THE OAKLAND HILLS BIRD SOCIETY OF AMERICA by Suzanne Barnecut
SAHARA, STRANGE CREATURE SHE IS, has decided we’ll go birding. She knows what a bird is, but in a casual, somewhat abstract way, as a live thing that zips through the air on rare occasion. If you spotted one, you’d point to the gray, dimming sky and ask, “Did you see that?” You’d wonder where the bird was coming from and where it was going next.
Sahara’s theory about bird-watching is that the more we look for birds, the more we’ll find. As though by taking an interest the avian population will multiply. As though our feathered friends are merely hiding, and are not extinct or endangered, vanishing as rapidly as their habitats. “Which kinds do you think we’ll see?” she asks.
“Oh, it’s anyone’s guess.” My home sits on the crest of a hill. From my living room I can see the sky for long distances and everything below: miles and miles of suburban spread, the bridge, and the bay itself. It used to be that I could see all the way across the water to the city skyline some forty miles off, but the air is too polluted now for that. I rarely see birds, if ever.
Sahara heads for the kitchen and I hear the familiar sound of cupboards opening and closing. Soon she produces a tray of sliced apples and peanut butter, and a small bowl of honey. She skins the apples, thinking of my teeth and says, quite unexpectedly, “We should form a society of birders.”
A society! I feel a rush of gratitude for the way some things never change, that the world in many ways still resembles itself. Children roast marshmallows over campfires and women soak in bath tubs. Fruit and cut flowers are still available, although technology and necessity have changed the way things are grown. There are more hothouses now, gardens on rooftops and in warehouses. I can remember the honey bee epidemic, when there were calls to orchards to hand-pollinate fruit trees by dipping toothbrushes into cups of pollen and touching them ever so lightly against the flowering buds. By the following spring, scientists were able to cure the bees and they went back to doing their job. In some ways I thought the same would happen with the birds; they would evolve and multiply once again.
“I love it,” I answer, “A society.” As we eat, each of us ruminating on our private thoughts, there is only the crunch of the firm fruit. In the old days, you didn’t call an apple anything other than an apple, unless it was a Granny Smith or a Gala, but now I had to order Organic or Non-Organic or Genetically Modified. It really got me, the way I had to pay more for the same kind of plain old apple I ate as a child. It used to be that food was simply food, that tomatoes, say, had been raised in soil, after seeds had been scattered, after a good rain. It makes me feel immeasurably old to think this way, but I wonder: When a harvest could be had year-round, what does one look forward to?
Sahara’s world is so different from the one in which I matured. My youth returns only when she visits. She’s still on the young side of fourteen, with a sharp mind and an unusual love for reading. Her childlike tendencies, I suspect, will soon be replaced with teenage insouciance and disinterest.
The sharp honk of a car interrupts us. It is my daughter, Dana, who rarely comes in to say hello.
“She’s early,” Sahara says, frowning. She collects her belongings and leans in for a kiss. There is the softness of her lips on my forehead, her loose jacket brushing my arms, and then, in a moment, she is gone and the room feels changed. It is as though she takes the air with her.
Most days I am ready to leave this ball in space, but never on the days I see her. You’ll see how this feels when you are wheelchair-bound, when you have a radiant granddaughter who finds life enchanting.
I watch their little car zip down the hill, always traveling too fast, and remain at the window for some time. The sky is gray, the air is gray, the sun is missing.
In the days that follow, I spend hours rifling through my bookshelves, whiling away whole afternoons. The delicate pages of old books are artifacts of my past self. There was once a time when I collected books on birds. I was older than Sahara—maybe twenty-five—and it was because I found both the birds and the books to be beautiful, with their illustrations or photographs. In my childhood, flora and fauna were everywhere. At any given time, standing on the street corner waiting for the bus, there was a blackbird or common house finch mid-flight or balancing on a phone wire (those ancient things), or there was the sound of a pigeon cooing in an eave—and loudly when it happened to be your eave. Sometimes you only heard the rustle of wings from a nearby tree, the bird itself a kind of phantom.
I thought of birds as being superhuman. Such small beings that traveled such long distances. How wonderful, of course, to be able to fly. How marvelous and freeing, instead of being bound to these old legs. And I loved the way they related to one another; birds were social, affectionate, curious, bold.
Some had human tendencies—practicing monogamy, for example. Some fell quite literally in love. They also seemed to have a capacity for grief. In my early thirties I kept cockatiels—the only time I ever kept an animal caged—and when Charlotte died, Mayhem stopped eating.
