A tumult of dark clouds abruptly filled the tropical sky shrouding the ground beneath the rainforest canopy in false twilight. There was a crack of thunder and then rain. A torrent. Immediately.
Mattie lowered the binoculars from her eyes and squinted through the deluge. The rain was like an undulating veil buffeted by the gusting wind. Visibility was barely six metres.
“Mattie! Mattie!” A chubby young woman called from beneath the shelter of a giant kapok tree.
“Go back to the cabin, Fiona.”
“Mattie, you’re getting soaked. Besides, you’ll never be able to see Pickles through this rain.”
“Fiona, go back to the cabin.”
“Do you want me to get you a rain slicker?”
“No, and will you please go back to the fucking cabin?”
Another five minutes and it was over. This region of Costa Rica received over two hundred and fifty centimetres of precipitation a year, most between May and November in daily fifteen-minute deluges like this one.
The sun was already reasserting itself as was the humidity. The rainforest glistened with droplets. A kaleidoscope of mauve, white and magenta orchids competed with the multi-coloured spiky bromeliads both in contrast to the spidery verdant epiphytes that lived on the branches high in the canopy. Mattie raised the binoculars and scoured the treetops. She saw toucans, Great Greens but no sign of Pickles, the Blue and Gold Macaw she’d recently returned to the wild. Her heart sank.
She’d arrived at Ara Manzanillo Station on the Caribbean side of the Central American country two months ago with Pickles, her best friend and constant companion for the past twenty-two years. She was there to fulfill a promise to herself to re-wild the parrot after an outbreak of West Nile virus had killed thirty-eight similar birds in her care.
The tragedy had left Mattie disheartened with her mission to rescue exotic birds people buy as pets and then abuse and abandon. She’d shut down the Saunders Bird Rescue and Sanctuary, the associated bird boarding service and gift shop and sold the property. She’d become determined to return Pickles to the wild, not only because she’d come to believe keeping birds in captivity as pets was cruel and unnatural, but her friend was slowly pining away. Parrots mate for life and one of the victims of the virus had been her mate, Manny. Pickles’ broken heart was breaking hers, and Mattie hoped freedom would resurrect the bird’s spirit and assuage her guilt.
But re-wilding a bird was more than just opening a cage and letting it go. Many had been born in captivity and had no idea of how to survive in the wild. The transition had to be supported and gradual. Ara Manzanillo was one of the few places in the world that knew how to do it successfully.
However, the goal of the Ara Project was to establish new populations of Great Green Macaws, and it took a lot of persuading for them to take on re-wilding a Blue and Gold, including Mattie’s commitment as a volunteer, her promise to publish a professional paper on the project, and a considerable donation. And that didn’t begin to account for the damage the trip was having on her relationship with Simon.
When Mattie told him, she’d be leaving as soon as her spring teaching semester at university ended, he was less than enthusiastic.
“She has to be taught an entirely new way of life.”
“How do you know she’ll even take to it?”
“I have to do something, Simon. I can’t just stand by and watch her die. You’ve seen how listless she is.”
“She seems fine to me. Are you sure you’re not doing it because you feel guilty about the other birds?”
“Of course, I feel guilty about the other birds.” How could he be so insensitive? She took a deep breath. “That makes it all the more important to save Pickles and allow her to live the rest of her life in nature, free and not restricted to a tiny cage.”
“She’s hardly ever in her cage.”
“Look. I’m going, so deal with it.”
“What about the house?”
“What about it? You’re the carpenter.” They were building a new house and there were still lots of decisions to make. Visiting a cavernous building and supply store with Simon had been beyond boring, and after only one excursion Mattie had relegated the choice of fixtures and finishes to him.
“Okay, but don’t complain if the living room isn’t painted the colour you like.”
She wouldn’t. Mattie didn’t put much stock in her physical surroundings, probably the result of being bumped from one foster home to another until she was twelve.
She could tell Simon was disappointed, but she had to do this. Besides, last year he’d spent five weeks in the northern British Columbia wilderness helping organize, support and bear witness to yet another First Nations protest. Then, on arriving home, worked day and night for three more weeks on Wendy Walters’ political campaign. Mattie wasn’t jealous, anxious maybe, because she knew Simon was like a virus, a love virus, and all women were susceptible. Some showed no symptoms, some were able to fight it off, but prolonged exposure in proximity invariably led to full-blown infection. Wendy had a viral overload.
With the help of Simon, the Indigenous candidate had retained her seat in that federal election, but the Liberal Party hadn’t fared so well and only managed to eke out a minority government. With the Prime Minister’s popularity in the tank, a leadership convention was held, and Walters won on the first vote. Three months after the election, the government lost a confidence vote and parliament was dissolved. In the subsequent federal election, Walters continued her winning ways and led the Liberals to a sweeping victory.
