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.”
“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.