The Limits of Certainty

By Renée Thompson

He was most alive while birding. In summer he pitched a tent, prepared his meals on a Coleman stove, and drank coffee from an aluminum cup. He crawled into his sleeping bag just after dusk and rose before sunrise, ate a breakfast of one boiled egg or half a banana, then prepared his field gear: canoe, journal, binoculars, Sibley guide, and the camcorder he’d bought at a second-hand store in southeast Oregon. To fund his birding ventures he worked winters as a bus boy at resort hotels, or sometimes as a waiter — anything that allowed him to pack a bag and hit the road in time for spring migration. To save money he slept in the back of his pickup, shampooed his hair in gas station bathrooms, and skipped dinner on Sunday evenings. As a teenager he had never adhered to the standards of his generation, never joined a social network or partied in Cancun. Never owned a cell phone. In high school his girlfriend Ellen said, “I like you, Penn, I do — but you’re so old-fashioned, you know?” By his nineteenth birthday she’d left him for a sales associate at Apple.

Now twenty-three, Penn sat in his canoe in Bayou de View in the Big Woods of Arkansas. The primordial forest was home to bald cypresses and tupelos — trees as spectacular as California sequoias, trunks like gnarled knuckles. He didn’t realize that anything other than cattails could thrive in tea-colored water, but the hardwood giants stood thick and stalwart like sentries guarding the channel. On March fourth, three days after arriving, he sketched them in his journal, commenting in blue-black ink that the bare trees possessed an otherworldly feel, like a setting in a sci-fi novel. He imagined that in the middle of summer the forest would look like a fairy tale.

He knew well the drum and call of a pileated woodpecker, but this was not that bird.

He had come for the woodpeckers: the downy, hairy, red-headed and red-bellied, the yellow-bellied sapsucker and northern flicker. He hoped to see the pileated, too, a striking bird the size of a crow — the largest in North America — and to capture with his camcorder the white pileated — a rare albino he’d spotted two days prior at the north end of the swamp.

The morning was cool, the sky studded with low clouds. A stiff breeze blew. The few birds he spotted sat on bare branches, their feathers puffed and stirring. Around mid-afternoon the wind died down and the sun slid out. The birds started moving again. A blue jay called from an alder. Penn had been paddling a good six hours, and his arms were tired and sore. He stopped a minute to rest. Sitting somewhat hunched, he closed his eyes and let the sun’s rays do the hard work of massaging his neck and shoulders.

His head dropped forward and he jerked awake. Gazed groggily toward the horizon. The day’s light was beginning to slip behind the shadows and he thought he should head back to camp. Maneuvering the canoe through a quagmire of brush and woody debris, he veered toward the channel he’d traveled earlier. A beaver cut in front of him and he lifted the paddles, pausing to watch it.

And then he heard it: the crisp double knock of a lone woodpecker, followed by four kent calls — nasal toots reminiscent of a child’s toy horn. He sat up, scanned the tree tops, and looked quickly over both shoulders.  He knew well the drum and call of a pileated woodpecker, but this was not that bird. This was different — markedly different — and sounded very much like the recordings he’d heard of an ivory-billed woodpecker. Yet he knew — all birders knew — the ivory-bill was extinct, or said to be. It was last documented in the 1940s.

He sat, barely moving, his heart pounding in his ears. He heard the call a second time, dipped the paddles back in the water and pulled hard, pointing the canoe toward the sound. A large black-and-white woodpecker swooped low across the channel, passing in front of him and showing its pale white bill, its scarlet crest, the white trailing edges at both wings. The bird pulled up, landed on the trunk of a cypress, and hopped to the opposite side. A slice of right wing showed.

He held his breath, reached slowly for the camcorder, and flipped it on, keeping his eye on the black form as it worked its way up the tree. His hands shook as he trained the camcorder on what he could see of the bird, following it even after it pushed off the tree and flew away, disappearing into the brush.

Light-headed and sweating, he tried to think, formulate in his mind exactly what he’d seen. He told himself it couldn’t be true, though he knew it was — he’d seen an ivory-bill, the Lord God Bird. And he’d gotten four full seconds on tape.

His father believed the endeavor so pure it didn’t warrant explanation or forgiveness….

