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I was gardening in my front yard when Leslie called. Or rather, I was trying to figure out what to do with the weeds taller than a preschooler that had filled up the six inch strip of dirt between my driveway and my neighbor's driveway to the east. I'd been fighting with the plants most of the afternoon, building up a pile of green stalks and gnarled white roots behind me while my dog lay a few feet away sunbathing.

I pulled off my gardening gloves and answered.

"Hey man," Leslie said, "So, my dad died today."

"Oh fuck, oh man, I'm so sorry. How are you doing?" It wasn't unexpected, Leslie’s dad had been failing for weeks. The day before, we'd talked about whether it was better for Leslie to drive down to their parents' house in Phoenix, or to stay put, given the shelter-in-place order for us in the Bay Area; debating if they could be helpful or if they would just put their parents at risk.

"Thanks, bud. I'm doing okay," they replied, filling me in on the details. 

As they were talking, I spotted a used condom I hadn't noticed earlier, flung among the weeds. I was accustomed to the pale latex debris at my last apartment, but I couldn't remember ever finding one since I'd moved into this place. "So are y'all going to do, like, a Zoom funeral or something?" I asked.

"I don't know, I mean, I think some people want to actually go, you know? But it's so risky."

"Yeah. I mean, honestly, there's no reason you can't wait until it's safer to hold a memorial. This isn't like ancient Greece or whatever where you gotta do everything right or the dead can't find peace or whatever." I took a step closer and realized it wasn't a condom at all. It was a tiny baby bird.

It wasn't much larger than the blackberries that pushed through the fence from my neighbor's yard to the west. Its head looked like a Pop-It; the same size, shape, and even coloring as the mini fireworks that would litter my street by mid-July. It lay on its back, its tiny feet as thin as the roots of the weeds laying around it, its neck bent sideways.

Certain that it was dead, I snatched it up quickly before my dog had a chance to notice. Where had it come from? The closest tree or eave was easily ten feet away. It wasn't old enough to walk, let alone fly out of the nest. Had it been pushed by an invading cuckoo? Grabbed by some predator then dropped? The air was still that afternoon, the wind couldn't have pushed it out. I interrupted myself, still talking about burial rites, like that would help my friend, "Oh fuck."

"What is it?" Leslie asked.

"I just found the tiniest baby bird in my front yard." I held the impossibly small thing in my palm, nudging its head with my pinky to put the neck into a more natural angle. 

"Do you need to go deal with that?"

"No, I'm pretty sure it's dead. God, it's so small."

Leslie started talking, advice on what to do. But I didn't hear them. I just stood in my driveway, barely breathing, my hand held flat in front of me, staring at this tiny, ugly thing that wasn't a used condom but a new life. Then I felt the faint flutter of its tiny heart against my palm.

"Oh shit, it's alive. I can feel its heart beating. Oh shit."

"Dude, why don't you go. Just deal with that. I'm good, really. I just wanted to let you know."

"You sure?" I said, distracted.

"Yeah, take care of the bird, I'm good, I'm solid." We said our goodbyes and, careful not to jostle the fragile thing in my palm, I hung up, quickly sending a message off to my urban farmer friend before googling what to do while I waited for her to respond.

 

I wasn't someone who ever tried to be one with nature. If I wanted to commune with Mother Earth's many children, I wouldn't have spent my entire adult life renting apartments in the middle of the urban blacktop. I liked dogs and cats, sure. They were great and mostly told you what they wanted. But even other domestic animals made me a little nervous. And when it came to real, undomesticated wildlife, I was happy to observe it on nature documentaries.

My urban farmer friend responded with a link to a wildlife hospital and screenshots of what to do with a baby bird. I called the hospital but got a recorded afterhours message with instructions to check the website and call in the morning.

The instructions on the site told me to look for a nest and make sure that the other birds in the nest matched. I couldn't spot a nest anywhere and honestly, I was almost grateful. Because what if it was the wrong nest? How was I supposed to know if they looked the same? What were the chances that, once I looked inside, I'd easily identify two or three other used condom siblings waiting for mom to return with worms? There weren't even feathers on this thing.

Was this even a bird at this point? I went to google again, asking "Younger than fledgling" and learned that what I held was a hatchling. Younger and more useless than a fledgling or a nestling, hatchlings were basically the most vulnerable birds. Great.

Next, the instructions told me to find a box, line it with a towel, and put the bird inside. Using my free hand, I grabbed my least-favorite washcloth and one of the cardboard boxes I'd been hoarding for my upcoming move, all the while careful not to jostle the little life in my other palm. I could feel the warmth in my palm from the tiny body, the flutter of its heart.

Why couldn't the hospital take this little life now? Didn't they understand that this was urgent? How was I going to keep this thing alive overnight? I didn't know anything about birds. I was probably already making it worse. Every time I grew still enough to feel the bird's heart beating, my own heart started to race. How was I going to save this thing? Why the hell did I have a baby bird laying in the palm of my hand? 

 

That night, I got into bed ready to fall into another night of fitful quarantine sleep only to find myself unable to close my eyes. I couldn't stop thinking about this damn hatchling.

It lay in the box, within arm’s length, bundled up in a towel and surely not warm enough. Why was there a damn dying bird wrapped in my least-favorite washcloth, in a box on my nightstand? What was I even thinking? Was I really going to drive 20 miles out to the suburbs with this damn dying bird on my passenger seat in the morning? It was probably already dead, honestly. What did I know? I could only imagine, showing up at this wildlife hospital, on Mother's Day morning, with a dead bird wrapped in a washcloth embroidered with a snowman and handing it over to some masked and gloved veterinary technician who would take one look and know it was hopeless. I pictured the vet tech waiting until I pulled away before dropping the whole bundle in the nearest trash bin.

