In an early morning hour, I am recording a dream before it slips back into the night-time world. I sit at the dining room table, engrossed in a faint memory of a Caribbean couple who asked if they could design me a magical dress. I can no longer see their faces or remember what magical powers this garment might possess. The dining room table where I write starts to come into focus, as a final glimpse of a purple and turquoise batik fabric fades into the pile of unsorted papers. Bills, a birthday card, and a grocery list with the word “mangoes” come into view.
Bam! Chloe, our beagle mix, spots a chipmunk and pushes the French doors open to run outside. The lovely cool morning air slips inside my world, so I leave the door open. Gathering into my consciousness, though, is Chloe’s bobbing tail, as she disappears through the fig bushes in an effort to catch the little critter.
I look up, still trying to remember if my husband is in this dream, when Bonk, a small bird hits the open door, struggles over the top, and flies into the room and onto my table of papers. Outside, a hawk – the one, I quickly realize, must have been chasing the small bird – banks quickly to avoid my dining room and flies away. The small bird, now flying crazily, lands on top of the sideboard filled with my in-laws’ china and falls backward against the wall.
Did that just happen? Is there a dead bird in my house? I have enough experience with dying animals to I know they can fight with their last breaths. I run to the screen porch and grab my husband’s leather gloves. Sliding the gloved hand between the wall and the sideboard and using my body as a wedge, I hold my hand out behind the sideboard to catch the bird. It lands in my palm. Slowly sliding my hand out from the back of the sideboard, I look at the bird, a small woodpecker, maybe?
And then, something amazing happened. The bird moves his head and looks at me. We are less than a foot apart, his dark black eye very much alive.
All my life until that moment I have been a dedicated feeder of birds but certainly not knowledgeable enough about them to be called a “birder.” I remember my father, the engineer, donning his puffy down jacket and big hat with ear flaps to feed the birds on a sub-zero Minnesota day. Feeding the birds was a duty, like mowing the lawn.
Who are you? I look at these tiny black eyes, which seem to be regarding me closely, unafraid–just curious. I walk out the French doors onto the deck, holding out my palm, but the little woodpecker doesn’t take his eyes off me. I am thinking he will disappear, but he cocks his head a bit, to get a better look at the unkempt appearance of his rescuer. I inch out the door with my outstretched palm toward the edge of the yard. My neighbor, Adam, works for the local wildlife center knows a lot about birds, and he’s often home in the afternoon watching his young children. I hear someone on the porch.
“Adam?” I call, softly, so as not to disturb my little friend. “Adam, are you there?”
The sound turns out to be a babysitter, checking her cell messages while the children are napping. She offers to take a photo of the woodpecker over the fence with her phone and send it to Adam. I will always be grateful to her, because I ended up with a photo of the bird in my hand. Adam, who views this photo from work thinks it’s a juvenile downy woodpecker. “Don’t worry, he’s probably just stunned,” he tells me through the babysitter.
“How long are they stunned?” I ask, and the Downy looks for the first time at the babysitter, as if he, too, wants the answer.
“Maybe ten minutes or so. Small hawks like a Cooper’s will stun their prey first, then kill it. You probably saved the bird’s life – just watch him and give him some room.”
Thanking the babysitter, I turn toward my own backyard. Ten minutes seem like a long time and no time at all. What do you say when you have the full attention of a Downy Woodpecker? Which words of wisdom should I share? How do you explain the insanity of human beings to a fledgling?
With my palm open and my arm outstretched, I give my little charge a tour of the yard. I tell him about the wildflowers that I transplanted, when the owner of my old rental was going to raze the old house and build condominiums. I explain why I have to move the raised beds, because they are in something called a frost pocket. Maybe I will plant a nice pollinator garden here. His eyes never left my face, but I confess mine kept turning toward the flowers and trees, what next?
All this time, Chloe is wandering the backyard in search of the chipmunk, completely uninterested in the tour.
“This is where we buried a robin that died, when Frank (my son) was small. He was so sad about the dead bird, and I wanted him to know that all lives matter. The butterfly bush is doing so well there,” I say, feeling a bit foolish, but the woodpecker appears fascinated.
Above me, on the telephone line, I see two birds making quite a bit of noise. It occurs to me that this might be the bird’s parents.
I walked back toward the French doors, thinking I will pick up my binoculars and check to see if the birds on the line are woodpeckers. As I near the doorway, the fledgling becomes airborne without so much as a push off. He simply opens his wings and joins the breeze.
I return to the dining room table, then, and look over my scribbling about some imaginary dressmakers in faraway lands. I close the journal. I wonder why that seemed so important to me, when all the drama of life and death, changing fortunes and magic I ever dreamed of are right outside my window.