Fiction Winner: Bird Life

Two sisters launch a lively search for the ivory-billed woodpecker. Not in old-growth forest, but a Millington backyard.



Brigid telephones me at work ten times a day. I am the object of rolled eyes and unsettling whispers from higher staff who are increasingly annoyed with my unwavering stream of personal phone calls, mostly from Brigid. I don't feel entitled to Italian dress shoes, arrogant automobiles, a MySpace profile, a glittery birthday card endowed with spending money from an aging relative, or a week free of work in exchange for a Caribbean cruise. I do feel entitled to talk to my only surviving immediate family member whenever she calls, so I always answer the phone.

We chat for several minutes about sinister drivers on Highway 51, why cats sometimes seem to attack themselves, and how safe it is for women to hike alone in Shelby Forest. Mid-conversation, Brigid becomes quiet. "My God. My God, I can't believe it," she whispers in a low voice, her mouth sucking the receiver.

I expect either someone is breaking into her home or she has seen an apparition. "What's wrong? Should I call 911?"

"No, it's that bird! The one from the news. It was thought to be extinct, but there've been sightings. It's here, I'm telling you, it's on my carport," she whispers, like a mad woman reporting the sight of Bigfoot in her flowerbed.

I know precisely what she's seen. It's on my computer screen. I ask Brigid if she's spotted the ivory-billed woodpecker.

"Yes, that's the one!"

I'm a terrible sleeper, so I have become addicted to Coast to Coast, a late-night radio program that examines the paranormal, conspiracy theories, alien abductions, and other such phenomena that do not help my insomnia. The topic of last night's program was cryptozoology. I listen by night and am obsessed by day. I'm perusing a cryptozoology Web site and the biggest story of the year is the possible reappearance of the ivory-billed woodpecker. I'm looking at a graphic of it and my sister is looking at the real thing.

"Does it have a large white bill? It could be the pileated woodpecker, you know, which is similar and native to this area."

"No, no, no. Theresa, it's the same woodpecker from the news. Huge white beak . . . it's ten feet away and it's looking right at me."

I tell Brigid to fetch her camera. Teams of scientists are looking for that bird on Arkansas' White River, and a wealthy Dutch bird enthusiast has offered a substantial reward for a photograph. Together, we have less than fifty dollars in savings. She says if she moves, it will too. I tell her she must try. She tries and it flies.

For the next six hours, Brigid and I call one another back and forth like clockwork. We simultaneously view cryptozoology and ornithology Web sites. We go over descriptions, pictures, and sound clips of various woodpeckers to ensure that what she saw was the real thing. Brigid stands at her panoramic living room window. Ten minutes cannot pass without her sneaking outside to whisper updates over the phone from bushes and trees like a nosy television reporter in the trenches, intent on getting the scoop at any cost. Brigid has decided she's going to find this bird if only to prove it to me, but I wholeheartedly believe my big sister.

I begin making very important phone calls. Brigid's insistence will come off as insanity and I'm one person removed.

I dial the Hudson University Center for Ornithological Research, and I'm directed to Helen Wells. Her voicemail message fails to mention her title, but I know by her affected nasal tone that she isn't a scientist. More likely she's their public relations representative. I picture a frizzy golden blonde with Sally Jessy Raphael glasses who lunches in New York cafés that serve pomegranate cocktails and pancetta paninis, and who purchased her Bichon Frise from a breeder with "Von" in his name. Helen Wells lives for luxury outlet shopping, ladies backgammon nights, and the latest chic lit that's made its way to the New York Times Best Seller List. She definitely dislikes people who call her from Tennessee to report spotting an extinct bird. I dial again and, to my surprise, she answers.

"Helen Wells."

"Hello. My name is Theresa McCracken. I'd like to report a sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker in Tennessee."

After a long silence, I hear her bored reply. "Ms. McCracken, if you consider the geographical location our team is focused on, you'll see that Tennessee is not part of that map." I imagine she pauses to digest the remnants of her pomegranate martini with a grande mocha latte chaser.

"I realize that, but my sister spotted the bird. She lives in a wooded area in Millington. It's just outside Memphis."

"Our team is hard at work tracking down the bird in the wilds of Arkansas, not in Tennessee. The bird is not going to be found in a city, I assure you. You won't witness an ivory-billed woodpecker on your picnic table at Graceland, dear." I picture her flipping through a Neiman Marcus catalogue and I have already grown to hate her.

"Let me explain, Ms. Wells." I hear her sigh into the receiver, and I choose my words with care. "The area is just across the Mississippi River from Arkansas. She lives just outside a state forest full of old-growth trees."

