Word of the day: “hleów-feðer” – lit. “shelter-feather” (Anglo-Saxon); a comforting or protective arm placed around someone or something. (Robert Macfarlane, posted on Instagram, November 10, 2017)
The cardinals’ nest perched on the trellis, partially hidden by an old honeysuckle vine. Throughout the early spring, when I left for work in the morning or pulled into the driveway late in the afternoon, I’d glance at the trellis and see one of the cardinal pair sitting on the eggs. Eventually, the eggs hatched. I could hear a faint peeping and see the adult birds tending, feeding. One morning I heard a raucous cry: a crow was hanging onto the honeysuckle vine, raiding the nest. None of the hatchlings survived.
My mother loved cardinals, which were frequent visitors to her backyard. She had a cardinal pin she sometimes wore, hung cardinal ornaments on the Christmas tree, bought note paper and coffee mugs decorated with pictures of cardinals. I look for them in my own yard—the bright males and more subdued females come regularly to my bird feeders in winter. In summer, they fly in and out of the rhododendrons that frame my back porch. Especially at dusk I’ll hear a loud pipping and peeping erupt next to the porch and then the mate answering from elsewhere in the yard. I pause in whatever I’m doing, peer through the dimming light, and finally spot the bright flash of color, there and then there. The sharp cry follows me when I go inside for the night.
On that spring morning, I flapped my arms at the marauding crow. It flew a short distance away and looked at me as if to say “Hey lady, I’m just doing what I do, being my essential crow self.” I felt angry at the crow—but I also felt regret. By feeding the birds through the winter, was I inviting them to build nests in unsafe spots near the house?
Last fall, I pruned the honeysuckle back to the ground, fully exposing the abandoned nest, which I left in place until a winter storm knocked it down. It had a kind of beauty, the loose but intricate working of twigs and fiber hanging tenuously on the worn trellis.
My mother died in the middle of the night. She was in a nursing home after a brief hospital stay. My sister and I were at her house, her beloved home with its kitchen window that looked out at yard and trees and birds. We had spent the day and evening with her and left reluctantly when she said she wanted to sleep. We each bent down to kiss her good night. “Good by,” she said, two words that seemed strangely final.
My sister took the call from the nursing home and then woke me. We made coffee and sat at the kitchen table in the stunned shadows of early grief.
We made lists—what we needed to do, who we needed to call or write. At around 5:00 a.m. I returned to bed but couldn’t sleep. As I lay there, I heard the pip-pip of a cardinal and opened my eyes to see a bright red bird perched on the windowsill looking in at me.
Shelter feathers come in many forms—sometimes they ward off danger, sometimes they hug, offer a comforting touch, a squeeze of the hand, a kiss on the forehead, and sometimes they flit on the edge of awareness, a flash of bright plumage, a call from the windowsill, a memory to carry through the night.
Lynn Bechtel is a writer, editor, gardener, reader, occasional knitter, and novice meditator. She grew up in Ohio but has lived in New England for most of her adult life. She writes essays and short stories, and blogs at writeonharlow.com.
featured photo courtesy of author