A dead bird is impossible.
It is impossible to feel my own death before my own death. The dead bird, my own death, is impossible to touch, to pick up, to hold.
Yet, as a child, I often found dead birds completely intact, lying at the base of a building or under a tree as if frozen in time. Their feathers were still oiled and smooth, their glassy eyes were still open, and their tiny claws were still outstretched, reaching for something.
I discovered the strange borderlands between wild and house by hearing birds hit windows: their light bodies and tiny beaks dinging the glass in an unmistakable tone. I would later see some of their small, broken bodies on the ground below the window.
When standing before a dead bird, it became difficult to move or to turn away. How familiar and yet how foreign, this most beautiful being, this thing so impossible to catch and hold still while alive, now waiting there stagnant and hollow and within reach. But since I wasn’t meant to touch it, since it wasn’t my task in the world, I managed to back away from this death into my own life.
There were many birds I left behind. Later to discover, that someone else had taken them away. Whose task was it to usher these beings away? I deduced it was my father (just like a local fox or owl): the one who took out the trash, the one who took in the mail, the one who ushered things—life, and money—in and out of the house. I imagined he knew a special burial ground for them. For in my father’s world, everything had a place.
And after all, it was my father who had marshaled me in and out of nature; it was he who had led me to the edge of house and pushed me towards wild, saying, “Go on, go ahead.” And I’d enter the woods, the marsh, the lake, the field, as if the universe had opened its hand up especially for me. My father would sit outside with me sometimes on the periphery, smoking a cigar in a lawn chair, watching me and the birds move across the horizon. Wild was my other house—my solace from the human dramas contained between the walls of our Massachusetts colonial on Pond Street.
When I went outside to play at my childhood home, I would begin and end my adventures laying on the ground, as still as I could, only listening and looking. I wondered who the land was, and what it would tell me if it could talk. At first, it all seemed so dead under my living, breathing body. I was hot and it was cold. Or I was shivering and it was stable. But after a few minutes, we would synch up, and I could feel it breathing too. Our temperatures would align, and we became extensions of one another. I even thought I felt the world slowly spinning, both of our bodies in the universe whirling in one large inhalation. Sometimes I would close my eyes and spin in darkness until the movement became too fast and centrifugal. I would open my eyes, gasping for stillness, with my hands grabbing at the earth. Out there in the darkness, in the galaxies behind my eyes, things broke and spun out of control all the time, but there was room for that in there.
Whose body was this?—where birds hit the window and fell to the pavement leaving a bloody streak and a beak mark on the glass; where the hedgehog burrowed in the soft soil beneath the tool-shed; where the wild blueberries and the last of the lady slippers mingled with the new tropical flowers; where the snapping turtle blocked traffic; where the shouts of my parents could be heard up in the treetops and roused the birds out of their roosts? What a messy dream-head hurling through the cosmos.
I went outside not only to connect with the world, but also to get away from the inside of my house, so far away that I could no longer hear the arguing of my parents.
When their fighting became too much to bear, often past dusk, I would run into the yard, then to the threshold of the woods. Breathing in the sharp, cool air of evening, my body palpitated with emotion. In this place between our house and the woods, I could still faintly perceive the exhausted shouts of my parents. As my eyes adjusted to the blackness, the forest seemed far less primitive and frightening than the primal anger and cruelty that filled the building called home. I’d run outside for safety, knowing that the knots in the birch tree were eyes; that the moon had eyes. The world had eyes made for watching over me that did not belong to God. And this was an important distinction for me, even as a child. No matter how unknown I was to myself, these wild things would always know me. They could always see me and know me, and I could always see them and know them, and we would honor one another’s existence. And we didn’t have to say a word.
In summer when I ran outside, the sounds of night creatures flared around my ears, blaring out all human noises. Wilderness slowly replaced the phantom sound-memory of screaming that appeared in my head like tinnitus. There at the threshold of the woods I would wait, at the place where the lawn met the path, where the white dogwood tree created a flowery arc, like a doorway, glowing under the moon. This was civilization: here in the land of badgers, mud, and night-crawlers. Here in the woods was a balanced kingdom of kings and queens all—not the zoo of oppressed people clawing at each other behind closed doors.
Sometimes, I’d go to my own little house that my father built. It was a special place just for me, a miniature replica of our colonial. I thought it was a secret, the solace I found there. He could not know how fierce my loneliness was, though he had built the place for it to live.