"Your sister or the bird?" she asks, and by her tone, I can't decipher whether she's snide or just stupid.

"My sister." I take a deep breath.

"We get dozens of phone calls every week from people down there who think they've seen the bird. Given your location, it's highly doubtful. She probably saw the pileated woodpecker. It's a similar bird, easily confused with the ivory-billed. Listen, sweetie, go to our Web site and have a look, it's hudson dot . . ."

"Listen, I've seen your Web site . . . ."

She cuts me off. "Yes, but you have not seen the bird, yourself. Have you, Ms. McCracken? You said your sister did."

I am back in the fourth grade trying to weasel my way out of a classroom crime I never committed.

"Well, no, Ms. Wells. I haven't, but I . . ."

"Ms. McCracken, why don't you call back when you have seen the bird. Or have your sister call me so I can direct her to our page that highlights the characteristics of the pileated woodpecker. I've heard someone has offered good money for photos of this bird, and I've been receiving two dozen phone calls a day from people down your way. I'm not saying your motives are dishonorable. However, when you, your sister, or the both of you give me a good photo of the bird, then we can discuss the validity of either your or your sister's experience. Thank you for your inquiry."

"It wasn't an inquiry!" I shout. She has already hung up.

My blood boils. I call Brigid. "We're going to photograph that bird. I don't care what it takes. If we never find the bird, we'll drive to New York and wait for Helen Wells outside her office."

Brigid sounds puzzled. "Who's Helen Wells?"

***

The next morning is a Saturday, my favorite kind. No need to rationalize skipping mass for another day, no worrying about work for another two. It's all pancakes and eggs and I'll-do-it-tomorrow, so I drive to Brigid's house in the woods of Millington.

Someone is always crying, shouting, barking, or howling at Brigid's house. She has three children under the age of eight and four rescued hounds. The hounds will howl in the backyard at three-thirty this afternoon when the tornado sirens sound, and the children, with sticky fingers and ants in their pants, will reciprocate howls from the sliding glass door facing the yard. I wonder how, with all the racket, they managed to keep an ivory-billed woodpecker here long enough for a glimpse. The house smells like an oddly pleasant combination of cooked cabbage and fabric softener and the kettle is whistling for attention.

"I made tea and charged the battery for my digital camera," Brigid shouts, though she's standing eight inches away from me. "He was around yesterday, so there's a good chance he'll come around again today. If he does, I'm going to catch him." She leans in and points at me with her index finger. "I'll take his picture." If I didn't know better, I'd gather she had it in for a peeping tom or a persistent door-to-door missionary.

Molly, Brigid's five-year-old daughter, saunters down the stairs fishing for a compliment. She's dressed like Minnie Pearl, in a long gingham dress and a headful of long curls spilling out from under a bejeweled straw hat still bearing its yard-sale price tag. Brigid and I exchange looks that question how such a girly child emerged from her womb. A rosary dangles from Molly's right hand, which is full of popcorn. She asks me if I like her dress and if I know how to say the rosary, and I tell her I do both. She asks me if I know who Mr. Francis of the Cissies is, and I declare that he is my favorite saint. She explains that he is the protector of animals and suggests that if we pray to Mr. Francis, he might bring the special bird back to the yard so that we can photograph him.

I tell Molly that perhaps she is right, and if the mood strikes her, she can pray to him. However, I know that I am not supposed to pray for intentions that aren't pure of heart. I started out wanting to win one for science and endangered species and habitats, and I can't say the thought of a few dollars never crossed my mind, as it naturally would if you were awfully far behind in your bills. However, my present intention is to spite Helen Wells, so I won't be asking Francis of Assisi for guidance because I respect him too much.

Brigid informs me, as she stuffs cheese and tomato sandwiches into Ziploc bags, that the boys are away with their father today. She is furiously shaking a mixture of hot tea, milk, and sugar in a large black thermos. She crams the lot into a backpack along with apple slices, juice boxes, Band-Aids, and a digital camera. Helen Wells has really gotten to her.

Brigid, Molly, and I start off for the acres of unspoiled woods behind the house. Hindered by her Grand Ole Opry dress, Molly is riding a tricycle unskillfully, and she is dangerously close to the edge of the pond that buffers their backyard from the woods. She's asking if we hear the noisy frogs who throw themselves into the pond when startled. She topples over. Brigid drops her backpack of obsessive vengeance to jump in after Molly, who stands red-faced in a foot-and-a-half of murky water. I tread in to retrieve her tricycle. Molly is slightly shaken, but not discouraged. She nonchalantly removes a leech from her lower arm and expresses her desire to continue with the expedition. She has already prayed to Mr. Francis for guidance and the team must carry on. We head back to the house to change Molly's clothes, and Brigid announces that she will wait outside in case the bird reappears.

