by Toti O’Brien
You have come to squat in my front yard when I’m about to leave. Busy emptying the house, repainting it room by room to get it ready for sale, overwhelmed and distracted by the surrounding chaos, mortifying un-domesticity, un-coziness, I have given up gardening efforts for the last few months. Painfully, as the sight of my small plot invaded by wilderness doesn’t help my mood.
Yet, thanks to the careless status of the grounds, to the sloppiness so depressing me, you have found the ambience extremely tasteful. “What a nice haven,” you have thought, “discreet, intimate, safe.”
You had begun to feel weak. At the end of your brooding month, I have learned, you’ll be completely exhausted. Did you melt among the tall grass, spreading yourself like a puddle? Plumage color of mud, dust, dry leaves, with a shimmer of blue reminding of water.
Well, I didn’t see you arrive. I almost bumped on you in the semidarkness, one night. You had already blended within the landscape, like a rock, a root or a trunk I would have previously missed by lack of observance. Only, you were alive and I gasped.
Alive, yet so tranquil that you seemed to have trespassed from the animal realm, making yourself as vegetal, as mineral as you possibly could. Camouflage… what’s the gist of it? Lose identity and espouse similarity. Smudge contours and blur edges in order to vanish. Your feathers the color of dirt, your breath imperceptible. Sphinx-like head, vitreous eyes.
Though as I neared, then moved to the side, then away, you followed me with your gaze, and your long thin neck slightly twitched. But the bulk of your body stood still. If you were afraid, you didn’t betray your fear.
You were spread like a puddle, I said—a small oval pond. But you were also compact, collected. Anchored. Voluntarily shackled. In chains.
I have seen the same uncanny calmness before, emanating from a bird on the other side of the spectrum, as small as you are huge. Tiny tiny humming bird, also sitting on eggs and still like an image. I so admired the prodigy of that frantic being morphed into an icon, marvelously immobile or rather unmovable. Like you are, night and day.
Monday, a raging storm has exploded and I have worried about you. I don’t have an umbrella in the house… Here the weather is sunny and dry. Monday, though, a storm has broken and I have wondered about what you’d do. You could not displace eggs so large, that I’d need my two hands to simply lift one of them. You could not move those eggs, for god’s sake.
You have remained in place with no visible sign of trouble—all of your vital sap, I bet, spiraling inwards, helping you to endure the chill, the discomfort. Just as for a homeless one coiling in a corner, curled to keep her viscera, her lungs, her heart warm—head down, face on her knees—breathing slowly, yet unable to keep the shivering at bay. Waiting for the rain to stop. Waiting, patiently.
Did you know that the rain would cease? I don’t think so. Did you know what the thing that pelleted you was? Come on. I am applying the wrong lexicon. All you knew was that you should stay put—belly glued against the bumpy stones you had laid and now you’d shield against all adversities.
Is this motherly love? What I witnessed, truly, was a quiet bird sitting on eggs under the downpour.
It would pass. The storm. Did your instinct tell you? Not sure. What instinct requires from you is blind, timeless endurance…Patience without clocks, without calendars becomes infinite—quintessential, because unconditional.
What would you do, I muse, in case of a hurricane? An earthquake? Would you die like a soldier on the front line? A sentry at her post? Would you run if, let’s say, a coyote roamed by? Or a couple of hawks? I am not sure.
Last week I have told Mom about the peahen in my front yard. Truly, I have written about it, as Mom’s hearing is poor and she doesn’t take phone calls. Her short-term memory is gone, due to age, so she doesn’t recall the things that I write. They vanish on the spot. But I thought the story of the hen might please her for a minute. The anecdote might lift up her mood, for a minute.
I sure didn’t imagine that she would remember about it, days later, and send a delayed response. “I envy that creature…” My brain wrapped itself around her short sentence once or twice, without making sense of it. Why would Mother—such a proper lady—envy a bird stuck in dirt night and day, rain or sunshine? Frail, exposed, underfed, too warm or too cold? Sitting on five boulders?
Then it dawned on me. Mother envied the hen because she was sitting, indeed. And the eggs hadn’t hatched, and the progeny was as stuck as the parent was—safe and under control. Mother envied the bird that still had lost nothing. Nothing, yet.
First, my son—more practical and generous than I am—has started feeding you. I had trusted that you’d provide for yourself, your long neck pecking at the surrounding grass. And you do, though I have learned that after your brooding month you will be consumed, depleted.
My son gave you a dishful of oats. It was hard to tell, afterwards, if you had spilled them on the ground—expressing indifference—or if you had eaten, if awkwardly due to your captive stance.
It was hard to understand, because you never moved if someone was present. But you had eaten. You eat. Careful inquiry proves it. There’s no trace of food in the grass. You eat, secretly and slowly.
Now I am feeding you. You let me come close. Your eye sticks on me like a magnet, but your neck doesn’t twitch—which is quite a change. Well, your neck isn’t relaxed. It is tense, alert—an antenna. But it doesn’t spasm anymore to track my every gesture. Your gaze follows me with less concern, correct?
It is guesswork. Your eyes are as glassy, as reflective as if you sported sunshades. Yet you can’t entirely fool me. I see depth behind the shiny surface, a vertigo of sorts. I know what hyper-vigilance is. You don’t fool me.
You are on guard. But you have relaxed in my presence, which fills me with joy and pride. I appreciate being trusted by animals, birds especially. They only trust when they know the trusted one will not harm them, and such knowledge is usually founded.
