It was a mourning dove in the afternoon, and it was flying much faster than they do normally. A sunny afternoon too, rare in the Highlands summer, and that bird came straight for the glass living-room door. In the evenings Cynthia watched the sun set over the ocean and into the canyon, but in the afternoons we drew the curtains unless we wanted the living room to be a greenhouse, and Cynthia didn’t keep plants inside because she said it was a crime to in California. So the sun filtered in through the off-white fabric, turning it and everything gold, and I sat reading on the couch by the fireplace and Cynthia looked at the mail and the funnies and it was a slow day all around.
We jumped when the bird hit the glass of the door, the only expanse of window not curtained in the glowing afternoon. The bird hit the glass of the door with a thwack like wet wood, something sick and breaking, and the dog started barking. Cynthia knew but I didn’t. It wasn’t the first bird and wouldn’t be the last.
I’d been coming here to her house in the Highlands every summer since I was born, always somewhere between guest and family, always thick fog and woodsmoke and mold and safety. Death only when necessary: the chickens at Christmastime, or the rat skeleton hanging from a wire in the shed kept around to spook visiting kids like me.
I was safe, and I was nine, and I assumed the thwack was a branch or some unusual firewood sound. But Cynthia was getting up from her chair to go out onto the patio and she only did that to let in a dog from roaming the garden. All the dogs were inside. She didn’t usually get up for guests; they came to see her, they could walk a little farther.
But now, she got up. So, I got up too to see the bird lying tiny and cracked on the ground, its head off to one wrong side. Cynthia sighed then and clucked her tongue softly. Poor thing, she said. Poor stupid thing. Pick it up and bring it inside, we’ll find a shoebox for it.
I knew I should cry, but I couldn’t. All I could do was look at the bird and ask what kind it was. Mourning dove, Cynthia said. Pick it up and bring it inside, it won’t hurt you. The body felt warm and terribly light, and my hands shook as I laid it down on the red-and-white woven tablecloth. Was I scared of the bird or of putting it on the table? Where we ate? Where the funnies still sat folded by Cynthia’s chair? Was I scared of the wings or the bits of bone I could feel through them? The heart still and silent, or the cold little feet scraping my wrist?
I was shuddering all over and Cynthia was getting a long-handled spoon out of the silverware drawer. Oh please don’t let’s eat it I screamed silently, since I was a kid from the suburbs and never knew what was going to happen in the Highlands, maybe they ate everything rather than waste it.
Go wash your hands, Cynthia said, with lots of soap and hot water for at least a minute. Then come back and we’ll have a look.
I didn’t want a look, was it even still a bird? I took longer than a minute to wash my hands and walked back from the sink very slowly on purpose.
Here, she said, and handed me the long-handled ice cream spoon that could also be a straw because the handle was hollow in case the ice cream had melted. She didn’t use a utensil herself, just placed her leather hands softly around the had-been-bird-body and flipped it over, one hand on the back, one cupping the belly gently. Like it might break. Like it still mattered.
A mourning dove, she said. You know the ones that warble at dusk?
The cuddly ones, I said.
Yes, those. That’s what this is.
How do you spell it? I asked.
M-o-u-r-n-i-n-g. Like for the dead. See here, she said, and made me point my long-handled spoon at the wing as she spread it out gently on the red-and-white tablecloth. These are the primary feathers; these are the secondary feathers. The primaries are larger, see? I could see but also, I couldn’t, no life in the bones anymore, and what was primary and what was secondary when the only real thing was a dove I had to mourn?
A few more minutes and we found a shoe box, and Cynthia shut the lid. We walked together into the back orchard, where all the pets had been buried for years. Under the pear tree was Freedom—black-and-white cocker spaniel, ate herself to death one tragic Thanksgiving. Under the lemon tree was Herman—parrot, mimic extraordinaire, died at 20. Cynthia herself would be buried in the orchard one day, she’d told us all about it in a detailed journal.
We buried the dove under the second lemon tree and wondered if we should say a few words, so we cleared our throats and sang Amazing Grace very quietly to the fruit trees and the small carboard box. Then I dug a hole because I’d brought the spade, and we lowered the dove into the ground while Cynthia said, Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
Then we walked back across Freedom’s grave and I felt very quiet for the rest of day, wondering whether I’d dug the hole deep enough, whether we’d sung the right song, whether we ought to leave the door open from now on in case of any more guests.
Jessica Goldschmidt is a writer and choreographer currently living on Esselen and Ohlone land in Northern California. She’s a graduate of the CalArts Creative Writing MFA, and her work has appeared in Guernica, rivulet, and various spaces around New York which she hopes to see again soon.
featured photo by Jessica Goldschmid