Small hands powdered with dirt, cupped the baby bird. The half-naked animal’s bones rolled around, unable to brace itself in her shifting grip. Her sisters became anxious with each wobble.
“Poppy! Don’t squeeze it, you’ll hurt him!” Stella cried, imagining that Poppy’s fingers were squeezing the new treasure, and she wanted a turn; a chance to show she could do it better.
The forest behind the girls’ house was known to reveal gifts and hidden gems. Big oaks towered and dogwoods sought out space below them. The baby bird, whose body seemed lazy and stiff, had fallen from a nest they could not find. They carried on about the best resolution, each hollering louder than the next. Poppy, the eldest at 10 years old, was followed by her two younger sisters, Stella and Violet. Long summer days pardoned them from school and resulted in three dirty girls covered in cuts, bruises, poison ivy, and wielding a plastic bag filled with old cans or screws from their treasure hunts. This day was unique; they had a live specimen in hand, that surely loved them as much as they adored it.
Their hands and brown crusted fingernails fluttered about. Each girl was sure she knew the best way to care for the defenseless baby. Violet insisted they take the bird to their mom, who was on a lounge chair reading a book about a muscular man and a beach; or that’s what was on the cover. Poppy disagreed with Violet and reasoned they should keep it in a shoebox in the woods overnight, then they could feed it all day and return to it tomorrow. She knew her mom, Vanessa, would force them to leave the bird where they found it, but that would mean it would suffer alone in the dark.
Stella, sandwiched between her sisters, stayed deep in thought. Even at eight, she understood the natural order of things in the forest. The baby bird had been pushed from the nest for a reason. Now it needed to be sacrificed to appease the carefully woven balance of life that mother nature intended. She hadn’t spoken up yet, uncertain if she could convince her heart to let the bird go despite the logic for doing so.
“Poppy. The bird must be sick, that’s why it’s not in the nest. We need to leave it alone.” Stella reached over to take the bird from Poppy, who twisted away using her shoulder as a barricade. Violet cried, pushing Poppy into a frantic state.
“Violet! Hush. Mom will hear you!”
Arguing could never be accomplished with subtle voices, and the wave of noise caught their mother’s attention. Begrudgingly, she peeled herself from the lounge chair to see what the fuss was about. Her legs, back, and arms were indented by the straps. Summer had just begun, and already she knew it was going to be a long, hot, and full of little girls pushing their limits.
As the crying intensified so did Vanessa’s pace. Barefoot, she stepped cautiously into the forest. Crunchy leaves padded the earth, making it impossible to be unnoticed.
“Girls? What do you have there?” Coming from behind, she saw Poppy concealing something close to her chest, while Violet threw a fit. It wasn’t uncommon for the girls to fight over frivolous things—just last night it was a pink eraser from the junk drawer. The way the girls carried on you’d think someone stole the last meal on earth.
“Mom! Poppy found a baby bird and won’t let me hold it!” Violet’s tears streaked her filthy face.
Vanessa saw the naked thing tucked in Poppy’s hand, and without thinking, reached over and shook her daughter’s wrist, causing the bird to tumble loose. Weighing almost nothing, it landed with a gentle crinkle of the leaves. Rolling onto its back, the stick like legs peddled in the air until resting close to the body. “Oh dear! Don’t touch that! It probably has mites!” Before Vanessa could understand what she had done, Poppy snapped to attention.
“Mom! You’re going to kill it!” Poppy reached down, but Vanessa was quick and grabbed her arm, jerking her upright.
“This bird belongs to the forest sweetheart, it’s a wild animal. Come on girls, there is nothing we can do. Everyone out of the woods for the rest of the day. Let’s let nature take its course.” She held out her arms trying to herd them back to the yard.
“But mama! It will die! It will die out here!” Violet exploded from the inside out, her face leaking from every orifice. Even Stella turned red and snorted back a tear. Abandoning the tiny bird seemed harsh, even if she believed it was the right thing to do.
“Girls. I’m sorry. This thing isn’t in the nest for a reason. Look, it’s hardly even moving. It’s going to die no matter what you do.” Vanessa’s words didn’t match her own desire to help the little thing, but she knew how difficult it was to keep a baby bird alive once it’s been tossed from the nest. Especially one still so young. It must have hatched just days ago.
