Virtue is a white robe only women get to wear…
Everything in this bird tour has gone awry: Lady Byrd wakes up too late, because the tour guide forgot to arrange the calls. In a foul mood, she has to get to the site herself. Then, her path crosses that of a pregnant birder in the throes of an abusive relationship, and cornered into a hard choice only women have to face.
What can an expert birder can do to lift this fog of sadness?
A spirited and hopeful story with the energetic Lady Byrd !
Chicks and Chickadees
A Fearless Lady Byrd Adventure
by Michèle Laframboise
The fluted call woke me from my heavy sleep. That chant was as familiar as my living room couch, coming from the tiny throat of a black-capped chickadee. The rest of the year, that small quick bird emitted a short chip, or a gleeful nasal, ha-han-han-haan, more reminiscent of a duck quack. They were the life of the party in any forest; hanging a lump of fat in a net is a sure way to invite them to any backyard.
But, as the snow melted, the perky chickadees’ thoughts turned away from food. They started singing that soft whistle.
The bird was enjoying the morning; I wasn’t. At all.
A budding headache reminded me how foolish I had been to accept that glass of wine yesterday evening, even the light white brand that complemented the meal served at the hotel hosting our birding group. One blond lady was endlessly raving about her 150 mm cam, but I lost most of her words.
I pushed off the big fluffy down hotel coverlet from the bed, striking with my feet like I would a nighttime aggressor.
(I am lucky to never have experienced the event, but my niece had.)
(She did OK and sent the stupid horny student to the hospital. Nevertheless, I take extra precautions.)
I balanced myself to sit on the edge of the bed, my feet hanging inches from the floor. Extra-high hotel bed. A tingling feeling of something wrong nagged at me. Not the headache.
Then my eyes fell on the digital clock on the lacquered nightstand.
Ten past six. AM.
I was supposed to get up at five-thirty, eat a small collation and board the minibus that would take me and a dozen others to a secluded spot where a famed warbler had been last observed.
That warbler was that kind of elusive brownish bird, easier to hear than see. Its off-key colors made them the opposite of the chickadees: not only difficult to see, but a challenge at identifying.
Birders woke very early to get to the field at dawn. I winced. By now, the tour bus would have left with the rest of the group.
On my precedent birding tours, the organizers usually managed the morning calls so everyone was woken around the same hour, generally 5h00 or 5h30 AM.
I hadn’t met the Sully Bird Tours manager yet, only the athletic brown-haired girl, a Lucy Something (I should have remembered her name but the flight had left me slightly zombified) who greeted me at the airport and lifted my bags without breaking stride. She had driven me to this three-star hotel, where I later met the birding party, but the Sully of Sully’s tour had been apparently busy elsewhere.
If the manager was around her age, maybe he had left a Facebook message, Twitter notification or I don’t-know-what-tech alert to the tour members, not thinking that some tour members could be old enough to be his mother. Or grand mother, if he was that young.
I felt a surge of wrath towards this Ronald Sully. A competent birding tour manager would have made sure all members were up and seated before taking off. Especially when said members had paid north of one thousand dollars for one week-end, all-inclusive package.
The love call tempered my disappointment. A chickadee’s spring mating call was a soft flute, not migraine-inducing at all. Maybe Ron Sully had called my room number, and I had been sleeping too soundly to be roused?
I checked the hotel phone.
No blinking red light. So no calls. I thought fast.
If I skipped breakfast and toothbrushing, I had a thin chance to catch the 6h30 AM hotel shuttle and get to the Park entrance in time. Normally, I would have called a taxi, but the town abutting the gigantic park didn’t have a lot of those, and no way at my age would I adopt the Uber application my tech-savvy nephew was raving about.
My hands went to my night gown, holding my full bladder.
To the bath-cave, my numb brain ordered.
While scurrying to the bathroom to get my three essentials “U” (Urine drain, Uplifting cream, UV screen), I thought about the surprises that this coming day held in reserve.
Birding expeditions were a fascinating adventure I had shared with Paul, my husband for thirty-two wonderful years. Then Paul’s strong body had been grabbed by the Crab, and nothing had been the same ever since.
Only our common love of birds had saved me from spiraling into depression and alcohol after Paul’s death. Each bird tour was a way of reconnecting with the man who had meant so much to me.
I got dressed, bundled my dog-eared Sibley Guide to Birds, my 8×25 Bushnell field binoculars in their case, and filled my water bottle at the sink.
Next, I put on my “fearless lady explorer hat”.
Strapping it under my chin, I looked like a Victorian-era explorer matron. The vintage pith jungle helmet had been a joking gift from Paul. I wore it without qualms: besides being well-padded, the off-white pith hat was a fine conversation starter.
I even got to learn what the word steampunk meant.
Minutes later, I walked up to the front desk among enticing smells of breakfast prepared at the restaurant, my soft-soled walking shoes plopping softly on the waxed oak floorboards. The morning clerk looked up at me from his screen, all fresh face and pimples.
“Can I do something for you?” he asked, his eyes squinting at my Victorian pith hat.
The first words coming to me were: Wasn’t someone supposed to wake me up? But I chose a more diplomatic approach.
“Yesterday, did I leave instructions for a wake-up call?”
The boy (I write boy because he couldn’t have been more than 16) bent on the screen raising like a flat obsidian monolith between us. I could only see his combed auburn hair, like waves.
“No, you didn’t.”
Oh, I thought. So I had forgotten.
No wonder. The plane trip had been exhausting.
