By Jan Worth-Nelson
Even though this is about a bird – miraculous blue jewel, transfiguration in a city backyard – it begins with a crash in the middle of the night.
At 5:24 a.m. on a nondescript Tuesday, both of us in that deepest sleep in the darkest part of the night, light hiding out until the last minute, my husband and I were jolted out of sleep by a shock of noise – cacophony of cracks, bangs, shatters of glass.
We bolted upright in the dark. What the hell, what the shit? We grabbed for each other. Car crash? My husband let go of me and crept to the window. Peaceful street. Okay. Worse yet, a break-in? Somebody downstairs?
I have to sit back down, he said, I got up too fast. He dropped back on the bed, both of us breathing fast, hanging on to each other again, not sure what to do. I clicked on the light.
My heart’s pounding like crazy, I said.
I whispered again, break in? This is his nightmare: as the diminishments of age pile up, he’s been feeling mortality dig in. A lifelong alpha dog, now he worries that something will happen and he won’t be able to defend me.
We cautiously got off the bed; I pulled my black bathrobe around me. We ventured out the door.
This is what we saw: two heavy wood shelves on our hallway wall, pulled off their nails, two rows of family photos in their glass and frames dumped to the floor and down the stairs.
Well, then, of course, relief. Not a break-in. No home invasion. Just a weakness in the wall, a weakness in the screws, a weakness in carved and fluted wood that had been there for years. At 5:24 in the morning, in the dark, after decades of holding knickknacks up, the weight of my family photos in heavy frames finally brought the woodwork down.
Reason doesn’t calm adrenaline, so there was a residue: a hangover from momentary panic. It was only shelves. But also the shock. The dark. Our vulnerability. A sense of something falling apart, even in this solid old house. Our bodies struggled to catch up, to know we were safe. We stood in the hallway staring.
Glass and splintered wood. In the chaos, a photo of my dead sister and my still living brother, at 6 and 3, sweet smiles staring up at us from a pile of debris. Upended amid the shards, a 60-year-old family photo from an Ohio parsonage 10 years later with me in it, a classic formal shot I’ve always loved while understanding it was full of angst: my father in his black preacher suit, upright and patriarchal, my mother perched uneasily and overweight on an easy chair, all of us arranged and trying to smile. A 1956 family, so orderly, now crooked and dusted with splinters, its glass frame shattered on the floor of the house I live in now, the house and I both old. There’s something ghostly in it. At 5:24 a.m., things can feel possessed.
Did I mention we are atheists departed from our religious tribes, unbelievers who still kind of crave a little magic? Did I mention we have shrugged off the comfy sweaters of the afterlife, and that at moments like this we pretty much say to each other, yikes, This Is It – and that’s about as far as it can go?
So we were not soothed. We left everything there, retreating to our conjugal bed in a frenzy of hugging. Snuggled up, our nerves still jangling, we pushed our bodies together as tightly as we could, my front to his back, my lips to his shoulders, my belly against his spine, my flanks to his cold ass. I felt the backs of his knees, pushed into that, too, our legs parallel angles, like Escher stairs. We made each other warm in the aftermath, instinctual comfort after something about it chilled us, reminding us safety is an illusion in this world. Things happen.
In the morning, in a foggy daze, we tiptoed through glass on our way downstairs. Only halfway through the day did I finally sweep everything up, as if it would be disrespectful to disturb the photos where they’d fallen – a nagging, primitive sense that they were spooked, or that they foretold something, prophesied doom. I leaned the photos on the floor, against the wall. Wanted to call my brother in California – was he okay, is he happy? But I didn’t. If there was something wrong surely he would tell me.
* * *
If that story seems like an extreme reaction, consider this. For months, unease has been lurking hereabouts, as if everything is coming unmoored. I live in THAT city, where the sky-high homicide rate has been upstaged this year by poison, where the pipes keep chipping off lead and mothers are playing dead at the water plant to make a point.
We have been visited by every stripe of expert and politician, many TV crews, more writers, playwrights, carpetbaggers and scam artists than you can count. They’ve been in our cafes, our churches, our schools, our bars. We have a few heroes, but we don’t trust most of the others.
