THE NESTING HABITS OF WRENS • by Christopher Owen

The wrens came in early March, building a nest of twigs within the ivy that grew in a twisted cascade from the old butter churn planter in Barbara’s sunroom. The old woman took to watching them, her face hovering scant inches from the windowpane that turned her, in the birds’ small minds, from a threat to a mere flat shadow that could no more harm them than could the motes of dust that their wings set astir in the slanted beams of early morning sunlight.

The birds were tiny — just a couple of inches from tip to tail. Their nest was already taking the shape of a small, slightly askew coffee cup in the top of the churn.

She heard Claude cough from the depths of their bedroom, and she stood and went to check on him. Her husband needed her help to get out of bed these days, and to remember to take his medicine, and other things.

She said to him: “Some birds are building a nest in the sunroom.”

“Well, I’ll be god damned,” said Claude.

***

The days passed and Claude worsened, his cough rumbling like a phlegmatic thunderstorm, and Barbara took to sleeping in the guest room. She made up for this by sitting with him during the day and watching the blurry old television set with him. His doctors said there was nothing they could do for him, but there was no need for him to stay in the hospital, not until the very last, perhaps. She was glad he wasn’t at the hospital. She didn’t want him to go there. She didn’t want him to go anywhere. She didn’t want him to go.

When he slept she would cook, or clean, or watch her birds. One morning, she was cleaning and let her broom handle clack against the floor-length window to the sunroom. The birds scattered and flew away. “Damn,” she breathed, but then caught her breath when she saw five tiny, cream-colored eggs in the nest. She counted them over and over again like a little girl who had discovered some secret bit of treasure.

A few days later, Claude was feeling better, and she wheeled him outside in his wheelchair. The air was cool, the sun nothing more than an oven-warmed peach in the brilliant blue sky. Claude asked for his scotch and cigarettes and she brought them. There was really no more damage they could do now.

While he smoked and sipped his liquor, she scanned the disorder of the backyard. Bright green tassels from the budding oak trees were littered everywhere. She was just going for her broom when she spotted one of the wrens lying dead on the porch. She began to cry.

“What’s a’matter?” asked Claude.

“It’s one of the little birds. It… it died.”

“Come here, Barbara.” She walked over and he pulled her into his lap, where she sat, though she knew it hurt his shriveled legs. “It’ll be okay, baby.”

***

In the early evening, Claude was sleeping. Barbara checked the nest and saw the mother wren on her eggs. It was the male that had died. She got it in her mind that she would bury him, but when she saw him in the wan twilight, lying like the cast-off toy of a child, she decided that the ground was no place for such a creature. While the wind stirred the silhouetted branches of the oak trees, she built a fire in the chiminea pot on their deck. When it was burning well, she retrieved the little bird, holding it cupped in her hands. She looked skyward, noticing a V of ducks headed back north, their canard shapes black against the last deep blue of dusk. She took a deep breath and cast the little bird into the fire. Her eyes grew watery, as they always did from the smoke. She then got herself a glass of Claude’s whiskey, and when she returned outside she watched little glowing bits rise from the chiminea’s stack and drift off on the evening wind like new stars bound for the firmament to join the ones slowly winking into existence.

***

A week later, Barbara awoke to chirping. She left the guest room and went to the window, where she gazed through the dusty pane at the five little naked baby birds in the nest, their little mouths agape as they cried for a meal. She watched until the mother returned, a grub in her bill. She fed one of the babies, then departed. She was getting by. She was doing it on her own.

The mother returned four more times and fed the rest. Barbara wondered how she could tell which she had fed already, deciding at last that it was a mother’s prerogative to know such things. She also wondered how long it would take for the babies to fledge and leave the nest. Probably not long, she figured. It would happen soon enough and then they would all be gone. She thought she might save the nest to remember them by, and she wasn’t sure if this made her happy or sad.

She heard Claude cough himself awake in the bedroom. She stood and went to him.

“Morning, love,” he said.

“Morning. Feel like any breakfast?”

“I suppose I ought to eat.”

“Poached eggs and ham?”

“Can’t turn that down.”

She started for the kitchen, then looked back. Claude had closed his eyes, his chest rising and falling gently with the rough soughs of his breathing. “Oh Claude,” she said. He opened a single eye. “Those bird eggs, they hatched in the night. There are baby birds out there.”

“Well, I’ll be god damned,” he said, which was his answer to anything he didn’t have an answer for. It made her smile, as it always did.


Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared at Daily Science fiction, Mirror Dance, Mystic Signals and other places. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing workshop and the Yale Summer Writers’ Conference.


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Every Day Fiction

  • Elice J

    Wow, this is great. I must admit it made me a bit emotional, it reminded me of my Grandfather.

  • Elice J

    Wow, this is great. I must admit it made me a bit emotional, it reminded me of my Grandfather.

  • Beautiful. I have a nest of robins. Not sure why, but I’m glad the author didn’t have Claude die in the end. Was exactly the right measure of mushiness. Five stars.

  • Beautiful. I have a nest of robins. Not sure why, but I’m glad the author didn’t have Claude die in the end. Was exactly the right measure of mushiness. Five stars.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    How did those birds get in and out of an enclosed room?
    I just couldn’t get past that. I thought I was missing something; googled “sunroom” in case it had some regional variations I wasn’t aware of.
    Couldn’t stop myself thinking that Father Bird starved because he’d forgotten the magic password, or something.
    An open window would have saved this from absurdity. “It’ll be okay, baby,” didn’t help. Tender stories are really fragile. Any authorial misstep can shatter them. Two stars.

    • Sarah, I have a sunroom at my house. The room has many glass windows but is also open to the outside. Some birds did build a nest inside the room, which was of course the inspiration for the story.

      Knowing that this bothered you so much makes me think I should have mentioned an opening in the story as well, but I guess I was just so used to my own experience that I was drawing upon that it didn’t occur to me. Sorry.

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        This is one of the writer’s hazards–an unusual but true circumstance (“truth is stranger than fiction”) can derail a story in a reader’s mind.

        I reread the story several times, hunting for that open window that would vaporize the absurdity for me, because you gave so many specific locations in this story that progressed from interior to outside space.

        I know it’s a small detail and seemed perhaps unimportant within the greater purpose you intended for this story. I think, though, that with flash, once a mood is disrupted for a reader, there’s not much room for recovery.

        I know you’re a fine writer. I admired your beautifully-done “Down Rail.” I don’t think this was up to its standard.

      • Joseph Kaufman

        I definitely think nomenclature has regional (even cultural) variations. For example, I’m like Sarah in that I consider a sunroom as closed off from the outside. Something that is open on one side (or even just one spot, would be called a “porch” or, more specifically, a “three-season porch” (because it is not suitable for habitation in winter). Actually, even most three-season porches at least have screens all around, otherwise such an area also becomes unlivable in the summer due to mosquitoes/bugs! It would be reduced to a “two-season porch” in that case. *smile*

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    How did those birds get in and out of an enclosed room?
    I just couldn’t get past that. I thought I was missing something; googled “sunroom” in case it had some regional variations I wasn’t aware of.

    Couldn’t stop myself thinking that Father Bird starved because he’d forgotten the magic password, or something.

    An open window would have saved this from absurdity. “It’ll be okay, baby,” didn’t help. Tender stories are really fragile. Any authorial misstep can shatter them. Two stars.

    (I went back and re-read the story really carefully, in case I’d missed something obvious. We have an outdoors, a porch, and a sunroom…)

    • Sarah, I have a sunroom at my house. The room has many glass windows but is also open to the outside. Some birds did build a nest inside the room, which was of course the inspiration for the story.

      Knowing that this bothered you so much makes me think I should have mentioned an opening in the story as well, but I guess I was just so used to my own experience that I was drawing upon that it didn’t occur to me. Sorry.

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        This is one of the writer’s hazards–an unusual but true circumstance (“truth is stranger than fiction”) can derail a story in a reader’s mind.

        I reread the story several times, hunting for that open window that would vaporize the absurdity for me, because you gave so many specific locations in this story that progressed from interior to outside space.

        I know it’s a small detail and seemed perhaps unimportant within the greater purpose you intended for this story. I think, though, that with flash, once a mood is disrupted for a reader, there’s not much room for recovery.

        I know you’re a fine writer. I admired your beautifully-done “Down Rail.” I don’t think this was up to its standard.

      • Joseph Kaufman

        I definitely think nomenclature has regional (even cultural) variations. For example, I’m like Sarah in that I consider a sunroom as closed off from the outside. Something that is open on one side (or even just one spot, would be called a “porch” or, more specifically, a “three-season porch” (because it is not suitable for habitation in winter). Actually, even most three-season porches at least have screens all around, otherwise such an area also becomes unlivable in the summer due to mosquitoes/bugs! It would be reduced to a “two-season porch” in that case. *smile*

  • Gengis Bob

    I had difficulty getting out of the first paragraph. There’s a lot of prose in those two sentences.

