Ellen had just finished washing up and was now fishing in the suds, for that teaspoon which never likes to be cleaned. As the water drained, she lazily watched the bubbles flatten against the stainless, slip like egg whites through the holes in the plug or cling defiantly to higher ground, their skins trembling rainbows. She scooped up a handful of foam and clapped them flat, then ran her hands under some warm water, turned the tap to spay and helped the rest of them to their fate. It was hot outside and something scratched the back of her thigh, she rubbed the place and left a damp patch on her skin.
‘’Mummy?! Quick, come here!” Her daughter’s calls screamed across the garden and into the kitchen.
Ellen caught the words, dropped the cloth she had picked up and ran with them through the house, down into the garden. She could see her two children in the corner under their large tree, subconsciously scanning for blood she reached them. Her eight-year-old daughter stood with hands on her hips. Her six-year-old son was on all fours bent over something tiny in the grass, looking like a panther, with prey between its paws.
“What’s going on?” she asked. “Are you alright?” Her son remained silent and still.
”Ava?” She tried again, looking from one child to the next. Her daughter grabbed her mother’s hand and pulled her to another spot in the garden and told her that Dylan was being mean.
“Mum,” she began. Ellen sensing she was about to be given some very important information, knelt down into the soft grass, shifted slightly so that she was in the shade and looked into her daughter’s serious blue eyes.
“I found a baby bird and it’s dead, so I want to make a place for it here, but Dylan won’t let me.” She pushed some branches aside and Ellen saw a patch of soft brown earth surrounded by stones, twigs, leaves and grass, she looked back at her daughter’s earnest face which was waiting for confirmation. Ellen scrambled for a solution.
“Let’s take a look first shall we,” was all she found.
“It’s not fair! I found it first and you said we can’t save baby birds. You said, they never, ever live and nature should be left alone, mum, it’s not fair you said that last time when the cat got that green bird, and I couldn’t keep it.I found it.” Her daughter’s words came in one big package, tied with a ‘you said’ ribbon.
Ellen rose to her feet and was holding her hands out trying to stem the flow of injustice, but Ava continued, “They always die, you said”. Ellen smoothed her daughter’s hair, pulling her close, resisting the urge to tell her to just shut up for a minute; she had thought something serious had happened to one of them.
She offered instead, “come on”, holding out her hand, “let’s help your brother, he’s only little” Ava allowed herself to be taken back to the spot that her brother guarded, with heavy sulky footsteps.
“Dylan,” Ellen put her hand on her son’s back, “Ava tells me you’ve found a baby bird”
“I found it!” Ava shouted.
Ellen cleared her throat and looked back at her daughter, with wide, give me a chance eyes.” Can I see?” Dylan moved fractionally to the right allowing his mother access to the tiny naked body that lay between his hands.
“I think it is alive” Dylan whispered not moving.
“Poke it with a stick” Ava offered.
“Noooo” Dylan reacted by cupping his hands around the dead thing, sinking to his elbows. Their dog stalked past like a shark.
“Ava, hold the dog please”
“Why?” I don’t want to.” Ava argued
“Please” Ellen pleaded.
“Then can I put the bird in the place?” her daughter bargained.
Ellen sighed; it was too hot, not arguing weather. “Dylan wait there”. She grabbed the dog by the collar, secured him on the lead, then found an old ice cream box, the tea towel she had dropped and went back to her children.
“Dylan let’s put it in here shall we and take it inside?”
Ava huffed “it’s dead mum”
Ellen shot her daughter another warning stare and Dylan nodded sadly. He gently picked the little creature up and placed it in the lined box and allowed his mother to carry it to the house. Ellen stopped to let the dog off then put her cargo down; they all looked down at the unmoving grey object. Its bulbous dark eyes caught under a thin layer of skin would never open and the grotesquely large pale beak would never beg for food. It was dead, mother and daughter knew, but Dylan needed to know for himself, he leant in and pulled some of the checkered cloth over the fragile body.Ava, sensing victory, ran off to finish her work.
“Did you touch it? You need to wash your hands” Ellen called after her, and then took Dylan to the bathroom. As she lathered the soap over her son’s hands she tried to start the delicate process for him. “Sometimes, Dylan -” her sentence was interrupted by Ava’s second alarm of the day
“Mum! There’s more, Sanyo found them and they’re alive!” Mother and son left the sink, the soap, the dead thing in the box and rushed to the garden, life’s call was stronger.
Ava was holding the dog at bay with one foot at his fluffy white chest, hopping up and down on the other and holding a mass of moss, leaves and pink nylon high above her head, “there’s three!”
