A fringe of clouds, long loose threads, all feathery. White streaks like finger-painting. Billows of dust rise up as they drive the peninsula road towards the Heads. From the back seat, she traces the birds’ arcs with small binoculars. Gulls, shags, and terns; petrels with dark hoods and the white. She can analyse the wind; see what lies behind the birds’ flight—how they lean into it, catching thermals.
A Christchurch childhood with quiet streets, the sudden whoosh of a car, flat land and the wide blue. A bird fell out of the sky and she caught it in her hands. Later, she came to know the mechanics of their flight: how hollow bones—like honeycomb, strong and light—created lift. And how the shape of the wings, the particular arrangement of feathers, made them soar.
Sitting on the deck with her sister, in the ‘70s, sunning their legs, a bird swerved off course and crashed into the flax bush. All glossy feathers, yellow-ringed twitching eye and bright beak. She caught it; held it, wings still, heart beating in her hand. Warm, soft; near death. She yelled for her mother: She would care for it, keep it, name it, build a house for it. But it was gone, out of her hands, up away. Lost. Or found? It seemed to know where it was going.
A blackbird has more than a thousand feathers, she learned afterwards, poring over books. Their feathers made of keratin, like hair or nails. Each feather had a central shaft, as the trunk of a tree, with vanes coming off it as branches.
A shower of black feathers. Scarcely a weight there in her hands. Just it clawing, its eye, its delicate spirit.
Across circles of time, on a Saturday morning in April; fresh, with clear air, a convoy drives out from Dunedin to see the Royal Albatross. She is in the back seat, Maureen driving, and Sue in the front. The Centre approaches. A scattering of stones, and their 4WD comes to a halt at the car park.
Next to them, Anthony pulls up in the jeep. He gets out of the car, with his backpack, and with a hard case for a telescope and tripod. She observes him again: a man in his early forties with a thick brown beard, greying at the edges, glasses, a dark green sweater, combat trousers, and a fleecy. He notices her and mutters hello, smiling without meeting her eyes.
The trip to the colony was for him, the visiting American scholar. He was studying at their ecosanctuary near Okarito, not far from the lake. The ecosanctuary: a cocoon of safety for native birds, housing the remnant of lost flock: takahē, toutouwai, kākāpō.
She’d googled Anthony Cline just before he arrived. Undergrad and postgrad study in San Diego, then PhD from UCLA. He’d made his name studying storm petrels off the Californian coast. He’d even been at the centre of a small media storm when his research was published in the local paper. In it, he’d claimed climate change had impacted the nesting site of petrels. In the photo in the newspaper he had a hand raised, his mouth open, ill-at-ease.
A similar look when he was introduced to the team at morning tea. He spoke more when he talked about his current research project. She remembered the bright PowerPoint show; him tracing the petrels’ arcs in red dotted lines in their flight pattern from Antarctica.
His office was next to hers. He liked to work with his door closed.
“Let’s go and look at the birds,” Maureen says to the small group. “Then we can gather back here to eat our lunch. We can get coffee at a café later.”
She watches as Maureen strides ahead towards the Albatross centre. Anthony follows behind at a distance. She walks behind him for a little while, going slowly. He turns his head slightly, to look behind, and she quickens her pace.
His research. He talks about that, in response to her polite question. Then stops. Silence drifts.
Later, she sees him right on the edge of the cliff, at the headland.
Through her binoculars, the giants wheel. Having soared across thousands of kilometres over the Southern Ocean, they nest here, in colonies. They glide in circles, in patterns over her head. Not flapping, just gliding. In passage, bringing the Antarctic with them. A chill of ice in the air. Snow, somewhere.
“I tried to text him,” Maureen says coming up to her an hour later, sitting down on the grass next to the others. “No reply.”
Eating a sandwich, the wind whips strands of her blonde hair into her mouth.
“So, what’s the story with him?” someone pipes up from the group. Sue or Karen perhaps…
There’s a pause while Maureen considers what to say.
“I heard that… things didn’t quite work out as he planned,” Sue says and lets the words hang there.
“Yes,” Maureen chews thoughtfully. “It’s a personal matter. He spoke to me in confidence about it.”
Tina plonks herself down on the grass beside them. She opens her bag and rustles through it for her lunch.
“Who are you talking about? Dr Cline? Oh, I know the whole story.”
“Tina!” Maureen frowns.
“Well, not the whole story… but some of it.”
“Go on then,” says Sue.
Maureen frowns again but says nothing.
“Okay, I heard it from that researcher I met at the conference in the States last year. She’s friends with him. His wife has left him. Took their baby daughter apparently. Some big bust-up. I don’t know the details or anything… but it took him ages to decide whether to come out here. Or to stay in California and keep trying to work on his marriage. But coming out here might be good, she said. It might help him think.”
There’s a silence while everyone digests this.
“Where is he now?” Maureen asks, scrolling down her contacts on her phone and pressing his number. “It must be the wind on the headland.”
“I’ll go and get him.”
He can’t hear anything or see her coming. He’s sitting facing the cliffs, tapping on his tablet. She approaches him and put a light hand on his shoulder. He jolts and turns. His face, totally open, surprised. He has not been sleeping well; his mouth is dry, with specks of toothpaste in the corner. A lean white face and rolling, heavy eyes.
“It’s lunch time,” she says.
She holds out her hand.
He takes it and stands up. He looks at her for a long moment. She opens her mouth but can’t find anything to say. A strange sensation steals over her. All of a sudden she knows what he needs: to bury his face in her chest and for it all to be better. To forget about it all, just for one minute. The lost wife, the tiny daughter. He wants to cry for them. The horrible failure of it. He can’t bear to look at it. He really can’t bear it.
A bird, caught in the flax, blown off course. An unexpected swerve, its heart beating out of its chest.
Her hand in his.
He drops his eyes and let’s go of her hand.
The wind slapping her windbreaker and the back of neck. Him, on the edge of the group. His eyes on her as she eats. He looks away as she raises her face. But it is there; the invisible cord.
Later, on the drive back to Dunedin, she winds down the window and watches as he drives the jeep ahead of them. In one sudden flash of insight she sees them at the sanctuary, and what may be: the space between them opening up, growing. Moments occurring one after the other, as the cord grows thicker and tighter.
But for now, above them both, the birds fly in patterns. Going out, then returning, going out again. An eternal circle; never lost, always moving. Always knowing how to get home. Do they carry a memory of the stone-coloured sea? The feel of snow?
As she watches, the giants climb higher, higher, as they turn on a great wheel.