Snow White Syndrome: On Listening to the Birds

I had the dream again: the one where I meet my ex-in-laws again by some form of tragic accident– a flood, the apocalypse, earthquakes.  And we sit down to discuss the matter of me being not forgiven before the potential end of society.  Through a few indistinct words and mutterings, my ex-mother-in-law dutifully concedes to not hating me forever, and I am taken into a warm embrace by my father-in-law, who is now about a foot taller than I remember, and I cry and say I wish we had all been friends all along.  This is the way in which my brain has been telling me that I am tired of enemies.  This is the way my brain is telling me to take heart and to learn something.  This, and the birds.

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Like a purebred hipster, I have been noting the rotation of birds as I touch my feet from one ocean to another in these months with the pinprick of an idea to commemorate them in tattoo form.  This week, it’s orioles– the contrast of their bright mark to their otherwise ominous tiny crow exterior.  A few weeks ago, bluebirds.  Magpies consumed nearly an entire season last year (and maybe still do).

My father had a blue heron as far back as I can remember.  Early in the morning, I would catch him walking around the pond he had dug himself at our cabin in the Allegheny Mountains.  Swaggering slowly, he would stop, turn his eyes, and stare still and struck at the tallest dying oak that contained the heron’s perch.  The heron, responsive to my father’s courtesy, would arch its neck and showily circle into a dive in front of him into the water, gliding out with an imperceptible wink into the woods.  Occasionally, the bird would show itself as we sat watching from up the hill.  My father, the ringmaster of this prehistoric looking bird, would hush the crowds and speak only in whisper, narrating with the earnest anticipation of an Olympic games commentator pre-winning jump.  The concentration nearly ripped my guts in half before the heron, deeming the situation proper, would take its dive.  We would delight in its descent and applaud its catch, and then I would happily move on to trying to coax a baby deer into being my pet.  But for a minute, my father’s bird taught me silence.

To my father’s regal blue heron, I got myself a fluffy brown bird.

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My porch wren came back the day I cancelled my marriage subscription.  Her round, crouched body faced beak to the corner while her soft feathers fluffed into a mousy fur ball.  We had met the previous summer, when her first appearance got me up on a chair to take a closer look.  I named her Bird, and she named the ledge on my inner porch column her own through the summer until late in the fall.  She occasionally brought home a friend, a nearly identical wren who slept on the opposite column of my Craftsman house and erupted in a drunken flap when the front door would slam.  I named her Birdie, Bird’s louse-of-a-friend who was often kicked out of her parents’ apartment due to her taking to the bottle too often.  Bird was generous to Birdie’s crashing, and would occasionally scoot herself so they could share the same corner.  Heads together, tail feathers out.  How Bird could stand the boozey musk of Birdie all night was a mystery of loyalty.

My sleep had been dwindling by this time to nearly four hours a night, so I began leaving the porch light on to monitor my new roommates.  Bird was always responsibly in by 10PM and gone by 3AM– I assumed to get the worm.  Birdie’s sporadic visits generally began around midnight, but would dutifully leave when Bird did, hungover and begrudging.

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When Bird didn’t return the following summer, I was convinced that she knew– with the yelling and the slamming and the long nights of pacing, it would be nearly impossible for a bird to get a good night’s sleep at that residence, anyway.  I grieved my tiny companion’s absence, as I grieved being left alone by anyone in that house, as not even a set of Venetian blinds could cover up the crumbling mess inside.  Then, after the pen strokes were completed on the papers, a mound of cigarettes still smoldering and two empty glasses on the front porch table, she came back.  She left, again, the day before I did a couple of weeks later.  My humble fluff taught me the value of knowing when to leave, however gracelessly.

My friend Kelsey once old me that when an elephant falls down, she can’t pick herself up.  It takes the entire herd to turn and surround her to lift her to her feet.  Kelsey moved back to Michigan shortly after, as I nestled myself in the Blue Ridge Mountains to sort out my early 20’s.  That was when my mailbox took to filling with elephants, return address marked by the mitten state.  You have a herd, she was hollering at me through the U.S. Postal Service.  You have a herd, you have a herd, you have a herd…  

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And sometimes, I am finding, the herd is a bird.

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