First Place | Nonfiction Writing Contest
52nd New Millennium Award for Nonfiction
Melanie Hoffert of Battle Lake, Minnesota for “Bird Rearing During a Pandemic”
Hoffert will receive $1,000 and publication both online and in print.
Bird Rearing During a Pandemic
Day 1: Wednesday, July 1
My dog Lyle and I are standing over two hatchlings. One is dead. The other is trembling with closed eyes. The birds’ skin is like the inside of a belly button, pink and raw; the alive one is making soundless pleas for food, opening and closing its beak. There is a white blob of mucus near its body. Oh God, are its guts seeping out? I wonder. I later learn that this is an ingenious design of nature: neatly encased in a rubber-like sac is the bird’s waste, which the parents can easily discard from the nest. This is how little I know about raising a bird on day one.
Last night’s storm must have ejected these two, which means they’ve been in the grass for hours. I look at their nest, far higher than any ladder I have, and consider contacting our handyman who volunteers for the fire and rescue squad in town.
Instead, I say, “Fuck.”
I’ve said that a lot lately.
These little creatures just had to be on my path today—while the world is in a pandemic nightmare, my city is smoldering and grieving in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I’m paranoid that my wife doesn’t love me anymore, and—more practically—my car is running.
Before stumbling upon the hatchlings, I had been rushing to get to my parents’ house before dark. They live in North Dakota, a forty-five-minute drive from my cabin in central Minnesota where I’ve been staying. They had recently visited an open house and, without a plan, decided to downsize and buy a townhome. Now they need help.
I take inventory of what I know about rescuing a bird, which is nothing. I call Emily, my wife, who is three hours away at our home in Minneapolis. She doesn’t answer, which is probably fine because she thinks geese and ducks are the same things. I tap memory, essays, fairy tales, and I am pretty sure that people do this: they take baby birds, feed them, and then after a couple of days, the birds get healthy and fly away. They live.
The only thing I know for sure is that if I leave this bird, it will die like its sibling. I can’t have a death on my hands, not now, not even a circle-of-life kind of death.
I head into the cabin and grab rubber gloves, a cardboard box, a kitchen towel, tweezers, and a Styrofoam container of worms that I happen to have in the refrigerator. I feel serendipitously prepared, even though I will later read Do not feed rescued birds worms intended for bait.
Now on to the business of moving the hatchling. In summary, this is my current relationship with birds:
- I like them.
- I know common birds by sight: cardinals, blue jays, seagulls, loons, and so on.
- Just this summer, since my office closed due to the pandemic and I can work from our cabin, I put up feeders and bought a guide to identify birds that I don’t know.
- I appreciate how birdsong can crack time; how in the spring, red-winged blackbirds bring me back to running shirtless on the farm before I developed pesky breasts; and how at dawn, the cry of mourning doves stirs the ache of long-ago lost love.
- My family and I frequently exchange reports of owl sightings in memoriam of my grandpa. For days while he lay dying, a flock of snowy owls filled a tree near his home in Wyoming. I had never before seen an owl in real life.
That’s it. None of this qualifies me to touch a bird.
I take a deep breath, wedge my hand under its rump and lift—weightless. I place the bird in the box and the box in the back of my car.
It is nearly dark when I pull up and see my two brothers, who have just moved my parents’ furniture to the garage, standing in the driveway. They both give me a disapproving have-fun-with-that brother smirk as I come toward them with the box. I had called Mom, who has apparently told them about the bird.
I bring the box to Donny, a farmer. “Don. Look. This is just like your baby chickens delivered to the farm in those boxes. Your kids could—”
“No way,” he doesn’t let me finish.
“Dave,” I turn to my other brother, “Raising a bird would be a good project for town kids. During a pandemic especially.”
“Nope,” he raises an eyebrow, to say this is nuts.
Mom, Dad, Dave, and Donny all gather around the box.
“What is it?” Dave asks.
“A robin,” I say.
“How do you know?” Donny asks.
“I’ve seen baby robins in their nest before,” I tell him.
“You sure?” Dad asks.
“Mhmm,” I say.
They all repeatedly ask in different ways. What are you going to do? “Raise it,” I tell them.
I set the bird on a shelf in my parents’ garage, unload the car, and then walk through their house. Their belongings are scattered everywhere.
“How does this transition feel?” I ask Mom.
“Overwhelming,” she says.