    I’m glad I kept on, because the story was nice. But the wordiness of the first paragraph almost scotched the deal for me.

  • Genghis Bob

    I had difficulty getting out of the first paragraph. There’s a lot of prose in those two sentences.

    I’m glad I kept on, because the story was nice. But the wordiness of the first paragraph almost scotched the deal for me.

  • Edward Beach

    Hi Chris,

    This was really nice. It was well paced, well grounded, you kept a nice even tone throughout. It was a welcome change to read someone who writes with such a clear, level voice.

    The feedback. I agree with Gengis Bob that the first line was a little too long. It kind of felt I was constantly tripping over my toes getting to the end, or trying to swallow three walnuts at once. I wasn’t a fan of the phlegmatic thunderstorm. It just made me think of Claude gushing up mucus, yuck. Part 2, para. 1 repeated “with him” “for him” “want him” so many times it felt clumsy; I appreciate you were probably doing this to emphasize Barbara’s longing for Claude to be well, though. And lastly, “wheeled him out in his wheelchair”, I wonder if you needed to repeat the word wheel. Again, it felt clumsy, and got me thinking what else was Barbara going to wheel him out in, a sack truck? 🙂

    I tell you what though, these are small beans. Overall, this story was head and shoulders above anything else I’ve read recently on Every Day Fiction. It had a classy feel to it. I felt I was reading the work of a writer rather than the imagination of someone at play. Top stuff!

  • Edward Beach

    Hi Chris,

    This was really nice. It was well paced, well grounded, you kept a nice even tone throughout. It was a welcome change to read someone who writes with such a clear, level voice.

    The feedback. I agree with Gengis Bob that the first line was a little too long. It kind of felt I was constantly tripping over my toes getting to the end, or trying to swallow three walnuts at once. I wasn’t a fan of the phlegmatic thunderstorm. It just made me think of Claude gushing up mucus, yuck. Part 2, para. 1 repeated “with him” “for him” “want him” so many times it felt clumsy; I appreciate you were probably doing this to emphasize Barbara’s longing for Claude to be well, though. And lastly, “wheeled him out in his wheelchair”, I wonder if you needed to repeat the word wheel. Again, it felt clumsy, and got me thinking what else was Barbara going to wheel him out in, a sack truck? 🙂

    I tell you what though, these are small beans. Overall, this story was head and shoulders above anything else I’ve read recently on Every Day Fiction. It had a classy feel to it. I felt I was reading the work of a writer rather than the imagination of someone at play. Top stuff!

  • joanna b.

    this story was beautiful. i had all those thoughts listed in the comments. i had to read the first paragraph twice and thought its second sentence too wordy. i wondered briefly how birds could build a nest indoors. i thought the phlegmatic thunderstorm was clever but I stopped to admire it and thus was pulled out of the story. None of that mattered enough to drop my rating down from 5 stars. the idea, the strength of the marriage, the parallels of life and death lightly and effectively drawn — really good work.

  • joanna b.

    this story was beautiful. i had all those thoughts listed in the comments. i had to read the first paragraph twice and thought its second sentence too wordy. i wondered briefly how birds could build a nest indoors. i thought the phlegmatic thunderstorm was clever but I stopped to admire it and thus was pulled out of the story. None of that mattered enough to drop my rating down from 5 stars. the idea, the strength of the marriage, the parallels of life and death lightly and effectively drawn — really good work.

  • Avalina Kreska

    It’s a difficult decision in how much description to add, especially in a flash fiction, I had mixed feelings about the ‘wordieness’ of the first paragraph (I’m often turned on or off by a first paragraph) but on this occasion I thought it set the scene beautifully for what the story was about, an old lady discovers a magical place/event midst a failing husband (echoed in the male wren found dead and dealt with by the old lady)

    I enjoyed it. There was a lightness to what could have been a very claustrophobic and stifling situation. 4 stars from me.

  • Avalina Kreska

    It’s a difficult decision in how much description to add, especially in a flash fiction, I had mixed feelings about the ‘wordieness’ of the first paragraph (I’m often turned on or off by a first paragraph) but on this occasion I thought it set the scene beautifully for what the story was about, an old lady discovers a magical place/event midst a failing husband (echoed in the male wren found dead and dealt with by the old lady)

    I enjoyed it. There was a lightness to what could have been a very claustrophobic and stifling situation. 4 stars from me.

