On the first day of spring, Harold Washington climbed out the kitchen window and ate his breakfast sitting cross-legged on the painted white metal fire escape. He noticed two small brown birds singing on a nearby tree and listened, imagining the birds to be a couple like he and Laurie used to be, before Laurie moved back to her studio, claiming that Harold didn’t understand bird nature.
“It’s not working,” Laurie had said to him the night before she moved out. Harold didn’t know what she was getting at. She was an artist, he knew that much. Artists are different, Harold thought.
“What’s not working?”
“I can’t be free with you,” she said, shaking her head back and forth, the way a child refuses a mother’s order. “You don’t care what’s happening to the birds.”
“I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“The birds are dying all around us. And you don’t even see it.”
“Maybe I’m missing something, but I sure heard birds singing when I woke up this morning. And I saw them flying around the tree outside the kitchen window like they always do. This is the city, you know. There aren’t a lot of birds in the city.”
“That’s another problem. The city’s no place for me. Lately, I’ve been imagining myself as a sandpiper running in the wet sand. Or a red-winged blackbird flying from reed to reed. Or a woodpecker tapping out my song in the mountains.”
“Sounds like you need a vacation to me.”
While Harold was at work, Laurie moved her things to the crowded studio where she’d lived before. That night, he pounded on the building’s metal front door. But Laurie didn’t come down. Light shone from behind the milky white glass windows on the building’s second floor, which made Harold think that Laurie was at home.
He went to the studio every night after that. But several weeks went by with no response to his knock. That’s when he sat down and wrote Laurie a letter. He couldn’t call because Laurie didn’t have a phone.
If asked, Harold wouldn’t have known whether it was loneliness or the fragrant, balmy air or a desperate attempt to get Laurie back. But the day after he’d performed the very un-Harold-Washington act of eating his breakfast yoga-style outdoors, Harold decided to try and sketch a bird. At first, the pencil darted across the page, as if the dead thing had a life all its own. Before long, Harold’s sketch had turned into a dark, messy blob. He tried gripping the pencil tighter, but that only made it harder to draw. What he drew looked more like a bird, but the lines were jagged and sharp, as if the poor thing had a disease causing its feathers to stiffen.
Harold bought a book called Drawing Nature’s Way and followed the author’s perky instructions to allow his hand to flow across the page. At night before he fell asleep, Harold practiced wrist, hand, and finger exercises, circling while his mind imagined waves rising and falling down.
“I am now learning about bird nature,” Harold wrote to Laurie one morning after breakfast. “You’ll probably think I’m jiving you. But I started dreaming about birds, and now I can’t stop thinking about them.”
A week later, Harold received a reply.
“I am happy to hear that the birds have come into your life. You must treat them with kindness and love. They are fragile and sad. I have heard that in Mexico City the birds are falling down dead from the sky. People carry umbrellas to protect themselves. We must act fast if we’re to have any hope of saving the birds.”
The next time Harold wrote, he sent her a collection of birdcalls recorded in a two-CD set. He also mailed her one of his sketches that had finally taken on some resemblance to a bird.
“Have you ever noticed the light that gathers in a bird’s eye?” Laurie wrote Harold back. “I am beginning to think that birds take the light from the day and store it there. When we have fired away the clouds with our bombs and cars, and the sun takes revenge and burns us all up, the birds will keep the memory of how life used to be right in their eyes.”
The following week Harold decided to make his move.
“I would like you to come over for dinner,” Harold wrote. “To talk about the birds.”
A few days passed before Harold received her response.
“I would like to come and talk to you about the birds. But please don’t go to the trouble of making dinner for me. I eat so very little these days, all your lovely food would go to waste.”
Harold ignored her request and baked a vegetarian lasagna topped with fresh basil and lightly toasted goat cheese. He bought a bottle of her favorite wine, Chardonnay, and three fresh gardenias. He lowered the lights, lit candles, and put on one of his birdcall CDs. Around the living room, he leaned his cardboard-mounted sketches against the wall.
Seven o’clock came and went with no sign of her. By seven-thirty, he still hadn’t heard a knock on the door. At eight o’clock when she hadn’t arrived, it occurred to Harold that she might not have planned to come at all.