“Want to help me feed the bird before bed?” I ask.
We take my supplies into the garage. I open the worm container and grab one—it doesn’t like this. I pin it down and slice it like I would a summer sausage—it likes this less. It writhes and spins and gyrates, even as I reduce it to little pieces. I will prepare this same meal dozens of times over the next many days, and it never gets easy.
With the tweezers, I lift the still-moving worm bits to the bird. “Should I blend it first?” I ask.
“I have no idea,” Mom responds, though the bird doesn’t seem to struggle as it takes the protein.
Before bed, I put the bird on a shelf in the garage. We are in a hot spell, but for extra measure, I slide a heating pad under the box.
Day 2: Thursday, July 2
While coffee brews, I grab the worms from where they sit in the refrigerator next to the pickled beets. The bird doesn’t make noise when I enter the garage, and I wonder if it ultimately survived the night. When I touch its box, though, it screeches bloody hell.
“Well, it’s still alive,” I say to Mom, who joins me in her robe. She and I take turns offering the bird worm parts and droplets of water as it thrashes around like a bobble-head toy in the hands of a fussy child.
“What should I name it?” I ask.
“Fred,” she says, and that’s that.
I think to step away from my mom. Air, the innocuous force that fills our lungs, is now a dangerous vapor that can no longer be trusted. Our closeness is both essential and terrifying.
When the pandemic hit, everyone in my family went into a hyper-vigilant mode, trying to keep each other, and especially our parents, safe. Now, craving contact and normalcy, we have become less vigilant in the summer weeks: Grandchildren are everywhere; Mom no longer wipes every surface with bleach, and now Mom and I are head to head, feeding a bird.
“Fred?” I ask of this little one who now has a name and an assigned gender. He is screeching like mad, pleading for more.
“Looks like he’s going to survive,” Mom says.
Day 3: Friday, July 3
Fred, I have to admit, is a little hard to look at. In just two days, his coloring has deepened to resemble the fatty gray of a roasted fish. He has a stripe of peach fuzz down his spine and a tuft of a Mohawk on his head. His eyes are bulbous. Tucked to his body, his wings are shaped like oversized paper clips and lined with pin feathers. I think of these tubular pins as miraculous mini ovens baking up bird parts. When Fred opens his beak, his mouth takes over his entire being in a triangulated wonderland of glistening ruby.
Today is the last day I’m helping my folks pack their house. We have been thinning belongings that have taken a lifetime to collect, and I have wondered how we arrived here: my parents making this final housing transition, short of a nursing home, and me, no longer a teenager, but in midlife.
Physical labor has been a welcomed distraction from the excruciating mental game I’ve been playing with my wife. After packing several closets and feeding Fred for a second time, I text her. Hi Honey, how is your day going? Subtext: Why in the hell haven’t you yet responded to my text from this morning?
Emily and I have been living apart for the summer. When Minnesota’s “stay at home” order lifted, she stationed herself in the city, tending to her restaurant that can now offer patio service. I stayed at the cabin, a once-in-a-lifetime chance, I thought, to be near water for an extended time to make progress on my next book.
We both imagined that our distance might be a nice change after being quarantined together for months. Instead, our time apart has somehow become trying. She doesn’t respond to texts quickly enough. To me, she seems distant and disconnected which has caused what feels like a heat rash on my internal organs. To her, I seem unreasonably overbearing and controlling. We can’t get on the same page.
She eventually responds. Busy day. Trying to get out of here. See you tonight.
Day 4: Saturday, July 4
This morning I am back at the cabin, sitting by the lake, drinking coffee while searching for information about how to care for Fred. I cannot believe that I can’t find a simple, day-by-day account of how to raise a baby robin. Isn’t this common? I consult my Birds of Minnesota Field Guide and learn that robins also eat berries and bugs in addition to worms.
“Great. We have blueberries,” I say. “I’m going to feed Fred.” I turn to Emily, who arrived last night and is reading. “Want to help?”
“Not really, Hon,” she says, not looking up. I had sent her pictures, but my rescue mission became more tangible last night when she found a bird living in our garage.
I gather the berries and open the garage door. Fred goes mad. This is the beginning of our budding communication: He sits still until he hears me, at which point he can hardly catch his breath.
Fred takes a few chopped berries from the tweezers; they gather in the crop in his neck, inflating it like a tiny balloon. Then, as if to make room for more, he pauses, raises his rear, and cranks out a poop ball. After a few more berries, the sharpness of his squawk softens to a chirp. I take this to mean that he is satiated.
