For the BirdsBy 49thShelf
A writer's search for inspiration, beauty and solace leads her to birds in this intimate and exuberant meditation on creativity and life—a field guide to things small and significant.
For Vladimir Nabokov, it was butterflies. For John Cage, it was mushrooms. For Sylvia Plath, it was bees. Each of these artists took time away from their work to become observers of natural phenomena. In 2012, Kyo Maclear met a local Toronto musician with an equally captivating side passion—he had recently lost …
One winter, not so long ago, I met a musician who loved birds. This musician, who was then in his mid-thirties, had found he could not always cope with the pressures and disappointments of being an artist in a big city. He liked banging away on his piano like Fats Waller but performing and promoting himself made him feel anxious and depressed. Very occasionally his depression served him well and allowed him to write lonesome songs of love but most of the time it just ate at him. When he fell in love with birds and began to photograph them, his anxieties dissipated. The sound of birdsong reminded him to look outwards at the world.
That was the winter that started early. It snowed endlessly. I remember a radio host saying: “Global warming? Ha!” It was also the winter I found myself with a broken part. I didn’t know what it was that was broken, only that whatever widget had previously kept me on plan, running fluidly along, no longer worked as it should. I watched those around me who were still successfully carrying on, organizing meals and careers and children. I wanted to be reminded. I had lost the beat.
My father had recently suffered two strokes. Twice—when the leaves were still on the trees—he had fallen and been unable to get up. The second fall had been particularly frightening, accompanied by a dangerously high fever brought on by sepsis, and I wasn’t sure he would live. The MRI showed microbleeds, stemming from tiny ruptured blood vessels in my father’s brain.
The same MRI also revealed an unruptured cerebral aneurysm. An “incidental finding,” according to the neurologist, who explained, to our concerned faces, his decision to withhold surgery because of my father’s age.
During those autumn months, when my father’s situation was most uncertain, I felt at a loss for words. I did not speak about the beeping of monitors in generic hospital rooms and the rhythmic rattle of orderlies pushing soiled linen basins through the corridors. I did not deliver my thoughts on the cruelty of bed shortages (two days on a gurney in a corridor, a thin blanket to cover his hairless calves and pale feet), the smell of hospital food courts and the strange appeal of waiting room couches—slick vinyl, celery green, and deceptively soft. I did not speak of the relief of coming home late at night to a silent house and filling a tub with water, slipping under the bubbles and closing my eyes, the quiet soapy comfort of being cleaned instead of cleaning, of being a woman conditioned to soothe others, now soothed. I did not speak about the sense of incipient loss. I did not know how to think about illness that moved slowly and erratically but that could fell a person in an instant.
I experienced this wordlessness in my life but also on the page. In the moments I found to write, I often fell asleep. The act of wrangling words into sentences into paragraphs into stories made me weary. It seemed an overly complicated, dubious effort. My work now came with a recognition that my father, the person who had instilled in me a love of language, who had led me to the writing life, was losing words rapidly.
Even though the worst of the crisis passed quickly, I was afraid to go off duty. I feared that if I looked away, I would not be prepared for the loss to come and it would flatten me. I had inherited from my father (a former war reporter/professional pessimist) the belief that an expectancy of the worst could provide in its own way a ring of protection. We followed the creed of preventive anxiety.
It is possible too that I was experiencing something known as anticipatory grief, the mourning that occurs before a certain loss. Anticipatory. Expectatory. Trepidatory. This grief had a dampness. It did not drench or drown me but it hung in the air like a pallid cloud, thinning but never entirely vanishing. It followed me wherever I went and gradually I grew used to looking at the world through it.
I had always assumed grief was experienced purely as a sadness. My received images of grief came from art school and included portraits of keening women, mourners with heads bowed, hands to faces, weeping by candlelight. But anticipatory grief, I was surprised to learn, demanded a different image, a more alert posture. My job was to remain standing or sitting, monitoring all directions continually. Like the women who, according to legend, once paced the railed rooftop platforms of nineteenth-century North American coastal houses, watching the sea for incoming ships, hence earning those lookouts the name widow’s walk. I was on the lookout, scouring the horizon from every angle, for doom.