Now the Prime Minister of Canada, Wendy Walters had more pressing issues than pursuing Simon, but Mattie had no misgivings about the woman who’d become the first Indigenous Prime Minister in the country’s history. She was tough, determined, and smart, as well as being the most powerful person in the land, and worst of all, still in love with Simon. Once things settled down, Mattie knew she’d come calling with all kinds of inducements to lure him away on the pretext of helping their people. And Simon would take the call.
But what the hell, Mattie had her causes too, and providing a better life for her beloved Pickles was a priority. Besides she trusted Simon. She just wished she wasn’t so far away, for so long.
The night before she’d left, Simon suggested they go out for dinner.
“Can’t. Still haven’t packed.”
His question as to whether Pickles would adapt to the new life she was being offered had hit a nerve. There was no guarantee the re-wilding would be successful. The parrot may not acclimatize, may not socialize, may get killed by a predator or become sick and die. But rather than reconsider, she’d rebuffed him.
She’d already lived to regret it. Every night as she lay in bed and listened to the drumming of raindrops on the cabin’s corrugated metal roof and the unfamiliar cries and calls of the rainforest, she willed he’d still be there when she got back; the same loving, beautiful person she’d been a bitch too. She craved his presence, his scent, his sound. She wished she could channel the witching power attributed to her by her followers on social media and cast spells to protect him from temptation, specifically the Wendy Walters kind.
But here she was seven thousand kilometres from home, soaked to the skin hoping to say goodbye one last time to a bird she’d rescued, cared for and spoiled rotten for years and the petulant parrot purposely wouldn’t even reveal herself. So much for gratitude.
“Why am I doing this?” Mattie asked herself as she scanned the tree-tops again. The sun was low, the shadows long and night fell like a curtain in the tropics. Time to head back to the cabin. As Mattie emerged from the dripping foliage there was Fiona with a yellow rain slicker.
“There’s hot tea waiting for you in the cabin.”
“Thanks, Fi. Sorry, I’m such a bitch.” Mattie took the slicker and draped it over her shoulders.
Most of the volunteers, including Fiona, were the same age as Mattie’s students back home, whom she considered privileged pains in the ass. These kids were different or was it because she worked alongside them? Being older, more experienced in bird husbandry, and better at giving orders than taking them, it didn’t take long before she unwittingly became their de facto supervisor.
She shared a cabin with Fiona and Eleanor, the latter who was seldom there preferring the company of Evan, another volunteer, to theirs. There were two rooms, one for sleeping with two sets of bunk beds, and a larger one for everything else; cooking, eating and relaxing, though most of the socializing was done on the screened veranda that stretched across the front of the wooden structure. The tiny bathroom had a toilet and rusty shower stall. Hands were washed in the kitchen sink.
Fiona was in awe of everything “Mattie” which was annoying except when it came to dinner. She could cook and was more than happy to make enough for two. A good thing, because Mattie didn’t think a human could survive on a diet of granola bars for six weeks. To compensate, Mattie insisted on doing the dishes, but since her companion was never far from her side, she let her dry rather than stand there doing nothing.
“Pickles will probably show up tomorrow before you leave,” Fiona said. They trudged across the muddy compound toward the cabins.
“That would be nice but, after all, the reason I came here was to reintroduce her to the wild. It seems absurd to complain that she adapted too well.” Mattie felt the need to talk. “But what does it say about our relationship?”
“Don’t worry, Mattie. She’ll be there in the morning.”
If she wanted an objective opinion, she wasn’t going to get it from Fiona who agreed or endorsed her every utterance. Which was fine. She was just trying to make sense of her feelings and hopefully verbalizing them would help. She didn’t want a conversation.
“You think something loves you because you look after it, but what you’re really doing is denying it the skills and means to become independent. In the case of a parrot, it’s an actual cage, but with another human, the restraints could be emotional or psychological. But as soon as they get the opportunity to be free, they’re gone and not looking back. It makes you wonder if all along they hated you?”
“No,” Fiona said. “Pickles loves you,”
“Or is the pull of freedom that strong?”
“How long were you two together?”
“Wow! That’s as long as I’ve been alive. No wonder you’re so messed up.”
Mattie smiled. You have no idea.
The rustic cabin was in shadows and dark when they arrived.
Mattie pushed open the door and stepped inside.
“Surprise!” Lights went on and she was greeted by the full contingent of volunteers plus three staff, fourteen in all crowded into the small cabin. A hand-painted sign taped to the back wall read “Thank You, Mattie!”
Rain dripping from the end of her nose, hair plastered to her head, she’d looked better, but her bedraggled appearance wasn’t her main concern. Mattie hated being the centre of attention. There was nowhere to hide, so she smiled and put on a brave face.
