Jen Marquardt

Poisonous Birds

Anna used to run far­ther than this. Once, she ran most of the Chicago Marathon, pass­ing out from dehy­dra­tion at mile twen­ty-four. A car­di­ol­o­gist, see­ing her eyes roll back, stepped out of the crowd and caught her mid-fall. “I saved your nose,” he said when she woke up. But that was years and years ago in a flat and windy place.

New Guinea is hilli­er and, of course, green­er.  There are hard­ly any peo­ple on this part of the island. Certainly no one to save Anna’s nose for her. Jack is back in Washington, try­ing to get more fund­ing, and Joy and Malich are in the old lab on the main­land. So Anna lives in the Bougainville lab by her­self, runs by her­self, and tries not to think of the myth­ic ancient Japanese sol­diers who missed the retreat and still lurk in the rain­for­est. More fright­en­ing than this is the trib­al fight­ing, which is real. She screams when a dog rush­es out of the brush. It doesn’t seem like it will bite, but the bark is enough. The dog is an ugly ani­mal, some kind of box­er mix, mot­tled black and brown.

Stop,” Anna says to the dog. She stops run­ning and tries to make her­self look larg­er than she is. “Stop. Go home.” This is when two boys appear up the road, wear­ing bright polo shirts that are too big. They call the dog and it runs to them.

Is this your dog?” she asks them. They nod. They are orphan boys. She has been warned against giv­ing them hand outs: the gov­ern­ment has been try­ing to insti­tute a work pro­gram for them, but it isn’t going well. No one checks on any­thing all the way out here. “I’d like you to keep a hold on him, please,” she says to the boys. “I’m afraid of dogs.” She isn’t afraid of dogs, she has a dog at home, but this seems to add some neces­si­ty to her request. The boys nod, and the old­er one—he can­not be more than twelve—curls his fin­gers around a col­lar that Anna is only now notic­ing. The younger one stands next to his broth­er, look­ing silent. He places his palm on the dog’s side. He looks like a small adult: seri­ous and unflinch­ing.

Anna turns around and begins jog­ging again. When she is about a hun­dred yards away, she hears one of the boys yell Go! and they both begin cheer­ing. She hears paws scratch­ing over grav­el. The boys laugh and the dog is very close now. Anna pan­ics. She turns and plants her toe in the mus­cles of its chest and hears it yelp. “Fuckers,” she calls to the boys. “You’re fuck­ers.” She is angry, and the last two miles go fast.

When she reach­es the lab, there are new birds in the net. Wallace, a yel­low mutt, lies below the net. He wags when she approach­es, but doesn’t get up. Anna doesn’t both­er with the gloves. She untan­gles a bower­bird, a few bright para­keets, a bird of par­adise. “Hello, Lovely,” she says, toss­ing it upwards and it bursts into flight. Birds of par­adise are what brought her to New Guinea, the thing that made her become an ornithol­o­gist in the first place. She was intrigued by their design, the anten­nae-like feath­ers and their odd pat­tern of flight: up down up down. But it was Jack who was in love with birds since he was nine. He was embar­rassed to admit that it was the flash of their col­or, the loud clack­ing sounds they made. “There’s a pret­ty rock,” Anna had teased him once. “Should we go study that?”

As opposed to the struc­ture of the rock?” he poked her in the ribs. “It’s a rock, Anna. It’s real­ly old sand.” It was his pro­pos­al that got them here, study­ing birds of par­adise and their mat­ing rit­u­als, the clack­ing dance they did.

Also in the net are two pitohuis—both of them males, one with a tag on its leg—and Anna holds them care­ful­ly, one in each hand, their heads pok­ing out of her fists. One pecks at her thumb.

She pins one bird care­ful­ly against the counter with her elbow while she removes the tag from oth­er, its beak open as if to feed. Then she puts them both in the cage with the rest. The cage smells sour.

Before she for­gets, Anna inputs the tag num­bers into a data­base that her lab shares with the one on the main­land. It is eas­i­er than e-mail­ing one anoth­er every­day. And she got rid of the phone almost a year ago. It quit work­ing one day and she liked com­mu­ni­cat­ing via e-mail; it gave her time to phrase things just right. If any­thing is seri­ous­ly wrong, she can always radio some­one in town.

