By Amalia Gladhart
Marta can’t stand foreigners, not after those three years she lived in Portland, but she has the best English in town and speaks German, too, nearly unaccented, along with a few words of Greek. People weren’t unkind – they barely noticed her. She talks to her former roommate every week. But she got tired of it, of them. Loud voices, waving arms; earnest, stupid certainty. So much food. And now they’re here, flocks of them, since the songbird colony was discovered. Not discovered – everyone here knew about it. Announced. In the birding news, first; later in the glossy travel guides.
Birders are quiet, thank goodness, but they want their tours first thing in the morning. Bright and early, on the dot, daypacks and water bottles and sensible shoes. Still, she has her evenings free; she’s saving money. They’ll pay whatever you ask up front; she’s not living on tips.
She’s living on explanations, and while her language skills are good (they’re excellent; it’s hard not to boast) she knows next to nothing about birds. She’s making it up when they ask how many chicks in a clutch and do they mate for life and how far is the migration and how long do they live? There’s usually someone in the group who’s swallowed the field guide and is eager to provide particulars. Marta fills in any blanks, recites what she remembers from the last round. But filling in one of those blanks got her where she is now, at the edge of a waterfall (at the edge of a cliff; she won’t think about that) with a ten-year-old and his bird-crazy mother. Because she said yes, of course, when asked if swallows ever flew through the falls, did they rest behind the lacy curtain of water. Yes, of course there’s an overlook.
Maybe it’s the effect of reeling off so many facts and figures, even if half of them are false, but she’s starting to admire these little birds. Terrified, alert, a scant wingspan from the precipice, she holds her breath, feels her face turn blue, dizzy with vicarious flight. Six or seven swallows swoop and weave, their flourishes nearly balletic. Marta likes the idea so much, aerial ballet, she uses it aloud on the guests. The others wait below, sharing out their healthy snacks and triumphantly discovered local sweets.
And then, at last, they get what they came for. Not swallows in the falls. Something better. A flash of yellow, bright as sunrise, so quick Marta thinks she missed it, dreamed it, until the bird perches on an overhanging branch to sing. It’s an aria, intricate and warbled, one she’s never heard, or maybe she never listened long enough. Feathers groomed to velvet, the yellow pure and brilliant and uninterrupted, like the song. Only the beak is black, the feet. The rush of falling water offers orchestral accompaniment.
They don’t sing near their nests, Marta whispers. The bird shifts its weight to one foot. They do that to rest, Marta says. Even asleep, they lock onto a perch.
The ten-year-old is perfectly still. His mother pulls out her notebook. Highland canary, Marta says, easy as breathing. Now it doesn’t matter what the bird is called.
– Amalia Gladhart is the author of Detours (Burnside Review Press) and translator of Trafalgar (by Angélica Gorodischer) and The Potbellied Virgin and Beyond the Islands (both by Alicia Yánez Cossío). Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in Eleven Eleven, Necessary Fiction, Literal Latté, Cloudbank, Bellingham Review, Stone Canoe, and elsewhere. She lives in Oregon and blogs at amaliagladhart.com.