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Two Short-Short Stories

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February 24, 2008

Field Work

The research team, led by the legendary Jacques Gallant, arrived in the Amazon in July. Celeste, fresh out of her doctoral program in upstate New York, was the only woman in the group. Jacques Gallant had been a scientific explorer for two decades and though he was considerably older, Celeste still found him handsome with his waves of dark hair and tanned skin, lined just enough to achieve ruggedness. He was also the only scientist she’d ever seen that wore a fedora.

They would be in the Amazon for six weeks, studying the migration patterns of howler monkeys. On their first night in the jungle city of Iquitos, over a crackling fire, the guide told everyone about the dangers—the electric eels and piranhas in the river, the scorpions that camouflaged themselves to resemble leafs, the mesmerizing beauty of Amazonian coral snakes. He said that just last month, a member of another scientific expedition, momentarily entranced by the black sheen of a coral snake’s skin, had been bitten fatally on the ankle. Frightened by his stories, Celeste wondered if she should have stayed in the laboratory, like the peers she’d once felt superior to when they confessed they weren’t cut out for field work.

Weeks passed. The team trekked deeper into the jungle, photographing the howler monkeys and studying their migratory patterns, trapping and tagging some for observation. The heat was overwhelming. Two members of the team had close calls with tarantulas, another with a poison arrow frog. One afternoon, Celeste stepped into a soft patch of land and sank to her knees, the mud pouring into her boots. She had fallen a little behind the group and when she screamed, Jacques Gallant was the one who appeared and pulled her out. Before he walked away, Celeste felt his fingertips graze the back of her neck. And that night, when the guide told his stories of terror in the Amazon, Jacques challenged him with stories of his own—how he had sucked poison from his own arm after being bitten by a viper in Ecuador, climbed a tree to escape a charging Hippopotamus in the Congo, survived plunging over a waterfall in Australia.

One night, when Celeste couldn’t sleep, she walked outside her tent and stood by the riverbank. She listened to the rush of the water, to the howler monkeys call to each other, to the symphony of insects. She had grown to hate the sound of the monkeys, and when she was able to sleep, she dreamed of the white laboratory floors she’d walked as a doctoral student, the caged animals that had stared at her as she peered through microscopes and mixed solutions in Petri dishes. Celeste had never thought she’d be the kind of scientist who preferred her animals caged.

She heard footsteps behind her and turned to find Jacques Gallant, the lowered brim of the fedora shadowing his face. When he asked Celeste why she couldn’t sleep, she shrugged and blamed the heat. He suggested they sit under a nearby cercropia tree. She resisted asking if he thought that was safe, though she ran the tip of her boot over the roots, to check for snakes, before joining him.

“You can see the river better from the ground,” Jacques said.

It was true. She could see where the moonlight hit, and the water now looked silver, looked alive. A monkey shrieked from the trees. Celeste rubbed her forehead. “I wish they would shut up,” she said.

“You might feel differently if you knew how to talk back to them,” he said.

Celeste was about to ask what he meant when Jacques began imitating monkey calls, first the shrill cry of the howlers, then the squeals of the white-faced capuchins and the squirrels. Through the shadows, she could see his cocked head, the rolling movements of his throat and lips. As she listened to the creatures return his calls, she remembered that ten percent of the world’s animals lived in the Amazon, remembered how much there still was to be discovered.

Before coming to the Amazon, she had heard stories about Jacques Gallant, whispers from female scientists at zoology conferences, always about a colleague-of-a-colleague who had been seduced by Jacques underneath a jungle canopy or in a mountain cave. Celeste suddenly imagined herself ten years older, telling a younger scientist about Jacques Gallant and a colleague-of-a-colleague, when she really would, of course, be telling the woman about herself. Jacques touched the side of her face, his fingertips as cool and smooth as river stones. The monkeys were louder than ever. All kinds of calls were pouring from the trees now, anxious, Celeste imagined, to answer this new and mysterious speaker.

Parakeets

That summer, I ran away with the family dentist—the same man who searched our mouths for cavities every year, who put a crown on my husband’s molar and repaired the front tooth he chipped in a biking accident. The dentist never found anything wrong with my teeth. They’re perfect, he’d say when we were alone in his office, surrounded by ceramic casts of teeth.