Birds could also be protective mothers, but at some point, like all of us, they had to let their children go. Probably they never saw their offspring again and so if Dana kept any contact at all, offering me the tethered string of her daughter, I should be so grateful.
In one old tome I find my wedding invitation stuck between the pages like a bookmark, made of a thick white cardstock and printed with the silhouettes of small birds in black ink. Love birds, I guess, was the idea. I had forgotten the invitations completely and upon seeing one, holding it in my palm, I ache for Henry. I never imagined I could live so long without him, and yet here I am.
Henry died of colon cancer, which was commonplace and often survivable. To Sahara, he was nothing but a figment, a person known by photographs: a wide smile like hers, but with a gap in the teeth, his brow only beginning to wrinkle. Here I am in my eighties, while her grandfather, in photos, is a spry-looking 62. We seem a wildly mismatched pair, unless you saw the earlier, younger photos of us together, put away in books somewhere, too hard to look at. Henry is to Sahara as the birds—fictional, rumored, legend, gone—even though the signs of his life are still around, his desk untouched after all these years. Or rather, touched. I had gone through every last paper or drawer over time, but I never dismantled anything. It comforts me to see the artifacts of his life as they were. Sometimes I feel pride at all his collected and beloved objects, until I feel, again, the shock of him being gone.
I make a small pile of books and leave them in a corner. On days Sahara visits I wait for her by the window and watch for the ways in which she is similar to me. They are there: her seriousness, her half-smile, her interest in birds.
When she arrives, the windows of her mother’s car are always down, the music loud. Sahara usually applies lip gloss after kissing Dana’s cheek, and before coming inside. Her long, thick hair, a golden color, lifts in strands and flies around her face, sticking to her shiny lips. She is a healthy, thick-boned girl with skin the color of honey. Although she lacks a particular grace, she is cheery and hardy in nature, like me.
Dana had been more delicate, more like her father. She was prone to illness and easily frightened or discouraged. She was a hard child for me to understand. After Henry died she visited often, but then less and less frequently, as though at first she needed to be near things or people associated with her father and then not.
I knew when Sahara was still in Dana’s womb that she was special. I had never been so excited for a child to be born, not even when I was pregnant myself. I had hated pregnancy while Dana had loved it. She liked the discomfort, said that all the feelings—the indigestion and heartburn, the back pain, the nausea—reminded her that she was alive and that she that was a woman. She had a way of being so affected. When I was pregnant with her, I felt not myself instead of feeling more myself, but I knew it would pass. When Sahara was born, Dana cried not because she bore a daughter but at the sheer miracle of birth, its very possibility.
Also, with her fragile way of being, she had complications and too much bleeding. She was a little old in the first place, nearly forty, and getting pregnant was maybe an accident, maybe not. She had an on-again, off-again boyfriend (who did not come to the hospital), who was the sort of smart, artistic person who had a lot of opinions about how the world should be. He didn’t believe in procreation, for one thing. The world was already over-crowded. This was something he had in common with Henry: a clear, succinct way of explaining scientific matters. Maybe the only thing Henry would have liked about Frank was that he thought natural disasters, plagues, pandemics, and so on, were necessary solutions to the world’s overpopulation. It was part of the natural process for people to die.
They had not chosen a name for their child. Dana was waiting to be inspired after seeing Sahara for the first time, but she’d gone into surgery and then was on morphine for several days. So I signed the birth certificate. I’ll tell you, I tried to consider what Dana might have wanted. It was just a name, anyway, something that could be changed later.
“A name means everything,” Dana protested. “It will shape her. She will become it. The damage has been done.” But I thought even then that Dana liked the name and disliked only that I had chosen it.
Sahara arrives with a pair of very old binoculars slung around her neck. “Look what I brought,” she says. She bends to kiss my forehead, and the binoculars dangle between us and bump against our chests. She also has a sketchbook and colored pencils and, of all things, a whistle for calling birds.
“Where on earth did you find that?”
“Thrift shop,” she says, smacking her gum. “I’ve been busy.”
“Apparently.” I show her the stack of books I’d unearthed.
Our first foray into birding society—for all I know, the only one on the planet—is successful. We see hundreds of glossy, colorful birds on the cool pages of my books. I have a collector’s edition of John James Audubon’s Birds of America, an anniversary gift from Henry. We run our fingers over the fine ink, and read little facts out loud.
“Did you know that ravens take evening flights,” I say, “just for kicks?”
“Did you know,” she says, “that hummingbirds hibernate every night? Spanish explorers called them Joyas Voladoras. Flying jewels.”
