Greener: A short story on the magic of Southwest Florida’s birds
By Lori Goshert
The olive green pigment spread as Callum’s expert hand swiped the paintbrush in a half-circle across the canvas. A few more brushstrokes revealed a sea turtle’s shell, then the head and limbs. Using a series of smaller brushes, Callum coaxed the animal into being until it was perfect—for the tourists—and then turned with a satisfied sigh to the larger canvas behind him. Shades of viridian with swirls of lime. He added a few bright swipes of orange and crimson. Callum’s eyes shone as he caught his breath. Was he at the point where one more stroke would ruin it? He would leave it and look at it later to decide.
Callum washed his long, slender hands and brushes, breathing in the smell of acrylic and oil paints. It was a smell he never tired of. Paints, any paints. Linseed oil. The sea. The mangrove swamps behind his home on Wild Lime Drive. Callum glanced at the clock. Only 11:00. He would sit in the backyard for half an hour before lunch. Sitting in the sun always gave him inspiration for his paintings—his beloved abstracts, that is, not the beach and wildlife-themed paintings he sold in the local souvenir shops and artist co-ops such as Pandora’s Box and Hirdie Girdie.
He folded his tall body into a lawn chair, looked up at the sun, and closed his eyes, waiting for the colors to flood in behind his eyelids. As a band of iridescent circles floated across, Callum felt a presence next to him and, opening his eyes, noticed a raccoon staring at him from five feet away. The animal was not afraid. It was Callum’s unique gift. Hello friend, Callum thought, then closed his eyes again.
Ever since he was a child, Callum had had a special connection with animals. It was something between telepathy and empathy, and it had grown stronger over time. He could understand their thoughts—if they could be called “thoughts.” It was really more like a collection of abstract ideas and primal emotions from the animal’s mind: danger, fear, hunger, contentment, distress, “keep away” signals, a savage urgency during mating season. The more intelligent the animal, the stronger the connection. Callum had not experienced much success with insects or small reptiles or rodents. And the animals… well, they understood him, in their animal way. They seemed to know his intentions toward them and, as a result, did not fear him. Along with his considerable talent in painting, Callum’s gift was one of the secrets of his success, as he could approach animals in their own habitats and sketch them.
Callum couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t known that he was different from his peers, and a combination of natural caution and his sixth sense had warned him against speaking too much about it, so he had avoided being labeled “crazy.” People noticed, of course, that he had a “way” with animals—that couldn’t be hidden. Family and friends had eventually nudged, pushed, and prodded him into veterinary school, which he finished with difficulty. Working in proximity to distressed animals, day after day, mentally exhausted Callum. He never even kept a pet because of the strain of having one animal’s mind with him every day. Luckily, his paintings brought in a decent income.
R-r-r-ing! Callum leapt six inches into the air and scrambled in his pocket for the offensive device, which jumped from his hand and landed in the bushes. Callum shook the swirling colors out of his head and lunged for the still-ringing phone. As he reached under the greenery, a hiss and a low roar propelled him backward. Something is really “off” with me today, Callum thought, rubbing his sore backside. He never had unpleasant encounters with alligators because he could always sense their presence. They gave off strong “keep away” signals, as well as a cold, murky “swamp monster” vibe that was impossible to mistake. Suspecting a robocall, Callum frowned at the unfamiliar number on the screen and went back inside.
Before sunset, Callum visited the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge with his sketchbook. Bird paintings were selling well at the shops, and the herons, egrets, and ibises had been absent from his backyard lately—probably something to do with the alligator in the bushes. Plus, Callum liked the refuge. It went without saying that they took the well-being of animals seriously there, but refuge staff had gone a step further a few years back by holding a funeral for the island’s only crocodile. Callum saluted their zeal. He found a cast of horseshoe crabs and started to sketch. He’d once heard a legend that horseshoe crabs were the reincarnated spirits of samurai warriors, and Callum wondered how to work the myth into a painting.
Hearing a rustling sound to his left, Callum turned and saw a heron. A green heron. These birds were notoriously difficult to see in the wild. The heron stared through him with knowing eyes, and Callum knew that something was wrong. He came closer, and the bird let him run his hands over his feathers. Callum found the break—in the radius bone of the wing, and not serious. The bird would make a quick recovery. Callum would take him home. He should take the bird to CROW, the nearby wildlife hospital where he sometimes volunteered, but, no, he decided to take him home.
He gently lifted the bird and settled him in the basket of his bicycle, covering him with his green jacket. Would he stay hidden? He would. Taking the bird was probably illegal. No, scratch “probably.” He was sure it was illegal. But, Callum told himself, it was temporary and he knew what he was doing. And the bird wanted to go with him; he was sure of that.
Callum tried as hard as he could to avoid any uneven pavement on the way home. Back at the house, he found a wide but shallow box, set it on the table, which he pushed into the corner, added an old flannel sheet and some pieces of bark, and placed the heron inside. After digging out his first aid kit, Callum bound the bird’s wing.
Dinner. It wasn’t a question, but a command. Callum needed to buy fish, something he did not keep handy. He had been a vegetarian since the manifestation of his gift, and he had terrible nightmares if he ate meat or fish, even by accident. The heron looked comfortable enough, so Callum left to stock up on groceries.
