Lamentation for Songbirds

By

Yellow warblers are tiny, singing birds that live and breed in thickets and the crooks of low branches. They migrate along the Atlantic Flyway, a route which follows North America’s eastern coast, making them common in New York, where I live. I didn’t begin to notice them until the autumn my son started school for the first time. With sturdy beaks and round, black eyes, the color of their plumage is the warbler’s most outstanding feature: they are the yellow of lemons and pale cakes, the yellow of warning signs.

The first one I saw was on the sidewalk outside the bank. It flopped around for a moment before it stopped moving altogether. Up close, I could see that the feathers on its back had hints of green, and, overall, there was a grayish wash that rendered the bird almost spectral.

A neighbor stood beside me. “Is it alive?” she said. I didn’t know. At first, we mistook them for lost pets, my neighbors and I. This was how small and bright and lovely they were. But soon, they were everywhere and only ever lifeless at our feet. Some parents hurried their children away from the birds, but I let mine look. My son studied them with curiosity and care, offering to cover them with leaves, not wishing them to be cold. Sometimes the wind moved their feathers.

It was the autumn of 2018, and my children were both very small, one a baby and the other barely out of toddlerhood. At night, they’d wake with a start each time I left the room. However quietly I crept, within minutes they’d rouse, and I became convinced this was because my scent was suddenly absent. I took to wrapping teddy bears in shirts I’d worn all day, tucking them beside my sleeping children so that I might spend time alone to quiet my mind before sleep.

I calmed myself by listening to cars on the highway. I watched people come and go from the twenty-four-hour donut shop across the street. I spent much of my time looking through internet posts written by my neighbors in south Brooklyn. I looked because I knew they would be talking about the birds. “They’re everywhere,” someone wrote. “There was one on Wyckoff between Smith and Court for several days, north side of the street, middle of the block. Its head was missing.”

In our online neighborhood forum, we obsessed over the birds, in part because we didn’t have the language to talk about what happened earlier in the year: the death of our neighbor, how he’d entered the park one morning and quietly set himself on fire. It had been the most beautiful day, the first day of Little League. I remember shielding the baby from the sun. I hadn’t known then what had happened just beyond the ballfields.

I searched internet posts, but the neighborhood was no longer talking about that morning in the park, about what a fellow parent had done before dawn. Instead, they were talking about the warblers, determined to uncover the cause of their deaths. When I finally slept, I dreamed of tiny yellow birds in flight against a bright blue sky. They swooped and glided, then burst into flame without warning.

All through the fall, I spent daytime hours noticing the dead warblers on the sidewalk, and nighttime hours shaking away visions of my neighbor alone in the park. Day and night, I harbored a low-level nausea at the prospect of sending my son to school. He was four years old and, because of his parents’ unconventional work hours, he had never been to daycare, never been to preschool. He’d never been away from us. When it came time to enroll him in kindergarten, we walked hand-in-hand to the school. There was a mandated lockdown drill while I sat filling out registration paperwork. I pulled my son onto my lap. He buried his face in my shoulder.

In the weeks leading up to the start of the school year, we spent our time visiting Prospect Park’s lake and woodlands, hoping to spot a rabbit or chipmunk. I’d lift him from a safe distance to look at a round nest protecting a trio of pale blue eggs. Or else we passed days at the Museum of Natural History, where my son learned to walk, toddling beneath the video narrated by Tom Brokaw in the Hall of Biodiversity, “Life in the Balance,” where visitors could watch a bird decay in time-lapse. I held his hand and wondered about the warblers. I wondered about our neighbor’s final moments.

Before long, neighborhood parents began to speculate about causes of death for the birds—some blamed rat poison or whatever the city had sprayed at night the previous month. I didn’t know what was happening, only that there were clusters of lifeless gold and gray birds in the streets. One mother called the ornithology lab at Cornell. She gathered dead birds and placed them in coolers. She kept them in her freezer until they could be collected and examined. And who but the parents? If the birds were first, other small things would surely follow, and we are the caretakers of small things.

