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Fall of the Birds
 

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Fall of the Birds


  FALL OF THE BIRDS

  Bradford Morrow

  For Lily, who asked

  “They stood and looked over a gate at twenty or thirty starlings feeding in the grass, and he started the talk again by saying in a low voice, ‘And yet I love you more than ever I loved you in my life.’”

  —Thomas Hardy, The Woodlanders

  I should have been the first to notice. But my eyes—generally the sharp eyes of a seasoned insurance adjuster trained to assess losses and damages—simply failed, in the beginning, to see the change. Instead, it was my teenage stepdaughter, Caitlin, who asked, with a cloud of concern shadowing her snowy-egret-pale face, “So, what’s with the robins this spring?”

  A mid-April Saturday. Caitlin frustrated because I’d gotten a call from the office and needed to take the car she’d planned to drive to Bear Mountain with friends to go hiking. An overnight emergency at a commercial nursery near Warwick, in Orange County, and nobody else available to inspect the damage, start processing the insurance claim. My supervisor, Jim Helms, a man typically calm as stone, had informed me that the circumstances surrounding the damage were pretty weird and that he needed me, one of his trusted veterans, to investigate the scene. Though I immediately agreed to make the trip, I was no less upset than Caitlin about this unexpected change of plan. After a long, tedious winter, drawn out by damaging weather—snow and hail, lightning-strike fires, freak tornados, melt-off floods—not to mention the recessionary economy that had lured more people into filing suspect claims, I was tired. I’d been working six- and seven-day weeks and was looking forward to some downtime, maybe taking a hike myself in the woods behind our rural house to unwind.

  Even beyond work and weather, this had been a rough phase for the two of us. Just over half a year after Caitlin lost her mother and I my wife, our precious Laurel, to a fatal constellation of lymphatic tumors, we survivors were having a bit of trouble getting through to each other. Our problems were understandable. After all, Laurel had stood at the very center of both our orbits. And now Caitlin and I were like stray moons that had lost their host planet and were flying blind, wobbling as we went. She had developed an odd habit of tossing out non sequiturs back when Laurel’s untimely death was still raw—is there such a thing as a timely death?—so I didn’t answer her robin question right away, figuring it for a verbal bridge to nowhere. I’d told myself this was a benign, if bewildering, part of her mourning process. An emotional tic that I’d thought had passed.

  She repeated her question, this time a little more urgently. “I mean it. What’s up with the robins?” I followed her gaze out the window at our backyard, where the last stubborn patches of snow punctuated the velvety grass beneath the evergreens that shaded them from the sun.

  To keep the peace, I decided to play the straight man. Besides, I felt rotten over my hasty shift in plans. “I don’t understand, Cate. What about the robins?”

  “Like, there aren’t any? Not a one.”

  “It’s early yet,” I said, realizing that the question had been put in all seriousness. “Nights have been pretty cold. Ground’s still too hard for the worms. Makes sense to me.”

  “They’re always here by my birthday,” turning back toward me now. I knew at once what lay behind that look in her eyes. Mom would have known. Mom understood her birds better than anybody. She’d have had an explanation.

  “I’m sure they’re on their way,” I consoled her, wishing that Laurel were here every bit as much as Caitlin did. She would have known how to answer, whether and why they were late. “Besides, your birthday isn’t until next week.”

  She finger-combed her long auburn hair, unevenly parted down the middle, off her furrowed forehead. Her sky-blue eyes, catching the morning sun, looked almost backlit. “I still think it’s weird. And have you looked at the feeder? Same sunflower seeds I put in there a week ago. Nobody’s touched them.”

  Glancing outside at the bird feeder that hung deserted from the porch eaves with not a single chickadee or dun finch in winter plumage or even one common junco perched on it, I saw she had a point. It wasn’t as if Caitlin didn’t know her birds. For any differences we’ve had over the years, our love of birding bound us together, a passion we owed to Laurel. Every birthday, every Christmas, I gave Caitlin a present to strengthen that bond. Her signed copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds was a fifteenth-birthday gift. She found Dunn and Garrett’s Warblers of North America under the tree a couple of Christmases back. Rhodes’s great biography of Audubon she read out of its covers when she turned sixteen. Of course she didn’t know it, but this year I had splurged: a pair of Leitz binoculars from Portugal was to be a gift for her seventeenth: 7 x 35 BA, 150m/1000m. Trinovid. As she was going to put it, or so I hoped, Way cool, which was as good as praise got in Caitlin’s phrasebook.