  • Sarah Russell

    Just wonderful. Beautiful images of age and new life. 5 stars from me. This is one that should be read aloud!

  • Sarah Russell

    Just wonderful. Beautiful images of age and new life. 5 stars from me. This is one that should be read aloud!

  • Paul A. Freeman

    The story left me feeling all glowy – which is good. That first paragraph needs a bit of trimming, I felt. I also thought Claude had popped his clogs when you wrote, “(Barbara) was getting by. She was doing it on her own,” but was glad he hadn’t.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    The story left me feeling all glowy – which is good. That first paragraph needs a bit of trimming, I felt. I also thought Claude had popped his clogs when you wrote, “(Barbara) was getting by. She was doing it on her own,” but was glad he hadn’t.

  • Jacquie Rogers

    A touching account, full of finely observed detail. I really enjoyed this story, especially the delicacy of the end.

  • Jacquie Rogers

    A touching account, full of finely observed detail. I really enjoyed this story, especially the delicacy of the end.

  • SheilaC

    One of the best stories I’ve read recently.

  • SheilaC

    One of the best stories I’ve read recently.

  • TheKesser

    I loved this. It’s so sad and yet so beautiful.

  • TheKesser

    I loved this. It’s so sad and yet so beautiful.

  • Thanks for all the comments!

  • Thanks for all the comments!

  • Cranky Steven

    Four stars. A good read though kind of sad.

  • Cranky Steven

    Four stars. A good read though kind of sad.

  • Gerald_Warfield

    Beautifully told. Parallel plot and subplot very effective. Ended at just the right place. Could trim a few words. Open/closed sunroom didn’t bother me, but might have been better to call it a sunporch.

  • Gerald_Warfield

    Beautifully told. Parallel plot and subplot very effective. Ended at just the right place. Could trim a few words. Open/closed sunroom didn’t bother me, but might have been better to call it a sunporch.

  • Katie Robles

    EXCELLENT writing. I really enjoyed this one, thank you Christopher!

  • Katie Robles

    EXCELLENT writing. I really enjoyed this one, thank you Christopher!

  • terrytvgal

    So poignant and heartfelt. Very nice, indeed. I am an avid watcher of the live streaming bald eagle cameras available online and so there was an immediate resonance for me. Just got to say though that the ending felt very rushed and forced. It’s abruptness robbed the story of much of its emotional strength for me. It was an ending for the reader, and I didn’t get even the tiniest feeling that Barbra had realized the ‘irony’ of her words. Still worth 4stars… but if I ould give it 3.5 that’s what I’d have given.

  • terrytvgal

    So poignant and heartfelt. Very nice, indeed. I am an avid watcher of the live streaming bald eagle cameras available online and so there was an immediate resonance for me. Just got to say though that the ending felt very rushed and forced. It’s abruptness robbed the story of much of its emotional strength for me. It was an ending for the reader, and I didn’t get even the tiniest feeling that Barbra had realized the ‘irony’ of her words. Still worth 4stars… but if I could give it 3.5 that’s what I’d have given.
    p.s. — having looked again at the 1st paragraph, I see that it is indeed confusing. Too bad. Still the overall impact is strong and positive.

  • I enjoyed reading this. It was a feel-good story for me.

  • I enjoyed reading this. It was a feel-good story for me.

  • Justine Manzano

    Loved this! As was already said, you made what could have been a very sad, very dark premise and turned it into something light and hopeful. Well done!

  • Justine Manzano

    Loved this! As was already said, you made what could have been a very sad, very dark premise and turned it into something light and hopeful. Well done!

  • Edward Beach

    I can’t beleive this only scored 3.7

  • Edward Beach

    I can’t beleive this only scored 3.7

  • Nina

    I just returned from a four day visit with my elderly parents. This story captures the slow pace and insularity of old age beautifully.

  • Nina

    I just returned from a four day visit with my elderly parents. This story captures the slow pace and insularity of old age beautifully.

  • tyler gregory

    I loved your story. Beginning,
    middle, and end. Loved the ending. Perfect.

  • tyler gregory

    I loved your story. Beginning,
    middle, and end. Loved the ending. Perfect.

  • Jule

    Beautifully written, captivating !

  • Jule

    Beautifully written, captivating !