Every Bird a Rival by Jacqui Reiko Teruya
Jacqui Reiko Teruya’s “Every Bird a Rival” is the second-place winner of the 2019 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize, judged by Elizabeth McCracken.
“Birding is about seeing what is in front of you, not wishing for something to appear,” says a character in “Every Bird a Rival.” The narrator, who works as a bird guide in Massachusetts, takes a group out, including one stubborn, know-it-all older man in a green windbreaker. Time weaves back and forth between love and lack of it, John James Audubon and his wife, Lucy, with delicacy and beauty and extraordinary images: a man holding a drowning fish, a dead bird egg held in the coastal dark between beloveds, “fat and twittering” purple sandpipers. This is a sad story but edged with humor, as vivid and exact and strange as an Audubon illustration, every feather of it.
The heron stands on wet sand and picks at a still-live crab. It drags it through the surf, shakes it under water. It tosses the shell into the air and catches it in the middle of its waxy jaws. The crab scuttles along the yellow line of the beak. A claw slips out the side of the bill; the bird tilts back its head and swallows the crab whole. It shakes its head, neck loose like rope, and continues to pick at the sand. With each step forward, each bending of its knobby knee, the bird bobs its head as if it is attached by lengths of string. There is no sign that it has seen us. The group stands silent, eyes wide. No one seems to breathe. This is phase two—voyeurism, as Richard would say. The time when we get a taste for seeing and knowing what the other still does not. The bird lifts a wing and draws it across the lapping water. The blue plume at the crown of its head climbs like antennae. Someone in the tour group rustles a nylon windbreaker. The bird stops. It turns its head slow like the hand of a clock, its beak catching on a string of sea grass. The crowd lifts their cameras shifting into phase three—acknowledgement, one of Richard’s favorites. The group ducks and bends. The bird cocks its head, its eyes darting from one lens to the next. I am used to waiting out the birds, letting the staring contest last. When eye contact breaks, when the bird lights or a sound startles the tour, I tell them what it is they are looking at—just as Richard has taught me.
“A blue in salt!” a man shouts, and the bird lifts off, skimming a wave with one claw. “I’ve never seen that. Have you ever seen that?” he asks, but keeps his back to me. “They’re usually back in the marsh.” He says it like he is the guide. I look at the points of his shoulder blades through his green windbreaker and am sure that first rustle must have come from him.
At the information center, before I heard him speak, the man reminded me of my grandfather. The soft curve to his shoulders, the same toasted color of his face. But then he refused to pay the seven dollars for a tour and asked to walk the land for free. He insisted that he did not need a guide, said he’d been birding since before I was born.
“So why was he out here?” The man turns to face me. I wonder if it bothers him that I may have the answer.
“She,” I say, even though from this distance I can’t be sure. I stand up tall and look at the group over the man’s shoulder. “Birds will follow the estuaries and sometimes end up here on the shore for mollusks and various saltwater invertebrates.”
The group, a dotting of faces, looks to the man to see if he agrees. Some nod, their binoculars banging against their chests. I clear my throat and point two fingers with authority—the way Richard would. The man in the green windbreaker turns to walk ahead of us. I suggest moving up the shoreline while the tide is still low. The group shuffles forward. My phone rings, it is Richard back at the information center. I send it to voicemail. The group meanders up the beach in clusters of two and three, their footprints fading in the packed, wet sand.
I spot Missy hunched in the dunes, a notebook balancing on the table of her knees. It has been two weeks of this: her occupying the beaches, joining tours, lunching with Richard to learn about birds. She says it’s research for her new book, a love story about John James Audubon and a young Lucy Bakewell. She says she needs to get the sense of the atmosphere, needs to watch birds as John James once had. I have asked Richard how long she will be here, why she doesn’t travel down to Kentucky to see Audubon’s wild frontier. He provides me with few answers; he has told me to play nice.
