It’s the sound of the natural and man-made worlds colliding, like the off-key fervor of a bronze temple gong struck by a fresh-faced initiate.
Burt Frumbder was savoring the second sip of his first cup of coffee when this one-of-a-kind sound made him jump, spilling this same cup of coffee. He swore and shuffled to the kitchen sink, attempting to pat his grey sweatpants dry with a dirty dishcloth.
After a few unsuccessful attempts to eradicate the stain, Burt noticed with a satisfied pursing of his lips, that the warmth of the spilled coffee almost felt good on his thighs. He shrugged and walked to the living room to investigate what exactly had caused the sudden noise.
Had a bird flown into the sliding glass door a few days earlier, Burt might have spilled coffee on his laptop or phone as he skimmed through manuscripts and client emails at the kitchen table. But Burt had sent off his last round of edits on Monday and he wasn’t planning to log on for any new assignments or updates until this next week, at the earliest. It was Christmas, after all. He’d even left his phone charging on the bedside table to celebrate the sanctity of the season.
Burt mentally congratulated himself on his “work-life balance.”
As far as Burt was concerned, the best week of the year was the four days from December 26th to Dec 30th. It was a dead time of year for work, which meant he could gorge on all the holiday sweets he wanted, binge Netflix for hours, and wear sweatpants all-day without any judgment from the people in his life who had “real jobs.” Because they’d all be doing the exact same thing.
His (admittedly small) list of clients — mainly vanished in the weeks leading up to and after the holidays only to return like a Mongol horde of motivated go-getters in late January.
His inbox would soon be brimming with requests for notes and revisions from hopeful first and second-time novelists looking for miracles instead of copy edits. But he had a few more days until the flood of would-be Hemingways set out to subdue their New Year’s Resolution word counts with painful prose.
As he walked into the living room, he could feel his carefree week slipping away.
Burt glanced at the sliding glass door for signs of damage, not expecting to find any, and was surprised to see a single feather stuck to the glass. It was dusty grey, almost white, and about the size of a pinky fingernail. It fluttered lightly in the morning breeze, somehow cemented on the glass about six inches below eye level. Burt looked down to see the owner of the feather. He shook his head.
The fist-sized bird was limp, his twig legs wilted like damp curly fries as he lay next to the faded “e” at the end of the rust-colored “Welcome” mat.
Most people don’t have welcome mats in their backyard. But most people don’t live in “the country” as Burt’s older brother, Chris and his wife Charlene call it. Burt was especially thankful for the doormats at every entrance when his rambunctious nieces and nephew came to visit each summer.
Burt looked forward to those extended visits; chaotic five or six intervals in July that let him wonder if he’d have been a good dad without having to actually answer the question. Over the years, Burt had trained each youngster to wipe their feet before darting through the sliding glass door in search of a Capri Sun or juice popsicle — usually dripping wet from the pool or caked in mud from the hill at the edge of his property.
Chris and Charlene hadn’t visited since Linda left.
A flutter of motion at his feet caught Burt’s eye.
Burt flicked up the lock and slid the door open with that familiar sci-fi movie sound effect — whoosh. The morning chill blew Burt’s thinning shaggy brown hair back off his forehead. The bird, a common sparrow or finch, Burt could never tell the difference, was dazed, but obviously still alive. His wings fluttered as the groggy tried to process his current situation.
(Despite Burt’s ornithological shortcomings, he had come to the conclusion that the bird was male, mostly so he could stop referring to it as “it” in his head).
Having made this first decision regarding the bird, Burt sprang into action.
He dashed back into the kitchen to grab the coffee-stained hand towel. When he returned, the bird had managed to flutter itself all the way over to the “W,” but didn’t look ready to leave the doormat any time soon. Even this meager pilgrimage had left it exhausted.
His cotton ball chest puffed and deflated in spastic panic. Yet the bird was unable to muster the energy to evade what he must have assumed was his imminent death at Burt’s descending hands.
Burt smothered the bird with the kitchen towel, gently working the delicate bundle around in his hands until he felt the featherweight body settle upright in his palm. One toothpick sharp foot kicked feebly as the bird struggled to readjust itself in his swaddled prison. Burt peeled the fabric back to check on his panicked passenger.
The bird was still hyperventilating in a noble attempt to cram in as many last breaths as possible. Millions of years of evolution informed every cell in his tiny bird body that each harried breath would probably be his last. Aside from this existential dread, the bird looked surprisingly unharmed.
“There, there now, birdie,” Burt cooed. “You’ll be alright. We’ll fix you right up,” he promised and covered his patient back up.
“You just need a little jolt to start the day,” he announced his diagnosis. The bird was in no position to ask for a second opinion as Burt walked into the kitchen to administer avian first aid.
This, of course, was not Burt’s first encounter with an injured bird.
Burt’s grandmother, Flo, had raised chickens. As kids, Burt and his brother had loved to feed and chase her birds across the yard. Despite the apparent risk that two unruly young boys presented to an animal a tenth their size, chickens are surprisingly capable creatures. They evaded the grasping hands of the Frumbder boys with practiced ease, until one afternoon when Chris caught a chicken daydreaming.
Burt burst into his grandmother’s kitchen with tears plowing crooked rows through the dust and dirt on his young cheeks. He didn’t even need to ask for help. He just pointed outside and his grandmother rushed out with the confidence of a woman who had lost a husband in her 20’s and then spent every day since then working a 40-acre farm by herself.