Two hot-headed (and thoroughly inebriated) guys were spreading their politics around in loud angry voices with scant regard for their fellow passengers. As they sat on the row before me, it had been impossible to doze off.
Eventually the flight attendant got tired of the hate spiel and shushed them. As the attendant was a brown-skinned, petite Indian-looking stewardess, they scoffed and leered at her politeness, making me wish I had some knitting needles or hat pins to prod them in the ribs with, or more stamina. Only when the head steward, a burly, fortyish man with a military buzz cut, came to back up his colleague, did the two goons tone down, relenting under a male authority.
So I had accepted the complimentary wine glass on board to complement the kneaded napper meal.
Later, at the three stars, medium-sized hotel, I had been only too happy to meet fellow birders to care. The local brand offered at supper proved one sip too much, but I would discover this only in the morning.
The rumbling under my seat lulled me to a better mood. I munched on a soft ChocoPower bar, the one with nuts, while the shops and motels of the outskirts were replaced by fields and forested stretches. My multipocketed coat was rolled under my back to provide a support for my spine, and I rested my slightly pounding ball against the fabric headrest, the explorer hat on my knees.
It was past 6h 45 when the hotel shuttle grinded to a halt on the blacktop of the parking near the Conservatory entrance. (A conservatory was the same thing as a natural park, but without the noisy camping grounds.)
The parking lot was bare, except for a pine hut contained a pit toilet, and a green and blue minivan with the words Sully’s Birding Tour printed in another shade of blue across a pale grey seagull outline. Which looked strange because, this far inside the continent, the only seagulls I had seen were the ubiquitous ring-billed seagulls actively checking out the hotel’s waste containers.
I stepped off the shuttle in a deflated mood. At this hour, most morning birds would have flown off to ensure their survival. I would get the obvious customers, robins, woodpeckers and the happy-chirping chickadees.
The group’s route must have been another useful info the organizers had trusted to the Internet. Hence, I wasted another two minutes of early morning observation to consult the large wooden map, discolored by years of exposition to the elements. The paths were marked by vivid-colored plastic ribbons.
More disappointment piled as I discovered that most of those brightly-colored paths were over four kilometers long, and crossed higher slope gradients that I cared for.
I pulled out the tiny flat green cell my nephew had given me.
I didn’t care much for using a phone while birding, but I needed to know which path the group took. I punched the main number. After three rings, a primp, happy-sounding voice announced that Sully Bird Tour were unavailable and would I like to leave a message?
Of course, they would have disconnected their cells, because a sudden noise erupting from a pocket could scare the birds away. Even the more discreet vibration setting was picked up by the birds’ tine-tuned ears, resembling a low-throated alarm buzz that most species heeded as a predator presence warning.
I puffed my cheeks. Looking at the tour bus, I decided to leave a low-tech message. I sacrificed a page from my small do-it-all notebook for the busy woman (a gift from my niece) and wrote my cell number and my name, plus “on Trail 4”.
Trail 4 was the shortest circuit available, which would let me amble at my own pace and make the best of this day. And, with luck, one of the guides would check on me.
After a cautious stop at the pit toilet (making sure my cell phone did not fall at the bottom), I set on the path winding between tall pines.
The first part of the trail rose gradually, letting me adjust my steps so I wouldn’t get tired before reaching the mid-point. Soft needles brushed my hat when I passed under the low limbs of a white pine. The sun had risen high enough to wink at me through the leaves. There were no mosquitoes at this early season, for which I felt inordinately grateful.
I breathed in the scents of the acidic forest floor and the dry earth, straining my ears to capture as many sounds as I could. The wind shushed the conifer tops and whispered through the willows; a creek gurgled far off my left, a meeting place for the local birds. A low truck engine rumble rose from an invisible highway on the other side of the conservatory. At this early hour, the driver would be alone with his thoughts.
Between all those sounds, I picked up some familiar calls.
The hearty warbling of an American tree sparrow, the smooth flute of a Swanson thrush, the shrill ack-ack of a starling, the smallish thrushes quipping and flitting in the low bushes. I wouldn’t get to see the brown warbler that I bought the Tour ticket for, as it was a dawn passerine, but there would be many other feathered friends around to compensate.
My fingers itched to lift the 8×25 Bushnell to my eyes. It would not be useful, as the birds had the knack to stay hidden.
Plus, sticking your eye behind the ocular cut 98% of angular vista. My best bet would be to find a spot where some naked branch stood out against the background, to keep immobile, and wait for a flurry of movements. Sooner than later, a bird would alight on the branch, offering itself to the observer.
A medium-sized bird crossed my path, childishly easy to recognize, all red with black wings, the warm red verging on orange. Scarlet tanager, a beginner’s dream. I had seen many tanagers years ago, on a South Carolina birding tour with Paul.
So much for a lifer today.
Paul and I had cumulated so many birding excursions that to score a “lifer” today, I would have to thread the high Himalayan plateau (not recommended at my ripe age, the air getting thinner with the rising altitude).
Nevertheless, the deep-red bird was perched on the exact branch, offering me its perfect profile. I seized the moment and my field glasses.
That’s when I heard a soft sigh echoing in my back. I jumped, instinctively lifting my binoculars as a barrier between me and the intruder. Then I lowered them.
The intruder was a russet-haired young woman with a perfect oval face and clear skin, no more than twenty years old if I’m any judge. A caramel-toned rucksack was strapped to her shoulders, obviously packed with heavy content, because the straps were biting at the shoulders. It was a vintage backpack made from coarse cotton fibers, thick and unrelenting, the straps looking like discarded leather belts, the kind that weighed probably five pounds when empty. An oddity when everyone (myself included) wore two-ounces nylon backpacks.
