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La Piccioletta Barca - Issue 17
High Tide In Wilmington

High Tide In Wilmington

I’m sitting on the front porch of the dead beekeeper’s house near downtown Wilmington, North Carolina, waiting for the police to arrive. Beside me, Heather’s African Grey Parrot, Rodrigo, perches on a swing. Rodrigo’s vocabulary consists mainly of the lyrics of the Blondie song “The Tide is High,” snatches of which he sings tunelessly from time to time, followed by cries for help. “Every girl wants you to be her man. Stop it stop it stop it.”

The repetitive screeching was a clue, to be sure, but Heather’s first real intuition about the crime came from a misquoted lyric. Rodrigo sang, “It’s the things you do that tease and hurt me bad,” whereas, in the recorded song, Debbie Harry sings “It’s not the things you do.”

Heather hates the term Bird Psychic. Her doctoral dissertation analyzed the relationship between eclipse frequencies and evolutionary changes in the mating songs of Double-crested Cormorants—a kind of study that’s considered airy-fairy in the world of avian zoology—but after she got her Ph.D., she moved far beyond mere academic quirkiness. Now she calls herself a Spiritual Ornithologist, helping people find lost parakeets, communicate with their pets, and determine their spirit birds.

I feed Rodrigo a slice of honeydew melon. Black clouds are gathering off the coast, and the salt wind is blowing colder. When the police get here, I will give them Heather’s letter about the bees and we will explain together about Rodrigo, who is probably the only witness to the crime.

“I’m not the kind of girl who gives up just like that,” says Rodrigo. “That hurts that hurts that hurts.”

 

*  *  *

 

I had traveled to Wilmington from Spokane the week before, broken literally (left wrist) and figuratively (divorce).

My wife Cassandra and I had been arguing again. I had been washing dishes and asked her to bring me the bowls from the dining table; she had accused me, angrily, of having no idea what I wanted. She threw a bowl at my head. Something I’d said or the tone in my voice had triggered an unconscious memory of her childhood abuser. I tried to point out that we were just talking, just doing the dishes. It was a strategy we had developed in therapy—bring the conversation calmly back to the present. On that night, however, it had made things worse. She had insisted that, in fact, I was trying to hurt her. She pursued me into the living room, where I turned my ankle on a cat toy and took an awkward fall.

By the time I came to, my wrist had swollen and turned red: I knew it was broken. Cassandra was petting my cheek, crying. That’s when I decided to leave. After ten years of ineffectively trying to heal Cassandra’s emotional wounds and unwittingly creating others, I felt that this break was a sign, a symptom of the deeper injuries that would probably never heal.

I drove myself to an urgent care. They diagnosed a non-displaced fracture of the ulna, fitted me with a removable splint, and wished me good luck. I went home and clumsily packed a bag.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“What do you mean you’re sorry? Sorry for what?”

I kissed her. We cried. It was not the first time one of us had left. The most devastating moment came as I reversed out of the driveway and noticed one slat of the living room blinds turning up. She was hiding but still watching me go.

At first, I just drove. The road trip to Wilmington suggested itself on the highway outside of Billings. It began as an impulse to visit my ex-girlfriend Melissa in Moorhead, in order to ask a question that my therapist had once asked me: among the women I’d dated, how many had been the victims of sexual crimes?

Cassandra had been molested by her stepfather starting at age four. I could verify that two of the six other women I’d dated had been victims of sexual crimes; with the other four, it had simply never come up. I decided to visit all of my ex-girlfriends, to ask them questions that hadn’t occurred to me at the time, that we had never talked about.

I located everyone but Heather through Facebook and drew a map of my route to each of them on hotel stationery. The handmade map was unnecessary, of course, but I couldn’t stop myself. For the last year and a half, I’d been working on a digital, interactive atlas of Spokane’s Manito Park from the point of view of bees, as an educational tool for middle schoolers. The grant funding had recently been cut, but I still compulsively made maps of everything. Maps made sense out of otherwise senseless territory.

After Melissa, I visited Chloe in Chicago, Kerry and Montserrat in St. Louis, and Anita in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, tracing a reverse path through my professional and collegiate life. Not everyone was happy to see me, and I cried easily, which complicated matters; but they all actually answered my questions, some more contemptuously than others.

Melissa had been molested by her mother’s boyfriend for five years, till she was twelve.

Chloe had been stalked and raped by a boy from her college calculus class.

Montserrat had never been assaulted, but her sister had been raped by members of her high school track team.

Kerry had been molested by an uncle at every family holiday growing up. I had met the uncle once at Thanksgiving—no one had said or done anything unusual.