She assessed the emergency with a measured glance and disappeared back inside. She emerged seconds later with an old army surplus wool blanket and corralled the injured chicken like a toreador before bringing her captive inside. Burt still remembers the bundle of white tail feathers poking out of the blanket like frozen fireworks.
His grandmother marched into the kitchen, turned on the big kitchen sink faucet, and dunked the bird (upside down) under the freezing tap water for a few seconds. Once the bird had a chance to shake itself dry, grandma fed it a spoonful of American corn whiskey and set it on the back porch.
The only lasting consequence of the incident was a slightly less dreamy chicken.
Burt looked down at the bundle clutched in the kitchen towel. He’d already completed step one of the prescribed regimen. But he was understandably nervous about step two.
Giving a bird a bath is harder than you think, especially when that bird is the size of a golf ball and you’re clutching it in a coffee-soaked kitchen towel so it doesn’t fly around your house. But his grandma had been pretty clear on the necessity of shocking a bird back to health with cold water after a traumatic event.
“Birds, like a few young boys I know, need a good shock to the system when they’re acting a fool,” she’d said as she dunked the chicken under the tap. He remembered the wink she’d given him and the hint of a smile in one corner of her mouth that had dried his tears and made everything alright.
Burt turned on the faucet and loosened his grip on his patient. He checked the temperature with one hand. Ice cold. He unwrapped the bird, clutching it like an arcade claw machine, and dunked him beneath the trickle of tap water. After what can only be described as five seconds of waterboarding, Burt concluded that his patient had been sufficiently shocked and was now safely on the mend.
He swaddled him back in the kitchen towel and gently patted him as dry. The bird shook his head to rid himself of a string of water drops. He was ready for the third and final step in the healing process.
Burt opened the cabinet above the stove and stood on his tiptoes to see inside. “I’ve got just the thing to get a little pep in your step,” Burt whispered to the damp bird.
“Theeeeeeeere it is,” he crooned and grabbed a bottle near the back. “You’re in luck, bird-o, my friend. Straight Kentucky Bourbon,” Burt read from the label. “Aged three years. Huh. Good stuff. This will get you back in the game in no time.”
Burt wedged the whiskey bottle between his thighs and twisted the sticky cap loose with his free hand. The only problem now was calculating the proper dosage for his tiny patient. A sparrow (or finch, he conceded mentally) is a lot smaller than a chicken, after all.
Burt opened the silverware drawer, searching for the smallest teaspoon he owned. He found it — a tarnished scalloped-shaped sugar spoon he’d inherited from that same grandmother. He took it as a sign and laid it on the counter.
Burt poured a dram of whiskey for the bird and took a quick swig of medicine for himself. Bird doctoring was hard work this early in the morning. He put the bottle down with a clang and tipped his patient toward this last life-saving treatment, clutching the towel-wrapped bundle with both hands.
Burt lowered his face down to watch. Would the bird drink any whiskey? Would it help if he did? How much whiskey did it take to get a finch (or a sparrow) drunk?”
The puffy feathered head of the bird lowered to the brown liquid in the spoon. The toy beak opened and he flicked a few sips into his mouth with a twitch of his head. Then he drank a few more sips.
“You’re doing it!” Burt whispered. The bird was in fact, “doing it” quite well. Burt had to pull the bird away from his medicine after a few more seconds before he overdosed. Burt lifted the bird up to eye level for a final inspection.
“Looks like it’s working.”
The bird rotated its head, in what Burt could only interpret as a genial drunk’s easy agreement.
Burt was tempted to give the bird another quick dip in the sink to sober him up but settled on a regimen of pacing the length of the kitchen with the bird clutched against his chest. He interrupted his vigil once to self-medicate with a few sips for himself.
He’d done it. He’d saved this bird from certain death. He was a hero. Burt had never felt prouder.
He rocked the bird gently, lulling it with his whispered plans for the new year.
“Maybe I’ll finally write a book this year instead of just helping other people write one,” he announced to the bird. “I’ll start in March, after the New Year’s rush.”
He’d block out time in the mornings. He’d set an alarm and get out of bed a little early. He could knock out a few pages before he checked his emails every day. Nothing was going to get in the way of his book, not even that new client on the East Coast he’d just started working with.
“This is my year, Mr. Bird,” Burt repeated as he paced. He could do anything. His success with his patient was proof of that.
Burt felt a flutter in his hand. The bird was struggling, trying to flap against a grip that had gradually tightened as he paced.
“Sorry,” Burt whispered. “Let’s get you back out there.”
The bird chirped impatient agreement.
Burt walked back to the living room and opened the sliding glass door. The little grey feather was still stuck to the glass. He lowered his patient to the ground, unwrapping the towel like a picnic basket.
The bird rolled to the side, righting himself with a quick burst of wing beats. He cocked his head and puffed his feathers against the sudden drop in temperature. The morning air was still brisk, even though the sun was starting to burn through the thin wispy clouds. It was going to be a crisp, clear day.
Burt crouched on his heels, his arms wrapped around his knees. He watched the bird test his strength with a few exploratory wingbeats. Then, just as suddenly as he appeared, the bird leaped away in a blur of motion. Burt watched as the bird plummeted through two death-defying dips in his flight pattern, like a long lowercase m, and then the bird was gone, vanished around the side of the house.
Burt picked up the dirty kitchen towel and gave it a shake. He closed the sliding glass door with a whoosh and walked back to the kitchen rubbing his arms to ward off the chill.
His coffee had gotten cold, and the kitchen counter smelled like whiskey. He wiped the counter with the towel and popped the coffee mug in the microwave. Burt stared out the kitchen window looking for sparrows. Or maybe finches.
He could never tell the difference.