And now her hands are tin­gling. Anna moves quick­ly, care­ful not to touch any­thing else until she wash­es her hands and dis­in­fects all the scratch­es. She wipes down the desk and key­board with a bleached rag. Hooded Pitohuis are poi­so­nous birds. She and Jack dis­cov­ered this by acci­dent a lit­tle over a year ago while they were col­lect­ing birds of par­adise. They were grad­u­ate stu­dents then, in New Guinea just long enough to become thin with strange tans, still in love with ornithol­o­gy and with each oth­er.

Anna had been stand­ing at the bath­room sink when Jack came in. She was let­ting the braids out of her hair; it was how she wore her hair in the day­time, some­times streaked with lemon juice, so that she could appear at din­ner with blonde waves. There were plans to go into town that night. It was the end of the Mt. Hagen show, the fes­ti­val that gath­ered all the islands’ tribes togeth­er, and Anna had been want­i­ng to see the leg­ends act­ed out, to eat strange food and dance in the streets.

God, my mouth burns,” Jack said, appear­ing in the door­way and reach­ing for the Listerine. Anna stood in place, undo­ing the oth­er braid, let­ting Jack move around her. It was the way she’d learned to be with him and all his ener­gy. He some­times seemed to be every­where at once. He spit, rinsed his mouth with water and spit again. He looked fran­tic. “I was just col­lect­ing birds and all of a sud­den my mouth was burn­ing. My hands are numb, too.” Jack held his palms up to her, as if she might do some­thing. Anna squeezed the knuck­le of his lit­tle fin­ger hard enough that her own fin­ger­tips turned white. “Nothing,” Jack said.

She made him chew bread to soak up what­ev­er was on the sur­face of his tongue and a half hour lat­er he was fine again. “What do you think it was?” she said.

I don’t know,” Jack said.

Do you think it’s a bird?” She knew she shouldn’t be excit­ed.

That would be awe­some,” said Jack.

It was the Hooded Pitohui, a small dark bird with a bit of orange that looked a lot like the ori­oles Anna had seen all her life in Pennsylvania. In com­par­i­son to the birds of par­adise, to most rain­for­est birds real­ly, they looked drab and smelled awful. The natives called them “garbage birds” because of the stench and because they weren’t good to eat. Anna took some skin and feath­er sam­ples and sent them to be test­ed. And sure enough: batra­chotox­in, the same neu­ro­tox­in found in poi­so­nous dart frogs of South America. So Jack and Anna quit research­ing birds of par­adise, Joy and Malich quit study­ing bow­er-birds, and the whole crew focused on the pito­hui, its fly­ing pat­terns, its mat­ing habits and diet. The ques­tion was in how they became poi­so­nous. Jack wrote a cou­ple grants and got enough fund­ing to estab­lish a small­er, new­er lab in Bougainville, a New Guinean island so far into the ocean it ought to have been Melanesian prop­er­ty.

He and Anna designed this new lab togeth­er: a sort of bun­ga­low with a sin­gle bed­room, a sin­gle bath­room, and a kitchen with a break­fast nook. The lab­o­ra­to­ry was sup­posed to be a sep­a­rate room, but they spent most of their time there, dragged a couch in so one could keep the oth­er com­pa­ny. “The habits of the Oksanen-Dumbachers:” Jack would say. “Well, they’re strange birds.”

The first time Jack left to present their finds in Washington, it seemed that he was gone for­ev­er and Anna kept her­self busy, work­ing on the birds until she fell asleep on the couch. He would come back, have to leave again, and now when he is here, it is only for a vis­it. Now Anna sleeps on the couch because she is used to it.

After she wash­es her hands, Anna has some tea and a Muesli bar. She hates to cook; she orders the bars by the case. Her broth­er is vis­it­ing in a week, she remem­bers. There was a flur­ry of emails—mostly lengthy, ram­bling things from her mother—arranging the whole thing and Anna won­ders briefly what she will feed him. He will prob­a­bly hap­pi­ly eat the cere­al bars. He’s that kind of kid. Or, more like­ly, he’ll turn into the über boy scout and gath­er nuts and berries, turn them into a paste that he shapes into a turkey—he’s like that, try­ing to appease the meat eaters with­out actu­al­ly eat­ing meat. This makes Anna laugh as she works.

She has been focus­ing for the past few months on the bird’s diet, think­ing that per­haps the poi­son is ingest­ed and dis­trib­uted through­out the body. This is more like­ly than the idea that they pro­duce it them­selves. There hasn’t been any­thing sur­pris­ing in their sys­tems, the usu­al organs, the usu­al work­ings of things. So late­ly she has been item­iz­ing the con­tents of their stom­achs.

