The Fledgling

A child had died in the neighborhood. A four-year-old girl called Molly. The day it happened, there had been snow. Molly and her mother, Sarah, went out to shovel the front steps. They took the dog, an eager, young chocolate Labrador. The snow was heavy and wet, the kind that packs well. Molly had just learned to make snowballs.

Afterwards, the neighbors would point to the steep slope of the yard, the tiered garden beds, the rows of shrubbery wrapped in misshapen bundles of burlap and twine. There was no space to play, and the child was always running around in the boulevard.

Molly had hurled a snowball into the street and followed as the dog went after it. Neither of them noticed the car, but Sarah, hearing the crunch of tires in snow, looked up from the shovel and said, “Molly, stop! Car!” The little girl halted, teetering at the curb, still laughing at the Labrador as it scrambled to find the snowball in the white slush of the road. The car rolled forward so slowly that Sarah had time to wonder about the extent of the injuries — would the dog survive? — and how she would talk to her daughter about death. But then the car swerved, and it was Molly slumped against the retaining wall of the garden. “I only saw the dog,” the driver said, over and over.

Mary Beth didn’t see the accident. She lived a couple of blocks away, but she happened to be at her living room window cleaning a birdcage when the ambulance, police car, and the fire truck came up the street and rounded the corner. Turning back to her zebra finches — wild with the intrusion, wings battering the bars of the cage, orange beaks open and panting, shit flying — she wondered if someone had fallen on the ice. It had been that kind of a winter. As a girl, she’d had contempt for the snowbirds, but now that she was forty she saw their wisdom, and it seemed that she might follow her parents’ path out of southwest Minneapolis and down the Mississippi flyway after all.

She latched the cage and the finches settled. There were three of them, a family. The gray male was called Ben. In a fracas, his orange cheeks huffed like bellows, but he was actually the timid one. Bea liked to chase their offspring — tiny Hero, just weeks old — out of the nest, an aggression that belied her elegant, white feathers. The finches were insular and complete, and Mary Beth was continually struck by how little they cared for her, while the dog, kept her close.
“There’s no sense putting on our boots and trudging up the street to see if it’s serious,” she said to Hal, the ancient Border Collie slinking around her feet, always waiting for something better than seed husk and feathers to fall from the cage. “Someone will be by to tell us all about it before dinner.”

As it happened, no one came until two nights later, by which time Mary Beth had forgotten about the sirens. At ten o’clock, Hal began to stamp and howl at the door and she opened it to find Jane Knudsen on her porch, her cheeks flushed with the cold and her expression uncharacteristically pinched.

Mary Beth had been grade school friends with Jane’s son, and had spent much of her childhood in the Knudsens’ backyard. Jane was a plump little apple of a woman, a generous listener who gathered all the neighborhood news with an open and affectionate face. She never had to wheedle; people just told her things. Mary Beth envied her this coziness. Something about herself — her tall, thin frame, she thought — seemed to make other women feel judged. Or maybe she looked angry. Michael, her husband, complained of a deep crease that appeared on her brow during serious conversations, but she had never seen it in any mirror. She always looked at herself with the utmost kindness.

“I’m so sorry I’ve caught you in the middle of dinner,” Jane said as she stepped into the house and peered around the arch of the dining room, where Mary Beth had just set out a bowl of lamb stew and a box of Saltines. Hal, who was also curious about the steaming meat, nudged the women toward the table and took his place beneath it.

“Why don’t you keep me company,” Mary Beth said. “I should have eaten hours ago, but I was hoping Michael would make it home.”

“I didn’t know postmen kept such long hours.”

“There’s so few of them now, they’re all required to work a little overtime. It’s time and a half.”

“So you can’t complain.”

“Oh but I do — especially at meal times,” Mary Beth said, “If only the mail could sort itself.”

“Don’t wish for it,” Jane said. She pushed her cap back and dabbed a glove at her running nose.

“You look half frozen. Do you want a cup of tea? I don’t know what I’ve got, but there’s probably something in there. Something herbal? Or I could heat up some milk?”

“No, I shouldn’t keep you, but I do have some unfortunate news.”

Jane sat down at the table. She told Mary Beth about the accident, how they’d taken the girl to Children’s Hospital, but she never regained consciousness. Sarah and Fred were sick with grief, but there were the other three children to look after. His mother had come to help them. A date had not been set for the memorial. But Mary Beth, who could not turn her mind to Molly, got stuck at the car.

“I don’t understand,” she said, “why did the man swerve?”

“The dog was in the street.”

