In poet and novelist Nina Berkhout's Why Birds Sing (ECW Press), opera singer Dawn Woodward has had a pretty tough week. First she melted down completely on stage, her voice failing her and her career thrown into jeopardy, and now her husband has announced that his estranged brother is coming to live with them. And he's bringing his parrot.
By turns absurd, heartfelt, and profound, Why Birds Sing is a perfect read for our times. Hopeful, smart, and full of unexpected connection, it's great writing from a talented Canadian author.
Today we're proud to share an excerpt from Why Birds Sing, courtesy of ECW Press, with you here. Get a taste for this compelling book - you'll want to seek out the rest.
Excerpt from Why Birds Sing by Nina Berkhout:
ON THE MORNING of our anniversary my husband took my hands in his like he had something meaningful to say. It had been a bad year. I thought a beach vacation would be on offer. “I’d like Tariq to come and live with us,” he told me.
This was the brother who declined our wedding invitation and who left his own father’s funeral early. The one who seldom wished Ashraf happy birthday, or called to say hello. He lived just a few hours away, but didn’t visit. If ever Ash tried to go and see him, he would say he was out of town.
“Why?” I asked.
He wiped the inner corners of his eyes. “He has cancer.” I’d seen my husband cry only once, three years earlier when his father died. I held him and we sat at the kitchen table in silence until I asked, “Doesn’t your mom want to take care of him?”
Mina, who used to live in the suburbs, had recently bought a condo on our street. “We’re not telling her,” Ash said. “Not until he’s better.”
“What about his gashti, then?” That was Mina’s nickname for Tariq’s wife. It meant whore.
“He and Anabelle have separated,” Ash replied.
I could count the instances I’d met Tariq on one hand.
The ﬁrst was when Ash had a dinner party to introduce me to the Khans. We’d been together six months and the gathering did not go well. Instead of addressing me by my given name, Ash’s father kept calling me the girl. I burnt the cobbler and Mina mistook my quietness as arrogance. As for Tariq, he kept checking his ﬂashy watch all night, and his wife never came. The second meeting was accidental. A bumping into one another at a country market. There I was presented to Anabelle, a statuesque blonde with high cheekbones. Ash and I were still newlyweds, overly protective of each other. I wanted to ask why they hadn’t come to our wedding, but I could see how happy my husband was to see his brother, so in the end I said nothing. Our next encounter was at Majid Khan’s burial, where Tariq and Anabelle whisper-argued in the cemetery, leaving before the reception. And the last time I saw him was a year ago at the hospital, when Mina was being treated for dizzy spells. After hugging his little brother, Tariq shook my hand without making eye contact. He looked healthy then.
“What kind of cancer?” I asked.
“He doesn’t want to talk about it. I’m not going to push him.”
“Is he getting treatment?”
“He’s sorting it out.”
“What does that mean?”
“I only know he wants to spend time with me. That’s what he said. That’s why I suggested he come here.” He dropped his head, adding, “He has no one.”
Well, he had his mother. But it seemed he didn’t want her involved.
I asked Ash if his brother knew I wasn’t singing. That I would be at home. “You’ll hardly know he’s here,” he told me. “He’ll stay downstairs.”
Our house was old but big, the idea being that it would one day hold a family. There were four bedrooms upstairs and the basement was its own walkout with a sofa bed, a kitchenette, a bathroom, and French doors opening onto the backyard. Ash said we could rent it out if we ever needed money, but I knew the more likely scenario was that Mina would eventually move in.
My husband looked at me. He hadn’t shaved and there were dark lines under his eyes. “Of course he can stay here,” I told him.
We got up from the table and he wrapped his arms around me. “Poor Tariq,” he said. “He wants to bring his bird too.” I asked what kind of bird. He shrugged, gulped his coffee and put his suit jacket on. “When will they come?” I added. “Your brother and his mystery bird?”
“Is tomorrow too soon?” he asked, scrolling through his phone.
My skin went cold at the thought of a near stranger in our home, disrupting my daily rituals.
Ash grabbed his keys, and I retrieved his gift from the cupboard. “Happy ﬁfth,” I told him, handing him a piece of driftwood tied with ribbon. We kissed, and he said he’d ﬁnd a spot for the wood in the garden. Then he told me to reserve dinner anywhere I wanted, someplace fancy. I promised a home cooked meal instead, although I hadn’t used the oven in a long time. But I didn’t feel like being around other people, and convinced myself his forgetting our special occasion was ﬁne.
The next day I went downstairs, vacuumed, and opened the sofa. I pulled the wedding quilt my mother made us from the closet. It looked like a burst of confetti on the bed. I cleaned the bathroom, adding toothpaste, shampoo, towels and a fresh bar of soap. I put tea and coffee, bread and milk in the kitchenette. Then I washed the French doors and opened them for the ﬁrst time in months, and stepped outside.