I return to sit by Emily and continue my research on bird rearing. One thing that is standing out: raising a bird is not a three-day-long process. They live in their nests (or in Fred’s case, an Amazon box) for something like thirteen days. And then, once they leave, they are still dependent upon their parents for two to three weeks as they learn to fly and forage for food.
“Good God,” I say. “I think I have to teach Fred to fly.”
Today is Emily’s birthday. Seven years ago, her mom gifted Emily my book, and that is where our story started—even before we met. Months after our initial meeting I had been staring into moody layers of a November sky, which makes one ache for retreat and comfort, for oak-aged wine, piles of clothbound books, and fire. On that day, I also found myself longing for her. I had, I realized, fallen in love. Soon after, our relationship led me to all I had imagined for my life—and even what I hadn’t, especially marriage, which I had previously sworn off since it hadn’t been legal for two women until right after we met.
I scan my body for the fear that has plagued me since she returned to the city. With her near, I am calm; fear only a suggestion in a small cavity of my mind.
Day 5: Sunday, July 5
Yesterday Emily ended up feeding Fred with me, leaning over his box with genuine fascination, though she has little interest in nature and especially birds. “This could be good practice for a baby,” I had teased. “A bird is not a baby,” she rebuked. Tomorrow she heads back to the city, and I worry that worry will once again ravage my mind. While she works from an Adirondack chair, I walk down to the boat landing, four cabins down, and sit alone on the dock to gain perspective on what has rendered me so unhinged.
This spring, during quarantine, our relationship had been the best it had been, though everything else seemed in ruin. For the two years prior, before the virus, we had had little focused time together. Emily, a lawyer by trade, had started a civil rights enterprise to invest in formerly incarcerated individuals’ lives—a significant endeavor in itself, but her plan included a restaurant. She doesn’t cook—which, to anyone who does, will say enough about how this went. We were in a time of beauty and chaos: fundraising, permits, construction, community building. We had also planned and held our wedding during that same stretch, navigated the unexpected loss of both of her parents, and I started a new job. Our lives were like satellites flung into space with our relationship trailing behind, trying to catch up.
When COVID hit, everything stopped. Emily shuttered the restaurant. My office closed its physical location. She and I packed a few things, our dog and cat, and drove to the cabin, figuring we’d be there for a couple of weeks.
Those weeks stretched into months. As the virus bloomed in Minneapolis, though hard to make peace with our privilege, staying put seemed the most prudent.
Within the quiet of our uprooted lives, Emily and I brought our relationship into an equilibrium. We watched snowfall, completed puzzles, wrote, read, and talked about having a baby. We promised each other that we would keep a thread of peace when our lives returned to normal.
To normal, we thought.
When the stay-at-home orders spread from the rest of the world to the United States, I told Emily that my grandma would die if they restricted family visits at her nursing home; that the daily infusion of familiar voices and touch is what kept her alive.
They restricted visits. On Easter morning, Grandma died. Alone.
Days later, when they lowered her body into the ground, I called my mom, who could have never imagined not being at her mother’s bedside or graveside. We both cried as we watched clouds pass in two different skies.
Before Grandma’s death, the weight of the pandemic had hit me squarely, just once, while on a walk. I was arrested by snow-covered fields with horses in the distance standing against a red barn. This stunning view seemed fragile and fleeting, almost pointless amidst the suffering and mounting death toll. I bent over and couldn’t stop crying.
Then, after Grandma passed, everything got worse.
Days before Emily and I had planned to head back so she could open the restaurant, a cop, who might as well have also been clipping his nails as he casually rested his knee upon a human’s neck, murdered George Floyd. Emily immediately returned to protest. She had intended to come back and get me the next day, but the unrest in our neighborhood escalated.
As the chaos spread from the Third Precinct police station, just ten blocks from our home, I watched on CNN as fire and destruction twisted and bent and emptied neighborhood landmarks: Gandhi Mahal where I ordered Matar Paneer; the post office with its always too-long lines; the Target where I darted in for pens, tampons, bags of mandarins.
Without intervention from the National Guard, fire department, or police, Emily and our neighbors were in a distressing situation, not knowing how far the chaos might spread. At night they kept watch as choppers hovered overhead and tanks made their way past our block.
