbang-limbang, but I like these four brothers for sharing the coconut boats.”

Elizabeth watches the birdman watching Sabrina, admiring, she thinks, her modesty and her intelligence and envies the relationship between them.

“This bird,” Tukang Burung tells them, his voice quiet now. Elizabeth watches his hand petting the bird’s head, stroking the bright feathers, tiled like scales, the length of its back. “This bird needs a home. Perhaps your father, the good dokter,” he says to Sabrina, “would like to keep such a fine bird as this in his home to guard against thieves.”

“Thieves don’t come to our house. Even a thief knows that he might need my father’s service one day.”

“This is so,” says the birdman. “Perhaps the clinic could use a guard against thieves. Or perhaps a mascot to brighten the humor of the poor, sick children.”

“That’s a good idea,” Elizabeth says. “They could shake its hand.”

“This bird can also wave,” the birdman adds, encouraged.


“Hello. Goodbye. Selamat datang. Selamat jalan. Da-da.” The old man waggles the palm of his hand back and forth. “Wave.”

“It wouldn’t be permitted,” Sabrina says. “It would be considered unsanitary.”

“Perhaps your father, the good dokter, would understand that such a fine bird as this can be a talisman.”

“A what?” asks Elizabeth.

“A good luck charm,” Sabrina tells her.

“A good luck charm? A bird can’t be a good luck charm. A good luck charm is an object. Something you find on the ground. A rock. A key. A piece of glass. Or something you find in your pocket or in a drawer when you aren’t looking.”

The birdman is quiet for a moment. Then he turns to Sabrina and, lifting the silver chain attached to the ring that rests on the bird’s yellow foot, winds and unwinds it around his long forefinger. “Tell your American friend,” he begins. He continues at length, but all that Elizabeth can grasp is that she is the subject of his speech.

“Tell me what?” she asks Sabrina. “What did he say?”

“He said that you should try harder.”

Elizabeth doesn’t understand. “Try harder to what?”

“To understand the difference between gold and brass.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you know what a metaphor is?” Sabrina asks her. “It’s when you say one thing and you mean it in a way, but you also mean something else. At the same time.”

Elizabeth stares into Sabrina’s face, then looks from the silver chain, coiled around the birdman’s finger to the waterweed wound round the stick she holds in her hand.

“I think he might be testing you,” Sabrina tells her. “He does that to people. Watch,” Sabrina says. “He’s going to do something.”

The birdman extends his forefinger and positions it in front of the bird, just above its feet. The bird tilts its head and makes a whirring, clicking sound. Slowly the old man moves his finger closer and clucks to the bird to step up.

“Naik,” he says to the bird. “Climb up.”

As the bird steps onto his forefinger, he lifts his other hand, whispering praise. His fingers spread open like a fan, so that they hover above the bird like a cape. “Lie down,” he says. Cradling the bird, its claws still gripped around his right forefinger for support, he tips the bird back, until it is lying on its back in the palm of his hand. The bird turns its head from side to side, disoriented at first, whirring and clicking, eyes searching, as the old man pulls his forefinger out of the clutches of its claws.

Still on its back in the old man’s palm, the bird lifts its head and watches as he reaches into his shirt pocket for a seed. Kicking its feet over its chest like an infant, the bird takes the seed in its beak, and lifts its claws to hold it steady.

The old man strokes the bird’s head with his forefinger and speaks to it lovingly. “Thank you, my dear friend. I know what I have asked you to do is unnatural. I know you lie down for me because you love me. Now you must trust me again. Tidur,” he says to the bird. “Now you must sleep.”

The bird’s eyes close and open again briefly and close when the birdman repeats the command for sleep. Gently he presses the forefinger of his free hand against the bird’s feet. Elizabeth watches as the bird’s claws relax.

Still holding the bird in the palm of his left hand, the birdman reaches under the shirt wrapped like an apron around his waist and draws a penknife from his pocket. He turns the short, fixed blade on its side and sharpens the edge on the concrete floor.

Elizabeth watches as the birdman raises the blade. The bird lifts its head from its breast and flutters its wings. The old man repeats the command for sleep and draws the blade across the bird’s throat. Elizabeth stares at the streak of red. The bird shudders and drops its head to its breast.

She cries out and rushes her hands to her face to cover her eyes. “Why did you do that?” She looks to Sabrina, who stares at the bird, unalarmed. “Why did he do that?”

“Hidup,” the birdman says, his voice a sharp command. “Stand.” The bird opens its eyes and reaches with its claws for the old man’s forefinger. The birdman raises the hand that is cradling the bird to an upright position and extends his forefinger above its feet. “Naik,” he says to the bird. “Climb up.” The bird steps onto his finger, and the old man rewards it with a seed, stroking the feathers of its bright green back, praising its patience, commending its intelligence. He reaches into his pocket for another seed and directs Sabrina to hand him the perch.

“I thought he had killed it,” Elizabeth says to Sabrina. “I thought it was dead.”

“It’s a trick. A hallucination. He has taught the bird to play dead,” Sabrina says. “This is why the other kids call him tukang silap mata."

“A tukang what?”

“A magician. The kind of magician that’s talented at sleight of hand. They say they don’t like him, but really they’re afraid of him. Because he can play with their minds.”

Sabrina holds the bamboo perch in front of the bird, but its yellow clawed feet are gripped firmly around the old man’s forefinger, and it won’t move until the old man commands it to step up, nudging its back with his free hand. “Naik,” he tells the bird. “Step up.”

The birdman attaches the silver ring that circles the bird’s ankle to the slender chain that anchors the bird to the beam. He unknots the bleached cloth wrapped around his waist and shakes it open.

The bird tilts its head from side to side, eyes searching, as if it knows the old man is going to cover the perch with the cloth.

“I have to go now,” Sabrina says. She takes the stick from Elizabeth and drags her fingers through the waterweed. “My father will be home soon. I want to show him what I found.”

The old man looks to the sky as if expecting rain. “We also must go now. The ferry will come soon.”

Elizabeth looks at the streak of red at the bird’s throat. Not blood, but a tapestry of red feathers, visible only when the bird lifts its head. “What are you going to do with your bird?”

The old man tucks the handle of the perch under his chin. “I think I will let this bird fly away. I think I will let this bird decide where it must live.”

“But it lives with you,” Elizabeth persists. “Who will give him his water? Who will give him his seeds?”

The birdman flicks his fingers in the direction of the river. "We must go now. The ferry will soon come.”

Watching him go, Elizabeth slides her hands into her back pockets where she feels the edge of the envelope she has forgotten. She pulls it out and looks at the paper, wrinkled and damp with ditch water, her mother’s handwriting, smeared now, and though dusk is approaching, she walks the river wall to the manager’s house, Gajah 1000, the white one with the wide green lawn and the red tile roof at the end of the street.

Jill Widner

Jill Widner's fiction has appeared recently in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, an anthology edited by Clifford Garstang (Press 53); The Fiddlehead: Atlantic Canada’s International Literary Journal; Short Fiction (University of Plymouth Press, UK); and Shenandoah. She has been the recipient of a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland; an Artist Trust/Washington State Arts Commission Fellowship; an Artist Trust (GAP) Project Grant; and she has been selected for residencies at VCCA-France, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Yaddo. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she lives and teaches in Yakima, Washington.