The last known Carolina parakeets, the only parrot native to North America were extinct around the turn of the twentieth century; reports of the exact year vary. Their habitat extended south to the Gulf of Mexico and east through the Ohio Valley. Specimens are preserved in museums and John James Audubon captured their beauty in several of his drawings and paintings.
Curiously, Carolina parakeets are referenced in two very different books: The Cove by Ron Rash, and the collection of short stories Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman.
The town closest to the cove is Mars Hill, where Laurel Shelton and her brother Hank, who recently returned from World War I missing an arm, grew up as outcasts because of the cove’s reputation for malice. Laurel and Hank’s mother died when Laurel was eight and their father died soon after Hank was conscripted. Like most young women, Laurel lives in a limbo of routine chores and occasional trips to town for victory jubilees, seeing the same faces she’s known since childhood.
Yet Laurel revels in the outdoors, escaping her family’s dim cabin and the cove’s bleakness for an outcropping of granite. One day she hears a song. Could it be birdsong of the Carolina parakeet like the still form her teacher Miss Calicut showed her class sixteen years earlier? Miss Calicut told them not to forget what the birds look like “because soon there’d be none left, not just in these mountains but probably in the whole world.” Inspired by the hope of glimpsing the rare parakeet, Laurel leaves her laundry by the stream and scuttles through thick rhododendrons until she discovers a man playing a silver flute. The man’s entrance into her family’s life changes everything.
Rash fills The Cove with simple homey details of sweet milk, cakes of butter from the spring house coupled with blackberry jam, and creasy greens donated by the family’s only friend and neighbor, Slidell, who remembers how the Civil War affected the area during his childhood. A sense of place dominates as Rash interweaves the state’s local history of Hot Springs’ German internment camp, Mars Hill College, and establishes milquetoast characters whose misguided patriotism triggers tragedy.
North Carolina appears sporadically as a setting or in passing in Bergman’s short story collection Birds of a Lesser Paradise, but her Carolina upbringing and southern sensibility inform her writing, themes, and voice. Ten of her stories previously appeared in journals such as Greensboro Review, Southern Review, Oxford American, and Ploughshares and two debut in the collection. Animals and humans’ symbiotic relationship with them reoccur in several stories. In “Housewifely Arts,” the narrator and her son take a road trip to Myrtle Beach to a roadside attraction to find her mother’s parrot. The narrator hates the parrot and refused to care for it as her mother fell into the end-stages of cancer, but the parrot proves a gift as it perfectly mimicks her mother’s voice.
Opposites attract in “Every Vein a Tooth.” Bowhunting Gray belongs to Ducks Unlimited while the narrator rescues animals. She has several dogs, a few feral cats, a chinchilla, and a raccoon in her home. Between them, she and Gray have developed so many rashes they named them after the Jackson Five. Gray’s last patch of poison ivy was Tito. When the feral cats destroy Gray’s carefully curated scrapbook of leaf collections he offers up an ultimatum: them or me.
“Yesterday’s Whales” is another relationship ultimatum story. Lauren and Malachi meet at a vegan cooking class and soon move in together. Lauren says: “In our house, the word breeding was said with the same vitriol used when mentioning Republicans, Tim Tebow, and pit bull fights.” Malachi established an organization his senior year at Yale advocating the end of humankind because nature should reclaim the Earth. Lauren suspects she’s pregnant, then a stick-in-a-box pregnancy test confirms it. The story follows the conflict between the two as their relationship stretches to accommodate their beliefs and desires.
Bergman takes readers on a strange, sad trip forty-some years into the future in “Artificial Heart” set in 2050 Key West on the cusp of the dying ocean. The narrator and her partner Link live with her elderly father who is ninety and still spry due to his artificial heart. “I’d become one of many cash-strapped caregivers with no children of my own—just the responsibility of an aging parent modern medicine had turned into an invincible robot, a robot puttering around outmoded and diapered, trying to make sense of tangled strings of thought,” the narrator muses.
Bergman’s stories are quirky, spare, filled with longing, animal-centric and heart-felt. Anyone easily connecting with animals in tune with the seasons will be keen on their visceral charm.