The following excerpt was written during the early stages of the novel. It’s based on an actual event that I remembered from the late ’90s (and you might as well if you lived in Ottawa back then), memories that were remarkably well corroborated when I eventually unearthed the story from CBC’s website 2 decades later.
I deleted the passage from my novel with a pang of regret. I love what it tells about my narrator, Justin, to say nothing of the fact that the anecdote it recounts is a very apt metaphor for the character of Billie. In the end, however, the voice was wrong. When I began writing the novel, my narrator was a teenager, but as the story came together, I found that I needed to put more distance between the storyteller and the events he describes. Justin became a young adult, a 22-year-old looking back at the events of his childhood, and this passage no longer fit.
I’m a bit of a bird-nerd, with the emphasis on nerd. It’s something I picked up from Dad.
Dad has always said that nerds should be celebrated, because they’re so positive and excited and passionate about things. They just like stuff. If nerds should be celebrated, then my dad deserves a monument. He’s the über-nerd, the Ur-nerd, the nerd to end all nerds. He taught science, history and English at my school, and his students loved him. The thing the other kids said the most about him is that he really got excited about the stuff he taught, and that it was funny sometimes. I can well imagine that’s true because on those occasions when he was in the right mood, he did the same thing at home. I didn’t mind because his enthusiasm always made everything so compelling. Dad loves just about everything: he can talk forever about space, nature, history, and art; ancient civilizations, ruins, wars and kings; bones and fossils and the creatures they came from; planets, moons, stars, galaxies, and black holes; trees and plants and insects and creepy-crawly things; art and architecture and literature and music and language; and though I would sometimes tune out, he’d even talked to me about politics and current events.
Dad has taught me to recognize and appreciate stuff that a lot of people wouldn’t notice or even care about. I knew how to identify the constellations when I was seven, and I knew my dinosaurs even earlier. Dad says that being able to see and identify things in the world is a lot like collecting stuff (like stamps or coins or shells or whatever) only better because it doesn’t cost anything and doesn’t take up space in your house. One thing that he was really good at, and that I took to as well, was identifying birds. He started with me when I was little, and one of the best birthday presents he ever gave me was Peterson’s Guide to Birds of North America. The next year he got me a pair of binoculars, and then a few years later a better pair. Apparently it wasn’t an interest Mom shared with him, and I guess he wanted to make sure he’d be able to talk to someone else about it. It was fun and easy enough because there weren’t that many different kinds of birds where we lived (though more than you might think). I even taught myself their scientific names: my favourites were the the Banded Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon, the Snowy Owl, Nyctea scandiaca, and the Eastern Kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus. To this day, one of the things I do whenever I travel is to see how different the birds are from those at home. It’s not like I drag my Peterson’s around everywhere like I used to (it’s pretty old and dog-eared by now). I’ve got to the point where I can pretty much identify everything in my neighbourhood. Still, those rare times when you see something that you’ve never seen outside of the book are pretty exciting — the first time I saw an oriole, I totally stopped breathing for a minute — and I love that my dad really gets that.
There was a story that ran in the news when I was very young about a flamingo that suddenly appeared along the banks of the Ottawa River, in Nepean, Ontario. For three weeks there were sightings here and there but every time someone tried to get close it flew away, only to be spotted again a few hours or days later in another pond. There was a lot of fuss about it at the time, and my dad was totally fascinated. Nobody could figure out what it was doing there, and a lot of people (my dad especially) were worried that it would freeze to death (this was in November), or die of starvation from not being able to find its regular food. Most of the migratory birds, like herons and Canada geese, had long since left for warmer places, and the images in the local media of this poor flamingo standing all alone in freezing cold water, looking utterly miserable so far from home, were heartbreaking. Eventually, the story made the national news, which was when the manager of a bird sanctuary in Connecticut (some 650 km away) finally recognized it as a bird that had gone missing weeks before. By then the flamingo was pretty weak, and when the manager from the sanctuary went to capture it and bring it home, the flamingo didn’t so much as flap its wings. It simply let itself get wrapped in a blanket, gathered up in the lady’s arms, and taken away to safety. I love happy endings.
“Looking a bit pale. Maybe some sun…”
What was most compelling about that story was how out of place that poor bird looked. I watch nature documentaries all the time and whenever they show flamingos, they’re gathered by the tens of thousands on some warm, green tropical lake. Yet there it was, standing all alone in a cold pond in the outskirts of Ottawa, completely out of its element. There was something distinctly wrong with that picture, beyond the fact that it was an exotic bird in such a cold and gloomy place. I’ve never heard it quite articulated this way, but when I think back on it, something was taken from this beautiful creature. It seemed somehow lessened for being there: less graceful, less exotic, less pink even.
It was an outsider, stranded by happenstance in a place it wasn’t adapted to. Had that event occurred during the summer of ’06, I might have made a very different assumption.