“My father taught me not to swerve. Not ever. I wouldn’t even swerve for Hal.” Hearing his name, the collie came chair-side to have his ears caressed.

“It’s hard to know what we might do,” Jane said, “until we’re in the situation.”

“I’d hit the dog.”

Jane said she’d sat with the man, an elderly fellow in a tattered Swedish sweater and baggy, black leather gloves. As the shock set in, he cried and told her he’d been lost, circling the neighborhood; there were no straight streets. He glanced down at the map, and when he looked up, there was the dog. “I feel terrible for that man: I don’t know how you live with yourself after something like this.”

“My god, you were there the whole time?” Mary Beth said. “I should have been there.”

“How could you have known?”

“I saw the paramedics, but I didn’t go.”

“The paramedics were yelling at me, but I couldn’t leave that poor man.”

“Poor Sarah and Fred! Why didn’t someone tell me? I should call her. Or should I go over?”

“Well, that’s why I’m here.”

“She sent you?”

Jane reached across the table and put a hand on Mary Beth’s arm. “No, but I’m letting people know. We’re putting together a calendar, so we can take them meals.”

“There’s a calendar? Am I the last one to know?”

Mary Beth woke with the overwhelming feeling that she wanted to do something for Sarah, a strong impulse to be a good friend to the woman. At breakfast, she said so to her husband.

He had come home close to midnight. Mary Beth was in bed but still awake. When she told him what had happened to Molly, he seemed saddened by the news and rubbed her blanketed legs. And then he said, “How was your day otherwise?”

Mary Beth had begun to weep. Michael lay beside her, and when she crawled onto his chest, he stroked the sweaty hair from her forehead. But it was clear that he found her grief, the upwelling of emotion for the young family, confusing. “MB,” he said. “What’s this about? It can’t all be for Fred and Sarah. I didn’t even know you were close to them.”

“We were friends,” Mary Beth answered. “Molly liked to visit the finches. How could you forget? Hero?”

Mary Beth had let Molly hold a few finch eggs in the palm of her hand so she could feel their warmth and near-weightlessness. They were smaller than jelly beans. “The baby birds are going to be super-duper small,” the girl had said. Her joy in this eventuality was so compelling that Mary Beth hadn’t told her that the birds were prolific layers and that she had been tossing three or four eggs a week — or that Michael sometimes dropped them on the floor for Hal, though she asked him not to and it made her very angry, for reasons she did not explore and even though she herself ate eggs nearly every day. Instead, she put the eggs back in the nest, and let the finches keep them. For two weeks, Molly came almost daily to check on them. Mary Beth gave her binoculars and set her at the top of the staircase to watch the birds. Ben was as broody as the hen, and they took turns sitting on the eggs, so that each could eat and bathe. Molly had quietly cooed when Bea dropped into the bath and scissored her tail feathers, creating a tiny fountain. And when, a couple weeks later, Hero emerged from the egg — a gray, primordial lump with a disproportionately large beak — the girl had perfectly expressed Mary Beth’s own sense of the miraculous. “There were just two birdies,” she said, “and now there’s three.”

Sarah had come on those visits too. But she was new to the neighborhood, and she and Mary Beth had failed to make the leap from acquaintances to friends, even though she was exactly the sort of woman that Mary Beth thought she liked. She wore her hair in pigtails and always had things to talk about, her roses or a new book or an unusual insect she had discovered. She was independent and seemed to genuinely like her husband, even though he was out of the country half the time and left her with all those children. She had a wry sense of humor about them. When the twins had discovered their penises during reading circle at the library, she had told the story as if it were a play, giving the boys dumb bear voices. Little diddlers she had called them.

“I just want to do something for her,” Mary Beth told Michael.

“I know you mean well, MB,” he said, “But don’t you think those people would like to be left alone? A nice hotdish is probably enough.”

“They’ll get ten of them — I want to bring something special.”

“They don’t want special. They want cream of mushroom soup.”

Mary Beth would take them a meal in a couple of days, but she would also do something now, something that would provide real consolation. Perhaps a book: When her granny died, she had bought a thin, readable volume on sudden death that she had found both comforting and disconcerting. Mary Beth had felt so alone in her grief that while she was glad for the book’s insights, she felt something was lost in the idea that there were universal themes to grieving.

She found the book and put it in a plain brown lunch bag. She wanted to write a simple note to accompany it, but as she hunted around for something wise and heartfelt to say, it became a tortured effort. She came up with a really good line about the death of a young person, but then thought better of such overwrought words as “senseless” and “tragic.” She wrote that she felt blessed to have known Molly, who seemed to celebrate life and to love everyone she met, and that she would keep her spirit alive with memories, but this felt falsely religious. She wanted to be of service to the woman, but found she had written “please” four times, which sounded a little begging.