Later I pull from my closet (with Sahara atop a stool, grasping at boxes while I call out from below), a feathered hat. It is Victorian; I found it at a consignment shop long ago and had worn it only once, to a themed party. In her hands the feathers begin to fall out. She examines the firm, hollow end of each shaft.
“We used to find stray feathers all over the place,” I say. “At the park or the beach.”
“What did you do with them?”
“Why, nothing. They were so common. Usually, if a feather had fallen out, it meant the bird was sick or dying. The feather might be dirty. But sometimes we stuck them on top of sand castles, like a flag.”
“You know they still make feathers, right?”
I sigh. “Yes. I know. But they are acrylic.” They are made for costumes, and manufactured in China. She stares blankly, not understanding that a thing called a feather cannot actually be a feather because it is not from a bird.
The feathers she collects from the hat—brown, white, striped, the beautiful blues and greens of a peacock—she makes into a bouquet in her fist. Unexpectedly, she lets them drop, and we watch them flutter to the floor in delicate movements. With their sheen, the feathers flash and shine and sink and float.
“Hmm,” she says quietly. “Pretty.”
We are less successful when we place ourselves at the large picture window with the binoculars. While we wait, Sahara points to a picture of a Red Mongrel. “Maybe we’ll see one of these.”
“No,” I say. “Look where it’s from. China.”
“Maybe it lives here now.”
Perhaps it was possible that, for survival, birds had migrated and settled in new locations, as people did. Maybe it was possible to see anything now that we were looking. I hand her a field guide to California birds. “These are the birds I grew up with. If we’re lucky, we’ll spot a sea gull.”
When I was much younger—after the Cold War and Vietnam, but before all the others—there was a version of myself living a simpler life. I remembered being a child in an ordinary, rectangular school yard. The blacktop was painted with hopscotch squares and during the lunch hour the yard was circled by sea gulls, foraging, having already learned to like cheese puffs more than sardines or albacore. The gulls swooped down for a piece of bread, inside of which was hidden an Alka-Seltzer pill. The bird would eat the bread there on the pavement, and then fly off. Minutes later it would drop from the sky as the Alka-Seltzer erupted in its small stomach.
Why it was funny to see a bird dying, I don’t know. It probably wasn’t, but children learned the hard way, and they laughed when they were expected to laugh or when they wanted instead to cry. I remembered standing on the edge of a circle gathered around the bird, feeling the cruelty but not speaking out. What a waste to imagine those birds as inexhaustible and replaceable. How foolish we were. I remembered, too, how we all, as schoolgirls, shrieked and ducked for cover when a whole flock swarmed overhead, vulturing for food scraps.
“Do you know what a ‘flock’ is?” I ask.
“A group,” Sahara replies without skipping a beat.
“Good girl. But do you know what a flock of birds looks like, flying in formation?”
She makes a V-shape with her index and middle finger, the old sign for “peace.” She has seen pictures in books, or watched old Nature specials on TV. There are plenty of people my age who want, desperately, to record the way things were, and to talk about them. The more you do that, the more people aren’t interested, just as in my own youth, my grandparents’ fear of cellular phones, the Internet and DVD players seemed remarkably silly. Their phonograph is as extinct now as the parakeets of the Amazon—nearly all varieties, gone.
I wish Sahara knew what it was like to see a flock of birds in formation, the way they swooped, carried by the air as much as they navigated willfully through it.
The sky is clear except for the blinking billboards and Lear jets, all of which cannot be mistaken for anything else, and Sahara seems bored.
“We should start a life list,” I suggest.
“We make a list of every bird we see. We can start with the ones I remember.”
“Alright. I guess.” She opens her notebook to a clean, white page and pauses for a moment in thought. “Our society needs a name.”
I laugh out loud in surprise.
She eyes me warily and suggests, “What about: Bird Watchers United?”
“Or: A Couple of Old Birds.”
She wrinkles her nose. “No, that’s lame. No offense.”
We brainstorm a list of names until eventually we are laughing because they are all so stupid:
A Beak in the Hand;
Bird by Absent Bird;
Birds: Come Back, We Miss You!;
Finally we settle on something plain: Oakland Hills Bird Society. Sahara records this, along with:
April 22, 2048
Oakland Hills Bird Society
A moment later we add: Oakland Hills Bird Society of America. I am aware, in the middle of this beautiful moment, that Sahara will someday look back and not remember our conversation, the details of it, the knowing looks that pass between us. I will also miss our afternoon together from wherever I go next, as well as many other more important moments of her life. How unfair it is that I won’t get to see how she turns out: what she’ll look like as a woman, to know her children, or the ways in which she’ll impact the world. She will marry one day, in a church or under the open sky, without me.