She was wearing sensible walking shoes and a windbreaker, a good point for her. Except that her windbreaker was a violent shade of red that most reasonable birds would take offense at. The blood-like color would prod them to fly away from this clear and present danger.
The sole volatile that her red outfit would draw would be the hummingbirds, they had a thing for reds and yellows, but early spring would be too cold for the minuscule, thumb-sized birds. As for the cardinals, they were not that easily fooled.
“It is so beautiful” she gushed. “All red and dashing.”
A pair of sturdy 15×70 Celestron binoculars hung over the young woman’s wide chest.
Maybe this big-boned girl was in our tour group, but I didn’t see her last evening. Of course, in my state of fatigue, I hadn’t noticed a lot.
“What kind is it?” she asked, lifting her weighty instrument, her indexes rotating the dials at the same time.
The gesture, as much as the question, established the russet-haired girl as a neophyte in bird watching. You always adjusted the right ocular to your sight before setting out. Birders rarely lent their optics, so one right-ocular adjusting was usually enough. Besides, those 15×70 weighted a ton. You needed Popeye-sized forearms to hold them up for more than thirty seconds.
Maybe this was her first bird tour.
“It’s a scarlet tanager,” I said.
Her fingers finished grappling the dials and she looked through, her mouth half opened, her breathing stilled.
“Wow,” she gasped. “I never saw one before.”
I envied her emotion at getting a lifer, a bird observed for the very first time.
She held the heavy 15×70 binoculars (that weighted five times more than my own theater-sized 8×25 field glasses) with steady arms. Her optics were powerful, but more suited for evening watching or star gazing. Too much light was entering by the wide lenses of her objectives.
At last, the russet-haired woman let go of her heavy gear. The Celestron swayed as she fished out a flat violet phone from a side pocket. She had belatedly decided to take a picture.
Alas, her jerky moves had alerted the tanager, who had other priorities in life than preening for a couple of tourists. I gazed after its scarlet tail until the bird vanished in the bushes.
“You see, I’m not very trained in birds,” she said. “My fiancé knows better, he’s been around the world already.”
By reflex, I gave a circular glance to locate the gentleman in question. No, she was alone.
“Around the world? What kind of job does he have?”
“He did law school, and now he works in finances.”
She rattled off a company’s name. It had made the headlines some months ago for a juicy merger. All I remembered was the job losses that such maneuver entailed.
“Kevin’s so smart,” Marité said, gushing. “He would know this, er, tan-nager?”
“Scarlet tanager,” I said. “As easy to recognize as a red STOP sign. You can’t confuse them with another kind.”
“Not even a cardinal?”
“No. A red cardinal would be bigger, without the black wingtips.”
She absorbed the information. Then, she looked at me and my hat.
“I’m Marité,” she said, extending a big hand.
Her hand was colder than mine, which was unusual, because the younger people enjoyed a higher surface temperature.
“Please to meet you,” I replied. “I am Amanda. Are you with the Sully group?”
She heaved another sigh.
“I was,” she said.
“Well, they went over that slope, you see?”
She pointed toward the tree-covered hills.
“I tire easily those days, so I fell back.”
Marité didn’t strike me as weak or unfit; she was a big-boned kind of gal. But so many youths today had lost the gentle art of walking!
“I couldn’t see the rest of the group anymore. So I went back to the loo in the parking, did my business and retraced my steps uphill.”
I didn’t care much for Sully Tour at this moment. This client had paid for her excursion, had gotten on the bus on time. It was the guide’s responsibility to ensure no one was lagging behind. Or if it was unavoidable (like a broken ankle) to take all necessary precautions to guarantee the safety of the person.
I made one step uphill, but the young woman was fishing something in her windbreaker’s pockets. A yellow booklet with lush exotic bird images on the cover. The golden logo of a New-York publisher encroached over the pictures. It was a luxury hardbound format, slick and clean, that would be more at its place displayed on a coffee table than out on the field.
“Well, since you saw this tanager for the first time, you can check it in your book,” I said.
She blushed, a weird coloring of her cheeks betraying the sunspots under the foundation.
“It, it’s not mine.”
Her answer puzzled me.
Once upon a time, a very impatient birder stole my well-filled bird book. The litany of troubles that this single event brought was best forgotten. After a number of peripeties, I got my book back, only to find that the thief had defaced it, with new checks and marks and doodles. I kept the booklet, but never used it again.
“It’s my fiancé’s,” Marité said.
“Ah,” I said, the solo syllable meaning: well at least I’m not speaking to a thief.
“He couldn’t come along because his family held a special celebration this weekend, and he had paid in advance for this tour, so I went in his stead.”
“They didn’t invite you?”
“His family’s kind of old traditional,” she said, tracing a sharp-angled square in the air. “Never do it before marriage and all that. So I stay with my mom and visit his condo on and off.”
She opened the book. The pages were filled by thin lines of Latin names, listing for each of the States, plus Mexico and Canada. However, all the tiny boxes opposite to the names and states were empty.
That book was brand-new.
“Well,” I said, nonplussed. “Nice of you to check birds for him. But, you know, the birding experience is rather a personal one.”
Nevertheless, I felt a mild disappointment at his resorting to deputize his (obviously inexperienced) girlfriend to get his sightings. He could have
And Marité, despite her strong frame, was not used to long grueling walks. We covered about two hundred meters on the trail, and I could hear her breathing hard in my back. I slowed down.