It smelled of sweet pine sap inside my little house, because I kept a small apothecary. I’d wait in there, to slow down life, breathing in the smell of the wood and my mixtures of organic matter. I had blended my tinctures and crushed my herbs in the bronze mortar and pestle that once belonged to my Grandmother Agnes. I stored the potions in small glass bottles and bowls on the shelves inside. When other children hurt themselves at play, they would come to my apothecary. I would clean the wound, put a salve on it, and wrap it in soft rabbit-ear leaves that I tied with twine. We would rest together in the cool shadows of the little house and then I would remove the cure, rinse the wound clean, and tell them to let the air heal it.
One June morning, I rose at dawn to the sound of my father raising a ladder against a tree. The sun strained to burn off the ground-fog that lingered over the dew-wet grass. I went to the window of my bedroom to watch my father climbing his ladder. It was fifty feet to the highest bird box. His right hand nodded with the tiniest paint brush, touching up the cranberry red sides of the little bird house he had built, an even smaller version of my own little house. He rested his body against the ladder that now and then wobbled under his slight movements. A tinkling of metal came and went from his keys clanging against the aluminum rungs.
I could almost see the strain in his face, his brows tense and knotted and his mouth tightly pursed. Now and then he grabbed at a red handkerchief that ruffled out of his back pocket in order to wipe his brow. When finished painting, he placed the wooden brush in his mouth, holding the handle between his teeth as he slowly descended the ladder. When he arrived at the bottom, he lowered the ladder down, carried it under the porch, and then emerged again with a hammer and nails. So began the first thump and reverberation of the work being done on our big house—only after the place for birds had been perfected.
He had begun to pack before the rest of the family had even started to think about it. My parents separated when I was ten, and my father would move to Norwood, returning to the same house in which he had been raised. I wanted to go with him, but when the lawyer asked me who I wanted to live with, I knew the most practical thing would be to stay with my mother—the one who’d be best able to care for me as I grew into a woman—though the boy in me wanted go where dad was going, where I knew wilderness was always accessible.
Even before I knew what to call my father’s drinking, I had forgiven him, for I believed he was the innocent one—that he had the broken heart. I layered my heart onto his heart, and cast out my mother as the wrecking-ball. In reality, it was a mutual breakdown. All was good and all was evil, all at the same time.
Flawed though he was, my father had been the one to unwittingly provide me with a place to go when I could not bear him or my mother, or the monster they created when they were together. It became easy for me to shut my eyes and leave behind the inside, because the outside, the wild, would always be able to adopt me. So I had to forgive him, for he had given me an out.
The house had formerly been strewn with my father’s things, his collections of Audubon prints, paintings, nature books, and bird decoys. He had collected miniature hand-painted lighthouses, model ships, blue glass bottles, oil lamps, and more. I had learned about the outside from the inside first. I had learned about him, by looking at his things. I remember sometimes even being frightened by the realistic dark stare of the fiberglass trout mounted on the kitchen wall, its limp mouth hanging open so perversely.
I saw my father pack all these things gently into boxes, wrapping them in newspaper and masking tape as we prepared to leave. The antique cobalt-blue glass bottles were the last things to go for some reason. They sat on the bedroom windowsill, bright clean tokens in the emptying house. I imagined that I too would someday start my collection of blue bottles when I was old.
He eventually packed them carefully on the last day. I asked him if I could have one and he said no with a scoff. But I replied with a smile, “Can I inherit it when you die?”
He looked at me over his glasses. “They’re all coming with me to the grave.” Then he laughed and said, “Already thinking about when I’ll die?”
Smiling, I replied, “Yup, just counting the days at this point.”
We talked about dying often, always with laughter following our words. Did he want to be cremated and have his ashes scattered, or did he want to be buried, and if so, where? He changed his mind every time we talked about it. At first he wanted his ashes scattered into the Atlantic, and I liked that idea very much. I said I would do it for him. But as the years passed, less laughter followed our words when we spoke about our dying, and he became more inclined to being buried next to his parents, Agnes and Eldon, in Norwood.
I told him if I died before him, I wanted to be buried in a pretty white dress, and that I wanted my body put directly into the soil, with flowers all around me. Then I wanted him to plant a tree over my grave so that I would decay amongst the roots, and the roots would grow through my skeleton. I would live another hundred years in the form of a tree. A tree where birds could live. He laughed and said, “Is that so?”
I had thought so much about our dying. It was almost easy to do.
It was summer, and I went outside to find my father, but instead I found a dead black-capped chickadee lying on our driveway beneath the bay window of our dining room. I stared at it, and I could not move. Chickadees were my favorite bird. Its little boot-black eyes reflected my face, white and watery. As I looked at it, I wondered what that little bird had seen in its short life. It had probably seen more life and death, more violence and more joy, than I had ever seen in my whole time on earth. And I wondered if it knew what it saw. And as I knelt down to touch it, I saw a trail of ants snaking in and out from its broken wing, and I knew that it had known and understood everything it saw and more.
