ISSUE 5 · FALL 2010




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Copyright © 2010

Kate Riedel





Birds Every Child

Should Know

KATE RIEDEL

 

 

I first met Charlie and Aphra early one morning down in the business district. I was picking up discarded office furniture, and they were picking up birds. Most of the birds were dead.

The birds were small migratory warblers that had crashed into or been confused by the tall glass buildings that coughed up the jetsam I collected as my living.

Charlie was tall with thick curly dark hair clubbed back, inclined to jeans and sweaters. Aphra was wispy, with wavy blonde hair, and her legs were usually enveloped in long swinging skirts. My name, by the way, is Paul, and I don’t look in the mirror that often.

Charlie was a sculptor and builder of installations. Aphra worked in fabrics—banners, quilts, wall hangings. Both preferred working from found materials, and became regular customers for my scavengings. They lived together in an old house with a sunroom full of finches. Both the house and the finches belonged to Charlie.

I think we could be called friends.

“Have you ever seen anything like this?” I asked, once Charlie had wiped down the table and set out coffee in the sunroom.

“Where did you find it?” Charlie turned over the little body I’d unwrapped from its paper towel shroud.

Aphra, who usually preferred to stay out of the sunroom and away from the birds, moved in for a closer look.

“Residential area,” I said. “On top of the garbage. I thought, you know, that it might be some kind of cage finch.”

Charlie carefully examined the feet, the feathers, the beak. “It’s superficially like a finch, but just not quite. And you don’t throw a pet bird out with the garbage when it dies.”

You don’t.”

She stood up.

“I’ll bury it,” she said.

I didn’t tell them, then, that this was actually the third one I’d found, all on residential garbage put out for collection, all brightly colored, but all different, and all dead.

But having shown this one to Charlie, I needed no excuse to bring her a live one. The second bird was only stunned, as if it had flown into a window; eyes open, heart pounding, but otherwise immobile. Spring migration was over, and I didn’t think this one was a casualty of a picture window.

Charlie was alone today.

“It’s starting to revive,” she said, looking into the brown paper bag. “I don’t recognize it. Where did you find it?”

I told her, and this time told her about the others. “All residential, but all over the map. Nothing, really, in common, except that they were all dead and all on top of the garbage. No two alike. This is the first live one.”

She folded over the top of the bag and set it aside. “I think it needs a little more time.”

She went to a shelf and picked up a book, a big one, full of colored pictures of exotic finches, like her own.

“Nothing in here that’s at all like yours,” she said, after leafing through it. “I suppose it could be a new mutation of some kind.”

The bag rustled and the bird burst out and flew to a window, beating against the glass until I thought it would stun itself again. The rest of the birds fled to the top corners of the aviary. Charlie rose and quietly approached the window, undid a latch at the side and slid the glass open. The bird flew out and away, and Charlie slid the window shut.

I stood looking after it for a few seconds, then said, “Well, I guess I’d better get the morning’s haul home and sorted out.”

But instead of going home I drove back to the house where I had found the bird.

The garbage had been collected, the cans stood tipped upside down, the street lay green and quiet in the mid-morning sun. I parked down the street and walked back to the house.

I could hear light thumps against the glass, then I could see the bird itself, beating against the front window, trying to get in.

As I watched, the window slid open and a hand reached out, and the bird alighted on it. It ruffled its wings and I thought I heard it twitter as the other hand cupped itself above in a caress, brought into relief by light reflected from the glass.

Happy ending, I thought.

And then one hand came up and the other down and grasped the bird and deliberately wrung its neck.

I wouldn’t have thought the Lucky Dice was Aphra’s sort of place, but there she was, a couple days later, tucking into a large plate of bacon, eggs sunny-side-up and hash browns. She saw me and waved me over. She wasn’t wearing her usual all-enveloping skirts, but jeans and a t-shirt that, if anything, made her look even wispier.

“Work duds,” she explained.

“So what are you doing out in this neck of the woods?” I asked after I’d ordered my scrambled eggs and home fries.