The wind catches the brim of Missy’s hat, and she claps it back with an open palm. I wave and turn to the cluster of the group. Their heads crane all the way back, their eyes fix on the sky as they settle into phase one—the hunter.
Joppa Flats sits where the Merrimack meets the mouth of the ocean along the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border. Freshwater spilling into salt means the merging of species. Estuaries snake in rivulets through cranberry bogs and across slate-gray rocks to dump into the sea. Richard has spent his life tracking migratory patterns, studying winter passerines all along the New England coast before taking his position as the head of ornithology at the reserve. He hired me in a fit of restructuring. Fresh blood, diversity, new faces. He hoped to change the face of birding. He needed someone young, a people-pleaser, someone who could handle softball questions from amateur birders. He believed I was just that. He said I was everything he was looking for.
Most people come to Joppa Flats to see bald eagles. Convinced that along the shores, in the cold cut of the wind, they’ll catch one mid-flight, its wingspan casting dark shadows along the waves. Or spot one climbing up, up, up into the sky, a fish gripped in the bright yellow talons. People rush, they huddle, lift binoculars to wide eyes and frantically search, scanning the sky and never anything beneath or beyond it. The best place to see an eagle is in the trees, high in their nests. That was the first thing Richard taught me.
On a cold day, with ice still tucked around wet, salty rocks, he pointed to an emerald thicket of trees. There had been two that day, hunched deep in a nest of sticks and seagrass, the white flutter of their crowns barely visible through the fog. It was rare, he told me, to see them this time of year. But everything was changing, he said. The climate making new mysteries for us to solve. He said all of this in a whisper that tickled the lobe of my ear. A shiver—not from the cold—ran the length of me.
“Scan the trees, the ground. Birding is about seeing what is front of you, not wishing for something to appear.”
“Then why is phase one the hunt?” I asked. I kept the soft plastic of the binoculars pressed to the skin under my eyes.
“Because that is what gets you hooked. The hunt is about our hunger. Phase two: our desire for secrets. Phase three we are seen.”
“And phase four?” My knees sunk further into the sand; salt settled in a film against my face.
“Four is up to the bird. It’s about trust. They’ll come to you or they’ll fly away. Phase four is why we look at all.” He went on to explain about getting acquainted with Nature, how Audubon had described birding as exactly that: a privilege, an art. When the bird saw you and chose you there could be no bigger thrill.
The afternoon dimmed and we shivered in the icy sand. Richard sat back on his hands. My ears felt the wind off the water. He asked me about my family, if they missed me all the way up north. I told about my grandfather, my only living relative. How he couldn’t miss me if he tried. How he sat vacant in a home waiting for someone or something he could no longer place. I did not mention the dreams of him cutting Japanese lawn grass with a pair of silver scissors or eating blueberry pie with long wooden hashi, laughing over the hollowed belly of a crab and saying my name again and again because in my dreams he still remembers.
Richard was silent and I kept my focus on the eagles. Through the foggy binocular lens, the birds grazed their beaks along one another’s. I imagined a soft clacking of bone, a gentle tapping. Together we waited. The birds never turned or flew, they stayed hunched low in the deep warmth of their nest.
I count all eleven heads as we near the tall grasses that line the edge of the reserve. The tide is still out, water froths in pockets along the stretch of rocks. The man in the green windbreaker stands on the dry sand of the dunes away from our party. His jacket is the color of forest moss and his scalp is speckled with sunspots beneath his thinning gray hair. There is a softness to him, a fragility that brings an ache to my side. He peers into the dunes, then out at the water.
“Here is the marsh line,” I say. I lift a hand above my head and try to catch the faces of the group. The rims of hats turn toward me. “Freshwater runs through here and mixes with saltwater. The marsh provides cover for smaller species to protect them from larger birds of prey. So, take a few minutes looking near the grass here, or scan back there into those trees. See what you find.”
