Who Ruffled the Emu?

Desiree Kendrick

© Copyright 2021 by Desiree Kendrick

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

A child’s memory is a precious thing. Even selective. It’s innocent at times and devious when the situation calls for survival of the fittest. We were a playmate trio, my younger siblings and I. However, if you ask us to retell a story you may easily get three different versions. I leave it to you to decide whose version is the closest to the truth.

Gina - The Older Sister

I was too old for playing ‘tag’ and not old enough to attend school dances. Fourteen is gangly clumsiness dueling with lady-like maturity. That summer we took a road trip. My siblings and I pouted when our parents popped the operatic 8-Track into the player. Aida didn’t compare to KC and the Sunshine band.

After a three hour drive we landed at the Calgary Zoo. The sun glittered like a disco ball. Animals frolicked with one another. There were zebras, tigers and my favourite the giraffes. I envied their graceful necks and long legs. No one told me I’d inherit my parents’ petite stature. With my stickman body I was often mistaken for a younger age. That misconception was great years later when I was asked for ID at the bar, but not appreciated when I was a budding young adolescent. Such is life.

At the zoo, the monkeys swung from one apparatus to another, performing like headliner entertainers. The babies clung to their mother’s backs.

They’re so cute,” my younger sister said. Lucy was the baby of our family. She often alternated between mimicking me and finding fault.

Who’d you get dressed up for?” Lucy teased me, her pig tails lopsided and messy.

I’d spent a good hour styling my hair with the curling iron and was dressed in my new brushed cotton pink jeans. I felt pretty and couldn’t care less about catching the eye of a baboon. Looking fashionable for Dad’s Super-Eight movie camera was more my style. I’m ready for my close-up Mr. DeMille. Okay, Dad wasn’t a famous movie director, but photography was his passion. The stacks of slides, photos and candid video reels at home confirmed his obsession.

The zoo offered a natural set to capture childhood wonder. We pointed at the penguins and Lucy imitated their waddle. She shrieked with delight when a Red Panda rolled a ball towards the glass window. My brother Stephen held the map until he lost it by the Lemur cage.

“Yuk! Can we skip the snakes?” I asked eager to move to the next exhibit.

“Let’s do the petting zoo.” Lucy said, skipping along the path. “They have baby goats and woolly lambs.”

“The baby wants to see the babies.” Stephen piped in. He was only two years older than her but seized any opportunity to assert his maturity. After all he was a genius. My parents bragged about his academic accomplishments. He was granted a later bedtime to watch the late night news with Dad. Stephen often recited Encyclopedia Britannica facts.

“The Gray Wolf” is an endangered species,” Stephen said, prattling. “They’re almost extinct. Coyotes are smaller than wolves.”

I tuned out. Take me to the petting zoo and spare me the National Geographic briefing.

“Can we have a snack?” Lucy asked as we passed a food kiosk.

My father handed me some coins. “Go ahead. You can get one of those big bags of popcorn.” He paused at a bench to reload his movie camera. “Don’t forget drinks.”

With sweat beading on our foreheads, a stop at a human watering hole was greeted with cheers. My long sleeved top wasn’t the best fashion choice for a hot summer’s day. I was wilting. We chugged our refreshments and threw the empties in the trash.

“Here, hold the popcorn,” I told Stephen. We still had half a bag uneaten.

“You carry it,” he replied, running ahead to the otters splashing in the water.

“Look, they’re hugging each other,” exclaimed Lucy.

No sibling squabbling for these playmates. They perfected the back stroke, like a pair of synchronized swimmers. The heat didn’t make them sleepy and lethargic like the lions. Encore please.

“Now, can we go to the petting zoo?” Lucy whined, seeing the enclosure ahead.

My palms were sticky from holding the plastic popcorn bag. I swatted my brother. “Your turn. You carry it.”

He grabbed the bag and ran to catch up to Lucy.

“Go inside with them,” Dad said.

I looked at my canvas shoes. Did I really want to step inside the fenced pen? There was hay and disgusting pellets. It stunk.

“You’re older, stay with them.” Dad’s stage direction included removing the camera lens. “I’ve got a good view from here,” he added, moving closer to the fence.

I prayed my shoes could be cleaned and my clothing wouldn’t be stained. The kids (the baby goat ones) jumped on each other, bucking like over-active rocking horses. They wouldn’t keep still. I screeched when one nudged my butt. Lucy chased one until it reversed and chased her back. She giggled hysterically. Are we done yet? I could only block out the putrid smell of manure for so long.

There were a number of pen enclosures and Lucy was determined to visit them all. At the Emu station, the birds ignored the visitors, preferring to strut like supermodels, showing off their greyish coats and spikey haircuts. I’d never seen an Emu up close. They resembled a scraggly version of the Ostrich.

“Feed them some popcorn,” Dad yelled from behind his lens.

Stephen undid the twist-tie and tossed some popcorn on the ground. Glory be! The congregation of flappers darted towards the kernels. Within seconds they’d gobbled up the snack. Good heavens! The flock circled Stephen. Their beaks snapped at him, aiming for more popcorn. Lucy and I watched in horror. I’d only seen Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” movie once but the trauma of birds attacking humans was fresh in my mind.

