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The Significance of Birds


ISSUE:  Spring 1993

The distant orange sun of autumn, spitting out tiny seeds of light. The groping shadows of buildings. The mingled sounds of rush hour, stories below. Throughout the city, doors are opening and closing. Laura quietly lets herself in and makes a ballet of routine. After changing from her work clothes, she sprinkles some flakes into the goldfish bowl, then walks barefooted across the carpet, carrying two chilled martini glasses and a full clinking pitcher. She approaches her father who sits slumped in her favorite reading chair. He looks falsely alive, like one of those Duane Hanson sculptures on loan from a nearby museum.

Now, in the dwindling afternoon light, as the day’s inertia settles, Laura remembers what her father had said that morning about the bird being a bad omen as she sets the martini pitcher beside him and lifts the book from his lap. He does not wake up, but his breathing becomes audible. Laura is thankful for this simple sign of life as she moves toward the window, which still holds a wedge of the golden sunset, the final rays of the Indian summer. She stands there, overlooking the city, nose to nose with her own transparent reflection, a younger ghost of her mother. She touches the new glass with her fingertips and palm, feeling the outside cool of autumn, marveling that the glass has been replaced so quickly. As the breath from her nostrils forms two small frosted wings on the pane, she wonders if her father replaced it himself.

The previous evening they had lingered in the living room, enjoying the first cool hint of autumn, watching the curtains fill like sails. Skirting talk of her dying mother, Laura bade her father goodnight, kissing him on the forehead.

“Both doors are locked,” she said. “What about the windows?” He yawned. “Leave them, if you like,” Laura smile and stretched. “Goodnight. . . . See you tomorrow.”

* * *

The dispersion of darkness, the soft gray fog of approaching daylight. The convolution of dreams had transported her from one place to another. Laura’s eyelids trembled. Roused by the rising sounds of early morning traffic, she sensed more than an outdoor coolness in the air: there was also a strange fluttering. Curious, she had slipped from bed, pulled on her robe, and stepped into the dim living room, where a small bird flitted and dipped from one end to the other, attaching itself sidelong to the dawn-lit drapery.

Laura immediately let out a shriek, and her father—still in his pajamas—came running. With a broom, he tried to coax the sparrow out through the narrow opening in the sliding window, having drawn back the curtains. But the bird had panicked. It flew back and forth, darting the length of the room several times before it slammed into the large pane and dropped motionless onto the carpet. It had hit with enough force to send out a small splay of cracks in the glass of the picture window.

Her father scooped up the sparrow with a brown rubber dustpan and was walking past Laura when its wings suddenly flopped and it dropped once again to the floor. Laura gasped, “How can it still be living?”

“It looks like its skull and beak are broken,” he said, glancing up at his daughter. But Laura turned her head as he carried it out to the kitchen. He came back and lit a cigarette, then picked up the brick that she used as a doorstop. Once again, he disappeared through the doorway.

She was glad to have her father there. There was no man in her life to take charge of the situation. She felt suddenly sad that he soon would be leaving. That’s when she heard the thud and walked into the kitchen.

He irreverently flicked his overgrown cigarette ash onto the crushed carcass, then he dumped it into the garbage. “I’ll carry out the trash as soon as I get dressed.”

“Where would I be without you?” She off-handedly remarked, drawing her robe tight around her.

“Without me, you wouldn’t be. . . .” He sang. It sounded like an old Cole Porter song but she wasn’t sure. He took a long draw from his cigarette and headed toward the bathroom, trailing the smoke behind him.

Later, while shaving his silver stubble, her father spoke through the walls. He raised his voice to say that it was a bad omen, a sign that someone would die.

“What’s a bad omen?” Laura yelled back from her bedroom. “The bird,” her father said.

Laura made a mental note of this and drifted into the kitchen where she began squeezing orange juice by means of a little glass sombrero. It worried her: her father’s comment. But she didn’t once think of her dying mother as the bubbling sound of boiling coffee water gave momentum to her routine. Already, it was evening.

* * *

“Hi Dad. Care for a martini?”

Her father comes to life, blinks, then focuses. “Hi, kiddo. You caught me napping.”

Laura slides the tray onto the table beside him. “Did you replace the window yourself?”

Her father groans and leans for his glass. “Simple as pie.” He snaps his fingers and takes a sip. Laura stares at him incredulously, amazed at his ability to get things done. “Actually, two guys came in about two.” He winks, then holds upright—between index finger and thumb—a toothpick-skewered olive which he proceeds to lick like a lollipop, appearing childish, ridiculous. “Also,” he adds, “early this morning after you left, a good-looking young man let himself in and started tidying up.”

“Sorry,” Laura sighs. “That was Kirn. I forgot to warn you that he was coming.”