Fifteen minutes later, he lifted the plates off the table and set them back in the kitchen cupboard on the bottom shelf. He closed the cupboard and thought he heard a tap on the door. Listening again, he heard another tap.
Harold ran across the living room and turned the stereo down. He was smiling as he unbolted the top lock to the front door and shouted, “Hey, I thought you weren’t gonna make it.”
All that faced him was his neighbor Bob’s closed brown door.
“Guess I’m hearing things,” he said.
Just before closing and locking the door, his eyes fell on the carpet in front of his apartment. Sitting there completely still, practically lost within the earth-toned fabric, was a tiny brown bird.
Harold bent over and studied the bird. On closer look, Harold could see that the center feathers were more of a blue-gray than brown. The small thing didn’t move. Harold opened his right hand, carefully pinched the bird’s sides between his fingers and thumb and set the small bird down in his wide-open palm.
“Now, what am I gonna do with you?”
Harold held his palm out in front of him and walked into the apartment, through the living room and dining room and into the kitchen. There, he shoved the window open, stretched his arm out over the fire escape and set down what he now guessed to be a little sparrow.
He watched the bird, waiting for the miniature wings to lift and the bird to take off. But the bird sat motionless, its tiny dark eyes fixated on Harold’s face.
“Go on,” Harold said, waving his arm. “Get out of here. Go some place else where there’s trees and other birds. Fly down to the park. It’s just down the street. You’ll like it there.”
The sparrow didn’t budge.
All night, every hour or so, Harold came out to check. Each time he opened the kitchen window, he found the sparrow sitting exactly as he had left it.
By two o’clock in the morning, the sparrow still hadn’t gone.
“Look. I’ve gotta go to bed. It’s two o’clock in the morning.”
Harold tore a slice of bread into bite-size pieces and put the breadcrumbs in a small blue bowl next to the bird. He filled a saucer with lukewarm water and set that down next.
“Now you listen to me,” Harold said. “Eat some breadcrumbs, drink a little water, and be on your way. There’s no point in hanging around here. This is no life for a bird.
“I’m going to bed. You better not be here in the morning.”
When Harold woke to the buzz of the alarm, he recalled the excited preparations of the night before and the disappointment when seven o’clock came and went without a sign of his guest. Then he remembered the bird.
“That guy better not be here this morning,” Harold said to himself as he wrapped a royal blue flannel robe around his naked brown body.
“I don’t believe it,” Harold said when he looked out the kitchen window and saw the sparrow, untouched breadcrumbs by its side. “What’s the matter with you?”
Harold paced around the living room, trying to come up with a plan. If he left the bird on the fire escape, Harold was sure he would come home one day and find the bird dead. Besides, Harold thought, there was something creepy about that bird.
He would call his friend Al, that’s what he’d do. Al was a fourth-grade teacher with three sons. Al would know about birds.
“I didn’t wake you up, did I?” Harold whispered into the phone. “Good, good. Listen, I got a problem.”
“No, it’s not a lady. It’s a bird.”
“Yeah, yeah. A bird.”
Al said he was no bird expert, but he had two suggestions. Harold could take the bird down to the park and let it go. At least Harold wouldn’t have to watch the bird die and feel responsible. Or Harold could take the bird to a vet and let the vet figure out what was wrong.
Harold liked the first idea, since it was quick and easy and wouldn’t cost him anything. If the bird died in the park, what was it to Harold? He’d never invited this bird to come into his life.
“Okay, buddy, we’re going for a ride,” Harold said. Using a metal spatula, he eased the bird into a shoebox punched with holes. “We’re going to a place where you’ll feel more at home.”
Harold decided to leave the bird on the shore of the lake. If he were a bird, Harold believed that’s where he’d want to live. But when he lifted the shoebox out of the car, Harold thought he heard someone crying.
“I’m starting to lose it,” he said under his breath.
Harold set the bird down on a patch of thick grass.
“There you go, buddy. Now isn’t that nice?”
The bird looked at Harold with the same steady gaze it had given him each time Harold stuck his head out the kitchen window.
“That’s all I can do for you, kid. I gotta go to work now.”
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Harold said to himself as he turned into the park that evening. “They’re gonna have to lock me up soon.
