“Tell me one of your stories,” he said. “Perhaps you need a distraction from your dreams.”
Nicole blushed, wondering if he knew what she had dreamt. What could she tell him? She looked into his eyes, gleaming in the dark. They reminded her of the cormorant’s.
“Alright,” she said. “I will tell you about my favourite cormorant, the darkest one with distinctive light spots on the tips of his wings.”
“This is the large black bird?” he asked.
“Yes,” she answered. “I used to watch him on the river by our house. In spring and fall I would search for him among the wiry necks and large bills. He didn’t stay long. Geese, ducks, and cormorants alike fly up from the Great Lakes to northern water, maybe all the way to Hudson Bay. The cormorants stay the least time. I envied their wild, free independence, their strength.”
He slipped out of bed, relit the candle, and then returned.
“I was driving to work and looked up. A cormorant flew above the small river toward the bridge I was about to cross. The bird was caught in a down draft. It entangled in the hydro wire, plummeted to the road and was struck by a red Volvo. The bumper flung it to the sidewalk.
“I hit the brakes, hard; the tires screamed and the car fishtailed. The Volvo driver pulled on to the shoulder on the other side of the bridge. I stopped dead centre, left the door ajar and ran to the flapping bird.
“The cormorant stumbled to its feet. When I approached, it staggered backward into a guard post and then rushed at me. My heart was pounding crazily when it spread its wings, one awkwardly, and stretched its neck, tensing its legs to raise the body up to full height. Its face reached my chest. It seemed huge out of the water, frantic with fear and pain. It jabbed its beak toward me. I jerked back. The cormorant stumbled. It squawked, high-pitched and discordant.”
“It did not understand,” he said.
Nicole continued. “The other driver, a man in jeans and a Canadien hockey shirt, said its wing was broken.
“The bird staggered left and out into traffic. Then I recognized the light spots on the tips of his wings. I shouted for it to stop, stupidly, and then asked the other driver to help me chase it to safety. Together we yelled and swung our arms, forcing the cormorant to the end of the bridge and down to the embankment.
“The guy said we should call the Ministry to come and put it out of its misery. It couldn't fish like that. It would starve to death.
“What is the Ministry?” he asked.
“It doesn’t matter, said Nicole. "I wasn’t going to let anyone kill it. The bird folded its wings; the left one bent crookedly, and stumbled toward the water. I knew if it reached the water, we would never catch it, even with a broken wing. I pulled off my oversized cardigan, lunged and tossed it over the animal. I carefully gathered him up, his feet thrashing, digging into my thighs.
“Drivers blew their horns as I ran to the car and placed the bird in the trunk. I sped to the Hilltop Animal Clinic where we used to bring my cat Whiskers. They squeezed me in without an appointment.
“His wing was broken. Dr. Lazurak put on a splint, but he thought there might be internal injuries too. He gave me a needless syringe for feeding glucose and cortisone. I had to administer drops every two hours until the vials were empty and keep him warm to reduce shock.
“This would help him heal?” he asked, captivated with her story.
"Hopefully. When his appetite returned, I was to give him formula after each dose of medication. Dr. Lazurak wrote out the ingredients. I had to feed him until he was full. As soon as he started to stand and appear alert, I was to give him tidbits of raw fish and continue to supplement this with drops of the vitamins. The doctor didn’t ask for any payment. Just wished me good luck.”
“A kind man,” he commented.
“Yes. I borrowed an old portable dog cage from a friend and set it up in the mud room, between two heating vents. He wanted to help but I said I could do it on my own.”
He gave an odd smile.
“I spread an old towel on the bottom. When I opened the cardboard box, the cormorant was flopped on its back, its legs tight against its chest, one webbed foot twisted in an arthritic pose. It rolled back and forth helplessly when the box was jostled. It suddenly seemed so small.
“I set my alarm at two hour intervals. The house was hot and stuffy with the windows closed and the heat turned up high. My step-mother was not too happy but she was glad to see me interested in something. I had... gone through a difficult time a couple of months before...”
