They’d all been pishing. It was Gus, of course, who started it. Pishing was Gus’s latest enthusiasm, since he’d messed up his knee playing the Scottish game Shinty (his previous enthusiasm) and had to sit around for several frustrated months with his leg elevated and his wife Claire driving him to work at Merrill Lynch at least eight miles away from her own job at a small design firm and doing everything around the house besides. Gus was also learning Estonian through Rosetta Stone, so when he was mobile again he and Claire could take a trip to the land of his paternal great-great-grandmother and see the pioneering Estonian indie rock group Röövel Ööbik. But when he needed a break from studying the three constructions of the –da infinitives, he relaxed by watching birds out in the patio, while simultaneously doing upper body weight-training—insisting Claire and their best friends, who lived next door, join him. Gus’s enthusiasms were always generously shared.
Pishing, he informed them knowingly, having instigated a voluminous e-mail correspondence with the author of the popular pocket guide—with CD—on the subject, was making a variety of sounds mimicking the scolding calls of birds. He demonstrated each in turn. The idea was to get the birds’ attention and draw them out into the open, where you could watch them better. Gus believed there was no point in doing anything if you couldn’t do it better.
Antonio, always canny about the natural world, who could find the constellation Scorpio for them over a Saratoga vineyard after Midsummer Mozart, and show his junior high school science class the Fibonacci Series at the heart of every living thing, pished a Northern Pygmy-Owl successfully on the first try. The owl came through the Palo Alto darkness and landed on the garden gate a foot or two in front of him, bashful and sweet and holy as the bird of Athena on the ancient coins, or as Antonio’s twin brother Raul who’d drowned at age three in a San Ysidro swimming pool. As he told it to them the next day, a look of great surprise followed by disapointment crossed the owl’s little round face, seeing only him, the lanky science teacher, when it thought to have been summoned by its eternity-intended mate.
Antonio’s wife Maria proved to be especially good at imitating the scold of the Tufted Titmouse and at making the noise that results from kissing your thumb—both of which are oddly tantalizing to those of the avian persuasion. Maria tended to pish in her native Spanish, though, and ended up attracting mostly outlier south-of-the-border birds far off their usual migratory paths, who sang long rambling songs about the purple shadowed deserts beyond Heroica Nogales and ate up the cilantro Maria had growing in the side garden beyond Gus and Claire’s weathered redwood fence.
Claire (who’d long since realized she had no particular desire do things better, or, sometimes, at all) was unhappy with pishing from the start. The principle of the thing bothered her. She didn’t think it was right to draw the poor birds out into the open by upsetting them, making them think danger was close at hand—and thereby driving them into a frenzy (inciting a mobbing reaction, the book said), just so you could see them. The whole concept, she felt, was wrong. Mean-spirited, not very nice at all. She felt so sorry for Antonio’s trusting little owl.
Gus told her how stupid she was being, how she would never try anything new, anything he especially wanted to do. So finally, not wanting to be the wet blanket she almost always felt she was, in the face of her husband’s extravagant enthusiasms, she gave it a halfhearted effort. Every year of the three they’d been married and lived in the house off Old Page Mill Road, she’d been charmed by the plaintive minor triad of the Golden Crowned Sparrow, the bird which showed up only after summer ended, and, elusive as the last sunlight of the year, sang always hidden in the trees. Claire was charmed by everything elusive and doomed. So she really did try to pish the furtive lovely bird. But instead of her sparrow, she got a mockingbird—a brilliant flash of white tail morphing into the joker, the clown, the unabashed fake. It unnerved her, to have conjured the mocking spirit in place of the quiet one she’d asked for. She took it as a sign, and refused to try again. She pleaded with Gus—something she’d never done before—to stop messing with those other lives, the creatures who should be allowed go about their own business, undisturbed.
