I recognized the internal rotation of her shoulders, the near scowl on her face as she strode haltingly through the halls. Self-protection. She had a slight build with long legs that rose like reeds to her waist and thick, deeply waved, nearly black hair that fuzzed into a long helmet as it cascaded down her back. I recognized the way she allowed it to form a cocoon around her.
She was fourteen when we met through a mentoring program. The teacher that referred her shared that her parents had divorced within the last few years. She was quiet, and I felt awkward in our first few meetings. But I soon discovered that she expressed herself most fully through image-making—photographs and drawings. Birds were a recurrent subject. I learned that she adored birds, that her family had a pair of doves. When she talked about being the primary caretaker, going outside daily to feed and visit with them, her face softened. I saw light in her eyes. But in response to her description, my body recoiled. All I could think of was a pile of feathers, the stink of birds in shit.
* * *
I had always been terrified of birds. Of their tiny eyes, sharp beaks, and flapping wings. Of their sudden and unexpected flight. My fear preceded my conscious memory; I didn’t question it. People rarely understood, and most laughed at or pitied me. I learned to defend myself with humor, referring to birds as avians and rats with wings. I recited my horror stories: how, newly five and sitting between my parents at a theater watching Excalibur, I cowered as three enormous black birds careened through a bloody sky toward dead bodies, then pecked at their eyes. I hid behind my hands, but I couldn’t escape the sickly caws.
How, at four, walking the sidewalk in front of my house, I sometimes stumbled over a carcass left by the neighbor’s cats. Head twisted, wings at awful angles. Visible viscera. Even my own scream seemed menacing as it wrapped around me.
How, a few years later, when my own cat brought me the gift of a dead bird, I slipped and fell in a pile of feathers.
* * *
The first few meetings with my student, I wasn’t sure what to do or say to support her. The referring teacher had recognized that, although my student’s grades were poor, she didn’t need a tutor but someone to talk with. Early on, I longed for the structure of a homework assignment or worksheet. Although I was one of three district employees who ran the volunteer tutor and mentor program, I had little formal experience with mentoring. My first year in high school, I had been taken under the wing by a group of girls a year older than me. They welcomed and celebrated me. From that experience, I knew the value of being heard, of being recognized on my own terms.
From the volunteer training I gave with my co-workers, I knew that my role was to listen. But her answers to my early questions were brief so I did most of the talking, telling her about the writing I was trying to do or what I had been up to that week. I wasn’t sure if she was bored or even wanted to meet with me. But she kept showing up. I began to notice that she spoke after periods of silence, so I worked to allow for pauses in my speech.
One week, she pulled out her digital camera and showed me pictures of a heron she had taken. She had named the bird, Big Blue, and she sought its presence each morning in the blueberry bogs on her walk to school. I had to agree it was a majestic creature with its long, articulated legs and elegant bill. I enjoyed the shift in her face and speech as she talked about Big Blue. She wore the closest thing to a smile when she talked about birds.
A few months into our relationship, I had to admit my bird fear to my student. She looked bemused. As I told her, however, I withheld my disdain. I didn’t make my usual snarky comments or launch into my stories. I just let the idea of my fear sit between us, and I welcomed her surprise. I was, for the first time in my life, not proud of the rancor I felt toward birds.
* * *
Many of my formative bird memories occurred in early childhood as my parents’ marriage was falling apart, a time of yelling and thick silence. I remember my parents in separate rooms. Of all the traumatic bird memories, the worst occurred when birds got trapped in our house.
One Sunday night, we arrived home to find evidence of violence in the house—picture frames at odd angles, a glass hurricane lantern in curved shards on a windowsill. Bird shit streaked over surfaces. Ushering me upstairs, my parents said there was a bird in the house but that I should be safe in their bedroom. They turned on the television to distract me.
In the thick tension, I felt my blood pumping loudly in my ears. Below, I heard my parents opening and closing doors and cupboards.
There was a sudden rustle. I stiffened. A brown bird flew up from behind the TV set and bulleted across the room. Hot fear gripped my belly. The wings flapped louder as the bird neared. At the last moment, it veered above my head and shot down behind my parents’ headboard. I felt air rush above me, heard the furious slap of wing against body. I sat frozen, alone, paralyzed by my own scream.
* * *
One day, my student came to the meeting more animated than usual. She announced that she had gotten two budgie birds (parakeets). They were hers alone and lived in her room. I noticed my reflexive shudder at the thought of birds indoors. But her face was bright and animated as she shared how she let them out as often as possible to explore her room. How they chattered with her and to each other, filling her room with sweetness. Listening to these stories, I felt my chest expand with feeling, and I imagined that was how her birds made her feel. Seen, trusted. Allowed into a world that few others got to experience.