  “Maybe they found a bigger bird feeder with tastier gourmet seeds, who knows,” I said, offering a smile meant to reassure her and hide my discomfiture. I could tell by the look on her face and edge in her voice that she was genuinely concerned.

  “Maybe,” she said, doubtful, with a shrug so subtle it was almost as if she hadn’t moved. I knew that shrug. It rarely prefaced hugs and kisses. Uncanny how perfectly Cate could channel her mother’s devastating, nuanced shrug without half trying. Indeed, I’m pretty sure she had no conscious idea she was doing so. But for one awful if transporting moment it was as if all three of us were in the room.

  I considered tossing out a platitude about how nature follows its own timetable, but decided against it. She was too sharp for such empty palaver and, despite myself, I was growing impatient with the discussion. Instead, I got up from the table, washed my cereal bowl and spoon, set them in the drying rack. Grabbing my coat and the field bag that housed my work-issued camera and tablet computer, I apologized again for the hasty shift in plans and promised I would somehow make it up to her. Seeing she was still troubled, I reminded her, “You’ve always got the Peeps until the outdoor ne’er-do-wells finally make their grand entrance,” the Peeps being Caitlin’s nickname for her menagerie of caged finches—Zebras, Societys, and wildly colorful Gouldians—over which she doted as though she herself were a great mother finch.

  The ride to Warwick was easy enough, though my mind was eddying. Since I spend a great deal of time in my car traveling from the office to claim inspections, claim inspections to home, home to the office, home to claim inspections, and because the company at times requests that I travel long distances, I have become an aficionado of audiobooks. My favorite writers by far are the nineteenth-century English masters of the novel. Trollope, Dickens, George Eliot—the longer the better. Now and then I’ll pause the book to answer my cell or make a voice memo, dictate a report, but generally I use road time to escape my own life for a brief period and climb into the fictional lives of others.

  My thoughts often drift, of course, to Laurel. How she tended to her vegetable garden like a woman possessed, pored over mail-order seed catalogues when frost ferned the windows. How bad she was at playing Monopoly. How devout a Presbyterian she’d been but never held my lack of faith against me, though it surely pained her. How, finally, she fell out of the nest of life far too young. My journey ahead without her seemed as bleak and uninhabitable as a charred, denuded forest where nothing promised ever again to survive. In the midst of my musings about Laurel I found myself worrying about Caitlin and how she’s maturing quickly, up and away from her stepfather, whom she sees, I fear, more and more as an albatross.

  That morning I was listening my way through Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders. I only mention this because The Woodlanders is so teeming with nature that it makes one hyperaware of the natural world we live in. Unlike so many of us urban and suburban
moderns, Hardy’s characters know how to converse with the earth and read the skies, how to eke out honest if rough livelihoods from the land where they were born and in which they will be buried. As an insurance man I deal a lot with the vicissitudes of weather and of human nature—another of Hardy’s strengths is that he is good at judging frauds, and that’s one of the many reasons I like him—but perhaps most of all for me, I admired how intimately the author knew his birds. His woodlanders understand just how partridges settle down to sleep on the limb of a tree, for instance—close to the trunk if the weather is going to be bad; farther out on the limb if the night promises calm. Owls, nighthawks, cuckoos, thrushes, starlings, nightingales, those prescient partridges. The book I was listening to that morning was full of bird life.

