“The Fallen,” by Chaia Heller




Tonight we were eating turkey burgers on our deck. The pooling heat of the day had drained, leaving behind an unexpected cool stillness that lured us gingerly back outside. I set the table for dinner, putting life into place, when all of the sudden: a thump. A soft landing of new life, warbling around in a black silveryness on the deck. A baby sparrow had fallen from its nest, lobbed itself to the deck’s edge, falling onto the grass below. It had spilled from an ill-constructed nest built by well-meaning sparrow parents under the balcony outside our bedroom, the one that juts over the deck facing the back yard.

Sometimes I have a difficult time distinguishing between ‘bummer’, inconvenience, and undiluted tragedy. Tonight, a baby bird fluttered its logy wings in the grass, unable to fly away to higher and safer ground. As it flailed about, we heard the bursts of bird call flourish between a skittering agitated mother and father sparrow. All of this flailing and calling churned inside me. It ignited a plume of fire I felt unable to contain or utilize to illuminate any kind of purposeful clarity. And because my ability to decipher accurately the line between disasters big and small, this one felt big as Canada.

Ruby, my ten and a half year old daughter, was also shook to the bone. She was clinging to the edge of the deck, eyes locked on the hapless baby bird flopping about in the grass. And then there’s me, craning my neck up to examine the underside of the balcony. In horror, I discover that in addition to the now-empty nest (that contained the now-homeless sparrow in the grass) there was yet a second nest up there. Three baby birds jutted out their beaks beyond the nest’s stringy rim. They, too, were calling out for help from within a papery home balanced on the ledge of calamity as well. It seemed that in a moment’s time, we would have three new casualties on our deck.

I determined myself useless in finding a solution to this catastrophe. My husband dutifully called a ‘naturalist’ type friend who offered vague instruction. Meanwhile, I plodded upstairs, seeking to distract myself from this distressed state. I switched on the Daily Show. Public outcry surrounding the sickening verdict offered by Florida on the Trayvon Martin case continued. A baby bird gunned down for simultaneously wearing a hoodie and dark skin. The streets aflutter with people and cars honking their horns, alarming the world of yet another instance of humanity’s fall from grace.

I’m upstairs in my house considering the horrifying parallels between our micro-disaster of baby birds and the colossal tragedy that is American racism funneled into a gun toted by an imbecilic man who decided that his own sense of safety eclipsed the life-value of a boy of color. One minute, a speck of misfortune. Seconds later, on TV, one too large to really fathom at all.

And while I’m pondering this jumble, Ruby is on line, researching what to do when baby birds fall from their nests. She jerry-rigs a basket she found in the garage to a tree with string. And with the help of her father, she dons a glove and places the empty nest in the basket. Finally, she carefully lifts the baby bird from its vulnerable position in the grass, back into the nest.

A mother upstairs, watching comedy-news, trying to forget the world by laughing at it. A mother whose own mother was unable to soothe her as a child when she grew up in the hurried and mindless sixties. As a result, this mother is unable to soothe herself when she sees a baby sparrow fallen from a nest. She’s unable attend to the problem at hand with any degree of resourcefulness.

And then there’s the daughter, ten and a half just today. As I came of age during a more conscious era, I ended up proving able to protect my daughter’s sense of self and world. At the very least, I spent years of my own life soothing her from infant to toddler and up. These facts of my daughter’s life are indeed rather banal. But it is because of these facts that my daughter was able to collect herself, think rationally, doctoring up an impressive act of care and certainty.

I’m proud, I suppose. Today is indeed her ten and a half birthday and she passed some kind of non-test in flying birdy colors. Mother birds, helpless, skittering from branch to branch, helpless, alarmed. One upstairs, laughing/crying about Trayvon Martin and an ugly world. The other, hopping about on two bird feet in the back yard.

I have faith, I suppose, in the next generation. The baby birds who can find tiny bird-sized solutions at ten and a half, might just find bigger ones later on. Who knows. I love that Ruby went to bed with a sense of accomplishment rather than with a stomach roiling with hopelessness and futility.

I’m thinking a good deal about motherhood. Maybe because my own baby bird is giving signs that some day soon, she’ll fly the coop, leaving behind a few spent feathers for me to press between the pages of a book. Traces of wings that once alighted here and now, increasingly, belonging fully to a world that has its own need for the good work that she, and others of her generation, might do out there.