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Very First Person

Clues in the Dark

Unfinished Business has an Unsettling Way of Getting Our Attention

November 08, 1998|Brenda Bell | Brenda Bell's last piece for the magazine was about porcini risotto

The bird entered our house in the cat's mouth, a vague gray clump I couldn't quite identify. I grabbed the cat by the scruff of his neck and forced his jaws open to release their catch. It was a pitiably ugly baby sparrow, its nostrils caked with blood and a cluster of parasite eggs on its half-bald head. He--for some reason, I assumed the bird was male--was hurt somewhere, for he could not stand up. Tiny red mites crawled over my hand as I held him, and he was breathing so rapidly that he vibrated.

Traumatized sparrows always seem determined to die, and in a few minutes this miserable specimen lay still in my palm, its weak neck crooked to the side. Checking for a sign of life, I let a drop of water trickle from my fingertip to the bird's yellow beak. In a flash, the moribund mouth took the drop, then another. Two beady eyes popped open. Not only was he not dead, he insisted on living.

I plucked the nits from his head and made a splint for his broken leg with a cylinder of tape cut from a Band-Aid. It was like trying to splint a hair. I put him in a shoe box warmed by a radiator and fed him shreds of moistened dry cat food with tweezers. He ate all the time, like a newborn baby; instead of crying, he peeped. My husband worked nights then, and I made him take over the feedings while I was at work during the day. Sometimes I even phoned home to see how the foundling was doing. I called the bird Cheep Cheep, and in saving his life I reached a turning point in my own.

This was 20 years ago, in a city far from Los Angeles. Cheep Cheep was not the first fledgling I had tried to rescue from the jaws of fate, nor--despite my vow at the time--would he be the last. Ever since I established a grasshopper hospital in fifth grade, the maimed and dying small creatures of the world have forced on me the duties of a reluctant Mother Teresa. I am not, by nature, a particularly nurturing person. Yet my ears alone seem to hear their cries--the crippled cat in a distant gutter, the wounded bird far afield--and it seems that to me alone they come for rescue, or release from this corporeal world.

When Cheep Cheep appeared, I had been plagued for years by a recurring dream of kittens I had neglected and left in a closet, mewling and starving. The dream was so disturbing that I once asked a psychiatrist friend what it might mean. Perhaps I expected an interesting Jungian take on my dream. His interpretation, however, was more straightforward.

"That's a very sad dream," he said. We were walking along the beach north of San Diego, the gray-blue haze of Dana Point in the distance. "Is there something important in your life that you keep putting off? Something you really need to do?"

"I don't know," I said, "unless maybe it's having kids." I was 30 years old and secretly desperate for children, yet terrified of having them. My friend, the father of four gorgeous, well-adjusted offspring, didn't understand this fear. How could he? He was a rich doctor in La Jolla who could afford household help and orthodontia, and I was a newspaper reporter working for a meager salary. The economics of the kid thing scared me. But so did everything else about it, including the potential for disaster.

"People say your life changes completely when you have children. Is that true?" I asked him.

"Sure it does. But what's wrong with that? Is your life so great that you don't want it to ever change?" His incredulity was obvious.

I thought of my own pleasantly predictable life, its surface as placid and smooth as the endless beach and the slow procession of joggers, each moving at their self-absorbed pace. "Actually, it is," I said. "I like it just like it is."


Defying my initial expectations, cheep cheep grew and thrived. His leg healed, though it remained gimpy, and he learned to perch on my finger like a parakeet. In a few weeks, he could fly all over the spare room--now the aviary. He began pecking my hand and struggling to get away when I returned him to his box.

The time to let Cheep Cheep go was approaching, but I worried that his bum leg would give him trouble. It was stupid to have raised him on a diet of cat food; I had visions of Cheep Cheep heading for the first cat dish he saw and initiating a fatal replay of his earlier feline encounter. I thought I had saved him, but maybe I had only postponed his inevitable doom.

In a pensive mood, I took Cheep Cheep in his box to the alley behind our house for his freedom flight. He pecked me when I took off the lid, and before I knew it he was flying . . . straight into the wall of a neighboring house. In horror, I watched Cheep Cheep flap to the ground. Then he sort of brushed himself off and took flight again, landing on a telephone wire. He wobbled, but his unsteady leg held. I couldn't bear to watch anymore, so I threw his box in the trash can and went inside.

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