Authors: Tamai Kobayashi
Tags: #Canadian Fiction, #Canadian Prairies, #Ostrich Farming, #Coming of age story, #Lesbian, #Japanese Canadian, #Cultural isolation
Also by Tamai Kobayashi
Exile and the Heart
Co-authored with Mona Oikawa
All Names Spoken
Copyright Â© 2014 by Tamai Kobayashi.
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or any retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher or a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright). To contact Access Copyright, visit
or call 1-800-893-5777.
Edited by Bethany Gibson.
Cover and page design by Julie Scriver.
Cover image inspired by Origami Wind, flickr.com.
Original origami ostrich designed and folded by Quentin Trollip.
Feather image by Alexandra Bereza, Veer.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Kobayashi, Tamai, 1966-, author
Prairie ostrich / Tamai Kobayashi.
Issued in print and electronic formats.
ISBN 978-0-86492-680-7 (pbk.). âISBN 978-0-86492-749-1 (epub)
PS8571.O33P73 2014Â Â Â Â Â C813'.54Â Â Â Â Â C2013-907294-2
Goose Lane Editions acknowledges the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF), and the Government of New Brunswick through the Department of Tourism, Heritage, and Culture.
Goose Lane Editions
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To Bo Yih
Egg Murakami is eight years old and her feet are perfect. Not everyone can say that. She dangles her feet over the edge of the bed and clicks her tongue. The crisp autumn light spills over the ledge of her window, throwing shadows across the floor. Mornings are new, like a fresh sheet of paper. Mornings are new, without any mistakes. She can hear her mother in the kitchen, the metallic clatter of the kettle on the stove. Her big sister Kathy twists the tap in the bathroom, a squeak that runs through the pipes in the floors. It is almost peaceful. Nekoneko, her puppet Kitty with the homemade eye patch, stands guard on her bedside table, gazing over the smash and scatter of Lego and dinky cars strewn on the faded russet rug. Beneath her window lies the barrens of southern Alberta, the stunted grass that sweeps into the Badlands. To the right, the sagging barn with its long wire pens. Left, the stubble fields that roll to the horizon. She taps her heels together. The low groan of the barn gate rumbles through the air. The ostriches burst from their enclosure, shaggy feathers hovering above the ground, legs a blur of spindly angles, as if in flight after all. Across the pen, down the line of the fence, they run with a frantic energy â then stop, stiff, as if confronted by an immovable object. The ostriches spin, twirling, their wings spread as if to greet the day, heads held high in a dizzying, exuberant dance.
“Egg!” her sister calls from below.
Egg dashes into the bathroom and dunks her head under the sputtering tap. Pat pat pat, her hands against her head, she likes the wet sound, like her duck feet after the bath. Pat pat pat. She doesn't like the scratch of the porcupine brush or the cold droplets that snake down her back, slithering into the groove of her spine. With a shake, she plops on the edge of the bathtub and rubs her head with her favourite blue towel. She knows her hair is short for a girl but she likes it that way. As small as she is, Egg can't quite see herself in the mirror above the basin so she stretches, balancing on her toes. The key is to get the bigger picture. She knows that things have a purpose, that she must get it right.
In her socks, Egg glides down the hallway, as if on ice. She's like the Flash, so fast you can see only a blur. The Flash is almost invisible, but it is the
that troubles her, the red streak of
that catches the eye. Superheroes save the day. She knows they are fiction, but a part of her wants so much for them to be real, like Newton's equal and opposite forces. Egg thinks of the bumblebee bats in Kathy's
. Bumblebee bats, newly discovered, are the smallest mammals ever.
At the top of the landing, Egg tucks in her shirt and descends the stairs. She slips her toes into the gaps of the banister and skips over the loose boards that can give her away. The last step is tricky; she presses one foot against the wall and the other against the bottom railing. From this perch, she can see her Mama in the kitchen. Between them, the darkness of the hall, the brooding half-light of the alcove falls against the stillness of the china cabinet.
Mama is at the sink, with the flutter of her apron, her eyes turning from the window. Dust motes swirl and the scent of cinnamon fills the air. A bright and early-morning Mama.
Egg bounces on her tiptoes, an almost hello.
The bottle scrapes against the counter as her mother slides the whiskey behind the flour bin. The sound rakes down Egg's back, like the scratch of jagged nails, like the game of X Marks the Spot. Her Mama's silence is like broken glass. Egg waits. She knows that words are important, that Albert would have known what to say. Her big brother could charm a smile out of a rattlesnake and tip his cap like a cowboy movie star.
