The lorikeets were restless, shooting across the aviary like firecrackers in search of visitors and nectar, occasionally lighting on Norwood’s wrist or Serena’s shoulder to play with her glasses. The nectar, prepared daily from apple juice, honey, olive oil and yeast, was given to the zoo’s guests so they could observe the Red Collar Lorikeets and Blue-streaked Lories at close range. But today attendance was spotty. The weather was dreary and humid and the school groups had stomped through the previous week.
Serena was bored and found herself following the fringe of hair on Norwood’s chin and wondering what sort of teenager he must have been. He was what, three or four years her senior, twenty-five, twenty-six at the most and in spite of his delicate features and slight build – attractive. For one thing he had impressive hair, a thick chestnut tail secured tightly at the base of his skull with a blue rubber band. No thinning at the temples, no premature gray. To Serena it was provocative, the idea of it being loose that is, but a side of him that she realized she might never see, like his journal or his checkbook. They’d worked together for six weeks and what did she really know, aside from the trivial – that he came from a town in north Jersey called Sparta.
At last, two visitors slid between the plastic curtains, the final barrier beyond a double set of doors keeping the flock safely inside the screened enclosure, a couple in their fifties. When one of the lorikeets hopped onto the woman’s forearm, she flinched and pulled back. Serena had learned you could tell a lot about people by the way they reacted to the birds, how open they were to new experiences, whether they were patient and trusting or suspicious and uptight. Of course clean freaks and those with serious germ phobias would probably avoid the zoo altogether or at least the aviary. With nectar an integral part of their diet, the lories were known for their prodigious droppings.
“It’s ok,” Serena reassured her. “Stretch your arm out and he’ll sit and drink. That’s Simon. He’s intense, they all are, but they really like people.” By now she and Norwood were able to tell the birds apart even though males and females couldn’t be distinguished by specific colors or plumage. The woman relaxed somewhat and the lorikeet began feeding.
“Oh Bert!” she giggled, “look at the tongue. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“They’re called papillae, the fuzzy things. In the wild they live on pollen and nectar. They’re excellent pollinators, right up there with bats.”
“Ugh, don’t mention bats,” the woman shuddered. “We skipped that building.”
“You’re doing great,” Norwood chimed in; “You’re a natural.” The woman beamed, cocking her head from side to side as she examined the bird.
Once they left, he leaned over into Serena and said, “I liked how you handled that. You know, we may have just recruited two new members.”
Serena was flattered. It didn’t matter that Norwood had only been on staff a few months longer. Her probation period would be ending soon. Her review with the keeper was on the horizon. She was counting on Norwood to put in a good word for her. She glanced upward and called to one of the lories. “Gilda. Come here baby.” But Gilda and another bird, Lucy, were preoccupied with a toy, wooden rings suspended from the ceiling. Serena began whistling and making kissing sounds in an effort to coax them down. “Hey, we should teach them to speak. Wouldn’t it be cool if Simon could say things like ‘Simon says touch your toes’ and stuff like that?”
Norwood appeared annoyed, “They’ve already lost their freedom, now you want them to regurgitate meaningless phrases.” And with that he jumped down from the ledge where he was sitting and strode off in the direction of the cat house. She’d noticed he was spending a good deal of time over there lately, during his breaks and after work and she hoped he wouldn’t abandon the aviary for the glamour of the large carnivores. They were the money makers, the big draws, the lions and tigers and panthers and their obscure cousins like the cloud and snow leopards.
Things did not pick up. Serena and Norwood had fewer than twenty visitors all day. Before closing up for the night Norwood asked her if she’d like to attend a Memorial Day party with him.
“It’s a nice place. Out in the sticks. There’s a pond and it’s clean.”
It didn’t take much to convince Serena. She was glad to get out of the annual pool party at her Mother’s boss/boyfriend’s limestone and ivy spread – pharmaceutical executives could be quite boring. When they weren’t yapping about profit margins and market share, it was golf, golf and more golf.
Norwood said he’d pick her up at noon then. She could leave, he’d take care of discarding the day’s nectar. This was zoo policy because spoiled liquid could sicken or even kill the birds. He had to stay late anyway, the keeper had asked him to assist in administering some eye drops to Terry, one of the bald eagles.
And you didn’t say no to Mathius. Generally speaking, the keeper of the birds would have been considerably lower in wattage than, say, the keeper of the bears or even the reptiles, analogous to those of the small mammals, mice and the like, but Mathius Gerhard was different. By zoo standards Mathius was a rock star, the sort of man profiled in IMAX films, fifty feet tall and thundering. He’d run prestigious falconry centers on vast country estates in his native Germany and in Ireland. There was a photograph in his office of him and his gorgeous wife, Helga, in leather outfits, a pair of handsome peregrines on their arms. And if that wasn’t enough, prior to joining the zoo, he’d put together his own army of mercenaries to fight the illegal trade in exotic birds. They’d followed him through the jungles of Central and South America and deep into the island chains of the South Pacific that are home to lories and lorikeets.