Several hours later, she went with “please accept my condolences,” a promise to bring by dinner, and a brief inquiry into what the kids might like to eat.

The air outside was so cold that Mary Beth’s first deep breath made her cough. She considered putting Hal back in the house, but he was already pulling at the lead.

On days like this, she thought of Michael trundling down the street under the weight of his layers — long underwear, goose-down vest, parka, watch cap, fur hat, scarf, gloves, and mailbag. He never talked about the weather, only the barking dogs and whatever podcast he was listening to at the time; he was partial to historic battles and finance reports and oddly dedicated to a noir serial following the survivors of a zombie apocalypse. She seldom listened to anything while she walked, especially in winter. She liked the quiet of snow, how you could hear the scrape of a leafless branch against a house or the thin whistle of a chickadee, and then the distant sounds of freight trains and industry. She was attentive to the light, so soft and yellow on a day like today, so far down into the trees and full on the houses, giving everything the look of paper, two-dimensional and flimsy.

Sarah’s house was a plain-faced, gray foursquare with a green door and two sets of asphalt steps carved into the center of yard. On the walk over, she had determined not to look for traces of the accident, but there were the tire tracks in the snow, up the curb and over the walk. In the boulevard, the car had scraped the bark off a red maple. Yellow police tape flicked and fluttered from the rail at the bottom of the front steps. Why hadn’t anyone untied it, stamped the snow? She told Hal to wait and ran up the steps. They were shallow and icy, and she fell forward and had to half crawl up the second flight. She left the book in Sarah’s mailbox and crept back down the steps, careful and slow, her head lowered the whole way. Her eyes were watering, from the cold she thought, she could hardly see through the ice in her eyelashes. But there was Hal, shivering on his rump, one cold paw in the air and something soft in his muzzle. “Leave it!” she said, with more of a shriek than she meant, and the dog let it fall. It was a small wool mitten. Molly’s mitten. She stuffed it in her pocket.

The mitten was the color of egg yolks and folded in half — the palm was clean and hardly damp. Mary Beth set it on her kitchen counter and pressed it straight and flat. It was very small. She got out the kitchen ruler and measured it. The whole mitten came to four and a half inches, including an inch of ribbing at the wrist. She set it in her hand and measured again. Her index finger was four inches longer than Molly’s hand.

The finches were in an uproar; she could hear the cage clattering as they bounced off the perch. She took the mitten and stood in front of them. Sometimes her presence would quiet them. But this time Hero was on the floor of the cage. What she wanted, Mary Beth could see, was to return to the nest, where Ben was already sitting on a new clutch of eggs. She tried for it again and again, and each time Bea flew at her, beeping and hissing. Mary Beth rapped on the top of the cage with the mitten and all three of the birds flushed, their wings like a tight deck of cards. Bea was a terrible mother. Something had to be done: All of Hero’s crown feathers were missing and she was bleeding.

The thing to do, Mary Beth thought, was to wash Molly’s mitten and return it.

It was not the thing to do, not at all. The mitten had shrunk.

She had washed it with her linens in a delicate soap that smelled like lavender and pine needles, which she thought might please Sarah, and when she pulled the load out, the mitten was hard to find among the static-filled sheets. But there it was, felted and impossibly small.

Mary Beth took off her sweater and drank a glass of water. She called Michael’s cell phone, but he didn’t answer, and she didn’t leave a message. Out of habit, she dialed the Audubon Society Bird Box and listened to the rare bird alerts. She found the voices of the elderly birders comforting. Their messages were invariably calm and to the point, yet tinged with the cheer of a good find.

After listening to a few call-ins, she pressed pound to return to the main menu and left a message for the administrator: “Hello, lovely bird people,” she said. “I have an unusual question for you. My zebra finch fledgling has been pushed out of the nest for a new clutch. The hen is attacking her, and I don’t know what to do. Any insight will be appreciated.” She left her phone number and email, but then it occurred to her that these Audubon people might disapprove of caging birds. Another call was beeping through, so she blurted: “I know one shouldn’t keep birds, but the adults were rescues from a Montessori school. I just couldn’t leave them there with all those cage rattlers.”