He set the recorder down, grabbed his field journal, and hurriedly sketched the woodpecker with trembling hands, emphasizing the white trailing edges at the backs of each wing — markings that set it apart from the pileated, a bird very nearly its twin, except that the pileated’s wings were black. He noted the double knocks, the four kent calls, and marked an approximation of his location. Afterward, he sat quietly, his heart tight inside his chest, his eyes meticulously scanning his surroundings, as though he might resummon the bird, if he just stared hard enough. He vacillated between keeping the news to himself and telling his father. He wanted badly to tell his father. Drive into town, hunt down a pay phone, and call him in California. Hear admiration in the old man’s voice when he told him what he’d seen. But his history with his father stopped him, as the man was far less likely to say You’ve done it son, accomplished the impossible than Jesus Christ, you kidding me? You’ve been in the sun too long.

His father was a professor at Humboldt State, a big fish in a little pond. The east coast had its own scholars, but Clark McLeod claimed Cornell’s ornithologists were full of themselves, that the university was stuffy. Penn suspected it was an opinion borne of insecurity, a testament to his father’s unwillingness to expand his horizons by applying for a position at an Ivy League school, where the competition was keener. Better to remain a hero in a small-town school than to risk failure at a big-league institution.

At twenty, Penn had told his father he was dropping out of school to bird full time. Travel the country, and one day, maybe, make his way to Costa Rica and Peru. The old man had stood, his dark eyes gleaming. “I thought we settled this.”

“I quit arguing, is all.”

“How will you support yourself?”

“Odd jobs — I don’t know. I’ll figure something out.”

His father’s mouth tightened. “You haven’t thought this through.”

“I have thought it through, Dad. I’m leaving tomorrow morning.”

Penn had grown up in redwood country. An expert birder by fifteen, he skipped classes as often as possible to accompany his father on field trips, but there was a price to pay for the fun: his father refused to tell even the smallest white lie to keep Penn out of trouble, believing the endeavor so pure it didn’t warrant explanation or forgiveness. On a sheet of lined paper he’d ripped from his journal, Clark McLeod, Ph.D., scrawled My son and I went birding. That’s all. Never Penn went to the dentist or Penn was sick. The attendance clerk declined to excuse Penn’s absences, and Penn was left to explain to his teachers how a professor at Humboldt State could, in good conscience, condone skipping school to study ornithology in the flatlands near Mad River.

Their mutual love of birds should have made them best friends; instead, they were competitors. His father, the professor, constantly tested him. On field trips, when students were present, the old man pointed to the silhouette of an overhead bird and shouted, “Quickly, Penn! Name it!”

Penn’s face would flush, but he’d look up, gauge its silhouette, and without the aid of binoculars say, “red-tailed hawk,” or “sharp-shin,” depending on its tail. His father would hesitate, narrow his eyes, purse his lips and nod. Penn always wondered about that hesitation. In time he began to understand just how complicated his relationship with his father was, how he himself was a reflection of the man’s successes and failures. But there was something else, a lesson unspoken so harder to grasp: be a responsible person, do a good job, but never outshine the father.

And so Penn did the one thing that most vexed the old man — dropped out of school. By the time he got to Arkansas, nearly three years had passed. Time and again he told himself he didn’t give a damn what his father thought, or what the old man wanted. But the yearning for some small gesture never left him, and after he spotted the Lord God Bird, he used the credit card he saved for emergencies and flew back to California.

“Remember the first time you saw a condor? Turned out to be a crow.”

He arrived at Humboldt State unshaven and unannounced. Twenty-one hours had passed since he’d spotted the bird, thirty since he’d slept; he leaned against the wall opposite his father’s office, exhausted and bleary-eyed. The department hadn’t changed much. Students filtered through narrow doorways, and bumped shoulders in the hall. As his father came into view, Penn noted the little knot that traveled with him. A young woman touched his father’s sleeve. “Dr. McLeod,” she said, her voice aching in its desire to please, “guess what I saw this weekend.” Without slowing, his father gazed at her over the top of his glasses. “An American bittern,” she said, as she hurried alongside him, “hiding in the cattails. I missed it at first, but I remembered what you told us about its ability to blend in, so I was patient, you know, scanning the marsh with my binoculars. That’s when I spotted it.”