The group steps closer to the grass. A woman with a blue shock running through her white hair rests a hand on the head of her granddaughter. The girl shields her eyes with both palms and looks up into the sky. A couple, the strings of khaki birding hats hanging loose below their chins, look down into a pocket-sized book. Three women, their hair pulled off their faces, stand arm-in-arm and teeter in the dunes as their husbands take pictures. A wind kicks sand up at my shins. I look down to see a covey of purple sandpipers scuttle up the beach. Their round bodies are still swollen with winter down. Their legs move quickly, comically, along the sand. They settle to the right of the tour and peck at broken shells. I wait for the group to spot them, but their faces are stuck looking up at the clouds.
My phone buzzes; Richard again. I picture him, his head bowed like the heron’s, his knees jammed under his too-short desk as he taps his fingers on a stack of papers. I have seen him do this with his wife, tapping and clicking his tongue, willing her to answer. When she doesn’t, he lets air out of his mouth in a huff. He cannot concentrate on the papers; he cannot continue to catalog the birds. “Where is she?” he will say. Or, “This is ridiculous.” It is frustration, not worry. His face will grow red, he will pace, his legs making quick work of the room. He will sit and call again and tap at the pages. A part of me wants to know what he wants, why he is calling again and again. I let the call go to voicemail and picture this dance all for me.
Missy makes her way up the beach. She hugs her notebook and water bottle to her chest. Her pants bunched up under her knees reveal calves red and swollen from the cold. She wobbles, unsteady—ungraceful—in the sand and I hope that Richard has seen her this way. As she nears, I hold a finger to my lip and point down at the cluster of birds. She comes to stand beside me and takes hold of the crook of my arm. The sandpipers click their beaks against small black shells.
“Purple sandpipers,” I say, keeping my voice low and my eyes on the group.
“Yes. I love them. I saw some with Rich the other day, a mass of them. Much more than this.” She sounds out of breath. She sets her water bottle down and smooths the pages of her notebook. “He told me that they will molt soon. Their winter… oh what’s it?”
“That’s it,” she says. “It’s a good thing I take notes, Rich says I can’t remember a thing he tells me.” She laughs and lifts her hat. Her fingers move through her hair unwinding the long blonde braid. Silver streaks blink with sun hinting at her age—closer to Richard’s than my own. “When Audubon first categorized these he was on the coast of North Carolina, I believe. Before France and England, of course. You know he left Lucy in the states for the better part of their marriage?” I nod as she goes on about John James and Lucy, how he went off in pursuit of himself and she raised their two sons on a tutor’s salary. I wonder how Missy will make this a love story, but I do not ask. I look back to the group wandering the hard line of the marsh as she goes on telling me facts I already know.
Richard had taught me about waiting. There had been months of it. Months of late-night cataloging, finding nests, measuring eggs, managing data. Months guiding and putting his lips to my ear and his hand on the small of my back. Each time brought gooseflesh and shivers, a yearning, an ache that made no sense when I looked at the thin line of his shoulder or the deep creases splaying at the corner of his mouth. But he knew more than anyone I had ever met and still hungered for more. When his eyes, green like lichen, lit with an idea, when he spotted the red breast of a cardinal, there was a sense of wanting to be the thing, that object, that had so simply sparked his wonder.
In his dark office, after hours of cataloging cedar waxwings and black-capped chickadees, I raised his green tumbler to my lips. I leaned across his desk and pointed at the archaic eye of an Audubon print. A wisp of my hair, magpie-black, dangled above his nose. I turned my head slowly, the scotch pooling on my tongue, and looked him in the eye for maybe the first time before he stood and put his hands on me.
I asked about his wife as he kissed the ridge of my pelvic bone, the papers on his desk sticking to my sweating palms. He buried his face in my flesh and we said nothing more about her. Pressed against the chill of the cement floor, running my fingers through his gray hair I counted every freckle. I examined the cut of muscle along the inside of his arm. He was fit and lean for his age, his skin taut and bleached a shocking white from a too-long winter.