During those few days, I was desperate for updates. To be away from our home felt unnerving as the world faced the most extreme implication of the racism woven into everything around us: the death of a man. Emily had no time to talk. Perhaps this is when fear took over my mind, as the illusion that good will prevail unraveled in front of us all.
Day 6: Monday, July 6
Fred is no longer making his little poop sacs but now releases smooth, wet blue excrement with worm chunks. I trade his towels for newspapers so that I can swap them out frequently. He’s growing up.
Day 7: Tuesday, July 7
“Fred?” It is dusk when I check on Fred for the last time today. Typically, when I enter the garage, Fred cries with his demands, but he’s not responding. “Fred?” I call again and turn on the light. I toss cans into the recycling, making a racket—still nothing. I squat down to take a closer look. Fred has tucked his head into the nook of his wing joint. He’s sleeping.
That this bird cannot be bothered when night falls, no matter how much noise I make, stokes my burgeoning affection for him. I sleep deeply, finding strange comfort that I have a creature in my garage safe in slumber.
Day 8: Wednesday, July 8
Each day Fred is a new bird. Today is his teenage stage; he is mangy and awkward. Feathers have started to sprout from the ends of his baking tubes. Fresh gray down coats his entire body. The tuft on his head has grown out.
Yesterday I laid a branch across his box. He is perched on it now and appears much more comfortable than he was sloshing around in the newspaper. “Sorry, Fred. I’m learning,” I say.
I leave the garage just as Dad walks in. At the same time, a tornado warning screams across my phone, as it has done multiple times this summer.
My parents are in the area because they had hauled a load of items to their cabin, which is fifteen miles away. I had been waiting for them to stop by for dinner and am relieved they are here as angry clouds move in.
Mom comes in after Dad and hugs me. “Where’s Fred?”
“In the garage,” I say. I reach to open the door, and Fred goes bananas.
“The weather is coming directly at us from the south. I think we should drive,” Dad insists as Mom peeks into the garage.
“You want to drive away from the storm. With tornado warnings?” I ask.
“Yes, and if we are going to go, we need to go now.”
Leaving the cabin doesn’t strike me as wise, but I still defer to him, even in my forties.
When we are in their car, barreling north, my palms sweating, I ask, “Is this safe? Running from tornadoes?” When I was growing up, we had a crawlspace for these situations.
“This is what we did on the farm, before radar,” Dad says. “We’d have to watch the sky and drive.”
Behind us, black clouds are billowing with the intensity of wildfire smoke. Ahead is a bright sky, full of sun and cumulus puffs. We drive for about fifteen minutes before Dad swings back to the cabin. The storm is now passing us to the west.
“That looks like a funnel cloud,” I say and point to a white hook reaching down from what looks like harmless clouds at the edge of the storm.
“A white tornado,” Dad says.
He is seventy, and just tonight, after all of our years together, I have learned that he outran storms and has the phrase white tornado in his vocabulary. There is always more to know, and I wonder how much time we have to know it all.
Day 9: Thursday, July 9
Pictures from last night of neon green fields and whipped clouds against a purple sky could have been from a Hollywood set, splendid—if tragic. One man died. I can’t help thinking how generations from now his family will recall how he survived a pandemic but was taken by a tornado.
This morning Fred’s wings are mostly formed, with remnants of keratin clinging to his joints. He is a full fledgling.
My heart is raw again. No matter how much Emily tries to calm my fears, telling me that our relationship is perfect, that we are fine, I can’t get it out of my mind that she is distant—that something is off. The possibility that all will be lost is wild within me. Somehow the only thing that brings me peace when she is not here is understanding her every move: how she’s navigating, who she’s meeting, what her day entails.
“You’re just getting up?” I had asked her earlier on the phone—after I didn’t hear from her via text.
“So—”she snapped. “Do you now have an issue with when I wake? Or go to bed? Or go to the bathroom?” She’s incensed. I don’t blame her.
The truth is, I don’t have an issue with when she wakes. I know, rationally, that we have had countless days apart when one of us has slept in or gotten caught up in a morning task, and before this summer. I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. I am also confident that she loves me and that our marriage is steadfast and right; that the circuit between my mind and chest has a short. No matter what I do, though, I can’t rewire it.
