Bird Emergent by Katie Welch
2023 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist
Katie Welch has made the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist for Bird Emergent.
She will receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and her work has been published on CBC Books.
The winner of the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize will be announced April 18. They will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and win a two-week writing residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point.
If you're interested in the CBC Literary Prizes, the 2023 CBC Poetry Prize is open for submissions until May 31.
Katie Welch writes fiction and teaches music in Kamloops, B.C. Her debut novel, Mad Honey, is a 2023 OLA Evergreen Prize nominee. She grew up in Ottawa and holds a BA in English literature from the University of Toronto. Her short stories have been published in Event Magazine, Prairie Fire, the Antigonish Review, the Temz Review, the Quarantine Review and elsewhere. She was first runner-up in UBCO's 2019 Short Story Contest, and her story Poisoned Apple was chosen as Pick-of-the-Week by Longform Fiction. She is currently working on her next novel.
- Katie Welch's novel Mad Honey weaves magical realism through a mystery inspired by the natural world
With Bird Emergent, Welch wanted to explore characters whose trajectory allows them to become aligned with their real strengths and motivations, she told CBC Books.
"While considering this topic, I thought about a series of short films written and co-directed by Isabella Rossellini called Seduce Me. Scientifically accurate and brilliantly imagined with low-tech costumes and hilarious scripts, the films explore the seduction and reproduction rituals of various animals. I recalled the duck film in particular, and the idea of overcoming obstacles to become fully realized merged with the memory of a cinematic duck sex explanation."
You can read Bird Emergent below.
This story contains strong language.
Inside, Ava had always been a duck. She lived on the fourth floor of Westmoor Arms, a blocky, utilitarian apartment building. Desiccated by layers of concrete and particle board, she preferred moist environments and longed to wallow in mud, but beastly impulses, like the basic drives to feed and reproduce, were discouraged in the inhabitants of homely bodies.
If her mother had noticed an oiliness to Ava's skin she had never let on, and there had been no other ducklings for comparison. Broad-beamed and flat-footed, it was remarkable that in her four decades of life no one had noticed Ava resembled an aquatic bird; when she smiled her small teeth behind thin lips weren't quite strange enough to be outed as lamellae. Squat-bodied and ill-tempered as a child, she had skipped being bullied and gone directly to being shunned. She had played alone, scratching channels in dirt and collecting oddly-formed sticks. Excellent peripheral vision had made her a skilled outfielder and dodger of spitballs but had otherwise gone unremarked. She had muddled through her studies with poor marks.
Since reaching maturity Ava had worked night shifts cleaning public schools, sloshing a mop across linoleum floors and chipping hardened lumps of chewing gum from beneath desks. Home before sunrise, she slurped soup and fell asleep in an overstuffed armchair beside an open window, lulled by the rustling of poplar leaves at dawn. Westmoor Arms' other inhabitants shot her critical looks but Ava paid them no heed; she was preoccupied by a burgeoning midlife shift, a bulging discomfort that felt like a mixture of bloat, dyspepsia and derangement.
Jared, human through and through, wore slip-on shoes, ate convenience food and excelled at multiplayer interactive video games. His mother claimed he lacked manners and was a lazy, uninspired conversationalist. In a rented basement apartment Jared contributed to the beleaguered planet's ruination, his mother said, by taking hour-long hot showers, leaving lights on and tossing recyclables in the trash. He sheathed his doughy flesh in folds of stretch fabrics and gathered his limp hair in a loose ponytail. You always choose the easiest route, his mother said, like effluent in a stream. But what was the matter with that? Jared had reached the highest level in World Masters: Ultimate Domination. On the brink of victory he leaned 45 degrees to the right, pressing controller buttons to eliminate the enemy, risking late arrival at the loading dock where he recorded shipments and deliveries.
Jared, human through and through, wore slip-on shoes, ate convenience food and excelled at multiplayer interactive video games. His mother claimed he lacked manners and was a lazy, uninspired conversationalist.
His phone alarm sounded: 30 minutes until the afternoon shift began. Jared shuffled to a cramped kitchen. Dull illumination hid sauce-splatter and spills. Leaning against the island, he scooped leftover chow mein noodles straight from the waxed cardboard box and washed down the meal with a litre of Diet Coke. A mattress was his only bedroom furniture. He chose a black t-shirt and grey sweat pants from haphazard garment piles; his outfit was without consequence because an orange vest with a fluorescent yellow X covered his clothes at work. For three days in a row he had been too rushed to shower or scrape his face with a disposable razor; Jared glanced at the spotty mirror and quickly averted his gaze from what he saw reflected there.
