A Bird in the Hand
It was right next to her garden. The local fat cat perched low to the ground, watching its movement in the tall green grass. He’d been just about to pounce when she came around the house, but he sprang, taking off into the neighboring hedge without his prize. Helen put down her gardening tools beside the blank bed of mulch she had sectioned off. The orchids she’d planted four months ago still hadn’t begun to poke their heads through the surface. Curiosity pulled her over to the moving patch of grass and she bent down to see what the cat had been hunting.
It was a bird. It’s feathers, too small to be an adult’s, covered its body in a layer of soft down. As she stood over it, the bird tried to flap its wings. Helen watched in frozen awe as the little thing flapped and flailed, then paused to throw back its head and cry out. Helen didn’t understand birds, but she understood pain. She scooped him up carefully in her gloved hands and rushed back to the house. She kicked at the front door, too afraid to drop the little thing to spare a hand to open it herself. Her husband came to the door, opened it and peered down at her, his eyes wide.
“What is that Helen?” he asked. He sounded slightly out of breath.
She pushed into the house around him and held out her cupped hands. “It’s a baby bird.”
He looked at it, tweeting and squirming in her grip. “It’s not a baby. It’s a fledgling. It probably fell out of its nest while trying to fly.”
She pulled the bird a little closer to her chest as if that could stop the crying. “I think that fat cat got to him.”
“Probably, looks like it’s bleeding a little on its left wing.” He placed his hands over hers. “Come on, let’s go clean it up.”
They went to the first-floor powder room and Helen watched her husband fill the sink with shallow warm water. He got his own pair of latex gloves and together they lowered the bird into the water. The first contact was chaos. It thrashed, only further hurting itself in the process. Helen resisted the urge to throw her hands over her ears as the bird’s chirps filled the small space. Finally, her husband got a solid enough grip to keep it from fighting. Helen watched her husband bathe the little bird until the water turned pink from its blood. He let her dry it, giving her instructions whenever she rubbed too hard or a distraction whenever her hands started to shake.
It was the first time, she realized, she’d ever been so close to her husband for almost a month. In the small powder room, she could feel his warmth, hear the steadiness of his breathing and she didn’t feel like running away.
Together, they dressed the bird’s wounds— a cut on its wing and a scratch on its leg. It had settled by then, no longer flinching from Helen’s touch.
“We should feed him,” Helen said. She couldn’t take her eyes off the creature, watching its chest rise and fall rapidly. If she placed her thumb in just the right spot, she could feel its little heart thrumming. “And we should give him somewhere to sleep. I read once that you should use an old shoebox.”
Her husband didn’t respond, and she looked up, meeting his eyes. She watched his Adam’s apple move up and down in a pronounced swallow; he always did that when he feared his own words.
“Helen, don’t go naming it,” he said. He kept his tone low and even, as if she were the frightened bird in the room. “You know we have to let it go as soon as it’s healthy again.”
Helen swallowed her anger and nodded. “I know.”
He watched her as if trying to read her thoughts. “It’s probably a robin. Feed it some stale bread. I’ll get a shoebox.”
Helen took the bird to the kitchen and pretended she didn’t hear her husband sigh when she walked away. She located the stale pieces of the end slices of their old loaf, moving with confidence and occasionally carrying the bird with one hand when she had to. She crumpled some bread and nestled it in her palm. The bird pecked at it curiously, then began to eat, swallowing large mouthfuls of the bread with rapid-fire pecks.
“Hold on Baby Bird, don’t eat too quickly.” Helen felt a smile on her face as she watched him eat and whispered it again. “Baby Bird.”
It technically wasn’t a name, at least not a suitable one. She convinced herself her husband wouldn’t mind. She fed Baby Bird until her husband returned with a box of twigs, grass, and shredded toilet paper, then lowered him inside. He seemed warry of his new home and moved the contents around until he was content, settling in his new home. She sat and fed him by hand, her garden tools forgotten until her husband brought them back inside.