Anita’s Sunday School teacher had made her sit on his lap and pray after every Bible lesson, until she left the church.

“Thank you for coming all this way to ask,” Anita said, in her treacly southern drawl, which I had once found charming. “Every time I tell the story, it becomes a little easier to put behind me.”

I pressed on to Wilmington to try to find Heather. She had no social media presence whatsoever. It was possible that she had died long before: doctors had removed a tumor from her brain while we’d been dating, and more than a decade had passed since.

I checked into a Budget Inn near Wrightsville Beach. The local phone numbers I had for Heather had been reassigned, and her brother’s number in Oklahoma City didn’t answer.

Like a B-movie detective, I started combing the waterfront, the marinas where Heather had launched her kayak every morning. I followed all the trails through the Wildflower Preserve on campus. The secretary in the Biology Department remembered Heather but had lost track of her. I asked about her in every shop in the Cotton Exchange, in the hipster bars on Front Street. The downtown had gone through a boom: new shops and restaurants had replaced the ones I remembered. Somebody else lived in the house Heather had once rented near campus.

By the end of a week, the atlas I had made of my search, with its capricious tangents and randomly accumulated details, looked like the work of a medieval monk, filled with false assumptions and conceptual dead ends. In the end, it was Rodrigo who brought us together.

Late one evening, I was sitting on a bench in Riverfront Park, admiring the lights of the Battleship North Carolina, when Rodrigo landed on a heavy metal chain between two bollards right in front of me. He eyed me for a few moments, cocked his head this way and that, and then fluttered to the ground near my feet. His wings were charcoal gray; his body was the color of ash; white ovals surrounded his eyes; his tail feathers were red underneath. He squawked, “I’m gonna be your number one. Number one. Stop it stop it stop it.”

Boot heels approached behind me. When I recognized Heather, I nearly laughed. Bees buzzed in my chest.

“So you’re mixed up in this, too,” she said, almost as if she’d expected to find me here.

She wore an amorphous pink hat, like the willowy top of a Truffula Tree, and a black patch covered her left eye. The October night was cool, but Heather was already dressed for winter: long, heavy black trench coat, black jeans, knee-high black leather boots. When Rodrigo landed on her shoulder, the word pirate naturally came to mind.

“Mixed up in what?” I gestured for her to sit beside me.

“How long have you been here?” she asked.

“A week.”

“I mean, here on this bench.”

“An hour.”

She nodded. “That’s when Rodrigo started dancing. You still live in St. Louis?”

“Spokane. Or, nowhere, I guess.” I explained that I had left my wife and come to Wilmington, hoping to talk to her. It came out wrong, as if I wanted to get back together. She reached into her pocket and fed Rodrigo pellets.

“The tide is high but I’m holding on. Squawk! No no no no no!”

“Your bird likes Blondie?”

“He’s not my bird.”

“Whose bird is he?”

“It’s a long story. He’s telling me something, but I’m not listening in the right way.” Heather’s right eye was coppery brown, just as I remembered, but now, without its companion, her gaze seemed more hawkish than before.

“What happened to your eye?”

“Cancer. What happened to your arm?”

“Accident.”

“Come on. Let’s go to Rodrigo’s house.”

The parrot lived in a two-bedroom bungalow on Keaton Avenue, a mile east of the Cape Fear River. Heather opened a bottle of Burgundy, and we settled into a red leather sofa in the living room.

Rodrigo had come into Heather’s life just a couple of weeks before. His owners had disappeared, and when the police had started investigating, they’d delivered the bird to the Tregembo Animal Park for safekeeping; the aviary there had called Heather to help. She had previously worked as an ornithologist at Tregembo, but when she’d received a seven-figure settlement in a medical malpractice suit, she’d quit the job. Now, she was working as a volunteer at the Bald Head Island Conservancy on the Outer Banks, where she was helping fund a sanctuary for threatened migratory birds. She said her reputation as a spiritualist was growing.

“Not everyone has a spirit bird,” she said. “It depends a lot on your family, your disposition, where you’re from. And the connection is not always strictly spiritual—sometimes individual birds will pick individual humans, for reasons of their own. From the bird’s point of view, they’re selecting their ‘spirit humans.’”

Heather had kept Rodrigo on Bald Head Island for a few days, until he had psychically invited her to come to this house, which his owners had mysteriously abandoned. She had discovered one of the bathroom windows open a crack and forced her way inside. She had found a set of keys and taken up temporary residence.

“Even though the police are watching the house?”

“I don’t think they’re watching it, really. The crime scene people have come and gone. Anyway, Rodrigo is more comfortable here, and he asked for my help. His people aren’t gangsters or anything.”

