I had always been afraid of birds. The way they screech into the sharp sky, display their talons like trophies, unfurl their wings and fly. How they move gently through the air as a simple breeze, but crack harshly against the earth each time they land. At 21, I spent most of my time alone in my dense apartment uptown, near the trees. I reveled in the space between me and others, the freedom of the forest. Fell in love with talking to myself and hearing only the rustle of branches as a reply. The fall proved to be the best time of the year. When the birds flew south and the bugs holed up from the cold. I wore sweaters to class in the morning, changed to a t-shirt by noon. I loved autumn, the soft in between of two extremes. I enjoyed each season as much as possible, each providing their own sense of beauty, but fall held its place in my heart. When winter hit and it snowed too hard, I pulled the covers tight and bundled myself away from the cold, refusing to accept it. Although friends and family questioned me, I refused to explain what the snow did to me. The way it took pieces of me each time, how most years I never got them back.
As my college graduation in the spring drew near, I searched for places to live alongside the water. Where the waves rolled in and out, and I could be alone amongst the sea. First, I had to finish my Bachelors in English Literature and Forensic Science, and then the ocean beckoned, telling me stories about the snow never settling upon the ground.
Each day, finals edged closer. I struggled with the concept of my senior thesis. Assigned a poem written out of true undeniable love, without the cheesy displays and predictable stanzas. This pulled at me, as I had made a life of simplicity, alone without loneliness.
Out of nowhere, I understood there was a noise waking me in the early hours each day. A dull hum in the back of my dreams that edged its way in before my alarm clock struck. At first, I believed fear and stress were pushing me to the edge, my own brain sabotaging me from ever escaping the constant build up of snow. As each day passed by, the understanding of this noise became more and more clear to me. It was a bird. What type, I would never be able to identify, but its noise unnerving me all the same. I laid there, each morning, in and out the depths of my sleep hoping for the bird to fly away into the sunrise.
As finals inched nearer, the less sleep I got. I became angry at this bird. I nicknamed him snooze, an ironic stab in my own back. I dreamt of BB guns in my hands, rocks thrown from the window, the cessation of this animal's existence. Anything to dull the noise and allow me a few extra minutes of peace.
Abruptly, I awoke one morning. The time flashed much past my alarm and I felt my cheeks flush with anger at the bird. This bird who woke me up each morning, the one who pulled me from my dreams and stuck a harsh reality into my life, was nowhere to be found when I needed to leave on time. Anger floored me as I rushed to get ready for the day. About 20 frantic minutes later, I sprinted down my stairs, still wet from the snow melt, and ran toward my car. Moving as quickly as possible without slipping, I noticed a twitch in the small layer of remaining snow to my left. Subtle, almost unnoticeable, but I was a woman who noticed those that often went unseen. I slowed down, still headed to my car, but glanced out of the corner of my eye at the unknown. A plastic bag, caught in the wind, I assumed, and unlocked my front door. As I threw myself into my ‘06 Jeep Liberty and started her up, I noticed a flap, a flurry, a hand grasping for help. With a heavy and deep sigh, I sat for a moment, considering my life and all that I hoped to be. I dreamt of a future where I would write stories about those who had died, provide justice and closure for their families, where two dreams became one. When I looked at someone, or something, inherently in need of help it was not in my nature or my conscience to ignore them.
Reluctantly, I pulled my tired self from the car, drug my feet through the shallow layer of snow, until I came upon a bird. He lay there, as white as the snow that covered him, hints of black harsh against the ground. Vigorously, he flapped one wing, the other still and unkept. His soft song, no longer a tune, but a scream. Pain flooded through me as he flapped to get away from me, bounced alongside the muck and the mud. Struggling with all he had until finally, a stillness I had never encountered before. Only the rapid rise and fall of his chest, the uncontrollable nature of the breath.