I looked up to the glass window, seeing as the bird had seen: the reflections of the white pines shifting in the wind across the way. Our house almost occupied an invisible veil in that shifting light, in that certain place. Anything, even I, would kill myself unknowingly, to get to the other side of the forest.
My father had either not seen the bird, or had neglected to hide it away. His mind had been preoccupied, I knew, and his attention had turned to caring for the remaining aspects of himself at our house on Pond Street: painting the shutters on the house, tending to the bird boxes, neatening up the landscaping for curbside appeal. We were, after all, planning on selling it to another family soon.
As I looked down at the little bird, I felt perhaps it was my turn to be the undertaker. But how do you bury a bird? Do you build a small coffin out of a shoe box? That seemed irreverent. Do you leave it for the hawk, fox or coyote to eat? A dead bird—where did it belong? Surely not on the hot black pavement of a summer day where it would swell and burst and beckon flies.
Where to let it rest in peace?
On that hot summer day, I chose to take care of the bird myself. Its migration would not end on the pavement. I put on my father’s gardening gloves, picked up the bird in my hand, light as a feather, and carried it to my apothecary. There I treated it as I would any wounded child, wrapping it in rabbit-ear leaves, tying it up with a string. At dusk, I took it to the pond behind our house to let it be at rest in the water. I sent it off like a tiny ship sailing on vacant bones. I watched it float towards the center of the pond, stop, bubble, and sink as it became saturated with the brown pond water. Nearby, a snapping turtle popped its head up, creating rippling circles on the surface. The peepers sang, chiming like little church bells. I sat on the mossy bank trying to think of some prayer. But of course it was not God watching us, but the trees, and the moon, and the other eyes of the world who understood I drowned my child-self that night. There was no judgment, only infinite patience. That was what the world gave me that I could not find in people: unhurried time. I promised them all that I would return.
When my parents officially divorced, we sold the house to a young happy family. The day we left I had to say goodbye to the places I loved at our house. I had to say goodbye because I had to acknowledge I had been known and I had known. I had to say I love you. Naming and knowing the parts of the place that I loved was like naming the parts of myself that I loved, and seeing them as dying living things that all one day would fall apart and go.
I said goodbye to the mossy hill that sloped into the pond where I had sunk the bird, and to the soft decaying logs en route to the hill that were hollowed out and cold inside. I said goodbye to the teepees I had built, tall cones of long branches that remained unchanged through the seasons, even as the nearby vernal pool rose and fell. I said goodbye to the black swamp covered with skunk cabbage, the creek, the pond, the swing-set that gave me splinters. I said goodbye to the edge of the forest, the crossing-over point where possibilities emerged for me.
I said goodbye to those red maples whose leaves were so purple they looked black as old blood; and to the Japanese cherry tree that was slowly corroded by caterpillars, its black oozing scars creating gnarled scabs—for all these natural forms were once appendages of my own body, humps on my back, moles on my skin, hair on my head.
I said goodbye to the two blue spruces in the front yard. My father had planted each one to represent the births of my sister and me. I said goodbye to my birth and my sister’s birth. I said goodbye to the soggy wooden steps that led up to the front door from the driveway, and to all my imaginary medicines that fermented into wine on the shelves of my apothecary. I said goodbye to my father, and I did not stop. I said goodbye to my father every night he was not there.
My little house smelled of rot the day I left. I cleaned out all the plants and salves and potions I had made there, scraping and pouring them onto the gravel underneath our porch. But still that little house would not be empty of me and my wild cures for weeks to come. I cleaned it the best I could. Then because there was nothing left for me—of me—I had to leave my mark of territory. I had once reigned in this kingdom of loneliness—and it was mine, and it was wild.
I stretched out my claws, and opened wide my boot-black eyes.
I carved my name in the threshold. On the wooden beams of the ceiling. On the panels in the door. I carved my name in nearly everything I could.
“Birds Have Eyes”… demanded to be read. By this I mean that I read it early on and was moved…then I put it aside and read the others over a week. But my mind kept returning to this one. Then after I finished reading the others I took “Birds Have Eyes” again and headed downstairs to give it another look. I didn’t even make it downstairs. I stopped halfway down the stairs, mesmerized once again by the simple beauty of this piece, and then I sat down on the stairs and by the end, I’m a little embarrassed to say, tears were flowing. I’m not particularly sentimental and this writer isn’t sentimental either. But she knows how to tap into raw grief and lyric beauty all at once and just sucker punch you. I’m still moved by this piece and will be for a long time. I want to read it again.
—Robin Hemley, 2009 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Judge