Greetings all! I’m very pleased to announce that my short story, Cockatoo Tears, was published in the Spring 2018 edition of Qu Literary Magazine, a contemporary journal from Queens University of Charlotte.
Here’s the opening section:
“Mom. We have to save the rainforests.”
These were the seven words with which my seven-year-old greeted me as she climbed into the minivan in the Pittsburgh Zoo parking lot.
I swiveled around in the driver’s seat, trying to get a good look at her face. Her piercing blue eyes stared solemnly back at me from beneath the bill of her puff-painted baseball cap, her blonde pigtail braids hanging ragged by her ears. I opened my mouth to ask what on earth this was about, but the other kids I was carpooling clamored into the car and I knew it was useless to try to talk over their raucous chatter.
By the time I’d dropped off the other kids, I’d forgotten her strange comment. As I pulled away from the Rosen’s driveway, I glanced at her in the rearview mirror. She was gazing out the window with her usual glazed look, but I noticed a single tear working its way down her cheek.
“Alison? Are you okay, baby?” I asked, casting my eyes back on the road. She didn’t answer. “Did something happen at camp today?”
“I told you already.” Her voice had an edge to it. “We have to save the rainforests.”
“They told you that at camp?”
“Millions of species are losing their homes, Mom,” she went on, and when I glanced at her in the mirror again I saw that she was still staring out the window. “The rainforests will all be gone by the year 2000. That’s only six years from now.”
I inhaled deeply through my nose and released a slow breath, thinking of my mother’s words when she’d handed Alison back to me in the delivery room. She’s got an old soul, this one.
I don’t know if I believe in reincarnation, but there was definitely something heavier, older, about Alison. As a baby, she watched her older sister Charlotte running around, her little forehead wrinkled in somber concentration. Sometimes I would watch her as she stared into space and wonder what could possibly be going on in that little head of hers. Her later acquisition of speech didn’t assist me much in answering that question.
I glanced back at her again, noting another tear dripping down her cheek.
“So… you’re… really upset about this, huh,” I said slowly.
She finally turned to look at me in the mirror, and her glare was answer enough.
I want to take this opportunity to write a little about the story’s background. (So you might want to go read the story now and come back to this when you’re done!)
One of the classic bits of advice given to writers is to write about our “primal landscape”–our memories from childhood. Interestingly, my tendency has most often been to set my stories far away from where I live, preferring to write about people and experiences rather removed from my own. Cockatoo Tears is the first story I’ve written based strongly on something specific that happened to me in my “primal landscape”–and yet, I still chose to write the story from the perspective of the mother, not of the little girl. I’ll expand on that later.
Alison is strongly based on who I was as a child, and her experience at zoo camp, and subsequent obsession with saving the rainforests, are based on a completely true story. I attended camp at the Pittsburgh Zoo in the summer between first and second grade, and the events that Alison’s counselor describes to her mother happened to me and had a similar effect on me. I don’t recall if our cockatoo was Moluccan, nor do I remember his name; but “Rainforest Rap” was an actual video we watched, the cockatoo did make some very mournful sounds while watching, and the counselor did make that key remark about him. There was one line from the video that still echoes in my head: “By the year 2000, they will all disappear.” As I was writing this post, I searched for the video on YouTube… and it turns out, despite the fact that I had only seen this video once, 24 years ago, my memory of that line was 100% accurate. (Though to be fair, they did preface it with “If we keep cutting down like the last 50 years…”) Here’s the video with the lyrics.
I never fundraised for the rainforests, but my parents and grandparents encouraged me to pursue my interest, and every time we went to a bookstore I would choose a huge volume on rainforests with big glossy pictures. My mom bought me a book called A Kid’s Guide to How to Save the Planet, and I think I did try to implement at least some of the suggestions, but I was too shy and timid to take on anything serious. My older sister (who, yes, was brainy and bossy like Charlotte) and I did sell lemonade a few times, but it was in our front yard just a few houses down from Schenley Park during the car races that passed through that area, and, sorry to say, it was entirely for profit! (Also, it was from concentrate, not fresh squeezed lemons, and my parents surely incurred losses for our business venture, but I guess they figured it was a good experience for us.)
The main character, however, was based less on own my mother and more on who I am now as an adult. I think the story explores that dissonance between my childhood passion for environmentalism and my adulthood ambivalence toward it–partly fed by guilt and helplessness and overwhelm, and partly by a sense of suspicion I developed over the years that I wasn’t being told the whole truth. I never felt angry or thought, as the teenage Alison accuses, that the adults around me were lying or withholding the truth, nor do I think anyone in the zoo camp scenario did anything wrong. But I do think that the way we present information, in attempt to be persuasive, can sometimes be subtly manipulative, and we need to think about the consequences that might have, especially where very perceptive, impressionable, and sensitive children are concerned.
Also, as the mother of some very perceptive, impressionable, and sensitive children myself, Alison’s mother’s sense of bewilderment and being out of her element as she tries to figure out how best to respond to her child’s struggle is all too familiar to me.
Anyway. I hope you enjoy the story!