For some reason, in 1996 I decided to start dating a French-Canadian girl. It’s not as though it was a French-Canadian girl I was after specifically, it’s just that this particular one kind of knocked me off of my feet. Blew my socks right down, as it were. She was a beautiful Seperatiste, the kind that gets very upset about almost anything to do with anything that’s not French. She hated the English, but didn’t seem to mind me too much for some reason. I think she was still upset about the referendum.
To assuage her anger I would take her on long walks in pretty places with no signs in English, or at least very few. It’s not exactly an easy thing to accomplish in Edmonton. Every time we’d pass a sign only in English she’d say, “Tabernak, criss d’anglais!”
I don’t know what it meant, but it sounded pretty.
Her name was Marta and to annoy her I would call her Marty, which made me laugh, but it made her angry and she’d drive her fist into the bony part of my shoulder. At first I thought it was funny and cute, but after a while I had to stop making the joke because I was having trouble lifting my arm.
While it may seem as though she was always angry and spending most of her time hating English people, writing manifestos, and making bombs in the basement, she was actually a very sweet girl – in her way. Her compassion was as palpable as her ire, and this raven-haired beauty seemed to breathe a new life into me.
It was a gorgeous June morning and I had been enduring a tirade of French curse words when my girl had come home after arguing with a barista at the Starbuck’s on Whyte Avenue. Every time she went in there she left in a huff, trails of Francophone righteous indignation following her like a path of bread crumbs so that she could find her way back to renew and validate her hatred for the Alberta Anglophone. I’m not too sure why she did this. I think she enjoyed the drama because, even at her most angry, she could not disguise her glorious self-satisfaction.
Having grown tired of her pontification that day, I asked her if she’d like to go for a nice long walk with me and, sweet girl that she was, she sensed my discomfort and smiled at me, agreeing to go.
“I will teach for you da bird and trees names en Francais”, she said, beaming. She loved teaching me about anything French.
We decided to walk down 84th Avenue and into Mill Creek ravine, heading south down the newly paved trail. As we walked she pointed at different trees, naming them in French, encouraging me to repeat them and laughing delightedly at my clumsy accent, and then clapping her hands and crying, “Tres bien, Minou!” when I would be able to wrestle my tongue and throat around the difficult syllables. It was a lovely game, therapeutic for both of us, and it was in those moments that I loved her, in the small way that I was just barely capable of achieving.
As we walked, she suddenly slipped her arm around mine, laid her head on my shoulder and hummed a tune unfamiliar to me. Most things she hummed were. Then, as if to answer her pretty song, from just to the left of us in the bushes came a small cry.
“Piou-piou”, it sang. “Piou-piou”, in the way that little boys make the sound of a laser gun.
We looked in the bushes to where the sound came from and saw a tiny robin on the ground. Looking up, I saw that it had probably fallen from the nest about 15 ft. above us, and was crying pitifully for its mother.
“Ooohhh, piou-piou”, cried my girlfriend. “Ou-est ta mere, mmm?”
I watched her squat down in this – I don’t know how to describe it – very French way, and extend her hand to the little bird.
“Piou-piou”, she cooed.
“Piou-piou”, the bird replied. They had bonded.
I suddenly remembered reading something about how you should never touch a baby bird because after you have, the mother bird will no longer care for it for some reason, and while I’m still not sure if this is true or not, it was too lat. I watched her pick the baby up in both hands and hold it close to her chest, just under her chin so that she would be close enough to whisper words of comfort to the helpless creature. Like it or not, the bird had a new mother. Of course, there would be no way of determining whether or not the bird actually cared, but it seemed content enough to warble away in this woman’s caring embrace.
“We must take dis bird ‘ome to make it better, la”, she said with a determined look on her face that, by now, I recognized as one I need not bother to argue with.
So we did.
Marta set the pace for the journey home by taking these excruciatingly careful steps as though she were treading upon the empty eggshell of her new found worry.