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Sometimes, the wrong choice is the only choice you have.
Chief Inspector Domenic Jejeune is hoping an overseas birding trip might hold some answers in his fugitive brother’s manslaughter case. But there are people on the tour who seem keen to keep their secrets, and the rainforest can be a dangerous place for those who ask too many questions.
Back in the U.K., in Jejeune’s absence, Marvin Laraby, his former boss and longtime nemesis has been brought in to investi …
The cold lay across the land like a punishment. Along the lane, the grassy verges bowed with their burdens of frost, and lacy collars of ice fringed the edges of the puddles. On the far side of the lane, beyond the hedgerow, the skeleton shapes of bare trees lined the boundaries of the fields. Stands of pale grass moved uneasily beneath metallic skies. Winter was stretching its fingers over the landscape, and if it had not yet drawn them in, to clasp the land fully in its grip, the time was surely near.
The street lamps along the lane were already on, shining through the grey light of the fading afternoon like tiny suns. Suspended in their light, ice crystals spiralled like shards of shattered glass. From the window of a small cottage, a man watched a girl’s progress along the lane. The lace curtain hung from his fingertip like a veil. “Prospect, Erin,” he said without turning. The man’s shoulders were hunched slightly, as if he might be expecting a strike from the tension that seemed to hang in the room like a presence. “This could be the one.”
From the armchair behind the man, Erin offered no opinion. A kitten mewled around the legs of the chair, looking for an affectionate pat that wasn’t forthcoming. At the window, the man’s eyes tracked the girl’s approach carefully. She was perhaps eighteen, a youngish eighteen, though, slightly-built, with hardly an ounce of adult bulk on her delicate frame. He wondered if she was a runner. But there was no sign of well-developed muscle tone, no athletic spring in her step. Besides, it hardly mattered. Those boots she was wearing, all pointy toes and high heels, would not be much good for running over the uneven cobblestone surface of this laneway. Not that he intended to give her the chance.
“Yes,” said the man, nodding softly to himself, his eyes flickering slightly as he watched her. He could feel the pressure building in his chest. The hair at his collar was damp with sweat and the dryness in his mouth made it hard to swallow. Stage fright. He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. He was surprised to find it affecting him like this. He had been over the scenario many times in his head. He should be calmer than this. But the heart holds surprises for even the most disciplined minds, and now the moment of truth was drawing close, the doubts were starting to flood in.
The girl was closer now, and he could see the wispy trail of her breath as she chatted on her phone. Distracted. Not ideal. He wanted her to know what was happening, to take it all in, to be aware of everything. His eyes moved to the greying sky beyond her, and then switched anxiously back and forth along the lane. No one. He turned his attention back to the girl, perhaps twenty metres away now, no more. If it was going to be this one, he had only a few seconds. Cap, jacket, open the door and run. Her head would spin around at the sound of his approach, just in time to see him bearing down on her. A momentary look of confusion on her face? Panic? Terror? And then. Over. It would be done. He could feel his pulse throbbing in his temples. This has to be done. His heart was racing. You have to do it. He clenched his fingers into his palm, feeling their wetness. But still he hesitated.
“I don’t know, Erin. This one? Or not?”
He let out a pent up breath and withdrew his finger, letting the curtains fall back into place with a delicate shimmer. From behind his lace screen, he watched the girl pass beneath the street lamp outside, still chatting on her phone. Her breath spiralled up in the cold air, seeming to him like whispered prayers, drifting up to heaven. She would never know how close she had come.
It was the light. It was important, perhaps the most important thing of all. It needed to be right, and it wasn’t. Not yet. The man saw the mug on the window ledge in front of him and a bolt of alarm speared his chest. What if he had left it here, in his rush to get outside? He picked up the mug and carried it wordlessly into the kitchen. As he walked past the armchair, the kitten let out a small bleat. It looked for a moment as if it might follow the man into the kitchen, but in the end it jumped up onto Erin’s lap and curled itself inside its tiny tail to go to sleep.