I look down at the sketchbook and hope that when she gets to be my age she’ll re-encounter our notes. In her memory she might forget that I am wearing blue, myself like a Blue Jay, white crested, or that she, in her salmon orange tank top, her young breasts like small, pert mounds, and her fingernails painted a garish, chipped red, is like a toucan. But she might read the name of our society, and the list we have yet to make, and smile. It will be something that we did together.
“Now it’s official,” she says.
“I suppose I have to pay dues?”
She smiles and shakes her head, no. I always slip her a hundred when she leaves. I find places to put the bills while she’s in the bathroom or the kitchen, in the pockets of her purse.
When Dana comes blazing up the hill, I say, “Why don’t you ask your mother to come in.”
Sahara shrugs. “I’ll ask, but I doubt she will.” She takes her purse when she goes outside and leans into the driver side window of Dana’s car. I see my daughter frown, listening and looking straight ahead, staring right at me, although there is glass between us, her windshield and my window. Then Sahara shakes her head, and blows me a kiss goodbye. Soon enough their car disappears back down the hill. It has been three years since all of us were together: a wintertime choral concert in which Sahara sang. The kids’ voices were high and sweet, and off tune except for one little boy who had been gifted with an astonishing set of vocal chords. He sang a solo in French, the kind of thing that makes you take a deep breath because something inside hurts. Afterward we all went out for ice cream, and Frank even came.
All the focus on birds has somehow overrun my mind with memories. Henry and I once had some Victorian birdcages we used as decoration in the living room. Henry was a scientist, and our art was often something like framed diagrams of plants. There was one of a cherry blossom, each part drawn separately and looked at alone: the pistil, the stamen, the ovary—which became, eventually, the seed and fruit. We had butterflies pinned in boxes. Lampshades and carpets printed with the patterns of leaves. Old bottles in odd shapes and vibrant colors, magnifying glasses, and any scientific instrument from antiquity that Henry could get his hands on: a phrenology head, journals of medicine, books for reading dreams. And of course there were the birdcages, which were mine, because I liked their intricate pattern of wire and wood, the small doors that opened and closed, the swing from which a bird could perch. I used to tie ribbons down the center of the cages to add color, or put candles in the bottoms to watch the patterns of light and shadows as they were thrown around the walls.
When I notice that Sahara has left her sketchbook behind, I begin working, in my shaky hand, on the life list. It will pass the time. I want it to be more than a list, because how can Sahara know what some of these birds were like, or whether they were common or rare, unless I explain?
Such marvelous, unusual creatures—pink feathered! Long-legged! They were like beautiful, awkward teenage girls. Flamingos were native to somewhere else—Florida, maybe—but I saw them at the zoo sometimes, loitering and preening in puddles of murky turquoise water. Perhaps those birds, flightless, had memories of where they weren’t (in humid climes, under palms), or perhaps they were born at the zoo and never knew they belonged anywhere else. I always wondered. People sometimes stuck ones made of plastic into their lawns. I don’t think that’s done anymore—it’s too tacky—but it would always make me laugh.
You should always laugh as much as possible. I went through life worrying too much; I don’t recommend it. I worried about every disaster that might befall every person I loved. If Henry had dental surgery, I’d hug him extra tight when he left and then imagine the scenario in which he didn’t wake up after taking the laughing gas. Please understand—I didn’t want him to die, they weren’t morbid thoughts. It was only that accidents are often unpredictable things. If I could anticipate every terrible thing that might happen, I’d ward off all those things within my mental reach. Instead I wasted a lot of perfectly fine days with worry. Plenty of things will happen in your lifetime and you’ll survive. You’ll look back and say, “That wasn’t so bad” or maybe even, “That was awful.” As long as you’re looking back, it’s okay.
I review my work and see that it is terribly off-topic, but the next day, I write another, similar, entry:
Doves have always been romanticized in stories. White doves were symbols of love, purity, and peace, but the ones I always liked best were the rock doves, the pigeons—too numerable once to pay any mind to. People used to drive nails into their roofs to keep them away. In cities, pigeons would land on café tables. In Piazza San Marco, in Venice, when I was twenty, I paid a dollar for a handful of birdseed and they swarmed around me, sat on my arms and head.
I suppose they were thought of as being dirty because they were urban, city birds. They were dark gray, the color of stone. But if you looked closely you’d see they had an iridescent sheen, with blues and greens and hot pinks in the feathers around their necks, like a colorful necklace.