Two years in, we still don’t know if our water will be fixed. Or how. Or by whom. This is the backdrop to everything in our lives: layer upon layer of mistrust, layer upon layer of anger and fear. Even if you are a reasonable person and not given to catastrophizing, even if you believe that the water is safe enough to drink now, even if you’ve had it tested, had yourself tested, even if you’re taking precautions, it’s still a dark hum under the regular noise of life. Something went really wrong here, and that wrong thing happened right under our feet in our basements, over our heads in our showers, and worst of all in the brains of six-year-olds and in the bodies of people with AIDS. Some of these people might live right next door.
Our house – every house – has stacks of bottled water in the garage, bottled water at the sink where we brush our teeth, bottled water in the kitchen where we make our tea, bags of empty bottles piled up like crab shells waiting for the red recycling truck. In my case, even bottles of water at the back door for the birdbath.
It’s water, for Pete’s sake. Even the sanest people are a little up tight. It’s enough to make even the wisest, calmest old people cling to each other in fear, for hours, in the middle of the night when a couple of wooden shelves crash down.
* * *
It would be nice to think that the little bird winging his way into this picture picked us because amidst all the water bottles and digging around and burned out hulks and overgrowth in town, he saw something hospitable here. In our back yard.
Our back yard is an artifact of another woman’s past, the woman we bought it from when we lived next door, an elegant widow now aged and in a nursing home. We loved her very much. She flirted with my husband and said she loved my poetry. She used to give us lamb chops and seared asparagus and drink one Labatt’s Blue too many. Sometimes she would forget to set the alarm code and go to bed undefended in the room we sleep in now.
In the last four years she lived here she was broken into three times. The last time a guy woke her up in the middle of the night and said, “I’m not going to hurt you, I’m just going to take your TV.” He also stuffed his pockets with her jewelry, and as he ran away he left beads strewn on the stairs, the long stairs down, a few necklaces she would later pick up tenderly, a bit of salvage. He left footprints in the snow but nobody ever caught him.
Finally her children took her out, for her own safety. She knew she had to go but she went against her will.
We hardly drink at all and we always set the alarm. But we know the scavengers, the cat burglars, the skulkers are out there, watching.
The back yard, however, isn’t any kind of target. It is a legacy of Mary Helen’s love of gardens. Scilla and daffodils brighten up the first beds after thaw. Shaded by big pines and a silver maple. It is a woodland retreat. Every year, blood red trillium, mayflowers, and jack-in-the-pulpits push through the earliest scrub, among winter blowdown. Last spring a little patch of morels sprung up.
It is a cloister of varied loveliness, almost accidental in its perennial survival. A broken birdbath remains in a raggedy fern grove, and I’ve left it there on purpose, admiring its curvatures of ruin. I bought another one to hold water. There’s a smiling ochre Buddha in a nook at the bottom of a Northern spruce.
This back yard could be anywhere in the Midwest. But in this particular city in this particular year it has gravitas: it is reprieve and balm from the city, all the more remarkable for being in it, seasoned by its contrasts. This back yard is green vindication, thriving from spring rainwater in a land of abandonment, otherwise a territory of decrepitude and rust.
* * *
I put up feeders for finches and cardinals as soon as we bought the place. After my allergist told me last year I had to give up my cats, I sublimated to bird seductions: safflower, black sunflower seeds, peanut suet in a cage on the Bradford pear. Nuthatches, red-bellied woodpeckers and morning doves joined the spots of gold and red. Big windows in west-facing rooms open up to the action. Watching birds has become a daily rite, their scoops and dives and flutters a visual chant, peaceable beyond any idea of things. I stand still at the window and I look.
* * *
Two mornings after the shelves barreled down, the photos still discreetly leaning against the wall, the handyman having been called to check it out, the failed nail holes obsessively examined, the fade marks in the wallpaper nakedly exposed from where the shelves had been – all that observed and bemoaned, I got up as usual.
Quotidian comfort: padded downstairs, made two cups of tea in the microwave, turned up the heat, turned off the burglar alarm, pulled up four blinds, one by one: one, two, three in the dining room.
In the kitchen, pulled up number four.
And he was there. Brilliant. Blue. Canary-shaped and perfect, ground feeding alone as if he belonged, pecking calmly at finch feed drop.
I am not ashamed to say I shouted with joy.
I shouted with joy.
Oh my god. We have a bluebird!
We have a blue bird!
He cocked his head at me, me in bed head and dishevelment and joy.