  Prompted in part by this, my mind turned back to Caitlin, her missing robins, her jilted bird feeder. It’s the kind of thing one of Hardy’s woodlanders would have noticed, I’m sure. And I found myself wondering why was I so quick to dismiss what she’d said. She had made an interesting observation. The grass under my feet as I’d crossed the lawn to reach our unattached garage had been spongy and dew-damp, the day promising to warm up nicely. Looking back, I imagine there had been plenty of worms tunneling their way around below. Caitlin was right. The robins were oddly late. I should have engaged her more, discussed what she thought might be the cause. After all, wasn’t it a fact that Hardy’s cast were all going astray in their various ventures because they misunderstood one another, weren’t paying close enough attention? I probably should have taken a page, so to speak, from the novel I was immersed in.

  As I continued to drive, I found myself, at first unconsciously but soon very much on purpose, scanning the front yards and fields I passed, looking for signs of the robins’ return after our drawn-out, bitter-cold winter. But not only didn’t I see any redbreasts, I began to realize that, aside from a pair of large glistening crows feeding on the carcass of a roadkill squirrel, I wasn’t seeing any birds—not on the ground, in the trees, on electrical wires, or even in the sky—for miles.

  Very strange, I thought. Wait until Caitlin hears about this. When I left my car at the end of the Warwick Nursery’s long macadam driveway and stepped out to begin the usual process of diagnosing the damage, making a liability assessment, triaging what was covered and what wasn’t, I marveled, Was it possible I really hadn’t seen more than that one pair of scavenging crows during the entire trip?

  These musings might have prepared me for what I was about to encounter, but they didn’t. Birds, several hundred of them. Red-winged blackbirds. Scattered everywhere, helter-skelter. Wings askew, necks twisted, beaks broken, plumage disheveled. Dead.

  Adam Holley, the nursery owner, emerged from his office, a look of dismay—no, more akin to trauma or shock than mere dismay—on his face. As he approached to shake my hand, I saw the large greenhouse behind him farther up the hill, its glass roof shattered, no doubt from a helpless barrage of dead and dying birds tumbling from the sky.

  Even before he reached me, I remembered the series of mysterious mass bird deaths that had happened over a relatively brief period of time some years ago. In Beebe, Texas, a thousand blackbirds just like these rained out of the sky on New Year’s Eve for no clear reason. I recalled hearing different theories. That the flock was struck by lightning, or someone had shot off fireworks that startled them so they confusedly crashed into one another in a panic aloft before plummeting to earth. Men in Hazmat suits straight out of the movies were dispatched to collect the corpses—the pictures of them in the paper stayed with me for days. But Beebe wasn’t the only place something like this had occurred. There were other recent mass bird deaths in Kentucky and Louisiana, if I wasn’t mistaken, and thousands of turtledoves had plummeted onto the Italian town of Faenza about the same time. All sorts of theories about these incidents swirled around. The magnetic North Pole has been shifting something like twenty-five miles every year on average—and since some birds seem to use magnetism as part of their navigational strategy, maybe they’d become disoriented because of this? Unlikely, I remember thinking at the time. End-of-days Bible types or Mayan-calendar believers saw these events as signs the apocalypse was upon us. Doubtful, I reasoned, as harrowing as the incidents were. As a matter of fact, despite necrology reports, ornithological hypotheses, and all the rest, nobody ultimately knew what had happened.

  As I was saying hello to Adam Holley, each of us grim in the midst of the carnage, I realized that the same possibly unanswerable questions—in the form of a no-man’s-land of ruined yellow-and-red-epauletted black bodies—were personally, if not professionally, laid at my feet. We knelt down together over one of the casualties, as if observing it from a closer vantage would offer us any deeper insight. And I thought to myself that, other than seeing Laurel’s face empty of life in her hospital bed, nothing was sadder, more dismaying, than the image of an innocent dead animal, particularly a bird.

  Zebra finches were Caitlin’s very first pets. Laurel and I got them for her after Cate’s maternal grandfather, himself a diehard birder, bequeathed to her a large, ornate Victorian birdcage that had been a family heirloom. Cate loved dogs and cats, hamsters, all the usual animals that most children adored. But her Zebras were her favorite beasts in all the world.

  That is until she acquired a mating pair of Society finches, all chocolate and white and, living up to their name, as charming as could be. Her mother and I were impressed by how responsible Caitlin was, cleaning the cage like clockwork, changing the water, feeding her little friends not just seed from the pet store but special treats such as celery tops, milk-moistened bread, and even diced bits of hard-boiled egg.