Inside, Molly is annoyed with me for making her wear jeans and a T-shirt, which I'm told are clothes for boys, and it's evident that she takes after neither Brigid nor myself. I allow her to keep her bejeweled straw hat, and I am bewildered as to why a child who removes a leech from her flesh without a nod insists on dressing so prim. She asks me if I truly believe that her mommy saw the bird. She tells me that daddy says mommy reads too many children's storybooks and that he is going to report seeing the Loch Ness Monster. I tell Molly that I definitely believe her mommy, who is now hollering censored obscenities from her kitchen.

We hurry downstairs to find a frazzled Brigid cursing at her digital camera.

"Fudge it. Flip it. The battery didn't charge! The fugger was here, and the stupid camera wouldn't work!"

"You saw the bird again? What happened? I thought you charged the battery?"

"It didn't flippin' charge, I don't know what happened! He was close enough to get a shot. Dammit, the universe is playing games with me."

"Well, maybe you should use a traditional camera," I say. "Then you won't have to worry about batteries."

"Maybe you didn't pray to Francis," Molly mumbles with a mouth full of popcorn. I kick her lightly, but harder than intended.

"Ouch, why are you kicking me?" she yelps.

Brigid looks like a time bomb ticking. "Don't kick the child, what the fuggs is wrong with you?" She pauses as I inadvertently giggle at her self-censorship, the kind that comes from former foulmouths who now spend their days surrounded by children.

"Oh, I see. You don't believe me? First my husband, then that snob from Hudson, and now you! Listen, I know what I saw. The pileated woodpecker does not have a big white beak."

"I didn't kick her, really. I just didn't want her to upset you any more," I try to explain coolly.

"Upset me? Oh, you don't want to upset the crazy lady who encounters extinct birds!" she hollers.

"No, that's not what I mean. Do you not believe me that I believe you? Because I do," I tell her in earnest.

I put the kettle on. A nice cup of tea always calms Brigid down. She fiddles with her digital camera and Molly sings a make-it-up-as-you-go-along song about birds. I'm too far away to give her a kick. Brigid informs me that we will charge the digital camera's battery again and continue with the expedition, sans Molly. She tells me that she hopes I have nothing else to do this afternoon, and I don't know if it's an order or polite concern for my social schedule. She telephones her husband, who is playing Frisbee golf in Shelby Forest with their sons, insisting that he must return home to collect Molly because we ladies have important business to tend to. Brigid shouts over the phone that no, she is not looking for Bigfoot, and her husband had better be home for Molly in thirty minutes, and she hangs up.

***

Forty minutes later and minus Minnie Pearl, we pack a blanket, a few beers, and one absolutely, positively, fully charged digital camera. We spend the remainder of the day in the woods. Each time a bird squawks or we hear a knocking sound in the high trees, Brigid shushes me regardless of whether or not I'm making any noise. We sit on our blanket and discuss the similarities and differences between the ivory-billed and pileated woodpeckers. Both species live in Southern old-growth forests. Both are large black and white birds that bear red crests atop their feathered heads. However, a red crest is present on both sexes of the pileated species. Only male ivory-billed woodpeckers have red crests. Brigid says her ivory-billed woodpecker is most definitely a male.

"We made eye contact, you know," she says with a smile, like a teenage fan recounting having spotted Justin Timberlake in the airport.

We discuss wing spans and she does an impression of the honking noise associated with the ivory-billed woodpecker. Then I try. Brigid corrects me. I make another attempt and she gives me the thumbs up. We honk in unison. The hounds join in from the yard several hundred feet away, and swarms of anxious birds flee the trees. Brigid waves her arms and shushes me like a scout-troop leader.

We sit quietly. Occasionally we ask each other "Did you hear that?" and covertly move a few feet to investigate. Our necks are strained from looking upward into the trees. We have another beer and chat about how people who see Bigfoot, lake monsters, and the goat-devouring chupacabra must feel when nobody believes them, not even their own families. Brigid tells me how lucky she feels to have me, and how important it is that we always stick together. We talk about missing our parents, and how my father once saw an unidentified flying object when his taxi was stuck in the snow on a deserted road in Yonkers during the blizzard of '81. My mother hadn't believed in UFOs before my father saw one. After he died, she spent her nights reading books about UFO encounters. After she died, I found copies of The Communion, Fire In The Sky and The Day After Roswell stashed in her nightstand, all with handwritten notes in their mid-sections.

We're drunk, the mosquitoes are biting, and the sun is setting in a pink Tennessee sky.