Embarrassed by my hovering and defeated by her response, I open the garage door. Fred leaps from his stick; he flaps his wings and skids around like a drunk driver until he lands on my foot. My heart pounds. He has not before had the motor skills to get where he wants to go. “Well, hello, Fred,” I say. “I guess tomorrow we’ll hook you up with some flying lessons.”
Day 10: Friday, July 10
Before Fred, I could have never imagined how much work nature does on a singular creature in one day. This morning Fred is covered in a full, gorgeous, velvety gray coat—a color I’d select for a duvet cover. He has graduated from teenager to grumpy-old-man, with a cross-look and hunched-over posture that makes him look like he doesn’t have a neck.
“Alright, Fred, let’s go.” I put on gloves, scoop him into my palms. Once outside, I place him on a stick and lower it two feet above the grass. I slide my hand under his rump and give him a little push. He flaps his wings and does a flutter-run-gallop, flutter-run-gallop down to the ground. We do this again and again; each time he is airborne for a few more seconds. When he’s had enough, he hops around in the grass and then sits in the shade of the garden.
When it is time to go in, I take my gloves off and lift his milkweed-soft body into my bare palms. He looks up at me, and I swear that we acknowledge each other. Today is the last time I will handle him with gloves.
Day 11: Saturday, July 11
For days I’ve been coaxing Fred to eat on his own, and he refuses. I even composed a garden of worms and berries at his feet. I’m concerned that he’ll learn how to fly before he can feed himself. I dial the rural vet near the cabin.
“I have a strange question,” I say to the woman who answers.
“Sure,” she says.
“I know this is probably not something you deal with, but I found a baby robin after the storm almost two weeks ago. I’ve been feeding it and wonder if you know anyone who can tell me what to do.”
“I just went through this,” she says.
“Wait. You did?” I feel the first bit of relief in days.
“Yes, well. I mean not with a bird. Baby raccoons.”
“What did you do?” I ask.
“Well, we fed them. Then I found a list of endorsed rehab people on the Department of Natural Resources website.”
“Who took the raccoons?”
“Yes—nobody around here takes them. But maybe you’ll find a bird person.”
I thank her, hang up, and scan the list of wildlife rehab providers. One would think that there would be places all around me in rural Minnesota, but the closest locations are hours away.
Day 12: Sunday, July 12
This morning I set up near the shore to watch the waves and write. Before I sit down, I go to the garage. Fred leaps from his perch by the window, flaps in a lumbering cruise, and lands on my pant leg, clinging for dear life. I scoop him and toss him for some flying practices. He batters around, crashing into the recycling, banging into my bike, falling between stacks of old lumber.
“Want to sit outside with me, Fred?” I ask. I put Fred on my wrist, and with my other hand, grab a piece of thick driftwood I had left for him. I set the driftwood next to the computer and tip my wrist. Fred takes his perch.
I write while Fred sits, showing no urge to leave. I study his eyes as they follow the action of other birds that dart with ease over the olive-green twirl of waves.
Day 13: Monday, July 13
Today Fred is more steady. He is flying all over the garage, sticking his landing on shelves and even on my shoulder where he cries in my ear.
His voice doesn’t have an easy phonetic translation. It isn’t melodic or pleasant; instead, it has a strained crow-like sharpness to it. Even so, his call is now familiar.
Grandma is on my mind today. For weeks I have been trying to absorb the reality of her death. While she and Grandpa lived states away, having moved to Wyoming for a job on the railroad when I was born, they were ever present, often driving fourteen hours east for our life milestones. The Christmases of my childhood are lights and mountains and mounds of presents. Upon our arrival to their western wonderland, Grandma would pretend to lock the door and shut the shades; her quick wit stayed with her until the end. I have been lucky to have her so far into my life, and now it is like she vanished into thin air. As if she is simply no more.
When Mom was here last, she brought me a local paper that ran Grandma’s obituary. Nestled among headlines about mental health, pets in the pandemic, masks, social distancing, business closings, and personal protective equipment is her death notice. In 1920, the paper might have printed her birth notice with similarly slanted headlines from the end of the 1918 pandemic.
In pictures from her youth; Grandma always had a pop of deep red lipstick and a zing of mischief in her eye. Before she died, I had recorded Grandma’s accounts of skipping school as a teenager to smoke and tip outhouses with friends. She was a devout Catholic and housewife, and I adored knowing these contrasting stories. I wish I would have asked for the stories passed to her—whether our family had lost anyone in the tragic wave that had hit the world just before she was born.