Sometimes Henry used to stand behind me while I stood at the stove and his hands wandered from my waist down, down, down. He’d kiss my neck and smile and say, “You’re beautiful. So goddamn beautiful.” Sometimes, if I did the same thing to him, while he was at the stove or washing dishes, he’d say, “What a dirty little birdie you are.” But he would be happy, and we would make for the bedroom. Of course those days are long gone too. They were gone nearly as soon as we learned he had cancer.
Henry grew weak too quickly and there was only once, near the end, when he was near skin and bone, having stopped eating, and he lay very still and smiled up at me while I moved over him, and we both cried because it would be the last time we would be so close—touching, he inside me, alive. I don’t write this down, though, because I am trying to remember that Sahara is young, and Dana, disapproving.
The writing, the memories, are hard and slow. Two birds fill two afternoons. I write whatever comes to mind and find that I am unable to disconnect the birds from my memories of Henry, and it’s strange because they’d never been linked in the first place. The light in the living room grows dim, and I soon fall asleep in my chair.
The next day I see a small brown sparrow land on a fruitless fig tree that grows out from the brick patio in my backyard. Or I think I see one. The branch bounces a little, and there is a blur of movement. I feel irrationally angry and bothered that Sahara isn’t there. It will be another few long days.
Sparrow, I write into the sketchbook, and underneath: You missed it.
What I want to say is harder to put into words. It is just the incredible mystery of birds—how they used to fly thousands of miles each season to migrate, how they maintained a balance between sustenance and aerodynamics, how they were related to dinosaurs. Why each year did they make the effort to move instead of saying, “I’m kind of tired. I think I’ll stay here and see how it goes.”
I remember hearing on the news, nearly forty years ago now, some scientists saying that such a thing was happening, that flocks were splitting into groups—those that migrated and those that didn’t, headed for certain death. Some hardwiring was starting to go. It was a symptom of what was coming; their ability to adapt over time had become an inability to adapt quickly enough. Time moved at lightning speed unless you were old and alone in your house. Then, it moved slowly. A sparrow on a fig tree—had I really seen such a thing, or had I merely allowed my mind to transport me back to another season of my life?
Cockatiels, I write next. I hated them. No, that’s not true. I thought it would be nice to have birds in the kitchen with me. This was when Dana was young. I thought it would be exotic or comforting, and sometimes it was, but mostly they were loud and I felt incurably guilty. Charlotte and Mayhem loved each other, but they were trapped inside, able to look through the wire and out the window into the world in which they were supposed to belong. I imagined a breeze made them feel distinct, intrinsic longings for movement.
I felt this way myself sometimes. Part of the “Save the Planet” effort (also called “Reduce your Carbon Footprint” or your “water footprint” or any kind of footprint), for a time, when the government was locked down in a police state, was that no one could go anywhere. Where you were was where you stayed. If you had cancer, for example, and needed an operation across the country, too bad. It meant that for twenty years you could not travel beyond where you could walk or maybe drive, if you could get that much petroleum. It meant that Rome and Paris and the Taj Majal were once again things in picture books. I spent years lusting for other places, imagining greener grass, better lives. I wanted to deliver lettuce on a Venetian gondola. Or own a small press in Berlin, or sell scarves in a Bolivian marketplace. I made things up to pass the time.
My fantasies were completely impossible, of course. During those no-flight years, Venice began to sink into the lagoon in which it was built. Rising ocean waters filled the canals too full. After all the centuries in which Venetians built and rebuilt the foundations of their grand palazzos, the Italians argued about it too long, placed all their bets on a massive sea-gate designed to hold back the rising waters, and it failed. Now the water rises to the second and third stories. Someday maybe you will take a boat ride around the rooftops. I understand there’s not a building you can go inside, not even the church or the clock tower. Think of the fish getting an education in Renaissance art!
Those were the years that Los Angeles began purifying sea water because the drought was so bad. It was such a paradox – too much ocean water, with the melting icebergs, and not enough to drink. It all seemed very grim, and there was Henry, sick. He was trapped in his broken down body, and together we were cooped up in the house.
But, Sahara, that is how life goes. If you take the time to read history books, you’ll know that one group of people replaces the next, empires rise and fall, and there was once far more land than there were people to inhabit the land. There were buffalos, and there were birds. Things change is all I’m saying. They are supposed to.
Henry was good at explaining natural order. When one species died out, naturally it would grab another by the hand. He wasn’t saying it was good; only that I shouldn’t be so surprised.