They met on a wet April morning. It had rained for 20 consecutive days and the slough beside Westmoor Arms had swelled to a muddy pond choked with waterlogged grasses and weeds. Plastic coffee lids and used syringes floated on the scummy surface. Pedestrian commuters had blazed a trail around this flood, an improvised detour lined with used condoms: sad little sacks of spent potential. Ava squelched along the trail, tugging an upright wheeled cart in her wake. A recent inexplicable hip-heaviness had changed her gait to a rolling waddle, and her hair was resistant to what osmotic cleanliness it might have achieved during baths of longer and longer duration.
"Surely not," Ava mumbled, spotting an old rubber.
What kind of people chose to fuck in the mud, in plain view of apartment blocks? Ava was a strident complainer and frequently berated loiterers vaping at the bus stop; pausing on the trampled path, she contemplated the translucent offence, wrinkled her large-nostrilled nose and scolded empty air. Why did humans convert natural functions into grotesque, synthetic acts? To Ava it seemed that people couldn't eat without generating garbage, breathe without exhaling poison, or screw without dropping bags of wasted jizz. She had never been mounted and the biological need was ferocious. Ava itched to be taken from behind, suddenly and with feathery force. It wasn't a rape fantasy; her desire was simply the natural coupling of ducks. Anyway, it was nobody else's business what she wanted.
Ah, rain, rain, rain. The intermittent drizzle felt cool and refreshing. Ava wished she could stay in the slough all day, drifting from puddle to puddle in quiet contemplation, but hunger drove her onward and she made her way to the strip mall where her only friend, reed-thin Pam, worked in the Easy Foods bakery. Conversation was a tonic for the increasingly avian meanderings of Ava's mind; a quarter hour of Pam's dull observations would prevent mental fancies from taking flight. Ava sensed she had reached a liminal. Stuffed inside her skin, she felt like an egg about to hatch. It was time — it was nearly time. The charade was almost over. Soon, in days or even hours, the change would come. She would be released. But not yet. Not quite yet. Her body would know when it was time.
Engine fumes choked the parking lot. Ava felt unwell, the prickly beginnings of influenza. Automatic doors hissed as she hurried into Easy Foods and made a beeline for the bakery. Passing the seafood section, she paused by the escargots. Lately her meals had become savage events, jaw-jab and gullet-gulp, wet morsels of nutrition sliding down her throat like slugs. Raw snails looked appetizing but a large refrigerated case held the real treat: whole sardines, rows of silver fish on crushed ice. No one was looking. Ava stole a sardine. She swallowed it whole and sucked oil from her thick tongue.
Over in the bakery, Pam stretched a nylon mesh net over hair spirals, smeared dough from gloved fingers to apron and wheeled a towering trolley of bagged bread into the main concourse. She halted beside the whole-grain section. Ava rushed to say an enthusiastic hello. Pam responded politely, slapping bags of sliced rye thwap thwap on the topmost shelf. Sensing a sympathetic ear, Ava confessed she had spent the previous night tossing and turning, hot and sticky as a cinnamon bun.
Pam sniffed and grimaced. "My God — what is that reek?"
Snapping her head sharply toward the seafood aisle, Ava flared her nostrils.
"I can't smell anything."
"You must have a cold — there's a really gross stink."
Ava raised a shoulder and checked an armpit. At first she detected only comforting, familiar odours, acrid perspiration and salty skin. But there was another odour emanating from her body, a deep pheromonal message, and it triggered a chain reaction, a feedback loop. Ava's head performed a series of uncustomary jerks. She dropped her shopping, a bunch of organic grapes and a bag of croutons. Her body began to transform; her arms levitated and fell, beating the air in pulses. She rubbed her broad nose. Flecks of dried mucous drifted to the floor.
Her body began to transform; her arms levitated and fell, beating the air in pulses.
"Lord," Pam exclaimed. "would it kill you to wash once in a while?"
Ava's guts roiled and heaved; her digestion was compromised by her quirky diet. No one understood what she really was. A vapid pop song fizzed from broken speakers. Nerve endings electrified and tears blurring her vision, Ava succumbed to the change. A peculiar sensation of warm weight began at her crown, trickled over her scalp and oozed evenly toward her feet. The store's fluorescent lights flickered and dimmed as newly-formed nictitating membranes swiped horizontally across her eyeballs. Barriers — walls everywhere! Ava was caught in a foreign box, deprived of daylight! Guided by a fresh biology, she rushed to escape the trap, bumped into a pyramid of cardboard containers and set off an alarming avalanche. Pee squirted. She dashed toward sliding doors, arms akimbo, flesh erupting in pimples. Humans (who loved only things they had made themselves and disdained miracles) lurched to avoid her.
