The girls find the bird huddled inside the chicken enclosure. C. comes sprinting into the house like a miniature superhero in her spangled blue velour leotard.
“Mommy, Mommy! A bird! A bird is sleeping in the chicken pen!”
I’m lying face-down on the living room rug with a bag of ice on my back.
“No! I saw its beak move. Come on!” C’s body literally vibrates with impatience.
“In five minutes.”
“Carmen,” I warn, “I’ll come in five minutes, when I’m done icing.”
This summer has taught my children about waiting. Our family has had to adjust to the vagaries and demands of my injury, while I’ve learned (again) about the solitary nature of pain—how it isolates you, cuts you off from the present moment. I cringe when the girls rough-house around me; they’ve become more careful with my body, which fed them for years and once served as their jungle-gym. Used to being waited on, they’ve had to manage more tasks for themselves, and even attended to my needs—bringing me the phone or a glass of water.
A. is perched in the cherry tree above the chicken house when I come to appraise the bird. She drapes her arms around a limb, an elven child among the pendant leaves, at once familiar as my own hand and strange in her long-haired, coltish grace. C. jumps up and down like she might bust out of her leotard.
Sure enough, a small gray bird is nestled down in the dirt, shuddering, surrounded by nine curious hens.
“Maybe it fell out of the tree,” suggests A.
“Or maybe one of the cats got it,” I say grimly. I spy Nomar, the black tom, cleaning himself in the grass not far from the chickens, pretending to be oblivious to the unfolding drama. A red chicken sticks out her scrawny neck and launches a swift, brutal peck at the bird.
“STOP IT!” yells A.
“BAD CHICKEN!” shrieks C.
“Keep them away from it,” I call, limping off as fast as I can. I fetch a shoebox from the recycling bin and manage to hoist myself over the fence. With two hands, I cup the trembling bird and ease it into the box. One wing is torqued back, its feathers dark with dark red blood. The bird’s gray down feels smooth and slippery on my skin, a forbidden sensation, something you know you’re not supposed to touch.
By this time, A. is crying: “Will it die? Can you help it, Mommy? I don’t want it to die!” Her hysteria mounts, spiraling in a wail from the cherry tree.
“I don’t know, honey,” I say. “It looks like a cat might have hurt its wing, and it can’t live if it can’t fly. But we don’t know. Let’s keep it safe in this box until Daddy comes home, and he’ll know what to do.”
Daddy does know what to do, which is to leave the bird in its box high in an old lilac bush, in case it gets better and flies away in the night. But how can you sleep when a wild animal is dying in your back yard? Should you bring it a dish of water? Search for a rehabilitation specialist? Or should you attend to your own body and try to forget the pet-inflicted suffering occurring not 20 yards from the safe walls of your house?
I rub castor oil on my sacrum and heat a small rice pillow in the microwave. It’s Birthday Season again, C (my baby) about to turn five. She’s been racing around the driveway this summer on her tiny two-wheeler, wearing nothing but shiny pink shorts and a purple bike helmet, bare-chested as a boy, round belly leading the charge. Five years old—imagine! July’s raspberries have come and gone as I cycle through these anniversaries, my body broken, fragile as a flightless bird.
I want to take only joy in my girls’ birthdays, but it’s a bittersweet time, the wheel of the year returning to their traumatic August arrivals, not the empowering, ecstatic birthing I’d imagined but confusion and fear in the hospital halls, how the doctors put me under and cut me open, and the body had to heal over the same wound twice.
“I wish there were no predators,” says A. in the morning. “Only prey.”
The bird is dead: stiff and cold in its pitiful shoebox, more rock than animal. A. wants to bury it behind Sumac City, but the dry ground there is so hard my shovel can’t break the surface. I shouldn’t be shoveling anything with my back like this, but manage to pry up a tuft of thatched witch-grass, penetrating the sod layer to loose dirt below. We fill the hole with Queen Anne’s Lace and lay the body down.
What kind of songbird is it anyways—a thrush? a wren? It seems to matter, but I’m no good at birds, only flowers. I say a brief blessing about its spirit flying free in the blue sky, and C. starts sobbing, throws herself into my arms, almost a caricature of grief. I feel distant from the whole proceeding, as if I’m watching myself bury a bird with my daughters.
It was worse when the bird was alive, huddled in pain in its cardboard nest, when I could maybe still do something to help; now I’m energized with relief. We cover the grave with sea-glass and crab-shells brought back from Maine. Late summer pulses yellowing around us, crickets and goldenrod, fireweed and loosestrife, August’s sweet, mournful song of endings. There’s nothing left to do but go inside for popsicles, then drive up to the pond for a long, cool swim.