One of the last times I saw Grandma, she had said to me, “I help babies be born.” I was lying next to her, having crawled into her recliner to stroke her head.
“Well, Grams, you know that you were with Mom in the delivery room when I was born,” I replied. “Maybe that’s what you mean?” She cocked her head, trying to detangle my words, her eyes flickering, watery, my eyes searching for recognition through the tunnel of dementia between us. She touched my cheek and said all she could think to say, “I love you.”
I consider now how she was there when I entered the world. I had always presumed I’d be with her when she left.
Day 14: Tuesday, July 14
My lake neighbors have repeatedly suggested that Fred is a blackbird. I have told them they are wrong, that He is clearly a robin, duh. But after some quiet questioning about Fred’s curiously un-robin-like development, I text a picture to our friend, Janice. She’s a woman who knows something about everything.
Jan. Do you think Fred is a robin? I write.
Jan writes back. Maybe he’s a starling?
I feverishly search for information about starlings. This is when I learn that worms carry parasites, and one should not, under any circumstances, feed them to rescued birds. Worse: starlings, it turns out, do not even eat worms.
“Fred, you cannot die,” I say as I stroke his head with a finger.
Day 15: Wednesday, July 15
Starlings are in the family “Sturnidae.” In the past 24 hours, I have learned that starlings are not popular birds; an invasive species, people are obsessed with getting rid of them. There is even a legal pesticide, DRC-1339, that one can use to kill them.
A few other facts: Mozart had a pet starling. Today there are no wildlife protection laws that make it illegal to keep them. Like parrots, starlings can mimic the human voice. Mary Oliver wrote a poem titled “Starlings in Winter.”
While there is much to learn about the species, I turn my search to the symbolic meaning of starlings—as in the woo-woo sense. This is where I’m at. I need signs. On a website called psychic elements, I find what I’m looking for:
Like the sparrow, the starling teaches the importance of communal and family co- operation, while at the same time its aggressive tendencies are ones that should be avoided. Starling tells you that hierarchies within family relationships are normal, and they help to promote harmony. Yet, at the same time, if you feel hemmed in and constricted it’s necessary to fly away.
Day 16: Thursday, July 16
Yesterday Fred moved into a grove of trees next to the cabin. He spent most of the day flitting around on branches and then coming when called for feedings and bed. Progress.
Since his first flying lesson, I have been posting pictures of Fred on social media in hopes of finding an expert bird-person in my midst. Everyone has tried to help: Call a wildlife rehab place. Talk to my second-cousin-once-removed, who has captured and saved countless critters.
Today I post a picture of Fred and tell everyone that he’s gaining more independence but not yet eating on his own. Afterward, I look back at a photo that my friend had shared months ago; it is of her young grandpa and his brothers in the early 1900s. The caption reads in part: “The sweetest photo of my grandpa Corwin (on the right) with his two younger brothers. In the middle – Verlin, who died around age 12/13 of flu…”
Just today we’ve hit a record number of COVID cases. I could have never imagined that the year 2020, which many of us had designated to be one of balance and clarity of vision, would put this generation face-to-face with a modern pandemic and escalating civil unrest. And yet, humans are always living through the cruelest of tragedies and the most inexplicable lack of civility; we just all have different seats at any given point.
Day 17: Friday, July 17
This morning I am incensed. While getting supplies earlier today, I struck up a conversation with a man who, when he realized that I live in Minneapolis’s Third Precinct, said, “I don’t understand that senseless destruction.”
The loss of buildings is all some people want to talk about; not, I don’t understand this death. Another racist, unchecked murder.
When Emily finally had time to pick me up after the protests, I had joined a city in mourning before coming back to the cabin to write. The streets by our home were remade into burned blocks that felt like ghost towns.
What haunted me, then and since, is not the absence of buildings, though, but the absence of agreement that what is happening in our country is wrong; that even a man who was suffocated in front of our eyes is not enough to shift the minds of some. And I am not perfect. While Emily protested I stewed with concern about her exposure to COVID. We had become so artful in our avoidance of disease. Within a global civil rights uprising, and a pandemic that is ravishing some communities more than others, I am now horrified by my self-interest. No wonder Emily wants nothing to do with me.
In my current self-loathing, I decided to confront a nagging suspicion I have and Google “mental health + pandemic.” As I figured, the results scroll for pages and are filled with studies and statistics suggesting that depression and anxiety have skyrocketed. The Atlantic’s headline pretty much sums it all up: This Is Not a Normal Mental-Health Disaster.
