A Bird-While. non-ficton by Cal Freeman

Cal Freeman-Photo credit Shadia Amen

A Bird-While

I heard what sounded like a bird struggling inside one of the aluminum pillars on my porch. I knew there was no way for a bird to extend its wings and fly out of such a narrow space, so I went back to the garage to grab the thin plastic tube of a shop vacuum and run it down the hollow part inside the pillar, hoping the bird would use it to find its way to daylight.

I thought the bird, or what I imagined was a trapped bird, could scrabble up the grooved plastic. It wasn’t a rat. A rat would’ve simply clawed its way up and out and scurried off or chewed a hole in the bottom of the pillar. A rat would’ve needed no help. There was a chance this bird could be nesting in there, assembling material—chaff and weeds and string—it had scavenged on recent flights around our neighbourhood. There was a chance it knew perfectly well what it was doing and its peril was all in my head.

It was the first decent April day we’d had after being cooped up in the house all winter, and I was planning on walking down to the creek. As I walked away from the porch, it kept scratching. I had no idea how long a creature could survive by itself in such a spot without sustenance. Maybe its maw and belly were full of suet gleaned from nascent germinating plants, the fruit of little seedlings that had flown down there as the bird had flown down there, which is to say mistakenly or drunkenly, or perhaps haphazardly is the right sense given that germinating plants don’t get drunk as we know the state, but get us drunk when their putrefying matter ferments. The only perceived danger to the bird were my footfalls thrumming in its hollow bones. This was not “A Tell Tale Heart.” The bird was real, no figment of my psyche, its scratching real.

It was tantamount to civic duty to be alone that spring. Most couldn’t stand it. We were hearing stories of secret gatherings, gatherings with guitars and whiskey and shared microphones in tiny bars whose windows had been darkened, but we didn’t attend any. We were hearing stories of people dying. We didn’t know any of them personally, mercifully. Stories of charnel tents with humming generators in city parks went around. I was wrapped up in the fate of a bird. I was trying to figure if I took a half hour walk and got away from the pillar, it would be more likely to climb out and fly off. I had a bottle of white wine with lunch. We were encouraged to get drunk alone and maintain zero points of contact, at least that’s how I’d chosen to interpret the guidance. We were encouraged to concern ourselves with fomites, but soon that guidance would be updated.

Our street dead-ends at a creek whose temperament and constitution changes depending on the season. There had been a few good rainfalls recently, and as I walked south I envisioned dark green water flooding the meadow of Heather Lane Park. Water was up to the railings of the pedestrian bridge that connects the park to the working class post-war neighborhood. It’s a good walk on a sunny day, one foot in front of the other, bill of baseball cap slanted down over the eyebrows to block the sun, sun slicing off the shiny paint of parked cars. Down past the small ranch house with the beware of dog sign in the window where the little old lady lives with her grandson who’s fresh off a stint in Jackson State Pen for God knows what (I’d talk to him occasionally; he’d be seated in a lawn chair in the driveway drinking a 24-oz. Budweiser and shouting across the road about the weather); then past Pat Jones’ colonial where I used to stop to chat and drink a beer myself. (Pat Jones was staying at his Lake House in Ludington, riding out the mess; this was technically against the rules.)

Once I was into the riparian zone of this river, colloquially called a creek due to the way it desiccates and recedes to nothing each August after its springtime swell, when it reveals a sandy bed of flotsam, I called my father. I was thinking about a childhood friend who became a Detroit cop and the recent illness of the Detroit police chief. I reminded my father about a rainout we attended at Tiger Stadium in 1987 with the shortstop of our little league team, the friend who would go on to become the Detroit cop. I asked if he’d spoken to the family recently, but my father hadn’t kept up with anybody from that old neighbourhood. I have no recollection of when the Tigers replayed that rained-out game or whether we went back to the old ballpark at Michigan and Trumbull for the occasion. Rainouts are expected, built into the baseball schedule. Every year these spring and summer skies open up, and we huddle beneath umbrellas, wearing ponchos in stadiums that smell of petrichor and beer, quizzing ourselves on how long we’re willing to wait it out. We consider what seems reasonable based on the radar echoes, our level of fandom, and how wet our clothes have gotten. Flags above the right field porch blow in beneath the floodlights. You can see the droplets misting down toward the ivy-green grass and blue tarps.

My father was working on an essay about Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” wherein he cited Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” to argue that Poe is perhaps the earliest practitioner of object-oriented programming (OOP), also called code poetry. The prosodic techniques Poe employs in the poem and their deterministic outcomes are analogous to a computer code, and Poe’s essay functions as a computer programmer’s guide to the poem. It’s Poe’s very own hypertext mark-up language. Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen, Poe postulates. The foreknowledge of denouement necessitates the program. This is the anti-romantic approach, antithetical to any notion of writing as an exploratory act. I think again of the ostensible bird, hungry and scrabbling in the hollow of the pillar. Poe characterizes the raven as “the bird of ill-omen.” The bird of ill-omen. Definitive article. The bird I’m imagining in that pillar is a speculative bird of an undetermined species—undetermined, not indeterminate. I promise myself to look at its plumage when it emerges and check it against the pictures in Stan Tekiela’s Birds of Michigan field guide. If I get a decent look, I should be able to identify it. Birders refer to this as a “bird-while,” which is the window of time where one can watch an avian before it is startled by the human presence and darts away.  

