the alchemy of flight
BY ANNA ROWSER
The way our mother told it, our father resented birds. They flitted across the sky just to taunt him as he plodded each day through a maze of traffic, perpetually behind schedule, always more deliveries to make than time in the day. The mocking birds were the worst, keeping him awake spring through summer with their piercing repetitions when he needed to be up early to load his truck. Such animosity was a byproduct of his perpetual sense of needing to already-be somewhere. This sense was what kept him going until retirement, a shell of a human being, hollow-eyed and gruff, barely enough to contain our mother and keep her grounded here.
Soon after our father’s funeral, we cut the ropes he’d tied to the branches of the trees to shake them free of birds each evening. We reestablished the banished birdbath underneath the oak tree in back. A small bird with a black hooded cloak over a white underbody claimed it with smears of white dropped from his rim-side perch. A Black Phoebe, our mother called him. He sparred with the mocking birds, chased them off. Yet he allowed the doves, finches and sparrows to share the bath once they arrived, lording over them from a higher perch.
Our mother hung a birdfeeder from the shade structure over the patio. We brought her seeds and helped her fill it every few days, then daily, then twice daily, until she got another. And another. Soon the patio swayed with feeders like paper lanterns lining a pavilion as the birds landed, fed, balanced with flapping winds.
Our older brother brought cracked corn for the wild quail and long-tailed grackles with their black feathers shimmering blue in the sunlight when he visited; our younger sister brought millet for the pinkish-grey doves. I brought a standard mix of seed good for the typical sparrows and finches to orioles, buntings, California and Spotted Towhees. Our younger brother showed up with six tiers of perches along three long tubes filled with thistle. To our mother’s delight, this feeder brought bright yellow goldfinches bursting through the branches like bits of the sun.
She tended the feeders like a bonfire, never allowing the flurry of bird activity to fully die down. She topped off the safflower for titmice and cardinals as they tilted heads along the fence; black oil sunflower for chickadees, grosbeaks and jays, and the woodpeckers always tapping away in the distance; whole and shelled peanuts for the squirrels that now sat up and begged for them, a nut and fruit mix for robins, orioles, waxwings and the occasional stray parrot watching from the telephone lines. Alongside the hanging dish of mealworms, she placed crickets that would lose a leg or two when they leapt onto the cement patio, making them easier prey for the Red-Eyed Vireos and Purple Martins.
Our children were entranced by the flurry of activity. Our mother taught them the differences between sparrows and finches, ravens and crows, bluebirds and jays. She told them that bluebirds are the birds of happiness and that crows are intelligent creatures. She told them the fable of how the thirsty crow learned that little by little did the trick; only by the tedious task of adding one pebble after another did the water rise high enough for her to drink.
We helped our mother refill the feeders with funnels and scoops as seeds skittered under furniture and cabinets, behind the drapes. We helped her arrange crickets and tie small mammals with string. We swept the patio clean each day until drifts of empty shells built up around the edges and she had to demonstrate the proper swing, forceful enough for the husks to catch air, swirling like snowflakes, caught up around one another, settling into new drifts farther out. When the drifts grew to the size of sand dunes, we lost sight of the squirrels, but we could still hear them out there digging, digging, digging.
Our mother’s skin bronzed from all the time spent outdoors. She lost weight. Despite the wrinkles, she looked good for her sixty-ninth year. She stopped dying her hair, let it grow out silver, wound it daily into a bun. She put out mice for hawks in the morning, for owls toward dusk. She tied the rodents by their tails to the slats of the shade structure, their tiny hands and feet attempting to scurry through air. She tethered gophers on strings long enough that their feet just touched the ground. Herons and storks came for them, prehistoric on giant wings. Our mother watched them grab the rodents with their long beaks and toss them down their even longer throats. Then she’d snip the string. She’d let them go, despite the desire we pretended not to see in her eyes to hold on, to allow herself to be pulled along behind them.
I found her one afternoon, frozen in place on the patio with my two daughters. Doves perched on the girls’ wrists, pecking at seeds cupped in their hands. A mocking bird swooped at my mother, pulling out strands of her hair. She did nothing to stop it as the girls stood on either side, oblivious to anything but the doves on their wrists. I wasn’t sure why I thought of paintings of medieval kitchens, hanging pheasants and hares, only that I found this tableau unsettling.
As time continued moving forward, it became difficult for us to keep up with our mother’s growing demand. My sister rebelled at the mounting cost; our older brother got caught up with work; the younger one dropped off the map as he sometimes did.
I stopped by one summer after a camping trip to find the house smelling of eggs and bacon. Through the kitchen window, I watched a breeze push the feeders clacking together, empty, abandoned. Then the sliding glass door opened, and our mother threw scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, cottage cheese and fruit out onto the patio. Birds landed, took flight again as they snatched up every bit of it. Pigeons, mocking birds, crows.
No matter how often we restocked the refrigerator and cupboards, they remained empty. Our mother wasn’t just losing weight, but mass. Her very presence was shrinking. Her head and shoulders hunched inward, her hair thinned. Her arms became so light it seemed her bones must be hollow.
Then her make-up disappeared, her vast assortment of creams and scents, lipsticks and rouges she’d amassed over the decades, spread across her vanity. Next, the necklaces and scarves draped across the mirror above her dresser. All of her jewelry. Metal and stones glinted at me from the highest reaches of the oak tree, scarves dangled in the breeze. The space around our mother seemed to grow as the clutter disappeared from the entryway table, from the kitchen counters and farthest recesses of the dining room hutch.
I arrived one morning to a commotion outside, a flurry of flapping and shrill cries. My mother sat serenely on the bench as hawks surged at the books piled at her feet. They clawed the covers open, tore out pages; they perched on the roof to devour them before diving down for more. Pigeons picked at the shreds that fell from their talons. I recognized bits of childhood art projects, knickknacks long forgotten in dusty corners. Even these items left husks. I understood that when all else was gone the essence of our mother would be revealed, the kernel of who she was.
We heard wings rustle when our mother moved her legs. When she turned her head, we heard beaks working. When she spoke, we felt the husks swept up by the wind, gathering like snow in drifts so high they now covered the herb garden against the back fence, the ferns in the shady alcove in the side yard. Until we arrived one day to find turkey vultures perched in the oak tree. We looked to each other. “Mom!” we called, making our way through the house, scanning the spaces between the two sofas, the one coffee and end table left—anything she could have slipped between, fallen into. On the mattress where she slept, we found no indentation from her head, not even a pillow. Only a single strand of silver hair nestled against the fitted cotton sheet.
From the kitchen window, we watched the birds, still flitting, the squirrels, still digging. Somehow, we still expected to find her.