It is morning, and misty, the windows filmed with a kind of fog. Outside the birds, wakeful, are calling. The little fledgling we brought home last night is calling too, sitting on the window sill, calling to what he cannot see, but knows is more his home than the inside of this house.
What to do with the poor fellow? He is too young to be on his own, but plucked from the grass by exuberant boys, sure they were rescuing him, he is now an orphan of circumstance.
He is black and has a noble, arched beak like a crow, and the tiny wrinkled eyelids of a very old man. He is strangely tame. He sits on my finger and looks intently at me as though he is trying to make out what I am about, and he makes an incredible amount of racket when he is hunger. Perched on my arm in a sunbeam, his little wings beat the air and he speaks so urgently I feel compelled to answer, but neither of us really understands the other’s language. I feed him and leave the room. He waits on the window sill.
When I return later in the day, there is a blackbird feeding its baby in the lilac bushes on the other side of the glass, only a few feet away. My little bird cries and tries to fly against the windowpane. His wings are getting stronger -- I can’t keep him inside much longer, he is a wild animal, and he knows he doesn’t belong here.
It reminds me of my youngest brother and my mother’s tears when he got his drivers license. The world is a thrilling and dangerous place for those old enough to know what they want, but not what they need.
So, the next day, I set the little bird out in the garden, which has a pretty high fence, hoping he’ll stay in the boundaries where it is safe. Like my brother, he is over the fence in an instant, flying and falling his way up the leaves of an old, drooping elm. I work in the garden for the rest of the afternoon hoping he’ll come down and let me feed him, but he doesn’t. He stays high and hidden, calling to the birds he sees passing over my head.
The next morning, more storms, more heavy rain. By midmorning the clouds lift a little, so I go hang laundry on the line. I listen for his voice, but I don’t hear it. Instead, I find a grotesque graveyard of four fledgling corpses -- the same size and breed, roughly, as my blackbird. The cats, no doubt. Sometimes the circle of life isn’t very wide I think, grimly, turning them over with the toe of my boot, wondering which one was mine.
It turns out, none of them were. Hours later, I pass the old shop on my way to the chicken coop and I hear a familiar voice, loud and demanding. It’s my fledgling calling me from the shop’s roof.
I am not scared of heights, but I am scared of ladders. Especially old ones that are not tall enough to reach the desired destination. Unfortunately, that is the only kind we have, so I lean it against the tin of the shop’s walls and start climbing. My baby bird hops towards me and lets me feed him a few bits. Two blackbirds fly over and land in the pine trees beside us. They call to him. He calls back. They inch closer, still calling. He is eating food from my hands, fluttering wildly, I am leaning, top heavy, and nervous, trying to play mama bird. He gets his fill and hops away; I back down the ladder. Everyone is relieved. The two adult blackbirds fly away.
Later, I hear him through the kitchen window calling out, the hungry baby cry again. I climb the ladder, thinking it is more than twice as stupid to do this a second time. He leaps towards me, then away. I reach out to him, he hops onto the sharp branches of the pine, then back to the roof. He is attracted, he is repelled. I stand wobbling. It is hot now, past midday, and the clouds are high, the sun bright. The melting tar of the shingles sticks to my hands as I lean against the roof for support. I wait awhile. He hops to the eastern edge of the roof, the farthest point from me, and waits too. When I finally crawl down, he comes back and watches me over the ledge, head cocked, one bright eye turned toward me, one turned away.
Evening descends misty again. I am digging in the front garden and the rocks hold the heat of the day, but the soil is dark and cool. I am planting coral bells and bleeding heart thinking of my grandmother’s garden, wondering if the tender leaves will get burnt by the high desert sun. My sweetheart comes home and we talk, my hands on my hips, dirty to the wrists. He is tired, so am I. I tell him of the baby bird. I am weaving the whole story, pointing to the ladder that still stands leaning against the shop, trying to make him laugh, my arms reaching out as I wobble, pretending to feed a baby bird that doesn’t know I can’t fly. That’s when we hear a familiar sound in the chokecherry branches arched over our heads. The little bird has followed my voice across the yard. Down he flies, landing on a low branch just beside me. He lets me lift him to my hand and feed him, his feet clutching my finger, his wings beating like a hummingbird’s. He eats wildly, nearly choking as he chirps, his voice muffled by food. I can’t fill his mouth fast enough. I joke with my sweetheart -- he avoids starvation only to die of suffocation! -- but on the inside I am thinking: thank you. Thank you for letting me feed you. I am not the mama he wants, but I am the one he gets, at least for a little while longer, and it feels like grace to be a part of this small gesture.
I think of my brother again, and of the high school kids I used to teach, everyone in such a hurry to be grown. We all leave the nest eventually, and the soft hands that long to cradle us. That is as it should be. I’ve learned so much about love through caring for animals, but perhaps the greatest lesson is this: it is as much a gift to give care, as to receive it, but it has to have limits or isn’t love. I am guessing this little bird will find a new flock to fly with soon, and he won’t need me anymore. It’s bittersweet to know you’ve done your job well by getting left behind. So it is with any little fledgling once it’s released into the big world. Teenagers, artistic endeavors, friends or family members who struggle with addiction, all these things need a chance to grow beyond our grasp eventually, though it can be unbearably painful to let them go.
“Let go and let God” is a phrase that means different things to different people. To me it means watching a baby bird perched high in the treetops, a silhouette against a glowing, rose-colored dusk, knowing he is not safe, that I can not protect him any longer, but that all the safety I could provide would not have given him what he needed -- the chance to hold the breeze with his own wings, to see the world from an angle only tall trees can provide.