For her part Serena didn’t care much for Mathius. He wasn’t friendly or easy to talk to. In fact he didn’t really talk at all. He grunted. Not long after she’d taken the job, he’d yelled at her in front of a Midwestern tour group, members of a cheese collective, for not closing a door properly.
“Jawohl,” she’d whispered under her breath.
* * *
“You’re going to miss the wine tasting,” her mother chirped; “We’re doing the Alsace region this year.” Draped over the sofa in her bikini, a sarong printed with magnolia flowers around her waist, she was still fit at forty-nine while Serena had packed the same sensible navy blue maillot she’d worn since high school for her day at the pond.
“Serena, honey, I’m going to offer a bit of advice. Work place romances can get rather messy if you’re not careful. Take Jack and me for instance, if we were to ever have a falling out, I could be banished to the Oklahoma City or the Cheyenne, Wyoming territory.”
“He’s not my supervisor, Mother.”
“Oh,” she replied in a disappointed voice. Her mother was a pharmaceutical sales representative divorced from Serena’s father, an orthopedic surgeon. He was remarried with a refresher family, two young children as sweet and innocent as puppies and years away from becoming the letdown that Serena suspected she was. Both of them had encouraged her to apply to medical or dental, even veterinary schools as she was finishing up her degree in biology. So when she announced she was keen on an entry level job at the zoo and wanted to work for a couple of years until she got her bearings, they hit the ceiling.
“You’ll lose momentum,” they protested. “You’ll never be able to buckle down again. You’ll get lazy.”
Norwood arrived and introductions were made. Her mother followed Serena into the kitchen where she’d gone to fix him an iced tea and whispered, “He’s cute, but smaller than I expected. I mean for a girl your size.”
Norwood drank his tea while her mother went on and on with embarrassing questions about the lories. “They go to the bathroom all the time, right? And noisy, birds are so noisy. They never shut up. I don’t know how you two stand it. I think I’d end up wringing their scrawny little necks.”
Finally, they extricated themselves and were cruising down the road toward the party in Norwood’s ancient Toyota. There were the remnants of religious stickers on the rear bumper that someone, presumably Norwood, had tried to remove but the words almighty and obey were still legible. Now it was Norwood’s turn to be curious and he was curious about her mother. Serena felt let down, but wasn’t surprised, the few guys she’d succeeded in wrangling home over the years had all responded favorably to her mother’s charms.
“So do they have a research facility where your mother works?” he asked.
“I can’t remember. I haven’t been there in years. When I was younger she used to take me to see the ponies. They let poisonous spiders bite them and then they draw blood to make the anti-venom. Pretty weird huh?”
“Hum,” Norwood sighed, pensively stroking the fuzz on his chin.
The road to the farm was a dirt chute beneath a canopy of Scotch pine, the house an old frame number with black shutters – a domino waiting to fall – the barn even worse. But then Serena caught sight of the other guests smiling up at them from a white sand beach, welcoming them like a bed of flowers. The pond blinked at her in the sunlight, a large almond shaped eye drawing her forward. She’d never swam in a pond. When she was seven or eight, her grandparents had taken her to a lake in the mountains. It was a magical place with platinum spouts of water shooting out of the hillsides and paddle boats shaped liked turtles and swans and best of all – the smell of French fries mingling with suntan lotion. Her mother however was not as thrilled and gave her in-laws a real dressing down when they returned.
“It’s full of bacteria,” she’d snapped, “and the worst kind of people. The type who think nothing of urinating in the water.” She made it clear they were pool people, the more chlorine the better.
But once immersed, Serena found it delightful and above all, liberating. She felt as if she’d wriggled out of her ponderous form and into the sinuous shape of an eel at ease with the silky membrane enveloping her. Because the water was dark, as dark as a tortoise shell, it seemed as if there was no end to it.
Norwood’s friends had a knack for making her feel comfortable among strangers, naked strangers no less. Floating through water lilies wasn’t the only thing she was experiencing for the first time. She’d left the swim suit rolled up in a ball at the bottom of her canvas bag. They weren’t the least bit self-conscious. Nor were the women starved, tweezed, waxed, primped or powdered. They didn’t look at Serena as if she was somebody they could feel superior to or like she’d have to buy their respect. It was already there, a current, a subterranean flow replenishing and refreshing the soul of the place. And as evening closed its fist around the last hours of daylight, Serena hated to leave.
When Norwood dropped her off after midnight, she turned to him and gushed, “I had the best time.”