I pause, giving my hand a rest, feeling only sadness and confusion. What was I trying to say? Hadn’t I begun with cockatiels? The thing is, I had a hard time letting go during the years Henry was sick. It was him I didn’t want to let go of, but I ranted instead about not getting to ski in the winter because there wasn’t enough snowfall. This is something Sahara won’t miss because she doesn’t know it. And the dying sun won’t go in her lifetime either. The sky is only dark because of the smog. Over time I learned to take comfort in knowing that the sun was out there—above the clouds and dirty air—bright and warm, a yellow-white. I remembered lying on the lawns of public parks, being bitten by mosquitoes, having the chills from a sunburn and peeling the soft layers of epidermis slowly away.
The bird problem is a disappearing habitat problem. With poor air and soil quality, food sources are affected: insects, pollen, plants. I haven’t had an ant infestation in I don’t know how many years. I almost yearn for one.
If, back at the beginning of the century, you saw pictures of China burgeoning with new economic growth, you thought, “What a disgrace. What trouble.” So much industrialism, so little care for the environment, it was shocking. “In this day and age,” we muttered. While the rest of the world was trying out solar panels, hybrid cars and biodiesel, China was filling the sky with toxic pollutants as though it were Charles Dickens’ England. So now when you see so much blinding, dull gray, you begin to crave color. People’s houses, City Hall and other important buildings, are all painted in vivid, circus colors: Kelly green, Pepto Bismol pink, puce, iris blue, butter yellow. The color begins to hurt your eyes too.
I try to finish:
Henry and I were like Charlotte and Mayhem is what I guess I want to say. You’ll read this and say that I have romanticized the past, but I romanticize the future too. I know everything you touch will be manufactured, man-made, brilliant, shining. You will be able to see everything except what has vanished, and so quickly. In something like fifty years—a breath. It astonishes. In just five years an extraordinary amount can happen. In only one day your life can change.
Later I look through my books to determine the type of sparrow I might have seen, feeling guilty about the short entry, but it is too hard to tell. Savannah Sparrows, I record, do not like cheese. And why would they? An ordinary sparrow will eat almost anything in small amounts: dairy products, or millet, or cake! Cake!
In anticipation of Sahara’s next visit, I bait the yard, throwing bread crumbs onto the patio, but when she comes, Dana stands at her side, expressionless. Up close I am shocked to see how much my daughter has aged since I last saw her, though I don’t say so. Dana is now 53, and her hair is cut short and is mostly gray.
“Grandma,” Sahara says, grinning. “We’re going to a wildlife preserve.”
“Sahara thought maybe we could wheel you around outside. For your birding society,” Dana adds. No hello, or pleasantries.
“I’m positive we’ll spot something,” Sahara says. Again she has the binoculars and whistle.
On the freeway I am scared for my life, so I close my eyes and pretend to sleep. There are things I want to say to Dana and I feel anxious, as though they must be said soon. I am having so many memories, and they are coming back too clearly. I feel as though every part of my life is near.
I wondered, too, whether what I’d written in the notebook was for Sahara or Dana. Sahara would figure things out for herself; she’s one of those people you can let loose into the world.
We drive about 45 minutes to reach Coyote Hills Regional Park. “My God,” I say once we arrive, “I didn’t know this was still here.” I remembered the low foothills near the bay. Most of the bay’s marshes had been sold off at one point or another. People built landfills to make more space for industrial complexes, yet Coyote Hills was still somewhat intact, known for both freshwater marshes and saltwater ponds, as well as for Native American shell mounds. There are wooden boardwalks so that people don’t go tromping through the reeds or sink into the mud.
Dana lifts my wheelchair from the trunk, unfolds it, and heaves me into it. Her arms are strong and she smells like pumpkin, like something earthy.
“It was my mom’s idea to come here,” Sahara tells me quietly. “I couldn’t think of anywhere good.”
We approach the trailhead. Everything has the weathered feeling of time, of being beaten down by the elements and foot traffic. Dana pushes me so that she’s behind me and I can’t see her face. The wheels of my chair are loud against the wooden planks and will surely scare away any sign of life. Sahara stays about ten paces ahead of us with something very small attached to her ear. Sometimes her walk is more of a dance.
“Why do you suppose she’s interested in birds?” I ask. Dana’s presence unnerves me, which is ridiculous. She’d come out of me, and here she is a perfect stranger, totally impenetrable.
“I told her that you had been,” Dana says, her tone flat, “She wanted to know what you were like when you were younger. She said maybe if you’d been born at the same time, you’d be best friends.”
My heart swells a little and then deflates. I love that Sahara feels what I feel, a natural kinship. Some traits skip generations, or else Sahara and I have just enough perspective between us to bridge our gaps. But Dana’s admittance also means we are all in the park as a kind of ruse, meant to please me. I suddenly feel rather foolish. Perhaps Sahara and I are not as alike as I sometimes think, maybe it is only that we want to be. Of course she isn’t interested in birds. Why would she be?