The girl beamed. His father beamed. And then the old man saw him. His eyebrows, grayer now, lifted, and his gait slowed. He waved off the students and walked toward Penn, a notebook held loosely — cavalierly, Penn thought — at his chest, as though even this most unexpected of surprises was just a hiccup in his day. He stopped in front of Penn, shook his hand and held it. Their eyes met, and Penn thought his father might embrace him. But then the old man stepped back and gave him the once-over. “You look a bit worse for the wear.”

“I haven’t slept in a while.”

“Are you sick?”

“No, I —”

“You look sick.”

“I’m not sick — I’ve got something to show you.”

His father waited, but Penn would not tell him his news in the hallway. The man indicated his office with a nod and walked in. Penn followed.

The room smelled of dust and ancient paper. The light from a west window illuminated a stuffed barn owl on a branch, its glass eyes glossy and real. Manila folders were strewn about, and a bookshelf that reached just short of the ceiling was crammed with scientific journals, nearly all of them containing something his father had written: “Migrational Homing in Mourning Doves,” “Winter Ranges of North American Birds,” and “Population Growth in the Red-Winged Blackbird.” The last was the result of a research award from the American Ornithologists’ Union.

His father sat behind his desk, leaned forward, and clasped his hands. “Does your mother know you’re here?”

“I haven’t called her yet.”

“Don’t you think you ought to?”

“I will, Dad. I wanted to see you first.”

His father sat back, assessing him. “You’ve come for money, is that it?”

Penn clenched his jaw. He was tempted to turn and walk out the door, keep the news of the ivory-bill to himself, and catch the next flight back to Arkansas. Who cared if the old man saw America’s grandest bird or a goddamn bug on the sidewalk? He was about to say just forget it, but then spotted behind his father’s dark eyes an unwilling softening, an unspoken challenge to stay.

He shucked his backpack. Pulled out a disc and inserted it into his father’s laptop. “Just watch,” he said. The recording came into focus, as did the calls and drums in the forest.

His father pursed his lips.

Penn pointed to the crow-like shadow clinging to the side of a tree. Only a small slice of its right wing showed, and the head couldn’t be seen at all. “Watch this,” he said, lightly touching the screen. A black spot bobbed this way and that, and after a moment took off and flew away from the camera. With each beat of its wings, large white patches flashed in the air. In four seconds it was gone.

His father looked at him.

“It’s an ivory-bill,” Penn said. “I’d stake my life on it.” His heart pounded anew, and he heard in his voice the same need to please that he’d heard in the young woman’s.

“Remember the first time you saw a condor? Turned out to be a crow.”

“I was eleven, Dad.”

His father took a breath. “All right, yes,” he said, nodding toward the laptop. “Play it again.”

Penn hit the play button. He and his father watched the clip three more times, and each time his father stared intently at the screen. At the final viewing he got up and without a word walked over to the bookcase. Plucking a copy of Tanner’s The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker from the shelf, he thumbed through it until he found what he was looking for. He read for a moment, looked up. “It’s a wood duck,” his father said.

“You know as well as I do it’s not a wood duck.”

“Then it’s the under-wing of a pileated — thousands of people have made that mistake, and now you’ve made it too.”

“This bird is bigger and blacker,” Penn said evenly, “and has a bill three inches long.” He strode forward, took the book from his father’s hand and flipped through it. Stopping at an illustration comparing an ivory-bill to a pileated, he tapped the page with one finger. “This is what I saw — the white trailing wings of an ivory-bill. The pileated’s are black.”

His father glanced at the laptop, then back at Penn. “You’ve got four seconds of something,” he said, “I’ll give you that. But whether it’s an ivory-bill or a pileated is ambiguous at best.”

Penn again dug into his backpack, pulled out his journal and handed it to his father. “Look at that,” he said. The man studied the rough sketches along with the notes. “I heard it call and drum,” Penn went on, “two crisp double knocks.”

“You’ve got audio?”

“Well no, but –”

“Then your data’s inconclusive.” His father slapped the journal shut and gave it to Penn. “You heard a white-breasted nuthatch, or a blue jay, maybe — both make similar sounds.” He lifted his chin. “Even if you did see an ivory-bill, even if one bird still existed, the odds are wildly against you.”