I swear it was a physical rush: astonishment and delight and love of that bird so intense I felt like somebody released a brew of endorphins and oxytocin and tryptophan into my groggy body all at once.
I managed to find my iPhone. The blue bird stayed put, pecking and pecking and pecking. I clicked and clicked and caught him, one time looking right at me. Need I use the word transfixed? For 60 seconds, maybe more, I stood there feeling my body love its life, love its eyes that could see that beautiful blue.
What I thought: my eyes are meant to see a bird like that.
Then I rushed to Facebook – where else? – where I posted the photo and found out the blue bird was an Indigo Bunting.
A stampede of messages of awe and exclamation and envy. Most, like me, had never seen a bird like that. So much pleasure. So many WOWs.
We hovered at the windows, off and on, all day.
Every time my husband and I saw him we called out to each other. Once my husband saw him first – my husband standing behind me at the kitchen sink and he said, “There he is! There he is!” Watching that bird for just that tiny interlude – goodbye cynicism, goodbye angst, goodbye my jaded heart – was one of the purest, happiest moments we’ve had together – let’s just say, since the water went bad.
* * *
He stayed for two days, flitting among the sparrows and red-winged blackbirds, the finches with their jaunty black caps, the shambling doves. He was probably resting up from his migration: I learned that Indigo Buntings fly 1,200 miles each way on their yearly journey, and he probably was aiming for the brushier fields and jack pine stands up north. I listened to recordings of the Indigo Bunting’s song online, and then I heard it in our own trees, a lilting trill as sweet to the spirit as the bird’s bright blue, what The Cornell Lab of Ornithology calls, wonderfully, “a scrap of sky with wings.”
I learned that Indigo Buntings migrate at night, and that they use the stars for guidance. They have an internal clock, one website explains, that “allows them to continually adjust their angle of orientation to a star – even as that star moves through the night sky.” I’m gob smacked by this.
The fact that our little bunting ended up in our back yard by following the stars, a matter having nothing to do with our crumbling pipes, our human messes, our homicide rate, our raucous politics – the fact that nothing about any of that was relevant to one brilliant little bird – that fact, I’m pretty sure, just added about two or three more years to my life.
A couple of nights ago, when my best friend Teddy and I were drinking more red wine than usual in my sun room that faces the back yard, she warned me not to make a cliché out of the Indigo Bunting.
You can’t say it fixed anything, she said. Watch out for words like redemption, she said. Those shelves, that bird – those are two entirely separate things, she said.
She’s right. You can’t make it work as a classic fairy tale. But I’m going to tell it that way anyway: Once upon a time, the water in a whole city went bad and made people sick and then, months later, one night an old couple got scared, maybe a little scared of dying, and clung to each other in the dark after a bunch of shelves fell down, and then another day a blue bird showed up in their back yard and for two days in a row they were so happy they stood at the kitchen window together smiling and smiling, and because they were atheists they knew it wasn’t really an omen, but it sort of felt that way. And for those two days, they really loved the world.
CODA: Since this essay was written – just in March 2017, as a matter of fact – two things have happened: first, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded $100 million to replace Flint’s corroded pipes. The money was authorized by Congress before the Trump administration vowed to slash the EPA budget, Second, the ACLU, The Concerned Pastors for Social Action, and several Flint residents won a lawsuit against the State of Michigan requiring that the pipes be replaced. It thus seems that the beleaguered city’s infrastructure and citizens will experience a measure of redemption, although damage to Flint’s children will not be fully understood for years, trust remains severely damaged, and a dozen deaths from Legionnaires’ disease may be linked to Flint River water extracted during the crisis. And Flint residents still are drinking bottled or filtered water.
Jan Worth-Nelson’s work has appeared most recently in Hypertext, The MacGuffin, Midwestern Gothic, and The Exposition Review, which nominated her 2016 poem “The Hilarious Funeral in LA” for a Pushcart Prize. Her essay “Beam, Arch, Pillar, Porch: a Love Story” appeared in the Happy Anyway: The Flint Anthology from Belt Publishing. An MFA graduate of the Warren Wilson College program in creative writing, she wrote the 2006 novel Night Blind, based on her experiences in the Peace Corps (Tonga: ‘76-’78). Retired from a career as a writing teacher at the University of Michigan – Flint, she currently is editor of East Village Magazine. And is still drinking bottled and filtered water in the third year of the Flint water crisis.