“I propose a toast.” Evan was from an old-money American family. Mattie assigned him the most demeaning tasks including cleaning out the fifty-gallon barrels used as nest boxes by mating pairs the previous season. To his credit, he’d done a good job and never complained.
“To Mattie Saunders. She told us what to do, showed us how to do it, and kicked our ass if it wasn’t done properly. We should all be as committed to birds as she is. To Mattie.”
They all raised a glass or mug of whatever they were drinking. “To Mattie,” they said in unison followed by, “speech, speech!”
“Thank you, but I can’t take credit for what comes naturally, being a bossy control freak. On behalf of the Great Green Macaw, I thank you all for your hard work and commitment. I also want to thank Ara Manzanillo for this and other projects they’ve initiated to ensure the long-term future of wild parrots.”
Cheers were followed by a raucous version of Old Lang Syne. All so young and yet so maudlin.
The crowd regrouped around a bowl of fruit punch, no doubt laced with guaro the popular local rum, munched crunchy cheese snacks called Chirulitos and shouted at each other over Latin rhythms of salsa and merengue blasting from someone’s computer playlist.
Mattie went into the bathroom for a towel. She dried her red-brown spiky hair, then tried to tame it in the mirror and failed. Despite her tropical tan, dark smudges were evident beneath her hazel eyes, which were green now, though they could change to light brown to dark gold. “Oops.” Rigid nipples were jutting out beneath her wet t-shirt. She wasn’t chesty, rather the opposite, but she had enough to give the boys an eyeful. In fact, it looked like she’d put on weight and little wonder considering how much of Fiona’s French toast she’d eaten.
She opened the bathroom door, prepared to dash to the bedroom and get decent but Fiona was waiting.
“Maybe you should wear this.” She held out a hoodie. “It’s getting chilly.”
Hoodie on, the young men seemed less attentive.
“I’ll miss you, Mattie Saunders,” Miguel said. “You did half my work for me.” The site manager had quickly noticed the dynamic between Mattie and the younger, less experienced volunteers and wisely assumed an oversight role.
“Sorry if I overstepped,” Mattie said. “It reminded me of the work I used to do in the sanctuary. I enjoyed it.”
“I realize it’s also the teacher-student thing. After doing it for so long I assume the role without even realizing it.”
“You’re a natural teacher, Mattie. The kids love you.”
“I don’t know about that.”
But apparently, they did. As the evening ended, the girls came up and hugged her, the boys shook her hand, there were promises to keep in touch and tears all around. Mattie marvelled at this pop-up family, how they could be so caring and become so attached in such a short time. She envied them. They were so full of hope and energy, how could she not love them back, or at least be fond of some of them?
“I’m definitely going to take your course at the University of British Columbia,” Fiona said, tears streaming down her face.
“If you think I was a bitch here, wait until I’m your professor.”
“Nonsense. You’re tough, but you’re fair, and honest and passionate.”
“Maybe on a good day.” Prior to her two months at Ara, there hadn’t been many of those.
The party was over quickly. Work began at sunrise.
Mattie stood on the porch and let the night air cool her body and mind. Swaths of mist clung to the dripping trees and slid across the damp earth. Tomorrow she was leaving, flying to Honduras enticed by an invitation from Inez, someone she’d met under tragic circumstances on a Mexican holiday from hell a year ago and the promise to locate and study The Black Solitary Eagle, endemic to the region though endangered to the point extinction. She realized now, the side trip was ill-advised and would likely only account for five more days away from Simon. And that was even before Ann-Louise’s warning call.
“It’s not a good time to visit your friend in Honduras,” her half-sister said calling from Vancouver.
“I’m doing fieldwork, the visit is just a courtesy.”
“Two Indigenous leaders have been killed in the last two days. Peace Brigades International and Inez Ramos are right in the middle of it.”
“Looking out for the family investments, Ann?”
Mattie was not surprised Ann knew where she was going and whom she was visiting. As chief executive officer of the Soames Family Trust, a multi-billion-dollar financial behemoth and responsible for investments spanning the globe, Ann needed and had access to the best intelligence available. Mattie didn’t question the sources, though she sometimes questioned the ethics.
“More for family, than investments,” her half-sister said.
That was touching since Mattie wasn’t legally considered family. Young, rich and rebellious, Griffin Soames was in a relationship with Mattie’s nineteen-year-old mother when she got pregnant. His family intervened, reigned in young Griffin and paid off Mattie’s mother so the birth certificate read “father unknown”. Decades later, married, widowed and afflicted with early-onset Alzheimer’s he’d confessed to his daughter, Ann, about his youthful indiscretion. Ann had magnanimously reached out to Mattie and the relationship blossomed, but like all emotional interactions Mattie had with people, not without conflict.