“Why don’t you just leave some bread inside the box for it? If you keep feeding it like that, it’ll bite your fingers,” her husband suggested.
He moved when she didn’t, putting breadcrumbs in a small bowl and put it in the corner of the box. He put a lid on it with holes poked into the surface, then picked up the box and carried it away from his wife. She followed close behind him, calling out warnings whenever he started to tilt it or looked like he’d trip on the corner of their rug. He put the box on the family room table in a ray of sunlight.
“There, now it’ll stay warm for a while,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about it.”
“What if he moves around and falls off the table.”
Her husband visibly clenched his jaw and moved the box to the floor instead. “There. Completely safe.”
She nodded, satisfied for the time being.
“Come on, why don’t we cook dinner together.” Her husband touched her shoulder and slowly moved his hand to the base of her spine. When she didn’t pull away, he put an arm around her waist.
Helen counted to seven before moving away and made sure that she smiled. “Dinner sounds nice. Just let me wash up first.”
Her husband smiled, moved in for a kiss, then seemed to think better of it. Helen removed the gloves from her hands and made sure to seal every door and window as if the fat cat would somehow gain the ability to open them with his paws. Helen leaned down over the little shoebox.
“I won’t let anyone hurt you Baby Bird,” she whispered.
She smiled when she heard him chirp in response.
Helen and Baby Bird became inseparable over the next week, but she figured that her husband didn’t complain because she finally started sleeping in the bed with him again. She could feel him stir whenever she got up in the middle of the night to check on Baby Bird. She fully expected him to speak up when she added one of the knitted squares from the unfinished quilt to the corner of the shoebox, but he ignored it. He even indulged her when she asked him to hold Baby Bird while she strategically placed it inside.
Helen rediscovered the sound of her own laughter while she fed him, and his beak would clamp down on her fingers. The first time sounded foreign in her ears, a reflexive sound made to reassure her of the fleetingness of pain, but she learned to practice it, to keep up the appearance of happiness. Laughter helped while she would sit in the nursery. Along with the company of Baby bird, the room seemed a little less haunted. Helen almost didn’t notice the empty, half-dissembled crib or its box that sat in the corner until Baby Bird used them to practice branching. The face of the cardboard baby on the box was partially missing from where the adhesive had pulled away. It had been smiling once.
Helen didn’t notice the emptiness as much. She’d only watched Baby Bird hop around on his newly healed leg. When her husband went to work, she took the bandage off his wing too. He loved to sit by the window, so Helen opened it, but only because the screen was firmly in place. Baby Bird pecked at the glass otherwise until she complied, letting him feel the outside air in his feathers. She eventually realized why— his nest sat in the tree just outside their window, empty except for the old shells of his egg. When she noticed, she felt less inclined to open the window, scolding Baby Bird and making excuses about the room getting too hot if she let the Summer air inside. She’d tell herself that it was Baby Bird and not her that wasn’t ready for departure. So, when her husband asked about the bird, she said, “He’s healing,” then distracted him with the latest local news and events of her day.
“Miss Mack said that it’s not my fault the orchids died,” Helen said, poking at a slightly undercooked carrot on her plate. “She said it’s just the weather lately. It got too hot and wet too quickly. You just can’t fight nature.”
“No, I guess you can’t,” her husband said. He didn’t look up from his plate.
“I was thinking about getting some new plants soon, just to have something to do,” Helen added.
He managed a smile to soften his tone. It was about as dry as the steak his wife had cooked. Neither of them had ever been good at cooking steak, but Helen had insisted on it when she saw her husband set the chicken out on the counter to thaw.
“We wouldn’t want to insult our guest,” she protested with a smile.
“It’s a robin, not a chicken,” he’d replied.
But he’d laughed and settled for steak instead. Now, Helen watched her husband’s Adam’s apple bob up and down as he slowly set his knife on the table. She braced for the words that were about to come out of his mouth, but then Baby Bird started to chirp from their living room. Helen got halfway out of her seat when her husband placed his hand over hers.