“Oh,” I say carefully, “How sweet of her.” I hear the uncertainty in my voice, how it wavers beyond my control.
“She loves her time with you.”
It takes me a minute to muster up what I say next: “I’m glad that you came today.”
Dana says nothing in return, her silence a kind of cruel reply.
I focus on the park, trying to extinguish that old surge of anger. Not being able to understand your own daughter is one of life’s cruelest tricks.
I find that the park is not really as I remember. The air carries the vague smell of brine and sea life, but the shrimp beds are murky, no longer the scarlet pools of the past. There is only a thin crust of salt deposit, and no tall-legged, long-beaked birds standing ankle deep in the flat, marshy pools. There is no reflection of the sun on the water, and some of the marshes we pass have dried completely.
When Sahara slows to read a faded sign about American White Pelicans, we stop. She points to the picture of the white bird with its oversized orange beak and grins. Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, she reads. The name of the bird is half Latin and half Greek, and it reminds me of something. “Maybe we’ll see one,” she suggests with an edge of hope in her voice. “Let’s wait.”
We remain still, practically holding our breath, and listen for a rustle in the reeds. After a few minutes I lean in to read the sign, which says that pelicans eat more than four pounds of fish a day. Looking around the gloomy marsh, with thin pools of water in some places and only mud in others, I know there’s no way for a pelican to survive here. If anything we might see a duck, some wayward, tough little creature living alone in the Cattails.
“Perhaps it’s the wrong season,” I suggest, but cross my fingers in my lap.
Dana begins pushing me down the trail again, which is her way of saying, Let’s get a move on. In the distance there is a watchtower for birders to climb up into. “Why don’t you take a look from there?” I say to Sahara. She nods and skips ahead.
“Be careful,” Dana warns.
While we wait below, it is again hard to speak. I want to put the past behind us, but of course it already is. “Maybe,” I say, “you can start visiting me with Sahara. That would be nice.”
Dana sighs. “I see an acupuncturist while she’s with you.”
“Oh.” We both watch the tower, though we cannot see Sahara.
“She’s a good girl,” I offer.
At our worst, at the point where we stepped over the lines of decency, Dana said I drove Henry to an early death. Of course I knew it was just a mean thing to say. She was angry that he died before his time, although Henry would have said that wasn’t possible. She wanted someone to blame. For awhile, though, I was mad at her too.
Dana is preoccupied with the watchtower. “Sahara?” she calls, pacing anxiously.
Sahara doesn’t answer. “She’s fine,” I say.
Dana gives me a hard, reproving look, but thankfully, in another moment, there is Sahara scrambling awkwardly back down the ladder, saving us. “Look what I found!” she cries, cupping her hands and holding out a small nest, which she pulled from a corner eave. The nest is brittle and long-abandoned, but well-formed. I have not seen one like it since my childhood when a tree in my parents’ backyard was chopped down. At the base of it is something like corn silk, maybe human hair. Small twigs weave intricately to form the shape. There is what looks like a small fragment of eggshell nestled deep inside, a white color, spotted with brown.
Dana and I both lean over with something like awe, exposing the fact that we had not really expected to find anything. Sahara beams. “Very cool, right?”
“It certainly is,” I say. We examine the nest a little longer before wondering whether to keep it or return it to the watchtower.
“You should put it back where you found it,” Dana instructs.
“Well, technically,” I argue, “nests are used for laying and incubating eggs and raising the young. This one is abandoned. It won’t be used again.”
“Taking it home certainly won’t help the environment.”
“Sahara, it’s up to you.”
Dana faces me and says, “Don’t push her. She can make up her own mind. She should consider the facts. This is a protected wildlife preserve.”
“I just told her to decide for herself.”
“It’s in your tone, mother. The devil’s advocate.”
Sahara looks between us, uncertainly. Then she walks back toward the ladder to replace the nest. When she comes back she says, “I’m sorry, grandma. It would have looked neat with all the stuff in your house.”
The trouble was the mood had grown as light as it ever had between the three of us, and then vanished just as quickly. It is too awkward trying to bond with Dana. I wanted to be the mother she wanted or needed, but I understood that I just wasn’t.
We are silent as we complete the path and wind up back at the deserted visitor center, and near the nectar garden, where, the signs say, birds and butterflies feed. The air is very still, almost humid. There is no soft flutter of wings. When we return to the car, having seen nothing but hearty grasses, the nest, and a cloud-laden sky, Sahara apologizes, “I was sure we’d see a bird. It said on the Internet it was possible.”