It was Michael on the other line, yelling as always, complaining that he’d been in the middle of some zombie cliffhanger and hadn’t been able to get the phone out of his pocket and pull off his gloves to answer her call, which he hoped was something truly dire because here he was, standing around in this killing weather with no gloves. “Why didn’t you leave a message?”

“Because I didn’t want to leave a message,” she said. “I wanted to talk to you.” She told him about Hero, bald and hunched like a shrunken vulture. She exaggerated the amount of blood.

“That’s what they’re supposed to do,” Michael said. There was a huge bald eagle’s nest on his Cooper neighborhood delivery route, where he’d watched the parents chase the teenagers out of the nest. The birds had fought so viciously that people gathered in the street to watch. “It’s instinct.”

“It’s brutal,” Mary Beth said. “She’s practically bald!”

“That’ll teach her.”

“It’s all Bea, really. She’s the asshole.”

“Appearances can be deceptive,” he said. “That Ben might be the kind of a bird that does terrible things and lets other birds take the fall.”

It was funny, and she laughed. “Go back to your zombies,” she said. But when they hung up, there was the mitten, and there was no one she could tell.

The mitten delighted the women at the knitting store. On the way out of the house, Mary Beth had poked her key ring through the ribbing, afraid the mitten would fall out of her pocket and be lost. When she pulled her keys out, the woman behind the counter picked them up. She was a stout thing with a wild curly gray bob and hammy cheeks, but she had a seedeater’s nose and the most delicate wrists Mary Beth had ever seen. “How sweet,” she said, showing the mitten to the coworker at her elbow. “We should do these for the shop.”

“Unfortunately, I didn’t mean to shrink it.”

“Oh dear,” the woman said.

“Yes,” Mary Beth said. “I’m hoping to knit a replacement, if you have the yarn.”

“Well, you know how it goes with dye lots, but we shall see,” the woman said. She slipped on pair of pink cheaters to examine the mitten. “Who’s it for?”

“My daughter.” Mary Beth felt the color rise in her neck and face, but the other woman didn’t look up.

“In that case,” the woman said, “you could knit her a new mitten out of something else. Kids love mismatched mittens.”

“Mine is — attached to this color.”

“She’s a fussy one, huh?” the woman said. “Well, next time, use merino and make three, just in case she loses one.”

Of course, they didn’t have the yarn, and Mary Beth left the store feeling both disappointed and, strangely, lighter than she had in days. Everywhere she went people loved the yellow mitten. At the dry cleaner, the proprietor threatened to frame it as a cautionary tale. At the bank, the teller pinched it with his black-lacquered fingernails and said, “I totally want that, just because it’s, like, so tiny.”

At the grocery store, she put the mitten with the keys on the pay stand and the bagger picked them up. She grinned at Mary Beth, revealing a mouth full of steel and bright orange rubber bands, and slid the mitten onto her index finger like a puppet. “My bag’s too heavy!” she squealed. The checker laughed, which prompted the bagger to parrot the line again and again. Mary Beth wanted to snatch the mitten back.

“What a hoot,” the checker said. She winked at Mary Beth and sent a can of cream of mushroom soup rolling down the belt toward a pile of frozen tater tots, string beans, and sweet corn. “My kids love tater tot hotdish. Here’s a secret: put some fresh cauliflower in there. It’s white. They can’t see it. Bonus vegetable!”

“I don’t have any children,” Mary Beth said.

“Sorry,” the woman said. “I just assumed.”

“That was my daughter’s, but she passed away.”

The checker took the mitten from the bagger and sent her away with a gentle push. “I’ll just take care of this,” she said, and then she pressed the mitten into Mary Beth’s hand and covered it with her own. “I am so sorry for your loss.” She packed the groceries carefully, as if they were delicate, in three light bags and handed them to Mary Beth with a pat on the arm.

The parking lot was a blur. Mary Beth hit the lock on her key, and when the Subaru’s parking lights blinked at her, she ran to it. She hunched in the front seat with the bags in her lap, but she was alone — no one was sitting in the adjacent cars, no one was looking. The thing that was confusing and shameful, was not that she had lied but that for a moment she had believed her own sadness. The car was filled with warm sunlight; the mitten rested on her knee. She pushed the groceries into the passenger seat and checked her cell phone. There were two emails waiting.

One was from Sarah. It was very brief, but it said the book was perfect, more helpful than she knew how to express, except to say thank you. She asked Mary Beth not to stress about dinner, they were happy for anything — it was such a relief not to have to deal with cooking.

