"Like this." Leslie touches the yellow beak of a baby bird and immediately the beak opens. Dropping in a bit of mush with a pair of plastic forceps, she says, "Don't worry about choking. The glottis closes to protect the lungs."
The bird, a robin, is only a few days old, nothing but a scrawny gray lump with a gaping beak. The raw need appalls me.
I recall something I read once about baby animals. Young reptiles are self-sufficient. They come into the world as tiny replicas of their parents and are quickly on their way. Baby mammals are helpless. To ensure they get the care they need, they are born cute, irresistibly so. But what about baby birds, helpless and ugly at once? I look at the knob of its head, the bulging eyes, still closed. What compels a mother bird to raise this frightful thing?
Like the other chicks at Cedar Bluff Bird Rescue, this tiny bird is an orphan: incidental damage. Maybe its nest blew down, or other birds drove the parents away, or the mother succumbed to a predator, most likely a house cat. That's what brought me here. My aging gray tabby killed a dove, the only bird slow enough for this rare event, which made me feel awful, and so I came here the next day and made a donation. One hundred dollars seemed like reasonable compensation for what my cat had done, though it felt odd to think of it that way. The last time I was in a pet store (I can't go into them anymore), I walked up to a cage of parakeets and peered at their blunt heads, their bodies colored like Easter eggs. They were on sale that day, twelve dollars apiece, two for twenty. For the cost of a movie and popcorn, you could buy a life, an exotic one at that. Your own little fraction of Australia to enjoy for years to come. Twelve bucks.
"You'll know when they've had enough," Leslie explains, "though there's bound to be one or two gluttons in the bunch." The volunteers, mostly older women, laugh. They listen closely to everything Leslie says, not wanting to make a mistake. They watch her hands, her posture, the way she moves. They barely breathe.
"If a chick won't feed, we probably can't save it. Sometimes they've had too much trauma. Chicks this young are always on the edge." She drops in another bit of mush. "Less than a third of baby birds survives their first year—most are lost in the first few weeks."
We absorb this information, our faces serious. Someone asks what sort of food Leslie is feeding the chick. "Mostly kitten chow," she says, "soaked in water, and we add a little hard-boiled egg and chopped-up mealworms. At this age, you'll be feeding them every twenty minutes, dawn to dusk—which is why we need all of you."
Leslie is a strapping woman, around fifty, I'd guess. She has a thick silver braid down her back, a squared-off jaw and a hair-trigger smile. Her glasses have green frames and sit halfway down her nose. Her hands are large, her nails short. So far, I like everything about her.
When she took my check last week, she thanked me and then pointed to the Baby Songbird Clinic sign. "Orientation is this Saturday. We need all the hands we can get." She beamed at me. The smile was impersonal, involuntary, a wide-open welcome to the world. Doing right by this woman was the only way to go.
I signed up for the last shift, five-thirty to eight-thirty, three nights a week. Leslie was glad I took that time slot as most people want to be home in the evening. It makes no difference to me whether or not I'm home then, particularly now that I'm living alone. Right after Christmas, Jane moved out. I had changed, she said, and the gap between us was widening. "We've been together six years," I said. "Of course I've changed. You haven't?" She pursed her lips at this and looked out the window. You can't argue your way back into someone's heart, and so I let her go without much more dialogue, assuming she had found someone else, which, it turned out, she hadn't. That stung. For a while I wondered just what it was about the new me that Jane could no longer abide, and then I stopped because I didn't care enough, which of course proved her point. I wound up admiring her gumption.
My day job is not taxing: I purchase specialty foods for a high-end market, Babo and Tabani. Perfumed, well-coifed reps come to my office with their rolling cases of pomegranate honey and smoky onion mustard, and I decide which products land on the shelves. Once a year I go to a vast food show in Atlanta and wind my way through a sea of displays, stopping, tasting, moving on. Nothing prepared me for this vocation; anyone can do it, and don't think I'm unaware of the luck involved in sampling over-priced condiments for a living.
At the end of these breezy days, a few hours caring for baby birds is not too much to ask, and the clinic ends in mid-August. I do the feeding when I get there, and after that I make more formula, or smooth down the tips of the forceps, or line plastic nests with paper towels. The sides of these baskets are sloped as in nature, enough to keep the chicks safe, but not so steep that the birds can't defecate over the sides. This impresses me: baby birds, blind as bats, knowing to lift their tails so the nest stays clean.