I have not had insurmountable struggles with my mental health. Now, however, I recognize that my inability to tether my mind is harming me, wreaking havoc on my marriage, and destroying any notion that I can enjoy a writing retreat by the water.
When I visit him later near the trees, Fred lands on my shoulder and nuzzles into my neck. He has the same bulk as a baby kitten. Tears fill my eyes. “Fuck. I have to get a grip, Fred,” I say, though it is not lost on me that I’m crying to a bird sitting on my shoulder. And yet, I’m grateful for the tiny glint of purpose and worth he grants me.
Day 18: Saturday, July 18
Emily is again back for the weekend. I coax her outside, sit on the grass, and say, “Em, watch this.” I then yell, “Fred!”
“Squawk,” he returns my call.
“Fred, come here!”
Fred zips around the corner, flying about two feet above the ground; he coasts over the yard, over the garden, and lands on my leg.
“No way,” Emily says.
“I mean, Honey, I can yell into the sky and a bird lands on me,” I say. “He hangs out in those trees during the day,” I point. “When he’s not exploring in the woods, he hops around the yard as he likes. What am I going to do with him?”
“Well, you have to keep him,” Emily responds.
“Like, have him live with us?” I am bewildered by this suggestion. I can’t imagine her being okay with a bird roaming our less than 1,000-square-foot house.
“You can’t just leave him here,” she says.
Day 19: Sunday, July 19
In researching what it would take to keep Fred, I stumble across a lesser-known pandemic from the 1930s, coined the Parrot Fever. Parrots were all the rage, an exotic symbol of imported status. The mysterious illness caused panic at first. And then, soon after, denial—with people refusing to believe the risks. Though they didn’t realize it at the time, the deadly disease was transmitted through the air, like coronavirus, and also through mouth to beak contact.
As it turns out, I have not yet kissed Fred, even though it is people’s favorite joke to ask if I’ve fed him with my mouth. The truth is, though, if Fred can’t figure out how to eat on his own, some sort of captivity is imminent. I have tried to entice him to nibble by luring his head with the tweezers down to piles of food. Still, he doesn’t eat unless I place the food in his beak myself.
When Fred comes to me this morning, I set him on a table where I’ve assembled a new smorgasbord of corn, blueberries, and thawed frozen peas. “Come on, Fred,” I beg.
Fred tilts his head, grabs a kernel of corn by the skin with a jerk, and flicks it into his mouth. “Oh my God. Good boy, Fred,” I say. He grabs at another. “Yes. Yummy,” I coax. All of a sudden, his internal system kicks in, and he pecks as if he’s stumbled upon mana. Even though he’s only getting in a few kernels, this is progress.
After this significant development, Fred and I are content for the rest of the day.
At dusk I go to the trees to call Fred in for bed. I can see him looking at me, but he doesn’t move. Usually, I could grab him, but he is on a branch above my reach. After pleading with him for a few minutes, I finally back down and return to the house by myself.
Settling into bed, I consider that Fred is made for the trees, for the outside world, that his species has been fashioned and honed over millions of years to survive a night in the wild. Everything I have read stated clearly that Captive, not wild, birds are the ones that are at risk. Warning after warning of Let nature take its course. Don’t touch an abandoned bird. You will only do more harm than good. I felt terrible when I realized the error I had made in grabbing Fred.
The only thing that gets me through the night is a tiny, renewed flicker of faith in prevailing goodness.
Day 20: Monday, July 20
As soon as the sun floods the sky, I step outside. I know, somehow, that Fred is going to come when I call. And he does. This time, though, he surprises both the dog and me by landing on Lyle’s back. Lyle seems mildly annoyed but walks around gingerly, a newly minted big brother of a little bird.
Day 21: Tuesday, July 21
For the first time, Fred has flown to the top of our roof. As I move about the yard, he follows me, hopping to each corner of the house. I walk to the shore and turn back to watch as Fred cleans himself near the chimney, high above. From now on, our access to each other is according to him.
Day 22: Wednesday, July 22
Today I am working on the dock when Fred comes soaring from the roof. Attempting to land, he instead ricochets off my arm and falls in the lake. I lie on the dock and manage to extend my arm far enough to make contact. Fred grabs my hand with his sharp talons—I pull him to safety and put his waterlogged body next to my pounding chest. I walk to the shore while he begins to tremble with fear.
