My Dad called my Mom “bird brain.” He explained that birds had the smallest brains. I thought about this a lot because I wasn’t sure if it was true;
If birds have the smallest brains, not my Mom. I knew my Mom was smart. Smarter than my Dad. She knew it too. They were mean to each other.
As a child, I held baby chickens like balls of cotton. I held baby rabbits and let them drop their perfectly round poops in my hands.
We can’t hold baby birds, I learned, because then their mothers won’t feed them anymore. And we can’t hold baby birds because they won’t let us.
Houseflies experience time differently than we do. When they see us, we are in slow motion, lumbering, large, like a tree bending in the wind.
One day a boy on my brother’s baseball team captured a baby bird in his hands. The bird writhed and twitched in his hands. It was wrong.
I begged him, please, please, let it go.
My grandparents grew up on farms in Italy and their relationship to animals is different than mine. They feel a camaraderie with animals, because they lived together with the horses, cows, sheep, chickens, mice, but at the same time animals are food. To love a thing is to feed it, and feed it, until it is fat and then kill it and eat it yourself, suck it through your teeth, push it down your throat with your tongue and this is how you feel love in return.
In my house were my parents and grandparents and brothers and we ate each other up and spit each other out.
When I first learned about migration it seemed like magic. People say humans are the only ones who can communicate via highly advanced forms like writing.
I think of the birds sending silent or musical signals through the air that say let’s all of us twist and tumble. Let’s fall and soar and turn and turn.
Let’s all of us fly somewhere else, where there is more food, where we can mate and give birth, where the air is warmer through our feathers.
And by way of blood, from mother to child, bloodlines that speak and say, this right here, this is a safe place to stop and rest.
My Grandma took me to Italian mass at her Italian Church, not the one where I went to school. Her Church was smaller, with stained class and bronze sculptures covering the walls and ceilings. I liked church because it was quiet and calm and nothing like our cruel, chaotic, violent house. There was so much to see. Near the ceiling, facing the sky, was a stained glass white bird, wings extended, light from the sun shining through it.
“Why is there a big white bird?”
My grandma looked up, “That’s god.”
I searched for other birds in the stained glass. A blue bird in an olive tree. A red bird in flight. A yellow bird perched on the shoulder of a man in robes.
“What about those birds?”
She was trying to listen to the sermon. She quickly looked.
“They are God too.”
“Only the birds?”
She thought for a second, “Yes, only the birds.”
In Catholic School, the priest came to our class to explain the Holy Trinity. The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. I raised my hand to say I didn’t understand. The priest said, “I am not supposed to say this, but the Holy Ghost is what connects everything to everything.”
Maybe my grandmother didn’t have the English words to explain the metaphor of the Santo Spirito. Maybe the word “God” can mean many different things: father, son, ghost, bird.
Birds are of the air, they live in a different time and place. They are not us and we are not them.
They carry information in their wings, claws, blood and tiny bird brains.
When I first met my husband, he used to fish six-pack plastic rings from the garbage and say, “Ducks,” as he cut the rings open and I knew he was a good man.
Years later I drove to a small seaside beach town by myself, to work, and to wonder if we should stay together or break up.
I sat on the sand and looked at the ocean and there was a smear in the sky, hovering over the water. It took me minutes to understand they were birds, minutes to understand they were hundreds of birds, thousands of birds, and they were moving in a straight line, they were coming from the north and rushing to the south and they kept coming and coming, like a flood, like a highway, and almost an hour later, I realized, finally:
This is a migration. This is a migration.
I sat and watched for hours. When the birds began to dwindle in number, I called him, because I wished he were there with me, to watch them fly.
To watch them move, from places no longer sustainable, to warmer waters, warmer air, places where they have more of a chance to survive.
When I was in middle school, we read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” I loved the cadence of the poem, and the story, and the sea, but I was terrified by the thought of a bird, the Albatross, following a ship, days away from land. Birds belong in the air, but they also must land, they also belong to earth.
Years later I will learn the Albatross has a wingspan of eight feet, and when it flies great distances over water, it dips its vast wings in ocean water to drink. Its body desalinizes the water and secretes salt through its eyes.
I marry him, even though I have no reason to believe a marriage could be sustainable. We honeymoon in New Zealand.
In the small seaside town of Kaikora, we get on a boat to see the resident sperm whales dive and rise and feed.
You figure one would have to be at sea in icy waters and inside literature itself to meet an Albatross, but there they are, circling the whales, sharing in the feast.
Tipping their wings, barely moving, riding the wind over the ocean.