I arrive at the house and get smacked in the face with cobwebs. Choose the downstairs room because the gold comforter is the softest, plus I can hear the brook. The lake is icy but I swim the width, then start a fire in the woodstove. I look out the kitchen window and, sure enough, the phoebe is back, sitting on four eggs.
It’s been nine months since my divorce. I’ve rented the cabin we used to come to, and the familiarity is strangely comforting. The terror of single life subsides, replaced with the richness of this place.
A sunbeam wakes me. I pull back the lace tablecloth clipped up for a curtain and glance at the nest. Her feathers are deep grey, her beak long. She is surprisingly nonchalant when I open the clunky porch door and pull up a child’s chair to stand on.
Temperature is up and my skin is browning. I finish a book by the lake. At dusk I make a fire in the pit and watch bats zoom out from the eaves. I check the eggs regularly; she’s patient with me tramping on and off the porch.
I take pictures: spiders, irises, tadpoles and the phoebe.
It’s going to be soon.
My days are full of cirrus clouds, thunder claps, dewy grass and sandy feet. I swim and sit and write and dream. I drink my coffee down by the lake. Every time I pass through the kitchen I glance out at the nest. She’s gone a lot today, so I step up onto the chair after lunch. I gasp and let a few tears go. The nest is full of strange, embryonic beings with putty coloured skin and white fuzz. I want to call someone. I want to share something a phone conversation can’t convey.
I quietly pick up my camera and snap a few pictures. Pinky-white blob.
My devotion to the nest has quadrupled. She sits on four fragile bodies, keeping them warm. I want to ask if there’s anything I can do. There is no language, no code. I can only look. And take pictures. And, just in case, I talk to her.
Fern visits. We make oatmeal cookies and bad jokes and stay up into the blue hour. Every time I’m in the kitchen I check on them. They are definitely getting bigger, and I can now see the outlines of four separate bodies. I bring a second chair out onto the porch for Fern and make her step up to see. She looks but it’s not the same.
The babies are lifting their heads!
The phoebe leaves the nest often to go find food, and now she’s clearly irritated with me. One time I climb onto the chair and she flies at me suddenly, a tiny grey-feathered kamakazi. Another time I’m in the kitchen and she hovers like a hummingbird to feed the babies, then turns and looks for me through the glass. I feel guilty, hovering as I am. She was here first.
The necks are thickening and I see four beaks opening and closing, cavernous airy demands. The mother stuffs food in. These birds are all mouth.
Their eyes are still closed.
I’m still taking pictures. Bulging eyelids. Fuzzy long necks.
Suddenly, I’m distressed. These birds are going to fly away.
A wing! One of them stretches and extends it, like a tiny gymnast warming up. Oil coloured feathers poke out of their skin and they’re keeping their mother busy. She flies in and out, in and out, in and out. It looks exhausting but she’s handling it.
My cousins come. I want my space. The nest is overflowing with phoebes.
My sister comes for French toast with real maple syrup. I bring a second chair out onto the porch for her and make her step up to see. She looks but it’s not the same.
I’m still taking pictures. Bony heads flopping in slow motion.
I am startled in the morning, drinking my coffee, when one of the babies flutters its wings. Maybe they need to build muscle mass before they leave home.
Their eyes are open!
Feathers are filling in and the grey is deepening, a rich bluish grey like the lake just before a storm. The fourth one is now jammed in the back. I’m concerned someone will fall out.
I’m still taking pictures. Staring black eyes.
My vacation is almost finished. I look out the window and see only three babies. Worried, I check but don’t see anybody on the porch floor. I stand up on the little chair; the gang’s all here. They are fat and their feathers glisten in the soft hay coloured light of dawn.
It’s my last day. They are ready to take off. I want to give them something. I tell them the world is harsh. I tell them the world is full of beauty. I tell them about the lake, about the curtain I clip up to give them privacy. I tell them my camera lens is scratched. I tell them they’ll be fine. I tell them I’ll be fine.
I step out onto the porch one last time. A flurry of flapping and they’re gone.
I get into my car. Loss is the one part of love I’ve never been any good at.
Gail Marlene Schwartz lives in Montreal. Her play, Crazy: One Woman’s Search for Sanity was published in the anthology, Hidden Lives, Brindle and Glass. Her essay, “Loving Benjamin,” will appear in the anthology, How To Expect What You’re Not Expecting, TouchWood Editions, in fall 2013; the piece was also awarded Honourable Mention from Room Magazine, creative nonfiction category, 2012. Gail’s work has been published in Poetica Magazine, Community Arts Network, Parents Canada, GO Magazine, Gay Parent, and Ms. Guided.