“This is a rally attended by international celebrities, supporters and media. The last thing the government wants is an incident that would result in global condemnation.”
“Listen, Mattie. The stakes are high, and rule of law doesn’t stand for much in Honduras, or in most parts of the world for that matter. And a bullet doesn’t care if you’re rich, famous or have a first world-pedigree. It kills without prejudice.”
“Thanks for the heads up, Ann. I’ll be careful.”
“And Mattie.” Ann hesitated.
“Does Inez know you’re related to me?”
“Perhaps it’s best to keep it that way.” And with that cryptic remark, she’d said goodbye.
Mattie wasn’t sure what Ann was implying but she didn’t like it, even if it was for her own good. She’d damn well travel where she wanted and tell people what she wanted, though that never included anything about herself. The more people knew about you the more vulnerable you were as far as she was concerned. No one even knew her birthday except her mother, and she’d been sworn to secrecy.
Time at Ara Manzanillo had flown by. When Mattie and Pickles had arrived, the parrot was subject to a thirty-day quarantine with regular health checks and disease testing. Mattie had visited Pickles every day during that period and spent as much time as her other volunteer duties permitted.
Right from the beginning, the macaw thrived in the new environment. She was healthier, happier, more alive than she’d been during the previous year. She was even making friends, vocalizing with released parrots that cavorted in the trees beyond her quarantine cage.
After two weeks, Pickles hardly responded to Mattie when she visited. Where once she coveted the time with her owner and was jealous of interlopers who might intervene, she now acted like it was an imposition. There were no kisses, cheek rubs, no affection whatsoever. She stayed on the perch or clung to the wire cage seeking out her wild companions. As Pickles became less needy, Mattie became more.
Just into the third week of the quarantine, Miquel approached her. “Your macaw is ready to join the other birds in the flight aviary.”
“But it’s only been three weeks. The quarantine is for a month.”
“That’s for birds who come to us abused and malnourished. Yours has had excellent care.” Miquel was trained in parrot husbandry and had years of experience.
The organization used a soft release protocol to gradually acclimate birds to their new surroundings before they were set free. The large flight aviary was where Pickles and other new macaws learned to identify and consume naturally occurring foods. Once a bird was eating and foraging well, it was ready. Supplemental feeding stations were provided as backup near the release site to ensure the birds’ overall health and well-being.
“She’s never been good with other birds. I worry she’s not ready,” Mattie said.
“Some are never ready to join the flock, but she can’t wait.”
Mattie’s reaction had surprised her. She should have been overjoyed. Pickles would soon be free to fly as high and as far as she liked in the Edenic ecosystem. Eat, sleep and play as much as she wanted when she wanted. Maybe even find a new mate and have a family.
She’d done right by her loving companion and yet she felt despondent and anxious. Was she going to suffer separation anxiety?
Two weeks later, Mattie opened the door to the flight aviary and Pickles was the first parrot on the threshold.
“This is it, Pickles. One small step for a macaw, one giant leap for your human.”
The bird didn’t hesitate. She flapped and flew. The forest erupted in a chorus of encouraging squawks and shrieks from her wild contemporaries as she climbed up, and up. As she flew higher, wild parrots appeared from the surrounding trees and joined in her flight to freedom until she disappeared into the canopy.
Tears welled in Mattie’s eyes and rolled down her sunburned cheeks. Her chest felt like it would explode.
Get over yourself.
But she couldn’t. Pickles was the last vestige of her old life. With her gone, she was without purpose. Adrift. The one thing she never considered, or refused to, was the impact setting Pickles free would have on her.
But maybe in setting Pickles free she could do the same for herself. If the parrot could start anew, why couldn’t she? Pickles couldn’t wait to be with her flock, perhaps that’s what Mattie needed. A flock of her own.
She’d always been uncompromising and opinionated, but since the sanctuary tragedy, she’d gotten worse. She felt empty and frequently had filled that void with anger. Often it was irrational, but even when it was justified it was excessive. People were afraid of her. She could sense it. They kept their distance, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing unless you loved them and wanted them to love you back.
Could she be less judgemental and more tolerant? Could she show compassion and try to understand a different perspective, even occasionally? Could she be nice?
She didn’t know, but she could try. Most people seemed willing to meet her halfway. A few like Simon, her mother and Ann-Louise – her half-sister went even further. She could start there and see where it went.
A flock of her own. It would be a radical shift from flying solo, but it might be worth it. She needed to do something.
But then again, she’d been devoted to Pickles for over two decades and look how that turned out. She hoped the parrot would appear in the morning before she left for one last goodbye.
She needed that validation.
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