***

On Monday morning, I am back in my cubicle researching cryptozoology in cyberspace. My boss calls me from her office to ask if I have sent out a group e-mail to the staff about next week's Mexican potluck. I tell her I'll do it right away. I am about to go fix myself a cup of coffee when Brigid calls.

"I got it!" she squawks. "I got a photo of him!"

"Who?" I ask sleepily.

"Who? The bloody ivory-billed wood-pecker, that's who! I have the first photograph in decades! Helen Wells can suck it." Brigid sounds like she's won the lottery, and perhaps she has.

"Wow! Is it digital? Can you e-mail it to me? Oh, I just got it. Here it is."

As I'm downloading, Brigid tells me that she and Molly were having tea this morning when they saw him in the trees behind her house. Brigid and Molly, barefoot and pajama-clad, dashed outside with the camcorder, only to discover the battery was dead. Brigid ran back inside for the digital camera while little Molly followed the bird, praying to Mr. Francis, no doubt. When Brigid returned outside, Molly pointed upward. He was a little farther away than before, but she managed a photograph. The quality isn't good, she warns, but the bird is there.

I look at the photo, and there is a bird. He's fuzzy, but he's there, perched on a limb in the center of the photograph. He's black and white and there's a bit of red on his head, and what appears to be a large white beak. I assure Brigid that the scientists can certainly digitally analyze the photo, as they do with UFO photos. My boss is glaring at me over the wall of my cubicle.

"Yes, quesadillas sound fantastic. Thank you." I hang up the phone and follow my boss to her office, where her boss is waiting, and I realize that from now on I will have boundless time to investigate all nature's mysteries. I make the mistake of smugly telling them that I don't need to organize office potlucks anymore because my sister and I have just rediscovered the ivory-billed woodpecker. I have more important things to do. So there. They give me looks mixed with scorn and pity, then tell me I have one hour to clear out my desk and review my exit paperwork with the office manager. So there.

I drive to Millington. Brigid is waiting with a hot cup of tea and she jokes that we should start our own cryptozoology investigation agency. At least I think she's joking. She has emailed the photo to Helen Wells, whose reply was, "There is no clear sign of bird life in this photograph."

I am clearly outraged. This is a momentous day for science, for humanity, for Tennessee, and most of all for birds. Who does this woman think she is?

"Did you tell her we're from Yonkers?" I ask Brigid. "It might help. You know how people up there think of people down here. She probably thinks we're rednecks."

"We spent Saturday drinking beer in the woods and making bird calls. Maybe we are rednecks," says Brigid.

"We most certainly are not. You have accomplished what teams of scientist could not. Besides, what do you think those scientists are doing in the woods of Arkansas? You think they don't drink beer at their campsites? You bet your bottom dollar they do. Let me call her."

I grab the phone and Brigid pulls the cord.

"I am already officially barred from any future contact with Hudson University Center for Ornithological Research for threatening a staff member. Don't call them, Theresa McCracken," she scolds me as my mother used to.

"But we . . . but you have a photograph! You have proof!" I cry out. Our expedition can't end like this.

"She said it could be a decoy," says Brigid.

"Like a wooden bird? You didn't build a wooden bird, did you? No, I'm sorry. I know you didn't. But you did used to have a knack for woodwork. You built that curio cabinet for Mommy . . ."

"Theresa!" she shouts. "It's done. We have our photograph. Nobody believes us."

"We can inform the local wildlife authorities!" I shout.

"Already did. It's not in their jurisdiction. They told me to talk to the people at Hudson," Brigid explains calmly. She doesn't seem defeated.

***

That evening, we take a ride to Target and purchase a frame and quality photo print paper. We hang the framed photograph of the ivory-billed woodpecker over Brigid's dining room table. A caption under the photo reads, "There is no clear sign of bird life." -- Helen Wells, Hudson University Center for Ornithological Research.

We sit at the table and look up at him, our necks still sore.

"We won't soon forget this," Brigid says. "After we're gone and Helen Wells is gone, and digital technology improves and no one ever sees that bird again, we're going to go down in scientific history as being the last people to ever photograph the ivory-billed woodpecker."

"I hope he makes it. But if he doesn't, at least we'll be remembered for something. I don't have a job."

"We'll figure something out," Brigid assures me.

"You know I believe you. I see bird life in your photograph," I tell my sister.

We hold the backs of our aching necks and stare at the woodpecker. Next to it hangs a photograph of our parents. My mother's long gingham dress falls beneath her black winter coat. My mother and father are holding hands in front of my father's big yellow taxi on a snowy street in Yonkers.

They look happy.

"Of course," Brigid says, smiling. "I know." 

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