The Blue Jay
There was a little girl who loved cats. She also loved birds. It was a complicated time of life. The girl would watch the birds at the feeders, but then again, so would the cats. The girl would peek into nests full of hatchlings, a cat just behind her, ready to join in the fun.
Blue jays were often loud and bullish, but never quite as loud as they were the day Blackie, their black cat, tried to capture a fledgling. The little girl and her brother and sister heard a great commotion in the woods and dashed off to see Blackie prowling around, eyes fixed on an inexperienced blue jay low in a tree. The three children tried to coax Blackie, to convince him to go away. The older blue jays were full of fear and fury, flying at the cat, but Blackie would not listen, compelled by his wicked absorption.
The three children couldn’t catch the cat, as he was too quick and crafty, but they could stall him, thwarting next moves, to give the little bird the chance to hop to safety. It seemed the fledgling was far enough away when Blackie scampered around them, but perhaps all their waving and leaping was for nothing. They did not see what happened deeper in the forest. Soon the calls settled and Blackie returned. The little girl held his face in her hands to see if he was victorious, smug, but a cat never tells. Then she knew what it was to be torn between two Loves.
One day, the brother set up a trap in the front yard for catching birds. He rigged up a small aquarium propped up by a forked stick with a string attached, which would collapse when he pulled it. He scattered birdseed underneath and sat and waited. The boy had two sisters for company, who occasionally acquiesced to do “boy things” such as build a trench or play with toy soldiers. On this occasion, the little girl who loved birds sat with him. She had never caught a bird and did not think much of what it would be like, only that it would be grand to see a bird up close and perhaps make friends with it.
It was not long before a silly little junco hopped under for the seed. The boy pulled the string. The stick jerked, the aquarium fell and the bird was trapped. The boy leapt up and crowed proudly, but the little girl was horrified. She felt panic as she watched it fluttering and bouncing against the glass, as if the sight brought up forgotten nightmares of her own. She ran and turned over the aquarium and could have wept with relief as the junco flew away. Play had become Fear and she was not accustomed to it.
The Mourning Dove
Three children stood around a dead bird, heads bent. At their feet lay a mourning dove, one of several dozen who were usually sitting on the telephone pole, or at the bird feeder, one of several dozen cooing at dusk. One less. One of the children, a girl, bent down to brush it with one finger. There was not a lot of blood. Up close it was so lovely – the black eyes and markings, the soft feathers a color the children didn’t quite have a word for, glowing in some lights.
One of the children, the boy, had shot it down with his BB gun. He had grown tired of the immobile, the cans and targets, and aimed at one of the mourning doves. He was probably just as shocked as its bird friends when it fell over dead. Shocked, but triumphant, he felt like Man, like Hunter. He ran back to the house, stumbling over the feet that were still too big on him, holding his prize.
“We don’t hunt to kill,” said his mother. “I’ve told you that. If you kill something, you’ll have to eat it.”
They did not need to hunt to eat. They bought their food in cans and tubes and plastic. His mother did not make him feel guilty, but she made him follow through. She told him to cut it up and gut it and she’d boil it. The two sisters perched close to the brother and watched him as he carefully pulled out the glowing feathers. When he cut open the dove’s stomach, the children saw what it had eaten that day. They saw all the very tiny organs lying in the newspaper on the grass.
The mother boiled the now subdued pale little body, three little children peering into the pot. They ate it. It did not taste bad. Death became Sustenance, a lesson, better than Shame.
Two young sisters lived in a tiny house in Wisconsin, edged with woods, the environment a constant source of discovery and imagination. One spring the two sisters found a baby robin at the base of a tree. It was not yet old enough to fly. They looked for parents nearby, or a nest, but spotted none and decided to adopt it as their own. Already they pictured it – they would mother it, feed it, teach it to fly and enjoy a lifetime of companionship and song.
Quite pleased, they showed their mother, a practical woman, who doubted the foolproof plan but said that the robin parents would no longer take the baby bird back once humans had touched it. She let the sisters fashion a makeshift nest and attempt to keep the bird alive.
The sisters spent the afternoon hopping around the yard looking for worms and small bugs, turning over logs to find the richness below. The baby robin gobbled up their offerings and they would exclaim and run back and forth again.
Too soon, the plan went awry. Perhaps the chosen offering was too large. Perhaps a sister had been too hasty. The robin gasped, choked, and died, the slimy worm end still protruding from its open beak.
“Maybe we put it in upside down,” said the younger of the two girls, whimpering.
“You don’t have to feel bad,” their mother said. “You’re not really robin parents. They probably would’ve known what to do but you couldn’t have known.” She was homeschooling the girls, and recognizing an opportunity for education, suggested they put it in the freezer to dissect later.
This was the comfort the little girls needed. The realization that Sorrow had become Science eased their minds.
The mother and her three children were driving into town in their station wagon. A beautiful goldfinch swooped low, but did not dart out of the way in time, and was hit. The mother pulled the car over and the children ran over to it. They watched as it still fluttered on the side of the road, barely beating its wings.
“It’s not quite dead. I think it might be best if you put it out of its misery,” said the mother to the little boy, thinking it would be a severe kindness.
They watched as he pulled out his blunt pocket knife, glad for the opportunity to use it but not particularly glad for the reason. The blade was ineffective and he had to work hard to kill it. The little girl who loved birds walked away weeping.
Afterward, the mother told them that she thought she might have been wrong, that the goldfinch was just in shock. Then they knew Death, cruel and unfair, to the prettiest yellow feathered bird in all of Southeast Wisconsin.
The Three White Birds
There was a girl who loved birds. Now she was grown and not a birder any longer. Her interests had changed. She had forgotten the migratory patterns. She had forgotten what foods the birds like best (except that Orioles like Oranges). She had forgotten how to name them by their song. The girl married, moved away and came back again to Southeast Wisconsin. In the autumn, their neighbor told them that raccoons were hiding in the dumpster at night, and to avoid throwing anything away after dark, as they’ve been known to leap out. Avoid it they did, at all costs, except for one night when the girl disposed of some rancid food. She could not leave it there in the garbage in the kitchen, only to smell up the whole apartment. She could not stick it in the back hallway, for they shared it with another tenant and he usually left before dawn. He would not enjoy being greeted by her garbage. No, she must throw it away.
The night was black and cold, the walk before her long and into diminished light. She ran to the dumpster, heart racing, garbage dripping. She flung up the lid and heaved the bag in, standing just to the side of the bin to trick any creatures who might leap out with teeth bared. She imagined she could hear them scuttling around in the bottom, grabbing at her bag with their paws, using it as a step to launch themselves out. She ran back towards the apartment in case they were following close behind.
What shifted in the wind, or what dim sonority stopped her in her moment of panic? Some light glinted off their gentle wing-beat, perhaps, and some part of her responded to it.
Three white birds, as big as swans or dragons or flamingos – who can be sure? They glided soundless and serene, perfectly spaced, illumined. Her first response was to put them in their place in her mind, to name them. But her mind ran in circles searching and returned void. If no name, what sign then? A haunting bliss or calamity? This was a thing she wasn’t meant to see. She beheld them like a pagan until they were small, swallowed, a witness to Magic, to Myth.
Christina Langley tends bar, makes coffee, choreographs and writes. She lives in Kenosha, Wisconsin with her husband.