But Albert is dead dead dead and the Starlight drive-in off Highway Seven closed down. The big screen, once so towering, is now just a peeling, streak-stained wall, a crumbling blank. The rows upon rows of speakers, abandoned and ghostly, stand in patient vigil over the eruption of weeds in the cracks of the pavement. Bittercreek, rust and dust, Albert had laughed, although Egg can't remember when he had said that, or why. There are so many things she can't quite understand. When she thinks of her brother, her heart clutches up, her throat tightens.
Bye bye Albert.
At the bottom of the stairs, Egg slips into her shoes. She wiggles her toes. “Better safe than sorry,” she whispers.
Kathy bristles by in her foulest morning temper. Kathy Grumpycakes Moodymug Murakami. Egg dodges, too late, too slow; her shoulder bumps the edge of the china bureau. The crystal figures tinkle and sparkle, catching a splash of light, scattering droplets to the floor. Egg freezes, and for a moment time holds, like the strike of a chime in an ancient tower.
“Mom,” Kathy's big-sister voice. “Egg's got her shoes on wrong.”
Flutter. There are bluebirds fading on Mama's apron.
Egg shuffles into the kitchen and slips into her chair. “I don't want to go to school,” she says, but her words fall between Kathy's glare and her Mama's distraction. Invisibility is the best superpower, better than X-ray vision.
Her mother does not turn from the window. “Egg, put your shoes on right,” she sighs. Her voice is worn, like pebbles in a riverbed. She reaches behind the flour bin.
Egg sinks into her stomach as Mama takes up her glass. Rapunzel had a tower with neither stairs nor doors but Egg knows the difference between fairy tales and real life. She grabs the milk but the waxy carton is slick from the cold of the fridge. Sweaty. She doesn't like the squishy feel of the box. It almost slips from her fingers, so she squeezes â too tightly. Milk erupts from the spout, splashing over her bowl, onto her shirt, to the floor.
“Oh, for Christ's sake,” Kathy curses and pushes away from the table.
Egg taps her feet together.
Her mother turns and sees the mess of the milk, the bowls. “Oh Kathy, couldn't you look out for your sister for once in your life?”
Kathy narrows her eyes. “What? This is my fault?”
Mama takes two steps and wipes Egg's shirt with her apron. “It's the first day of school and first impressions . . .” She peers closely. “Egg, your shirt's inside out.”
“Outside's dirty.” Egg blinks at the apron strings, the frozen flight of wings. Bluebirds of happiness.
“Well, now the inside's dirty, sweetpea.”
Kathy leans against the counter, her body sneering. “No use crying over it.”
Her mother stiffens.
“Kathy. Take the breakfast tin out to your father.”
“And don't you have a dress for the first day of school?”
Kathy snatches the tin from the counter. As the door slams behind her, Kathy's footsteps land heavy on the porch boards. Kathy, who broods like storm clouds, who crashes like thunder. Egg can see her sister through the window, kicking at the gravel as she makes her way to the barn. Egg turns to her Mama. She feels the sudden contraction of space, a chill in the pit of her stomach.
Her mother, smudged at the edges, is gone gone gone. Like the shadows in the drive-in on Highway Seven. Gone like Albert.
“Mama?” Egg repeats, the word cracking on her tongue. She feels a roughness in her throat, like she is swallowing sand.
Her Mama blinks as if to bring the room into focus. “Your new pants,” she exclaims loudly. “Sweetheart, you want school to be different from last year, don't you?”
Egg bites her lip. Was last year her fault?
“And your hair, sweetie, your hair,” Mama whispers as she pushes back Egg's tangles, even as she pulls her closer.
Egg bows her head, holds the weight of her mother's hands, the clasp of her bosom. She can hear her mother's heart beating through the bluebird apron and feel her Mama's stomach, in and out with every breath, her smell of whiskey and mints kept in the kitchen drawer. Egg knows her mother is choking on the liquor but Egg is too small for this and she doesn't have the words. She waits. All of her life is waiting. Her mother's arms open from the crush of bluebirds and Egg is released into this day, this morning, like a bird that can't quite fly.
“Cumulus nimbus!” Egg screeches as she bursts outside and the screen door slaps joyfully behind her. Her arms flap as she leaps off the porch. “Cumulus nimbus!” Egg shouts, because she likes the words.
