Fantasies abound in this first story collection from Seattle- based Alcal†, who moves as subtly across the border between the US and Mexico as between the real and surreal, probing desperate lives of women under duress, and their dubious refuge of dreams. Fourteen tales combine to produce a distinctive and consistent worldview, in which women of all ages and a few men are caught in the webs of their own imaginings as they cope with the vagaries of an often drab existence. The title story brings an old Anglo to the door of Mrs. Vargas, who is expecting a famous naturalist as her guest while he studies a local bird, said to be a harbinger of death. Dying on the moment of his arrival, his identity is opened to doubt when the real scientist arrives and Mrs. Vargas is left to contend with a ghost seeking a portfolio of the dead man's bird drawings. Birds figure prominently elsewhere, as in ``The Canary Singer''--which features a woman with the remarkable ability to sing like a bird, a gift that takes her far from a humble family origin holding the secret of her gift--or ``Flora's Complaint,'' in which the arrival of a black swan on the lawn of Flora's southern California home gives her an outlet for her countless dissatisfactions, but the bond between them proves stronger than death, so she's condemned to remain in the bird's custody in the afterlife. Dream worlds full of roses and the presence of dead relatives intermingle with an archbishop's rich fantasy life provided by his ghostwriter, part of a succession of images generating a lush magical reality of considerable strength. An intensely imaginative, often compelling debut.