The dog saw the rest of his pack rushing towards him and eager to tell them all what he had found, began to bark wildly. Instinctively Ellen picked Ava up, who remained ridged but brought the nest close to her and the little group ran back to the house, the dog knew he was not allowed inside, but managed two paws and half a body before he was pushed back, this time by Ellen’s foot.
The baby birds inside the ball of brown and pink were more developed that their naked sibling. They had managed to open their eyes, grow grey tumble dryer fluff over their heads, and were propping themselves up, they huddled to one side, quiet, waiting.
“Watch this,” Ava held a finger over them and all three opened alarming orange spaces in their heads and squeaked. Dylan was absorbed.
Ellen eyed the dead bird. Dylan waved his finger across the nest. The tea towel would have to go too, it was now covered in germs, she plotted, as the birds performed their orange mouth trick. The family was not religious, so there were no comforting words, the body was going nowhere but the bin. Ellen thought about a burial, the soft patch of brown earth, with twigs and grass but it was hot, and the dog, she worried.
“Okay Dylan I will just take care of this”, she picked up the box, paused waiting for her son’s protests, he only nodded and said, “Okay mum.” By the time she got back the baby birds had been named and divided. Ava had two as she was the oldest and a tiny piece of ham was being offered to one of them.
“Dylan are they my tweezers?” Ellen asked.
‘What about cat food mum?” Ava went running off to the pantry.
‘We can’t keep them Ava; you know that they will not survive”. Ellen knew, she must pick up the tiny package of life, collect a hammer, she grimaced, maybe the chisel, go into the field and finish this; end the inevitable suffering for all the life in the room. The dog looked on morosely through the open doors
“No mum this is different, they are not hurt, we can feed them, be their mummies.”
Dylan broke his silence, “I want to be a daddy”
“Ava, stop!” Ellen had spoken more sharply than she had intended. Both children looked up at her, she looked at the birds. A breeze caught them and one little life shivered. They did look quite strong. She reconsidered, “Okay what about if we leave them in the field near the gate and see if the mummy bird will fly down and feed them”.
It took a while, but eventually, mother managed to persuade children the plan was a good one, and so it was done. The nest was placed on a collection of rocks amongst some tallish grass. Ellen stepped back looked up into their tree and willed the mother bird to reclaim her brood.
“Okay let’s go wash our hands and have some lunch”
“ No, we are going to have a picnic here and wait to see if the mummy bird comes”, announced Ava, Dylan agreed with a guilty nod.
“Seriously Ava, the mummy won’t come back if we are all here will she?”
It was two against one, the sun was high in the sky now and the heat was building, Ellen scratched at the itch on her thigh. Her own brood stood their ground “Okay let’s get you some hats and sun block and after lunch, we can see if we can hide somewhere and watch”. Satisfied, Ava picked the nest back up.
“No Ava, we leave them here, we eat our lunch, hats and sun block then come back.” Ellen counted the points slowly on her fingers but in the end, it was the threat of the hammer and chisel that had won, not the logic. Both children ran to the house crying, Ellen trudged back wondering how she had become the bad guy.
The divided family ate their lunch, found their hats and applied sunblock in record time, the children, united now, raced to the gate. Ellen unlocked it from the top and Ava and Dylan pushed through. It was obvious something was wrong; the helpless babies were quiet and did not perform the open mouth trick when prompted. Ellen felt sick, with all the negotiations she had not even considered how hot it was, she had left these little lives at the mercy of the midday sun. Now it was no longer just a random act of nature, she was guilty of something too. She felt stupid and angry at herself for not being strong enough in the first place and mad at the mother bird, who had made such an insecure nest. Resigned and ignoring her children’s questions of what was wrong, she picked the nest up and all six of them went back to the house. The dog stayed at the gate this time, the in and out game, was now very boring.
They set the nest down in a cool part of the house and Ava put some water in a jam jar lid beside it. The children rushed around inside and outside trying to catch flies and offering all sorts of tiny treats to their guests. One little bird never opened its eyes again, so all three of them made patterns on a cereal box coffin, which they buried in the field that evening. Ellen’s husband came home to find his family in tears amongst glitter pens and cardboard. That night he asked his wife if she would like him to take the other two into the garage, end their suffering, Ellen hugged her husband and replied that it was too late for that now; she would have to see it through, the extra suffering would be all her fault.
The surviving birds seemed to rally and one even ate a fly and left a green, yellow stain in the bottom of its bed, but they slowly got weaker. Ellen watched on helpless, feeling her insides twisting, as her two children did everything in their power to make them live and fail. When the last morning came, she found Dylan stroking the fluffy cold bodies whispering apologies.
“Mummy is sorry; we didn’t want to leave you in that field all alone”. Ellen moved across the room with puffy eyes, a dead space in her throat.
“I am so sorry Dylan, I didn’t mean for this to happen. She then began to give him his own ribbon of you saids.