In another part of this facility are the bigger birds: owls hit by cars, crows shot from the sky, vultures sick from lead ammo. I won't go into those rooms. I can't.
Megan, my younger sister, is a lawyer. And a marathon runner. And a violinist. And a sculptor. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that she has learned Mandarin, or taken up fencing, or invented a novel way to clean up marine oil spills. She usually pauses before she speaks and what comes out of her mouth is flawless and considered. People pay attention to Megan. She's smart alright, but what impresses me even more is her quiet avidity. She is like a leopard resting in a tree, still and keen at once.
Megan and I are on the phone, talking about the songbird clinic and the efforts involved in raising orphaned chicks. I picture her on her sofa, her slim legs curled beneath her, her lambent gaze focused on some elegant object in the room.
"I don't know how the parents do it," I say, "how they find all the bugs they need. And here we are dousing our yards with pesticides." This last distressing thought has not occurred to me till now.
"There doesn't seem to be as many hummingbirds this year," Megan says. "At least not here." Megan lives in a spacious home near Seattle, along with her husband Lyle and their two Great Danes. "You know, I don't recall any songbird clinics when we were kids. I guess we've lost the luxury of letting nature take its course."
"Yep. It's all mop-up now."
"The condors are coming back," she offers. This is a habit of hers, setting a bit of hope in front of me. "I just saw a program on them. There were once twenty-two left, but the latest count is around four hundred." In my fashion, I ignore the latter number and focus on the first, wondering if the condors knew it too, if their scarcity alarmed them. I picture this last group, huddled on the edge of oblivion, and I am sick to my stomach.
"Callie, it's wonderful what you're doing," Megan says. "Do you like it? Are you sublimating your maternal urges?" I can see her smiling.
I reflect on this. "It does make me think about how much power I have." I summon the rows of plastic nests, the birds lurching inside them, the frantic way they depend on what can't even see. "Here is this creature, smaller than a lemon, but it's a whole life. It's got the same force"—I grope for a comparison—"as a blue whale."
"Do you save most of them?"
"Yes—if they're strong enough to begin with." I consider the birds the volunteers never see, the ones that come in sick or hurt, the decisions that Leslie must make each day.
"You'd love Leslie," I say. "She's the program director. She's got this big booming laugh, and she's always telling people how well they're doing even when they're not." I offer an example of this, a nervous girl with shaky hands and the way Leslie calmed her, and then I describe Leslie's looks, her long braid and green glasses and easy stride, and Megan says:
"Sounds like you're sweet on her."
This brings me to a stop. Am I? Wouldn't I know this? Do forty-one-year-olds have crushes?
"I don't think so. I admire her, that's all."
"Oh no," says Megan. "The dogs are after something in the backyard. I gotta go."
"Okay. Call me next week."
I set my cell phone on the counter and summon up Leslie's image, waiting for a clue, a subtle, telling thrill. Can you lose the knack for love? A few days after Jane left, Megan reminded me that being alone had its compensations, that now I could fall in love all over again and what could be nicer than that? The thing is, these last four months haven't been terrible; they've been... restful: no need to make conversation, no worries about disappointing someone, no obligation to agree on menus or movies or dental products. If I do wind up falling in love again, I hope I'm up for it.
This morning I was having coffee on the deck when I noticed a spider web, about the width of a grapefruit, strung up between two of my potted vegetable plants. Three minute strands stretched from both sides, anchoring a tightly rigged web of breathless perfection, each miniscule partition exactly the same. Sitting in the middle of this web was an auburn spider the size of a pea. If the light had come from a slightly different angle, if I had not been looking that way at that instant, I would have missed him altogether and my world would be unchanged.
Nothing had flown into his perfect web, at least not recently, and I wondered if he was hungry and how long he went between meals, and if every web he made was this exquisite, and if they were all productive or if some webs proved worthless, and if a spider could become disheartened. A tiny movement on the periphery turned my attention to another bug, a green beetle with black stripes crawling out of a yellow cucumber flower. Knowing these beetles are trouble, I plucked it from the plant and held it between my thumb and forefinger, regarding the waving twin hairs of its antennae and the tiny hooked feet. It was nearly the size of the spider, and I thought what a feast it would be. I looked from one to the other. Here was the problem, here the solution. I could help a beneficial species and practice organic pest control at the same time.
Still, I had to get up the nerve to toss the beetle at the web; I was half hoping it would bounce off. It didn't. It stuck fast. In a blink, the spider shot down the web, seized the poor thing and stilled it just like that. Expertly, rapidly, the spider then began wrapping the carcass, enfolding it in sticky strands. In less than ten seconds, the beetle was a white mummy, and the spider, more leisurely this time, returned to the center of its web.