“Sooo. . . does this Kirn service you once or twice a week?”

“Dad. That’s sick. He’s my maid,” she says, but smiles nonetheless, wishing her father would stay a few days longer. Tomorrow he will be heading home to Connecticut, to the place where Laura had spent her girlhood—a two-hour drive from the city.

Twenty years ago, she came to work in New York as a reader at a major publisher. But she had always possessed a painter’s eye and a way with words—being a prodigy of sorts, having won in sixth grade a national poetry contest. Now she’s a full-fledged editor a dozen times over, having hopped around from year to year at all of the best houses. Consumed by her work, now given her own imprint, she rarely takes a day off to return to Connecticut, but she visits her mother in a nearby hospital at least once a week.

Early on, she would return home every weekend. She had enjoyed the contrast between hubbub and lull, between her future in the city and her suburban upper-middle class past. On Sunday afternoons, Laura would lie entranced in their backyard hammock, the one her father had bought in Florida on one of their many winter vacations. She’d close her eyes and the sun would wash back and forth like a tide. All the while, she would dread returning to work on Monday, putting off the two-hour drive that seemed to consume her whole evening. She would sway there in the diamond-shaped webbing, with the shadow of leaves flickering over her face, throat, and body—reminding her of the subway’s rushed rocking—slashed by moments of darkness. It would always lull her into a trance.

Laura’s first hectic year in the city and those placid weekends spent at her parents slide into consciousness like light and shadow, the way her dying mother lurks inside her reflection.

* * *

Laura steps out of the failing light, back from the newly installed glass, and turns once again toward her father. “I made reservations at Elaine’s at eight. I hope you can wait till then.”

“If you bring me a few more olives.”

Laura smiles, turning back to the window.

Already flocks of birds are flying south for the winter, flowing thick as a river, sweeping and banking, pouring over the treetops of Central Park.

“An olive a day keeps the doctor away,” he reminds her.

She closes her eyes and leans her forehead against the new window, remembers being braced against the wind atop the Empire State Building. She was there with her parents. Eleven years old. Embarassed—her face turned red, her ears started ringing—all because she was bracketed by both parents, each holding her in place by the hand as they toured the city. They even held onto her while chugging out on the Staten Island Ferry—as if she might fling herself overboard. The seagulls had laughed at her as they hovered like kites against the wind, dipping frighteningly close, pecking out of midair bits of popcorn that her father had told her to toss them, their dark silhouettes slicing the twilight. She was relieved when they’d miss, veer off and trail the ferry, now and again diving into the churned-up wake.

Watching the tugboats hauling in the sun, she had witnessed the buildings lighting up from afar, and a harvest moon rose a little off to the right, over the skyline. Laura was struck by the tiny rows of lit windows in the mountain of Manhattan—in the towering slabs of buildings in which the small bright windows, erratically lit, read like columns of newly set type. Reflected on the water, the layered rows of windowlight shone like a free-form poem on a microfiche out of focus. It was a rare peaceful moment for Laura, one that would last forever. Behind them, the ferry’s wake fanned out in a luminous white “V” in the new dark, like the wings of a giant angel. A capital “V” for “Valery”—her mother.

* * *

In a private room in Cedars of Lebanon, Laura’s mother lies dying. Directly outside her seventh-floor window is the flat gravel roof of the annex where rain water has collected in a pool. The sun reflects there on bright afternoons rebounding in wavering patterns of light, wobbling webs that are cast onto the stark white ceiling, illuminating the room from two angles.

Every week, Laura comes to visit, usually in the afternoon. Sometimes lying down beside her mother, she becomes entranced by the shadow-play of birds bathing, reflected above them. It is a silhouetted movie of birds fluttering and bright windblown water rippling—all projected there on the ceiling. I should unplug her, Laura has thought on many occasions, watching the flow of liquids through a tangle of tubing.

* * *

This is her life. Is there time for revision? She wonders. She sees herself lying beside her frail, sleeping mother. She remembers the bird this morning. The memory wheels into consciousness, seeming more significant now than ever.

“I’m taking your mother off the respirator tomorrow,” her father says. “Before I head back.”

Laura’s eyes tear over. She would always rely on her father to make certain decisions. Lights are blinking on throughout the city, as they walk to dinner, past the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola. It’s not a place she would normally visit. But she is drawn up the stone steps, dragging her father behind her. The big doors swing open. They drift in slowly, with their lips slightly parted, to discover a solitary white pigeon wheeling about freely inside the enormous domed chamber. In the near-dark, its ghostly blur streaks the air, winging in widening circles.

A full minute passes before they walk out silently, and her father stoops at the threshold to brace the door with a brick.

In Hebrew, the word for “bird” is. . . .

Her father’s not sure, but he believes it’s akin to the word for “angel.”

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