The man was doing chores when he
noticed the first baby bird. His little boy
was with him, in his arms, held against
his hip. The boy was at this stage where
he liked to help out with whatever his dad
was doing. All the man had to say was, You
want to go to the basement? Daddy needs
to advance the laundry. That’s what the
man said, advance the laundry. He wasn’t
sure why he started saying it that way. He
pictured a pawn advancing across a crowded
chessboard. All he meant was he needed
to take the stuff in the dryer and put it
onto the folding table and move the stuff
in the washer to the dryer, and then start
washing the next load. That was how he
advanced the laundry.
So the man had said to his little boy,
Do you want to go to the garage? Daddy
needs to take the garbage out. And, of
course, the boy did. He ran to his father
as if he had just been asked if he wanted an
ice-cream cone. The man picked the boy
up, and then they got the garbage ready. It
was Sunday. Sunday was the day he took
out the garbage. Monday, for the little
boy, was the day the garbage trucks came.
Monday was also for music class. Tuesday
was the day the milkman came. The other
days had not yet acquired firm identities.
After they set the garbage cans in
the alley, the man decided he should do
the recycling and the compost, too. Just
to get it all done. He carried the little boy
back up the stairs and told him what they
were going to do next. He was always telling
the boy what was about to happen or
what had just transpired. That was when
the man noticed the baby bird. It was
lying on one of the steps, on its side. Its
feet were pulled up under it, as if clutching
something to its chest, and its beak
hung partway open. The man was pretty
sure the bird was dead. Flies were already
buzzing around it.
The man and the little boy went inside.
He washed their hands and then put
his son down. Can you play with Mommy?
he said. For a little bit? The man wasn’t
sure when he started phrasing so much
of what he said to his son as a question.
Like it was all optional.
In the living room, the man’s wife
was going through the week’s junk mail,
all the catalogs and come-ons that had
piled up. Sometimes something decent
So, the man said, there’s a b-i-r on
the steps out there. I need to clean it up.
The man and his wife only ever spelled
the first three letters of words, mostly the
nouns, because the boy knew a lot of nouns
already. Three letters were usually enough.
Context was everything.
You mean, it’s—
Yeah, he said. A baby, too. Their
son knelt on the floor, playing with his
cars. He lined them up and then tried to
balance his people on top of them.
I don’t think he saw it, the man said.
I doubt he’d understand, but I didn’t want
to, you know, make a big scene.
The man got a shovel and some
gloves and a couple of plastic grocery bags
and went back outside. Flies crawled over
the bird, more thickly than before, and
the man swatted at them with his gloves.
He felt angry at the flies, as if, somehow,
they were to blame. He slid the bird onto
the shovel and thought he heard a chirp.
He stopped and looked at the bird. The
edge of the shovel gleamed. It couldn’t
have been the bird. His bird was dead.
He looked again, checking for some sign
of life, some movement or breathing or
anything, but he saw nothing. Then he
heard another chirp. It sounded close
by, somewhere, but it was not his bird.
Definitely not his bird, he thought.
He eased the bird into one of the
bags and tied a knot with the handles.
There were ants on the step where the
bird had been, all massed together in one
intense spot. Could the bird have even been
dead for longer than an hour? The man
placed the bird inside the second bag and
knotted it as well. He just didn’t want
anything coming for the bird, some cat or
rat or the man didn’t know what.
When the man returned from the
alley, he found a second bird, lying at
the foot of the stairs. Another baby, and
the same type by the look of it. The flies
were back, too, and, the man suspected, the ants as well. If they weren’t, they soon
would be. What was worse, though, was
the bird was still alive, if only just barely.
Every few seconds, it flexed its legs out and
then pulled them in.
Oh no, the man said. Like he was a
child. That’s what the little boy said when
he dropped a toy or spilled his juice all
over the place.