She retrieves the new, untagged bird from the cage, hold­ing a cot­ton ball of chlo­ro­form to its beak, feel­ing the wings flut­ter inside her fist and then go still. It is the elec­tri­cal impulse, she tells her­self, the strug­gle is pure­ly phys­i­o­log­i­cal, like a euth­a­nized dog gasp­ing for breath only because its lungs are shut­ting down. She is used to it now. When the bird is final­ly still, she pins its wings to the dis­sec­tion tray and opens up the abdomen, pin­ning down the flaps of flesh. The smell is worse, but the bird is per­fect. She is always amazed when all the pieces are where they should be: heart and lungs and stom­ach like a pearl. Inside the stom­ach is noth­ing unusu­al, leaves and berries and what is more or less a whole bee­tle. Anna places each of these spec­i­mens in their own glass con­tain­ers and labels them with the date. She is care­ful to always know the date. It is the first step to going crazy, she thinks, los­ing sense of time.

This is when Wallace starts to go nuts. He shoots up from his place under the table and is bark­ing at the door and now Anna can hear the sound of an engine, of men’s voic­es, a knock­ing and she freezes. This doesn’t hap­pen here. Jack isn’t due for sev­er­al weeks and, oth­er than Jack, no one comes here.

She answers the door timid­ly, peek­ing around its edge at a tall kid in a T-shirt and car­go shorts. “Annie?” he says. It takes her a minute to rec­og­nize the kid as her broth­er. Of course it is Liam: eager eyes and broad smile. His face was actu­al­ly used on a boy scout brochure about ten years ago. This is the face she sees now, even though it is old­er and exhaust­ed.

Liam?” Anna says. It doesn’t occur to her to push the hair back; instead, she cranes her neck for­ward and looks up into his face.

Yeah,” he says.

You’re ear­ly,” Anna says.

It’s the fif­teenth,” Liam says.

Huh,” says Anna. This is when she real­izes that she is sup­posed to host this kid. That, prob­a­bly, she was sup­posed to pick him up from the air­port. Her par­ents don’t know she doesn’t have a vehi­cle. If she told them this, they would want to know how she gets around and she would have to tell them she hitch hikes. They stand there, nod­ding at one anoth­er for a moment before Anna real­izes he is wait­ing for her to let him in.

How did you get here?” she asks, grab­bing the duf­fel bag at his feet and walk­ing through the house. He has nev­er vis­it­ed her here before. No one has, save for one glo­be­trot­ting friend from col­lege, a girl who stopped by on her way home from Australia. Liam fol­lows her, his eyes adjust­ing to the dark.

I told some guy at the air­port about you. He seemed to know where you are and he let me ride in the back of his truck.” Anna imag­ines Liam describ­ing her using words like “ornithol­o­gist” and “poi­so­nous birds,” though all he had to say was “white lady.” He stands in the door­way, look­ing into the dark­ness of the room. “A great way to see the coun­try. It’s real­ly beau­ti­ful here.”

It is,” Anna says. “It’s also the only way to see the coun­try: that or back­pack.”

Anna, it reeks in here,” he says. “It smells like a sick room or some­thing.”

It’s the birds,” Anna explains. “They’re sup­posed to smell.” She points at the cage, but Liam is look­ing at the par­tial­ly digest­ed bee­tles in jars, the bird splayed open on the dis­sec­tion tray like some grotesque art exhib­it or worse, some­thing she does for fun. She must look absolute­ly insane, like a ser­i­al killer with a col­lage of arti­cles and string all over the wall.

I’m exam­in­ing their diets,” she explains, mov­ing his duf­fel bag into the bed­room, stuff­ing loose arti­cles of cloth­ing into clos­ets and draw­ers. She doesn’t remem­ber how much she has told him about what she does and she explains every­thing from the top: pito­huis are poi­so­nous birds, et cetera, et cetera.

Pitohui,” Liam says, wan­der­ing over to the cage. The birds hop around ner­vous­ly. “Pitohui. It sounds like you’re spit­ting.”

Charming,” Anna says, mov­ing into the lab.

I thought a poi­so­nous bird would be more col­or­ful,” Liam says, step­ping clos­er to the cage. “Isn’t that what bright col­ors mean in nature? Danger? Shouldn’t these birds be, like, neon?”

They don’t need to be,” says Anna. “I mean, would you eat them?”

Good point,” says Liam. “They’d prob­a­bly taste like ass.”

Yes,” says Anna. “Ass.”

Liam turns around, smil­ing. He is deter­mined to be good natured, but his face falls. “Anna, your leg,” he says. “You’re bleed­ing.”