A short time later the bird gulped down some sardines Callum had brought back from Bailey’s General Store. Callum ate leftover pasta, his chin on his hand as he contemplated his houseguest. He placed a bowl of water in the box and plugged in a night light before going to bed. Unable to sleep, he got out of bed and checked on the heron 30 minutes later and found him resting but still awake. Callum lay back down on his bed and soon felt the bird sink into sleep in the other room.
Callum examined the bird the next morning and found him content and healing well. He knew it was best not to change the gauze binding yet, so he left it and set out some fish and fresh water, then sat next to him to eat breakfast. He enjoyed studying his quiet guest. Green herons are beautiful and intelligent, one of the few bird species that use tools to hunt. This bird stood just under a foot and a half tall, with brilliant yellow eyes, a sharp, shiny black bill, a green-black cap and back, dark, glossy wings, and a reddish-brown neck with a white stripe. Inspired, Callum prepared a new canvas to sketch his model for that day and several days more. This heron was going to earn his fish.
The day passed quickly and productively, but Callum’s sleep that night was disturbed by sensations of crawling things and by black and yellow eyes boring into him. He awoke nervous and rather itchy. The heron stared at Callum as he staggered, bleary-eyed, into the kitchen. Was it Callum’s imagination, or did the bird understand and sympathize with his sleepless night?
That day and the next were spent caring for and feverishly painting the heron. The bird’s wing was on the mend, and the gift shop owners were going to be thrilled with the likenesses. Callum also worked on two abstracts. Inspiration flowed through him like water these days. The nights, however, brought him increasingly horrible visions of eyes and insects, and the desire to stalk through dark places and dart out his neck toward slimy, cold creatures.
On the fourth day, Callum found himself overcome with a strange desire to consume one of the fish he had bought for the heron. The idea horrified and disgusted him, but nevertheless the intensity of the craving increased until he couldn’t stand it. He took a sardine from the tin and swallowed it raw and whole. Callum shuddered as it slipped down his throat and then bolted a second one, and a third. He abruptly stood up and lurched to the sink, sure he was about to be sick, but instead a profound contentment spread through his body as his bewildered stomach settled.
Over the next few days, Callum began to worry about his health. He was losing weight, though when he looked in the mirror he couldn’t tell where it was dropping from. His skin seemed thinner, with larger pores, and he had a slight fever. He didn’t feel unwell, but his mind was fuzzy. His reflexes, however, had become abnormally quick. One morning, he bumped into his work table, knocking a bottle of paint thinner off the edge, and managed to catch it just before it could shatter on the floor.
Callum never lost his ardor for painting during his indisposition and continued to accumulate more material to sell and to exhibit. If anything, the herons on his canvasses became more and more lifelike, like his injured guest in the corner who had by now almost completely healed. Callum changed the bandages and found that the heron would need only a couple more days of his care. He imagined something of his own essence slipping through his fingers into the bird’s bones.
One night, he dreamed of hollow needles pushing through his skin from the inside, sprouting and erupting in a spray of black-green. Callum discovered that he stood 18 inches tall and was surrounded by yellow eyes. He tried to scream, but all that came out was a hoarse kyow. He covered his mouth and found his hand impaled on a sharp, heavy bill. Callum woke in a cold sweat, frantically clawing at his skin. He lay gasping on the bed, heart racing. After a few minutes, he got up and took a shower to calm down. He pulled out a battered Kafka novel to keep him occupied until morning.
Callum examined the heron before breakfast and decided it was time to take him back to the refuge. As he was getting ready, the doorbell rang. Callum swore under his breath. He’d forgotten that his friend Greg was coming over to borrow his camera. Callum knew he had neglected his friends these past two weeks, and he hoped he wasn’t about to get a piece of Greg’s mind. After a few seconds’ deliberation, he opened the door without hiding the bird.
“Bad night? You look like hell!” Greg walked past him into the room.
“Thanks a lot. I couldn’t sleep. I must have eaten something wrong.” Callum rubbed his itchy forearm.
“Whoa! What do you have here? Is that a night heron?”
“Green heron. He had an injured wing, but he’s okay now. I was just about to release him.”
“Cool.” Greg turned to Callum’s latest canvas. “Self-portrait?”
“It’s the heron,” said Callum, flustered.
“I can see that. But it also looks like you!”
“I don’t know. There’s just something about it. Maybe in the eyes.”
“My eyes are brown, not yellow.”
“Well, there’s something about it.” Greg picked up the camera. “I’d better get started while the light is good. Do you want to come over tomorrow? We’re having a cookout. There’s a package of Boca Burgers with your name on it in the freezer.”
“Sure, sounds good.”
“Great. Come by around six.”
After Greg left, Callum packed up the heron, placed him carefully in the basket on his bicycle, and started for the refuge. The ride went smoothly, and Callum found a deserted area and uncovered the heron. The bird stared into Callum’s eyes for a few long seconds before spreading his strong wings and flying into the trees. Callum shivered and put on the green jacket that had covered the heron. He took a few steps toward the mangroves, trying to catch a glimpse of his recent houseguest. The bird had vanished. Callum sat by the side of the road and wrapped his arms around his knees, confused by the sudden burning behind his eyes and the ache in his chest. He rested his head on his hands and took a few deep breaths. Finally, he got on his bike and started for home.
Emptiness enveloped him as he walked in the door. Callum crossed the room in a dreamlike state and moved the heron’s box from the table to the floor. He stepped inside and lowered himself gingerly into a sitting position, tucked his head under his wing, and went to sleep.
Lori Goshert is a writer, essayist and copy editor living in Southwest Florida.