She showed me the master bedroom, where the dark brown carpet had been bleached white in large splotches, and the master bathroom, where every surface and fixture gleamed.

“A married couple lived here, Martin and Kay Silverman. Based on Rodrigo’s statements, the husband seemed to beat the wife pretty regularly. I figure they had an argument here in the bedroom, she couldn’t take it any more, and she stabbed him to death. How she moved the body, and where to, is anybody’s guess. She came back and bleached out the blood stains, scrubbed the bathroom, and fled.”

“Is that the scenario the police are investigating?”

“I don’t know. I think I’m the only one who’s interviewed Rodrigo. He was probably the only other person in the house.”

We returned to the living room, and she poured more wine. Heather’s domestic abuse theory reminded me of my own argumentative marriage, so I took the opportunity to explain in greater detail why I’d come, and I told her about my visits with my other ex-girlfriends. I asked if she’d ever suffered a sexual assault.

“That’s so selfish,” she said. “It’s just like you to turn someone else’s genuine suffering into an abstract problem of your own.”

“That’s not fair. I’m trying to figure out my own role in this, my own motivations. I just want to understand what’s going on.”

“By accusing survivors of sexual violence of being so screwed up they can’t handle a relationship with you? It’s just so unkind. Anyway, you’re looking for the wrong pattern, because I’ve never been raped or molested; but I did have cancer when we met, and you knew it.” She took a big gulp of wine. “Here’s your pattern: you need an impossible problem to martyr yourself for, so when the relationship doesn’t work, you can say, ‘See? It was a puzzle no one could solve, but I tried my best!’ Then you can leave with a clear conscience and move on to the next relationship you never fully commit to. Your idea of romance is solving someone else’s problems, and you can always find someone who wants to be rescued. I mean, I’m guilty, too—I wanted someone to save me. But the truth is that no one can solve anybody else’s problems, and that’s not what people really want, anyway. People want to be loved. You do, too, I assume, though you’ll never open your heart enough to admit it.”

I had been prepared, at least theoretically, for Heather’s anger; I had not been prepared for a pithy diagnosis that actually seemed right. I poured more wine.

She said, “I had a lot of time to think in the hospital.”

“Yeah. Well. Thanks.”

She poured the rest of the bottle into her own glass and went into the kitchen to get another. While she was gone, Rodrigo landed on my shoulder and bit my ear.

“Hey!” I brushed him away. He fluttered, landed on my head, and pecked me. “Ow! Your bird is attacking me.” I swatted at him with my good arm. He attacked my splint and then flew across the room and landed on a bookcase.

Heather came in with a bottle of Merlot. “He was probably just acting out my anger. When you connect with a parrot, there’s a lot of transference. Rodrigo can be volatile.”

“What’s he doing?”

Rodrigo flew in a compact little arc toward the kitchen, then swooped back toward the bookcase. He clawed at a book on the second shelf from the top, flapping his wings violently to stay airborne while he tried to gain a purchase on the book with his feet. Failing to do so, he flew in the same arc and repeated the same flapping and clawing at the same book, then did it a third time before finally landing on top of the bookcase again. “Squawk! But I’ll wait my dear till it’s my turn. Stop it stop it stop it.”

Heather said, “He’s never done that before.”

I walked to the bookcase. Rodrigo cocked his head at me. He had marked the book he had selected with his claws: The North Carolina Beekeeper’s Companion. I opened it.

It was published on cheap newsprint by the North Carolina Beekeeper’s Association. The first page explained how fun and rewarding it could be to keep European honeybees—North Carolina’s state insect.

“What’s wrong?” Heather asked.

I showed her the book and told her about my experience mapping Manito Park from the perspective of bees. Her eye widened.

Rodrigo hopped along the edge of the bookcase, squawking. He dove into my chest, flapped his wings in my face, clawed at the book. I dropped it and jumped back. Heather made excited bird noises, and Rodrigo flew to her outstretched arm.

A bookmark had worked itself partially free from the book on the floor. The marked pages contained a hand drawn map of an apiary surrounded by a forest, with latitude and longitude markings.

Every hair on my body tingled. Rodrigo bobbed, beak open.

We spent the next hour turning pages. The North Carolina Beekeeper’s Companion had been designed as a journal, with twenty pages at the front devoted to useful information about bees, beekeeping methods, and local associations, and then two hundred or so blank pages for the beekeeper’s own notes. Every page had been filled in a neat, masculine hand, with observations about bee flight patterns and honey yields, notes about the weather, and short reviews of beekeeping books. Silverman had tracked his colony strength and population meticulously and written many thoughtful entries about Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon that had been affecting bee populations worldwide for the past decade, in which adult bees mysteriously disappeared en masse from hives. Scientists studying the problem still had not discovered definitive reasons why worker bees would suddenly abandon viable queens, but the trend was causing a crisis in American agriculture, a third of whose products depended on bee fertilization.