By Halloween, I was back with my husband. I tired of listening to the dentist talk about root canals and gingivitis and fluoride. In the time I was gone, my husband had purchased two parakeets—knowing, of course, how I hated birds, hated their beaks and molting feathers and scaly feet. The day I returned home, he greeted me with one bird balanced on his head, the other on his shoulder. Things have changed since you’ve been away, he said, showing me the cage, filled with bells and perches, he’d erected in the kitchen. The parakeets were bright green with velvety yellow throats and blue specks on the tips of their wings, like they’d been dipped in paint. My husband, a high school French teacher, had named them Henri and Jean-Francois. When I expressed concerns about sanitation, he told me I’d lost the right to have an opinion on anything that had happened in our house between the months of August and October.

It took me three days to realize my husband had trained the parakeets to say un merde each time I entered the kitchen. One night, the birds squawked at me just as I came to help my husband prepare dinner (the couples counselor we were seeing had suggested we cook together in order to re-bond). It would be nice if the birds stopped swearing at me, I said, dumping a pot of green beans into a colander. At least I can count on them to stick around, my husband replied. He was by the stove, broiling steaks. I had to admit he’d gotten pretty good at cooking in my absence. He added that I’d be surprised how many words Henri and Jean-Francois knew. Between the three of us, we can have a decent conversation, he said, turning the steaks. We ate dinner in separate parts of the house, my husband in the kitchen and me on the front steps, one of the few places where I couldn’t hear the parakeets.

These birds are ruining my marriage, I told the couples counselor during the session my husband missed to take Henri and Jean-Francois to the vet. I described the way he let the birds fly around the dining room while we were eating, spent all his spare time husking sunflower seeds and cleaning their cage, and woke at six o’clock in the morning—he’d read parakeets learn best in the morning—to teach them new words: au voleur (stop, thief), adieu (farewell), qu’est-ce que je vais faire (what am I going to do). The counselor suggested I try to make peace with the parakeets. When I went home that afternoon, I fed Jean-Francois a ribbon of lettuce and he bit my knuckle.

That winter, I got pneumonia. I was home sick from my accounting office for a week, coughing and shivering, wondering if what my life had turned into wasn’t just a terrible fever dream. The whole time, my husband fussed over the parakeets, worried my presence was disrupting their routines, that they weren’t eating enough and the water in their birdbath was too cold. I’d stagger downstairs for chamomile tea and find him on the sofa, the parakeets wrapped in downy blankets and clutched to his chest. When the pneumonia finally passed, I told my husband we needed to talk. I told him that I got the picture. I had hurt him, now he was getting me back, and he was doing a pretty good job of it too. Then I tried to reason with him, said it had to stop, that we couldn’t go on like this much longer. He bit his upper lip, pressed his hands against his knees. The parakeets chirped in the kitchen. When he looked to me, I saw at once what he was thinking: I don’t think I can.

The next evening, my husband had to work late and I found myself alone with the birds. Un merde, they said, in perfect synchrony, when I entered the kitchen to order take-out Chinese. It had been snowing all week, the temperatures dipping into the single digits. Parakeets, I had learned from my husband, were very sensitive to weather. Looking at the birds, I forgot all about the years of fighting and the dentist. I allowed myself to think the parakeets were the reason I couldn’t remember the last time I’d laughed with my husband. I opened the kitchen window, then the cage door. Cold air gusted into the kitchen. Jean-Francois fluffed his feathers. I used the clucking noise my husband made when he fed the birds, trying to urge them from their cage. The parakeets pecked the air, uninterested in my plan. They glanced at each other, their eyes like specks of ink. In the shadowy light of the kitchen, they looked all-knowing, prehistoric. For a moment, I thought they could understand my thoughts. I began to feel dizzy and sat down. Later, after my husband came home and found me on the kitchen floor, the window still open and the birds quivering on their perches, after he asked me what I thought I was doing, I told him c’est ou l’amour m’a apporte (this is where love brought me).

Laura van den Berg lives in Boston and attends the MFA program at Emerson College, where she is the editor-in-chief of Redivider and a Ploughshares staff member. Her fiction has or will soon appear in The Indiana Review, The Literary Review, American Short Fiction, One Story, and StoryQuarterly, among others. Her stories have also received awards from Glimmer Train and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. A recipient of the 2007 Dzanc Prize, Laura’s first story collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, will be published by Dzanc Books in 2009

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