“Ladies,” he said, shaking his head back and forth. “Mama always said, ‘Harold, them ladies is gonna be the death of you. You got your mind too much on them ladies.’
“Oh, Mama,” Harold said, as he turned the car up the hill toward the lake. “If you could see your boy Harold now.”
Harold pulled the car up by the big rock where he’d parked earlier. He sighed as he pushed himself up out of the driver’s seat and started to search for the spot where he’d left the bird. At first, the ground looked bare, except for a clump of grass and some dry twigs. But just when Harold was about to turn and get back in the car, he spotted the bird sitting perfectly still, staring at him.
“Oh, God,” Harold said, shaking his head. “I knew I shouldn’t have come.”
Harold got back in the car and drove slowly around the lake three times. By the end of the third trip, he’d come up with a plan.
He picked up the bird and placed it on the seat next to him.
“Sorry, buddy,” he said and laughed. “They don’t make seatbelts for birds.”
He parked the car in front of the gray warehouse where Laurie lived and painted on the second floor. He pressed the buzzer for the first floor studio.
“Who’s there?” a man shouted through the intercom.
“Got a package to deliver,” Harold shouted back.
A moment later Harold heard the quick clatter of boots on the metal floor and the clicks of several bolts being unfastened. The metal door swung open and a young man with long blond hair stood staring at him.
“I’ve got something to leave for Laurie,” Harold said.
“Laurie’s gone. Left the other night.”
“You know when she’s coming back?”
“She’s not coming back. Moved out for good this time.”
“You know where she’s gone? I’ve got something of hers I want to return.”
The young man shook his head.
“Said she’d found a place that was better for bird nature. Didn’t say where. Maybe the beach in Mexico.”
Harold started the car and headed for the entrance to the freeway. Two hours later he was sitting on a rock looking out at the sea. The bird waited stiff as a sentry on the sand next to him.
“Okay, buddy. I know what I’m gonna do.”
He put the bird back on the car seat and drove down the road, turning in at the entrance to Big Sur National Park. He walked along a narrow dirt trail alongside the river until he came to a nice shaded spot.
“This is it, my friend.”
Harold set the bird down on a rock that jutted out over the water. The bird gave Harold that same sad, steady look.
“I don’t know what you want. This is the greatest place in the world for a bird.”
Harold shook his head. “I think you’d be miserable anywhere.”
Three days later, Harold found himself in a small motorboat off the coast of Mexico, heading for the tiny town of Yelapa, a place Laurie liked to go. The sea was a pale milky blue, so clear that Harold could see right through it.
“You know people in Yelapa?” Harold asked the teenage boy steering the boat.
“Yes, some people I know,” the boy said, nodding his head.
“You know a healer, an old lady, Doña something or other?”
“I do not know her personally, but if she is a curandera, all the people will know her.”
The boy was right. The first person Harold asked directed him to Doña Carla’s small stone house, situated midway up the hill.
The woman was so tiny Harold felt like a big oaf in her presence. He was relieved to see that she spoke English, since his Spanish was limited to adios and taco.
“No. Laura has not come for a long, long time,” the woman said, shaking her head back and forth. “Something has happened to her?”
“She’s disappeared. Vanished.”
“Hmmm,” the old woman said, waving an insistent fly away from her face. “I do not know about this.”
The old woman rocked in silence. The only sound in the room was the squeak the chair made each time she leaned back.
Harold didn’t know why but he felt comfortable. In some way, the old woman reminded him of his mom. Harold smiled as he recalled the hot, muggy, Chicago summer evenings when he and his mother would sit for hours on the porch.
Harold wasn’t sure how long he and the old lady sat in silence but it had grown dark and the old lady started shuffling around the small room lighting kerosene lanterns. Harold remembered that one of the things Laurie liked about this place was its lack of modern conveniences – no electricity, running water, roads, or cars. And no tv.
“You come see me tomorrow,” Doña Carla said, laying a hand on Harold’s shoulder. “I must sleep now.”
The next morning, Harold climbed the hill to Doña Carla’s dark stone house. “I could get real used to this place,” Harold said under his breath as he waited outside, peering through the graceful banana leaves to the blue ocean and white sand below.
