When I was 4 years old, my dad said, “Your grandfather is a bird.”
Imagine my surprise.
He pointed out our kitchen window to the dark specks in our backyard and said, “Like a crow, or a magpie.”
I didn’t understand genetics but there was nothing about my dad that seemed half bird. I’d never seen him fly, he’s terrified of heights. No beak. No claws. Doesn’t eat worms.
My dad said, “You remember Grandma? She was a regular woman and fell in love with a bird. My black hair is the color of his wings but my body looks like hers.”
I wanted to meet my grandpa but my dad said that would be hard work. Birds don’t have phones and you can’t send letters to their tiny homes, so we decided backyard-trial-and-error was the best way to go. I placed seeds and berries in bowls, laid aluminum bottle caps in the sun, and sat on the porch, quiet and waiting. Is that one him? Is THAT one him? I’d ask my dad. He’d grin and shake his head no, saying, “I’ll tell you if I see him.”
Seasons changed, years went by. Every flock that peppered the sky made me wonder if he was close. Power lines became my dream home. I regularly perched at the kitchen window watching the yard, buying berries with my allowance and shining bottle caps but nothing worked. After a while, I grew mad. “Birds are selfish,” I said. “They want food but not from your hand. They take shiny things they haven’t earned. They build their homes of your very hair but if you touch it, they never return.” My dad told me, “You’re right. It isn’t fair but that’s the price paid when you’re related to birds.”
He told me, when he was a boy, he too spent long days and nights by the kitchen window and despite his mom’s promised berries or sweet-whistled birdsong, some days nothing brought his father home. On the days he did return though, my dad, terrified, would cling to his father’s fragile middle as they soared toward the sky. My dad would squeeze too tight, plucking thick feathers from his father’s proud chest as he flew faster and higher, racing farther, never thinking of my dad as a little boy, but as “almost-bird”.
When I turned 14, my dad said he’d found his dad and he was ready to meet us. I put on a shimmery dress and made the pockets heavy with seeds. I wove glitter through my hair and practiced a pitiful whistle for two hours as we drove hills and hollers before finally stopping at… a Waffle House.
And three sweet teas later, a man arrived.
Imagine my surprise.
White hair, no feathers, no sparkle in his eye like the birds I’d watched for years prior. Just a man.
Dinner was quick. I didn’t offer him pocket-seed or bottle caps, but after he left I asked my dad why he’d lied. He said he didn’t, that his dad may be a man, but all he knows is flight.
I looked at my dad, ever-present and soft-smiled, and thanked him for never taking flight. He said, “We all have wings, even me, but you are my sky and that’s all I need.”
Sage Martin is a theatermaker and arts-and-craft enthusiast from Louisville, Kentucky. She can be found on Instagram and Twitter at @HeyaSage.
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