“Are you well?” I asked.
Her exhaustion might be related on the heavy rucksack she was lugging.
“Oh, don’t wait for me,” she said.
“No problem. I could use a pause, too,” I said.
I breathed in, slow and deep, concentrating on the nature around me and the background noises filling the budding forest. That exercise had always helped me cope with the blows that life dealt me.
Here were the chickadees, disputing any sap or seeds, all the while chattering wildly. The question-mark chant of a tanager wanting company. The harsh croak of a passing crow. A series of loud squeaks of quarrelling chipmunks. The faraway roar of a plane crossing the sky, in an altitude undisputed by volatiles. The soft moist rustling of new leaves.
A loud burp erupted from causing a startled rustle in the bushes. I feared the rest of the birds must have been scared away.
“Oops,” Marité said, holding up on a thin cellphone, a technology that could someday replace my heavy Sibley.
I surmised the boyfriend would be at the other end, and sidled away to give Marité some personal space as she took the call.
“Yes, yes I’m fine,” she said, lowering her voice as if she was a conspirator. “I’m on a trail right now…”
Was the boyfriend keeping tabs on her birding? That would be the day!
If ever my Paul would call me in the middle of a hike, it had better be for a good reason, like a weather emergency or a terrorist attack. Or an accident in the family, like when my teenage nephew got involved in a drunk driving crash. (He had not been the one at the wheel, and the experience made him think hard about life choices. The call had come, predictably, in the predawn hour, while I was waiting for a rare bird to show itself.)
But then, I thought, a birder worth his salt would know not to call at this time. So, not the boyfriend. Who then?
The answer came fast, still in this whispering, almost shameful tone.
“No, Mom, I haven’t told him yet.”
I stepped back. That conversation was heading into very personal territory. Despite the natural curiosity that had often prodded me to investigate problems, I steered myself toward an appropriate conduct and hiked up the trail. I had been a privileged witness to my sister’s constant worrying (and she had valid cause for worrying, re: my reckless teenage nephew.)
However, I was soon forced to stop before getting out of hearing range.
The promised shorter trail had climbed abruptly, a steep incline forcing any hiker to grab roots and scramble up. Not an exercise I cared to do alone. Athletic I had been, forty years ago, and some of it remained in my sinews, but a fall would not be kind to my bones.
I waited until the young woman finished her call. Meaning, I couldn’t avoid catching a part of the whispered conversation, nor avoid using my inner Sherlock Holmes to understand her situation.
Marité was pregnant, and had not told her boyfriend yet.
The young woman clapped her phone shut, after pouring more words of reassurance to her mom that everything was well with Kevin.
Kevin, the bedridden birder so intent on getting results he had delegated his unexperienced girlfriend to add marks on his book. Kevin, who had not noticed his girlfriend’s condition.
(You can tell that I disliked the guy without my ever having set eyes on him. Bird observation is a passion, a personal challenge. Go birding, or don’t; there’s no middle way.)
She trod up to me, and looked up the twisted trail full of roots waiting to trip us on.
“Are you sure you want to go up there?” I asked.
She wasn’t far along, but enough for typical symptoms I was familiar with, like the need for pit stops. She nodded.
“That trail comes up to a ridge, and then meet with trail Two, which is the one they took before I lost them.”
How, how could she have lost sight of the group? I must have broadcast this thought around, because the young russet-haired woman shrugged.
“I had to make a pit stop. And there was no place except near the parking. So I came back, and came up again by another path.”
She must have used the pit toilet minutes before I got there. And she would need it again, soon. Curiosity pulled at me, but this was her life and I knew nothing of her.
“Well, let’s get going, then,” I said.
The incline proved not so difficult to use, Marité’s strong hands pulling me, or propping my foot to steady me as I lifted myself. Soon, the terrain levelled up and our progress went smoother. She didn’t talk much, besides the few necessary words ascending a twisted path with obstacles required.
The temperatures, also rose, until the young woman was sweating rivers, the orange Tee under her now-unzipped coat moist with perspiration. The beginning of a sunburn was coloring her brow, and flushing out more freckles.
I felt the heat, too, and was grateful for my well-ventilated pith hat. It was a familiar microclimate phenomenon in the mountains, in mid season, the king of day where you never knew what to wear.
Marité shadowed my steps all the way to the ridge, where a wooden panel on a short spike indicated that the path Four (yellow) ended here, and was absorbed in Path two.
I cast a prodding look forward, and saw a lookout platform. It was empty, but on it a bench had been built, shadowed by a tall spruce. Past the railing, the terrain dropped, not vertically, but enough to get serious scratches from those dry branches clutching the rocks if we tumbled down.
“Care for a short stop?” I asked, knowing my companion would not stop for rest otherwise.
She nodded, her skin shiny with pearls of perspiration. I shrugged off my backpack and sat with relish on the wooden boards, noting the carpenters had provided a perfect angle between seat and dossier for my tired back.
I let myself drown into the landscape, a fantastic view that was a well-earned reward for our efforts. I felt the shudder under me as Marité lowered her bulk on the bench, after taking off her rucksack.
The crow I had heard minutes ago swooped wide, croaking twice, before disappearing behind the spruces.
The group must have stopped there, because I saw the footprints in the dust. There was a cigarette butt by a post, which made me wince inwardly. I doubt nature lovers would be so negligent as to risk starting a fire in a highly combustible coniferous area.
I glanced at Marité, settled besides me, hands resting on her lap. Her eyes followed the lazy circles of a turkey vulture, the bald read head a telltale sign.
“What is that one?” she asked.
