Birds were interesting to identify, whether by sight or by call, and watching them meant early mornings walking alone in the woods and never knowing what you might see. The Victoria’s Riflebird, a black bird with azure accents, made a guttural machine gun sound and had a dance it did to attract a mate that was like the long sweeping motion of a bolero. The Wompoo Fruit Dove, purple and white, named itself when it called, Wom-poo Wom-poo. And the Kookaburra, furry and strong-billed did as much, sitting in the old gum tree, laughing at all the other birds she loved so much.
She liked the heft of her binoculars and the exacting touch that lay behind their mastery, being able to hold focus and track at a distance. And also the pockets in her vest, big enough to hold her sightings journal and tattered Birds of Queensland guide. She took her breakfast along and ate in the crook of a tree when the sun was up and the birds grew quiet; the things she loved best washed out by the other sounds of life.
If asked, she would say that her interest in birds stemmed from a childhood obsession with nests. Beautiful things, patterned in their construction with overlaying twigs; patterned like a bird’s wings were made, as if they were clever enough to copy their Maker’s design.
There was a nest in a tree that had hung outside her window, close enough for her to make out, but too high to see inside. Each morning she would look at it. In school she would try to draw it from memory, her bedroom window looking out, while other children were all drawing their houses looking in from the street with basic geometric shapes and many fingered suns above. When she was eight she found it, that same nest, downed by a storm, like a miniature basket on her lawn, and ran to it. Two eggs were inside—perfect and white with cloudy brown wisps like Vegemite spread thin on toast—and, despite the fall, safe. It was a gift for her, the nest, and the eggs within it, and she wanted to incubate them under the desk lamp in her room. Raise them by hand. She thought she could learn their calls and when they grew older and strong she would release them, and wait for their return; to hear the new songs they would have learned from wild birds they would have met. But her mother said that the nest was dirty, and that touching the eggs would make her sick, so she hid the eggs on a shelf in her father’s workshop, making sure to wash her hands after. Probably a snake ate them there, and she cried when she discovered they were gone.
When it came time to go to University she bought a car and left home. She took on a flat with two other girls she never befriended, but stayed because they were quiet and slept late. She loved her professors and her coursework and didn’t have time to spare for other things. Her hard work earned her a fellowship and she stayed on with her studies through dissertation, all with the birds to thank.
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Portland Fiction Project
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