Beside my writing desk is a large square window. Outside the window grows a sprawling cherry tree. In the bare branches of that cherry tree, birds–robins, nuthatches, house sparrows, black-capped chickadees, wrens, spotted towhees–congregate for whatever bird conferences and forums are necessary in the avian world.
Today a shooting occurred. An elementary school. A town like mine, like yours. Children died alongside the teachers who tried to protect them.
We are nearing the shortest and darkest day, the equinox. But today the sun shines, and as I try to write, I am distracted by the birds outside my window. They flit and dart and swoop from branch to ground and back to branch, enjoying the break in the rain, searching for the bugs and worms offered by the saturated earth.
My parents taught me to appreciate birds, to show them kindness when they arrive, guests in our yard and trees.
I don’t care for crows. They are too much like ravens, the birds Edgar Allan Poe has forever ruined for me. But most others, especially the rounded-bodied ones that would fit perfectly in my cupped hand, are a delight to watch as they confer in the cherry tree. Their bird bones, filled with air rather than weighted marrow, their jerky movements, their fixed stare. Do birds even have eyelids? And how about the way they look at me, at each other, turning their whole head as if they have slept wrongly on their nest pillows, awaking with cricks in their necks.
It is unimaginable, this tragedy. Just as Columbine was. Just as Jonesboro was. Just as West Paducah was. The parents who have not yet been reunited with their children? How do they stand the waiting? Because of course, they know what the waiting means.
I just Googled it: birds have three eyelids. Three! So yes, they do blink, but apparently their eyeballs are capable of very little movement. And, their lack of strong binocular vision means they must turn their head to see something, using only one eye at a time. That explains why they move as if in a neck brace. And, while we’re on the subject, what about bird bones? Does air really fill their bones, or is that a slice of misinformation I chose to believe, a way of explaining how on earth a creature could fly with such grace? Oh sure, I have often thought, if I had air in my bones, I’d soar like that too!
From the late 1980s to the early 1990s the United States saw a sharp increase in gun and gun violence in the schools. By 1993, the United States saw some of the most violent time in school shooting incidences. In 2006-2007, 38 deaths resulted from school shootings in the US.
Bird Bone Update: According to Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, flying birds (i.e. not ostriches or penguins) do in fact have hollow bones, but they are dense and heavy, not light like plastic drinking straws as has been thought for thousands of years. Who knew!
The backyard of my childhood was dotted with bird feeders and bird baths. My dad made special trips to the hardware store for the particular birdseed for our yard’s particular native birds. My mom mixed hummingbird nectar, and my sister and I marveled, from the breakfast table, at the blur of wings and the shimmer of iridescent throats.
I appreciate birds (excepting crows) because of my parents.
But there is an unfortunate consequence of the bird conventions that take place outside the window beside my writing desk: once or twice each month, a nuthatch or a wren, a sweet little monocular-visioned fellow with three eyelids and a hollow skeletal system, flies directly into the glass window beside my writing desk. The thud of that feather-covered, air-filled body against glass astounds me.
That exact terrible thud jolts me today from the imaginary word-based world that appears on my computer screen. Oh no, I murmur. Pushing my chair back, I step to the window, reluctant, craning my neck to see the concrete below.
I call my friend, Ann, who has three boys and lives in Connecticut. I leave her a message, crying as I push out rambling words. I call my friend, Steph. I don’t leave a message because one crying message a day is plenty. I don’t call my friend, Schmidtie because she doesn’t need to know this, not now. She’ll call me when she finds out.
From experience I know not every bird that crashes into the glass will fall. Some might realize their tactical error just in time and swerve to avoid the head-on collision; only their wings or a bit of beak will hit the window. Others though, fall stunned to the concrete, a dusty imprint of their feathers left on the glass. But I can see no fallen bird from my place beside my writing desk, from my side of the window.
Much of the time, the traumatized bird manages to fly away, a bit off kilter perhaps, but still airborne, as if nothing has happened. But the seriously concussed birds fall to the steps below the window and lie there, twitching or shuddering a bit, their puffed chests heaving. Some die instantly, their down-covered necks snapped by the collision.
