SANDRA ARNOLD: Pīwakawaka, and other tales of Bird Watching In New Zealand

                                                 Flash fiction by Sandra Arnold 

The messenger

A fantail has been knocking at the windows all week. I tell myself it’s looking for insects, not trying to find a way into the house. According to Māori mythology a pīwakawaka is a messenger which flies into the house to warn the occupants of an approaching death. Two decades ago one got into the house through the open front door and sat on a ceiling beam twittering at us. Soon afterwards my mother-in-law died. As our son dug a hole in the rose garden into which our elder daughter tipped her grandmother’s ashes, a fantail sat on the washing line and watched us. Our youngest daughter pointed to the bird and said, “Uh-oh!” My husband glanced up then told her not to worry because statistically he was next in line to go, hopefully not until he’d reached her grandmother’s age. The fantail was simply one of many birds in our garden, he said. That messenger of doom thing was just superstitious nonsense. He patted down the soil around the yellow rose bush he’d planted on top of his mother. Besides which, he added, the superstition was about fantails flying into houses, not sitting on washing lines. Our daughter replied that she’d seen it flying out the open front door and as we weren’t in the house it had come out to find us. “Rubbish!” we all chorused.

A few months later she died. When her friends arrived at our house to say their goodbyes a fantail flew around their heads as they walked up the drive. They each stopped and listened to what the bird had to say and told me afterwards that they felt comforted by its presence. When we buried our girl’s ashes a few days later in another part of the garden I glanced around for the presence of a fantail. Not that I’m superstitious. Not in the least. I repeated this under my breath when I saw one perched on the garage roof watching us.

Since then the fantails have stayed in the garden minding their own business, chirruping in their tiny voices, reminding me of a waitress in our local café who is always busy, always flitting from one task to the next with quick light movements, always cheerful.

For two decades now I haven’t thought about the birds as messengers of any kind. Not that I ever believed they were. Not even this week when I open the curtains in the morning, nor when I work in my study, nor when we have dinner in the evening, all to the accompaniment of a fantail tapping on the window. There are no insects on the glass, but the tapping is persistent. On the seventh evening I tap on my side of the window to shoo the fantail away. I check to make sure there are no doors open. My husband raises his eyebrows. “It’s only a bird,” he insists in his quiet voice. “I know what it is,” I say.  

Flight path interrupted  

1989, January: Our three children bounded up the steep path at Taiaroa Head to see the albatrosses. They stood on the viewing platform, binoculars glued to their eyes. Lisa held her breath as she watched three albatrosses land on their nests to take their turn at incubating eggs, while the sitting parents flew out to sea to find food. Jeremy read us the facts about three metre wing spans and flying speeds of 120k per hour. Rachel told us that at seven months the chicks would weigh twice as much as the parents at 10 to 12 kg. While they quoted statistics about return rates and lifespan their faces shone with happiness. I watched the departing birds soar on the wind and disappear over the blue of the Pacific Ocean.

2020, August: I plodded up the steep path at Taiaroa Head, timing my visit to see fledgling chicks. From the viewing platform I could see one. It still had white fluff around its head, like egg white beaten with sugar into peaks. In two more weeks, all its feathers would have grown and it would be ready to fly. I watched it stretching its wings, strengthening its muscles. The young guide explained the mating, hatching and feeding habits of the albatrosses. In 1920 the first ones had arrived at Taiaroa Head from the Chatham Islands, she said, but because of predators and irresponsible humans, it was 1938 before the first chick was successfully hatched and fledged. 

Since then, careful conservation had improved survival rates. Good luck helped, she added, because sometimes eggs were infertile or the chicks died before fledging.
The parents of the chick we were watching returned less frequently now to feed it, she said. They’d leave the colony after the chick fledged, spend a year at sea and then, if they avoided trouble on the journey, return to breed again. The chick would fledge in September. It would stand at the edge of the headland waiting for a good wind. If it failed to gauge the wind correctly it would crash to the bottom of the cliff or fall into the sea. Some fledglings managed their first flight, but failed to return. The successful ones would fly around the world for six years then come back home to find a mate and begin breeding. I thanked her for her enthusiastic commentary. She said she loved her job, but it was time now for her own travels. She’d come back home one day, though, to raise her kids here.

Picking my way back down the steep path, I heard the echo of my children’s voices.  Rachel had come home on her own after six years travelling. Jeremy had settled in another country to raise his chicks. Lisa had died before fledging. I stopped to watch the giant petrels, spotted shags and red-billed gulls circling in the sky above the peninsula. Holding tight to the rail I wished the new fledglings all the luck in the world.

Sandra Arnold lives in New Zealand. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Central Queensland University, Australia and is the author of five books including three novels, a non-fiction work and a collection of flash fiction.  Her work has been widely published internationally and placed and short-listed in various competitions. She was awarded a residency at the Robert Lord Writers Cottage in Dunedin in 2020 to complete a new collection of flash fiction.

Flash Boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner photograph Wes Candela.

Published by poetrybay

George Wallace is a poet, professor and freelance editor living and working in NYC. Writer in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace since 2011, he is author of over 3 dozen books of poetry and editor/co-editor of such fine literary publications as Poetrybay, Great Weather for Media, Polarity, Flash Boulevard, Long Island Quarterly and Walt's Corner. George travels internationally to perform his poetry, and his many honors include the Naim Frasheri Prize (Tetova Poetry Festival), Orpheus Prize (Plovdiv Poetry Festival), National Beat Laureate (Beat Poetry Festival), Suffolk County Poet Laureate, CW Post Poetry Prize; and the Alexander Medal, from UNESCO/Greece, for his contribution to the arts.

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