“Stop cataloging me,” he said with one eye open. He tapped his chest with two fingers. I placed my ear against him and listened to his pumping heart. I wondered if he was thinking of phase four, if this was the same thrill as a bird lighting atop the crook of his elbow.
The sandpipers warble and spit sand. Their scaly feet crunch with each small step. One runs further up the beach and the others follow. The woman with blue in her hair turns in time to see the stragglers. She points with a knobby finger.
“Look at the snipes,” she says. She pulls on her granddaughter’s arm and the rest of the group turn down to the sand.
“Look at the baby,” the girl says. She points at the smallest bird as it puffs up its feathers.
“They are snipes, aren’t they?” the woman asks. Her gaze doesn’t leave the cluster of birds. I have a long answer in my head, an explanation for the difference between sandpipers and the general catchall of snipes. I think of Richard telling me that there is such a thing as too much information. That things like family and genus only matter to people like us. I like when we are an “us” on his lips.
“Yes,” I say. “Snipes of a sort.” I run my tongue along my back molar; I chew it like gum. The wives pull on their husbands and draw them closer to the birds. The couple, their booklet tucked out of sight, bend to examine the needle-like beaks picking at the dune grass. The group smiles, they coo.
The man in the green windbreaker moves up the beach. A sliver of sun cuts through the clouds and lights the birds against the sand. As the man nears, I see him squinting. He cups his hands around his knees, lowers his face. The small cluster seems unbothered by the attention.
“They are sandpipers actually,” he says, standing upright. “Different from snipes. Purple sandpipers, I believe.” The group looks up from the small tufts, fat and twittering in the sand. Their gaze lands on his face. “Snipe is a general term, but these are purple sandpipers, you can tell by these black feathers here.” The man splays his knees wide and squats down toward the birds with one arm outstretched. They flap, rustle, then dart between legs. They scatter across the wet sand.
“Sir, you cannot touch the wildlife,” I say.
“I wasn’t going to touch them.” The man stands and rolls his eyes.
“Well, please don’t scare them then.”
“You didn’t even know what they were,” the woman with the blue hair says. She cleans the lens of her binoculars against the hem of her shirt. “You said they were snipes.” A laugh bursts from the back of her throat.
“I said ‘of a sort.’”
“Right,” the man says. “This is why I wouldn’t pay for this.” The group watches the man head back up the beach.
I clear my throat and explain the difference between snipes and sandpipers. I use the Latin. I stand up tall. Missy darts her head from me to the group and tucks loose pieces of hair behind each ear. She seems the type who would tell Richard in the cool glow of his office fluorescents. As Richard pours her a thumb of scotch in his green-glass tumblers, the room filling with the smell of smoke and sugar, she would put her feet up and tell the tale of the man in the windbreaker. She might make him laugh at sandpipers and at me, impress him with her love for John James Audubon and Lucy Bakewell.
On my one-year anniversary at Joppa Flats, the team brought a tiny crown for me to wear and a cake with thick white icing. In the breakroom they cut slabs of it, the paper plates bowing under its weight. They congratulated me for a job well done and poured sparkling cider into plastic cups. Richard, tucked in his office, only a slice of him visible through the door, had been on a call for over an hour. When he surfaced, he breezed through and took a finger of frosting on his way out the door. Something had been found, he told us, he had to go see it for himself.
That night in waders, with headlamps, Richard and I shuffled through tall grass, the marsh still half frozen in the spring thaw. Richard was electric with his secret. He lunged forward, each stride making up two or three of my steps. He muttered to himself, reciting coordinates, distances from different trees.
“Wait until you see,” he said. His pack thumped against the ridge of his lower back. I hung back listening to the quiet of the field, the gentle splitting of ice under our boots. Richard stopped at the edge of the marsh. Split, rotted logs made dents in the dead grass. “Here, here! Shine it here.”