This tragedy, on such a sunny December day, is as unforeseen and stunning as a clean, clear glass window. So we find ourselves saying all the usual clichés: There are no words. This is unthinkable. Why did this happen? Their lives are forever changed.
Because I cannot see the bird from my side of the glass, I shuffle, slipper-footed, to the front door and open it slowly.
The sight in front of me, a small brown bird on cold concrete, is not pleasant. Already, the stunned fellow has lost control of his bowels. Two small circles of shiny white excrement pool beside him. He is breathing still, but the breath comes hard and heavy, and his black eyes are open, staring, blinking even. With one or two or all of his three eyelids.
As much as I want to cover the fellow with something for warmth, I simply whisper to him. I’ll check back, I say. And I do. No longer able to concentrate on my writing, I check on him every ten minutes, wishing I could do more, wishing I knew what was helpful at a time like this.
It is the invisible windows I hate most. Makes me want to wrap my husband, my children, in bubble wrap, then hold the bundle of them tight in my arms. My friend, Schmidtie, believes the things we worry most about will never happen. Therefore, she worries over everything.
When I check on my bird friend this time, the fifth or maybe the sixth time, things have changed. His eyes are still open, but no longer does his chest rise and fall. It’s clear his bird blood circulates no more.
But I can’t bear to clean him up, not right now. I’ll do it before the mail carrier, Mary, arrives with her big black shoes. Before my scampering, alive, safe, unshot children arrive home from school. Before the crows that congregate in murders (of all things!) on our block, gravitate—caw, caw, cawing—toward the death on our front porch. It’s terrible to be so close, just one brick wall away from such fresh death. Death that is still warm.
It’s hard enough to be a kid these days. After today, it’s even harder.
An hour later, when I can no longer ignore the dead bird on our front steps, I do what I saw my mother do when birds collided with the windows of my childhood home: I go to the kitchen for a plastic grocery bag and an old dishtowel, this one green checked, a wedding gift from the decade when my favorite color was green.
Standing at the front door, plastic bag and wedding dishtowel in my hand, I pause to whisper something that could be prayer, could also be eulogy. But when I open the door, I stop. I swear the bird has moved.
Sometimes, I know, I imagine the things I want to happen. Snap-necked birds returning to life. Cancer miracles. Mean people getting kind. My children treating others with compassion and being treated with compassion right back. No more acts of evil on the campus of an elementary school on a sunny December day.
But yes! There it is: movement. His head lifts a little, and I see his body rise and fall as he breathes. My heart quickens and my face flushes. Go little guy, go! I whisper. Live! Live! Live!
I want to clean up the two ponds of white poop. I want to warm him with my faded wedding dishtowel, but instead, I back away, closing the front door, moving to my office where I can pull my writing chair over to the window and watch over him. So I can shoo away anyone or anything that threatens his recovery. Cats. Crows. The FedEx guy delivering presents I have ordered from my children who, today, will come home from school.
Maybe this is why it took me eight years to write my novel: dedicated bird watching.
My friend, Steph, calls me back. She cries as we try to help each other make sense of this, but we can’t find any sense in it.
So what do we do? Gun laws? Mental health support? I don’t know what we’re supposed to do on a day that brings this news.
But when I walk to the grocery store, to get away from my television, the Seattle sun is still bright. Once in the store, an employee asks whether I like the song that’s playing on the stereo. I can’t really hear it, but because his smile is so happy, I say, “Yes. It’s a great song!” And I find myself being especially kind to the woman behind me in line, especially friendly to the employee who rings up my soup. I say hello to a few other people I don’t know, and as I walk home, I realize I do know what we do now: We keep on being kind to one another. We love each other even harder and bigger than we did yesterday, just as we did after Pearl Harbor and Columbine and September 11th.
My parents have taught me about hope and love. My faith affirms these things, and helps me understand that we don’t understand this tragedy because we don’t have to understand evil. We have to DO something about it–please, God, help us figure out what to do about this!–but we don’t have to understand it.
I appreciate birds (excepting crows) because of my parents.
Photograph courtesy of Flickr’s Swampthing1000.