Alison Thompson



The noises he makes don’t seem birdlike. Without a syrinx he is limited
to grunts and rumbles, hisses and barks. He sulks in the cage’s far corner,
his back turned on his captors. So far, he has refused all food, averting his gaze
when they crouch at the door proffering fat fish and making cooing sounds
like those they might make to a kitten. At last, in exasperation, they skip
the fish across the floor to his feet. He flaps his good wing, shimmies
his feathers, lengthens his neck, then positions his bill underneath
his wing. No, you don’t, they say, and he shuffles deep into the corner
as they wrestle him down and prise open his beak. The half-frozen fish
slides down his gullet then he heaves it back up with a rush of sour seawater
that douses their feet. Bloody Pelican. As they leave, he grunts and huffs, turns his back
on them again. Later, as the moon lights the bars of his cage, he clacks his beak
and flicks up the fish, flipping and turning each one until they point headfirst
down his throat on the swallow. As the moon sets, he lets his damaged wing
droop to the floor and sleeps. Next morning, he is docile, takes fish
straight from their hands. He tolerates being lifted, endures
their manipulations with eyes closed, his body tensed and rigid
against their alien clasp. The incongruity of hands
on feathers, the staccato snap of fingers on bill-skin; needles
like shards of fishbone lodged in his muscle. The anonymity of anaesthetic
rewiring his brain. As he awakes, he stiffens against the weft and graft of suture,
the grip of tape and cloth, the way it barbs his feathers, nips his skin.

Six weeks later he stands on the timber pier and blinks in the pallor
of the morning sky. He shakes, not unlike a dog, tests his wings,
easing them out full span, remaining stock-still as the breeze
fills the space beneath. It appears, for a moment, as if he sighs,
then he leans to the wind, and his body ripples and clicks into action;
a rapid-fire waddle across the platform. At the edge he turns back with a grunt
and one last look: the first from that yellow-bordered Oligocene eye
that meets their eyes: an ancient gaze that traverses thirty-odd
million years. After this there’s no turning back.
As he hops down into the ribbon of water flowing fast below the pier
he lets loose a final guttural hiss, and a bark that reverberates
across the inlet and all those strange unfeathered creatures
perched high above him begin to whoop, whistle, and cheer.


The woman opposite has an emerald eye—a trick of reflection
from a forest-filled window. Within this room’s cathedral light,

we are writing and breathing, snatching at words, scratching
tiny footprints on paper. This water-carved valley is deeper than bone,

as ancient as sound. As the afternoon exhales we wrestle our history, confess
our obsessions—emblazon our language with stones.


Two decades on I have found a way
to be grateful for your death: not its fact, rather
the ease of its coming—a usual day delivering the mail—
the valley unfolding before you, causing you to pause now and again
when a view surprised you into noting the spot as a good place to sketch.
Even the exact moment I can think of with wonder, the whirring of the car engine
against Stievans’ mailbox, the bus driver stepping down from the school bus
on the return run to find you resting against the steering wheel,
already dreaming your next painting into eternity.

Perhaps you knew—gulping down two angina tablets before setting out
and taking the packet with you. I suppose you should have called
your doctor but having witnessed the hospital formalities
of other deaths, who would deny you that bright
untrammelled day—that final landscape
to immerse yourself in, and I
to remember you by.