Yellow Bird

Photograph by the author.

It was noon; the sun was high overhead, the skies were cooling, and the immigrant carpenters worked building the new houses; the ground in the new subdivision was a brown, cracked field of jigsaw pieces, the few shadows about pointed into the earth.

The dog pulls at the leash, smelling something on the barren earth. I pause; it’s her walk, not mine. She teaches me patience. Della is a lovely companion.

The brown earth extends back to a high wooden fence at the back of the lot.

A plaintive squawk, a yellow-breasted bird, dead, trapped in the green grass mesh bordering the front edge of the lot.

Dead birds don’t squawk, I think idly.

It looks in rough shape, but it is not dead, though it seems to be heading in that direction in a hurry.

I stoop down, tugging at the mesh material to get a better look. It is breathing, the eyes open, the left eye is a milky disc; that can’t be good.

Della gets close, looks in at what I’m doing. I nudge her away from the bird with my elbow. She wanders to the end of her long leash, finds other things to explore.

This will take some time; I look at my watch; I have the time, so I act.

I pull out the only metal I carry, my keys, and begin hacking, sawing at the mesh all around the bird. The wind blows folds of the mesh onto my lap. I push it away repeatedly. I scoot to a different spot and find a place to get comfortable. I’m going to be here for a while.

Della is patient. I get the sense she understands what I’m doing.

As I saw the mesh trapping the bird, each time the thread slips past the teeth on my key, the whole thing recoils. If I’m not careful, I could snap the trapped bird’s bones or even kill it. I commit to minimizing the jerking motion of my rescue attempt.

I hear my mom’s voice, a memory, telling me about germs and whatnot. I avoid touching the bird at first. Eventually, I figure any fleas or germs will migrate to me anyway, so I extend an index finger, gently stroke its head. I’m surprised at how soft it is. The bird doesn’t seem threatened like Della the bird seems patient, aware that I intend no harm.

The synthetic fibers of the mesh are slender and shiny, like a fishing line. It’s also tough, and I have to saw and hack for over twenty minutes until I’ve cut a square of the fabric with the bird trapped at its center.

I would like to have liberated the bird on the spot, but I need more tools than my keys for that. I’m hoping to find some in the shed. I gather up the material, holding the square of material, as gently as I can, the wind buffeting against us, shaking the fabric. With Della leading the way, we make it back to Lisa’s house.

On my short walk back to Lisa’s, I feel a string of doubts.

What if she dies before I finish cutting the mesh threads?

What if I get her cut loose, but her wing is broken? The few times she’s fluttered about in a panic to escape, I notice only one wing is flapping.

What if I cut her loose at Lisa’s, and she can’t fly? What will I do then?

Isn’t the bird my responsibility once I cut the square and leave with her?

Nonsense, there was no way she would escape on her own; she was too trapped in the material for that.

Who was going to help the bird? The carpenters? No, it was up to me. If I didn’t act, she would have a long, slow, agonizing death. And my involvement here was no guarantee of a happy outcome.

What about John’s stray cats? If I leave her at Lisa’s, will they make the yellow-breasted bird their lunch?

Not the death of my monarch father, but the rescue of this bird has transformed me into Hamlet.

One day, I will cease to exist, and then, I will be no more.

One day, this bird will die. It’s a trite thing, but it’s also a matter of life and death. For what cause will I act? If not for life, then by default, I stand for death. I tell myself this and other thoughts that make me swell with self-importance.

I let Della into the backyard.

I enter the tiny, white shed with the raised, sloped floor. There is no light, and I feel I need to free the bird quickly. Both because it is suffering and because I have to be at work in a few hours.

I don’t think to take the toolbox out into the light. Instead, I settle for a pair of needle-nose pliers.

I remember having scissors in my car, but they are no longer there. I do find a utility knife in the glove compartment.

These and my patience are the only tools I will have.

I set the square bird configuration on a small picnic table and begin cutting. Using the pliers, I grab a fine green thread as close to her body as I dare, then swipe it with the knife. The setup works better than the keys.

I repeat the pinch and cut operation for what feels like a million times.

I am Sisyphus. My stone is the shiny green filaments.

Pinch, cut.

Pinch, cut.

Pinch, cut.

I stop to stroke its soft head, hoping it won’t panic, won’t peck, or bite me. I beg her not to die.

“Please, don’t die on me, birdie?”

I’m no poet.

Pinch, cut, repeat becomes a meditation.

I think about what I should cut free first, what I should cut free last.

If I free her legs first, she might claw me or break one of those tiny, fragile bones as she struggles.

If I free her head first, she might peck at me.

I land on moving back and forth, so I can postpone which part is freed last until only a few cuts are left to make.

There are only a few cuts left to make when I remember that Della is still a dog. A lovely companion, no doubt, but also subject to a lot of instinctual programming. I take the bird and the well-worked mesh square to the front yard, where I won’t be tempting her to gobble up my little patient.

I sit on the sidewalk and make the final cuts.

My heart sinks when she doesn’t fly away immediately, despite thinking all along that that was an unlikely outcome.

Her eyes are sometimes clear, sometimes milky. I don’t understand that.

There’s little I understand here.

I return to the shed, find an empty cardboard box. Think briefly about making the bird a little place where it can recover its strength.

I tear my Starbucks cup down into a little watering tray. I place it under her beak, and my heart perks up when I see her working the water into her tiny body.

But what about food? I have no idea what to feed her. I still have some of Della’s snacks in my pocket. It’s a long shot, but I crush one into smaller pieces and drop it in the grass before her.

She sits there, not panicking, not fluttering, but not flying either.

Photograph by the author.

I think about putting her back in the box and driving her back to where I found her, but I fear she might get herself trapped again or be prey to some predator. Then I remember the strays at John’s. Still, this seems like a safe place; I rationalize that it’s okay to leave her there.

I resolve to check on her again the next day and pray I don’t find signs of struggle, a bunch of discarded feathers.

I return the next day. I see no feathers, no aftermath of cats feasting on a birdie, but I don’t know. I wish I knew she’d made it okay, but maybe not knowing is okay. I did what I could. The only thing I know for sure is I saved her from a long protracted death, and that, I decide, is okay.

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