I named the familiar scavenger. She made for her heavy optics, but her hands went down instead. She pulled a water bottle from her rucksack and drank from it. I noticed, again, how that coarse fiber bag reminded me of the seventies. There was a swiveling embroidery on the thick flaps (each with tiny leather buckles instead of zippers): curly leaves and flowers in violet, mauve, lime green and yellow.
“You’ve got a rare bag,” I said after a silence.
“It was my father’s,” she said. “He was always carrying it when we went hiking together.”
“He gave it to you?”
“He passed away, three years ago. My mom told me to use it, because she was not the outdoor type. But she made this, see?”
She traced the embroidery. Lovingly made. A way to have both parents going out with her. Then, I saw my opening.
“It’s beautiful, Marité. And those leather straps are more solid that the nylon bands that keep ripping off at the seams. So you can pass it to your children.”
She gasped before I finished saying children. Her hands glided under the belt partitioning her body into lower and higher territories.
Her head fell forward, the curtain of russet hair hiding her face. Her shoulders shook, up and down.
Marité did not cry noisily, a sign I had noted in many women mired in abusive relationships. (Not that I could tell for sure at this point, but my one year stint at listening on helplines helped.)
She emitted neither sniffle nor sob. Just a low-toned hiss of air traveling fast and furious inside her throat. Behind the russet curtain, tears would be falling down her face, leaving her chin to splatter between her sensible hiking shoes.
This left me both sad and mildly annoyed. So I did what any aunt worth her salt did when one heart-broken niece fell in pieces right in front of her, or one caller at the help line broke down: listening as she releases her pent-up pain.
I looked up the sky, searching for a lone bird of prey careening in the uplifts. The view was big enough to warrant at least one.
Just when I spotted the shape of a fish hawk, its underside feathers a clear gray to help it blend in the sky (lots of prey animals are color-blind), I heard Marité shift.
“I, I’m not sure I want children,” she said, her shuddering voice barely registering.
Years of listening to my nieces and nephew had taught me to keep words to a minimum.
“Why?” I said, keeping my voice low and unintrusive.
She swallowed some unshed tears.
“Because,” she said, “I might not be a good mom.”
I winced. That notion of knowing in advance if you would or wouldn’t be up to the job of raising your offspring bugged me. Nobody could tell, really. Marité had obviously benefitted from a good mom, and she was still on speaking terms with her.
“Um, what makes you think you wouldn’t be a good mom?”
Her hands went to her belly, again, cupping the slight bulge there (that could have been normal fat build-up, but I was pretty certain by then.)
“Kevin. He, he told me I was not mature enough.”
That’s petty of him: you’re never ever ready for children.
“Maybe he doesn’t want children?”
She shook her head, a low-amplitude move.
“Yes, he does want a family,” she said, “but, at a later time, when we’re settled down.”
Later, later, always later. I had waited, too, until my clock told me I couldn’t wait too long. And by then…
The call woke a deep lounging.
Paul and I had been parents, once. Expecting parents.
I remember the tiny fluttering bird inside my womb, and the wonder and dreams, and doubts of course. Then the fluttering had ceased, a loud pain flaring in my belly, blood on my cloths and on the floor. Paul had rushed me to the emergency, while the little life flowed out of me.
No words the doctors told me after could appease my sorrow. My reproductive system was deemed good to go, but no other ova would nestle inside my uterus. My young husband could have left me then, as we had envisioned children, and he could still have them. (This was years before international adoption became affordable.)
Eventually, my sister gave us little nieces and one nephew to hold on our knees and play with and bake pastries for, and the ache gradually receded. Birds and travelling took all our free time.
So I was utterly sympathizing with Marité’s plight.
The thumb-sized bird alighted on the railing, close to the two motionless chicks, each with a vastly different track behind, each inhabiting her own regrets.
The chickadee hopped on those impossibly frail legs, chirping questions to the tainted wood surface. Mesmerized, I could make out every single feather of its pale tawny chest and coal gray wings.
Then, it let out a high-pitched note and launched itself up. It zoomed like a tiny missile though the prickly spruce branches, dipping and rising, its flight in those harsh conditions not straight, not perfect, but efficient to evade any bird of prey.
That sheer strength in imperfection gave me a line to reach my companion’s misery.
“Tell me, Marité, what later do you want for yourself.”
Happened she desired children.
“I don’t want to wait,” she said. “I would like mom to see her grand-children. Because Dad died young, I’m afraid she might leave me before…”
She didn’t finish. Wanting children because of a fear to lose a parent looked fishy to me, but then, there were no perfect reason to want children. Sometimes, you did it because it was expected of you and sometimes, you even had no say in the matter.
Or you genuinely loved children but your body could not produce one. I breathed in the generous spicy coniferous smell.
Speaking of body, I put (metaphorically) my foot down. Here was one woman who liked children and whose body looked strong enough to bring several forth into the world, but tormented herself with other’s expectations.
“So you told your mother you were pregnant, but not Kevin.”
Marité cringed on the bench, folding her legs and arms in a protective ball around her center.
“Kevin,” she said. “He would not understand. He has our life all planned out. Well, once he told his family about me, I mean. So, I… had to consider interrupting it.”
Besides the obvious twinge of my Judeo-Christian heritage, Marité was the reverse mirror image of many women’s torments.
Too often, a boyfriend or a husband or the family pressured the woman to bear a child, against her wishes. The worst snatched her contraceptive pills, or played more devious games of control. And if the hapless woman ran to a backstreet office, she would get all the blame and shame.
