Too happy Time dissolves itself
And leaves no remnant by –
‘Tis Anguish not a Feather hath
Or too much weight to fly –
Not long into March, when the numbers are still just projections, we go to Green-Wood Cemetery to look for birds. There, mockingbirds scream from yellow witch hazel bushes and robins scatter at social distances beneath the voluminous magnolias. It’s still early in the season to find the migratory species we hope for. As we walk, we glance at gravestones for dates—1918, 1919—that might indicate a death from the Spanish flu.
Migration season, lockdown season: my girlfriend and I agree there is some irony to this, the birds pouring northward as humans are told to hunker in place. Of course, at this point most of our friends are actually fleeing the city, as they lose their jobs or head home to family. Caught up in the impulse, we discuss our threshold for leaving. A food shortage? Riots? If they close the parks, I say. That would be our cue.
So we stay. We like the autonomy of our new apartment, where in January we set up house together for the first time. Besides, we’ve been looking forward to New York’s world-class spring migration since we started birding together last year. In March, the lack of leaves on most trees makes it easier to see early arrivals. At the same time, lingering signs of winter make me uneasy. Given that so much else is cancelled this year, I am half-convinced the branches will stay bare forever. That real spring will never come.
Then, on the first of April, we wake up with a bird in our apartment.
The day before is blustery and our walk is short. Heading for home, I notice something unusual. In my experience, birding is a lesson in knowing when to look twice, in case that robin in your periphery is actually a towhee. This is like that, but more so. Suddenly, a yellow blossom on a bare tree. A shape that fumbles overhead then crashes to the ground.
There are wild parrots in Brooklyn, but this one isn’t wild. I unwrap my scarf. As I learned from the Wild Bird Fund, the secret to capturing a distressed bird is to sneak up from behind and aim the cloth toward the head. The thing flounders on the ground, pecking pathetically at last year’s dead leaves. Over and over, it flutters away, but doesn’t go far. After ten minutes and some quizzical looks from passersby, my scarf lands true and I scoop up its small body. I don’t know who is more surprised. As we stride home its heart is beating rapidly, and so is mine.
Posters for lost parrots aren’t uncommon around Prospect Park and I feel sure I have seen one for this lovebird. A photo with a silly name: Baby, Sunny, Happy, something like that. As we search online over the next few days, the likelihood of finding its owner fades, but the name sticks: Happy.
In early April, the death rates rise rapidly. Little changes, now—it merely intensifies. The stories from the hospitals are harrowing. We carry the weight of the news all day, looking for places to put it down. Meanwhile, we take care of Happy, who spends the first few nights shivering beneath a heat lamp in the bathroom. We feel concern for him, as we might for any sickly guest. But he soon begins to eat and drink, and as he begins to helicopter around, discovering the towel rack, the faucet, and the windowsill, we realize he needs a cage, even if he only stays another week or two.
We think he should stay, for a while, to recover in peace. But like everyone, Happy is frustrated to be inside, away from his own kind. A curious sparrow sings from the fire escape while Happy shrieks in reply. YouTube recordings of lovebirds make Happy joyful then frantic. We switch to jazz. Then we find him bashing his beak against the mirror, frustrated. We take the mirror away.
We are frustrated, too. For stretches of the day he sounds like a fire alarm low on batteries. This is just one of the many reasons he can’t stay for good. The neighbors might report us. Our offices might open again. Is it even ethical to own a parrot? Nonetheless, the evening comes again, and we still haven’t called the shelter.
The chilly weather lingers off and on through April. But in fact, spring came in early March, two weeks ahead of the 30-year average. “Nature is healing,” goes the pandemic meme, but there is no quick fix for what climate change has already set in motion. Such an early spring makes it difficult for migratory birds to find the right food, by the time they arrive. It isn’t clear if most species can adjust quickly enough to survive in this altered world.
In mid-April, the death rate in NYC begins to slow. It’s not the numbers, but the specifics that stun us now—the lost fathers, the political remarks, the clots in the blood.
One day, Happy doesn’t flinch at our fingers. Soon, he steps onto an offered stick and lets me stroke him as he falls asleep. He learns to fly into our outstretched hands.
Green is just beginning to tinge the landscape. We go outside to feel normal, although it’s actually surreal. Masks on faces. Walkers swinging wide of each other. The light stays later, lingering in the trees across the lake. They have the branching structure of lungs, caught in golden light. No matter where we are in the park, we know 7:00 p.m. by the distant applause, the honking.
Meanwhile, birds stream into town. My Twitter is a mix of pandemic news and local bird sightings. On our walks we see familiar species, and new ones—a belted kingfisher, a red-throated loon, even a juvenile bald eagle. We visit the Green-Wood family of wild parakeets, snipping choice twigs to add to their nest. As they tilt their heads, scream, and groom themselves, I see Happy.
In the evenings, we hang out with Happy. We’ll miss him when he’s gone. Our time left with him, though indefinite, feels short. He especially likes to upset our Scrabble tiles and pry up the computer keys as we write. Our joke is that he’s trying, like a winged Ouija board, to spell us out a message. If he manages that—we joke—he can stay.
It’s winter, then it’s spring, one that thousands have not lived to see. These days are not so much a story as a litany. The weekends come again and again, and we step out in T-shirts and facemasks to spend hours in the cemetery. The people are faceless and far away, but one bird after another appears, pulling us forward, as in a dream. Looking for signs of life, we stagger up and down the bright, windswept hills of the dead.
Kip Miller is a writer and editor with a poetry MFA from the University of Michigan. She has been published in Indiana Review, West Branch, and others. She recently created a one-woman eco-puppetry show at St. Ann’s Warehouse. Originally from Ohio, she currently lives in Brooklyn.
featured photo by Kip Miller