Thea’s Birds

by Shannon Kernaghan

Thea hates when Rod calls her Cynthia, her real name.

“If you’re so determined to drop your past, then make it official and change it. You don’t even suit Thea. You’re more like a Verna–”

“Yeah right,” and Thea snorts the same way each time Rod teases her. Maybe I’m not quite ready, is what she thinks, never saying it aloud.

“–or a Bernadette. I’ve always loved that name.” He stretches out loved until she smiles.

“Sure you do. You’re so full of shit. You watch, one day I’ll do it. I’ll come home from Vital Stats and I’ll be a new woman,” and it’s here that Thea changes the subject, the only thing she’ll change for a while.

Rod soars along Taylor Drive and Thea lets her head loll against the headrest. With half-open eyes she feels the cooling breeze through an open window. She follows the palette of autumn leaves—the burgundy, pinot noir, merlot, shades of wine that Thea tries to ignore. She has a perverse thirst for wine, any color and any sweetness, almost any time of the day. Any number of triggers can make her thirsty. She figures it stems from the genetic predisposition handed to her on a blackened silver platter.

If she isn’t careful, she gazes back to the countless nights her father arrived home late, weaving unsteadily through the kitchen with noisy demands that his dinner be served immediately and shouts of, “Who cares what GD time it is? I’m GD hungry!” A cock-eyed compensation was that her mom might be equally plastered so never played doormat to the old man who stunk of Pall Malls and Old Spice, not spicy enough to camouflage the double Jacks and cola that leached from him. Even his unwashed hair smelled boozy.

“Then get your own GD dinner! I’m watching a movie!” was the usual response, that and the sound of her mother’s highball glass as it smacked the TV table permanently stationed at the side of her recliner.

The noise of this ceremonial yelling snaked up the staircase, slithering straight for a room where two young girls tried to avoid the drama. It was a jigger of years before Thea’s father realized that dinner was rarely served, not for him and not for his daughters who listened to him trip over scattered pots and cans of food, anything he could pull from the cupboards in his stumbling fury.

Little did Thea’s mother know that each time her children witnessed these late night tirades, a chill left their hearts flash-frozen. By adolescence, both girls were mentored in the futility of relationships; later on, the futility of life. Rage was their faithful tutor and before their lives were through, both women would experience the heartache of several failed marriages.

“You need your space? I’ll give you space,” yelled more than one soon-to-be ex. The men’s faces and bodies changed; the sound of each slamming door was identical.

Thanks for squat and diddly, GD Jack Daniels.

Thanks for Rod. Hard working, attentive, empathetic Rod.

For no apparent reason, perhaps a streak of movement that breaks the cloudless sky, Thea and Rod glance up at the same time. They watch a large bird lowering to land on a power line, its dark wings outstretched and its legs extended. “Cormorant” is the word that comes to Thea’s mind.

In a burst, the bird is gone. Electrocuted. With a quick explosion of smoke, black feathers rain to the ground as their car speeds by.

“Oh my God!” Thea shrieks. “Did you see that? Did you see that bird fry?” Although she cranes her neck over the headrest, they’ve already left the scene. “Stop!” she shouts. “Go back and find out if it’s still alive!”

“It’s not alive and I can’t, the traffic’s too heavy.” He glances in his rear view mirror. “There’s a tow truck right on my ass.” He sounds more mad than upset, his clenched knuckles white on the steering wheel.

“Did you see it explode?”

“I did. It was horrifying.”

It’s at this moment when Thea knows she loves Rod more than she can calculate, simply for using the word “horrifying.” And she knows he’s not mad at her. He’s angry at the city’s encroachment onto wildlife, lands that were verdant forests a decade earlier. Mad because there is no triumph in adding another mall to supply more hardware, electronics and dollar-store plastics.

Her previous boyfriend was less sympathetic when it came to wildlife. In their final months together, Daryl complained daily about two pigeons that tried to build a nest on their townhouse patio. Even though they dirtied his plastic storage containers, Thea attempted to defend them—extending her arms to stop him and when that didn’t work, pulling on the back of his shirt—but Daryl noisily chased them away. “Flying rats, piss off!” With patience exhausted, he secured a plastic tarp over the works and eventually the pigeons gave up on their nesting.

Winter approached and Thea realized her Sorels were stored in one of the half dozen containers. She peeled back the tarp. Wedged between two containers was the featherless body of a baby pigeon, frozen in a nest built from guano. Its dehydrated head tilted upwards, hopeful.

Thea lowered to her knees and wept hard and fast, not because the world would want for one more pigeon but because the bird had starved to death despite its parent’s attempts to reach it. That’s why the two birds returned to the balcony for several days after Daryl covered the boxes. She wept because she was certain Daryl knew what he was doing when he unfurled the blue plastic and would refuse to admit his part in the event. She wept because she knew he’d end the conversation before stomping out of the room by saying, “It’s just a stupid bird,” and interrupting her reproach with, “Why are you so mental?”

