Megan Butcher, "First Birds"

ORIOLE. This one’s rare. She says. Mum said, mom said. That one? I say. This one’s not that one, she says, pointing at the other one. This one looks like a robin, it’s not a robin. Too small, too bright, too dark. That one has only one stripe of colour a shoulder. Look in the ditches on the drive, look for them bobbing on the grasses. Roll down your window. Listen to their liquid throats. Honey, sun, longer days coming.

RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD. This one’s common. Rushes rush in ditches passing. I press the lock I open it, I press it, I open it. Dad says Stop that. I stop. I read, I watch for red flashes. A one-second call, they don’t waste time on song. Conk-la-REE. This one screams in alarm. If you get too close to its nest. Too close. Roll to a stop, almost there. Nose flattened on the window, the cattails bow under the weight, beak strokes shoulder, feathers unruffled. Waving in the wind.

GREAT BLUE HERON. This one we cheer. Heavy gullet. Wide wings. Low flight. Windows wide open, first spring days, and the grumbling frawnks roll through the screen. Gran brushes butter, buns glisten in the new light. Ready for the oven. Oven light a point when she opens the door. We will tear them open to slather them in an hour. Strong
coffee for the adults. Fresh orange for everyone. Poppa says It’s coming in. Siblings stumble from nowhere. Tangle of limbs. Noses press. The heron stands stilted, still, perfect, waiting to strike.

HUMMINGBIRD. This one is just there. One day the liquid changes to clear. We are killing them Poppa says. The red gives their little bodies cancer. Too few cells to combat carcinogens, they replicate ad nauseam until their tumours grow bigger than hearts and their tic tac eggs go untended. Do they die in the flowers under the feeder that Gran’s hands placed there so carefully. For only us and them to see, we think. But maybe small graves for stilled wings. Poppa stops the red, puts clear sugar-water in a red plastic flower instead. Red draws them. Death delayed for us all: our wings still beat and hearts pump miles a minute.

KILLDEER. This one’s early. Nervous trill: too-close too-close. Echo overlap, the call comes from the distance too. Creep slow Poppa says don’t chivvy it, don’t rush, stay back, don’t run. Have patience. Wait here. It wants you to think it’s broken. It’s not. Easy prey isn’t easy. Move slow, look careful, the eggs are hidden, speckles in speckles, their noses touching in a shallow dip. Shrieks of success, we’re less careful once the eggs are found.

OWL. This one scares. Always silent, always dropping in for the kill with claws out. Merciless eye glassy on the dresser. Wipe the dust from the bark. Tap talons with fingernails. Run from its wings, from the room. Peek back in. You can’t look at it for long I say. Can too they say. We scare ourselves, dare ourselves to look.

SWALLOWS. This one flies high together. Crepuscular swoops. Beating vees against the sunset. All cousins run from car to barn to swing to field. Back, forth, the sun pours across. We all fall down, catch hair catch seeds. Here’s how you make the grass sing we say. Soon stars and bats but right now the small bodies still below the small bodies above that slash the darkening sky to lashes of humid air. It settles on our limbs flattening tall grasses. Staring up, slapping bites.

KINGFISHER. This one waits. Cobalt and crest. Too close, too close. Machine gun rattle, the wrench in the works. Silence. Ring throat slash beak through the water. Crayfish legs scuttle the air, cut curlicues like the metal spun off Poppa’s lathe. Cut your feet, you’re not careful. His pride in the precision of sharp silver slivers. Claws strike cedar bark, the branch hangs low over burbled water. Regal head drawn into
shoulders. Flash quick. Silent splash.

BINOCULARS. Special case, the snap and strap are wearing, we open and close it so much. Is that a we say. Someone get the specs we say. Focus refocus. Small face to large, a comforting hand or lap. Dad holds lenses to our faces. Each in our turn. Too heavy for us. The grease smell of him mechanic. Feathers, claws, beaks, scales. Grace still and quick. Patience, don’t move, hold back. Too close too close. So far away.


As it appears in The Malahat Review's winter 2020 issue #213