On a very early June morning, the sun was just rising and the sky glowed pink. Ruth was sitting in the bathroom doing what she did every day at this time. Usually she read the news while she did it, or at least looked at the funny pages, but today she had forgotten to bring the newspaper in with her.
The white wooden door was shut in front of her, and at first she just looked at the floor, her eyes making patterns in the wood grain while another part of her attended to business. When she got bored with that she glanced up at the door. The white door had made a screen for a shadow play. The sun coming up focused the light sharply, and Ruth could see the crook of a tree and a nest. She was marveling at the detail, the individual pieces of the grasses that made the nest were sharply focused.
The little picture fit right into the frame of the door, and Ruth even stood up for a second, and looked out the window behind her, but she couldn’t tell which tree the shadow came from. She felt almost a little frantic, and then laughed at herself, wondering what the big deal was. Ruth checked the shadow, then searched out the window, but she couldn’t find a crook like that in any of the trees, and those on the other side of the farm lane were too far away for her to see in such detail.
She sat back down, and just then the mother bird’s shadow appeared and three—no four—heads popped up from the nest, all open beak and wobbles, thrusting up toward the mother. One little beak opened wider and stood taller and the mother dropped a morsel in and was gone. The little heads all retracted into the nest, and the movie was over; the picture was still again. Ruth felt a sudden sadness at the loss, but a moment later the whole scene was repeated.
Ruth finished her business quickly and ran to find her camera. But the batteries were dead and by the time she found some that worked and ran back to the bathroom, the sun had shifted, the focus was gone, and instead of the nest, dappled light played over the bathroom door as the sun and wind filtered through the leaves. Ruth felt that strange sadness again, like the guilt of missed opportunities.
Later that morning at Duncan’s little league game, Ruth sat on the bleachers next to Molly, whose son Daniel played on the same team. Molly and her sister ran the little bakery in Chestnut Orchard, really the only business in town. Ruth and Molly were some kind of slantwise kin through marriage, but Ruth could never remember the details. She knew Molly and her sisters a little growing up, when Ruth would visit her grandparents, and they all hung out with the same crowd in college. Ruth didn’t think Molly ever finished school, and Ruth, herself, had dropped out when she got pregnant with Ya, before going back after Duncan was born. Molly felt like a kindred spirit, and Ruth liked going into the bakery for coffee and to write, and sometimes for her knitting group.
She told Molly the whole story. “And I almost got it on film—my camera has a video setting—but the dang batteries were dead.”
“That means it’s just for you, Ruth.” Molly’s eyes were shining. “Stuff like that makes you believe in the Goddess, doesn’t it?”
“Shush, Molly!” Ruth feigned shock and looked over her shoulder. Pickaway County was spiritually diverse—at least in terms of Protestantism, if you count Methodist and Presbyterian churches as being diverse. There was one Catholic church on the edge of town. Molly’s pagan leanings were obvious if you knew the lingo and symbolism, but Ruth thought it was better if some of Molly’s bakery customers didn’t realize that. Molly rolled her eyes and she and Ruth laughed conspiratorially for the rest of the game.
For several weeks afterwards, Ruth tried getting up at the same time and looking at the bathroom door, camera ready. But sometimes it was cloudy, sometimes she was too late or maybe too early. And of course the angle of the sun changed a little each day. She never even saw the crook in the tree again, let alone the nest and the family of birds. She looked out the window and the direction the sun shone from didn’t even make sense. It rose to the northeast that time of year, so how could it shine directly on her bathroom door?
Many years later she realized that the sun must have come in at an angle and bounced off the mirror on the south wall to hit the bathroom door just so. The crook in the tree was right outside the bathroom window, but the image was reversed so Ruth didn’t think it could be the one. But by the time she figured that out the nest was long gone, and no bird ever built another one there.
Mary Lucille Hays lives in the Midwest and writes about the Prairie. Named for both of her grandmothers, she teaches writing at the University of Illinois. In 2015 she was Murray State University’s Jesse Stuart Fellow, where she earned her MFA. “The Bird’s Nest” is the second story from her novel in stories, Ruth Harris: Under the Prairie Moon, appearing in EDF. Others have appeared or are forthcoming in Quiddity, Short Fiction Break, and Broad! a gentleperson’s magazine. Hays tends chickens on her grandmother’s farm in Piatt County, Illinois, where she lives with her husband.