It was definitely the start of something. Norwood’s idea of a date wasn’t an independent film washed down with a few beers and a soggy pizza. Norwood was creative. Norwood was an adventurer. Their outings were planned and executed with relish and an acute attention to detail. They trespassed onto private property to a fossil hunting spot in the Pocono mountains where he said he’d found trilobites as a kid. They slept under the Big Dipper at Devil’s Den at Gettysburg hoping to see the ghosts of dead soldiers. They dressed up as Amish and groped each other in a public park. For a girl like Serena who’d never had a lover before, it was overwhelming. She felt as if she had been selected for induction into a secret society, one that would grow and naturalize the way daffodils did, buffering and shielding its members from life’s bitter gusts.
But every time her feet left the ground, her Mother insisted on letting the air out by sticking her pointy nose into Serena’s business. “Be careful,” she’d say. “There’s something about him.”
“I don’t know. I can’t quite put my finger on it. He’s the sneaky type. And you know what happens with the sneaky ones, Look at your father.”
“Mother, it wouldn’t matter what type I brought home, you’d find fault.”
“Well they say love is a drug. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come with a circular warning you of the side effects like the ones I peddle. Blindness, for instance.”
Serena was determined to set her mother’s comments aside for what they were, a reluctance to relinquish control. Though she hadn’t yet heard the magic words, she was beginning to envision she and Norwood set up downtown in a cozy apartment. It would probably be a dump with ugly cupboards, stained carpet and cracks on the walls you could fall into; but she’d fix everything with a little paint, the right plants, and some funky lamps.
* * *
The weather that summer was hot and dry, a bad break for the polar bears, but good for attendance. In fact, it was a record-setting year. A reporter came from the city paper to do an article on the free flight aviary and a photo of Serena ended up on the front page of the E section of the Sunday edition. She’d tried to coax Norwood into the picture but he vehemently resisted. So there she was with Lucy on one shoulder and Simon on the other licking her ear under the headline, IT’S FOR THE BIRDS.
It was after closing on a Friday in the middle of August and most of the employees had wandered over to the Victorian conservatory, where they kept the butterflies, for a farewell party. One of the assistant keepers was leaving for graduate school in England. Not wanting to attend alone, Serena went searching for Norwood. She discovered him in the small enclosure behind the cat house. Well-screened with bamboo, it was where they raised rabbits and mice to feed the snakes and the little big cats, what they called the Brazilian ocelots, the black footed cats and other species not a whole lot bigger than their domestic relatives. The lions, the tigers, the cougars, they got carcasses from the slaughterhouses deemed unfit for human consumption.
The screen door was propped open. He didn’t hear her enter. But from the way he was holding his phone, she could tell he’d been filming something. Quickly he stuffed it into his backpack and laughed nervously.
“What’s up?” he asked. His face was flushed.
For her part Serena didn’t know how to respond, “Norwood….” she stammered, “What are you doing?”
But in her heart she knew. Now all of his trips to the bathroom and, I’ll just be a minute, cover for me and his staying late, the reason behind them was clear – he was one of those animal rights extremists. He was undercover. He was sneaking around.
“It’s for my mom. So she can see where I’m working. You see she doesn’t like to travel and this way…”
Oh God, she thought, we are both going to get canned.
“Serena, you look beat. Having a rough day? Come on, let’s hit the party,” he said, locking his arm in hers; “We could both use a beer.”
* * *
Something had changed between them since that day in the rabbit pens. There’d been a shift in emotions, in closeness, a pulling back, and then the worst. He invited her to share a large Tupperware container of seaweed salad that he’d brought for lunch. It was good – not too much sesame oil. For a few moments they chatted about the sorts of things strangers do – the weather, the summer winding down – then he sprang it on her.
“I’ve wanted to talk to you, Serena. I have to tell you; this has been a period in my life I will always remember. Really special. But I’m leaving soon.”
“You got another job?”
“I’m leaving the area.”
“I don’t understand. Where are you going?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“But what about us? Can’t I go with you?”
“Look, Serena, I care about you. Really I do, but I think that if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit you’re not ready for a commitment yet, to settle down. I’m sure not.”
“I can’t believe this is happening.” She began to sob and as she pushed herself away from the table, she knocked over the bowl of seaweed which dangled between the redwood boards. It wasn’t while she was in the restroom, attempting to compose herself that the idea came to her. No it was later, in bed, a news magazine on her stomach as she studied the dark nipple surrounding the vent in the ceiling – she hadn’t remembered to change the furnace filters. It was one of her chores, along with laundry, doing the dishes and cutting the grass. If she didn’t watch it, she could ruin the air compressor, the service guy from the heating company had warned her. It was simple maintenance, like discarding the used nectar each evening so the birds wouldn’t get sick.
Simple maintenance. That was it. She’d save a bit of the old nectar in a pickle jar for a few days, then mix a small amount with a fresh batch and then, using an eye dropper, dose two or three of the cups, not many. If a couple of the birds got sick, she’d call the vets. They’d fix them up soon enough, but Norwood would have to stay. There might be medicine to administer. He wouldn’t be able to run out on them at a time like that, especially if her suspicions about him were correct. And that would buy her a week or so, a week to convince him to take her along, wherever he was going.
