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Small Mercy ~ A February Tale

photo: Mark Olsen @Unsplash

(first published in 2005, this piece is included in my 2021 collection, Housewife Blues)

I got to play a part in a quasi-resurrection. I was watching birds tussle at the feeder when a chickadee collided with the window. It thumped and fell face first into the snow on the deck, a small fragile body with one wing askew. I held my breath, waiting for it to pull it’s head from the snow. It set the wing right first and then did a fancy little shimmy to adjust it’s tail. I expected again to see it’s head come free.

The bird went still. I thought perhaps it had died. I opened the glass door onto the deck and reached a tentative hand, tugging gently at poised tail feathers, then pulled away as the masked head popped out of the snow with a curious cartoon grace. I ducked back inside and shut the door.

The bird did not move. I thought I saw it’s eye flicker but I didn’t have a straight view of it’s face. I worried that if I moved closer, or fast, it would panic. Then it’s beak came up a fraction as if it was sniffing for equilibrium, the head tilting ever so slightly to bring an ear out of the wind. It was collecting itself. Maybe if I gave it some privacy it could get launched again.

Retreating to work I found myself thinking about February. It does have a way of smacking you in the head and leaving you stunned for a bit. February is never subtle for me. I get dazzled by the thaw and then reality sets in with mud, slush, and too much light reflecting off the snow in the blinding slant of late afternoon sun. I sometimes think it would help to have enough money to fly myself off someplace warm. But I suspect I’d be disoriented any place this time of year.

I have been working in my studio on a collage that uses a shed snake skin to communicate my thoughts about transformation, but ‘transformation’ is too neat a package for what I want to convey. There is this little nuance to it, a twist I want to make in the perspective of the piece that sets it more rightly in the spiritual physics of what we shed and leave on the floor when we’ve grown out of our skin; that fine dry outer layer that is the boundary between inside and out. An almost transparent, patterned, and perfectly textured relic which nevertheless suggests forward or outward momentum.

It is easier for me to bend words around this concept than it is to use skin, paint, glue, wood, glass and something vaguely pearlescent as a vessel to contain and express the layers of this particular riff. Still, the words seem ungainly on the page, close but no cigar (which is another February riff). I think again of the chickadee, adjusting wing and tail with it’s head still trapped in the snow, released, then tilting towards equilibrium and waiting. I walk back to look out onto the deck.

No bird. Just an impression in white and shadow that says wing, tail, and perching toe. Where it’s head had been stuck there’s a hole in the snow just about the size of a birdhouse opening. The whole of it evokes an image of having been here and being elsewhere in the blink of an eye. A feathered absence glittering in the afternoon sun. Like the snake that shed it’s skin where I could find it, the bird has left layers of identity echoing in what remains.

Later in the afternoon I bring my six year old daughter to the window and tell her the bird tale. Mostly it is the echo of bird she sees in the snow but she believes that I saved it. Her belief is a small mercy, another quasi-resurrection. This time of a different small feathered thing: my perching hope for equilibrium, and deepest gratitude for being understood even though it’s February and I keep smacking my head on tilting existential boundaries.

If you would like to read more from my book, Housewife Blues: dispatches from the garden of broken things, here is the LINK.

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