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Nemesis Bird by Jodi Di Menna

Elsie sat at the forest’s edge, her back against the deeply grooved bark of a fallen walnut tree. A moment earlier, three short whistles had sounded from within the low brush where the forest gave way to beach, so she had settled in to wait. 

Mosquitoes buzzed around her bare neck and hands, and fronds of undergrowth stirred against her cheeks. She longed to brush them away but willed herself to stillness. She thought she’d heard the call of a yellow-crested wren, a rare, coveted sighting. Her nemesis bird.

Fifty metres beyond the dappled light of the forest, waves mounted and broke on the lakeshore in a rhythm that was familiar to her. A short walk through the forest at her back would lead to the opposite shore of the peninsula, where the water was placid. Farther down the beach, out of Elsie’s view, the opposing currents swirled together off the tip of this spit of land in a deadly undertow. 

The camel-coloured beach sand, the birdsong and buzz of insects in the forest, the fish-rot, marine smell of Lake Erie, were all a comfort to her as she had known this place her whole life. Moments like this one, nestled into the ferns with her camera perched on her knees, made her feel steady and purposeful, though she knew her obsession would be hard to explain to most people. 

She was used to being on the fringes. In high school, she had discovered bird watching as a refuge from the cruelty she endured at the hands of her peers. She had been an outcast, excluded and made fun of for being studious and shy. There was the sharp sting of the name calling from the most overt bullies — loser, ugly, freak. And there were the deeper wounds that came when those she considered friends failed to come to her rescue. She had been left alone in her agony, no peer or adult willing to intervene, and even now, a few years out of school, the hurt stayed with her and she remained isolated and introverted. But here in the forest she relished both the tranquil solitude and the exhilaration of the hunt.

  The sound of boisterous voices at her back pulled her from her meditative searching of the sumac branches. Craning her neck, she saw the swift movement of bikes soaring along the beachfront trail on the opposite shore of the peninsula. She frowned, irritated by the loud laughter of this group of teenagers. She watched through the trees as half a dozen boys dismounted their bikes, tipping them into the vegetation where the trail ended in deep sand. 

One boy kicked his sandals into the spokes of the reclined bike and began to trot down the beach. “Are you going in?” another called, peeling off his shirt as he ran after his friend. 

Elsie wondered if these boys had missed the signs at the trailhead warning visitors to stay out of the water. Perhaps they were not from here, since locals knew that wading into the twisting current off the tip of the peninsula was only tempting the lake to pull you under.

  She understood the danger of the water here and that if the boys went in, they would almost certainly drown.  She would be expected to abandon her post to stop them, but she was resentful of these young people. They were so like the ones who had ostracized and mistreated her. She was disdainful of their rowdy camaraderie, a belonging she had never found in her life, the absence of which left her lonely, and her expectation of their ridicule made her mistrustful.

  Turning her gaze back towards the sumac bush, she glimpsed a flash of saffron tail feathers, fleeting confirmation that the bird was there. She leaned forward. At any moment the wren might emerge and she would see it fully. She was thrilled by the possibility, but distracted by the bright voices down the beach where the boys goaded each other to go in the water. “You first!” “I’ll go if you do!” “Come on! It’s not that cold!”  

  Minutes passed and Elsie grappled with what to do. It would not take long for them to be pulled under if the boys were to step into the whitecaps. But if she went now, the bird may startle and she would miss her chance.  

  Soon there was a whooping cheer that could only mean one of the boys was wading in. She hesitated a moment longer, then pressed herself up from the forest floor. She stepped through the low grasses to the beach, and as she did the bright yellow and green bird flitted from the bush and flew up the shore in the opposite direction of the group of boys. She saw it veer into the woods and thought it might be perched in a tree just a few metres away. 

  In the other direction, she could see two of the boys in the water near the end of the strip of sand, the waves crashing against their shins. One of them turned his back to the shore, stepping deeper into the surf.

  Stepping closer to the water’s edge to change her view, she saw the yellow-crested wren immediately, on perfect display, perched on the bare branch of a dead ash tree. The olive-coloured feathers along its breast and wings contrasting with the lemon yellow along its crown and tail was glorious and Elsie felt elated, tears rising. She yearned to get closer to the bird, to find an angle where no foliage would obstruct her photograph. 

  Soon, there came a desperate, panicked hollering from down the lakeshore.

  She thought of the validation she would receive if she were to post a photograph of the wren online and craved the triumph of capturing what eluded her.

  She began to run, the sand slowing her and making her gait awkward and lilting. The muscles in her legs seemed to move in slow motion and she felt she was gaining little ground as she frantically pressed forward. 

  Turning into the forest, she raised her camera from around her neck, the sound of the shutter punctuating the frantic cries for help in the distance. She stood a moment longer admiring the bird until it again took flight, then she found the trail through the forest and headed home.

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