I've crushed more than a few troublesome bugs under my shoe, and I'm not sure why this death was so disturbing. Maybe because I trespassed, bullied my way into a place not designed for me, used another innocent creature to do my dirty work. How can I apologize? God was the only witness.
A lot of people think that only some birds, like ducks, bond with their caretakers. Wrong. Birds that can walk from birth are most susceptible, but all birds—all animals, in fact—imprint. Basically, they decide what they are during the first few weeks of their life; whoever feeds them is what they think they are. Because of this, we're not supposed to hold the chicks or have any contact with them beyond feeding; we're not even supposed to look at them too long, or from above, if we can help it—baby birds have predator fear and they don't like being peered down at. We're also cautioned not to talk loudly or use our cell phones. Another factor is heat. We use heating pads under the chicks without feathers, but the room is still kept very warm, and this is a challenge for some of the menopausal volunteers.
So many things can go wrong with baby birds. Beyond drought, storms, predators and chemicals, there are hazards you'd never guess. Everything has to be just so, even the bottom of their nests—too smooth and the chicks' legs and feet don't get enough support. They wind up with something called "spraddle leg." People who try to raise chicks at home don't know this. They bring us these birds that can't walk right (Leslie calls them "swimmers") and want to know why. Also, people forget about giving the birds branches to perch on, or they give the birds branches that are too narrow or too wide, and the birds don't learn how to grip.
Lots of times the parent birds will discard their sick babies, nudge them right out of the nest—not a pleasant image, but that's how nature works: no looking back. People find these luckless chicks and bring them to us as if something can be done for them. People also bring in perfectly healthy birds, fledglings learning to fly. That's the mistake we see most often, and it's a shame because many of these birds die of stress, cornered in a shoebox, on their way to a rescue they never needed, while their parents are trying to find them.
I live in Napa Valley, which is not as romantic as it sounds, given the clogs of tourists, the sulfur spraying and the pre-dawn roar of the wind machines, but the beauty is a fair trade, and I'm not complaining. The vineyards turn lovely colors in autumn, and the clouds above them add to the splendor, especially when hawks are riding the thermals. Vultures like it here, too. On winter mornings you can see them lined up on the fence posts, six or seven in a row, spreading their enormous wings to the sun, ground fog rising around them.
From the deck of my apartment, I can see both sides of this valley, the green mountains to the west and the pink rocky hills to the east. There's some reassurance in this. I can't imagine living on the Great Plains, infinity on every side. All that time you have to watch a storm barreling down, knowing there's no escape.
I pay more for this apartment than it's worth (another drawback to living in this valley), and without Jane's income I have to be careful—not that I've ever been extravagant. I drive an ancient Honda Civic, and I hardly ever travel. Whatever clothes I need for work, I buy at discount stores. I got rid of the flat-screen TV after Jane moved out because the three hundred channels were not worth the cost of the cable. I do have a cell phone and a computer, both outdated, but I'm not going to upgrade till I'm forced to. What I would like is more money for animal charities, which is something Jane and I had started to argue about and one more reason I don't mind living alone.
Another thing I didn't realize about baby birds is that they are born knowing how to fly. They don't need encouragement; they just need room. As soon as they have all their feathers and are eating on their own, we take them to the flight areas. There are three vinyl-screened aviaries at Cedar Bluff, and the young birds flutter around in them, trying out their wings and competing for food. In about two weeks they're ready for the world. Some we release right here; others are let go in areas that need re-populating.
I've seen Leslie free some of these birds, and she's just like a kid—all whoops and smiles, waving madly as they take to the sky. "Go be great," she yells, or, "Have a good life!" Watching her, you can't help smiling—at least I can't. That expression, to "get a kick" out of someone?—that's Leslie to a T. Her wholehearted laugh, her mismatched clothes, the flyaway hair around her face, the way she sometimes reaches out and squeezes my arm when she's talking to me. I haven't seen anything about her that isn't rock-bottom real.
Turns out she lives close to where I work. She says she walks over there now and then, that she adores the cheeses, and she told me I must be quite the gourmet, buying all that fancy food. I told her I wasn't, that as far as condiments go, looks matter more than flavor, and people will buy anything with a cheeky name and a little raffia. She laughed, but it's the truth. God help me if I ever start taking my job seriously.