The man wasn’t sure what kind of
bird it was. He’d seen them around. They
had dark brown feathers and speckles
across their back. He thought maybe they
were grackles, but he really wasn’t sure. He
didn’t know all the types of birds and what
people called them.
The man swatted at the flies with
his shovel and then looked at the bird. He
rested the shovel against the steps and then
folded his gloves over the handle. Where
were all these birds coming from? A tree
grew in their backyard, a maple, taller
than their home, but the man scanned
the branches and could find no nest. He
looked at their house then. There were,
it seemed, openings under the eaves, just
beneath the gutter. The man had never
noticed them before. It looked like a mistake,
something left off in construction,
the kind of thing he should have fixed
years before. They weren’t large, these
openings, but he guessed they were large
enough, weren’t they? He looked again at
the bird. Poor thing, he thought. All skin
and fuzz and bald on the head. The bones
of its wings were visible. The bird moved.
Oh no, the man said. Oh no. He
couldn’t stop saying oh no. He hurried up
the steps and went inside.
His wife and the little boy were playing
at a game they called bee in the box.
The rules were vague and ever-evolving,
but basically, there was a bee, and it could
get stuck in a box, except sometimes, it
could fly right out of the box and buzz
around the boy or land on his head or
shoulder. The bee could also walk along the edge of the box, singing its bee song,
only to fall right back into the box again.
The boy loved this game.
So, the man said, there’s another b-i-r
Yeah, and this one’s alive. Sort of.
His wife went back to playing. She
was the bee, it seemed. Is there anything
you can do? she said.
I don’t think I can nurse it back to
health, the man said. I mean, not in the
condition it’s in.
His wife nodded. Okay, she said.
I think I should probably—you
know, he said. But I really don’t want to
It’s okay, she said.
The man walked to the kitchen and
looked out the window into the backyard.
The bird was there still, on the ground. He
thought he saw it move.
Why don’t you wait an hour? his wife
said. Just give it a little time. Maybe it will
be fine, you never know.
The man doubted very much the
bird would be fine, but it sounded good,
waiting an hour.
His wife buzzed the bee around
their little boy’s head. The bee is getting
so sleepy, she told him. Her buzzing became
sluggish and then it became soft, like
a whisper. The bee needs a nap, she said.
No, the boy said.
In the days before their child was born,
just a couple of days, in fact, before they
went to the hospital, a baby bird showed
up on their doorstep. It could not have
been more literally so. They were just sitting
in the living room, watching television,
when the man heard the bird.
Did you hear that? he said.
The man went to the door and
opened it, and the bird was right there.
A tiny thing, crying. It was storming out,
and raining rather hard. The man figured
the bird had been knocked from its nest.
Maybe their doorstep, narrow as it was
and barely covered, was the best shelter
the bird could find.
The man bent to look at the bird. It tilted its head back and opened its beak,
then it cried again.
The man closed the door. There’s a
bird right outside our door, he said.
There is? his wife said. She got up
to come see. She was hugely pregnant and
lovely. She moved about slowly, holding
onto the sofa while she walked, bracing
herself against the back. One of her ankles
had been bothering her for the last week.
They had gone to see an acupuncturist
but it only helped some. She was so tired
The bird had moved to the top of
the stairs and was huddled underneath the
I think I should do something, the
man said. To help it.
His wife sat back down. I’m too
tired to do anything, she said. But you do
I just think I should, the man said.
I mean, it’s too weird, right? Waiting for
our baby and here this bird comes along.
It’s weird, you know?
His wife agreed it was pretty weird.
The man got an umbrella and some
twine and tied the umbrella to the railing,
so that it covered the bird and part of the
doorstep. Then he got a shallow bowl and
filled it with water. He just hoped the bird
knew what to do.
I don’t think I can feed it, he said.
His wife told him that was okay.
I mean, what does it even eat? the
man said. Regurgitated cricket or worm
I’m sure what you’ve done will help,
his wife said.
They watched some more television.