That irked me. If her prim boyfriend didn’t want children now, why didn’t he take the ‘necessary precautions’? (Admire the circumlocution of the Judeo-Christian-raised.)
When I asked the question, she huddled in a tighter ball.
“It’s, it’s complicated,” she said.
(Translation, provided from hundreds of conversations with my nieces over the years: he left the necessary precautions-taking to her.)
“I, I might have forgotten once or twice,” she said, her voice muffled by the sleeves of her windbreaker. “So it’s my fault.”
Cue the feelings of guilt, a hamster wheel that will never stop. A thought experiment was called for.
“Look, Marité, I can’t meddle in your personal affairs. But listen. Just imagine this: if the man you love wanted to have children, right now, would you still want to stop this pregnancy?”
Her sudden intake of air, rasping against the nylon of her windbreaker, the featherlight ah coming from her throat, told me the answer.
Right before she shook off that sliver of hope like a speck of dust from her coat.
“But he doesn’t,” she said, burrowing back.
“Don’t you want at least to tell him about your pregnancy before you take the first step to end it?”
A shiver ran through her huddle figure on the bench.
“No! He would break up. He would think I’m trying to push him into a hasty marriage. He’s supposed to tell his parents this week-end.”
Oh, the trouble us “chicks” can get in, like this choice between pleasing the boyfriend and following our heart!
“Maybe not,” I said. “At the very least, if you tell him about your intention to end the pregnancy, he will see how serious you are in your relationship, in respecting his will.”
“Maybe. I don’t know. His family would not appreciate. They are…”
“Traditional, I know,” I said, after she had let her sentence trail for seconds.
Weren’t they all! My own miscarriage had disappointed my parents, even if they did their best to hide it. (They had later found consolation in my sister’s brood.)
“Virtue is like a white robe,” I said, “very easy to stain. However, it is a robe only women have to wear.”
A muffled laugh.
“I guess the guy’s robes are dark gray, the same as their suits.”
A faraway chirping seemed to underscore her humor.
It had taken a few more exchanges, and my telling her about my own botched motherhood attempts, to prod her to call her boyfriend.
I waited, hearing the tinny call notes. Then, a mechanical voice, clearly a message. Marité stammered, not expecting the answering machine. She blubbered about something important she had to tell him, and hung up.
He might have been on transit to his family gathering. Or…
Another, horrible idea struck me. Was her birder boyfriend a cuckoo?
We finally reached the Sully Tour group at the balding summit, a cleared mesa set up with picnic tables… and one pit restroom, which Marité quickly used. I went after her, because everything went better on an empty bladder.
I was well prepared to give this Ron Sully the (verbal) beating of his life as soon as I spotted him. Which was easier said than done, because our group was not alone on this mesa.
I recognized some of my dinner companions ambling about: a couple in their 80s wearing the same dark blue vintage K-way, a stooping teenager with cheap-looking pink (the horror!) optics, one blond dedicated woman carrying a camera equipped with a bazooka-sized objective, ready to shoot.
There were more people there than our dozen-or-so group, who might be another group of sight-seers. That park held wondrous vistas, it was a popular destination, for people long-kept indoors by the last pandemic.
I turned to Marité.
“Do you see him?” I asked, the him in question self-evident.
She nodded, and led me to a picnic table where a man was sitting all by himself, safe for an opened plastic sandwich wrapper, tuna sandwich if I trusted the scent hitting me as he was munching it.
Lucy walked to us from the spotting scope she had set up.
“Oh, Mrs. Byrd, I’m relieved you made it!” she said, spitting bits of her smelly tuna sandwich. “I rapped your door this morning, but you did not answer. I thought you had had a change of heart and preferred to rest. And then, I had too much to do.”
I focused on the Tour manager.
Ron Sully was a thirty-something man with a runner’s lean frame, clad in a thin sports coat. A frizzy outdoor man’s beard graced his weathered features. Over his black hair, he wore a long bill cap with a thin-legged egret in flight, printed in blue over a white background.
His dark eyes lit up as he saw me bearing on him like a loaded train, ready for the crash. He did not rise to greet me.
“Mrs. Byrd, I’m so sorry for this morning,” he said from his side of the table, spitting bits of tuna and bread.
When I replied, my voice was colder than the Colombia glacier (before it melted. I’ve been there).
“You could have left a message.”
Then I rounded the table, and saw why he hadn’t gotten up.
His left leg rested horizontally on the bench, wrapped in plaster to the knee, covered with signatures in felt pen. His gym pants was rolled up, leaving a sliver of pink skin. I noticed the pair of crutches propped against the side of the picnic table.
Ron Sully nodded, his jutting cheeks red over the fuzzy beard.
He shifted, cast a glance at Lucy pointing this or that spot to the other birders.
“What happened to your leg?” I asked, my indignation abated.
Ron Sully swept his sandwich’s crumbs into a plastic bag, a good point for him. Too many people leaving food scraps in parks drew bears or raccoons on the site. He zipped the bag shut and put in a belt pack.
“I’m a long-distance runner. I train on back roads. Yesterday, on my way back to the hotel, I slipped on a patch of ice and broke my ankle. The pain was awful.”
The memory made him wince.
“Had to call Lucy and tell her to get you at the airport, while I was whisked in ambulance to the nearest emergency room. Spent the night there, cause they had more urgent cases than a guy with a broken ankle. They patched me up. Discharged me at five AM. I took a cab back to the hotel to lead this tour.”
“Path two is clearly less hard that path Four,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “With all that, I was too tired. I forgot to make my morning calls! Especially to you, Mrs. Byrd. I was so looking forward to meet you in the flesh!”