The other email was from the Bird Box administrator, who said that it was indeed unusual to get such a request, but it just so happened that he and his wife kept zebra finches. Their best advice was to remove the young bird from the cage. “It will need a mate,” he wrote, “and if you don’t want more of the little beggars, you ought to consider purchasing a bird of the same sex. This is not an unromantic choice. Our boys have been paired for four years. And I’ll tell you what: hens come, and hens go, but continuation of the species be damned, they stick together.”

It was a delightful note, just the kind of thing that Sarah would like. And here was the answer: She would give Sarah and her children the little finch.

It was snowing when Mary Beth left her house to deliver dinner, and for the sake of the finch she had driven. Hero was in a tarnished brass dome she had bought at an estate sale. It was covered in a yellow pillowcase that flapped at her side as she climbed the stairs to Sarah’s door. With the hot casserole balanced on her forearm and the snow on her face, Mary Beth felt buoyant for the second time that day.

So she was shocked when Sarah answered the door looking exhausted and sad and far too young.

“I’ve brought dinner,” Mary Beth said.

A child — tall, a teenager, the eldest Mary Beth thought — appeared in the shadows behind Sarah and said, “Who is it Mom?”

“It’s a neighbor, honey,” Sarah said.

The girl came to the door. “Is there salad? I’m dying for a salad.”

“Really, you’re dying?” Sarah said.

“Sorry Mom.” The girl opened the screen door, took the hotdish from Mary Beth, and disappeared into the house.

“She’s thirteen,” Sarah said.

“It’s okay,” Mary Beth said. “Listen, I’ve brought you something else.”

“Oh my.”

“It’s the finch that Molly named Hero,” Mary Beth said, though this wasn’t true. Hero had been named after a character in one of Shakespeare’s plays, like the other finches. “Do you remember?”

“I don’t.” Sarah’s voice wobbled. “But that’s very sweet.”

Mary Beth held up the cage and lifted the pillowcase, so they could see Hero. She told Sarah about Bea’s bad parenting, and that Hero’s beak would turn orange soon. And she watched the woman’s face lighten as she talked about the boy finches’ life bond. “When the time comes,” she said. “I can help you find a friend for Hero.”

“A ‘friend,’” Sarah said, making half-hearted air quotes with her hands. “They can have a same-sex finch wedding.”

“So you’ll take her?”

“Yes, come in.” Sarah swung open the screen door.

The foyer was littered with the children’s damp snow boots. Mary Beth set the birdcage down, and bent to pull off her Sorels. They were tall and laced and not easy to remove without losing her socks. She bent further and tried to hold her sock in place and slide the first boot off, and as she did her coat flipped over her back. She heard her keys fall from the pocket and onto the floor, and turned to see Sarah kneel over the yellow mitten, its palm slowly opening, like a tulip.

“Is that a mitten?” she said.

Mary Beth searched for words but found nothing. She pulled the mitten from the key ring, and handed it to Sarah, who took it in one hand and then covered it with the other, to keep it safe, or to keep from looking at it.

“Why would you have Molly’s mitten?” she said.

“I’m so sorry,” Mary Beth said. “Our dog found it in the street, and I didn’t mean to take it —”

“But you did.”

“No, I just washed it.”

“And put it on your keychain!” Sarah turned and opened the door again.

Mary Beth could not think of anything to say that would help. She went out onto the porch, paused at the top step to lace up her boot, and heard the door close behind her. Outside everything was so still: only the shush of the snow and her own breathing. From inside the house, she heard the clatter of plates and the children arguing, and from just behind the door, low voices. She wondered if Sarah was telling Fred, and if she should knock and try to apologize once more.

The door opened. It was Sarah with the birdcage.

“Your bird.”

“I want you to have her,” Mary Beth said. “She was Molly’s bird.”

Sarah stood there with her arm outstretched, the bird hanging in the air between them. She seemed to be considering the idea, then she took a step forward and dropped the birdcage.

It happened in slow motion. The birdcage hit the porch’s wooden floorboards, bounced, landed on its side, and the door came open. Mary Beth bent to close it, but it was too late — there was Hero, perched in the opening. The bird cocked her head and looked out. It was snowing hard. The flakes were falling utterly without provenance, as if they might just as easily have swirled up from the ground as down from the sky. The finch lifted her wings and flew into the night.

Susan Pagani

Susan Pagani is a journalist, writer, and editor in Minneapolis, MN. Her nonfiction essays have appeared in Switchback and three collections, Literary Orphans, Minnesota Lunch, and The Secret Atlas of North Coast Food. Her book reviews have appeared in Sierra Magazine, Heavy Table Magazine, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She recently completed her MFA at Bennington College.