Above her the sky is a brilliant blue, the sun dazzling, in the full burst of the morning. Egg can see Kathy standing at the gates and behind her, the shadow of her father. Her father, who never leaves the ostrich barn, not anymore, not since Albert died. Dead dead dead, Egg repeats to herself. But Jesus rose, and Lazarus too. They said so, in Sunday school.
The light falls through the barred windows of the ostrich barn; colours bleed, a patina of dust. Four rectangular wire pens, the outside run for the ostriches, stretch out along the southern side of the barn, a stone's throw from the slough. The ostriches doze in their enclosure, their heads tucked under wings, a mass of feathers. Their sinewy legs look reptilian, shockingly naked beneath the heavy plumes. Egg knows the story, of how in the first year the ostriches went blind, their eyes clouded from ammonia in their urine mixing with the straw. They ran, panicked by the scent of stray dogs and coyotes, and ended up twisting in the wire fences, or snapping their legs in the prairie dog holes. It took two seasons but Papa got it right â the feed, the ammonia, the dogs fenced out and coyotes shot, the patchwork of gopher hides nailed to the old barn wall.
Egg watches closely. It is her job now. Her father and Kathy stand, as if they are in a television show with the sound turned off. Kathy, with the hook of her thumb tugging at her belt loop and Papa doing the same. Egg thinks of a push-me-pull-you from her illustrated
. Kathy and Papa are like that. They want things but they will never say. And so Papa goes back into the barn. Kathy is seventeen, as if she knows everything. She'd bust out of herself if she could, bust out and leave everyone behind.
Egg knows this. She knows that Kathy is like dynamite â strike the match and your fingers burn, but you shouldn't play with matches. She knows that Kathy loves her but she hates her too. Not like hate-hate, not like Martin-hate. Kathy hates her like you hate the people who know you the best.
“Ostriches can live up to seventy years old,” Egg calls out.
Kathy does not move.
“They're so fast, they can go up to forty miles an hour.”
Egg has told her this before but Kathy doesn't listen. Egg thinks that Kathy never listens. Egg shuffles up beside her sister and stuffs the cuff of her sleeve through the mesh. The ostrich pecks at the fabric. The ostrich blinks.
“See its eyes? They have a different kind of eyelid, they blink from side to side.”
“Yeah,” Kathy drawls, her nose wrinkling and Egg can smell the alfalfa. Kathy says, “And brains the size of walnuts.” Kathy, who sweeps out the pens on weekends, tipping over the water trough and flushing out the slurry.
Egg knows that ostriches can be mean birds. They have that claw. To calm them, you put a sock over their heads. To calm them, you cover their eyes. Are the eyes too big for Kathy, and the neck, too flimsy, stretched out, too weak? Egg knows that Kathy hates the weak.
The ostrich booms, its pink neck inflated into a low
“Papa says they're runners, like the Road Runner on TV.”
Kathy's fingers poke through the criss-cross geometry of the wire. Egg sees her taking in the pens, the fields, the shrinking slough by the side of the barn. She ponders the mysteries of her older, bigger sister. Kathy's gaze is far and away, her shoulders slump, as if the cast of the sky makes her smaller, as if the roll of the flatlands is crushing her.
Kathy looks at Egg and steps back. Her arm twitches and she reaches out to smooth down her sister's sprouting black tufts. “Come on,” Kathy growls, as if to make up for the weak, “come on or we'll miss the bus.”
Ostrich eggs are very strong. Egg has seen the dome they made in Montreal for the World's Fair Expo 67 from her
Young Reader's Guide to Science
. The Wave of the Future! Sit on an ostrich egg and it will not crack. The secret is they break from the inside.
The stone ridge stretches out at the beginning of the flats; the jutting rocks bleached white by a relentless sun. Riding at the back of the creaking school bus, Egg imagines the backbone of some long-dead creature. Here be dragons. This is dinosaur country after all. Egg loves the sweep of the prairie fields, that receding tide of grasslands, sculpted outcrops, the mysterious sentinels of the stone erratics. The sky, ever changing and eternal, is a boundless blue. Another ocean, Egg thinks. She likes the words
She taps her heels together. She has a pencil case, bought with her own allowance, and a shiny new lunch tin, the one with Steve Austin, A Man Barely Alive. He was an astronaut in a horrible crash, but then they made him into the Six Million Dollar Man. Yes, Egg thinks, they can do that now, not like Humpty Dumpty at all.