“Ahhh!” screamed Stephen. “Help! They’re eating my flesh!” He tossed the bag in my direction.

I wasn’t a basketball player but my arms stretched to catch the missile. The nasty bird Rockettes paraded towards me in unison. Their knobby knees reminded me of my teenage awkwardness. I didn’t want to slip on all the crap on the ground yet I ran. They closed in. I take it back – I can still play tag. I tossed the bag over my head at Stephen. “It’s your popcorn! I don’t want it.” Kernels flew through the air but Stephen caught the precious cargo.

I had no idea where Lucy was but Stephen was in the middle of a Farmer in the Dell performance with the Emus determined to ‘take Stephen’! They swarmed. They pecked. Those foul attackers were relentless. Stephen dropped the bag and dashed to the gate. Lucy and I were already out of the pen, gasping and choking on our laughter.

I inspected Stephen’s arms but no blood was drawn. Ushering my younger siblings to where Dad stood, I assumed he’d missed the commotion.

“That was something else!” Dad said, hugging Stephen. Although he’d fumbled getting the full episode on video he’d caught enough to keep us entertained for years to come. Lucy and I were bystanders. It was Stephen who ruffled the Emu’s feathers. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Stephen – The Brother

Being sandwiched between two sisters is tough. They dragged me into their tea parties. If they needed a male to play the ‘father’ role when they played house, they looked for me. I found my escape. Books. Science fiction preferably. By grade two I wore glasses, and leaned into the nerd persona. On holidays, I came prepared with comic books. The time we headed to the Calgary zoo was an adventure of a different kind. Lucy was always running ahead, dictating which pavilions we visited first. The zebras were interesting. Did you know these striped equines have distinctive stripes? Each one is unique. They can also run up to 65 km an hour, faster than my sisters or me. But it’s the obnoxious Emu that won the race that day.

My older sister, my frequent babysitter, made me carry the popcorn bag. She got away with telling us what to do. My parents relied on her. She was the dominant, kind of like female lions, which feed the young and secure their safety. Gina fried grilled cheese sandwiches for us when our parents were absent. She enforced bedtimes. All rules and no play made her boring. Bossy. I’m not surprised she liked giraffes, considering she always thought she was a head above us.

It was a scorching heat wave. I used my sleeve to wipe the sweat off my face. I had strategically worn my khaki shorts, hoping to emulate a Safari hunter, minus the floppy hat. We’d already seen the lambs in the petting zoo area. Lucy was impatient. She wanted to hurry up and do everything before we had to leave.

“Aren’t ostriches pink?” Lucy asked.

“That’s flamingos,” I replied. “Ostriches lay the largest eggs and can’t fly.”

“The sign says Emu,” Gina said. It was just like her to contradict me. I let her have the last word. I didn’t know any facts about Emus but I got better grades. Score one for little brother.

“Dad’s filming,” she said, smiling at the camera while following Lucy into the bird cage. Okay, it wasn’t a cage but it could’ve been. That dang enclosure kept the Emus in and prevented me from escaping when I desperately needed help.

“Why don’t you share some popcorn?” Gina gestured to me.

I was used to obeying her, so I undid the twist-tie, sprinkling some kernels on the ground. The birds sashayed over. I backed up, giving them private dining room. There was debris on the ground, hay and stuff. It caused me to stumble. I struggled to close the popcorn bag. If Lucy hadn’t squealed I would’ve been fine but the bag tipped with more buttered popcorn cascading down the front of my clothing. The bird gang confronted me. They nipped at my feet. I stomped my shoes hoping to scare them off. All those feathered bodies jostling around me made me claustrophobic. I sneezed.

Gina yelled, “Don’t lose the popcorn.” I tossed her the precious feast. The birds abandoned me, zooming towards her. I’d never played football, so when she returned the plastic bag, throwing it at me, I wasn’t prepared. It fell to the ground. Lucy shouted for us to run.

We collapsed in giggles outside the pen. “Whose bright idea was it to visit the Emus?” I asked.

“Did you see how buggy their eyes are?” asked Lucy.

“Oh I saw them alright!” I replied.

“I got it all on film,” Dad said, leading us to the donkeys.

“Has my hair lost its curl?” asked Gina, primping for her next close-up. She’s supposed to take care of us yet she ran. I’m just lucky I wear glasses, I could’ve lost an eye.” Dad let me pick the music on the ride home. Bay City Rollers on repeat!

Lucy – The Youngest

The time we went to the zoo was so much fun. We saw lions and tigers and monkeys too. I was determined to see every animal. The baby lambs were cute. Emus not so much. They have long chicken legs and prickly hair at the top of their head. They smell. They were mean. I saw it with my own eyes. Those hideous creatures tried to steal our popcorn. They ganged up on Stephen. Daddy showed us the movie. The signs say not to feed the animals but Stephen did it anyway. He got in trouble. Big trouble. We laughed a lot, even when the Emus attacked Stephen. It was his fault. Stephen always thinks he knows everything. He shouldn’t have fed the Emus. Even a Brainiac should know not to tease the birds. It was one of the best summer vacations. I did everything I wanted and didn’t have to listen to Gina. We were lucky she didn’t burn the motel down when she left the curling iron plugged in. She got into trouble. Big trouble.

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