* * *
Flora, a Red Collar Lorikeet was the first to go down. She found her on a window seat with her feet in the air, which on its own wasn’t an immediate tip-off because they sometimes rested in that odd position; but it was morning. When she approached and failed to startle the bird, she knew she had a problem. Serena broke into a cold sweat. She recalled that Flora had seemed lethargic yesterday, dull-eyed and quiet on her perch, exhibiting none of her usual antics. And come to think of it, she hadn’t eaten anything either. As she gently lifted Flora from the sill, there was a sticky substance beneath her, one foot moved feebly. She was barely breathing. Serena placed Flora on a clean white towel and dashed off to find Norwood. She crisscrossed the zoo, beginning at the rabbit enclosure and going as far as the otter tanks. Where could he be? She’d seen him earlier in the day hoisting his blender sized cup of black coffee. That’s when she decided to check the employee parking lot – his Toyota was gone. Had they sent him on an errand? Shortly thereafter she ran into Mathius, red-faced and panting. Obviously just plain furious.
“Where is Norwood?” he demanded; “The director wishes to see him.”
“I’m not sure. I saw him around seven-thirty.”
“Just as I suspected, he’s run out on us. The little weasel. And don’t you go anywhere. I want to talk to you.”
Serena proceeded to the veterinarians’ office, interrupting Dr. Fidler’s game of backgammon on the computer. Due to a jumbo girth and periodic attacks of the gout, Oliver Fidler was the slowest vet on staff. At thirty-seven he was also the youngest. In spite of her agitated state he told her to return to the aviary and he’d be along in a few minutes.
It was while she was waiting for Dr. Fidler that she realized Simon was missing. After combing the nooks and crannies, she checked the plants, artificial and real, and found him behind an immense tree fern in a pool of water, overflow from the tray. Cupping him in her palms, she held him to her chin, to her lips. He was cold, limp. It was already too late for Simon. She’d never wanted this. He was such a sweet bird and funny too, a real little hotdog. In fact, that was one of his favorite tricks – he’d wrap himself up in the rags they used for cleaning, with only his head and feet protruding. She called him the wiener bird. No, not Simon.
The zoo hadn’t opened to the public yet but she scanned the paths to see if Dr. Fidler was stumbling her way – no sight of him yet. She dried Simon’s body, covered it with tissues and put it at the bottom of her tote bag on top of a corny mystery her mother had given her that she had no intention of reading.
When Dr. Fidler arrived, Flora was briefly examined as were the other birds. With the exception of a five-year-old lorikeet called Jeremy, they all seemed healthy. Serena didn’t mention Simon and he wasn’t familiar enough with the flock to notice that he was gone. When he was finished, he shoved Jeremy and Flora into a small crate and barked, “Damn birds; they’re more trouble than they’re worth. If you ask me they belong in a petting zoo, not here.”
After lunch, Mathius took her into his tidy office and motioned for her to sit down in a caned chair under a stuffed marsh hawk. He stared at her for a full minute before he started to talk. With Simon in her purse between her feet, she thought she knew how a drug smuggler felt going through customs at the airport.
It turned out he knew more about Norwood than she did. He wasn’t from Sparta, New Jersey after all, not anywhere in New Jersey. The Pacific Northwest. “An eco-terrorist,” Mathius said. However, none of this was enough to make her want to spill the beans about what she’d seen Norwood up to that day in the rabbit pens. They’d come this far,she thought, they didn’t need her help and they certainly wouldn’t get it.
That evening she had dinner with her mother, crab legs and cole slaw, Simon still in her tote on the sideboard in the hall. They talked about a cousin’s wedding to an investment banker which was to take place in Albany in September. Her mother seized the opportunity to break into a volley of benign, but probing questions about Norwood, “Would he be attending? Had he always lived in New Jersey? Did he know the Bowmans in Sparta?” One of her co-workers had grown up there. In turn, Serena responded with a succession of no answers, punctuated by the cracking of crab shells.
After loading the dishwasher, Serena took her canvas bag to her room, unwrapped Simon and placed him on her nightstand between the alarm clock and the tissue box. His feathers were such a spectacular collage of red and green. She turned on the television and watched a string of old sitcoms even though she wasn’t in the mood to laugh, every now and then glancing over at Simon’s body, occasionally poking at or tapping him with a finger. Wishful thinking. When she was certain her mother was asleep, she’d take him downstairs, bundle him in a plastic bag, an opaque one from the grocery store and hide him in the back of the freezer behind her mother’s frozen Thai dinners and fruit pops because she wasn’t quite ready to part with him yet. Not just yet.