“You don’t believe me, come to the swamp. I’m telling you, it’s there.”

Penn knew his father would love nothing more than to bask in the glory such a sighting generated — all ornithologists would give their right arms to be able to say they’d seen Elvis. And Penn would gladly share the recognition of the sighting — or the whole damn sighting itself — in return for one kind word from his father. If he’d made a mistake, well. The professor could rap his finger against the dropout’s chest, say, “You don’t know your ass from your elbow — you should have stayed in school.”

He spent the night at his parents’, stashed his backpack in his childhood bedroom, sat on the bed and lay back, marveling at the soft sponginess of the mattress and depth of the feather pillow, and when he showered, he lingered beneath the jet of hot water, relaxing as its warmth caressed his neck and shoulders. Afterward, he shaved and changed into clean clothes, realizing as he combed his hair in front of a mirror how much he missed the conveniences of home.

In the family room a Christmas tree minus ornaments stood in one corner. A bird was perched atop it, and when he walked in, it raised its wings and flew into the kitchen, landing on the refrigerator. His mother, Fiona, shooed it away.

He slid onto a barstool and sat at the counter. “Why is the Christmas tree still up,” he wanted to know, “and why is there a screech owl in it?”

“Your father’s latest rehab,” his mother told him. “Poor thing ran into a car windshield and broke its wing. It was well enough to release six weeks ago, but your father’s become attached.”

His mother was a big-boned woman, tall, like his father. Her eyes had welled when he’d first walked in, and she’d held out her arms to embrace him. “My God,” she’d said, holding him, “you’re nothing but skin and bones.”

He’d held her, and when she’d broken away to kiss his cheek, he saw she had tears in her eyes. She slapped his arm with a dish towel, said he had no business staying away so long, and he told her he’d do better from here on out, and try to get home more often.

Now she pulled a roast from the oven, sliced it with the ease of a master chef, then skewered the savory end-portion he liked best and handed it to him. He popped it into his mouth. Smiling, he licked his thumb and forefinger. She smiled, too, grateful for the chance to fatten him up.

He saw her assessing him from the corner of one eye, gauging his slender frame and clothes — the threadbare jeans and flannel shirt with fraying collar. He knew she wondered what it cost him, literally, to survive. She was quiet, and when she spoke, she said, “What will you tell your father when he starts in? Because he will, you know. He wants you back in school.”

“I’m not going back,” he said, chewing fervently. “I’m happy with my life.”

For as long as he could remember, his mother had worn an apron while cooking, and now she gathered its skirt in both hands and wiped her fingertips. She turned to face him. “He’s worried about you — we both are.”

“He’s not worried, he’s disappointed — he’s bitter I’m not him.” Penn said this with more anger than he’d intended. He took a breath, exhaled. “Just because I’ve chosen a different path doesn’t mean something good won’t come of my life. I’ll find my own success, just like Dad found his.”

His mother crossed her arms and leaned with her back against the counter. When she spoke, the softness had left her voice. “You and your father are two peas in a pod, yet neither of you can see it. You’re so damn stubborn — so wrapped up in outdoing each other, you won’t give credit where credit is due.”

“I give him credit for plenty of things.”

“Like what?”

He thought for a moment, his mind scanning the memories of his childhood, and then his teenaged years, before he stood on the cusp of manhood and his relationship with his father began to deteriorate in earnest. Inwardly he acknowledged, if begrudgingly, that his father had been good — was in fact still good — at a number of things, although he’d never specifically told him so.

He glanced up, the expectant look on his mother’s face urging him to speak. “He can identify the song of a dark-eyed junco from a car with the windows cracked.”

“What else?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh, come on,” she said. “That’s all you can come up with?”

“He can light a campfire without a match — I always thought that was something.”

She regarded him with her head tilted, and then smiled somewhat. “If you told him you admired these things, I imagine he’d find nice things to say about you, too — it’s a two-way street, you know.” When he didn’t respond, she said, “Your father loves you, Penn , and wants what’s best for you.”