“I’m very glad we came,” I say. “It was a good idea.”
Sahara brightens a little and gives a tentative, brave smile, although there is something in her eyes that makes me feel—all of us feel, I imagine—as though the day had been a mistake.
Later, alone again and feeling both exhausted and restless, I add more to the life list:
There are—or were—all kinds of songbirds: the Gray Catbird, the Wood Thrush, the Scarlet Tanager. Did you know that bird songs are different than birdcalls?
There was always something marvelous about waking up and hearing birds chirping outside the window. In our second house together, we got early morning light in the bedroom. Through the white curtains would be spots of light, shadows of tree branches.
One Saturday Henry and I sat in bed until nearly three in the afternoon, before Dana was born. We woke up late and found the air cool. Henry got up and made tea, and returned with steaming mugs. We turned on the record player and listened to a recording of Pachelbel played with a piano and violin. We sat in bed until the tea was gone and the music ended and the room began to grow dark, casting shadows. In the middle of it we simply had conversation. “This is a rare day,” Henry said. “It is a perfect rare day and we should remember it always.”
I didn’t agree with him at the time. It was just a Saturday, mid-month, when we didn’t have any other place to be. It was so common—the tea, the music, the talking. I couldn’t even tell you what we spoke about. But this is what I want you to know: Henry was right. We never had another morning quite like it. We never even once sat for that many hours in bed with tea or coffee. We never had another house with a record player in the bedroom or a window that caught the sunrise. As you get older you’ll learn that so many things are your last. You’ll have dinner with a friend and somehow know you’ll never see them again. A brother or sister moves away and the relationship is permanently changed. If you have male friends, they will love you until one of you gets engaged or married to someone else. After that, the bottles of wine, the long dinners, are over. Maybe all you get of that person, that beloved friend, is a Christmas card. Or maybe nothing. By the time your daughter goes away to college, your youth has passed.
The next week Sahara doesn’t come. She phones to say she has a dentist appointment, and is getting a tooth pulled. I ask to speak with Dana, and listen as Sahara puts her hand over the receiver. There are muffled noises and then Sahara says, “Sorry, she’s busy right now.” I want to complain, to whine and plead: “I’m not feeling well,” but it would be like pulling a prank, the grandma who called Wolf. I feel no more tired than usual, just a little heavy. If I had failed my daughter, it wasn’t her responsibility to lift me up. In the sketchbook, I write: All is not lost.
Then, beneath it, another entry:
It’s cheating to include a bird I’ve never seen. But in all my reading since you invented our birding society, I’ve learned how the nightingale got its name and it made me think of something I want to tell you.
Nightingales are associated with their song, and particularly at night. Females arrive to breeding sites after the males, so the males sing throughout the day and into the night to attract their mate, so as not to miss out.
The name comes from Greek mythology—a Greek woman, Philomena, was raped by her brother-in-law and afterward he cut out her tongue so that she couldn’t betray him. Cleverly, she turned to weaving, putting her story in a tapestry for her sister Procne to see. The two women eventually killed the brother-in-law, and the Greek gods, for their part, turned all the characters into birds. Procne became a nightingale and Philomena a sparrow, and then in Roman times, the story was reversed and Philomena became the nightingale.
It is said that nightingales only sing when they press their breasts against a thorn, and that their blood colors a rose. They sing about unrequited love and it makes me wonder if it’s fair for me to say my love is unrequited because my husband died and I miss him. What your mother and I had in common is that we both loved Henry best of all people. Whatever else she tells you about me is probably true. I am certainly leaving you a motley legacy, and leaving so many things out.
I want to tell you about your name. It was not chosen randomly. I believed, as your mother did, the shape of a person is in the name. Only I came to believe this later in life, and so maybe that is another reason why your mother and I are not close. I chose her name because Henry liked it, because it was pretty, and nothing more.
But you, Sahara—you were named for the desert. It was still a pretty-sounding name, because I believed then, as I believe still, that beauty is an asset in whatever time or place you are born, but I also thought of all those years with and without Henry, and without Dana, who was away at college and then living her own life, when I dreamed of other places, the distant lands of story books. It came to me then in an instant—you would be Sahara, after the sand and the sun. I wished you would have an innate survival instinct, necessary in such a place as this.
SUZANNE BARNECUT lives and writes in San Francisco, where she is at work on a collection of short stories. She received an MFA from California College of the Arts, and is previously published in Beeswax Magazine and the Santa Clara Review.