for the birds
I confess that when she comes to get me, I do not want to get up.
I just picked up my book—Dorothea Frank’s Plantation, and I have precious few moments to mind-leap on down to the Lowcountry and shut out the world. Every time this author punctuates a sentence with the word yanh, I smell the marshes and hear the coastal voices, their smooth inflections running thick as the humidity through my bones. The warm breeze tickles the underside of my porch-propped legs. Dressing seemed to take forever. I kept staring at my face in the mirror and wanting to cry. I didn’t look sick, I–Mid-sentence, I hear her call, even as she runs beckoning across the light-glittered street.
Mom, Mom, MOM!! Come see.
Confession: I don’t want to see. And I left my shoes inside. I shift my gaze to the sun-baked road, wondering how quickly I can hot-foot it over there to see and get back to a little not seeing. Oh Lord, thank you for the grace of children.
Zoe’s hair flies behind in her in brassy ribbons. Her skin looks warm even from a few yards away, as though it has swallowed up the sunshine in giant, soul-nourishing gulps. She hurries toward me, reaching for my reluctance, casting glances behind her as she runs. Across the street, I see her friend, bent over looking, pressing her hands flat against her knees.
Mom! It’s baby birds. Oh Mom, you have to see. Their nest fell—oh, they’re so…so…so adorable!
She lets go of the words and they fly away on the breeze, soaring up and away, still free. I hold the last sentence I read in my hands. I don’t look sick, I—I what? Ms. Frank’s character can’t bear to look, and I don’t want to see, but I put my book down on the weathered wood table beside me. I throw a glance at Kevin, but he’s still reading, likely willing his tired limbs invisible to imploring children.
Come on, she says, and her blue eyes shine.
I ignore the sharp heat of the pavement, remembering something my dad used to say when we scampered across black-hot summer sand and our breathing came up jagged: It’s good for you. It’ll toughen up your feet. I don’t know if it ever really toughened up my feet, but all that oooh oooh ooh oooh running did teach me that I can survive, even when the ground feels like fire, even when I’m helpless-dumped right out of my comfort zone. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.
Zoe talks while we walk, looking over her shoulder at me, and I take in her long legs. The last few years have brought grace. A certain insightfulness has lately crept into her expressions.
When we reach the grass across the street, my daughter points, her finger lancing the air, drawing my eyes toward the mulch at the base of a Crepe Myrtle tree heavy with blooms. There, she says. Two gawky baby birds, not even barely fledged, huddle helpless. They’re hungry. That much I know without knowing much at all, because their beaks gape open silently, yearning up, wide gulfs hard-outlined. Their open mouths look impossibly prominent, a bottomless emptiness. At first, it’s everything I can see of them. Taking it in, I sigh. I feel like those birds sometimes, like one big yearning cavern over a whole mess of needy-vulnerable. The birds’ eyes aren’t even open yet. They can’t see, maybe don’t even know to want to. They’re just hungry.
Aren’t they so sweet, Zoe says, giving the last word tender weight.
I look again, because all I see so far of the baby birds are those gaping holes, those gimme gimme mouths. I see desperate need, and nothing sweet about it. But that’s how it is. Don’t you ever feel like the neediness of this heat-soaked place is just too much to bear? When we feel weak and needy ourselves, everyone else’s hunger looks absolutely bottomless. I don’t even know what to do for myself. How am I supposed to know what to do for you? But maybe that’s a problem of perspective. These baby birds are not strong enough to feed each other, not able enough to find food, not even old enough to see. Neither one of them can really do a single thing to change the situation for the other. So they just huddle together. They combine their warmth against trembling because it’s all they know to do. Something about the shape of those hungry baby birds, tucked side by side on the mulch, touches me. It occurs to me that at least they have each other, even if they have little to offer apart from nearness. And I wonder if maybe sometimes, when hungry together is the limit of our strength, could it be enough just to huddle close?
I’ll go get them some food, Zoe’s friend says. She sees hungry too, clearly. We have some bird seed, she calls, already going, and Zoe calls after her. Wait. I don’t think they can–but her friend has already disappeared inside. The effort is beautiful, even so. Trying, even imperfectly, is worth our appreciation. The breeze gently lifts the wisps of feathers just beginning to grow on the birds’ baby bodies. Mostly, they’re still naked. Their skin looks gray, like a storm, except in places where bone protrudes and flesh stretches. They’re hardly beautiful yet. But whatever they are, they’re that together.
My neighbor’s daughter—our friend—drops a bag of seed on the ground beside the tree and bends again toward the birds to look more closely. I notice the nest, empty on the ground beside where it must have tumbled, light in the wind, after the fall tossed the babies out. Sometimes it happens that way. In just one gust, we’re trembling vulnerable in the middle of a helpless we could not have imagined.
I am telling the girls not to touch the babies when my friend, our neighbor, joins us beside the tree. No, don’t touch them, she agrees, because both of us have read—maybe even a long, long time ago—that if you touch baby birds their mothers will abandon them. They can smell that you have tainted their young with your fingers. Moments later, we discover this to be an untruth when my friend’s sister arrives, unfolds from the car, and corrects our misconceptions. We are false prophets, blind guides. No, her sister says, bending down to retrieve the nest, scooping one of the birds up in her hand, birds don’t have a good sense of smell. But if you leave them laying in the mulch, they’ll die. This truth only leaves me gathering up another, carefully, settling it safe: There are so many things we just don’t know. Ours is always a problem of perspective. In our story, we are all the babies—not the life-redeeming, hands-lifting, back-home settling Savior, not the life-changing Wind, and not the life-giving mama bird. You and me, we should lean into each other—not on our own understanding. We should let that be enough.
Carefully, my friend’s sister lifts the nest and places it back in the tree where it was, following the evidence of sticks and matted leaves. Now hopefully, she says, pressing her words into the tree with her movements, the mama bird will come feed her babies.
And all I can do is smile as the breeze lifts my hair. Oh, she will. I know she will.