Penn wanted to believe it; he did. But there was a thoughtlessness to his father, a sort of cruelty, which Penn had struggled with all his life. This desire — this need — for his father’s approval was a pathetic thing, and he sometimes hated himself for his inability to say who gives a fuck, old man. Yet he couldn’t wish away what he wanted merely by hating it, and so he told himself he didn’t care, hoping it was enough.

Father and son slept in the Big Woods in a tent Penn had bought at a thrift store in downtown Brinkley. The tent was small but serviceable, and kept them dry throughout the rainstorm that pummeled the hardwood forest. All that first day they sat huddled inside, rain drumming the plastic sheeting Penn had jerry-rigged for protection. Just after lunch, Penn’s mother called. The signal was weak, and she kept cutting out. His father handed him the cellphone, saying he couldn’t make out what she was saying.

“I’m not going back,” he said, chewing fervently. “I’m happy with my life.”

“Mom?” Penn said.

“Penn?” she said. They went back and forth a few times, and then she said, “Have you killed each other yet?”

He laughed, softly. “No, not yet.”

“Make sure Dad takes his blood pressure pills,” she said, and this surprised him. He hadn’t known his father was on medication, and he told her he would tell him to take them each morning with his coffee. After Penn hung up, his father — having deciphered most of their conversation — said, “You don’t need to remind me to take my pills. Your mother bought me one of those plastic holders with the days of the week on top.”

“She’s worried about you, is all,” Penn said. This, too, surprised him, as it was the same thing she’d said to him about his father not two days ago.

The rain continued throughout the first day, and then all of the second. Every so often Penn got up to check the status of the clouds, and each time his father asked in a weary tone, “Any sign of a let-up?” By dawn of the third day the man’s face seemed to have dropped an inch, and his mouth was stuck in a scowl. Then, at long last, the rain subsided and the clouds broke, and the sky shone pink and pewter and purple.

They ate breakfast at a folding camp table. His father had bought groceries in town on the way in, stopping at a mom-and-pop market that smelled of Styrofoam coolers and hotdogs. He fried thick slices of Canadian bacon and scrambled half a dozen eggs. They had toast, and a small jar of raspberry jam, and cream to go with their coffee.

“You take your medication?” Penn asked. The old man pulled the plastic holder from his shirt pocket and waved it at Penn, showing him he was on it.

After their meal, they climbed into the canoe to look for the ivory-bill. The sun shone through the low white clouds, and the sky, visible in small blue swatches, looked promising. A bird sang from a thicket behind a grove of trees, and his father strained to listen. “Carolina wren,” he said, and Penn nodded, knowing without seeing the bird that his father was correct.

He thought about the conversation he’d had with his mother, how she’d encouraged him to tell his father this was a skill he’d long admired. He opened his mouth to speak, hesitated, then closed it again.

“What?” his father said. “Am I wrong?”

“No,” said Penn, “you’re not wrong. I was just thinking how good you are at identifying bird songs — I wish I were better at it.”

“The key is to listen. Decide if what you’re hearing is simple or complex, musical or harsh.” He shrugged. “You could learn if you wanted to.”

Penn stiffened. The implication was that he didn’t want to learn, which wasn’t true. He just wasn’t good at it, the way his father was. He was irritated with himself for sharing the compliment, as not only had the old man used it as an opportunity to criticize him, but hadn’t shared one in return.

They sat silently after that. Around noon, the clouds began to gather, and the temperature dropped. The wind picked up, blowing so hard they could hear nothing but the rough clacking of branches. Twice, it poured on them.

Gradually, the rain subsided and turned to a persistent drizzle. For a while they took turns paddling, but as the day wore on, his father grew tired and restless. Repeatedly, he raised and lowered his binoculars, sighed and looked around. Aside from the wren and a few other birds, they’d made only a handful of sightings. Toward early evening, his father, cold and uncomfortable, said, “Might as well head back to camp.”

“We’ve still got daylight yet.”

“Nothing is out here, Son,” the old man said, slapping his neck, “unless you count mosquitoes.”

Penn chewed the inside of his cheek. Turned the canoe around.

On the way back they ran into a fisherman standing at the edge of the swamp. The man wore waders, a camouflage cap, and held a rod in one hand. Spotting the green canoe, the fisherman took one step back. “You-all wardens?” he hollered, as they approached. “I got my fishing license.”