“I’m doing some banners for a church down the street, and I have to do a lot of climbing to take the final measurements.”

“Charlie tell you about the second bird I brought over?” I asked.

She nodded. “You’ve found more than those, haven’t you?”

“All dead but that one.” I didn’t tell her that one was now dead too. I set the tomato slice to the side of the plate and reached for the ketchup. “I’ve always kind of wondered,” I said. “Why don’t you like Charlie’s finches? Charlie told me you were the one that got her into the migratory bird rescue thing.”

She thought a moment, her hands wrapped around her coffee cup.

“When I was a little kid,” she said, “growing up out in the country, there was always at least one barn swallow nest in or on every building—the barn, the granary, under the roof of the driveway between the big double corncribs. Corncrib walls aren’t solid, you know, for circulation, and the spaces between the boards made a ladder so I could climb to the top of the inner wall and watch the swallows fly in to their nest.”

She smiled. “I really wanted one for a pet. I even rigged up a snare, baited with corn. I was too young to have noticed that swallows only eat bugs. And that saved me from ever having to deal with the fact that swallows can never be pets.”

“Well, that’s childish ignorance with a happy ending,” I said.

“Um,” she said. “When I was about twelve, I was staying with a friend in town. Her brother had trapped two pigeons and had them in a cage. We wanted them for pets. We were going to put them on leashes attached to their legs but didn’t know what to use for leg bands. I found some kind of soft metal D-rings that could be opened and shut by hand—I’m not sure what they were originally meant for.”

She reached out with her fork and took the tomato slice from the edge of my plate, but she didn’t eat it, only shoved it around on her plate with her fork.

“Anyway, we put on the leg bands. And the pigeons panicked, the rings were so heavy they couldn’t move very well, just fluttered around, and I was so scared I nearly wet my pants, but I managed to grab them and get the rings off their legs, and I let them go. My friend was mad at me because her brother was going to be mad at her. It scared me. Still does.”

“What were you scared of? Your friend?”

“Of me. Oh, finish your breakfast!” she added with a laugh. “It’s too early in the morning for this kind of confessional. You pick up anything interesting this morning? Can I see?”

So when I was done with my own breakfast she walked with me to the parking lot and hoisted herself up to look into the back of the pickup. “Oh, wow!” she swung herself over the side—the jeans revealed a nicely rounded little bottom that ordinarily couldn’t be seen for the skirts—to look at a pile of old wrought iron fencing, my big item for the day. “This is exactly what Charlie needs for her latest installation! She thought she’d have to buy new. How much do you want for it?”

I gave her my artists’ price and told her I’d deliver whenever they were ready.

The next live bird I found, I took home. I had a couple of bird cages sitting around, and I put one of them in a warm spot, put the bird in it (this one was black, with red and green and blue spots in a necklace) and covered the cage until I heard the bird stir.

I gave it seed and water, even hamburger, remembering stories of rescued baby robins. But it only beat against the bars until it dropped back on the floor of the cage, exhausted. When it revived, it was only to struggle against the bars once more. I took the cage outside and released the bird. It flew away, and I did not follow it.

I seldom found more than one bird, never more than two, and more often dead than not. The live ones I continued to take home to revive, and to release, because watching them beat themselves against the bars was, if possible, even more painful than thinking of what might happen to them once released.

Then one day in late summer I was scouring an older suburb of working class houses built maybe a hundred years ago, still solid, the kind of places people would move into and renovate, leaving all sorts of interesting stuff out front for me to pick over.

This house was on a bigger lot than the others, with room for a big garden, both vegetables and flowers, old trees either side of the house, and, I guessed, more lawn out back—the kind of lawn that would have a hammock and a tire swing and a sandbox and maybe even a tree house. The kind of house where everything would be saved and treasured, to be put to new use some day. But I stopped anyway and cast an eye over the week’s garbage.

There were half-a-dozen birds, little things, some of them brown and grey and cozy looking, some like bright jewels.

It was bad enough with single birds. But half-a-dozen! And only one dead.