Anna looks down and sees the patch of dried blood on her ankle. “Huh,” she says, explor­ing the wound with her fin­gers. It isn’t a bite, though the orphan’s dog must have scratched her; she didn’t feel a thing. She excus­es her­self to clean the scratch and remem­bers she still hasn’t show­ered, so she does that, too. When she is clean and dressed, she finds Liam out­side, scratch­ing Wallace and eat­ing an unripe papaya. “This is awe­some,” he grins at her. He stands up and hugs her. “Hello,” he says.

How long are you stay­ing?” Anna asks and Liam shrugs, takes anoth­er bite of papaya.

**

Liam begins to run with her in the morn­ings. He is a good run­ner, just off his high school cross coun­try team, but not used to the hills here. For the first week he keeps up with Anna, but just bare­ly. It turns out he knows plen­ty about her work: he’s read that sci­en­tists are try­ing to iso­late the tox­in. “They think they can use it to help stroke vic­tims,” he says, gasp­ing for breath. “It was in The Humanitarian.” They jog for almost anoth­er mile before he says, “Wouldn’t that be great? Being able to help peo­ple?” His smile is the same one he had as a kid.

Anna wants to tell him that inject­ing a tox­in into some­one already half par­a­lyzed sounds incred­i­bly stu­pid. “I kind of just want to study birds,” she says.

By the sec­ond week, he runs with her eas­i­ly and by the third, he runs her back to the lab and then turns around to do a few more miles on his own. He wants to see more of the area and so Anna loads him down with binoc­u­lars and note­books and takes him to the places she knows: a lagoon that is unbe­liev­ably blue, a val­ley that winds so far into the moun­tains they can’t see the end of it. There is a famous plane crash in the moun­tains and lots and lots of caves. She points out birds to him, tells him the species, what it is that makes them spe­cial. She tells him about birds of par­adise and their strange design, the way their flight pat­tern looks like a sine wave.

She is work­ing at clas­si­fy­ing the berries from the bird’s stom­ach when Liam returns from some­where in the back of a pick­up truck. He has a gro­cery bag with him and two boys—the same orphan boys who sicced their dog on her a few days ago. There is no sign of the dog now.

Anna stands in the door­way, block­ing their entrance. “Do you remem­ber me?” she asks them. The boys look at her and say noth­ing. They don’t move their heads yes or no. They just stare at her. “I don’t want them in the house,” she says to Liam.

Jesus, Annie,” he says. He touch­es her shoul­der and slides past her. Anna goes back to work and lis­tens to him open the bag. It sounds like he is crack­ing eggs, chop­ping veg­eta­bles and mix­ing things togeth­er in a met­al bowl. She hears the stove turn on and pret­ty soon she can smell the omelet. When did he learn to cook?

She hears him go out­side and when she peeks out, she sees the three of them with emp­ty plates and a pile of half a dozen Muesli bars. The younger boy is pet­ting Wallace with his foot. “It’s one thing if you want to buy things for these boys, but you should ask before you give away my food,” she says from the door­way.

Liam looks up at her, leans his head against the build­ing. “It’s not like you don’t have enough,” he says with a look that Anna knows and despis­es. She used to read The Humanitarian too.

That’s not the point,” she tells him. She stands there while the boys get up and leave, tak­ing the Muesli bars with them.

Liam picks up their dirty plates. “Don’t wor­ry,” he says, brush­ing by her on his way to the kitchen. “I’m sure they’ll leave you alone now.”

But the next day the boys are back and Liam is hand­ing out more Muesli bars. That evening, while they are wash­ing dish­es after din­ner, Anna tells him about the dog attack, but he dis­re­gards this. “Well there’s no dog now.” he says.  “And besides, we have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to do some real good. We can actu­al­ly help peo­ple.” And Anna rolls her eyes. “Christ, Anna. Your hand.” Liam grabs her wrist and thrusts it under the tap. She has cut her thumb with­out real­iz­ing it and the water runs bright red for a moment. “How do you not notice these things? Doesn’t it hurt?”

No,” Anna says, which is true.

The boys are back the next day and Liam throws bot­tled water and some more Muesli bars into a back­pack and they set out into the for­est.

Anna, mean­while, con­tin­ues to work. She has iden­ti­fied the berries as unripe goji berries, a thing she has seen in bird’s stom­achs often enough. The bee­tle, though, is a Choresine bee­tle. It is less com­mon in bird diets, but preva­lent enough for farm­ers on the island to com­plain about it.  She puts all of this into the data­base and wash­es her hands.