In the kitchen, the man set the empty, unwashed cup carefully in the sink. He peered out the kitchen window, checking the narrow garden as it ran down to the boat dock. He could feel the cold winter air coming in through the neat hole in the glass panel of the door. On the far bank of the river that ran behind the cottages, a pair of Mallards was hunkered down, blending in to the pale, brittle reed stems. Nothing else moved.
The man sat for a long time at the kitchen table, watching as the day retreated into the half-light of dusk. There was a large part of him that didn’t want to do this. But something else had taken over. His actions were no longer his to control. His breathing had begun to quicken again. He steadied it. He felt tiny droplets of moisture running down his temples. Sweat. DNA. Bad thing.
He stood up quickly and walked back into the tiny, neat living room, now sheltering pockets of darkness in its corners. “We’ll leave the lights off for now, Erin,” he announced. He approached the bay window and peered through the curtains again. All the other cottages had lights on now. From outside, this one would look like a missing stone in the necklace of lighted windows that ran along the lane.
The man checked his reflection in the window glass; the brown leather jacket with its soft corduroy collar; the cap, tilted far enough forward to hide the plastic lining. And the greying goatee, with the little horns on the moustache. He gave the beard a downward stroke with his thumb and forefinger, as if to ensure it was in place. From the corner of his eye, he caught a flicker of movement, and he turned quickly to see a woman walking slowly down the lane, carefully picking her way between the puddles. Not up from the village as he had always envisioned it, but coming from the other direction. Panic started to rise within him. This was wrong. Why hadn’t he ever considered this? Pull yourself together. What did it matter? She was taller than the other one and slightly older; a year or two. More woman than girl, this one. His mouth felt dry, and he dragged the back of his wrist across his lips. His breathing was shallow and rapid. A whisper of doubt flickered across his mind. Would she put up a fight? Try to grab him? No, he thought, the twilight, the shock; they would do their work. It would all happen the way he had planned it.
The woman was getting closer. Another fifty metres and she would be directly beneath the street lamp outside. Darkness all around and just that tiny pool of yellow light spilling onto the cobblestone lane like a spotlight on a stage. He watched her approaching. She had picked up her pace slightly and was hunched against the evening, as if something in her subconscious might be whispering about the dangers a quiet lane like this could hold. He wondered where she was going. Home after a hard day’s work? To the pub to meet her friends? Or her boyfriend? It didn’t matter.
Seated at the window, his right knee was bobbing up and down like a piston, resisting all his efforts to control it. His heart felt like it might explode from his chest. He was finding it hard to breathe. The mantra built in his mind, like the roar of an oncoming train. This has to be done. You have to do it. “Here’s where I have to leave you, Erin,” said the man over his shoulder, not taking his eyes off the woman outside. His mouth was dry again and he licked his lips to moisten them. As the woman approached the pool of light beneath the street lamp, the man stood up. He ran to the front door and snatched it open. The door banged back against the wall of the cottage, but the woman was already looking in his direction — that primeval mechanism, perhaps, alerting her to danger? It was already too late. The man sprinted toward her. She stared, frozen in terror, as he closed the gap. Less than five metres now, with no signs of slowing. The woman raised her hands defensively, bracing for the impact. The man exploded into her, lowering his head and smashing his cap into her face. The impact lifted the woman off her feet and sent her flailing back against the street lamp, snapping her head back hard against the post. Lying on the cold round. Stunned. She heard rapid footfalls; the sound of running. She raised her head and managed to focus in time to see the man sprinting away down the centre of the narrow lane. His escape rang off the cobblestones until, like the assailant himself, the sound finally disappeared into the night. From behind the screen of the net curtains, the sightlines from Erin’s armchair to the street lamp were unobstructed. The woman was still on the ground, sobbing softly now, reeling from her injuries. She was beginning to shiver, too, as shock began to seep into the places where her fear had been. But Erin didn’t go to her, or call out to check if she needed help. Nor did Erin reach for a telephone to call for an ambulance, or a police officer. Erin Dawes did not respond at all. The dead never do.
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