* * *
As a child, I spent a lot of time entertaining myself and dealing with my feelings alone. My parents were preoccupied; I lacked a sibling, a pet. My experiences with animals, birds in particular, were fear-based. A rat in our house, a large dog bounding toward me, the lifeless bodies of the small animals killed by the neighborhood cats. Then, I couldn’t understand my bird experiences as phenomena of the natural world, outcomes of instinct or hunger. Or that the filmmakers of Excalibur had intentionally distorted nature to amplify psychological tension. That the bird in my parents’ bedroom was also acting out of fear.
The bird memories are wefted into the warp of my loneliness, my uncertainty, my sadness. Pulled taut by my earliest experiences of the fight or flight response: the prickly, sick heat of body fear. The sense that I could not escape from the source. That my home was not always a refuge.
* * *
My student and I met each week during the school year for over three years. That included three springs for her to sight Big Blue for the first time, for her to share her first photos of the spring. The concept of migratory patterns, one of many facts I had learned and discarded about birds in school, finally clicked as I experienced it through her joy. Back in a school environment, I appreciated the cycle of the school year, realized it had arisen from the natural cycles of seasons. That life, and learning, occurred in circles.
* * *
My student frequently brought to our meeting her drawings, hand-sketched images of birds in pencil or markers. She focused on details—delicate eyes and heads, assertive wing structures, the arc of talons. Her images were both realistic and mystical. I remember one in particular of a raven with one wing opened toward the moon, a gesture of welcome, drawing the viewer under its wing, its protection. The curve of the bird’s body against the moon gave the image circular movement, a flow of energy regenerating itself, a complete system. I asked if she would make me a color copy, and she did, bringing it back the next week for me to keep. I wonder now what I could have offered her in return.
I have kept the drawing for more than a decade, through a move and the churn that comes with two of my own children. I notice how the bird and the moon seem to glow from within: the moon suffused with yellow gold, the midnight blue glow of the bird’s feathers. She created not a naturalist portrait but a spiritual one, a composition about the energy and interconnectedness of the world around us, the world larger than us. She was reaching for truth beyond what she saw, what I was stumbling toward with my writing. While I had only seen what happened when nature came inside or when nature was turned inside out, she saw nature and animals as a portal to that magic.
* * *
I was a mentor to her for over three years. During that time, my husband and I were working to recover our yard from the neglect it had suffered as we worked on the interior. We removed a carpeted patio and painted our concrete patio red. We mulched the weeds in the flower beds running the perimeter of our yard and planted shrubs and perennials. We bought patio furniture, and I nurtured an outdoor life for myself, one that had been challenging growing up in a hot climate in a small backyard.
One afternoon I noticed a little bird bobbing its head up and down, maybe spotting a meal in the grass. I stared at the bird, watching its tiny movement, feeling a swell of gratitude for its presence in my yard, its comic sweetness. I found myself pausing to observe other birds. I noticed, rather than malice in their eyes, an intense focus necessary to survive predators and find adequate food. I noted that they came in different shades of brown, of gray, in so many colors and combinations, wings opening in flight to reveal a red under breast or bright tail feathers. I admired the ones with stout bellies, like little balls tilted back on tiny legs, appreciated dainty facial features, and recognized from my student’s drawing the blue visible in black feathers of crows. Over the next few months, I came to love them.
* * *
For years, I’ve credited this backyard experience as the way I transformed my phobia of birds into appreciation. I realize now that it’s more complex than simple cause and effect, than everything shifting in one moment. Developing the fear was the result of a confluence of multiple factors. I think part of why I feared birds was because the fear exhibited by the birds in our house resonated with my own. But it was traumatic to see my anxiety externalized in their behavior. As if seeing it in the world around me made it feel more real to me. So, I narrowed my lens, refusing to see anything positive about birds. I could not reason my way out of an emotional and psychological circumstance.
Untying the complex knot of my bird fear required space and presence. It required me to sit with my memories as objects rather than triggers. My student never tried to talk me out of my fear. She just talked to me about birds, built me a whole new set of emotional experiences—both hers and my appreciation of hers—from which to consider them.
* * *
It is early summer, and the crows are territorial, fiercely protecting the young that caw in changing, cracking voices. This year, I have been strafed a few times by a matriarch, and my husband and I have woken at 4:00 a.m. to an adolescent cawing at the barely discernible beginnings of dawn. My heart still pounds a little, the existence of my phobia still a faint outline on my psyche, but overall, I feel gratitude. I am grateful for what we can learn, what we can be taught to perceive, when another person takes the time to see us and bring us gently into our fuller selves.
Kelly Martineau’s works have appeared in Quarter After Eight, Sycamore Review, and The Florida Review, among other journals. Honors include a Pushcart Prize nomination and the Teresa A. White Award from Quiddity. Her chapbook, Sirens | Silence, was a finalist for the 2020 May Day Mountain series and the 2020 Newfound Prose Prize.