On the first day of school, the trees were filled with massive, black birds. They startled me, and even my husband remarked on how ominous the trees appeared. I imagined the children as crows and ravens, swinging from play structures with their sweet, black claws as I delivered my son to the door of a classroom where a young woman in yellow was waiting to take his hand.

The great, black birds—ravens, a neighbor said—seemed to follow me down Clinton Street past a funeral home claiming to be the oldest in America, where you can still request a horse-drawn hearse. The cafe I frequented then was filled with parents and funeral attendants in need of coffee. The attendants waited in line, white carnations pinned to their lapels.

A trio of mothers in the center of the cafe were speaking in hushed tones, discussing the passing of a neighborhood child. A door seemed to open between us. We talked about the dead warblers, the rising sea levels, the way we spend our pregnancies dreaming of ex-boyfriends. We talked about death. We scared the baristas. Our conversation circled something, like laying out small shoes in rings to ward off pain, to protect against falling objects and bullies and melting glaciers. What we could not talk about was what our neighbor had done earlier in the year—that morning, the park, the first day of Little League. Three ravens sat perched on the bench outside the cafe window all the while. The young ones have blue eyes, pink inside their beaks, pink like my daughter’s yawning mouth opening to nurse. Their wings are iridescent.

A few weeks later, I knelt on the cold sidewalk beside my son one morning before school. Four years old, he was so small. “Please stay close,” he said. Lacking a tissue, I wiped his tears and snot onto my sleeve. “Please stay near me. I’ll know if you’re not near,” he said, unable to say why he needed this. I promised. I kicked ginkgo leaves up and down the street, the pavement ablaze with yellow. The pink rose bush on First Place was still in bloom. I touched my palm to the cool brick of the school wall, circling the morning, my son, my own grief.

The night before, he’d recounted his class’s most recent lockdown drill. He demonstrated, showing me how the lights went off, how he quieted himself, made himself small, and covered his head. I held his baby sister and allowed myself a full twenty seconds of despair.

“We had to be extra quiet so that we didn’t wake up the coyote,” he said. “If the coyote woke up, the bad guy might find us because of the yapping.” I imagined that his teacher had created a dreamy scenario to quell anxiety when she had to turn out the light, lock the door, and keep two dozen four- and five-year-olds still and quiet. It is night. We are in a forest. Can you see the stars? Listen quietly. There are frogs and deer. The birds are sleeping, and the foxes, too. Don’t wake them. Don’t wake the coyote. At the preschool where my friend’s daughter is enrolled, they tell small children that the drills are safety protocols if a bear should get inside the school, as if a bear loose in an elementary school is gentler than what they’re preparing for.

For a moment, I allowed myself the fantasy. I imagined my son and his classmates against the closet doors, small and quiet, staring at a coyote seated opposite them on their circle time rug, their young teacher inching toward the door to lock them all in and turn out the lights. I imagined them in darkness, the sounds of their breathing, the coyote laying down to sleep, their teacher lifting a finger to her lips.

Later that evening, an email from his teacher bore the subject line “Exotic Pets visits K-101!” Inside were pictures of the class—children sitting in a circle and several small animals in the middle. There was a wallaby and a chinchilla. There was my son holding something that looked like a fox.

In a warm cafe across the street, I craned my neck to get a glimpse of my son on the blacktop at recess, trying to keep my promise. I watched as a bigger child tore off his hat. The bigger child tossed my son’s hat to another child, and that child threw it to another. I watched my son try not to cry. I bit my lip hard enough to draw blood, and contemplated busting him out of kindergarten for the day. Before I could act, he disappeared with dozens of other children through a small doorway. I watched until the door closed.

After school, I pushed a mug of hot chocolate across our small table. “How did it make you feel when those boys took your hat?” He nearly leaped across the table and into my arms, relieved. “I knew you’d stay.”

What he’d needed was for me to bear witness to what was happening, to a pain that he didn’t yet have the words to articulate.

