Carefully, with the light touch that my grandmother’s arthritic hands might have softly extended in the last decade before her dementia set in, I grasped the tiny flaccid creature. You don’t realize how really small a bird is when it isn’t flying, when its wings aren’t extended, when it is limp in your palm. I cupped it, marveling at the tiny closed eyes as my own filled with tears. My slightly creased forehead reddened under the pressure of internal flushes and external sun. My neck tingled and my throat lumped. My heart beat slowly and I fought to huff a clean breath. My sorrow seemed bottomless.
When I heard the hollow bell-like timbre of the impact—was it a finch this far south?—against the clear glass of the recently cleaned front double-pane, I was further distracted from my work. My mind was already wandering as the un-light words in arcane midnineteenth-century constructions rustled in an airy soup of jumbled thoughts. Oddly situated in my periphery, dust and pollen danced in stark bright beams between the yellowed pages and the elaborately crown-moulded plaster intersections that alternately centered and bounded my comfortable space.
The very portal through which the brightest streams of light filtered in from the eleven o’clock May sunshine reminded me that God’s sun is best-suited for reading America’s own literary Yahwist. Neither a knock nor a rap, it was a simple sonorous “thud” that echoed through the sparsely furnished solarium—so named for the wall of morning facing glass designed to always properly house me as I read and drank iced tea—in which I sat with the hardbound collection of Emerson essays splayed across my bare knees. Late spring, it was already too warm and humid to have the windows open: a fact for which I instantly cursed my own selfish exile from Walden to the sterile walls of Academe: from Thoreau’s simple-life essaying to Emerson’s cleanly delineated lofty American poetic criticism. I was walled in.
The second bump was lighter, yet still it carried through the room and sat upon my ear like a far-off tree falling, the memory of which was instantly created. Transcendentally, I pondered His knocking; with some regret I concluded that this was not my day, nor would I ever be worthy of a personal visit from the Almighty. As if I needed one last piece of evidence that the Lord was not waiting for me at the front door, I concluded that He would not knock with such timidity.
I moved Ralph Waldo, face down, to the raw leather couch beside me as I floated toward the source of the sound. Piercing the solemnity between inside and out, I cracked the door and peeked my head through. My body followed as my eyes surveyed the knotty pine-planked porch that wrapped the front corner of the house.
It lay there peacefully just over the edge of the wooden platform, drained of the life-force which had twice driven it into the glass.
Twice, the creature of the outdoors, not knowing the rules of construction or architecture, attempted to pierce the impenetrable. Meant for us men to see safely in from the outside and out from the in, as frames around our own constructions, this mostly invisible solution to the opacity of solid walls—this window—stilled a creature made to dance in the clouds among angels.
The second knell likely broke its already slightly fractured neck, I surmised as my finger lightly smoothed over the tiny spot that connected its solemn head to its dainty body—where its wings tucked neatly and seamlessly into its softer-than-anything-I-ever-remembered-touching’s abdomen.
It trembled in my hands, lingering at the indeterminable edge of death. I opened my hands and cradled it, imagining my long-gone grandmother’s hands—the hands that had dressed my childhood scrapes, the hands that had rapped the back of my obstinate teenage head, the hands that had made me sweaters when I went off to college, the hands that had painfully gripped my own when she no longer knew who I was, the hands of a healer—as my own cupped this felled, twitching creature.
I looked at my own hands and the tiny spots of blood that I had not previously noticed. These spots merged into ready creases on my palm and I knew that, were it not for my home—for my shelter from nature—this bird would be flying. My focus shifted back and forth between the bird and my hand until finally the bird and my bloody hands were one conjoined form linking life and death, memory and dementia, man and nature, Thoreau and Emerson.
I was traveling thousands of miles away from here when my grandmother finally passed; I didn’t fly home for her funeral. Instead I wrote a poem—“Hands and Wings”— and folded it up and carried it with me until my career finally took me back to this town where I could build this home—a loose replica of hers—and lecture at the university just a few miles from where I grew up. Eventually, the folded poem found its way into a cherry-stained maple keepsake box filled with old jewelry—watches, crucifixes, and silver chains as well as my grandfather’s dog tags—that I had stopped wearing over the years but with which I could not part.
The yearning to recapture life and re-breathe it into this bird had, by this time, flown from me.
I gently laid the feathered corpse back on the ground, shaded by the front porch where I had found it. I concentrated on it with my eyes, though my heart had long since abandoned it as anything more than a totem. My bloody hands once again captured my attention. They were not dripping with blood but, given the size of the bird, this may have been all there was in it as it bled out from its tiny pierced carotid.
Thoreau and Emerson argued as I contemplated leaving it for nature to reclaim or burying it in a good Christian way. Thoreau won and I left her—I had determined from the mental archives of seventh grade life science that the females of bird species were less brightly plumaged than the males—on the spongy St. Augustine grass and returned inside.
I sat for only a moment, reaching for Dr. Emerson when I was again bestirred. Bestirred isn’t the right word. In my recollection of seventh grade, a memory was jarred loose from my mental archives. This was not the first time this had happened. I was overtaken. I was possessed.
Straightaway I flew to the bedroom and, from under the sturdy mahogany four poster that sat high enough off the floor to stack eight-inch-tall plastic storage containers, I pulled out a bin and began to riffle through it. When I was young, about six or seven years old, the same thing had happened at my grandmother’s home. The same exact thing: a bird flew into her—god, she could clean glass so streaklessly and completely that it disappeared—sliding glass door. We found the bird limp and lifeless; we tried to save it, but it had already died, she told me.