Somebody was running this marathon of
a sitcom his wife had seen when she was a
little girl. She knew all the jokes and how
all the stories ended.
Can you rub my feet? she said.
The man took her feet into his lap.
Of course he could, he said.
In the morning, the bird was gone.
The man looked around for it but didn’t
see it anywhere, not under their steps or
in their yard or in their neighbors’ yards.
He didn’t even see any feathers on the
ground. He was afraid, actually, he would
find feathers. He brought the bowl inside
and collapsed the umbrella, and he told his
wife the news.
That night, the bird returned. Just as
before, the man heard it and went to the door. He bent close, and the bird tilted its
head back and cried.
Hey, the man said. Do you want
He went to get a bowl, the same one
as before. It’s our bird, he told his wife.
He set the bowl down and then sat
in the doorway. The bird looked better
maybe, a little fuller perhaps. The man
wasn’t sure. They look so rough when
The next morning, the bird was gone
again. The man picked up the bowl and
emptied the water onto a plant. As he had
before, he looked around to make sure the
bird hadn’t fallen, or worse. He thought he
heard a bird that sounded like his bird, but
he couldn’t be certain. It was coming from
a tree, up high. He craned his neck and he
shielded his eyes but he didn’t see a thing.
While the little boy napped, the man
went to check on the second baby bird. It
was pretty much where he had left it and
not looking at all well. He swatted away
the flies. Stupid bird, he thought. Stupid,
stupid bird. Would there be more? The
man had to wonder. How many might
still be hatching under the roof?
As he scooted the bird onto the shovel,
its legs stretched out, as if trying to grasp
his fingers. Nerves, the man thought. Just
nerves. Life’s last gasp or whatever. If the
bird was alive somehow, if it was, in some
dim, barely functioning capacity, still alive,
it wouldn’t be for long. The man thought
he should kill the bird, probably, that it
was the right thing to do, but he couldn’t,
not with his hands and not with the shovel’s
edge. He just couldn’t do it. He was,
he supposed, a coward. Also, he was lazy.
Even if he had noticed those openings
under the roof, he wouldn’t likely have
fixed them. He would have meant to get to
the job, sure—he had good intentions—
but he doubted he ever would. He wanted
to be honest.
The man eased the bird into a bag.
Before tying it, he forced as much air out
as he could. If the bird were to suffocate,
please let it die quickly, he thought. At
least let it be quick.
When the little boy awoke from his
nap, they went to see some trucks. The city
had a thing where, every year, they brought
a bunch of trucks out, parked them by the
old stadium, and then let kids clamber all over them. It was something to do. They
had dump trucks, diggers, bulldozers,
and forklifts. There were ambulances and
fire engines, garbage trucks and police
cruisers. The little boy liked best the
In the corner of the parking lot, families
stood in a wide ring around a helicopter.
The man held the little boy in his arms,
against his hip, and his wife took photographs.
Soon, the main rotor on top of the
helicopter began to turn, slowly at first and
then faster, until it was chopping the air,
and all the man could hear was the heavy,
regular beat of the blades.
Inside, two men readied themselves,
checking controls, whatnot.
The man pointed at the helicopter.
Do you see the men? he said. They’re wearing
helmets. The little boy had just learned
the word helmet. The man pointed to his
head. Helmet, he said. He wasn’t sure the
boy could hear him. He was shouting and
he hardly heard himself.
The helicopter rose up, hovering a
few feet off the ground. Dust filled the air,
and the man covered his child’s eyes. The
helicopter floated before them, bobbing
slightly, like a toy. It rotated to the right
and then back to the left. The man started
to cry a little. He had no idea why. It
wasn’t the dust, he knew. As the helicopter
took to the air, he kissed the back of his
boy’s head and held him tightly. They
watched the helicopter pass overhead and
then circle around the stadium. People
waved, cheered, pointed at the sky.