In the mail this afternoon was a card from Megan, a photo of an old woman on a park bench feeding pigeons. The message read: "All that matters is what we do for each other." Inside the card was a check to Cedar Bluff Bird Rescue for five hundred dollars. I looked at the check, smiling, loving my sister for the way she writes. Her handwriting, like everything else about her, is small and precise. I picked up my phone.
"When I grow up," I said, "I want to be just like you."
"Not now you don't," Megan said. "One of the dogs just threw up in Lyle's office. Guess who's cleaning it up?"
"Yuck. Those dogs keep you running, don't they? I hope they're worth it."
"Oh they are. Absolutely."
"Should I call back?"
"No need. I just finished. Time for some wine." I can hear her heels clicking across the kitchen floor. "So, why do you want to be like me?"
"I got your card today. Wow, Megan. That's going to feed a lot of beaks."
"Good. And you'll be happy to hear I bought a bird feeder, too. And a bluebird house. You see the power you have? I'll probably turn into one of those rabid bird watchers. Camo jacket. Ugly hat."
I laugh at this image. "You might."
"How's it going at Cedar Bluff?"
"We're starting to wind down. But I've been putting in a lot of hours, covering for other people."
"How much longer does it last?"
"Another couple of weeks. But there are things you can do after that—maintenance, fundraising, computer stuff. I might help out this winter."
"Interesting," Megan says, her tone teasing. "This wouldn't have anything to do with Leslie, would it?"
I say no, telling her that it's all about the birds, and it is; I want to help. But I did notice something last night when I was getting dressed to go to the clinic: I tried out three shirts in the mirror before I picked one. Beyond things like checking my teeth for food, I don't spend much time in front of mirrors, especially since Jane left. I think I need to be better about that, maybe spend a few minutes each day primping. Like my sister: Megan would never let her appearance lapse. I don't want to wind up like some wild-haired hermit, which is a risk you run when no one's looking.
Not all baby birds can eat kitten chow. People bring us pigeons, too, and they eat what their parents regurgitate. We feed them a special formula, using syringes, and we have to do this slowly and make sure we don't overfill their crops. And because the formula hardens like cement, we have to be careful about washing off their beaks and necks afterward. The trade-off is they don't need to be fed nearly as often as the other birds. I think I like the doves and pigeons best of all, the good-natured way they meander around. And their cooing. Such soft, bubbling notes, as if they arise from a musical instrument, as if these birds were put here to calm us.
I worry a lot about the pigeons and doves we release—they spend so much time on the ground, and they don't move quickly. We need to make sure they're eating well and that they're preening, which we encourage by misting them with water. After we've done all we can, we take these faultless creatures to a park and hope the world makes room for them.
Megan may be right. When Leslie asked me this afternoon if I wanted to come by her place sometime, I felt my neck get warm.
"Sure," I said. "When?"
She grinned, shrugged. "How about tonight? I've got some of that wicked cheese you sell, and some wine." She pulled a container of bird food out of the microwave and tested it with her finger. "You can follow me from here if you want."
"Great," I said, beaming at the pin-feathered robin in front of me.
Leslie lives in a cottage in her landlord's backyard. It is a wooden structure half-covered in vines, and when you look at the arched door and the wavy glass in the windows, you expect to find elves inside. On the porch is a collection of pots from which various plants rise and droop, and over the doorway is a plaque decorated with a line of crows and these words: Primitive Gatherings.
Leslie pauses, her hand on the doorknob, and looks at me over her shoulder. "You don't mind dogs, right?"
"I love dogs," I assure her, which I do.
"These two won't attack. They might not even get up."
She pushes open the door, snaps on a light and we walk into a cozy living area that holds a maroon velvet sofa, a burl wood coffee table, a bookcase and two dog beds. On the far end of the sofa is an end table and a lamp with an amber mica shade. The room is cool and smells like deep woods. One of the dogs, a stiff-legged Jack Russell, rises from his bed and hobbles over on his three legs. "That's Kevin," says Leslie. "He needs to smell you." Kevin eyes me carefully, then sniffs my feet and ankles. In a moment, the stub of his tail starts to wag. "You pass!" she says.
"And that's Molly." The other dog, a brown Chihuahua, studies me warily from her bed. "She's okay, a little more nervous than Kevin. They're both rescue dogs."
"How old are they?"
Leslie leans close and whispers. "Old. They don't like me to mention their ages." She turns, beckons me with one hand. "Follow me. You can pour the wine."