“Helen,” he said, then paused long enough to make sure he had her full attention. “When do you think you’ll start working again?”
Helen slowly sank into her seat, frowning slightly. “It’s Summer. All the schools are closed.”
“Yes, but don’t you think you should try something. It might help if you ease yourself into working with the kids again. The daycare is hiring part time workers. You always loved working there.”
Of course, she knew that. She’d had a long conversation with Jill, the owner, on the phone and it was one of the many things Jill had mentioned. Helen watched her husband shift in his seat, trying to make himself seem as unconfrontational as possible. He started to weave his fingers into hers, but she pulled away.
“I don’t think I’m up to working at the daycare this summer. I just want to work on my garden.” Baby Bird started to chirp again, and she grit her teeth. She knew that if she got up from the table, she wouldn’t go back for the rest of the night.
“Okay,” he said finally. “I just wanted to make sure that you’re ready. Do what you want.”
His words said one thing, but the razor-blade in his tone pricked against her heart. Helen forgot how to make her husband happy for longer than an hour. She chewed the inside of her lip.
“Just promise me that you’ll think about it,” he said into the pregnant silence. “I’m going to turn in early. Are you okay to take care of the leftovers?”
She nodded mutely. “I’ll be up shortly.”
She listened to her husband leave the room, then ascend the stairs before she went to bring Baby Bird into the kitchen. She scraped the leftovers into the trash.
The daycare never crossed Helen’s mind in the days that followed, and her husband never brought it up again. Conversations at the dinner table became about Baby Bird. She started calling him that even to her husband’s face. She told him about all of Baby Bird’s firsts: the spider he’d caught in the nursery, the first time he’d clumsily flown from the floor and up to her outstretched hand, and the first time he’d come hopping over to her when she called his name. Clearly, Baby Bird was fully healed, but the storm clouds constantly looming over the horizon warded off all conversation of setting the bird free.
Soon Baby Bird grew the first patch of orange feathers on his chest. He was growing quickly, getting stronger and more confident in his flying. She liked to watch him circle the walls of the nursery, but he always came to rest in front of the window. Her husband was no longer fooled when she said, “He’s healing”. So, she started to spend more time with him to prove that she wasn’t too attached. She’d leave Baby Bird in the nursery with the door shut and a pile of birdseed to keep him quiet and fed. Her husband appreciated the effort and Helen realized that she’d missed her husband’s company. It was nice to laugh with someone for a change.
She and her husband had been cooking dinner together most days. They agreed that it would be best if they stuck to eating chicken. That evening she forgot about Baby Bird until she started to clear the table from dinner. Helen went to the nursery to check on Baby Bird after clearing the kitchen. She opened the door cautiously then slipped inside. Only, Baby Bird wasn’t flying around the ceiling or sitting in his makeshift nest in the crib. He wasn’t by the window. She’d left it open since the air outside had gotten cooler. A hole was torn in the screen that had protected them both from the outside world.
Helen felt a familiar emptiness again in the silence of nursery. She had no idea just how long he’d been gone. The blue walls swirled together in the tears that spilled down her face. She let them fall, let the silence wash over her until they went dry. Her husband tapped on the door and pushed it open, surprising her. He entered the room even more rarely than she did.
“You coming back downstairs?” he asked.
She nodded, not turning around to face him. “I just have to take out some trash.”
She cleaned up the birdseed that was still scattered on the floor. She piled everything into her arms, struggling to balance it all until her eyes hit the cardboard crib box in the corner. She dumped everything inside: the shoebox, the nest, the blue yarn. If her husband thought anything strange when she carried the oversized box down the stairs, he said nothing. He was waiting when she walked back into the house and settled onto the couch at his side. He slipped an arm around her waist pulling her close. They watched the smiling family on the screen, grinning while a voice-over advertised some insurance plan.
I would’ve been a good mother. She thought the words to herself at first then repeated them aloud, unsure if her husband could actually hear her. “I would’ve been a good mother.”