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In Which I Love a Bird

May 21, 2011

I am going to tell a story about a bird who broke my heart.  I hope you will understand.

It was like any chance meeting: he pinned to the ground and I in my car. I got out to see what it was, this fluttering thing. On the asphalt he lay, not speaking, waving his arms around. I know he does not have arms but so I pictured it. He was brown and grey, with eyes the color of pennies winking already, and us hardly knowing each other.

What a darling. I am not given to poetry over waifs but here I was, caught in a kind of romance.

He was not helpless; I was.

How I found the bird in the middle of the road: how I picked it up on a folded atlas of the Midwestern states and how it sat quietly, eyes closing, having no choice, on my lap as I drove home, is how I became attached to it. The bird did not object. He was demure, as one imagines birds to be. He would go the end of a queue and wait patiently.

Here I am, now.

I arrive home, and nudge him gently from the folded map onto the grass.

He stands up, wavering, eyes closing. He looks like a child ready for a nap. I know he is trying to recover his strength. I summon a real child to find me some worms. He goes to the pond and returns with several bruised looking worms in a ziploc bag. They will do nicely, I say. Now let’s see how he likes them. The bird does not care. He turns his head away from the worms as if bored. I am smitten.

I lie down on the grass to stare at him and he looks away. I am a giant. I fix my huge eyes on him like stars and it is too much, I can tell. I turn away and look up at the sky. I wonder if he will gather enough strength to fly.  He will not eat the worms, I tell the boy, but thank you for bringing them. Perhaps tomorrow. We pick leaves for him, and tiny branches and long wiry grass, and make a nest. As it is growing dark and he has not yet flown away, I find a shoebox for him. We furnish the box luxuriously. For a moment he sits nicely in it.

I take him inside and put him by the fire. I imagine he will go to sleep and wake up able to fly. But he begins to protest. He bats his arms about and tries to lift himself out of the box, which does not — apparently — feel cosy to him. In the end I take him out and put him under a low bush by the house.

I hope he will make it.

In the middle of the night I hear a cry, and leap out of bed as if it is my own child. The bird is still there, under the fern where I left it, and still breathing.

Then there is a clatter, the growl of a cat and some loud, desperate chirping.

In the morning he is gone, only feathers and a small dent in the ground where he lay. Damn. He was such good company. He climbed on my finger and his feet were warm. He could have lived, perhaps, if I had kept him inside in the box I had made for him, full of grass and leaves.

I hadn’t asked for this bird. If I had, I would have asked to keep him a little while longer. He tilted his head so charmingly, and walked like a little drunk man across the grass. I could have watched him forever. Why could I not have that pleasure, to watch a little wild thing conform to my wishes? Why could I not be his hero?

Because I  have no sense. Because we do not live in a fairyland.

I have had such a dream since I was small. As a child I dreamt I found tiny dogs on the sidewalk as I was walking home from school, and put them in my pocket. I dreamt only I could care for them. They would not grow larger, only more robust until they were able to perform small acrobatic tricks in the palm of my hand, like fleas. They would remind me again and again — mutely, with their darling eyes — how lucky they were to have been rescued from the hot, merciless sidewalks of my neighborhood, from the mouth of a cat, from the careless heel of any tall person who did not look down.

I have not changed. And the bird: lucky or unlucky? I still can’t tell.

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