Here’s the winning entry for the 12th Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition by technology research copyeditor, Nicole Lesperance.
“That idiot wouldn’t know a masked booby if it landed in his lap,” thought Nelson.
The man on stage had confused the brown booby bird’s low-throated guffaw with the masked variety’s short, quacking bark. He received a thumbs-down from the judges and slumped back to his seat. Nelson straightened his tie and waited for his number to be called. It was a bigger turnout than he’d expected at this year’s North American Bird Calling Midwestern Regionals, but Nelson wasn’t worried.
While he waited, he ran through a few of the more exotic birds in his head. A couple of repetitions of the Steller’s sea eagle, an enormous, noble bird that most people believed was indigenous only to Asia. It been occasionally spotted in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska, and was thus considered North American in this particular competition circuit. Nelson had been caught out on a similar technicality last year, and he wasn’t going to let it happen again. He visualized the way the sound would vibrate from deep in his belly and up through the corridor of his throat, how his lips would form exactly the perfect shape to pitch the notes.
The judges called number seventy-three, and a skinny woman in a hooded sweatshirt shuffled to the front of the stage. Nelson took one look at her sagging jeans and wrote her off. He thought about putting his headphones back on, but his battery was running low and he decided he’d rather watch her get humiliated.
The woman hiked up her pants and pushed the hood back from her face. Her frizzy nimbus of hair flashed golden in the wavering spotlight, and the audience gasped. Nelson’s iPod dangled forgotten from the wire clutched in his fist.
It was Ida May Dewar. She’d won the national championships a record seven times back in the nineties. Nobody could touch her; nobody was even close. The sounds that came out of this woman’s beanpole body were inhuman, in the best possible way. At times, Nelson had felt sure she had birds hidden in her clothes, or a tape recorder in her pocket. She was a bird calling genius, a prodigy. Nelson had been studying videos of her since he was a teenager. He’d dreamed of meeting her one day, but in his dreams she was always a spectator or a judge at a competition he was winning. Not a competitor. If she’d managed to get even an ounce of her old talent back, he might as well go home.
Ida’s downfall had been the talk of the bird calling circuit for years. Back in ninety-eight, she and a small group of elite bird callers had gone on a pilgrimage to Antarctica to find the last breeding pair of ruby-footed albatross and hear their mating call before they were gone forever. They enlisted the services of a guide, a crusty old Antarctic ornithologist and his team of sled dogs.
A dark pile of clouds was lurking on the horizon when they set off across the ice, but the ornithologist assured them it would blow right over. The callers weren’t aware that Doctor Zvenders suffered from a degenerative mental condition, one that hadn’t been apparent over the phone months earlier, and that he was barred from driving in three states.
The group ventured out in what was later known as the decade’s worst storm. Of the entire expedition party, Ida was the only one to survive. They found her four days later, wandering incoherently with three sled dogs, which had killed and eaten the pair of albatross and their eggs the day before.
Ida was rushed to the hospital, but frostbite had reached her voicebox, and the doctors said it would be a miracle if she ever regained her speech. There was no question of her ever calling again. The bird calling world mourned the loss of its national treasure.
But here she was, standing tall on the stage and looking like she was enjoying every second of the uproar. After a short interlude of mumbling, the judges shuffled their papers and the announcer cleared his throat into the microphone a few times. The audience quieted, and Ida clasped her hands behind her back, waiting.
“Hermit thrush,” said the announcer.
Ida nodded and took a moment to reflect. Then she dropped her hands to her sides, filled her lungs, and began. The meandering, sweet notes were like wind whistling through pipes, deftly interspersed with lower-pitched staccato chatter. To Nelson, it was the sound of absolute beauty.
After Ida finished, the crowd broke into gushing applause. Nelson clapped along, but inside he wept. Another year of intensive training down the tubes. Ida was voted on to the next round, and it was his turn to call.
“Atlantic puffin,” said the announcer.
Nelson’s shoulders relaxed. This was one of his favorites. He confidently rattled off the laughing croak. It sounded, and was supposed to sound, a little like his great aunt, the one who’d been smoking for forty-five years. The judges nodded, and Nelson was through.
Nelson barely listened to the callers in the semifinal round, and the audience was having a hard time keeping quiet, despite repeated shushing by the judges. It was as if Pavarotti had made a surprise appearance in a high school musical. Nelson thought about leaving, even started to put his jacket a couple of times, but it seemed cowardly to quit. In the end, he stayed just to listen to her, and so he’d be able to tell his grandchildren that he once shared a stage with Ida May Dewar.
The calls went on like background noise. The squeaky-toy wheeze of the crested auklet, the pigeon guillemot’s shrill, guinea pig whistle. An elderly woman did a textbook black-capped gnatcatcher when the judges had clearly asked for a black-capped petrel. Nelson squirmed in his chair. He knew the woman, and it wasn’t a rookie mistake. People were rattled.
A young man in a tweed suit did a beautiful bronzed cowbird that sounded like water droplets falling into a pool. Nelson nodded when he was done. He wasn’t going to beat Ida, but he was one to watch. Then it was Ida’s turn again: the bobolink. The sheer speed of the wildly varied notes was something only a true master could get exactly right, but Ida breezed through like it was a nursery rhyme.
Nelson was up again. He reached into his pocket and smeared on a thick layer of chap-stick. The judges conferred, and the announcer spoke. Nelson cleared his throat a few times and shook the nerves out of his hands. He coughed once more and gulped a few mouthfuls of air. His double-breasted cormorant sounded like a low, long belch, wet and burbling. When he was done, there was a healthy smattering of applause, and he thought he saw Ida smiling.
The judges deliberated for ten minutes and then announced the three finalists. The sound of his own name hit Nelson like a frying pan to the head. He’d made it, along with the man in the tweed suit and, of course, Ida.
The tweed-suited man went first, and Nelson was so nervous he didn’t hear a note of it. When it was his turn, Nelson faltered on the last few notes of his canyon wren. His mouth was too dry and he couldn’t maintain the correct pitch. His stomach went cold, and everything around him faded as he fumbled back to his chair.
They had saved Ida for last. She glided up to the microphone and ducked her head modestly while the judges conferred.
Nelson snapped out of his cocoon of self-loathing. Had he heard them right? The common loon was a beginner’s call, one that didn’t even belong in the first round of a competition at this level. He exchanged a confused look with the man in the tweed suit, who shrugged and looked nervous.
Ida closed her eyes and nodded once, then again, and began to sway. She opened with a few gentle hoots and built up to the laughing tremolo. It reminded Nelson of sandy lake houses and wet towels and his mother. Ida paused and began the eerie howl and the plaintive, questioning loop. Nelson didn’t know how she was doing it, but he could hear the reverberation of the sound across water. It was fog and mist and twilight and loneliness.
His arms were covered in goosebumps.
The last shuddering wail died away, and the only sounds in the auditorium were quiet shuffling and sniffles. One of the judges was pinching the bridge of his nose and staring at the table.
Nelson looked again at the man in the tweed suit and let his breath out. They took turns shaking Ida’s hand and left the stage.