My dog slept soundly next to me, curled up and dreaming, her paws fluttering as she chased the neighborhood cats in her sleep. I curled my body around her and tried my hardest to join her in sleep.

It was one fucking, tiny, probably already dead, baby bird. The world will be fine with one less songbird. Why was I awake at 2:30 in the morning panicking about this dumb, defenseless used condom wrapped around a miniscule beating heart? I laid there and listened to the night-time sounds of my neighborhood: tires squealing at a nearby sideshow, a windchime tinkling softly, birds chirping. Why the fuck were there birds chirping? It's the dead of fucking night. Go to sleep. Aren't you all supposed to sleep at night? I started to imagine some bird-mom in a nearby tree chirping for her baby to come home, only her baby was a motionless lump of bones and organs, wrapped up in a towel on my nightstand and never coming home again. Of course, it's Mother's Day. Why won't the birds shut up and go to sleep?

 

I tossed off my covers and rolled out of bed, turning on my lamp and crouching in front of my side table. I opened the box and looked at the hatchling again. 

It had to be dead, right? Why was I doing any of this? Just put the damn thing in the dumpster and forget about it. I put my finger against its skin. It was so cold. Why was my room so cold? Wasn't I sweating in shorts all day? Was the bird cold because my room was cold, or was it cold because it was dead? God, I was just making this bird's end all the worse, freezing it to death in a small, dark box, alone.

I picked it up, ignoring the hospital's cautions about handling the animal, sure it was dead now. But was it? Could I feel a heartbeat still? Or was I imagining it now? Maybe I had been imagining it from the start. Maybe it had just been gas settling in the newly-dead body. Maybe there was never a heartbeat at all. Maybe it was my own anxious heartbeat that I felt against the hatchling’s translucent skin. Was it wishful thinking? Or was I hoping it was dead so I could skip the hour of driving a bird's body around the Bay Area in the morning? 

Why was there a dead or dying bird in my bedroom? This was just absurd. What kind of bleeding-heart, white-savior-of-the-world nonsense was I on? It's a fucking songbird. It's not like I found the last living California Condor. There are millions of these things. Why was I losing my mind over a tiny, defenseless hatchling?

I decided to get a new towel and put it in the microwave, pulling it out before the counter hit 00 so the beeping wouldn't wake my roommate. I took the now-warm towel and bundled the bird up again, returning it to the box and pulling the lid closed. Would that help? Would the towel even stay warm more than a few minutes? What if it was too warm? What if I just baked the poor little thing in a microwaved tea towel. What the fuck was I doing? It was nearly 4am and I was microwaving tea towels to keep a certainly-dead baby bird body warm.

 

I finally fell asleep around 5am, only to wake up at 7am, thinking about the bird. This goddam bird. What the fuck even? I picked up the box again and opened it, gazing at the little thing inside. Where its organs supposed to be that visible? Supposed to look like that? It looked like two tapioca balls, one lemon yellow and one navy blue, plopped inside a small, beige, translucent balloon and tied it tightly shut. 

Was that pinprick of red supposed to be there, or was it some sort of internal bleeding? I don't know how far it fell. Had it fallen from a crow's beak, high above my little cement yard? Or had one of the neighborhood ferals snatched it from the nest, dropping it inches from the ground? 

Was it even still alive? Had it been alive when I found it? Had I hallucinated the fluttering of a tiny heart, hoping for life? Why did I care so much about this goddam tiny defenseless little fuck? What the fuck was I doing? I grew up with a pet goldfish won from a carnival, hardly even a real pet. I didn't do 4H club or Girl Scouts or whatever the fuck. Why was I sitting here at 8 in the morning, legs folding under the covers, staring at the ugliest little thing laying on a tea towel in a cardboard box on my lap.

The only emotion that seemed to be surfacing for me was anger. Rage. I wanted to smash something, to kick at the wall of my bedroom, to make some loud crashbangslam. I'd been feeling anger a lot in recent weeks, in weird moments. Even in moments of joy or excitement, anger was what appeared. Maybe because anger is the only basic emotion that doesn't make me long to embrace someone.

 

After one last round of "what the fuck am I doing?" and trading the tea towel back out for the snowman washcloth, I poured my coffee into a travel mug, carefully placed the box on the passenger seat of my car, and started driving to the wildlife hospital in the suburbs. When I got there, I found a small shed set up across the parking lot from the entrance, with posted instructions for dropping off animals with social distancing in place. Fill out this form, leave it with the animal, then ring to doorbell to let the employees know. 

The form asked: 

Donor name? I'm not a donor. Donors make a decision to support a charity. Donors have money. I'm on Medicaid and have been wearing the same t-shirt for three days. I'm just a person who went to pick up a used condom before one of the neighborhood kids saw it, only to find it was an infant bird.

Reason for rescue? What does that mean? Cause it was dying, I don't know. What do you want me to say? "I thought this was a condom, turns out it's a bird. I thought it was dead, but then I hallucinated a heartbeat. I didn't sleep all night freaking out about this used condom with a heartbeat. Please tell me it's not dead, I need something to believe in."

Care provided by rescuer? I put it in the box. Is that caring? I drove it here. Is that caring? "N/a" I wrote.

I tucked the form under the box and walked across the parking lot to ring the doorbell. An employee acknowledged me, let me know they'd get the animal shortly. I started walking back to my car and then stopped, standing awkwardly, equidistant from the bird, the employee, and my way home. What was I doing? What did I want? 

The employee came out, stopping short upon seeing me, "You need something?"

"No. Thank you. I think it might be dead already. I don't know." I stood there to say something more, but thinking of nothing, walked back to my car and left.

image: Aaron Burch


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