Nicole cleared her throat. He waited silently.
“Anyway, at first the bird was unresponsive, but by the fifth feeding he opened his beak. He watched intently with these bright brown eyes. I longed to stroke his soft feathers but feared that enormous beak.
“On the third day, he stumbled erect and sat there, his tail bent forwards between his feet. He opened his mouth when my hand approached.
“Wednesday, I returned to work. The hands of the clock dragged. I rushed out the door the second my shift ended. I ran inside. Six and a half hours had passed since the last feeding. I hurried into the mud room. The cormorant was lying on his side.
“Oh, no,” he said as he sat up wrapping the blanket around his shoulders.
“I fed him and then tried to figure out a way for him to eat when I wasn’t there. I emptied a one litre milk container, washed it, and cut off the upper third. I punched holes near the top, threaded it with string, and tied it to the side of the cage. The cormorant watched me without moving. A couple of hours later, he sat up. I held the syringe above the milk carton, trying to draw him toward it. He stretched out and fell over.
“At the next feeding, I introduced bits of raw fish, which he accepted from tongs. It would have been easier to use my fingers, but I was too nervous. Also, I also didn’t want to get him too used to humans. Wariness is an animal’s best defence. People who train wild animals to eat from human hands make them more vulnerable to abuse. I tried repeatedly to feed the bird by dropping the fish on the cage floor. As soon as the food fell below his direct line of vision, he stared at me. Gloria came and watched for a while but she didn’t have any suggestions.
“I woke early in the morning. I leapt out of bed when I realized I had missed two feedings! I raced into the mudroom. The bird was asleep with his head partially buried under his good wing. Gloria padded in behind me. She had fed him! He had eaten about four times as much as usual. She figured out that if she gave him a few minutes rest when he refused the food, he’d accept more later. He couldn't eat and eat without stopping. He got tired. I’d been pushing him too quickly.
“After a while, the bird needed only to be fed once during the night. However, no matter how often I changed the towels, the bird coated his stomach, tail, and feet with excrement. It hardened on his feathers. The cormorant yanked them out as he tried to preen. I figured out how to wash him periodically, but soon he had a bare patch on his bottom and half of his tail feathers were missing. He moulted on the front half of his throat, revealing a wrinkly, skinny turkey neck.
“Winter came. I suppose the other cormorants went south without him.”
"He must have been lonely,” he said.
"I don't think cormorants are as social as geese. I don’t know. I thought he could join up with them on their way north in the fall. Finally, the bird learned to drink and eat from the milk cartons, which I cleaned and replenished each morning, midday and evening. I was able to sleep through the night. I felt like I had a purpose, a reason to keep going. I had been in a slump since my fiancé... since we split up.
“When Dr. Lazurak removed the splint, the bird flopped ungainly around the examining room, smashing into the door frame. He said he couldn’t offer much hope but I if I kept him and if he regained his coordination, I should provide room for him to fly.
“I woke that night and went into see him. The cormorant met my gaze instantly. He was sitting up. I thought he'd have his head tucked under his wing and be fast asleep. I remember losing awareness of the cold, of the time, staring, captivated by the blackness and drawn into his wild beauty, like sinking to the bottom of a cold, deep pond. The next thing I know, my step-mother was shaking my shoulder. I had fallen asleep on the floor beside the cage.
“I named him Caller because I felt like he was trying to call me, to make contact. I started to get pretty strange.”
He rubbed his forehead. His expression seemed uncomfortable.
“My step-mother found me several times over the next few months. I lost weight. I couldn't remember going there. I thought I had fallen asleep in my bed. She wanted me to see the doctor. I did my best for the bird, but, he didn’t make it.”
She thought back. Nine months after his rescue, when the snow was melting in long icicles off the roofs and pussy willows were peeking from their brittle sheaths anticipating new life, Nicole awoke in her bed. It startled her for a second; she was so used to waking in the mud room. She slid into her slippers and housecoat and went to check. Caller was dead on the cage floor.
"Tragic," he said. "But now, you have a second chance to make a difference. Here, in Dawn's End."