I’m trying to tell you what happened in the park, trying to find the words for what haunts me. In the early morning hours of what would become an exquisite spring Saturday, a fellow parent, my neighbor, walked into a clear patch of land near the ballfields. He laid out a lanyard with his identification, as well as a manila envelope labeled “To the police.” Inside was a note that read, in part, “Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result—my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”

In the note, he apologized for the mess.

I don’t know in what order the events took place, but I have read the following: he brought a bag of soil with him and with the soil made a perfect ring. He wanted to be sure the fire wouldn’t spread. He stepped into the circle, poured an accelerant onto his body, and lit himself on fire. A passerby found the charred remains of his body.

I saw the blue tarp beyond the running children when we arrived for my son’s tee-ball game. By the time we left, the tarp was gone. Only a blackened patch of earth remained, flanked by a pair of orange cones. I returned in the evening. By then, neighbors had covered the burnt ground with fallen tree branches, flowers, stones.

The world our children are inheriting is one of brutality. I try to counter this violence. My child doesn’t know what happened beyond the ballfields. He swung for the ball and missed and ran anyway. He did not see the tarp or the police presence. But he doesn’t need to have seen or heard about it. It’s in the air.

He sits and holds his breath in the darkness beside his classmates.

As autumn progressed, the parents of the neighborhood kept looking for answers about the warblers. Finally, the answer was delivered by a local bird-enthusiast. It was not rat poison or whatever the city was spraying to keep the mosquitos at bay. The warblers were being plucked from their migration paths, drawn in by two bright, vertical columns: the Tribute in Light in Lower Manhattan, honoring those that died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The lights recalling the fallen towers stretch above our city, twenty-one thousand feet into the sky each September. The birds become spellbound, circling in the beams for hours. At sunrise, they leave in the wrong direction—lost—and collapse from exhaustion, unable to find the right path again. They mill about the pavement. They die, victims of our grief.

Other parents and I deal with these realities differently. Some lean in close and whisper about it on the first day of school. Some keep dead birds in their freezers. Some walk into the park alone in early mornings and engage in acts of monumental protest and despair. Many of us are searching for solutions to problems catastrophically larger than we are, trying desperately to find our way back to the right path.

Resolved to offer my children a connection to the earth, to give them clear-eyed joy wherever I was able, we boarded a chartered boat called American Princess after the school year ended. With a dozen other families, we spent an afternoon whale watching in New York Harbor. After nearly disappearing from the waters around New York City, humpback whales were returning in staggering numbers. This seemed like a miracle but was not. The whales returned because of legislative efforts to curb pollution.

In the boat’s cabin, I examined a framed picture on the wall and read the plaque beside it—it was a photograph of someone else’s kindergartener, shot dead in her classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary. Outside, my son shouted with glee when a whale breached and then slid again beneath the dark water near Ambrose Channel.

To parent a child on a suffering earth means learning that sometimes there will be connections, sometimes there will be answers. And sometimes, there will not—no sense of why an awful thing has occurred or what to do about it. There will barely be language for the things we face. It is my job, I am learning, to be willing to circle the questions that don’t have easy answers, to be present with my children for the painful facts of the world as they come to know them, to be present with the birds at our feet.

On the morning of my neighbor’s death in the park, children seemed to bloom and scatter as they ran in diamonds, the ballfields teeming. They ran across land carved by glaciers, their voices crying out in laughter and song. And there, a tarp at the field’s edge covered the charred body of a man, arms extended toward the sky, in defense of the earth and in praise. A body of brilliant baptism calling us back in recollection of these hills, their future lifetimes under water. My son crashed into my outstretched arms with a joy that knocked me over. I must learn to hold both, acknowledging what is being lost, looking for what is still in flight.

***

Rumpus original art by Han Olliver.


Lindsey Trout Hughes is a writer and theater maker in New York City. She is at work on her first book, a memoir. You can find her on Twitter at @lindseythughes. More from this author →