Summer was over. These were the last weeks of heat. The hum of crickets was growing faint, the green in the trees wasn’t so green anymore, and the plants I used as remedies for throat-aches choked each other out in tangles or died away. The patch of chamomile I usually dried for steam inhalations had withered untouched. A web of nettle grew over the sage, verbena, and mint. Only the rose bush still bloomed. The ﬂowers had changed colour, though, the yellow of years past replaced by a deep orange. I snipped from it, went back inside and dropped the stem into a vase on the nightstand. Then I lay down and stared at the ceiling and hummed Musetta’s waltz, which I should have been performing at the House in two weeks, the ﬁrst show of the season. Yet even without words I couldn’t control my vibrato. My range was gone and soon I was out of breath, so I got under the quilt and closed my eyes.
The bell woke me. I didn’t know how much time had passed. I rushed to straighten the bed, pulled the French doors closed, ran upstairs and splashed cold water on my face. Tying my knotted hair back, I opened the door.
Tariq stood at the bottom of the steps with a duffel bag. He appeared thinner and more disheveled than the last time I’d seen him, like any recently divorced man in his early forties who wasn’t taking care of himself. And he had the same stance I’d noticed on every occasion we met. Slightly stooped with his hands behind his back, like the elders of opera who paced around on stage in fur-lined robes, but did not do much singing anymore.
His hair was as thick and black as Ashraf’s, only shorter and ﬂecked with grey. He was taller than his brother, his skin and eyes darker. I wanted to know how long he planned on staying and the details of his illness. At the same time I was trying to recall the melody in the dream I’d been torn from.
I said hello. He nodded wordlessly, as though he were the one on vocal rest. Then I spotted a small cage in the grass behind him. When I passed him to get a glimpse, he lowered his head and stepped aside.
I had expected a songbird but this foot-tall feathered thing looked more like a pigeon with a dull red, raggedy tail and battered wings. Part of its chest was bare, so you saw its belly moving in and out as it breathed. When I crouched down it lunged and hissed.
“Who’s this?” I asked, my voice hoarse.
“Her name is Tulip,” Tariq said. “She’s a Congo African Grey parrot.”
“Oh,” I replied.
“It’s good to see you, Dawn.” He said it casually, as if we saw each other often. “She’s normally more presentable,” he added of his bird. “But she’s been under stress. Since my illness.”
I stood again. “How are you feeling?”
“Better now,” he said with a half-smile.
Ash’s brother walked back to his car and I watched him struggle to remove a large apparatus from his SUV. As he rolled it over it made the sound of an empty shopping cart. The cage wouldn’t ﬁt through the front so I suggested he take it around through the French doors.
Once inside Tariq scanned the walkout, resting his gaze on my corner by the bay window. He moved my favourite red armchair and shelf of librettos out of the way, and pushed the apparatus in place. Then he left again. When I approached the smaller carrier containing his bird, she shrieked.
A few minutes later Tariq returned with a ﬂowered suitcase, a perch and a baby playscape. He pulled a blanket from the suitcase and covered the back of the jumbo cage with it, opened the door to the small cage and extended his hand.
“Step up,” he said.
The bird poked her head out and assessed her surroundings before stepping onto Tariq’s ﬁngers. As they made their way to the bay window, she eyed me and peered into the larger enclosure, like she was trying to decide which fate was worse. Eventually she stepped onto a metal rung and from there, hopped onto a dead branch.
The cage contained several perches. Tattered toys lay on the ﬂoor, a swing hung down from the middle rung, and bells and baubles were clipped to the sides.
Tariq retrieved a bag the size of a sack of potatoes from the suitcase. He ﬁlled bowls with pellets and water and placed them on a tray. Then he saw the rose. He pulled the ﬂower from the vase, plucked the petals, and fed them to his parrot.
He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to hear you’re not performing these days.”
Ash’s brother had never struck me as someone inclined to care for opera. “Do you follow the circuit?” I asked.
“A little,” he replied, ﬁddling with the cage.
The veins in my neck began pulsating. My phone dinged. I told him to make himself at home, and that Ashraf would be back from work soon. Tulip blinked and looked all over the place. Her head wouldn’t stop moving around. When I told her goodbye she narrowed her eyes and puffed her feathers out as I climbed the stairs to go.
“Don’t stare at her straight on,” Tariq said. I turned back.
“Look at her from the side with one eye,” he told me. “So she knows you’re not a threat. As if you were a bird, too.”
This excerpt is taken from Why Birds Sing by Nina Berkhout, copyright © 2020 by Nina Berkhout. Published by ECW Press. Reprinted with permission.
Nina Berkhout is the author of two previous novels: The Mosaic, which was nominated for the White Pine Award and the Ottawa Book Awards and named an Indigo Best Teen Book, and The Gallery of Lost Species, an Indigo and Kobo Best Book and a Harper’s Bazaar Hottest Breakout Novel. Berkhout is also the author of five poetry collections, including Elseworlds, which won the Archibald Lampman Award. Originally from Calgary, Alberta, she now lives in Ottawa, Ontario.