 Rod has given her The Audubon Backyard Birdwatcher and a handcrafted twig bird feeder for her recent birthday. While nothing can replace the loss of their baby, born too early and burdened with challenges, it’s a well-intentioned distraction. For several minutes a day, when she flips through the pages and studies the photos, she focuses on birds instead of the fragility and unfairness of life.

Both of them are silent on the drive home from shopping. Rod never once says, “It’s just a bird.” She loves him even more for letting her feel sad. She thinks of sprawling fields of green grass when she closes her eyes and pictures his face.

She opens her bird book moments after hurrying through the door. The grocery bags on the counter can wait. Double-crested cormorants reside in many locations throughout North America. They nest along the coast from southwest Alaska to Mexico, and on lakes from central Alberta to James Bay and Newfoundland. And there it is, central Alberta. It was a cormorant.

Nests are constructed from sticks or twigs and are located in trees or on the ground. Both adult birds incubate from two to four light blue eggs for 28 days by wrapping their feet around them, and care for their young until they become fully independent, about 10 weeks after hatching. 

She moves to their computer and does a quick search: Humans have historically exploited cormorants’ fishing skills in China and Japan, where they have been trained by fishers. Cormorants have been persecuted by humans as fish competitors and in the past, this species was almost extinct. She wants to stop reading the screen yet can’t when she comes to the part on reproductive failure and malformation caused by pesticides and other toxins from the fish they eat. Crossed bills, club feet, eye and skeletal deformities – 

“Okay, that’s enough!” she speaks aloud, although she knows she’s alone in the room. “Rod?” She abandons the humming computer to look for him. He isn’t in the house, not in the basement. She slips on her runners and walks outside to explore the yard. That’s when she sees the open door and empty garage.

“Can I choose the names?” Thea asks, admiring the pair of parakeets, one green and yellow and the other a powder blue, the same shade of eye shadow she proudly wore in grade eight. After seeing the cormorant, these look so small and delicate. Rod purchased a ridiculously large cage, large enough to house a pelican. Two pelicans.

“Of course, they’re your birds.”

“I’m going with Kate for the female and Jon for the male.”

“Please tell me you’re not naming them after Jon & Kate Plus 8.”

“I sure am.”

“They broke up years ago. They’re not even a couple.”

“Maybe they’ll get back together one day, even though she’s a bitch. I’m trying to be optimistic like you.”

Rod sighs and fills the water feeder. He smiles at nothing in particular.

“I was worried when you took off like that. You were gone for so long.”

“I wanted to surprise you with these. You always said you wanted–”

Thea interrupts: “You always said you hated to see birds in cages.”

“Not this cage. Look at the size of this sucker, biggest the pet store had.” Rod runs his hand over the top, stopping when he feels a rough edge of metal and smoothing it with his nail.

“Where will we put it?”

“What’s wrong with right here? Besides, the woman at the store said you can let them out, once they’re used to you and once they associate their cage as home. She also said they can learn to talk. These ones probably won’t, though.”

“How come?”

“Something about them bonding with each other. She offered to sell me a single bird.” He thinks about this for a few moments. “No way, that seems too lonely. Did you know that parakeets can live to be fifteen?”

After several minutes of silence, Thea finally speaks. “I’m going with Jane. It’s a good name, strong and simple.”

“Instead of Kate?” Rod asks, holding the slender cuttlebone between his fingers like a cigar. One bird starts to preen the other’s head, a sign they’re settling into their new home.

“For me, silly.” She notices that Rod’s left eyebrow sits higher than the right. Funny, she never realizes until now. She wants to reach out and touch him. Doesn’t. He is too devoted to filling the feeder, spilling more seed on the rug than in the container. She doesn’t want to interrupt this tender scene, one she has already labeled and bookmarked. One she will refer to many times over the coming years. Through the failed in vitro. Through the rehab.

“I’ve never known a Jane before.” This time Rod stops and turns to her, his expression suddenly serious.

“You do now.”

He resumes his assembly and shares another tip from the pet store on how they shouldn’t put anything with a shiny surface in the cage or the birds will see another parakeet and want to play with it instead of them.

“These birds have more toys than me.” She hands over a ring and ladder contraption, and then tosses him a bell. “They’re lucky birds.” If anyone is excited, it’s Rod. Better not get too attached, she thinks, not sure if she means to the birds or to him. That shadow passes quickly and is replaced by the hope there’s still a drop of sherry left in the bottle Rod keeps with his Asian sauces over the stove.

Shannon Kernaghan lives in Alberta, Canada, where she watches for the return of cormorants each spring. She has two published books and her stories have appeared in anthologies, journals and magazines.