Ooh, that fanboy look in his eyes!
My notoriety often preceded me. My monthly birding blog had had a modest following, until my face graced a Bird Magazine’s article, for services rendered.
Marité sat at the table, opposite Ron. She opened her vintage fabric bag, eliciting a stare from the the weathered-faced man.
I got to see what she was lugging with her all this time. Two water bottles, a pack of napkins, two sandwiches, a salad bowl, the yellow checkmark booklet with the gold logo, and a thick hardcover Bird Watcher’s Bible from National Geographic, which must account for the weight.
“This book is good stuff, but heavy,” Ron said to Marité. “And you carried it all the way?” he said, with a glint of admiration in his eyes.
“There are lighter field books. And you can even log on your sightings,” he said, his longs arms emphasizing his words in fluid gestures.
He had an easygoing way that made people at ease with him. I could see the tension drop from the young woman’s shoulders. She finished her sandwich and attacked her salad.
Ron turned to me.
“Well, I hope you won’t be too harsh on us,” he said (knowing about my blog). “Lucy and I started this business a year ago.”
I wondered if Lucy was his wife. She had the same easygoing attitude, as she was finishing hoisting her spotting scope and talking to the pink-binoculars slouching teen.
Organizing bird tours was a difficult enterprise that required large amounts of energy, investment and human interactions. Most start-ups didn’t recoup their losses and floundered in the first three years.
“Well, I hope tomorrow morning I’ll get to see this warbler,” I said.
Ron scratched his scraggly beard.
“If it can be any consolation,” he said, “we didn’t get to see one this morning. Maybe the air pressure or the moisture levels had made it shy.”
“You never know what happens in any outing,” I said. “I remember a boat ride passing close to a White Pelican colony on a lake, and no White Pelican turned up at all. It was as if they all went foraging elsewhere on this particular day.”
Of course, both organizers and passengers had been disappointed, especially as that company had promised a sighting of the white wonders. This anecdote brought out another, and the conversation rolled, while the rest of the group finished eating.
So Ron, Lucy and I were engaged in an easygoing exchange about the challenges and pitfalls of the business, when Marité’s high-strung voice exploded from the end of our table, startling the blue K-way couple glued to their binoculars.
“You did WHAT?”
The woman with the bazooka cam shushed her, but Marité was oblivious to anything except her cell phone.
She was holding the thin plastic plate close, a new anguish pulling the corners of her lips down. There was a silence as the other party was repeating the what in question. Then a strangled no came off Marité’s throat, and she cast her phone away. The cell rattled down the incline, landing in a tuft of grass a few meters away.
Birders were generally independent, solitary types, but not indifferent to distress. Lucy and the couple in their 80s drew near; the slouching teen with the pink optics hoped down the slope to retrieve the fallen cell; even the shushing woman with her bazooka came, her displeasure forgotten.
“What happened?” I asked.
Marité took two shuddering breaths before answering.
“My mother,” she said. “She told him!”
It seemed that Marité’s short message had prodded the boyfriend to call her mom. (Why he didn’t answer his phone before, I had no idea.)
And, as all moms were worrywarts, the more so when their offspring were beating the bush around in mountains, she had spilled the beans about her daughter’s pregnancy.
The cocoon of birders emitted sympathetic coos when Marité explained her condition (without giving too many details). The women clucked around her and dispensed any advice they thought poor Marité would need in her new life. (The bazooka woman had a brood of five. No wonder she needed some respite from time to time.)
Marité endured the maternity advices with the patience of someone who had lived through many advice sessions.
Ron hobbled to her, in his crutches, a pair of 8×42 binoculars banging against his chest. Lucy had folded the legs of the spotting scope in her backpack.
“I am sorry you had so much trouble following us,” he said to Marité. “You should have warned us about your condition. I’ll make sure tomorrow’s excursion will be on an easier path.”
Marité looked up at the organizer.
“Oh, I don’t want to be a problem,” she said, her face flushed.
Ron looked at my companion, his weathered face breaking in a boyish grin.
“Oh, you’re not a problem, not at all!” he said.
He cast a glance at Lucy, who was talking optics with the teenager.
“Look, I need to rest my leg. So you stay here while Lucy leads the group to the viewing spot at the end of the trail. It’s not too far. It should take about an hour. Meanwhile, you might see hawks.”
Lucy nodded, shouldering the spotting scope case.
The K-way couple elected to stay there, and rest, too. Two minutes later, I left with the rest of the group. I didn’t know Ron Sully that well; he stroke me as a decent, level-headed sort. So I felt a bit confused when I last looked back.
He was explaining how to download a bird app on Marité’s phone, russet and dark heads almost touching.
Those feelings subsided as I took in the fantastic view from the other side. The wind carrying this pure, nostrils-tingling fresh air, as if no busy city sat a dozen kilometers away. Birds of prey careened in the lazy drafts, none in any hurry to plunge down.
On the way there, I got to talk to the bazooka woman, who had (God bless her!) never heard about the famous Lady Byrd, so our conversation went on about the technical prowess of taking pictures. She was carrying a belt harness that spread the weight over her hips, so the bazooka cam did not slice her shoulders.
Lucy set up the spotting scope, and the teen with the pink optics stayed close to her all the time. Their amiable conversation taught me more about the young athlete’s open heart. She clearly went on about her life without the tons of anguish weighting poor Marité.