Doña Carla set a cup of sweet black coffee on the table in front of Harold and a plate of soft, sticky bread. She sat down across from him and waved her bony hand over the plate.
“Eat, eat,” she insisted.
Harold obeyed, feeling like a small boy again, sitting in his grandmother’s warm kitchen, his feet swinging above the green linoleum floor.
“Yelapa is a beautiful place,” Doña Carla said, nodding her head in agreement. “Many people come to see me when they have trouble. I can only help if the people believe.”
Harold nodded his head, chewing and swallowing a hunk of the moist, sweet bread.
“People come and think they have one problem. But I see that the problem is something else. That is where faith is needed.”
Harold took a long, loud sip of coffee, trying to make out what the old lady meant.
“You are, let me see, forty-eight years old,” Doña Carla said, staring so intently into Harold’s eyes he had to look away.
Harold sat up straight, surprised at the old lady’s keen ability.
“I see that you are a man who likes women. Very, very much.”
Harold smiled and laughed, a little bird-like laugh.
“I think that you only love the outside of the woman. You have an empty place inside you keep trying to fill. The only way to heal is to fill this place with love, not for the body of a beautiful woman, but for a child or love for the poor man who does not have enough to eat or the blind woman who needs someone to help her see.”
Harold thanked the old lady for her words and her hospitality and headed back down the hill. What Doña Carla had said sounded too much like religion to Harold. Live clean and poor and you’ll get your reward in heaven. That’s what they’d been telling black people since slavery, Harold thought, and heaven had got to be a damned wonderful place to make up for the suffering of black people in this life.
No. Harold had heard and seen enough about that suffering to say, I’m not waiting for my reward. I want it now.
Some of his friends, like his old buddy Al, criticized Harold for not being serious about anything.
“When you gonna settle down?” Al asked Harold almost weekly. “You been partying ever since college. When you gonna get serious about something?”
Harold always had the same answer for Al. “Life’s too short to get serious.”
Most of Harold’s friends had been married and divorced by now. Some of them were even on their second divorces.
“You’ve had more beautiful ladies than ten handsome guys put together,” Al said to Harold just the week before. “You one of the ugliest guys we know, but you got all these beautiful women. And none of ‘em is good enough for you. What’s your problem, Harold?”
“I don’t have a problem, Al. It’s you who’s got the problem. You’re the one all bothered. I’m having a good time.”
With Laurie, though, Harold had felt different. He had asked her to move in and promised to stop seeing other women, something he’d never done before.
Harold told himself it was just curiosity that made him pull into Big Sur National Park and walk toward the river down the dirt trail. He hadn’t decided what he would do if he found the bird alive.
When he got near the rock, he sped up. He scrambled up the damp, slippery stone until he could see the flat place on top. Just as he stopped to catch his breath, the small brown sparrow turned its head.
Harold saw the bird, and then he started to laugh. He laughed out loud, a howling laugh, the laugh running through his body, so he had to sit down to keep from falling. It was one of those laughs that takes a person outside of himself, until he reaches a point where he fears he might never come back. Each time the laugh started to subside, Harold made the mistake of looking at the bird, and the laugh started all over again.
Harold laughed so much that his stomach hurt and tears started streaming down. Before he knew it, Harold was no longer laughing.
Sitting on the rock next to the stiff little sparrow, Harold gave in to the sobbing. Now he was a little boy again, wishing his mother would rise from the dead and wrap her arms around him. Harold sobbed as loudly as he had laughed only moments before. He sobbed the way he remembered crying as a child, until he was too tired to cry anymore.
When all those contradictory emotions finished ripping through Harold’s body and mind, he sat on the rock and studied the bird.
“I guess we’re stuck with each other,” Harold said.
Harold wiped his sleeve across his still damp eyes, gently lifted the bird in his warm brown hand, and pushed himself up from the rock.
That night, Harold put on one of his birdcall CDs and sat at the small table to eat. He’d bought a cage for the bird but left the metal door open so the bird could come and go as it pleased. He set the birdcage down by the open kitchen window and told the bird it was free to leave any time.
“You know, I might start to like having you around,” Harold said, raising his bottle of beer in toast. “Gets kinda lonely living alone. It’s just too bad you don’t sing.”