Digital painting of the columnist by Jennifer Herrold.
The Wide World of Southern Literature:
Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Loyal Oxford American readers probably remember Megan Mayhew Bergman’s stunning fiction and occasional nonfiction articles that have graced The OA’s pages over the past few years. Her debut short story collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, contains two pieces originally showcased by The OA—“The Artificial Heart,” a story of love and decline set in the year 2050 and published in The OA’s Fall 2010 issue, and “The Right Company,” which was published earlier that same year. Birds of a Lesser Paradise is one of those unusually delightful debut short story collections that is as well-curated as any veteran author’s—steadily captivating and emotionally rich from beginning to end. Every page explores motherhood, womanhood, and the partnerships women form with their mates, pets, and parents.
In “Housewifely Arts,” a single mother and her seven-year-old son, Ike, embark on a quest to rediscover her late mother’s voice. The narrator’s house is infested with crickets, and she is trying to sell it. The realtor has ordered her out so he can get a team in to vacuum up the bugs before the final inspection. It is her mother’s birthday, and she hasn’t told her son that she is taking him to a small roadside zoo to visit her mother’s beloved pet parrot. “A bird I hated,” admits the narrator. “A bird that could beep like a microwave, ring like a phone, and sneeze just like me.” The same bird who demanded that the narrator Sit down, Sit down, during one of the last arguments she would ever have with her mother.
When they reach the zoo, they see several African gray parrots, but they all look alike. Even the zookeeper can’t be sure that Carnie, the pet, is one of them, though he points them to a likely candidate. The bird looks familiar. Mom’s voice is in there somewhere, the narrator thinks.
Beneath this wall of gray feathers is the last shard of my mother’s voice, and I feel myself growing increasingly desperate. How thick was her accent? Was her singing voice as beautiful as I remember? She always spoke so sweetly to Carnie and I wanted to hear that sugary tone, the one she hadn’t used with me in her last years.
The grieving daughter and her child plead with the parrot. Please talk, they say. Just say something, pleads the narrator. Although she can remember telephone numbers and the books of the Bible, she cannot remember her mother’s pronunciation of specific words: Clorox. Roof. The bird contains these answers, but says nothing. “The longer Carnie goes without talking, the more I miss her,” the narrator concedes.
On the drive home, she takes her son on a detour, swinging by her mother’s house—the house she grew up in. Ike babbles beside his mother about Jesus and spies, but she’s not paying complete attention. As he grows quiet, she wonders what he’s thinking and how deep his love runs and how her love for him will manifest itself in the face of the complicated love that she and her own mother shared. A mother’s body, she discovered after becoming one herself, was so overrun with nerve endings that ran straight to the heart that it could become numb from overuse, from the overstimulation of those heartstrings.
She thinks back to an exchange she and her mother had years before, after she’d refused to take responsibility for the parrot’s future. She’d been helping her mother pack the house up. “You don’t want to keep these?” she asked her mother, referring to a box of photographs headed for the trash. “My heart,” the mother had said: “I can turn it off.” It seemed simple and honest then, but the narrator’s reading of her mother’s words has been colored by her own motherhood: “What maniacs we are,” she realizes. “Sick with love, all of us.”
In 2010, Bergman wrote an essay on redemption narratives that was published on the Ploughshares Literary Magazine Blog. In this essay, Bergman muses that, “There is a cinematic appeal in redemption narratives; see any romantic comedy for an example. Bad guy cleans up and gets the girl. Ex-con makes good and helps solve a crime. Drug dealer gets sober and becomes an activist…. Truth be told, a lot of us are looking for a way to root for characters, real and imagined.”
The characters that populate the swamps and small towns in Birds of a Lesser Paradise are searching for this, too. In “Every Vein A Tooth,” an animal lover’s partner leaves after one of her special-needs dogs destroys his leaf collection. He’s a conservationist and a hunter. She’s a bleeding-heart preservationist with a house full of decrepit and/or feral animals. “Saving Face” revolves around a young veterinarian struggling to come to terms with her job, new face, and patient fiancé after being mauled by a partially sedated wolf hybrid. In “Yesterday’s Whales,” an environmental activist discovers she is pregnant and wants to keep the baby, even though she and her partner have dedicated their adult lives to convincing people not to reproduce in an attempt to lessen human impacts on the environment. The stories are surprising, subtle, and kind, and though the scenarios are heartbreaking, Bergman treats all her creations—male, female, aviary, canine, etc.—with sensitivity and humor. No one in Birds of a Lesser Paradise is living an easy life, but the diversity of struggles has evened the playing field, making each character, place, and super-specific quandary seem indubitably real.