In her debut short story collection, “Birds of a Lesser Paradise,” Megan Mayhew Bergman includes an African gray parrot in her first story and a self-mutilating Rottweiler in her second. In tales that follow, you’ll find, among other creatures, a lemur, a wolf hybrid and two sheep named Proctor and Gamble.
Bergman didn’t set out to populate her stories with animals, but once you know her back story, it all makes sense.
She grew up in Rocky Mount and graduated from Wake Forest University, where she met her husband, the son of two Vermont veterinarians. He went on to N.C. State and also became a veterinarian.
She now lives on 13 acres in rural Vermont, with her family, four dogs and four cats.
“Any time I would sit around the dinner table, it was all vet talk, all the time,” she told me recently. “At first, it used to make my stomach turn when they’d talk about what they found in the belly of a Lab,” she said, but over time, she evolved from squeamish to intrigued.
She found herself encountering animal stories – and inspiration – wherever she turned.
“Every Vein Has a Tooth,” for instance, features an animal activist who collects strays the way her mother once collected porcelain Christmas villages.
No surprise that her acquisitions, which eventually include two sheep rescued from a filthy house, are ruining her relationship with her lover. The inspiration for that story was an actual case of sheep neglect outside Raleigh.
The African gray parrot in “Housewifely Arts,” the collection’s stunning opening story, was inspired by a parrot that had belonged to her in-laws.
As that story opens, a single mother and her son are driving to a roadside zoo outside Myrtle Beach to find her now-deceased mother’s parrot, “a bird I hated, a bird that could beep like a microwave, ring like a phone, and sneeze just like me.”
The parrot also talks with her late mother’s voice. And that’s why she’s making this pilgrimage: She wants to hear that voice one final time.
Like “Housewifely Arts,” which was included in “Best American Short Stories of 2011,” this entire collection (Scribner; $24) revolves around the conflicting loyalties women often face.
“Many of these stories have climaxes like the tail of the scorpion,” Booklist says. “They curl back on themselves with a powerful sting.”