“We’re not wardens,” Clark called. “We’re looking for the ivory-bill.”

“Ivory-bill?” said the fisherman. He too looked around. “Everyone this side of Brinkley knows that bird’s been extinct for sixty-odd years now.”

“My son here says he saw it five days ago, in a channel of Bayou de View.”

His father’s voice telegraphed not only sarcasm but disbelief, and Penn’s old hatred returned. He despised his father for announcing the bird to the whole damn world — the ivory-bill was supposed to be their secret. Their discovery. “Why don’t you just shout it from the rooftop?” he said. He stabbed the paddles into the water and pulled hard.

“For Christ’s sake,” said his father, “the man’s a fisherman. Who’s he going to tell?”

Penn dropped his chin to his chest. A moment passed before he looked up. “You don’t believe me, fine. You want to go home, go. But I’ll tell you what: You leave, some hot-shot from Cornell will swoop in, spot the bird, and steal your thunder. Then you’ll wish you’d stayed.”

The remark ended the conversation, and Penn paddled the rest of the way in silence. By the time the canoe nudged the shore, the day was almost done. He climbed out, left his father to unfurl his legs from the canoe and limp slowly toward camp. The old man shucked the pack from his shoulders, letting the bundle collapse in a heap on the ground. He was unaccustomed to paddling, and his palms were badly blistered. He sat in a camp chair and unpeeled a Band-Aid he’d pulled from his wallet, tending the wound on one hand.

Penn had burned off much of his anger while he paddled in, but he still had no interest in conversation. He filled the aluminum coffee pot with water, fired up the cook stove, and made his specialty, tunaghetti — a concoction of canned tuna, cooked pasta and a scraping of mayonnaise. He tossed some pepper in.

The two of them sat at the small camp table for supper. Penn handed his father a plate. The old man took a bite of the casserole, chewed and swallowed. “Not bad,” he said, looking up quickly, and then down again.

“It’s a stand-by,” Penn said warily.

“Where did you learn to cook?”

The question took him aback. “Well, here,” he said, indicating the forest with a nod.

The old man plunged the last bite into his mouth, pushed away from the table, and got up. “I think I’ll start a fire,” he said. “What would you say to that?” He didn’t wait for an answer, however, just walked over to the tent and emerged with his kit of flint and steel. He gathered an armload of kindling, arranged it in the fire ring, and within ten minutes had got a fire going. While waiting for the flames to build, he sat on a log and sipped his coffee.

Penn said nothing about his father’s ability to easily roust a fire. As he rinsed the dinner dishes, he glanced over, saw the old man sitting with his belly protruding and his shoulders rounded, and for the first time his father looked old to him. Penn didn’t want to see him as aging, or frail, or anything less than the ogre he was, and might have abandoned him and gone to bed, if he hadn’t been so cold — he hadn’t yet rebounded from their day in the rain, and so he too sat by the fire and warmed his feet and hands.

His father leaned forward to stir the coals, and the fire hissed and spit. Ash rose in the evening air. He stared at the flames, deep in thought, and then turned toward Penn and smiled. “Remember that time we were riding back from Mendocino?” he said. “Bunch of us on that bus?” He was talking about the first field trip Penn had taken with his father and the old man’s students.

Penn nodded. “It was the week after my tenth birthday.”

“It was one of the first jokes you ever made, remember? You came up with it on your own.” His father chuckled. “Some third-year kid — what was his name? — said ‘Look at those geese in that pasture over there, must be a hundred of them.’ You sat up, craned your neck and said, ‘They’re outstanding in their field.’ God, how they laughed — they couldn’t get over you.”

Penn did remember. It was a moment, and he had carried it for years.

Six days they looked, and saw no sign of the bird. They glided down the bayou’s narrow channel, passing a tangle of birders in full regalia standing on the bank. Half a mile down, they saw another dozen or so.

“We’ve got company,” Penn said, his heart sinking. He resented anew his father’s thoughtless announcement to the fisherman, as the sportsman had clearly spread the news. No doubt he’d had a time of it, too, laughing in some bar between gulps of beer, saying, “Couple of birding freaks from California claim they saw the ghost bird.”