All three of the girls were a heaping mess of salty tears, and determination. Poppy folded her hands across her chest and huffed out of her nose; as the oldest, she wanted to prove that she was in charge. Her next words were chosen carefully.
“Mother?” She said sternly. Her mom whipped around, the formal name felt cold.
“This bird deserves a chance to live. There is no harm in keeping him in a box on the porch. We can feed him and give him water. We absolutely cannot leave a baby here to die in the woods, alone.”
Stella stood by. She would prefer to take the bird in, though she also felt it was the wrong decision. There would be consequences for messing with nature.
The three girls stared at their mom. Vanessa’s eyes darted to each face. She exhaled; beaten. Putting her hand on Poppy’s head she tried to run her fingers through the knots and gave up.
“Such big hearts. Okay, we can take him with us.” Squeals of delight erupted, and Poppy gathered up the bird.
Vanessa spoke loudly so the girls would listen. “There are a few rules. You can leave the bird on the covered porch. He is your responsibility. No arguing when it’s time for bed or dinner or anything else that will pull you away from him.”
“Yes. Okay, mom!” They agreed to her terms, and she hoped her husband would too.
Poppy tiptoed gently out of the tree line while Violet hung close to her hip, never taking her eyes off their stubbly bird. The tiny treasure left its home in the forest; its navy eyes remaining shut, and its pink belly gently filling and releasing with each breath. Vanessa prepared herself for the disappointment the children would feel the next day when the bird was dead. It would be yet another animal for their pet cemetery, which grew every summer.
Stella ran into the house and brought out a shoebox, stuffed with tissues, and soon the girls built a little nest for the bird. Buddy, the old and nearly deaf family dog, waddled over to see what the story was. He sniffed the bird and walked away with little interest.
“Well, at least we know Buddy won’t bother the bird,” Stella and the girls laughed.
Vanessa determined to show the girls she would try her best, brought out an eye dropper to try to give the bird water. She held it over the bird, but its little beak wouldn’t open. Its head, covered with a thin almost translucent skin, seemed too big for the neck to support.
“Girls, let’s leave the bird alone for a little while. Let him get settled in before we try to feed him.” The request was met with whining. “Come on, march inside. You remember the rules?” Of course, they didn’t. As soon as she had told them the bird could come home everything else she said drowned in their enthusiasm. Wash your hands—really good. Wash them twice! I’ll get lunch ready, and then you can check on the bird again.”
“Wait!” Poppy protested. “We didn’t name him yet.”
Vanessa forced a smile knowing once the girls named the animal it was officially a pet. Even if it entered the house for five minutes; it was now bound to the family and would be honored just like all members of the clan.
“Jellybean!” Stella shouted. Everyone turned to look at her; surprised by her outburst since she had mostly been quiet until now. The tradition was to name new pets after food. Before this bird there was Pepperoni the turtle, Coco the praying mantis, and Taffy the tailless lizard, to name a few. Each animal met their end within 24 hours.
“And so it will be. Jellybean. Okay, girls, let’s move.”
The girls washed up and ate their tuna fish sandwiches in silence, each thinking about Jellybean and their plans for his future. As lunch concluded, a noise came from outside. It was hard to make out at first. Vanessa cocked her head and raised a finger to tell the girls to be silent. They stopped chewing and gave their attention. It sounded as if the hose was being turned on and off, or no, it was a car trying to start, or no—she wasn’t sure what it was.
Poppy jumped up from her seat and ran to the door. “Mom! It’s Buddy! He’s choking on something!”
“Oh no!” Everyone ran to the front door to witness Buddy’s shoulders hunched forward and saliva dripped from his flapping lips. He heaved and heaved, but nothing would come out. The girls cried, wondering what was wrong with him, and asking if he would be okay. Vanessa went outside towards the dog and banged on his back as if he were a choking toddler. The dog moved away from her, finding a spot in the yard he circled several times before lying down. His breathing slowed, and Vanessa feared the children would witness the dog’s last struggling moment.
