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.