I could not leave them. I got a shoe box from the pickup—I had lined one with paper towels and punched air holes in it, and now carried it with me regularly—and lifted the little bodies in, one by one. I left the dead one until last. I had just picked it up when the front door of the house slammed and a boy of maybe sixteen ran down the walk and skidded to a halt in front of me.

“Thank God!” he gasped as he realized the box was intended for live birds, although the words choked off when he saw that the one in my hand was dead.

But he wasn’t the kind of kid to cry, at least not in front of other people.

We looked at each other over the box, and finally he spoke.

“They’re my mom’s,” he said, never taking his eyes from mine. I waited.

“She’s sick,” he went on. “She . . . she won’t get any better. She’s not bad all the time. She fights it. But it won’t ever get better, and some . . . sometimes she does this.”

“Is it cancer?” I asked.

“No. Sometimes you can do things for cancer. Operations and stuff. You can’t for this. It will only get worse and worse until . . . you know, what Woody Guthrie had?”

Even Guthrie’s name came out with difficulty; he couldn’t name the disease at all.

“Your mother must be very brave,” I said.

“She’s the bravest person I know.” He held out his hands for the box. “I take care of them for her, on the worst days.”

I handed him the box. “Shall I bury this one for you?” I asked.

For a few seconds he looked as if he wanted me to, as if he wanted to have at least that small sorrow taken from him, but at last he shook his head.

“No,” he said. “That one was one of her favorites.”

I watched him go slowly up the walk, cradling the shoe box.

Then I got into my pickup and instead of continuing my rounds I drove straight to Charlie’s, and told her all about it, in the sunroom, while Aphra leaned on the door frame.

Finally Charlie spoke.

“You know, when I was a kid we always had a bird feeder in the winter, right outside the living room window. When there was no work to do in the winter my mom would sit by the window and knit, or read, and watch the birds—chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers. She always hoped to see a cardinal, but we were a little too far north, and they never came.

“The day after my mother’s funeral, we came home from the service, and I went into the living room, and there by the window was her rocking chair, and her knitting basket. And out on the bird feeder was a cardinal. A female cardinal. It stayed for—oh, several minutes—and then it flew away and we never saw it again.”

“The owl was a baker’s daughter.” Aphra didn’t wait for an answer, but strode out of the kitchen in a flurry of skirts.

“What’s with her?” I asked.

Charlie shrugged. “We had, um, a disagreement last night.”

“Couldn’t have been that serious, surely.”

“Only if you consider kids serious.”

“Huh?”

“I suggested it. Aphra went off the deep end.”

“Ah . . .”

“Adoption, probably. Unless you want to volunteer,” she added with a half-hearted leer.

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” I said, and she smiled, a real one this time, if still unhappy.

The next bird I found was a particularly bright one; it reminded me a little of Charlie’s Lady Gouldian finches, all red and blue and gold. It was dead. As I looked down at it on my hand, a man on a bicycle pulled into the driveway beside me.

“Hurt yourself?” he asked.

“Huh?”

“The way you were looking at your hand, I thought maybe you’d hurt it, somehow.”

“Uh, no.” I held out the bird, to show him.

“Well, in that case,” he laughed, “I can see you have an unbroken life-line, which means you’ll live a long and happy life, and you’re going to meet a dark-haired lady.”

“Already have,” I managed to reply.

“See? Cross my palm with silver! Just joking!” He pedaled up the driveway to the garage beyond.

The same driveway next to which stood the garbage can where I’d found the bird that lay dead on my palm in all its brilliant plumage.

And he couldn’t see it.

Aphra was home alone. She apologized for her behavior the other day.

“Come around to the back,” she said, and led me up the back stairs to her own studio, rather than into the house.

Charlie’s house, I thought.

Bright fabrics were spread across her work table. Some of them I recognized as pieces I’d found in my own gleanings. Among them was a piece that hadn’t come from me—a blue silk pashmina that had been a present from Charlie.

I told her about the bird the man on the bike couldn’t see. I hadn’t buried it yet. I took it out to show her.

“You can see it, right?”

She nodded, touching the feathers briefly, before I wrapped it back in a paper towel.