I settled in a couple of steps behind and bore the occasional glare from the new mother; accusatory looks that told me I wasn’t caring enough, but because I knew that no matter how much I cared or how ingratiatingly I fawned over the bird, it would never be enough, I just remained several steps behind, like an obedient Muslim wife.
Arriving at our apartment building, she gingerly climbed the steps, one at a time, and waited –while glaring at me – at the door of our suite for me to unlock the door.
Knowing that the only way I would ever be able to even consider the possibility of any kind of amorous encounter over the next few weeks was for me to take an active interest in the recovery of the bird, I went to the cupboard and got a small bowl that I filled with water from the tap and set on the counter. Ignoring me, Marta painstakingly placed the bird on the counter (piou-piou) and went to the cupboard, recovered another small bowl, and filled it with Evian water, placed it on the floor, then the bird next to it. She did not look at me.
Dejected, I decided to try again. I got some newspaper and placed it on the floor next to the bird. Marta, ignoring me, went to our bedroom, took the little rug I had on my side of the bed, then placed it on the floor in the living room, then the bird and the bowl of water on the rug. She did not look at me. (piou-piou)
I realized that I was no match for this tiny concern, and so I just sat in a chair nearby, awaiting instruction. None came.
Until the next morning when I awoke to find on my bedside table, a list that she must’ve written sometime in the night or early morning. She had stayed the entire night at the bird’s side. I walked into the room, list in hand and stood surveying the scene. Mother and child (piou-piou) in quiet communion with each other, the mother caring for her infant as only a mother can.
Sensing my presence, Marta looked at me, then the door, then back at me, her eyebrows raised as if to say, what’s the holdup you h’English pig?
I put on my shoes.
Out on the sidewalk I looked at the list.
For the next few days she cared for the bird with an English Patient-like enthusiasm. Slowly, but surely, the bird began to become more animated (piou-piou) and would jump about the house, shitting everywhere. I learned very quickly to recognize the clean that up look. For me, the whole freaking thing was a huge pain in the ass.
But it was the happiest I had ever seen Marta. She spent all her time with the bird, nursing it back to health, and 4 days later the payoff came. The bird flapped its way onto the coffee table, shat, then, with a Herculean effort, flapped wildly, if not somewhat comically, to the kitchen counter. Where it shat. (Piou-Piou!)
I sighed and walked to closet where we kept rags and disinfectant. Marta let out a terrific squeal of delight and screamed, “Ah, Piou-piou, tu es magnifique!” but the bird was startled by this sudden outburst. Piou-piou squawked viciously and began to fly erratically around the house like an airplane that has been shot and lost control. Flapping its wings with all its might, it knocked over a vase of flowers that I had bought when I went for bird seed, got momentarily caught up in the curtains, shat on them, then freed itself. It tried to land on the couch, but bounced off the top of it and hit the wall: hard. Piou-piou slid gracelessly to the floor, visibly stunned, and physically shaken. And shat.
Stopping only to glare at me as though this had all been my fault, she ran to the bird, took it in her arms as she had the first time, and walked to the bedroom. I spent the next hour cleaning up.
At 1am I finally grew weary of waiting for the pair to emerge, and because I was very tired and had a terrific headache from the smell of disinfectant that lingered so triumphantly throughout the apartment, I decided to risk everything and go to bed. With them.
As I lay down in the bed, Marta turned the other way to protect the bird from me. She cooed softly to the bird, then turned around and glared at me for a moment. I sank into my pillow and slept.
The next morning I awoke, my head still pounding. Marta was still asleep. She was most likely exhausted from so many long days of ministration. I looked, but did not see the bird next to her, and craving a Tylenol, a coffee and a long pee, I sat up in the bed, stretched and put my feet on the floor, looking for my slippers. But my left foot found neither my slippers nor the floor. There was a soft crunch sound and a squish under my foot.
I couldn’t look.
I just sat there for a long time, head pounding, my bladder near to exploding, thinking about how much I would miss learning about French things.
When Marta finally awoke she found the bird had left her. She looked around the room – ignoring me – and called out, “Piou-piou. Piouuuuuu-piou”. Then she looked at me.
I suppose I still miss her.