Heather said, “I think Rodrigo is your spirit bird.”

“What does that mean exactly?”

“He brought you here to give you this book. He learned about you through his psychic connection with me, I suppose.”

“But you didn’t know about my experience with bees until tonight. How could Rodrigo have known that?” I felt foolish speaking about the parrot as if he were not only literate but also clairvoyant.

Heather shrugged. Rodrigo lifted his wing and preened his feathers with his beak.

“You’re saying my fight with Cassandra was caused by a bird twenty-five hundred miles away?”

“I mean, you’re here, aren’t you? For no logical reason, I might add. Cause and effect are not the only relationships between things.”

Rodrigo squawked. Heather opened his cage, and he flew in. She wished him good night and covered the cage with a dark cloth.

We settled into the sofa and passed Silverman’s journal back and forth, reading interesting passages aloud and speculating on the connections between his writing and whatever had happened between him and his wife. As the wine disappeared, we reminisced about our time as a couple. We had met shortly after Heather’s diagnosis but before the invasive treatments had begun; her surgeries had come to define our relationship, and she said that her status as a survivor still determined people’s perceptions of her.

“I get that people are curious about the eye patch, but it’s still disappointing,” she said. “I mean, a bird can’t love you the way a person can, but he won’t judge you, either. At least, not in the same way.”

The state atlas we’d found on the bookshelf lay open to the section of North Carolina indicated by the coordinates on the hand drawn map in Silverman’s beekeeping journal. His apiary was in the middle of an area known as Holly Shelter, a state game and recreation area about thirty miles northeast of Wilmington.

“Why would someone keep bees on public land?” I said.

“I was just thinking that, and it’s so far away from their house.” At the very instant I thought of honey, Heather said, “And there’s no honey in the cupboards.”

Our eyes met. A spark jumped between us. Heather caressed my cheek and said, “I want to show you something. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“It’s not something I show everyone.” She caressed my other cheek and let her thumb rest for a minute on my bottom lip, which she pulled open. She touched her thumbnail to my teeth. “I want to show you my eye.”

I swallowed. “All right.”

She sat back into the cushions, took a deep breath and removed her frilly pink hat. Then she took off her eye patch.

She had no socket to speak of; instead of her left eye, she now had a depression overlapped with skin, which had been sewn along a somewhat lumpen ridge, diagonally across the middle. Part of the bone above her eye had been removed, and the altered shape of her forehead made an even eerier impression than her missing eyeball. She had no left eyebrow. She nervously combed her flattened black hair with her fingers and looked away.

“I decided not to have a prosthetic. I thought it would make people uncomfortable, and you have to keep the socket clean or it gets infected.”

It didn’t take long to get used to her weirdly slanted skull, and it was a relief not to have the patch between us. I had an impulse to kiss the spot where her eyebrow had been, and I leaned closer but lost my nerve. I kissed her lips instead, a brief, gentle kiss, and then we touched our foreheads together and stayed that way for a long time, our breath mingling. We held hands.

“I get terrible headaches,” she said.

I adjusted the sofa cushions and then leaned back into them and opened my arms. She folded her feet underneath her and snuggled into me. That’s how we woke when the sun rose four hours later.

Heather drove us out of town on I-40 to state route 210, and I used a navigation app on my smartphone to choose one of the rutted dirt roads into Holly Shelter—a nontrivial decision. Holly Shelter covered more than seventy square miles of pine forest, and the first road we picked curved unexpectedly in the wrong direction and ended at a hunter’s camp. We doubled back and tried again, and then again, Rodrigo cawing criticism from the back seat, until we hit on a road that took us to within a mile of the map in Martin Silverman’s beekeeping journal. We heard shotgun blasts in the distance, and Heather fished out bright orange safety vests from her trunk—part of the standard ornithologist toolkit in North Carolina, she said. We started walking through a trackless section of gray-green forest.

After twenty minutes or so, Heather spotted a line of willow trees, which marked the path of a stream flowing in the direction we wanted to go. We followed it for another fifteen minutes, until we came into a clearing, which corresponded exactly with the drawing in Silverman’s book. In the middle of the clearing, painted baby blue, a dozen rectangular wooden beehives clustered around a swampy pool created by the stream. Rodrigo flew to the nearest one and inspected it. I felt a mild foreboding that I couldn’t name: I didn’t feel watched or even anxious, exactly, but something wasn’t right.