The hen knows I am not dangerous and I didn’t have to talk, sell, bargain my way into her confidence. I did not have to befriend her in words. Not even in facts … I believe it isn’t the food I provide that loosened her armor or—at least not entirely—the reoccurrence of my innocuous visits, the buildup of my tameness. I believe what the hen bases her assumption upon is more intimate—a transuding of hormones—perhaps pheromones. Perhaps it is olfactive—a smell.
The hen assumes nothing, in fact. Something in her hormones has reacted to my bodily script, my emanations. Maybe less adrenaline storms through her blood than it did before, when I linger on my messy front lawn.
Her serenity is a badge of honor to me. It makes me into a better thing than I believe I am—believed I was. It makes me less evil than I, we are by nature—I mean, inadvertently and innocently—we humans.
Then, one morning I hear a sound of mowing and think it must be the neighbor’s gardeners. I’m working on something absorbing I don’t wish to interrupt, but the noise is getting closer and closer, obnoxious. Wait! The freaking sound is right in my front yard, and as much as I don’t want to deal with it—this isn’t a good moment—I have to stop, put on decent clothes, get out, see what happens.
My front yard has gotten so forested, so Amazonian, that the landlord next door could take it no more. He has decided to give it a complimentary haircut, on the house. It’s a present, therefore he doesn’t ask for permission. It’s a gift, so I need to be delicate.
I explain that I’m moving. I am emptying and repairing the house, hence I didn’t have a minute to spare, this last couple of months, for gardening chores. I was planning to manicure my front yard last thing, believe it or not. I understand why my neighbor felt the task couldn’t wait. Nice of him, though he didn’t have to. Now it is done! Oh my! I am so grateful!
Almost done, but have you noticed the bird? This is also why I’ve waited until the last moment. We don’t want to hurt the hen! We shouldn’t endanger her. Or just frighten her, causing her to abandon the eggs. Please! Please, let’s be careful.
What would you do in case of an earthquake? Hurricane? If a wild coyote roamed by during nighttime? Through the hell of screaming lawnmowers you haven’t budged. You sit, perfectly impassive—an inscrutable cappuccino-colored pond.
The two gardeners, yelling full blast to top the din of the mowers, have been gentle…They have left around you a grove, same shape as your body. Oval grove—oval body—on eggs.
To be honest, this copse is so scrawny that it looks pathetic. It looks like the coin you would drop into a beggar’s hat. Ridiculous alms. It provides no protection and not enough shadow. But you haven’t stirred in protest. I guess this will do.
There’s an intersection of lines thrust into the future. I can picture them swinging in mid-air, uncertainly, like all that does not quite exist—only as a potential.
At least virtually, there’s an intersection of not-quite-predictable timelines. I can see them like fishing lines cast into a river, shimmering here and there and then hidden, submerged. Who knows what they are doing underwater—coming close, crossing, getting tangled, enmeshed and then ripped, then drifting away.
One timeline regards the house going on the market and being sold. It implies me saying farewell to this place, closing this segment of my life, taking memories off the wall and sealing them in some trunk, suitcase, compartment of my brain. Clearly, it is a kind of conclusion. Exit lane. Extinction. Exile.
The other line involves the eggs hatching. Five chicks tottering on my front lawn. When is it going to happen? I am not totally sure. I did not see the peahen arrive—I might have missed her for days, as she hid in the jungle nearby. I can only approximate when the eggs will break.
Timing for the sale of the house, of course, is more unpredictable. Will these two events collude, segue, overlap? In which order? Truth is, I don’t want to scientifically ponder the question. I prefer this aleatory suspension.
Will I say goodbye to the house and leave a hen on the property? Will the mom and her future progeny be a kind of bonus feature? Or else a predicament: “Closure will be contingent to removal of all birds from the premises”? Will I have time, instead, to enjoy peeping peachicks while I pack my bed, my piano and my fridge? Will they be my last souvenir of this chapter of life, this home and this address?
Both conclusions sound weird. I don’t wish to leave baby birds behind me, or to leave brooding hens. I would like—dear—for you to depart before me. At least, simultaneously. Simultaneously could be a nice ending line. Lines.
There is something ironical, paradoxical…
Since the place has grown un-domestic to me, you have found it agreeable. You would not have chosen a neat, well designed, drought-tolerant and therefore way-too-exposed front yard, right?
Still, I am presently at the worst of my land-and-house-keeping. I am keeping nothing at all—I am leaving. And you, gorgeous among all feathered things—you, my Egyptian Queen—pick this time for being my guest, for seeking sanctuary. I can barely shield you from neighbor mowers. I am a mess. My place is a mess. Don’t you care?
You give me a vacuous stare. Bogus. Bogus.
Now I spy on you occasionally, through the stained glass of my front door—which is perfectly oval, and it frames you. I have noticed that you sometimes turn around, look my way. You can’t hear me—not even smell me, I am sure. You must know, at this point, this is the direction where your feedings come from.
You look up neither anxiously nor expectantly. Meekly. You know this is where food comes from, yet you don’t truly care. Your patience—as I said—is kind of timeless. Unpunctuated. Unmarked. You are a sphinx with no questions.
Good. Because I have no answers. I keep filling your cup, for the time being.
Your trust is my parting blessing.
About Toti O’Brien
Toti O’Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in Sierra Nevada Review, Sheila-Na-Gig, Metafore, and Dr. Eckleburg.