Kill Your Darlings are delighted to support the QUT Undergraduate Creative Writing Prize, and publish the winning story, Katerina Gibson’s ‘Nesting’ on Killings.
Of her inspiration behind the story, Katerina says, ‘My partner owns a canary named Bird, which – due to our stupid tenancy agreement – has to stay out in the country with his parents, coincidentally near where I spent a few years living in high school. He – my partner – made a bad joke about his heart belonging to “his other bird”. I remember living in the country, and feeling the pull of the city. The imagery of the bird and that vague feeling (and the bad joke) connected, and I wrote this story. This is the closest I’ll ever come to writing a love letter.’
When I first met the man with a canary for a heart, he was holding the door open to the local IGA. He placed his Akubra on his chest and called me ma’am. That was when I worked there. I was wearing the green and white Catholic-schoolgirl-esque uniform the owner made us wear. I blushed and forgot to thank him when I passed.
I asked Dorothy who he was and she said he kept to himself. Lived on one of the properties behind the lake, next to the Madisons. She said nobody ever saw him with anyone. Never down at the pub. Wasn’t married. She said didn’t know why he’d never tied a girl down – he was a handsome bloke, wasn’t he? Then she started talking about the thing on her toe again and the high school girl who ran away with her teacher and the storm that was coming that week and the other high school girl’s disappearance.
I said I knew her. Dorothy asked, really? with an upward inflection, and I said not really, she was three years below me. Came to our graduation. Dated a guy in our grade. Her name was Caitlin.
‘Oh well, that’s not good is it,’ Dorothy said, then started talking about the roast she was cooking that night. The uniform made her look older than she was. She dropped her nametag and I looked at her sagging behind. Spidery veins crept from her ankles to her underwear. I bet that wasn’t what the owner had in mind.
The second time I saw the man he’d come in to see me. I was working for my dad then.
My dad said I had to come and work there so I could eventually take over the business. He needed to stay on the farm and my mother wasn’t much help. Besides, he was getting old. He even changed the sign outside to Greer & Daughter. Not officially though, too much paperwork. I told him I didn’t want to, that I was saving up to move to the city. He laughed and hugged me the same way he did when I was eight and wanted to be a vegetarian. He said wait until your mother hears this one.
Dad did the big stuff. Mainly dogs and the occasional pet goat, foxes and horses. I started off small, pet rats and guinea pigs. Small birds.
I was staring at the kangaroo my grandfather had mounted, crammed in our tiny front window, when the doorbell tinkled and he walked in. He pinched the top of his Akubra and held it to chest the way he did when I first saw him.
Nobody had been in that day. The sun was setting and I was about to close up shop.
I didn’t ask how he knew my name.
I asked him what I could do for him. He said he had a particular job he needed doing. Needed me to mount a canary. I said no problem, and did he want to bring the bird in the next day.
‘See, that’s the problem,’ he said. He needed me to make a house call.
I said I’d tell my dad.
He said, ‘I’d prefer if you did it.’ He asked me what I was doing that night.
I told him I had to close the shop but I could meet him at seven.
He smiled with the left side of his face and thanked me before leaving. He didn’t give me directions.
I locked the shop’s front door and walked out to where my second-hand Barina was parked opposite the horse statue near the pub.
Everyone thought Caitlin had just run away with someone, like the other girl. The other girls. Got pregnant and dropped out of high school. It was half true.
The guy who did it had lived two towns over. He was locked up in the place on the train line, halfway to the city.
Instead of taking the left around the lake to go home, I turned right onto the dirt road.
The moon wasn’t out that night. I could see edge of the Milky Way, where the stars clustered together across the horizon.
I stopped halfway up his driveway and pulled my handbrake on. The dull thud of my door closing sounded foreign on his property. My loafers scrunched on the pebbles leading up to his house. I’d bought them in a thrift shop in Brisbane. My mother made fun of me for buying them. Said they weren’t practical. The next day a pair of sneakers in my size had appeared on the shoe rack.
The paint on his front door was chipped off, like the nails of a prepubescent girl going to a blue-light. He was waiting for me on the verandah. I couldn’t see his hat. I could smell green tea in the mug next to him. He offered me some. I shrugged.
At the end of his hallway there was a large, open kitchen. No lights were on – instead, candles lined the walls. I thought maybe he had an outage. The kitchen was divided from the living area by a bench and a large bookshelf. No TV. Around his living room, a single thin ledge ran along the walls. Every half-metre or so, in between what smelt like lavender tea lights, a canary sat stuffed and mounted on a wooden plaque with a name and date engraved on the front.
The first canary was a brilliant blue, the second even more so: both were dated early 1900s. Each canary was mounted differently. One red with its wings outstretched; one yellow, sitting in a nest. I walked around the room with slow deliberate steps to look at each one. All the canaries lived to their early thirties. I didn’t know how long canaries were meant to live.
‘I have your tea.’
He gestured to his collection and asked me what I thought.
‘See this one?’ he walked to the last canary, a green spotted one, dated to the ’90s. It looked half-finch. ‘That’s my father’s. And this one,’ he pointed to the next canary, a pure yellow, ‘My grandfather; that one, my great-grandfather. You get the picture.’ He paused. ‘I would say sorry for the lights but my canary is sleeping.’
I tilted my head and he laughed.
‘Because there’s never been any women born into the bloodline. Coincidence.’
I smiled. ‘Just as well then,’ I said. I asked him if he had any children. Any sons.
He shook his head and walked me to the kitchen. He sat down on a bench chair and motioned for me to sit down next to him.
That’s when he unbuttoned his shirt. I stood up and pushed the chair behind me.
‘Take it easy. She’s very temperamental.’
He placed one hand on mine and pulled open his shirt with the other. On the left side of his chest, his skin gummed into a great cavity, exposing his ribs. Inside his ribcage a green spotted canary stood on one leg, its feathers puffed out to a ball. Her beak was tucked beneath her wing. She had a bright yellow patch on the back of her head.
‘She’s started nesting.’
I put my head closer to his cavity. In the bottom of his ribcage, where the hollow ended, there was a small nest. Next to it was a tiny wooden tin full of seed and behind that a bowl of water. There was even a swing hanging halfway up the inside of his chest.
I asked him how he got it, the canary. He shrugged.
‘My father told me it’s a curse. A Dreamtime spell.’
I told him I didn’t think canaries were introduced back then.
‘That’s just what my grandfather told him.’
He took my hand and put it to the right side of his chest where the skin was bronze and hairy. Normal. I felt his heart twittering.
When I stuffed his heart I mounted her the way I first saw her – sleeping, beak underneath her wing. I sliced her open from the underside of her beak to her tail. Scraped out her insides and poked out her little eyes, my stomach singing more than usual.