At first she thinks she is out of soap because, when she pumps the dis­penser, she can’t feel it in her palm. But the soap is there, a pile of pearles­cent white. Then she real­izes she can’t feel her hands at all. She claps them togeth­er, shakes them out, and regains some feel­ing, but not all of it. She goes to the key­board and types some­thing to see if she can: My name is Anna Oksanen and my hands work. She puts on her gloves and finds an already dis­sect­ed bird, mak­ing a del­i­cate inci­sion in the vis­cera sur­round­ing the heart. The cut is per­fect until the very end when she nicks the organ itself.

Of course it is the birds, she knows. She picks a feath­er from a dead bird and puts it in her mouth. Instantly, her tongue goes numb. She grinds the quill between her teeth, hear­ing the fibers com­ing apart but unable to feel it.

When Liam returns with the boys, she is still on the couch with the feath­er in her mouth, watch­ing an awful film about bull­fight­ing on the lap­top. All around her are choco­late wrap­pers and used match­es.

What’s the mat­ter?” Liam asks, and she holds out a palm and drops a light­ed match into it. The match burns out quick­ly.

I don’t feel a thing,” she says.

Liam is the one to radio Dr. Kibara, who comes out the next day in his beat up Saab. He takes some blood sam­ples and tis­sue sam­ples, but when Anna tells him about her work with the birds and the neu­ro­tox­in, he shakes his head and mut­ters some­thing about her periph­er­al ner­vous sys­tem.

Liam sits out­side with the boys, read­ing aloud ran­dom arti­cles from a jour­nal he hap­pened to find on Anna’s shelf. This par­tic­u­lar arti­cle is about Great Kiskadees in Brazil and their ten­den­cy to eat bats. “On one occa­sion,” she can hear Liam say, “a kiskadee flew from a perch and cap­tured a bat in flight.”

It might be per­ma­nent,” Dr. Kibara is say­ing. “We’ll have to run those tests before we know any­thing, but not work­ing for a while couldn’t hurt.”

She e-mails this news to Jack who replies quick­ly: You’re like Marie Curie. He says. I feel we’re about to prove some­thing amaz­ing. This is her Jack, con­stant­ly amazed, con­stant­ly in motion. He tells her he will return as soon as he can, that he loves her, that he will buy her new hands. One thing is as true as anoth­er.

That night, Anna invites the boys inside and they all lis­ten to Liam read about rus­set crowned Motmots, red-winged black­birds, dusky fly­catch­es. She makes hot choco­late for them and opens a bot­tle of wine, not real­ly car­ing who drinks what. She looks at her hand cupped around the glass. She can feel some­thing sol­id against her skin, but she doesn’t feel the cool­ness of the glass, the smooth­ness of it. Her hand, she thinks, is just react­ing to a mus­cle mem­o­ry, not the actu­al stim­u­lus of the glass. It is a lit­tle like being blind, she imag­ines, the way a blind­ed per­son can move around a famil­iar space because they remem­ber where things are. But change around the fur­ni­ture and they’ll crash again and again.

Maybe you should stop work­ing,” Liam says after the last arti­cle. “Just for a lit­tle bit.” The younger boy—they still won’t say their names or much of any­thing else—is asleep. The old­er one watch­es them as they talk, his eyes mov­ing back and forth.

Maybe I will,” says Anna.

They go on more hikes, dur­ing which the boys appear and dis­ap­pear at ran­dom. “Goshawk,” the old­est one says, crash­ing onto the path in front of them and point­ing up at what Anna is amazed to real­ize actu­al­ly is a Grey Goshawk, its small orange feet side step­ping along a branch.

Yes,” she says. “That’s right.”

Kingfisher.”

Yes.”

Bowerbird.”

Yes,” she says. “How do you know?” The boys point to Liam. He has been read­ing the jour­nals aloud for weeks, he admits.

There is a cave ahead and they decide to go in. Everyone gets a flashlight and the boys rush in first, their lights are circles against the walls. Liam is ahead and Anna can see him for a while until she can’t. She fumbles with the switch on her own flashlight, but of course she can’t feel it and it is very dark now. She puts her arm straight out in front of her and moves it in an arc from one side to the other, only knowing that something is in the way when the movement is restricted. She expects that when she comes out of the cave, her hands will be cut to shreds. They’re practically not hands at all anymore. They might as well be wings.

~

Jen Marquardt received her PhD in Creative Writing from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. She likes red shoes.