We walk into a tiny kitchen brimming with food: potatoes suspended in wire baskets, bananas browning in a big chipped bowl, dried herbs dangling from the rafters, grains sitting in glass jars. The countertop is a great slab of wood; the white sink, big enough to wash a collie, is old and streaked with rust. I think of my own kitchen, everything tucked away, the glossy granite counters, the stainless steel sink, no sign of food anywhere.
"It's kind of messy right now," Leslie says, pulling packages of cheese from the fridge. She stops, looks at me, lets out a laugh. "Hell, it's always messy!"
"I love it," I say, almost fiercely. I do. I wish I lived in a place like this. I look at the window over the sink, the plants rooting in tiny jars. I want plants like that on my windowsill.
"There's red wine over there," she says, nodding toward a shelf to my left. "And I have Pinot Grigio here if you'd rather have that."
"The Pinot's fine," I tell her. Leslie opens a cupboard and takes out two wine glasses. I pour the wine, and she unwraps some packages of cheese and sets them on a plate, along with a fistful of seeded crackers. "I live on cheese," Leslie says. She pats her hip and grins. "Can you tell?"
We move into the living room and Leslie sets the cheese tray on the coffee table.
"Have a seat," she says. "Not much choice here, I'm afraid. But I like it. It's quiet, and my landlord's a dream."
I settle onto one end of the sofa and Leslie drops down on the other. Kevin is back in his bed, but Molly comes over quietly and lies on the braided rug, resting her chin on Leslie's foot. On the wall in front of us are two photographs, both of young men, one laughing and waving from a canoe, the other looking up from a book.
"My boys," she says, and points to them. "Danny and Joel."
Danny is blonde and broad shouldered; Joel has dark hair and a solemn look. Of course Leslie would have children. I never wanted children, not for a minute, and I'm surprised at the number of women who do, who relinquish themselves so easily.
"Danny looks like you," I say.
"He does. And Joel looks just like this father. Ted." She reaches for her wine. "We're divorced. Good friends, though."
"How long have you lived here?"
"Four years. Since I got back from Costa Rica. I was there for nine years."
"Nine years! What were you doing in Costa Rica?"
"Ted and I heard about this animal sanctuary there, so we went down to help. It's a spider monkey rehab." Leslie reaches for a cracker and smears it with a soft cheese. "After a couple or years, he started missing the States, so he moved back, and I stayed on."
I look at her a moment with quiet amazement. "What was it like, taking care of spider monkeys?"
She takes off her glasses and rubs her eyes. "It's hard stuff, Callie. I've rescued all kinds of animals, but primates are different." She pauses and looks at me. "They're like us, their sounds, their movements, their needs. The first one you hold, you see that. It knocks the wind out of you."
"Why do they need rescue?"
She frowns. "The power lines, mainly. They're being strung up everywhere, and of course the spider monkeys think they're vines. Sometimes just the mother gets killed, or injured, and sometimes the baby too, at the same time. It's awful."
I tear up at this and for a moment I can't talk. I look down at the rug. "I don't know how you did it," I murmur, "how you could see that every day for nine years."
Leslie shrugs. "It's more than wound care. You have to discipline them. Sometimes you have to leave them alone so they won't attach, so they can be freed, and they don't like that. They don't want to let go of you." She leans forward and puts her hands on her knees. "We did manage to release quite a few of them."
I lift my palms in a gesture of helplessness. "They're still putting up power lines, right? Did you give up? Is that why you came back?"
Leslie stares at me a moment. It's an expression of regret, one I've never seen on her. "I got tired, Callie. I didn't give up. I never thought that what I did didn't matter. The monkey you're holding—that's the one that matters. Just like the songbirds."
I shake my head, loathing myself. "I could never do what you did. The birds are hard enough."
Leslie regards me, her expression softening. "Lots of people can't, Callie. They come to monkey rehabs and leave a few days later. But when they get home, they start writing checks, and we need that as much as we need caregivers—more even. Do you think Cedar Bluff would be there without the donations we get?"
This makes me feel a little better, and I offer a slight smile. She reaches across the sofa and pats my thigh.
"Takes all kinds, kiddo," she says. "But enough of that." She picks up her wine, leans forward and clicks her glass against mine. "Cheers."
We look at each other, a look you can't name or pin any hopes on, a look I've shared with a thousand people, on the street, in a store. A connection is all it is, the briefest acknowledgment that this is common ground.
Title graphic: "Sing" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2013.