I bent down, my lamp cutting across the ground, and there at the center of a large round of sticks and hay sat three smooth eggs. Yellowed like dying teeth, they shone in the lamplight against the chipping bark of twigs. The nest was a half circle big enough to crawl inside, the far side smashed and buried with mud. I looked up at the branches that hovered above.
“It fell,” I said.
“Good girl. It must’ve been here all season, under leaves and snow.”
“They’re dead.” I reached in and raised an egg with one hand.
“Never hatched! But right under our noses, all this time,” Richard said.
I cupped the egg in two hands. Richard reached over me and picked up one of his own. He rolled it in his palm like a stone. He reached into his bag and pulled out a flask and handed it to me. “Happy one year, kid,” he said, looking at the egg and not at me.
“You missed my party.”
“Don’t be like that.” His eyes hidden in the dark. “Look at what we found. How many people can say that?” He took the flask from my hand, tipped it at his lip.
That was when he told me about Lucy Bakewell, how she had loved Audubon madly, how she had believed in his passion, in his art. He had left her behind and still she hadn’t cared. She had written him letter after letter, year after year while he hunted and pinned and painted his birds. He had been all over the world and still came back to die happy and by her side.
Richard sipped the flask. Still cupping the egg, he scratched at his lower lip with a free thumb. He shut off his headlamp then looked me in the eye.
“‘If I were jealous, I would have a bitter time of it, for every bird is my rival.’” He laughed and settled into the grass beside me. “That was what she said!” He kept his face tilted toward the winks of stars. “She’s the reason we have that catalog. Birds of America, all of it. Lucy knew how to love him, in the truest sense of the word—how to let him be.”
When Richard shut my headlamp off, the dark came down like a curtain, the way they say blindness can come all at once. The lapping water pulsed around me, a frog burbled and clicked. Our breaths sprouted in hot white plumes. He rubbed my cheek with the stubble of his chin, pulled me into his chest. The fabric of his coat smelled of stale smoke and apples. His fingers snaked between my own and together we cupped the dead egg with our dirty palms as if our heat could make it stir.
On the beach the group walks ahead, not stopping to scan the sky or notice the loons that float above the waves. Missy walks beside me batting her knee with her notebook, keeping time. My phone buzzes, again I picture the dance. There is a thrill from his calls, from his urgency.
The morning fog is burning off, the water lighting into a murky green. The sun warms our cheeks. I twist my fingers, pick the small pieces of skin from around my nail.
“That man was an asshole,” Missy says looking out at the water.
“It must be frustrating.” She tucks her notebook under her arm and twists the cap off of her water bottle. “Being young, stuck up here with old fogies like Rich and me.”
“It’s not so bad.” I think of the crowded trains of home rattling and screeching on rails. Of my grandfather staring as if he is made of wax. The sirens and the car alarms, the loneliness that comes with being surrounded by people but never seen. “Richard’s taught me a lot—I mean I’ve learned a lot here.” My eyes stay fixed on the rising tide, the surf laying out white like a sheet.
“He speaks very highly of you.” Missy claps her water bottle and her notebook together with each step.
“He speaks highly of a lot of people,” I say. Missy laughs and makes a popping sound with her lips. I pick up a scallop shell, three-quarters whole, and run my finger along the edge.
“He’s fascinating. Knows more about birds than anyone I’ve ever seen. His wife must be crazy to leave him like that after so many years.” Missy scans my face for something, maybe recognition. I turn and face the sea. “I mean, none of my business.”
I think of his wife, tall like Richard, crane-like, lean and somber. She had married Richard out of college, miscarried their twin daughters, and plants fat bulbs of paperwhites at their graveside each spring. These are the things Richard has shared. At the Christmas party, smiling over a trembling glass of white wine, her eyes never seemed to leave Richard as he flitted around the room greeting donors. From a darkened corner, avoiding her as best I could, I wondered if she had heard him quote Lucy Bakewell too.