  When she asked if she could buy a pair of Gouldian finches, we knew she’d become truly serious about her role as a bird keeper. Gouldians, with their magnificent purple breasts and yellow bellies and blue bodies, as exotic as living kaleidoscopes, require more maintenance than other finches. They love to bathe twice, three times a day, and their bath dish must be refilled often. Cate took to the task like she was born to it. Her Victorian cage became a veritable miniature opera house with its prettily bedecked singers chorusing all day long, until she draped a sheet over it, ringing down the curtain, when night came.

  Home from Warwick that afternoon, having seen a small flock of starlings as well as a few other reassuring birds during my drive back, I found a note from Caitlin on the kitchen table. We borrowed Jen’s parents’ car so went to Bear Mt after all! See you tonight.

  I was glad Caitlin managed to salvage her day. She’d withdrawn from so many of her friends in the aftermath of Laurel’s death. Perhaps this hike signaled the first stirrings of a desire to get back into life, I told myself, although I knew this might be wishful thinking. Also, I have to admit I was grateful for the chance to spend a few hours in solitude while I tried my best to process what on earth I’d witnessed. Poor Holley was afraid his insurance wouldn’t cover an “act of God,” as he phrased it. While I’m very aware my role is to evaluate loss but never to make definitive statements until claims are entered into the system and reviewed by others, I did confess that although I had never seen this specific type of damage, my sense was that the policy would respond and he wouldn’t be liable.

  “If this had been bird-sized hail,” I assured him, “your policy would cover it. Other than the fact it was a flock of migratory blackbirds rather than balls of ice, I don’t see much difference strictly in terms of policy response.”

  Police and a couple of fire department trucks pulled up not long after I’d taken all the photographs I needed, my stomach churning at the scene inside the greenhouse—broken glass, bloodied birds, shattered pots of seedlings everywhere—and I left before they began their own investigation and cleanup. One might have asked Holley why he’d called his insurance company before he let the police know, but I honestly think the man was in a state of shock. The officers and firemen didn’t look any more sanguine about the scene than Holley and I had been.


  After phoning the office to tell Jim Helms what we were dealing with, as best I could, I dictated my report and emailed it, along with my scene photos. Then I ate a sandwich and headed out into the woods bordering our property to take that walk I’d promised myself. My mind was roiling. The Hardy novel had sounded very different to me after my encounter in Warwick. As if the 1800s were many centuries, even millennia, in the past somehow. Daydreaming a little as I hiked, I had to wonder what Giles Winterborne and Marty South—characters married more to nature than any of the husbands and wives in the book are married to each other—would have made of what I’d seen that afternoon. Knowledgeable as they were, able to read the “hieroglyphs” of the woodlands, surely they’d have been as confounded by the storm of birds as I. They probably wouldn’t have heard about the volcanic lake Avernus, the portal to the underworld in Roman mythology, whose toxic fumes doomed any bird that flew over it. Yet though I had read about Avernus, this wisdom, this lore, even knowing that the word comes from the Greek for “birdless,” had gotten me exactly nowhere.

  Laurel always liked it out in the woods, and sometimes when I was alone, as I was that afternoon, I found myself guessing what she might have noticed that I didn’t. As with most everything that had to do with nature, she was far more up on wildflowers than I, and would have known the names of all the hopeful little clusters of budding plants on the ground, not to mention which mushrooms were edible and which would make you sick. I did hear, by the way, a phoebe somewhere ahead, but didn’t see it. The one bird I could have sworn I did see was a black-headed grosbeak, which would have been a nice sighting except for the fact it just didn’t belong in my neck of the Hudson Valley woods. More a Nebraska bird, the Pheucticus melanocephalus, a bird you’d find traveling up from Mexico through South and North Dakota. Must have got it wrong, I thought. I decided not to even mention it to Caitlin, as I’d always trained her to be absolutely, categorically certain before she could add a new bird to her life list.

 
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