Excerpt from Survival Skills – “Migration”
Eating her toast at the breakfast bar, Erica watched the geese browse. She pictured their broad, rubbery feet breaking through the thin layers of ice as they roved the marsh—the nights were already cold. Where would they go, she wondered, when the snow came? She had read that many Canada geese were no longer bothering to migrate, particularly those in populated areas. The margins between people and wildlife were beginning to blur, and there was something unnerving about the intersection: pigeons living on dropped French fries; raptors nesting on sooty skyscrapers; geese, sated and lazy, staggering through city parks. How many generations would pass before their wings grew stunted and useless? Fly, she thought, staring at the flock. Fly before it’s too late.
After breakfast Erica cleaned up, then put on a jacket and went outside. The cold air took her breath away. There were patches of ice on the front steps and hardened puddles on the road. The pine trees stood sharply against the adamant blue sky. There was a figure in the distance; from the girth and the wide-brimmed hat, Erica recognized Maria Blattner, who said very little to anyone and devoted most of her time to watching birds.
The geese, honking, retreated as she approached. Some resumed their feeding but kept a nervous eye on her; a few groomed themselves in a show of indifference, running their beaks down their buff-colored breasts. Erica stood at the edge of the marsh, arms folded, and watched them carry on. One especially large bird kept menacing the rest, lowering his head and running forward, claiming whatever turf he pleased. The others moved off, made room around him, seeming to accept his behavior in the same way that people sharing a holiday dinner might tolerate a cantankerous grandfather.
Excerpt from Survival Skills – “Paradise”
Anyone who’s ever owned a parrot will know why I cherish my newfound peace and quiet. Parrots scream at dawn and dusk (ancestral behavior they can’t help) and at intervals throughout the day (just for the hell of it). I can’t tell you how many dreams I’ve been yanked out of, how much coffee or wine I’ve spilled on the carpet, all because of Max. And what really irked me was Kelly’s insistence that we never, never startle him. Undue stress, she claimed, killed more pet birds than any other factor, and so we had to give a certain soft whistle—one high note, one low―every time we approached his room lest our sudden appearance disturb his reverie.
No captive bird has it better than Max. Back in Shelburne, in the farmhouse he shares with Kelly, Max has his own room, with jungle scenes painted on the walls and two large windows that give him a view of the dogwoods and the pond and the distant green mountains. He has a variety of free-standing perches to suit his rapidly shifting moods and a wire-mesh enclosure that takes up nearly a third of the room. Inside this cage are his stylish water and food bowls, several large branches from local trees, and usually four or five toys Kelly finds at yard sales. These he bites or claws beyond recognition; if he is given something he can’t destroy, he shoves it into a corner. Of course, she must be careful about lead paints and glues. Captive birds are never far from peril. I learned that the first week I was there, when I heated up a pan to make an omelet and Kelly yanked it off the stove and doused it with water. Didn’t I know, she scolded, that the fumes from an overly hot Teflon pan could kill a parrot in minutes?
It was exhausting living with that bird, meeting his needs, second-guessing his wants. Kelly said I didn’t have the right attitude toward Max, which may have been true. I never did tell her what I really thought: that birds make lousy pets. Dogs and cats are pets. Everything else belongs in the sky or the water or the desert it came from. So right away I felt a little sorry for Max, even when I learned he was captive bred and able to fly, even when I told myself he was probably healthier and possibly happier living in his painted jungle, for what would he face in Guatemala but poachers and pythons and shrinking habitat? Even acknowledging their success―fourteen years of cohabitation―I couldn’t help seeing Max as a bird beguiled.
Maybe he sensed my pity and resented it. Or maybe he didn’t like the texture of my hair or the way I smelled. Maybe my voice vexed him. Maybe I reminded him of someone else. Whatever his reason, Max didn’t like me, no matter how hard I tried to please him. You’re probably thinking he was jealous, that he wanted Kelly all to himself; I thought that, too, at first. Then I noticed how he welcomed the arrival of our friends and how charmed he was by Suzanne, Kelly’s former live-in girlfriend. I tried not to take it personally, but that bird was so shrewd he had me worried.
Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Napa, California. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. Nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize, she has also published a novel, Lost Sister. Her debut collection of short stories, Survival Skills, was published in April 2013 by Ashland Creek Press and was short-listed for a Lambda Literary Award.