“Well, I don’t mean to pry,” Missy says. “Just a shame is all. He seems broken up about it.” She wipes sweat from the back of her neck with the collar of her shirt. “He’s taking me out to look for eagles tonight. He said dusk is the best time to spot them.” I know that it is dawn, before the sun has barely lit the sky, but I say nothing. I suddenly understand the urgency of Richard’s calls. The need to make sure I keep quiet just as I always have. I think of his wife, too loving—too soft—to leave anyone behind, and like the eagle hunt Richard’s lies unravel. Missy must be a challenge, the kind of woman who could not sleep with a married man. I think of Richard and Missy in the sand, their coats now the only barrier between them. His hand hovering over her back, his breath against her face, whispers flickering across her ear.
The group huddles up ahead, looking to the water and back at us as we near. The wives stand with their hands over their mouths, the husbands stare. The girl and her blue-haired grandmother toe the edge of the surf. The man in the green windbreaker is wading out into the water. A wave hits him just above the knee.
“Sir! Sir!” I yell. I cup my hands around my mouth and call to him again.
“What is he doing?” Missy sets down her things and puts her hands flat across her brow. “He’s crazy.”
As the man moves further into the surf, his steps become unsteady. He teeters, a wave hits him, he falls. The group lets out a gasp. The man rights himself and keeps going, his hands submerged. I take the red whistle out of my pocket and blow on it twice. The man turns. I wave my arms over my head.
“Swim in!” I say. “Now!”
The man lifts his hands from the water and I see a large silver fish, it’s scales golden in certain lights. He submerges the fish, moves back and forth as if he is flicking a tail. He opens his mouth, but his voice is lost on the wind. Another wave knocks against him. The water rises to his stomach, then his chest. The chill alone could kill him. I run up to the edge of the water and call for him to come back in. I move my calves into the icy surf.
“He’s dying,” the man yells. A wave slaps his cheek. My boots stick in the mud as I move closer. The cold cuts across my stomach, my hands ache.
“Swim to me,” I tell him.
“He’ll sink to the bottom,” he says. “He’ll drown.”
“He’s a fish.” I reach the man and grab him by both arms. The fish’s tail jerks at the surface of the water.
“He’s hurt, you idiot.” The man stands up, now finding his balance in the shallows. He lets go of the fish and it floats on its side. The gills flap rapidly looking for water. Its glassy eye stares at nothing. The man makes Ls with his thumbs and pointer fingers and cradles the fish. He moves it back and forth just below the surface. Missy runs in up to her knees and drapes her coat over the man’s shoulders. He is shivering; water shakes off the points of his jowls. His teeth click together. His eyes, milky and fixed on the fish, are wet.
“You need to come in. You need to come in,” Missy says, rubbing the man’s back in small circles. She looks at me, her facing willing me to do something, to convince him to go to shore.
I put my hands out mirroring his own. I think of my grandfather pushing my hands into soil, showing me how to help things grow. I let my hands float; I wait. The man places the fish in between my fingers. Missy wraps an arm around him and wades into shallow water. I move the fish back and forth. Its gills open wide then collapse, open wide again showing its pink meaty siding. Its scales seem to change color with each movement. I close my eyes and picture an eagle diving from up high, its yellow feet bouncing like rubber, its talons sinking into flesh. I think of the force of it, feel the wind on my face. I think of Richard, the light in his eyes when I tell him I fed an eagle from my bare open palm. That I waited, that the bird chose me. I wonder what it will look like greening the skin of his face. I look back at the shore. I see the group spread across the sand, the man small and huddled in Missy’s arms. I tighten my grip around the fish, I feel its little bones rattling between my fingers. It twists, thrashes, then disappears into the growing tide.
JACQUI REIKO TERUYA is an MFA candidate at Boise State University where she teaches and is the Associate Editor for The Idaho Review. Her work has appeared in The Masters Review, where she won the 2018 Summer Flash Fiction Contest, and is forthcoming in Passages North. She lives in Boise, Idaho where she is currently at work on a novel.