Day 23: Thursday, July 23
Fred does as he pleases today. Roams the yard. Lands on Lyle. Walks the deck. Pecks at grass. Visits his feeding station. In the afternoon, I fill a pan full of water and set him on the ledge, figuring that after yesterday’s water rescue, he needs to learn how to take a birdbath. Fred jumps in, dips his wings, and plays so gleefully that he looks just like a pencil-drawn cartoon in one of those books that you can animate with the flick of a thumb.
While we go about our day, I look up and notice the hundreds of other birds around us, darting with confidence and purpose. Each one of them could have been Fred. Fred could have been any one of them—agnostic to me, even fearful. It is as if Fred has been plucked from another universe. Or I have.
When dusk sets in and Fred is asleep, I walk the gravel road. The darkness is so pervasive that I cannot see my feet and so I feel like I’m floating, disembodied. Suddenly nature comes alive for me in a way it hasn’t for weeks as I glide. The loons banter in the distance with their magical yodel, and frogsong rises from the ditches where fireflies also dart with a translucent yellow glow. I follow the moonlight until I am at the dock by the boat landing where I lie on my back.
The moon breaks in and out from clouds. This trading of light and darkness is beautiful and sorrowful all at once. In my state—no body, no mind—everything materializes in the sky. It is as if I can see my fears as energy—Grandma’s isolated suffering, my parents’ journey through the pandemic, the impact my mental anguish has on my marriage, how easy it is as a white person to be complacent in a broken and racist world—no longer embedded in my mind, no longer pulsing through my blood.
Day 24: Friday, July 24
Late this afternoon, before I run to town for errands, I call into the trees. Fred doesn’t respond, which is odd. I don’t have time to go eyeballing for his whereabouts and figure he must not hear my call.
Day 25: Saturday, July 25
Fred is gone.
Life After Fred
Once when I was reading one of Emily’s legal papers, I came across the phrase “piercing the veil.” Piercing the veil is a phrase used when courts disregard a legal shelter, such as a limited liability company, to pursue the human behind it. I envisioned a thin, white, flowy dome suspended in air and a majestic lance with a razor-thin point. One slice releases everything; one slice reveals the truth. I found the phrase beautiful when detached from its legal meaning, and I have since wanted a time to remake it.
Perhaps I can offer this now: That Fred and I pierced the veil; that our encounter punctured the invisible fabric that cloaks the innate connectedness of all things. And in a short period of warped reality, we were bare, exposed, raw creatures, existing when nothing seemed certain—not love, not freedom, not justice, not life. But with that puncture, we had access to the small, present comfort born of needing each other.
Fred’s absence did not come to me on a day of peace. Emily and I couldn’t get on the same page that day. After I hung up with her, I called my mom and told her about Fred. “Do you think he flew away?” she asked? “I don’t know,” I said, wondering if he died, or had been attacked.
When we hung up I cried for nine hours.
I have never cried for nine hours.
I needed to cry for nine hours.
Fred’s departure forced me to embody something I desperately needed to practice: release. And the next day, now fully emptied, I practice flipping my mind. What if my marriage is strengthened as a result of this stressful summer? What if my parents stay healthy? What if Grandma knew, somewhere in the faraway place of her dementia, that we would never abandon her? And what if she chose to leave on Easter—the holy day of her Christian tradition—to tell us as much? What if this time in our history helps us pierce the veil that masks our connectedness to the planet, to each other? What if Fred is safe and thriving—exploring a life he almost missed?
Someday, those of us who survive this time may have grandchildren of our own who ask for stories. My stories will include the summer of 2020 when I raised a bird named Fred. I will tell the kids that after he decided to go, I was devastated. But from that day forward, I’d walk around, calling into the sky, wondering if he would come. And how I knew from that point forward, even in moments of loneliness or despair, always near are thousands of pure beings, also with beating chests, which is a strange magic that I had never before considered.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melanie Hoffert is the author of Prairie Silence, which won the Minnesota Book Award in Memoir and Creative Non-Fiction. Melanie splits her time between her home in Minneapolis and her cabin near Battle Lake, Minnesota where she is finishing a memoir called Water Land. She can be found at: melaniehoffert.com.
Bird Rearing During a Pandemic © 2022 Melanie Hoffert