The pedestrian bridge at the end of the street wasn’t submerged. I walked over it and entered the park. Three wood ducks plashed the creek water as they arrowed off. The high water made a racket washing over a dam of fallen poplar boles. I was a bore coming down to this riverain every day without finding new ways of describing anything I saw. My father asked me why I was bringing up Johnny Tafelski. I repeated how I thought of him suddenly when I heard about the police chief’s illness and recovery. I have no affinity for the police chief, quite the contrary, but I do have an affinity for Johnny Tafelski. Last time I saw him, he was at a union meeting in the hall of an Irish bar where I sometimes played music. He reminded me that his dad had been a United Auto Workers man who always emphasized the importance of unions. “It’s for something I’m writing,” I told my father. 

I tried to explain what the piece was about—Johnny Tafelski and a rained-out Tigers game from 1987. It’s about the way the stadium looked in the rain and the way Virginia Woolf described what was putatively St. Ives Bay in Cornwall, England, the setting of her childhood summers. I was trying to write about how the field comes to look like St. Ives Bay in memory. There was also this business of my former neighbor sniffing around to figure out who called child protective services on him for neglecting his son. “That’s what we’re seeing,” my father said, “with the things people are writing during this. They tend to make these sorts of strolling connections. We’re spending lots of time in our own heads.” It was unclear to him what the former neighbour’s gold Mustang had to do with St. Ives Bay, Virginia Woolf, or a rained-out baseball game.

I surveyed the damp prairie of Heather Lane Park. The tennis courts without nets, the slides and swings draped in caution tape. A Cooper’s Hawk sliced above the poplars, and the smaller birds began to chatter. I lost sight of the raptor in the tree line to the east. Tomorrow someone would see a shock of feathers stuck in burdock, and they wouldn’t wonder what committed the predation, whether it was a coyote, fox, or raptor. They’d simply register a swath of color in the periphery and continue walking. I regretted not being less observant. I hung up with my father and wandered westward along the shoreline. The ducks didn’t fly off this time; I was water off a duck’s back, a negligible man shuffling over a disused tennis court. The graffiti on the cement was inscrutable beneath the weeds, which was much better than knowing what it said.

I took a different route back, the one that follows Grindley Road past the dive bar on the corner, a small brick building with chipping blue paint. If it’d been open, I’d have popped in for a Miller High Life and a shot of Canadian Club whiskey. I liked to sit by myself in one of the stools riddled with cigarette burns to watch the afternoon light wash through while half-heartedly reading a book of poems and listening to the beered-up palaver of bar patrons. I hope the place makes it, survives the pandemic. A few blocks ahead Nowlin Elementary School was silent, the LED screen beneath its sign flashing with events that were long past or canceled. Two walkers made use of the track. I waved to them as I followed Princeton Road back to my street, thinking of all they missed in confining themselves to the quarter-mile oval—the swollen creek, the arcing hawk, the startled wood ducks in their splendor. 

When I got home I approached the porch. A small blue-grey bird with a white throat and white breast feathers was perched on the vacuum tube. It flexed its wings as though testing them. It jabbed the uropygial gland on its rump and applied a sheen of oil to its dusty feathers with beak and claw, slicking the barbules to zip them up in preparation. It had sensed me before I was there, but once I stepped up on the stoop it chirped, a digital beeping sound, and swooped below the awning, flying over the asphalt road into a crown of maple trees. It was a tree swallow, I’d learn from Tekiela’s trusty field guide, fresh off a winter’s peregrinations in the forests of southern Mexico. Its presence, an outcome of an atavistic compulsion to return embedded in phylogenetic memory, which is composed of both inveterate instinct and rapid senescence in the face of trauma. Its flight, the kind that’s as close to being in the moment as a sentient creature can get.

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Cal Freeman was born and raised in Detroit, MI. He is the author of the books Fight Songs and Poolside at the Dearborn Inn. His writing has appeared in many journals including The Cortland Review, Sugar House Review, River Styx, The Oxford-American, Commonweal, PANK, and Hippocampus. He is the recipient of the Devine Poetry Fellowship (judged by Terrance Hayes) and Passages North’s Neutrino Prize. He currently teaches at Oakland University and serves as music editor for The Museum of Americana: A Literary Review.


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Published by darcie friesen hossack

Darcie Friesen Hossack is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers. Her short story collection, Mennonites Don’t Dance, was a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Award, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading Evergreen Award for Adult Fiction. Citing irreverence, the book was banned by the LaCrete Public Library in Northern Alberta. Having mentored with Giller finalists Sandra Birdsell (The Russlander) and Gail Anderson Dargatz (Spawning Grounds, The Cure for Death by Lightening), Darcie's first novel, Stillwater, will be released in the spring of 2023. Darcie is also a four time judge of the Whistler Independent Book Awards, and a career food writer. She lives in Northern Alberta, Canada, with her husband, international award-winning chef, Dean Hossack.

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