CARMEL BIRD Love Letter to Lola: extract
Carmel Bird gives voice to the extinct, the endangered and the overlooked in her new collection of stories.
Carmel Bird is one of Australia’s most gifted and original writers, and we’re delighted to bring you the title story from her latest collection, Love Letter to Lola.
In her ‘Reflection’ at the end of the book, Carmel Bird describes the inspiration for each story and writes, ‘These days my eye is more or less always on the wild and weird things humans do to undermine the safety of the planet,’ and this theme resonates throughout the collection – often in relation to our reckless treatment of animals and birds, but also in our relation to our own safety in a story like ‘Yes My Darling Daughter’.
From the voice of the lonesome blue macaw in the title story, to the fate of the flocks of passenger pigeons whose numbers once blocked out the sun over North America only to become snacks on transcontinental railways, to a dodo recounting its extinction and the efforts to resurrect it, themes of extinction and resurrection echo through the book.
Witty, magical and disturbing, these stories call us to account for what humans have done – and continue to do – to the natural world.
Extract courtesy of Spineless Wonders
Love Letter to Lola
A letter from Spixy, a blue macaw, member of the Cyanopsitta spixii family.
Melância Creek, Bahia, Brazil
Christmas Eve 2000
Lola, My Lovely,
Forgive me for writing this letter on the reverse of a fragment of the Basurto dinner party invitation. Alas, this is all I have to hand. I know you will understand, my darling. Here in the backlands of the disappearing green fringes of the caatinga forests, paper is scarce. I write with bright pink juice from the cadaver of a goat, knowing the colour will please you. My instrument is a spine from a fat old cactus. Today, in memory of you, I have feasted well on the seeds and juices of your favourite faveleira. My thoughts have been filled, as they forever are, with pictures and sounds of you, my dearest Lola, my childhood sweetheart, my own.
My rational mind tells me that you have gone, have gone; yet in my heart of heart I hold you still, beloved, and I know that you will hear my love song as I write to you, you in your resting place in the great beyond.
I recall the joyful days when, together as one, we steered our course, our long blue tails flexed against the air, through the tip tops of the caatinga. I recall how we would come to rest, almost floating into the ancient family home. There in the nest chamber you tended our three rare and precious unhatched chicklings. Deep inside the hollow of our tree.
Then, there flashes upon me the memory of the dark edge of doom. In the eerie light before the dawn, the drone of the vehicle. The trappers. We huddle together. The trappers whisper as they scratch and scrape at the walls of our house. The gloved hand – then the arm enters, feeling for you, for me, for the eggs. Like fine thin glass the pure white shells are shattered. The yolks, blood-streaked, flow and drip into the bottom of the nest. You clamber up, heading for the exit, the circle of faint light as the radiance of the pre-dawn leads you on toward freedom. I follow. You spread your darling wings. You enter the net that awaits you.
In the horror of panic, with my heart pounding, there was nought for me to do but struggle past. Forgive me, forgive me, my own, for I could not save you, although I saved myself. I flew in blind desperation into the trees, away.
All this happened exactly thirteen years ago, on Christmas Eve, 1987, my blue bird of eternal happiness and sorrow. I write this letter to tell you of my love for you, and also to set down the sad and complicated story of our lives. As daylight came and you lay in your dreadful cage in terror, a cheerful and curious stranger approached the trappers on foot. They showed him their prize, my lovely, my Lola, and with his Polaroid camera he took a picture. There it was, gradually forming on the paper, an image – pale grey head, great black beak, sharp yellow eyes, brilliant turquoise dress feathers, and your long, long blue tail – it was you. The last wild girl ever, captured and sold into the slavery of the zoos. It was three years before the scientists, seeking our kind in the wild, saw this picture and realised they were looking at you, the last, my last, wild girl. They played their tape recordings of our call, played our music to your Polaroid, my love.
I was alone in the forest. I searched for you, I flew on and on and I sought you, I sought you down the nights and down the days, down the years and years in baking sunshine and when rain fell upon the earth. I could never have imagined such loneliness, such sorrow, such despair. You were the last wild girl, I the last wild boy.
Those scientists who came to the forest in 1990, they sighted me, the lone bird, in the early daylight, and they gazed at me through their binoculars, and they filmed me with their video cameras. I called for you, and they recorded my sad call. Kraa, kraa, kraa. Should they capture me, they wondered. Should they? It took them two more years to decide that they would leave me in the wild. But they had interesting plans. A miracle was about to occur.
