Sunday, June 24, 2012
Sins of the Mockingbird
(Copyright 2012, Dee Fairbanks Simpson, unpublished short fiction)
Octavius Mimus was born in early autumn when the fall migration was just starting. From the day he was born, the sound of birds outside his nursery filled his ears and calmed his heart. As soon as he could walk, he would go to the window and stare out for hours at the birds fluttering from tree to tree.
As he grew, he learned, seemingly by instinct, the names of the birds. When he was old enough to choose his own bedtime stories, he made his father read to him from Peterson's Field Guide.
"Come on, now Octavius," his father would say. "Wouldn't you rather hear about Peter Rabbit? Or the Wizard of Oz?" And as always, Octavius would cry until his father relented and began reading from the Peterson Guide.
"Cardinal: A red..." and Octavius would finally drop off to sleep dreaming of, seeing, and knowing every bird in the world.
He started keeping a life list as soon as he could write. His parents were not birders, but they frequently spoke of the cardinals and blue jays and mockingbirds that they saw, attempting to relate to their son in the only way they knew how.
"No," Octavius would say. "You are mistaken. There aren't any mockingbirds out there. I just looked."
He was only five years old, but his parents already knew not to correct him where birds were concerned. "No," his mother sighed, "I must be mistaken."
By the time he was ten, his life list was close to a hundred, and his life in general revolved around birds. In an effort to get him to socialize more, his parents took him to his first Audubon meeting. The people at the meeting smiled when little Octavius announced that he had a life list of 98 species. "98? Wow," said an old lady in a condescending tone. "That's an awful lot of birds for such a little boy."
The condescending tone was lost on Octavius, as he proudly handed her his list. Through the propped open door, he heard an bird call outside, and he absently called out, "Screech owl". The old lady raised an eyebrow at the fact that he identified the owl correctly only by his call. After looking over the list, she handed it back to Octavius, and said sweetly, "Well, it's a very impressive list, but you forgot to write down mockingbird!"
Octavius was crestfallen and ashamed. In his ten years he had never seen a mockingbird. He knew that all of the guidebooks said mockingbirds are common in his home state of Florida. He knew they lived in every state in the union. He knew, deep down, that his mother and father were right when they said they saw them in the yard. But some how, inexplicably, he had never, not once, ever seen a mocking bird.
"Yeah." He lied to the old lady, "I forgot to write it down. I'll add it when I get home. I don't... have a pencil." He quickly snatched his list back and ran to the snack table to bury his shame in cookies and punch.
After that first Audubon meeting, he quickly gained a reputation and began birding with the grown ups. He was asked to participate in field trips and bird counts and he even tried his hand at some competitive birding, keeping species count totals by day, month and year. But, his secret shame continued. Even when birding with groups, he still did not see a mockingbird.
On one Christmas count, he was determined that he would never leave his teammates; he would HAVE to see a mockingbird. The count started at 6:00 a.m. Finally at 4:00 p.m., he could not stand it any longer and had to leave his team momentarily to visit a bush. He was not gone longer than 3 minutes, but when he returned, he was devastated to see the damning checkmark on the page. "Hey," his teammate exclaimed, "We finally got a mocker, funny that's the only one we've seen all day, no one would ever believe us if we came back without that!"
Octavius wanted to cry, but again, hid his secret shame. "Yeah, wouldn't that have been unusual," he muttered through gritted teeth.
Eventually, he turned 17, got his license, and began serious competitive birding. After three tries, he broke his first "Big Day" record, with 135 species seen in one day in the month of October. He proudly submitted the record to the American Birding Association's national Big Day editor. A few weeks later, he received a letter.
Dear Mr. Mimus,
There appears to be an omission in your record. Can you please verify that you saw a mockingbird? Thank you for your time.
ABA Big Day Editor
He did not know what to do. He was painfully honest, and would not lie for the sake of the record. He ignored the letter and let the record drop. He would rather not have the record than admit he had not seen a mockingbird.
He eventually worked out big days to a science. Using maps, plot points, graphs and charts, he learned where all the birds in Florida were (except, of course, the mockingbird) and over the next few years managed to break the Big Day record for all 12 months. But he could not bring himself to be questioned about the mockingbird. "The numbers are the important thing," he told himself. So, he erased one species from each record bid and replaced it with "Mockingbird." He still felt a twinge of guilt, but just could not face being questioned again.
By the time he was 30, in addition to every Big Day record, he held all of the Big Month and the Big Year records as well. He was very well known for his birding prowess; all of the local birding festivals sought his expertise, and he even began leading his own tours. But still, his dark secret pained him deep down inside. For every record, he still omitted one bird and replaced it with "Mockingbird"
Eventually, he found a girl who loved birds, and more importantly loved him. They married and spent 40 years birding together. They had a successful bird guiding business together, and they led tours first in the United States, then worldwide. Shortly after his 72nd birthday, he had his 4000th life bird in Costa Rica. But alas, still no mocking bird.