But Gus would hear none of that. He pished obsessively, determined to excel at that as at everything else. He pished the sparrow for her, and she was saddened to see how plain it looked, after all, and to hear its song somehow diminished out in the open. He pished flycatchers and shrikes, Steller’s Jays and towhees, an Acorn Woodpecker, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a couple of ducks from one of the dot-com’s ornamental ponds. He summoned a family of finches, which promptly nested in the fuchsia hanging beside the front door, and next thing they knew had a whole slew of eggs, then gape-mouthed babies, so Claire had to creep into the house around the back to keep from disturbing them all. He mustered gangs of crows, which sat on the fence outside their bedroom window and told raucous off-color jokes at all hours, like the construction workers building the new mansion on the hill above Antonio and Maria’s house. In rapid succession he called herons away from the water, raptors from their eyries, a flock of newly-wild parrots down the peninsula from San Francisco.
They all hovered and perched uneasily, unhappily, around the house, out of their natural environs. The trees were full of their muttered concern, the air heavy with bird angst. In the morning, when Claire drove Gus and then herself to work, she had to run for the car, afraid she was going to be swooped on and devoured in righteous anger by the three Turkey Vultures which had appeared on Tuesday. The noise was deafening, much more than she could bear. Gus was unfailingly enthusiastic about the commotion, pleased that he had the techniques down so well. He bought a dictionary of collective nouns for birds, some of which he was by then able to translate into Estonian. So though Claire begged him again to stop pishing, he only laughed at her.
His final triumph came when he pished the rare East African Grey Crowned Crane which had been in the news once before, escaped from its aviary in the Los Altos Hills. The crane drew in turn different species—neighbors, joggers, and casual passersby; birders from several counties; a swarm of news reporters with video cams; police in squad cars with bullhorns for crowd control; and someone from the Fish and Game Department, with a southern accent, who had no authority to catch the exotic truant but was curious to see it “in the feathers,” as he said. Their driveway was impassible, the little velvety-purple Japanese eggplants Maria was helping Claire grow had been trampled into muddy baba ganoush, and one of the young female reporters, who claimed she’d been dive-bombed by one of the vultures, was threatening a law suit.
On the third day of the seige the billionaire owner of the crane turned up, a little sleepily, just off the plane from a vacation in Zimbabwe. She brought with her her son and several of her zookeepers and groundsmen, to supervise the return of the footloose bird to its palatial home in the hills.
Claire had spent the night in Maria and Antonio’s guest room, away from the carnivalesque clamor—and away from Gus, who had become unbearable in his crowing glory. After a soothing cup of peppermint tea and some eggs scrambled with shallots and fresh sage, she slipped away down the driveway with her soft-sided green suitcase, intending to take the bus to Santa Cruz and hole up with her sister Katie until the whole mess blew—or flew—over and her life was her own again. She snuck past the crowd gathered in the yard she’d loved once for its quiet. Through the tears she couldn’t stop, she saw a man with tousled hair (not a reporter, she thought) climbing down sheepishly from the children’s tree house in the yard midway down the almost-country lane that fed onto Old Page Mill.
“I’m Jess,” the man told her, taken by her haunted look and offering to carry the suitcase for her. He didn’t ask where she was going, but the whole sad story came out while they walked, side by side, under the birdless pines and oaks and eucalyptus. He seemed so sympathetic, so gentle. And best of all, he was not clamoring to see the showy bird. Just the opposite, in fact, as it happened. “How awful for you,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” He admitted to Claire, after an apologetic silence, that it was his mother who owned the Grey Crowned Crane, which seemed always to be escaping its aviary and seeking the limelight elsewhere. He, Jess, couldn’t stand all the commotion either. That was why he’d gone away to climb a tree. He went out of his way to avoid noise and crowds and media attention as often as he could, having grown up unhappily in his CFO mother’s obstreperous shadow.
Jess put Claire up in the spare bedroom of his Sharon Heights condo for a week, and another, and by then they’d realized that they had quite everything in common. Claire’s petition for a divorce hit Gus at the same time as the lawsuit from the injured reporter.
If their story had been a James Thurber fable, Claire would remark to Jess in late October the following year while they were honeymooning on the Oregon coast, one of those charming little unenthusiastic tales about rabbits or unicorns or (yes) birds which she liked so much, though she had never in her previous marriage dared say so, the moral would have been “Be careful what you pish for.”
originally published in The Walrus, May 2013