Image of Long Story Short Award - 2022
Image of Short Fiction
Grandpa always hated the cockatoos. Called them oversized flying rats, never mind that they were a goddamn national treasure, but nothing came between that old man and his garden. In Iran, he used to tell us, we did not have such ridiculous birds, before he fell into a tirade about those pests. It became a running joke between us younger cousins. There goes Grandpa again, cursing at the cockatoos, or chasing them out of the garden, or even, for one summer, trying to drown them in elaborate traps involving carefully suspended feed over buckets full of water. But he was old and half-blind and three-quarters deaf in one ear and harmless. We never thought too much of it.
Things really started heating up when he started trying to plant pistachio trees out in the garden. In a small wooden box that he kept on the mantle, he had seeds, carefully smuggled past Australian customs in the front coat pocket of his sister. The pistachios in Iran, he would tell us, they were not like the ones here; they tasted fresh and piney and sweet. And so, the war began.
He would carefully sow the seeds in old plastic takeout containers that he punched holes into the top of, so that they would stay perfectly humid. He set them on the ledge of the big window in the kitchen, so that they could be warmed in the late-June sunlight. It was so exciting to see the tender seed leaves pushing up through the soil, and when they finally did, and the plants got big enough, he moved them out into the yard, on the sunny side of the house. That first year, it was too soon; the trees were too young, and their soft, not-yet-woody stems were shredded up by the birds. He began to take matters more seriously; to our yard décor, he added no fewer than three owl-shaped statues and numerous CDs, strung up on other trees – the cockatoos get frightened. The second year, he planted them too early, and the late frosts killed them off. The third, too late, and the drought hit before the saplings could properly take root. We couldn't spare the water. By the fourth, I noticed that he had started to sow fewer seeds, and that fewer of the seeds germinated at all. The birds got to that round, and he bought heavy-duty netting soon after. The fifth, he only managed two spindly little trees. I pretended not to notice when he would open the wooden box on the mantle, count out how many seeds he had left, and close it again, even when it was nowhere near planting season.
Against all odds though, one of the saplings made it to the second year, and a third, and a fourth. Grandpa stayed vigilant against the birds, couldn't afford to lose to them now. He even tried to convince my parents to let him purchase an airsoft gun so that he could stand guard, refusing to accept that, no, he could not have one because they were illegal in this country. He used to stand in the doorway, just watching over the yard, content at the growing, if a little scraggly, tree.
He's dead now. Colon cancer got him a few years back. At the funeral, I wanted to talk about the cockatoos and the pistachios and that one time, not long after my great-aunt died, that one of the big ones, the yellow one that always liked to hang around in the early mornings, snapped the one surviving young pistachio tree clean in half. I wanted to talk about how I had laughed when I first saw it, had prepared to say, "Well, I guess the cockatoos finally won, old man." My grandfather, proud man that he was, had sunk to his knees, in front of all of the nosy birds and the neighbors and family, us, watching, from inside the sliding glass patio doors. His shoulders heaved. My mother shooed us all away from the kitchen.
I never told anyone about it, but early the next morning, when I came downstairs to get a drink of water, I saw him there, in the yard, on his knees again. His arms were outstretched, as if in a prayer, and his palms were full of neatly cubed bread that a sulfur-crested bird was tucking into. I don't think I'll ever forget the look on his face. Here, it said, you've done it. You've won.