Literary Arts | READ LOCAL First

READ LOCAL First: Sylvia Torti

READ LOCAL First is your glimpse into the working minds and hearts of Utah’s literary writers. 15 Bytes regularly offers works-in-progress and/or recently published work by some of the state’s most celebrated and promising writers of fiction, poetry, literary nonfiction and memoir.

Today we present Salt Lake City-based Sylvia Torti, a novelist, academic and past president of Utah’s own Writers at Work. Today she favors us with an excerpt of her just-released novel Cages (Schaffner Press), winner of the Nicholas Schaffner Award for Music in Literature. Centered on the lives and relationships of three people working in a birdsong lab, Cages will get its launch with a reading and book signing Thursday, May 25, at 7 p.m. at, appropriately enough, Tracy Aviary in Liberty Park (589 E. 1300 South, Salt Lake City).

So . . . curl up with your favorite cup of joe and enjoy Sylvia Torti!


Excerpt from Cages

From the hallway, David heard the muffled chirps of birds. He inserted a key and pulled on the heavy door. When he flipped on the lights, the birds responded with an urgent burst of sound. The laboratory turned from night to day. Silence into song. Each morning began exactly the same way. Birds beckoned him. Light and chorus marked his arrival.

He put down his briefcase, rolled up his sleeves and set to work, taking his time going from cage to cage. He stopped in front of the Inca dove, opened the cage and took hold of the bird. The dove, which had been hand-raised by Sarah, settled easily into his palm, its small black eyes staring back at him with unusual calmness for a bird. David rubbed his finger lightly on the bird’s breast and then set it free on the counter. The dove flew up, perched on a light fixture and let out an almost inaudible call, one that had always sounded to David like “no hope, no hope.”

He glanced at his watch. There was an hour to feed and clean before he was due to teach the first class of the semester. Pulling the water and food trays from the first row of birdcages, he filled the sink with soapy water and began to scrub.

Outside the window, the winter morning had brightened. Beyond his own reflection, he saw a flock of waxwings swoop up the hillside and land in a serviceberry bush. Seven, eight, maybe twelve plump birds, unmistakable in silhouette. Birds that settled into the valley during the winter months and then migrated north to breed in the spring, and odd for songbirds because male and female waxwings looked and sounded alike. Mirrors of one another. In most birds, the males sang and the females listened, deciding which male song sounded best. Singing was a sex-specific behavior traced to brain wiring, to physiology, to ecology and evolution. It made sense, except that in waxwings it wasn’t that way. An exception that remained unstudied.

David filled the now clean containers with water and seed, slipped them back into the cages and pulled another set from the next row. With his upper right arm, he leaned in and brushed a curl of his long hair away from his eye. Over running water and background calls of hungry finches, he could hear Sarah’s voice. Fundamentally, you’re shy. Not exactly insecure, but there’s a curve to your chest, a shyness imprinted along your upper back. He rolled his shoulders back, stood up straighter.

He felt the low-grade pounding in his head, the pulse and thud of a persistent headache that had been with him for some months now. The comfort he’d once enjoyed at being known so well by Sarah had switched to irritation and uneasiness whenever he heard her voice in his head. He finished the morning routine, collected his computer and hurried off to class, the sound of birdsong fading as the lab door swung shut behind him.

Though shy, David was a master teacher. In front of a class, he found it easy to cultivate a lively persona. He began the first lecture by projecting images of a human baby and a bird chick. He played a recording of a bird learning to sing. “These two might not look similar, but songbirds are very much like humans,” he said. “They both develop learned vocal communication. Like humans, baby birds first listen. Later, they babble. Finally, they learn to sing.”

In the early years, David had managed remarkable success. He’d been the first to poke through a bird’s skull and insert fine wires into single neurons, a technique that allowed him to survey a new landscape, mark the places on a brain that could, and did, acquire a type of language. When these antennae-crowned birds sang, the sounds and electrical impulses were recorded. Numbers were sifted through software programs, analyzed and written up into scientific publications. He was called a pioneer and received grant after grant. His technique, now used internationally, allowed scientists to listen in on the unconscious thoughts of birds, the neuronal firings that triggered song. Songs, although he would never say it out loud, that might be a proxy for love.

He moved the class through the basics of birdsong, explaining that songs were learned by hearing the males of their own species singing. And birds, too, had dialects. A white-crowned sparrow in Washington State had a different accent than one in Colorado. He told them that like humans, an isolated bird with no hearing could never learn to sing. And, like humans, if a bird went deaf later in life, it would lose its song just as deaf humans lose their ability to speak.

“When you talk, your brain is paying attention,” he said, “comparing how you sound to a template for how you should sound in your head. If you lose the auditory feedback, you eventually lose your speech.” He played recordings, showed slides, paced across the lecture stage, answered questions, and then the hour was over.

“What’s the take home message today?” He paused for emphasis. “To communicate with others, you must be able to hear yourself.”

David was famous for teasing apart and piecing back together how a bird sang. He and his students showed that they could follow a molecule of air as it entered the nostrils and traveled down the trachea into the air sacs tucked behind a bird’s lungs. They figured out which nerves attached to which muscles, how the muscles expanded and compressed those air sacs like the bellows of an accordion, and how the sacs pushed breath out past the flaps of the syrinx to become waves that made sound. Their work was published in Science and Nature and every paper was celebrated with champagne and toasts to the small, resilient singing birds.

Lately there had been no such successes. In the past eighteen months, there had been dead birds and dead ends while the expiration date on his remaining grant advanced. He walked faster down the hallway. If he didn’t have some sort of breakthrough soon, he wasn’t going to be doing any research at all.

Back in his laboratory, he heard ringing and passed quickly into his office. The throb in his head had not lessened. As he leaned for the phone, he saw a jumble of numbers span the screen. An international call. Probably Sarah. He reached for the phone and then stopped, his hand hovering above the receiver. In the laboratory, a zebra finch tooted and a starling whistled. The ringing continued two, three, four more times and then it stopped.

He opened the top drawer of his desk and took out a bottle of aspirin. He popped the top, shook out two pills and swallowed them hard without water. He sat down at his desk and stared out the window. Sarah. At every moment. Sarah. He closed his eyes. In twenty minutes the aspirin would be working, taking the edge off the pain. Thoughts and memories weren’t as easily dulled.



Sylvia Torti
Schaffner Press, 2017
$16.95, 302 pp

Sylvia Torti is the author of The Scorpion’s Tail, a Miguel Marmol Award winner. She holds a Ph.D. in biology and is Adjunct Professor in biology, as well as current Dean of the Honors College at the University of Utah. She completed a B.A. degree at Earlham College. Born and raised in Ohio to an Argentine parent, she has traveled and studied extensively and is fluent in English, Spanish and Danish. Cages is her second novel. She lives and writes in Salt Lake City.

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