“Girls. Go inside. I’m going to try to help Buddy. Go watch TV. Everything will be okay.” She rubbed her hands on her naked thighs and regretted not changing out of her bathing suit before lunch. The girls held their ground forcing her to get louder. “Girls! Go watch TV, and turn it up. We’ll all have a cookie after this, okay? Now go on, everything is fine.” They turned slowly and walked into the house.
The dog lay on the ground, puffing air out the side of his mouth. His watery eyes searched for Vanessa. Her hands shook as she reached for his head and gave him a pat.
“Okay, Buddy. Hey boy. Whatcha get into. You okay?” She rubbed his back; the tip of the dog’s tail waved at her. She took that as a good sign until he tried to stand and had trouble. She moved to stand over him and tried to lift the dog from under his front armpits. He heaved again; her mind raced to what could be wrong. Panic clouded her judgment, then it struck her, something was lodged in his throat.
“Oh, God. Buddy. Please don’t die on my watch. Come on boy, get it up!” The dog’s rib cage seemed to move forward without him losing position. Wet sloshes and gurgles could be heard, he coughed loudly, then did it again seeming to pause midway. He staggered, legs buckling. Air no longer came in or out of his snout.
Vanessa dropped to her knees in front of the dog. She was of no help on the outside, so she pried the dog’s mouth open with her hands to peer inside. There, she could see something blocking Buddy’s airway. It looked like yesterday’s trash surrounded by thick drool. Furious the dog had been in the garbage again and fueled with fear that her husband would blame her for his demise, she reached her hand into the throat and grabbed ahold of the blockage. It was wet, hot, and knobby. Bracing one hand on the dog’s forehead she pulled herself free, the dog let out a yak, slipping the contents of his stomach onto her thighs. White foam and bits of dog food clung to her. She looked away, knowing the image of her lower half would make her throw up right along with Buddy.
The dog stood and shook himself off before walking away as if nothing had happened. She surveyed her body covered in dog vomit and dirt from the yard then noticed her hand was clenched around the object that almost killed the family dog. Sticking out from between her thumb and index finger were the talons of a small bird.
“Jellybean,” she whispered. Buddy was sitting about five feet from her with an expression that she could have sworn was a grin; his tail now freely wagging. Her mind cursed the dog as her fist continued to hold the mucus-covered bird. It was a time of crisis; she had to act fast. Checking behind her and then to the right, she stood and walked towards her neighbor’s yard, where she tossed the contents in her hand over the fence, flicking her hand more than once to remove as much of the drool as possible.
The skin on her thighs started to tighten from the fluid, which was quickly drying in the hot summer sun. She went to the hose and washed herself off; the cold water hurt, but it didn’t mask the pain she felt knowing she would have to tell her children that Jellybean was gone.
Dripping and chilled, she went back to the front door only to find her three daughters standing three steps up on the porch embracing each other. They had witnessed the entire event. Vanessa shook her head wishing she could erase it or come up with a quick and thoughtful explanation.
Poppy’s hand rested firmly on Violet’s shoulder, and with tight lips and wide eyes she said, “Mom, that dang bird tried to kill Buddy!”
Vanessa eyed her daughters who stood fearlessly. She thought about how quickly her children turned from saviors, unwilling to let a flightless orphaned bird unattended; to seeing the bird as a predator who tried to take out the family dog. Uncertain how this was going to go down she froze. Violet sniffed and whipped the back of her arm across her nose. Poppy escorted her inside, hand in hand, the way a big sister should.
Stella picked up the shoe box that occupied the bird for less than 20 minutes and held it to her chest. Her lips trembled. “Mom, what will we bury if you threw the bird over the fence?”
“The box, baby. We’ll bury Jellybean’s box.”
Authors note: I submitted this to the Short Story Project for a writing contest. The only reason I can post my submission here is that they accept previously posted work. Usually, I cannot self-publish anything until I know if it will be accepted or rejected by the organization. It’s nice to publish something! I loved writing this, it reminded me of when my sisters and I would try to save every stray animal we found in our yard. We had a pet cemetery in the back near the road, it was crowded with lizards, birds, guinea pigs, bunnies, and even one German Shepard (that was a big hole).