On their 45th wedding anniversary, he seemed sad and withdrawn. His wife sat beside him on their porch swing, overlooking their birdfeeders in the back yard.
"I have something to confess..." he started hesitating.
"What is it" she asked? She noticed a tear running down his cheek.
"I... I..." he stammered. "I've never seen a mockingbird..." by now he was crying outright" "All of my records are LIES!"
She sat in silence for a moment. He was clearly upset, yet deep down, she could not believe what he was saying. She laughed nervously. "You're joking... you're not joking." After a few minutes of uneasy silence, she said, "Wait... I saw a mockingbird nest in the county park just yesterday, right in the pine behind the fountain. I know the babies haven't fledged yet, let's go over right now, and I'll show them to you."
He sighed. "No, it's pointless. They won't be there, they never are. A snake or cat has gotten them by now. Trust me, I've stalked, I've pished, I've called, I've played owl tapes, I even set up a surveillance video system once. I will never EVER see one!" She gently took his hand.
"Come on now," she said. "They will still be there, it can't hurt to drive over to the park. It's a lovely day anyway, and even if we don't see one, we can look at other birds."
He slowly rose from the porch swing, and they made their way back into the house to get the car keys. The phone rang as they were heading towards the front door. He reached for the phone.
"Hello?" an excited voice rang out. "This is Billy, down the street! Mr. Mimus, I just saw a birds nest and there were little baby birds in it and I know you love birds cause you showed me some one day and they are really really neat and they are in the county park in a tree right behind the fountain, and you really should go look at it!" The young voice expelled everything without taking a breath.
Octavius laughed. "Actually, young Billy, we were just heading to the county park this minute to look at a nest."
He said goodbye to Billy, and as Octavius hung up the phone he looked at his wife and chuckled. "Well," he said, "Apparently they haven't fledged yet, Billy just saw them. Let's go!" And grabbing his wife's hand they headed out the door.
They drove to the county park, and were making the left turn into the entrance. Neither Octavius nor his wife ever saw the out of control 18-wheeler with the bad brakes.
Octavius found himself standing before St. Peter. "Where..." and he looked around.
"Hello Mr. Mimus," said St. Peter. "Did you enjoy your years as a human?'
"Uh... yes, very much, thank you. Are you St. Peter?"
St. Peter nodded. "Yes," he said absently, looking over a sheet of paper. "It says here that you led an exemplary life. Did lots for conservation, taught many children to love and respect birds and nature... but... uh-oh... we've got a few lies here. Lots of lies actually..."
Ocatavius looked at the ground, or clouds as it were. "About the mockingbirds... it was my greatest shame... I just couldn't face it..."
St. Peter smiled. "You don't remember, do you?"
Octavius looked at St. Peter. "Remember? Remember what?"
St. Peter waved his hand and a videotape and VCR appeared. "We always keep surveillance tapes up here. Critters have such short memories." He pressed the Play button on the VCR, and the surveillance tape began to run. Octavius watched the following:
The tape began with St. Peter looking down in bemusement. "Surely," he said, "there must be a mistake. Before him, awaiting judgment, was a small mockingbird. St. Peter picked up a piece of paper titled, "Sins of Mr. Mockingbird", which he began to read. His bemusement began to sour as he read. Finally, lowering the paper, he looked down at the bird.
"It says here, Mr. Mockingbird," he began, "That you had a habit of smashing other birds eggs? How do you defend yourself?"
The mockingbird looked up at St. Peter, squinted his eyes, and, putting his wings on his hips, looked as defiant as he could muster. "I don't defend myself. I just felt like breaking some eggs."
St. Peter shook his head. "Well," he began, "Many birds will take other birds eggs to eat or feed to their young. Were you hungry?"
"Nope" said the mockingbird plainly, "I just liked smashing eggs."
"Hmm.." St. Peter began again. "Well, sometimes birds kick other bird's eggs out and replace them with their own, for the other bird to raise. It's an instinctual thing that we put into some birds. Did you replace the eggs with your own?"
The mockingbird let out a bored sigh. "Are you not listening to me? I just ENJOYED smashing eggs!"
"But..." St. Peter stammered. "I've never had to punish a bird before... are you sure there wasn't a better reason?"
The mockingbird ran his wing over the top of his head. "You are really getting on my nerves now. For Pete's sake, get on with your little 'punishment' thing."
St. Peter stared at the bird for a moment. "I punish you to go back to earth to life a lifetime as a human.
The bird laughed. "A human? A long life span, drive a car, oh yeah, that's some big punishment! I thought you were gonna make me be a dung beetle or something!"
St. Peter smiled at the mockingbird. "I hereby sentence you to be a birder."