Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What I wanted, what I did not

For years now I’ve cast covetous eyes on the topside of our lateral file cabinet. Our back office is narrow—eight feet at its widest, six at its narrowest—so space is rare and precious. I really can’t complain as the room seems customized for our computer desk and file cabinet, with setbacks perfectly sized to their dimensions. Along the back wall is another desk, a smaller cabinet, the rabbit cage and a dictionary stand that doubles as a reference library. The east wall contains a pantry and two more bookcases. It’s tight but cozy.

At least that’s what I tell people. What I tell Lori is completely different. “Let’s knock the back wall out and extend the house twenty feet so we can actually move around in here,” is my usual refrain, and it sounds like an excellent plan until we consider the cost. At which time we’re back to thinking cozy.

The lateral file cabinet is four feet long. On top of it sits a bird cage large enough for a resplendent quetzal or a cockatoo. Buying it was a serious case of overkill considering what it was intended for—a pair of diminutive zebra finches, one gray-striped and orange-cheeked, the other snow white.

These were not our birds but belonged to our youngest son. When he was taken from us after a violent act they became, in essence, all that remained of him. They became our wards. My first act was to increase the size of their cage in order to give them more freedom to fly. I’m sure Freud would have found a deeper meaning in that, a fact which only now rises to the surface.

I’m not sure birders make good companions to captive birds. There’s that wild versus captive aspect that must be dealt with, and depending on the intensity of your birderness it can either be rationalized or insurmountable. When I was banding birds in Colorado, one of the leaders vehemently made it known that new species were not countable on our life lists because of their captive status, however temporary. This distressing bit of news came out of a comment I’d made about a dusky flycatcher we’d snared. After his vociferous fulmination on the subject I further antagonized him by claiming the flycatcher after releasing it back into the wild. He had no ground to stand on and knew it. I’m positive the humorless bastion of self-righteousness neither owned birds nor countenanced their keeping.

Some exotic birds make better companions than others. Parakeets and parrots, for example, are sociable and enjoy interacting with people. Zebra finches do not. They’re hyper and standoffish and are ideal for someone who wants as little contact as possible with a pet. Fish are no doubt similar but don’t sing which is a strike against them.

To this union a third was added. We named her Snowy on account of her plumage. At first she was a joy, curious about her new surroundings and gusty in her singing, and then after a while she was merely a third zebra finch demanding food and water.

When we moved here the finches rode with me in the front seat of the Ryder truck. By then we were back to two, the mother having passed on. Since Lori followed behind in our car the birds were my only companions for the better part of two days. We conversed as best as we could though admittedly I did most of the talking. For the most part they remained safely ensconced within their nest box with an occasional meep or grumble about a rough patch of road, and when we drug them into the hotel room the male, Greystoke, strutted out and yammered on at great length how he was going to kick everybody’s ass and give us more food and water right this instant, damn your eyes.

When we arrived at our new old home the lateral file cabinet was snugged against the south wall and the birds went on top. And there they stayed, year in, year out, singing, preening, eating, bathing, flying to and fro in that vast interior space that was only a ghost of true freedom, and otherwise ignoring us.

In May 2003 Lori asked if I’d seen Greystoke lately. I had but couldn’t say when. Her words filled me with dread. I looked in the cage and saw Snowy, but not her father. A tap on the side was usually sufficient to roust him, but there was no activity in the nest box. I reached into the cage and removed the box; inside, Greystoke lay against one wall, a desiccated fluff of gray feathers. Such was our relationship with the birds—so little notice taken that one lies dead for who knows how long before we even notice. Guilt got a lot of mileage out of that one.

As books and tech gear piled up in the back room I envied Snowy her space on the file cabinet. I envisioned all the things I could do with it, and not just once did I consider setting her free. But the cruelty of the idea sickened me and I wondered what kind of man I was becoming.

This past week Snowy collapsed in a heap and struggled to rise. I removed her from the cage and held her while she gasped for air. She weighed almost nothing, an insubstantial puff whose history inextricably linked us together and to another time and place. Within moments she stiffened and was gone.

I’m accustomed to the whir of wings, both inside and out. Sometimes it feels one and the same. The flutter of movement, a soft susurration of birdsong or birdcall, a chip, a meep, the rustle of feathers, the splash of water—these things have been an inherent part of our Kansas adventure since we moved into our century-old house on the edge of a prairie town seven-and-a-half years ago.

I now have the extra space I so wanted. I’d rather have the bird.


Anonymous said...

Sadness with several smile-causing lines in this piece about loss. I'm sorry about your son.

...and the bird.

It's amazing the space that grief consumes.

Another touching column, Tom. Many nice lines here.

Susan said...

A very nice story. My condolences on the loss of your son and the bird.