Penn glanced at his father, seated at the front of the canoe. Something had caught the man’s eye, and he was training his binoculars on it. “What is it?” Penn said, scanning the horizon as they drifted downstream. Then he too saw it: the albino pileated he had hoped to record on the day of the ivory-bill.

“Camcorder,” his father said urgently. Penn reached for it, but in his haste fumbled when trying to turn it on. “Hurry,” the man barked, but it was too late. By the time Penn flipped the switch, the albino had disappeared.

“You missed it!” his father complained. “One chance, and you missed it.” The man let go then with the resentment that had been building up all week. “We’ve been out here for six days now and haven’t seen a goddamn thing. No nesting holes, no roost sites, not a –”

Abruptly he stopped. Sat up and cocked his head to listen.

And there it was: the crisp double knock, the clear kent call. The sounds of an ivory-bill.

The old man’s hands shook and his mouth hung open. After a moment, he swallowed. He turned toward Penn, and their eyes touched.

“You know that call,” Penn told him. “You know it better than I do.” He waited. Willed his father to say You were right and I was wrong. But the man only looked away.

They sat for a long while then, and all in the bayou sat quietly with them. Rain began to fall, softly at first, and then harder, and the wind stirred the tops of the trees. “We should go,” Penn said. His father nodded. And with his grip loose on the paddles and his pull light on the water, Penn aimed the canoe toward home.


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About Renée Thompson

Renée Thompson is the author of two novels, The Plume Hunter and The Bridge at Valentine.  Her short stories have twice appeared in Narrative, as "Stories of the Week", Arcadia, 10,000 Tons of Black Ink (where her short story "Twelve Pencils" was named Best Of, Vol. 2, Spring 2012), and Chiron Review. Her stories have also placed in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open competitions, and in the Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition. Renée lives on five acres in northern California with her husband, black Lab, and three goats.


  1. Posted September 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    There is a complexity to birds that only a keen watcher can see. Thompson not only sees the magic and the mystery of birds, but she captures their humanity, and, as Frost might say, “their reason.” A lovely read.

  2. Posted September 2012 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    As a NYC native and die-hard urbanite, my interest in birding is slim. However, Renee Thompson makes Penn’s passion so visceral, I am immediately and deeply drawn into this story. The best fiction is transformative–it makes the world of the other our own.

  3. Krista Minard
    Posted September 2012 at 12:14 am | Permalink

    As with Renee Thompson’s two novels, the details of the natural landscape ring clear in this piece, so much so that the reader smells that forest and shivers under the dripping trees and hears the calls of the birds. The characters come to life, as family dynamics familiar to many of us play out–everyone’s seeking connection, metering it out in tiny, excruciating doses that in the end mean plenty. A wonderful, engaging read.

  4. Peggi Wood
    Posted September 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Renee Thompson’s deep respect for the nature of all beings is evident in this tale of a son’s struggle to find light within the shadow of his father’s disapproval through their shared passion for birding. This richly detailed story immerses the reader in an environment fraught with the frailties of yearning possibilities. A delightful read.

  5. Jeffrey Webster
    Posted September 2012 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    Beautiful, descriptive prose and a compelling story line. I am a birder. I also had a complicated relationship with my father. This story spoke to me on many levels. Renee is a master storyteller.

  6. Posted October 2012 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Renee has a beautifully natural way of drawing the reader into the story. The subtle and poised narrative is both delightful and intriguing. As with her two novels, the setting is tangible in a way that transforms the reader to a new and delicate world. A wonderful story told by a terrific writer.

  7. Larry Menlove
    Posted October 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Wonderful, Renee! Your writing has an elegant edgy calm that makes me want to wrap up in down, sip tea and peer out the window for those flashes of wing that are unfamiliar between the trees of my yard. Bravo!

  8. Keith Mcculloch
    Posted November 2013 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    I pick books at the bookstore if there is one paragraph of beautifully combined words. I’ll have no idea what they are about or who wrote them. Renee, that’s why I turned to yours after reading the first 3 sentences.

    • Posted November 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      Keith, thanks for this wonderful comment, and for reading; I appreciate both so much!

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