Late for work, Jared was committed to the shortest route, the squishy footpath. He trudged in mud, gazing at the bright rectangle in his palm. He could play a mobile version of World Masters one-handed, deftly manipulating tiny screen characters through a puny post-apocalyptic Hellscape, but with the peppy and repetitive biddy-biddy-bop soundtrack in his earbuds he was deaf to ambient noises, tires whirring on wet roads, emergency vehicle sirens. If he'd raised his chin he would have spotted the oncoming creature; instead Jared tugged a cellophane Twizzler package from a trouser pocket and placed the last rubbery red twist in his mouth. The candy dangled lingually. He jettisoned the wrapper. Garish red-and-pink garbage descended to the seasonal pond and rotated in a swirl of slurry.
"Wahk wahk wahk," said Ava.
Jared looked up. In spite of his gaming experience he was shocked to meet a person-sized duck: ruff of head feathers, swollen bosom, enormous beak, jutting grey tongue. Before him stood a hideous monster, a nightmare bird-woman like the Harpies from Epic Greek Odyssey II, with human-sized wings like a waterborne Icarus and lidless, primeval yellow eyes. The beak had a slight upturn, a wicked smirk. A swampy redolence reminded him of hunting for worms on childhood rainy days.
Jared's mouth fell open. The licorice twist tumbled to the ground. He lunged to retrieve his treat but the slap-slap-slap of wedge-feet startled him into stillness. The giant duck seized the Twizzler in its outsized beak — were those tiny teeth in there? – and slurped the muddy candy whole, its long throat undulating as it gobbled. A wet plop came from its feathered behind, and Jared caught a whiff of grassy excrement mingled with something else, a scent he recognized: the dank invitation to rut.
Fixing him with a pinprick eye, the duck charged.
Jared stumbled three clumsy steps in reverse then staggered a half turn and broke into a run. Adrenaline and testosterone juiced his cells. A rapid shoulder check confirmed the unlikely truth: he was being chased by an overgrown tyrannical hell-duck, thirsting for red-blooded action! Wild heart acceleration sent thrills shuddering through Jared's limbs. Here was an actual adventure, a real-life high-stakes escapade, a hundred times better than any multi-sensory virtual reality game. He imagined being flanked by women in scanty survival gear, cleavages exposed, and men with well-defined muscles who deferred to his commands.
Elation tingled in Jared's chest. He shouted a gleeful battle-ululation. An audience of strip-mall shoppers yelled and clapped encouragement like gamblers cheering a cockfight, spectators at a hanging, Roman citizens thrilling to a gladiator. He was their hero — if only he had a sword — with a broad medieval blade he would decapitate the duck, and how the crowd would roar! Jared wanted a steak. He wanted to get laid. He wanted to play paintball with those guys from high school who always wanted to play paintball — where were they now? Behind him, the soggy foot-slaps of pursuit had ceased. He fantasized about knocking the beast unconscious with a flying kick but he wasn't ready; he hadn't trained for this moment. He turned to find the duck paddling placidly in the slough, oblivious to his presence.
Jared waved at the crowd and jogged back to his apartment, sneakers flopping comically on wet grass. At home he met his reflection squarely, gasping for breath and bright with pain in unfamiliar places but primed for his future. A nascent warrior, he would train diligently. One couldn't evolve from indolent stock-boy to fearsome combatant by desire alone: he could almost hear his priorities clicking and thunking as they realigned.
Ava slipped toward the slough, her centre of gravity lowering with every awkward step. Digits fused. Distended pores stung, sprouting quills that vibrated sensually as feathers formed. She abandoned her cart and kicked off her shoes. Thick webbing formed between her toes and her feet burned. Her sinus cavity squeezed to produce a new sound, wahk wahk! Brown lumps shone in rain-flattened sedges: larval goodies lurking in the muck. Ava's lips elongated into yellow weapons. Layers of loathsome fabric fell away, exposing her wanton bottom and freeing her ready scent to entice local drakes. Ava welcomed an overdue truth. Joy expanded in her downy breast. She lowered her new incarnation into the tainted pond, an ideal environment, wetland brimming with microbial life. She swam in a gentle circle, quacking contentedly. She had defeated her only competitor for territory, and her psyche settled as if roosting on a nest. Her scent was strong; soon she would be mounted, roughly and without warning. Somewhere on the perimeter, humans gargled noises of fear and disgust but judgement rolled like water from Ava's slick back, preened with oil fresh from her feathered rump.
Read the other finalists
- Dear M by Clara Chalmers (Vancouver)
- Eel Broth for Growing Children by Helen Han Wei Luo (Vancouver)
- Just a Howl by Will Richter (Vancouver)
- Marriage by Nicholas Ruddock (Guelph, Ont.)
About the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize
The winner of the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.
The 2023 CBC Poetry Prize is currently open until May 31, 2023 at 11:59 p.m. ET. The 2024 CBC Short Story Prize will open in September and the 2024 CBC Nonfiction Prize will open in January 2024.