After my seven sorrowful years of solitude, of being apart from you, my rarest, my most beautiful, my most coveted Lola, in 1995, suddenly, among the dappled light and shade of the waxy caraiba leaves, you were there. Not the dancing hallucination of my dreams, but the long lost shimmering, gleaming turquoise princess of my days. They had released you, given you back to me.
Unable to believe what had occurred, we flew in an ecstatic and bewildered trance, feasting not only on the faveleira trees, but also on delicious pinhão and juicy joazeiro. The short three months we were together remain the strangest, the brightest, and ultimately the saddest months of my life. This time you were not stolen, my lovely Lola. You flew, my dearest, by accident into the invisible new electric power lines, and were killed. I can scarcely believe the bitter cruelty of fate. I mourn for you for all eternity.
I must confess to you, my own, that my lasting faithfulness to you has, over the years, been spoiled yet not dimmed. For in my loneliness I have sometimes had the companionship of our cousin, Linda, the little green maracana. I knew her slightly during my seven years of isolation, and yes she sometimes joined us on our journeys in 1995. Forgive me. Perhaps you do not wish to know the rest of the story. We flew together, Linda and I, in the daylight, and usually I took her back to her own family at night. I slept alone on the top of a prickly cactus. And I defended our old home from the many others who wished to colonise it. In 1996, the year after I saw you, my lovely, for the last time, Linda and I moved in, and there were three eggs, but even they were stolen. In 1999 the scientists brought for us some eggs from my cousins in a zoo. With great joy we hatched them, and they flew with us. I do not know where those children are now. Naturally, I fear for them, knowing what I know. Linda and I have now parted company.
It is thirteen years, or five thousand days and nights since first you were stolen away from me, only to return for those three brief months of joyful life. On this Christmas Eve, the first of the new century, I am secretly at large, undetected by the scientists and the trappers. I fly on in lonely longing, writing this letter to you on the sad anniversary of the time when first I lost you.
I shall but love thee better after death,
Your ever devoted
A response to the letter, from one of Spixi’s distant cousins, a certain Primo, member of the Primolius maracana family.
Maracana Blue Wing School of the Air
To Whom it May Concern
Unlike Linda in Spixi’s story, members of my family are blue, not green.
In 2022 I discovered this tragic, heartbreaking note, long, long after it was written. I assume Spixi himself has died, and those young ones he mentioned flew off to their doom. The letter was caught on the thorns of a desert cactus, crinkled and fading and crumbling. Such poetry!
I believe this letter is in fact a key document behind the scientific experiment I am taking part in. And I can tell you that whenever I ponder Spixi’s letter to his beloved, I am inspired all over again to play my part. Spix’s macaw has been known as ‘Extinct-in-the Wild’ since poor old Spixi disappeared. But there were still a few of them in human captivity. The important thing was to get them going out in the free fresh air.
Impossible? Turns out it’s possible. And I am proud to be part of the solution.
The thing was that the scientists needed to work out how to get the poor old Spixes to go back and live in the wild. So they got hold of some captive-bred ones, and in June 2022 they released four pairs of these into the caatinga. Exciting! And every one of them was wearing a GPS tracking gizmo. Modern life at its navigational best, you might say.
Now the scientists, thinking all the time, had captured a number of my wild people, including me, and they took us by aircraft out of Brazil and off to Germany. Imagine. In a German lab they trained us for our task, then brought us back here to Brazil. They said we had to get around with the captive-bred Spixes and teach them how to survive out here in the wild.
That’s how the Maracana Blue Wing School of the Air came into being. We have to tutor the Spixes on how to forage, what to eat, how to get water, how to communicate, and how to recognise and avoid the big old predators. Funny really, about the predators, because the worst one is the human being, and yet it’s human beings who are organising the experiment. It takes all sorts. I’ve got my own GPS, of course. All the Spixes have to go back to the Release Centre every night. Then they come out in the morning and we help them to get on with it in the caatinga. Do this, do that, go here, go there, look, listen, fly for your life.
I’m used to it now, but it’s quite a different existence from what I thought I was going to have. If I sometimes get a bit tired of all this mentoring, I only have to read through Spixi’s letter to Lola, and I realise that I am part of a Great Plan, and I let out a joyful ragged squawk that rips right through the desert air. I call it the Sound of the Spirit of Optimism.
Carmel Bird Love Letter to Lola Spineless Wonders 2023 PB 240pp $24.99
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