The crying wasn’t a big thing, but it
did perplex the man. One night, a few
days after the fact, he asked his wife if she
happened to remember the helicopter.
Of course she did, she said. Why?
That’s when he told her something
had come over him. That was how he put
it. They were reading in bed. His wife was
lying backwards, facing the headboard,
with her legs resting against the wall. It
was some stretching exercise she did. For
circulation, the man thought. He couldn’t remember now, she had been doing it since
before the baby.
His wife thought maybe it was just
because their boy had enjoyed the helicopter.
He was so excited, she said. To see his
face, the look on it.
The man wasn’t sure. It was like,
watching the helicopter with him, he said,
I saw it as he would see it, maybe. Or anyway,
how I imagined he might see it. The
man riffled the pages of his magazine. It
all seemed, suddenly, too much somehow.
It seemed like such a strange place, he said.
The world and this thing in it, flying, and
us there. And why was any of it there? Why
were we there, you know, watching?
We went for the trucks, his wife said.
Because he really likes trucks.?
Right, I know, the man said, but can
you imagine never having seen something
fly before, and then, right there in front of
you, this thing flies?
I don’t know, his wife said. He looked
happy to me.
That’s good, I guess, the man said. He
stroked his wife’s legs while she stretched.
He was thinking back on the time, trying
not just to remember it, but seeing if he
couldn’t feel what he had felt. He had this
idea that if he could feel it again, then he
might be able to understand it this time.
He could move through it slowly, patiently
viewing it frame by frame, pausing,
rewinding, and then playing it back
once more. But already, the experience
had dimmed. It was like looking at a beloved
painting hung behind a thick pane
Maybe it just scared me, the man
said. He looked over at his wife. She was
paging rapidly through her magazine, as if
hunting for something she knew had to be
there. Do you ever get like that? he said.
She stopped flipping. Like what?
The man put his hands behind his
head and looked at the ceiling. How to explain?
It’s like, he said, but then he stopped,
because maybe, he thought, he should just
bail, make an easy joke and scurry away.
He could think about it later—or not.
Whichever, it didn’t matter. Somewhere, a rare tree stood in the middle of a meadow
on an island that the man had glimpsed
only a few times from the sea. The point
was to get there. The only problem was he
didn’t know how, not always.
It’s like there’s some basic thing, the
man said at last, some basic, fundamental
thing, but when you think of it, it’s scary
now. It’s not basic anymore, it’s inconceivable
or it’s strange or it’s whatever. But the
thing is, he said, you’ve never given it any
thought before, you never bothered, because
why would you? And now, of course,
now you can’t stop. You just keep thinking
of the stupid thing.
The man turned to his wife. Do you
know what I mean? he said.
His wife thought for a second. There
was this one time, she said. I was climbing
some stairs. I worked in an office, on the
sixth floor of a building. This was years
ago, she said. This was before I met you.
I thought it was good exercise, you know,
taking the stairs. They were on the outside
of the building. They were glassed-in,
but you could see out, so there was a view.
I really liked that view. I liked to look down
at the people as I walked up the stairs.
I’d pick someone out and then I’d try to
keep that person in my sight. Anyway,
one day, in the middle of climbing, I was,
I don’t know, four flights up maybe, when
I thought, How am I doing this? The
climbing, I meant. How does it even work?
I took another step then and I almost fell.
My foot felt weird, like it wasn’t my foot.
I couldn’t control it. It wouldn’t go up, at
least not as far as I needed it to. And the
next step was just as awkward. I had to will
my feet to move. I had to concentrate and
really focus on what I was doing. First the
one foot, and then the other. I was telling
myself that. It was like I’d never climbed
stairs before. Finally, I just had to stop.
I sat down against the railing and I rested.
What did you do? the man asked.
Eventually, I got up. I had to.
But about the stairs, the man said.
I made it the rest of the way, she said.
And later? he said. After that?
Well, she said, I guess, for a while,
stairs seemed rather odd to me.