“No bees,” Heather said. I scanned the meadow: no flying insects whatsoever, in fact. The air was uncannily still. Heather sniffed. “What’s that?”

Faintly, a sweet chemical smell emerged from the back of my throat. We walked toward the hives. The smell became stronger. We looked into the first hive, which was filled with dead bees; the next one, as well.

“Colony Collapse Disorder?” asked Heather.

“No,” I said. “Insecticide.” Someone had drenched every hive with bug killer.

“Somebody murdered these bees?”

“I think it’s only called murder if you kill a human,” I said. I looked around the edges of the clearing.

“I’m ready to call the police.”

We stood for a moment in skincrawling silence, until we heard buzzing. It was almost inaudible, at first, as if the field itself were merely sighing; but it grew steadily louder. Heather spotted the bee first: a solitary honeybee, approaching across the meadow. It circled us three times and then landed on Heather’s back. She flinched and whirled to shake it off, but it landed on her again. Rodrigo squawked.

“Are you allergic?” I asked.

“No.”

“Let it land.”

Heather stood still, and the bee landed on her orange safety vest. It shimmied up her back in a short, squiggly line, then turned clockwise, walked back to its starting point, repeated the squiggly line, turned counterclockwise, and started the whole sequence over again.

“It’s waggle dancing,” I said. I explained that, in hives, honeybees tell each other the location and distance of food sources by repeating a set of motions: they waggle in a line whose angle to the sun corresponds to the direction of the food source, and the duration of the waggling corresponds to the distance of the food from the hive. This bee was waggling at a sixty-degree angle to the morning sun, and it waggled for about two seconds on each pass before it walked back to its starting point and did the dance again.

At first, I couldn’t quite believe that it was communicating with me as if I were another bee, but it did it so many times that its intention became unmistakable. Finally, it flew off across the meadow at a sixty-degree angle to the sun—the direction it had indicated with its dance.

“Come on,” I said. We jogged across the meadow after it. Rodrigo flew in a wide arc overhead. When the bee reached the trees, we lost sight of it, and the buzzing quickly faded away. Rodrigo disappeared into the forest, as well.

We used a compass app on my phone to keep our bearing steady, as we weaved in and out of the trees. After about twenty minutes, we began to smell the powerful, unmistakable stench of rotting human flesh, and soon it became mixed up with the chemical sweetness of insecticide.

We came out onto another, much smaller meadow and found a gruesome sight: a shallow, open grave with two bodies, a man and a woman. Heather inhaled sharply and gagged. Beside the bodies in the grave were dozens of cans of insecticide, a chef’s knife, and a handgun. The man’s fingers loosely held the gun, which he had apparently used to shoot himself.

Rodrigo cried from high overhead. At the edge of the meadow, a bee flew from one bright purple ironweed flower to another.

“I think I was wrong,” said Heather.

“About what?”

“I don’t think Mrs. Silverman was able to defend herself, after all.”

My stomach suddenly heaved. Heather pulled my arm. “Let’s get out of here,” she said. I took a screen shot of our coordinates on my phone, and then we hurried back the way we had come.

Rodrigo met us at the car. He squawked and fluttered all the way back to Wilmington. When we arrived at the Silverman bungalow, Heather told me that she finally understood what Rodrigo had been trying to tell her, and she asked me to get a pen and paper. She began translating Rodrigo’s squawking. I pointed out that the evidence we had found would surely speak for itself, and I did not see the wisdom of writing an account that we would ascribe to a parrot—the police would be skeptical, to put it mildly—but Heather genuinely believed in Rodrigo as both detective and witness, and I could not, at this point, disagree with her.

Heather insisted on going to the police station in person. Even her faith in Rodrigo did not persuade her that we could explain over the phone what we had discovered, or, especially, how we had discovered it.

Before she left, she thanked me for listening to my intuition, for hearing the call to come to Wilmington—whatever my conscious motives had been. She told me that Rodrigo said I should go back home to my wife, who was waiting desperately to hear from me. I looked at the parrot and wondered if that was true. He bobbed and strutted. Heather kissed me on the cheek, walked to her car, and drove away; and now I’m sitting on the front porch with Rodrigo, waiting for her to come back with a police detective.

I adjust the splint on my left arm and flex my fingers. My muscles are stiff, but the bone barely hurts at all now—maybe the metaphorical break will heal, as well.

 

Mark Beauregard is the author of six novels, most recently The Whale: A Love Story (Viking, 2016), a finalist for an L.A. Times Book Prize and winner of the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction. He teaches in the Humanities Department at Western New Mexico University.

 

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