Longingly, I wished to soothe the bird. I grasped my favorite hat, pulled it from my head, gently wiggling it underneath his tiny body. Chills shuddered through me. I was afraid of the flapping of his wings. I was terrified of hurting him. I was frightened of him. Gingerly, I picked him up, and when he resisted he slipped from my grip clattering to the ground in more pain than before. Tears sprung in my eyes and I knew that I needed to do more. I needed a box, or something better to carry him in but at this point I did not want him to feel alone. Instead, I took a deep breath and held it. I picked him up firmly and carried him into the bathroom of my apartment where I set up a shoe box home for him to rest. With water in an old soap dish, bread crumbs soaking inside of the shallow end, he had a place to call his own. Before I left for class, I turned up the heat and went about my day. At that point, I spent the remainder of the day deciding what to call my newest companion. Research told me he was a black-capped chickadee, but my heart and his old soul told me he was a Rupert. Rupert Gray, I would call him, because his plume bled together in places, turning him to ash.
When I got home from class, he had sat up, still nursing his wounded wing. I made a name tag for his box, and sat with him until he let me pet his tiny scalp. Immediately, I loved him, simply because I knew him. I played soft music throughout the apartment as I made dinner, got ready for bed, and finally fell asleep. Knowing my sweet friend would appreciate the sound of a hymn.
I awoke the next morning and he was dead. Stiff and still he laid there in his box, almost asleep. His name, covered in plume. I sobbed silently, alone. Until I mustered the energy to write all I needed for my final senior thesis,
I glance quickly away from the Chickadee on my desk.
He lay there, across two slats.
Waiting for me to run my fingers along the curvature of his scalp,
down the length of his spine,
caress his flowering wing.
Awaken him softly.
Early morning, I drifted into a hymn,
the beating of wings.
Pulled from sleep by unfamiliarity,
he fluttered there,
his outside looking in.
Eventually, I mustered the courage
to push him to his feet.
He hopped along the wooden top,
stunned that he had made it.
Flew frantically away,
towards the trees.
For the next few days I find piles of dark feathers in the hallway.
in the midst of the black and gray plume, an organ.
Too small to know which one,
too unsure to determine its purpose,
too removed from the body
to give it a name.
Later that evening, I took Rupert Gray out to be buried alone beneath the tree he frequently woke me from. I wrote his poem on the nicest paper I could find in my cheap and unmeaningful apartment and wrote in perfectly beautiful cursive for him. I drew his name in soft ink, the first and last time it would ever be written. I hummed a hymn as close to his as I could recall and lit the paper on fire. I placed it upon the ground, waiting for it to thaw the earth as the sun slowly sank. My toes ached in the cold evening and the few tears I had froze against my swollen cheeks. It felt like hours before the ground softened, and even then, I could not get below an inch deep. Angrily, I threw my fists upon the dark icy ground, sobbed in frustration and sadness. How I longed to give this creature one meaningful thing.
As my tears flowed relentlessly, I felt the strange sensation of a stare upon my back. At first, just unease, but then it grew rapidly to fear. I whipped around, flashlight fluttering in my hand, and there sat nothing. I was utterly and completely alone.
The next day I returned to the box, and the cold undisturbed ground, to find it ransacked. My sweet chickadee's body was torn apart by scavengers looking for a simple snack. The shattering of my heart was loud, echoing against the never ending forest. Sitting there in disbelief, the feeling of eyes washed over me yet again. Searching around, I finally settled on a pair of large, yellow-green, eyes glimmering from above. They looked into me, and blinked softly in recognition of who I longed to be. I couldn’t help but stare at her large terrorizing talons, notice the way they gently held my Ruperts empty carcass. The old barn owl looked at me a moment longer, cocked her head to the side, and simply flew away. With the chickadee in her grasp, ready to help him return to the world in the only way either one knew how.
For weeks after, I felt the loneliness of loss. Imaging my future with this friend in need had ached me in a way I was not familiar with. Until one morning, I glanced out my window and there she sat, silently in my Chickadees tree. We looked at each other softly, until she turned her attention to the hollow bore of the tree where three tiny owls sat, nestled into their home of tiny bones and twigs. Relief flooded over me, as I knew Rupert Gray was exactly where he longed to be.