“So why couldn’t he?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’ve been wondering,” I said, “if they’re—I suppose they might be souls, like Charlie, ah, sort of said.”

“But you said sometimes there’s more than one.”

“Jewish tradition has at least two souls, and so do the Navajo—”

“But which one gets its neck wrung?” she said, in the same tone she’d used on the baker’s daughter. At least she didn’t walk out. She thought a minute, then went on, “But I know what you mean. I wonder if they could be—you know, when you have dreams, I don’t mean the kind of sleeping dreams where you try to get from point A to point B while you’re stark naked. I mean…”

“Dreams. Yeah, I know what you mean. But you see it, I see it. Why couldn’t he see it?”

“Maybe it wasn’t his.”

“But it isn’t mine, either, or yours. Why can we see it? And the boy I told you about, those birds weren’t his.”

“But they were his mother’s, and he was hers.” Aphra picked up the pashmina, put it down again. “You know Charlie wants a child?”

“She mentioned it.”

“And I can’t.”

“She said adoption would be okay.”

“Not that kind of ‘I can’t.’”

I thought about that for a few seconds. “Like the pigeons?” I asked.

To my surprise she flung her arms around me and kissed me on the cheek. Then she sat back and repeated, almost in tears, “I can’t. I don’t want to have that kind of power over another living being, ever!”

You already have, I thought. Over Charlie.

But I didn’t say it aloud. Perhaps I should have.

“Maybe,” I said, “it’s because we all work with salvage.”

“Maybe.”

I went about my business, scavenging, selling, trading, occasionally giving things away. Finding birds. Burying the dead ones, releasing the live ones.

I delivered the wrought iron fencing to the site of Charlie’s installation. I noticed that Aphra didn’t come to help, as she usually did.

Then one evening I got a call from Aphra.

“Paul? Do you have time to help me move?”

This time Charlie was nowhere in sight as we packed the pickup.

“Where to?”

“Just to my brother’s. He’s storing stuff for me while I’m away on a travel grant. Research—folk embroidery and appliqué. South America. I’ve been brushing up on my Spanish.”

“Congratulations.”

Gracias. I’m really excited.”

As I pulled out of the driveway I saw she’d put out a couple of garbage bags. She didn’t look at them, but I did.

There was a dead bird on top. I wondered whose it was, hers or Charlie’s.

Charlie asked me to come over a few days later.

She took me into the kitchen and fixed coffee as usual. But the sun room was empty. No plants, no birds.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “They aren’t dead. They’re all in new homes, and I made sure they went to people with aviaries; I didn’t want them confined to cages when they were used to freedom.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I’m going back to the west coast. Some friends have a house there—they’ll let me stay ‘til I find a place of my own. I was going to call you, to ask you to sell the furniture for me, on commission, of course. And anything in my workshop you can use, it’s yours. I’ll tell the real estate agent you have the key.”

“I’ll miss you,” I said.

“I already miss you,” she said.

I’d set out my garbage that morning. When I got home there was a bird on it. Not brilliantly colored, I saw when I got out of the pickup, but with a subtle iridescence in its grey feathers.

I picked it up. It lay on my hand, soft and light, and incredibly warm for its size. Warm, and with a heartbeat.

I took it inside, found a brown paper bag, put the bird inside, poured myself a little whiskey and sat down to wait for the first stirring.

It seemed to take forever, but just as the glass was empty I heard a faint rustle of paper, and when I picked up the bag I felt movement. I stepped outside the door, opened the bag, and waited again.

Small wings beat tentatively against paper, then more strongly as it struggled up, and then it burst into the light and was gone; I couldn’t see where for the sun in my eyes.

I sold Charlie’s furniture. I gave the commission to the local bird rescue mission.

I used some of the scrap wood from Charlie’s work shop to build a birdfeeder this winter. I get the usual birds—cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, gold finches, sparrows. Sometimes I think I see something just a little different feeding there—perhaps a small grey bird with flashes of iridescence—but by the time I find the binoculars there’s nothing but house finches or a nuthatch.