“It is flying in heaven now, with your grandpa.”
I remember thinking even then, “Isn’t that what birds do when they live?”
I was not yet born when her husband, my grandfather, passed away; he was always present in her spirit and he was our constant companion during my two-week visits every summer from 1980 until 1989. He had fought in the Second World War. He had built this home. He had helped raise my mother. He had known the great Walt Disney himself. He had died of a heart attack, suddenly, leaving her a widow at the age of fifty four. He had left her to keep up this home and its acreage. He had left her to be both grandparents to me, her only grandchild.
“You can never leave me,” she demanded. I never would, I promised. I lied.
With her hands resting on my head, and sliding down toward my shoulder, I sobbed. We buried it: no box, just straight into the earth. “That’s the way to bury critters,” she told me.
It was the first dead thing I had ever touched, though it was nothing more than a finger-probe: a poke.
She did all the heavy lifting.
We fashioned a cross out of two sticks that we tied together with some green palm fronds we tore into strips. The mound of black soil into which we carefully placed the body stood starkly against the bright green grass that surrounded it in the corner of the lot near the herb garden where the mint grew that we picked and muddled into our sweet sun tea.
I waited patiently with earnest, pre-adolescent solemnity and, while she took her afternoon nap, I returned to that swollen ground and dug that dead bird up. I was not done with it. I was not ready for it to be dead. I was careful to put the cross right back where it had come from and to be certain that the ground was packed to the same density. My black fingernails might have betrayed me had she checked them, but after a week at her house my fingernails were always dirty. Holding the soil-covered avian corpse in my left hand, I gently brushed it with the other. I wiped the tears from my cheek with my shoulder.
More than a couple of times, after comfortable meals, as we were putting away leftovers, she would tell me that Walt Disney was not buried when he died but put into a big plastic container, just like Tupperware, so they could bring him back to life one day. If plastic, a fancy new invention that had emerged during her lifetime—she could remember a time before plastic—could preserve a man like Walt Disney, she lectured, it could certainly keep meatloaf good for a couple days: to be resurrected for sandwiches on doughy white bread.
Moving with determined stealth, I quietly swiped the smallest Tupperware container I could find from the cabinet beside the refrigerator. Translucent avocado green, it was the same size as the one she used to store fresh herbs when she would pick them and bring them into the house. With a single hand, I managed to remove the tightly sealed plastic cap; the fresh oily essence of basil mixed with the scent of spearmint and wafted to my nose.
The small black bird body, still dusted with the fresh earth, never left my other hand. “Perfect,” I silently decided as if to answer an equally silent query about the appropriateness of the container for the purpose. I dropped the body into the vessel with only slightly more delicacy than I might have a chocolate chip cookie, remembering to “burp” the container twice to expel the excess air.
The petite plastic container found its way to a hiding place among my effects that worked equally well for illicit magazines and marijuana during later stages of my youth. Packing and moving and moving and growing and moving and living and learning and packing and moving and not-burying-my-grandmother and crying and leaving stuff behind, this tiny Tupper (diminutively, as grandmom always called it in the same way someone else’s Abuela may have called it “Tupita”) came, tucked at the bottom of a box which finally landed—unopened and unreviewed—in this bin fifteen years ago. It landed under the bed ten years ago and was packed in the furthest, unvisited recesses of my memory at what must have been the same time.
Here, now, it sat at the cusp of resurrection.
The smell of new death—two years in the Peace Corps had acquainted me with the scent—swirled with a hint of basil and mint as I removed the still airtight top. The bird was amazingly well-preserved, stiffer than the one on the porch, but as still as the day thirty years ago when I placed it in there.
I had now proven to myself that this was, indeed, the second time this happened to me. I planned a strange marriage of old death with new as I brought the plastic casket with me into the solarium. Emerson remained quietly on the couch, himself reading the memory of my recent touch, while I continued toward the front door. As I opened it, I glanced through the smudged sidelight toward where I had left the dead—what I will still assume was a—finch.
It was gone.
A rush of pungent air whooshed past me toward the only partly cracked portal to the porch, rustling my hair as it did.
I looked down into the open Tupperware container which had now been exposed to twenty-first century air for about four minutes and saw that it was empty.
I looked about my feet, wondering if I had somehow—in a startled state from my discovery of the first bird’s absence—dropped this one. It was nowhere to be found.
It was gone.
I stepped outside to see a fully obscured, black sky. The sun sat behind an oncoming dark cloud—amorphously approaching as though shot from Heaven in my direction. I dropped the empty plastic container as I reversed my direction, returning through the portal from the porch and back into the glass-encased solarium. I slammed and locked the door as my gaze transfixed upon the living flock descending on my home.
One by one, the leading edge began to ping the front of the house. I watched in awe as the winged herd stampeded toward, and finally against, my home. Each east-facing window in my graciously re-created 1930s bungalow held under the flying deluge of feathers and blood; noon became midnight. Wings became blindfolds, smashed against every opportunity to see outside. In the sea of black death, even the room in which I stood became deepeningly darker and darker. My eyes struggled to capture the last bits of light until—and I could not tell which—either my eyes stopped working or the sun did. I held what should have been my hands before what should have been my face.
I was gone.
As they fell, one by one, ten by ten, then by the hundreds, the thuds became claps then thunder, and the unknowable voice of God boomed. The attack ended after a lifelong minute, and conspired in a siege of silent conception. My screams went unfulfilled and ended before crossing my lips.
Then, it was over.
They were gone.
And these birds, too, now flew in Heaven.
I dried my eyes with my shoulder as I fought to huff a clean breath.