Something for the Birds
by Joan Colen
It took weeks to get Sid to pack up and move out to their rental in East Hamptons, a house that had seen them through fifteen summers.
It’s still cold as hell out there. It’s only March, Alice.
Sid, the city is hell now. Everything's boarded up and locked down. That house is just sitting there, paid for, just waiting for us.
Yes, but if we catch it, there’s fewer hospitals. Our doctors are all here.
Alice waited, but enough was enough. Did he want to stay in lethal NYC because he could escape to his office or the park.
Restaurants are closed. What’ll we do out there?
I can look at trees, see water, walk without a mask.
gonna be freezing there , Alice.
But there’s less death.
It’s boring, there's nothing to shoot. I’m not a nature photographer.
Sid liked to photograph people, their ironies and interactions. A street photographer, an amateur. But he’d been in magazines and was very good. He was 85, not working anymore, so his office housed his giant printer where he used photoshop and was content.
By June, the Hamptons were in a different phase of the pandemic. More shops were opened, and you could dine outside. The weather was warmed. Finally, Sid agreed. It was time to migrate to the Hamptons.
The house they rented was a ‘tear down’. Luckily it was owned by their neighbors who didn’t want it torn down. Perhaps they planned to sell the two houses as a large package someday. New owners could tear both houses down to build one of those huge mega mansions with gyms, wine cellars, pools and a pool house, bowling alleys, and a movie theater.
Alice entered the house and was flooded by memories. There was a rail in the bathtub that the landlords had put in when her mother was still alive. There was the large bedroom downstairs with a separate entrance that her younger daughter, Beth, had used starting in college and through at least three serious boyfriends. There was the storage room which still held the scooters and beach toys used by her grandchildren when they were young. She treasured the memories of these visits from her older daughter, Sue, and her children; and on her worse days Alice wondered if she would be able to see her children and grandchildren, who now lived in California, while she and Sid could still play mini golf with them or sit comfortably on the beach and watch them with their boogie boards in the waves. Hips hurt and knees ached; time stretched out endlessly; five months seemed like years; each day was the same.
But she felt freer now. They did eat outside occasionally at a waterside restaurant. Alice took long mask- free walks to the ocean while Sid watched the news which was always depressing. She bought lots of plants and put them outside on the deck to cheer herself up. One was a lovely hanging plant- geraniums.
July brought wonderful dry weather. One day she looked out at her plants and noticed that they needed watering. Alice didn’t have a green thumb. When plants died, she just bought new ones and stuck them in pots. Now she was being more careful. She took the hanging plant down and placed it on the table on the deck.
“What’s all this rough stuff doing in the pot?” She pulled out the sticky grass and moss. It stubbornly adhered to the soil, but Alice persisted and threw the stuff over the side of the deck. Then she watered the geranium and settled into the deck chair to read the local paper, the news was always better than the “real” paper; it even had a fishing and gardening column; although it, too, reported some older denizens of the town had died of the virus.
As she sat reading the section called “For Foodies”, a Carolina wren perched on the edge of the geranium pot, it held something in its beak. Its tiny neck craned in one direction, then the other and looked down.
Oh my God, I’ve thrown away a nest !
Sara heard a scream and realized it had come from her own mouth. She ran to get her husband who was reading Mary Trump’s book, really concentrating.
I’ve thrown away a nest! I killed something! I didn’t know! I threw a nest off the deck.
Go find it, he said calmly; and put it back if you can.
I’m terrified that I did something horrible.
You’re being overly dramatic. Just go downstairs and try to find it.
Alice tore down the steps and through the back yard where she never ventured. They had deer on their unmanicured property, and she was afraid of ticks. But there on a bush, she found the thing she thought was a bunch of debris. It had been saved from falling to the ground and there inside were three perfect baby wrens, with feet and beaks and feathers all nestled together. They weren’t moving. They must be dead.
She placed the nest, now a tiny coffin, back in the pot and hung it just where it had belonged. Then she sat on the deck chair and surprised herself by starting to weep. She felt so guilty. When was the last time she felt like this? What felt so familiar? She thought of another time and another death.
She heard the awful bitter voice of the Irish nurse saying, No matter what, it’s still a life.
She wanted another nurse. She never felt so sick. The pain was unbearable. She was had desperately wanted this child. The nurse gave her this guilt, or had she been feeling it all along?
There’s no way this child is viable the doctor had said. It’s trisomy 13. These babies are born with cleft palates; they don’t live for more than a year. You and your husband will watch it die. Do you want to see a picture of what these babies look like?
She shook her head -No. She held her husband’s hand and wept. She was six months pregnant. They’d had a second test as the first hadn’t given off enough cells. And now it would be like a birth.
Those baby birds. The baby she had lost. Covid. The senseless death.
But suddenly, a bird came back. Why was it back? Did it come to mourn its three dead babies?
She had mourned for months so deeply. They all had. Once she felt like running in front of a moving car. Her milk came in and she felt lost. But she had a husband, another child, still had a mother and father. And so, although, she would be forty on her next birthday, they tried again. And at the birth, the same doctor who had encouraged her to try again said, she’s perfect I told you she’d be perfect. How could her mind compare things this way? Was she going crazy?
First, she googled Do birds mourn? And not satisfied with the vague answers, she called her friend Denise who lived on a vast blueberry farm in the summer months and knew everything about animals.
Yes, she learned, the wrens may be returning out of instinct or a kind of mourning.
Each morning, Alice sat at the breakfast table looking through the glass doors at the nest. She didn’t go close; not daring to look inside. And the wrens returned even when she was there watching them through the glass.
Two weeks went by. One morning she thought she saw a stirring in the nest. The wrens were flying to it. Both mother and father, their colors slightly different peered over the sides of their nest, and then a tiny head. And then two more. She called her husband. He stood on a stool and took photographs. There was life!
The next morning very early, Alice was there at her post near the glass doors, looking out onto the deck. First one flew into the trees with one parent, then another. And then one tiny one dropped to the deck before it took flight. If not for the glass, Alice could have touched it! It was fat and healthy. It hopped. She loved it.
She felt like a grandmother, not quite but almost. She felt it might be God’s way of saying that life goes on and that she would be ok. And for a while she was content.
About the Author
Joan Colen is a fiction writer and retired educator who lives in New York City. She has published stories in Adanna, a journal of women writers, Prometheus Dreaming (Secrets), The EastHampton Star and a collection called "Richard's Class".