Thinking about Marité, I sidled up to the co-founder of Sully’s tour, as I took my turn looking through her Nikon Monarch 82 mm spotting scope. One eye glued to the ocular, I chose my words carefully to express my concerns about her husband’s running accident.
Lucy crowed out loud, startling me.
“Oh, Missus Byrd, that’s rich!”
The spotting scope swayed on its legs until I steadied it.
“Ron’s my brother!” she said. “We chase birds together since we were like, five and seven!”
Something went light inside me like a chickadee flying up. The rest of the excursion went by without a hitch.
Lucy managed to convince the slouching teen her observation skills did not need thousand-dollar optics, and gave her a few pointers for her next investment.
When we walked back into the cleared mountain top, the elderly birders were contemplating the landscape. Ron was still talking to Marité, low-voiced, showing her something on his phone. At one point, she laughed, a pearly, rough-throated sound I had not heard from her before.
The group walked down the easier path. A few times, Marité helped the young man in crutches negotiate some small obstacle, with the same open candor she had when she helped me.
I did not know what decision she had taken, but her stance had changed, telling me that whatever it was, she would be happy with the outcome.
Ron did not mind the birders, his attention focused on big-boned Marité.
We came out of the forest to the levelled path near the parking. Marité, who was walking in front of me, let out a small gasp.
The parking had filled with more cars as the morning crept to midday, and the pine-sided pit toilet was busy with children waiting for their turn. A woman in a totally inappropriate coat and shoes was standing in the main path, her back to the board with the colored trails.
She had Marité’s russet hair, but shorter and peppered with white streaks. What shocked me was that she was crying.
When she heard her daughter’s voice, the woman lifted her tear-streaked face. There was a well of sadness in her reddened eyes. She must have waited there, crying, for quite a while.
Marité’s surprise switched to dismay.
“Why did you come here?” she asked.
Her mother brushed her tears off with her sleeve. She would have streaks of mascara if she had used it, but her face was bare of any make up.
“Because you hung up before I could tell you,” she said.
While this exchange took place, Lucy guided the rest of the group to the minibus. She was a remarkably stable young woman, and I wished her the best.
Ron stayed besides Marité, not touching, just leaning on his crutches at a comfortable distance. Like a friend, but my intuition told me they could progress farther.
“I am so, so sorry, Marité,” the elder woman said. “He called me from his family’s place, and asked very pointed questions. And I…”
She took another rasping breath.
“I told him you were four months along.”
There was a silence, only occupied by a little boy’s voice at the pit toilet.
“Mooom! Sophie’s taking forever!” he said, squirming.
That got a smile off Ron’s lips. Parenting did not seem to faze him.
“What did he say?” Marité asked, her voice guarded.
“He took the news in stride, not screaming not ranting. He told me he had suspected for a time.”
“And? Was he OK with it?”
Her mother sighed.
“In a sense, yes, it was OK for him, because he never told his parents about you.”
“He never told them,” Marité repeated, her voice tinny. “And I was so proud he had chosen me.”
Her lower lips was trembling. Ron took a hobbling step and squeezed her hand. Marité’s mother spoke, her voice soft and low.
“In a word, he broke up. He told me to tell you, because he had found a better prospect.”
In my head, I was certain all this week-end bird tour thing had been arranged so he could go at the meeting alone, and satisfy his family’s traditional values.
Tears flowed over Marité’s freckled cheeks. She sniffled, in her almost silent way.
“I guess, maybe I knew, in some way.”
“What a sad, sad thing,” Ron said.
Marité’s hand hovered on the pocket with the yellow bird book. Birders were not perfect human beings, far from it, but: birders were birders. There had been one tiny nut of goodwill in Kevin, because he had left her this last gift.
“Well, the only good thing he did was giving you this bird book,” I said, filling the uneasy silence.
Her mother’s gaze took me in, peering at me as if I was another threat to her daughter’s well-being. Marité took a preemptive action.
“She’s Amanda Byrd, Mom,” she said. “I met her today. She’s a really good birder!”
A phantom smile stretched the older woman’s lips.
“Oh, my late husband knew you,” she said. “He followed your blog.”
While I basked in the compliment, her attention returned to Marité.
“So, what will you do?” she asked, sotto voce.
Such an intimate question! But a new light filtered through the tears in Marité’s eyes.
“I think I will let nature take its course,” she said, smiling as she squeezed back Ron’s hand.
His answering smile told me he would, at least, stay a staunch friend, if he did not become more.
“And, speaking of nature taking its course, …”
Marité left Ron’s side to hug her mother, briefly, before she hurried to stand in line for the restroom, behind a squirming little girl in a green jumper. Ron’s gaze did not leave her, even when Lucy approached us, the car keys dangling in her hands.
“Ready to go,” the young guide said. “You’re all invited for dinner. And that goes for you too, Ma’am,” she added, inclining her head toward Marité’s mother.
See mee! a chickadee’s fluted voice called up, over our heads.
“Well, that means something,” I said.
The mother looked at me, puzzled.
“What? The bird?”
“If I’m not mistaken, that chickadee said that, in five months, you’ll be a grandmother!”
That’s when Lucy peeped in, with a mischievous smile.
“And, if I know my little brother, you might end up with a couple o’other grandchildren before long!”
Under his cap, Ron Sully blushed as red as a Northern cardinal.
This story was up for one week only, for International Women’s Day, but I let it on this blog a while longer because: Covid period need hopeful stories. If you liked it and want to support me writing, please buy the ebook and offer it to someone. Available on paper and ebook formats at Echofictions.com.
Bird Pic (c) Shuttertock / Bruce MacQueen