The ruckus? An agitated robin, incapable of full flight in the tight quarters of our house, flitted from window sill to counter edge to the light fixture over our dining room table, the beating of its wings like erratic breaths as it sort-of-flew toward the window, hopeful that could be a way out. It wasn’t. Instead the bird met with insulation, a scrim of poly stretched over the pane, secured to the frame with two-sided tape. So it landed on the scrolled back of a cane chair, part of a cherry wood dining room set that was my grandmother’s.
Though I thought the bird might swoop at me or send droppings onto the table or counter tops or my face, a gross white splat, a puddle of melted Cool Whip tinged with ashes, beak or claws or waste on my head, my hair tangled with feathers or goo, I had to concentrate on getting it out of our house; certainly it wouldn’t know to go back through the kitchen door we keep propped open in summer, so our dog can go out as she pleases, and then under the partially opened garage door, where it must’ve gotten in.
So I called our dog from her resting spot on the pillows of our bed; more of an animal than I am, perhaps she could help. After the click of her nails on the steps, she arrived at the kitchen entrance and looked at me, my hands on my hips, just standing there. I could’ve called my husband at work and bid him to come help me. “Please come home; there’s a robin in the house,” I could hear myself saying, somethingfeeble, simpering, words I don’t want to describe me. I imagined the story he could recount to friends and co-workers. “She called my cell to get me home, so I could get a bird out of our kitchen.” In such a story, I am a fool, one of those educated people others call out for not having any “common sense.” That possible person is someone I hate, someone I don’t want to be. She’s that woman on CNN News rescued from her flooded home by a helicopter, her hair in spongy pink curlers, her right bra strap sliding down her arm. She’s clueless about the resources it takes to save her, resources that should go to someone who really needs help.
I could figure this out. I had to.
My mom and I had just rounded the corner from Herberger’s, a nicely appointed department store at the Dakota Square shopping center in Minot, North Dakota where I was raised. We were headed toward JCPenney to check for sales racks, dilly-dally over blouses seventy percent off or black pants too inexpensive not to buy. It was a Saturday, and we were shopping simply to get out of the house.
We stopped by a small pet store, the front a display of kittens and dogs and ferrets and birds, all to transform passers-by into foot traffic and then pet owners. Somehow a parakeet got out of a cage near the cash register, flew toward us and landed on my mom’s head. She is very afraid of birds. I am not. When the bird’s claws touched the crown of my mom’s head, she dropped to her knees. I don’t remember what I did. Maybe I shooed the damned thing away, back toward the store and got my mom up on her feet. I hope that’s what happened.
I had to find something to trap the robin, something that I could fashion into a sort of net. I thundered down the basement steps to the laundry area to find a laundry basket, even though it’s something I haven’t used or had around for years. When I realized that, I scanned the area for something… anything. And when I came up with nothing, I ran upstairs and out the kitchen door into the garage.
I looked around: two Christmas tree stands, engine oil on shelves, primer dried around the top of a can. I tried to imagine what my husband would do. He’s an industrious guy, someone who, when he needs a machine or tool, considers what’s around him and then turns that something into a machine or tool. When I was in elementary school, we’d go to the gym on Friday afternoons for movies, often National Geographic documentaries, which I loved. (If ever I hear that rousing theme music, I light up). In one, featuring Jane Goodall, a chimp uses a tool, a blade of grass it plunges into an anthole to harvest a snack. It was mesmerizing to watch evidence of another primate’s thinking. When I remember that image, I think of my husband using pennies for tile spacers or his bvd’s to fix his car.
We had a number of plastic storage boxes in our garage. One could work as a net, so I grabbed a container slighter deeper than for those for under-the-bed storage. I also grabbed a broom in case the bird came at me and I needed to swat it, which I dreaded. What if I killed it?
The robin was still in the kitchen, perched on the counter. I wasn’t sure how to coax it to the floor, and I didn’t want it taking off for some other region of the house, so I waited. When the robin landed between the dining room table and the counter, I lowered the plastic storage box over it—like that descending bucket in the game Mousetrap, only I was careful. The top of my trap was the bottom of the container and there was enough clearance there so that it didn’t touch the bird’s head. Even though my heart raced, I felt as though things were under control. I swept—nudged, to be exact—the storage box through the kitchen, careful to keep the bird under it, under glass, if you will. I also made sure that I didn’t hit the bird with the plastic sides, because taking care of a robin I injured would be not be good. My husband and I once took in an ailing baby bird I found. Despite efforts to feed and care for it, the bird died within a couple of days.
When I was five or so, my uncle, dad and I were in my cousin’s wood-paneled bedroom where he kept a couple of birds in a small cage. My uncle put one of the light gray parakeets on my head, where it perched long enough for him to take a picture. I wore a pink dress, my hair in ringlets, and I smiled. Though neither my dad nor uncle are in the photo, I know they were there, both in their prime, waiting in the wings, where I wish they could’ve stayed, close enough to reach me even now. But they’re dead, the photo a threshold to cross to approach a memory I feel instead of see.
We—this robin and I—became partners in an obstacle course, dependent on one another to get to its end. I had to consider our pace; the bird had to think enough to move as much as the plastic container moved: first around a dining room chair, over the threshold between our dining and living room, past the sofa and a recliner, right up to the front entryway where I was particularly careful as we went over another threshold, this one higher than the one before. I left the bird a moment and propped the front door slightly open. Then I returned to it and carefully pushed the plastic container and the bird up and over this last threshold onto the front porch where I lifted the container, as if to say voila. The bird flew toward the front apple tree as I closed the door and left the container on the porch until later.
Perhaps I am too pleased that I got the robin out of the house without hurting it, without it getting tangled in my hair. After all, it was only a small winged creature, who, through no fault of its own, found itself misplaced. Still context is important. A bird outside, pausing in the crook of our apple tree just as the blossoms open, is lovely, idyllic, its silhouette in the early evening more compelling than TV. That same bird roosting in a nest beneath the eaves of our garage is charming. Plus it’s made this niche with cedar mulch and dog hair I left in the grass after our pet’s spring grooming. But a panicked robin flying around our kitchen is unnerving, especially when I’m the one who must get it out. Perhaps finding yourself somewhere unexpected is what teaches us to fly or how to stay.
Nancy Devine lives in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where she taught high school English for over 25 years. Her poetry, short fiction and essays have appeared in online and print journals. She is the author of a chapbook of poems, “The Dreamed,” published by Finishing Line Press in 2016.