The summer of 1981 Nell and I had our hands full with Ma’s bird projects. In the open shed mercenary sparrows dove into the barn swallows’ nests, knocking out the newly born chicks. Ma would grow hysterical at the tiny bodies strewn on the ground. Most didn’t survive. The heat had packed the earth hard. Ma had Nell try to soften the landing with old pillows and quilts, but still the fall was treacherous. Me, I collected those half-alive bodies, cradling them in my hands to keep them warm. Then I climbed a ladder and plopped them back into their nests.
Ma had us patrolling the pond too. Nell and I sloshed around the perimeter in our yellow rubber boots. Mine were too big; they had belonged to Dad. I was surprised to find them in the hall closet, as if they had a perfect right to be there. Few of Dad’s things had survived Ma’s purging. Since he’d gone, she’d pretty well destroyed all trace of his existence.
The pond sat low that time of year. The mallards corralled their ducklings in the shallow, reed-dappled side—the side that was turning to swamp. Nell and I kept an eye on the numbers. A duckling or two disappeared each week. Cats and foxes got some, but snapping turtles were the real threat. They slid easy under the water. Their spiny shells, like battered armor, barely brushed the surface. Sometimes we could see one coming, when its head jutted above the water like a periscope. But most of the time it came hidden. We never knew it was there until it grabbed the legs of a duckling with its teeth, then yanked it under. A frantic flapping of feathers, and that awful, childlike cheeping were the last signs.
Ma had told us to protect the ducklings. But Nell and I never did figure out how. There’s no stopping a snapping turtle when it’s got its heart set on something. Its neck stretches out long as a dragon’s. Its jaws are a vise. And when those teeth chomp down, they don’t let go.
We didn’t tell Ma how many ducklings we lost. Birds rubbed her sensitive. She related to them better than she did to humans. In fact, folks around Spottsborough said Ma was like a bird herself, a woman meant to take flight. No one expected her to stay in this small town when Dad skipped out. She didn’t expect it herself. But when the time came to move on, she couldn’t get off the ground. Nell and I had to become the parents, even to feed her when she forgot to eat. For whole months she lay in bed, and then after that, she mostly pecked around the yard, slow and oblivious as a mourning dove.
Not many people visited us that summer. Sometimes a neighborhood kid would show up, injured animal in hand. Ma had developed a reputation. Maybe it was the birdseed she kept in the refrigerator to keep it from sprouting. Maybe it was her necklace of snail shells, or the way the barn swallows always seemed to spiral above her head. Whatever it was, the kids called her an animal doctor. And they were right. She could take a squirrel, run-over and half-dead, and coax it back to life with herbs from the garden. She could take an ordinary needle and thread, and sew together the ravaged shoulder of a dog who’d been in a fight. I’d seen her splint broken birds’ legs with toothpicks, nurse a baby rabbit with an eyedropper, carry baby opossums in her pockets for days on end, and chase a rabid raccoon from the yard just by clucking her tongue. She was a wonder, all right. But her doctoring came at a price. And that price reached its peak when Nell and I found the sandpiper.
We’d been circling the pond like we always did late afternoon. Nell had found a nest of mottled eggs in a thicket of brush. She sat in the muck, counting tan speckles on ivory shell. The excitement of the pond got me: sudden splashes of leaping fish, loud croaks of hidden frogs. But Nell noticed the subtle things. Young as she was, she had an eye. That’s how she saw that tiny bird, not far from the eggs, half-steeped in mud.
We didn’t know what it was at first. It was a scraggly thing, black eyes peeping over sodden feathers. It was skinny too. Maybe it had been sitting in that mud for days, catching only what ventured within an inch of its captivity. Nell cradled it in her hands. She wet her fingers in pond water and gently wiped away the filth on its wings. She set it down on a patch of dry land, but saw it couldn’t stand. In the small well of Nell’s palms, I turned it on its back. There, the problem stretched in the knotted span of fishing line. That creature had twisted its legs good.
We found Ma near the shed, shooting hornet spray at passing sparrows. She cursed at them as they dove close to the barn swallows. She was in a mood, swiping her fingers through the wild whoosh of her hair.
“We got a bird,” Nell told her. “She’s caught. I think she’s a baby.”
Nell reached out her arms to show Ma our scruffy find. In that instant two things happened. The bird got forever pegged as a girl. And love soared in my mother’s heart.
Her lips twisted into a kissy pucker as she plucked the bird from Nell. When she went inside the house, we followed. She put on her reading glasses and rustled in her sewing basket for a seam-ripper. Then, by the light of a desk lamp she cut every last loop and snarl. She freed that bird from its tangled misery.
We hoped the bird would find her footing now that she was free. But when Ma set her down on the floorboards, she sat like a stone.
“Muscles may have atrophied,” Ma muttered. When she said words like that, I always remembered with a start how she used to be, and how I used to love watching her get ready for work, all white and crisp and brisk in her nurse’s uniform.
We stared at the bird for a long time, trying to place it. Finally, Nell fetched the Audobon book. All three of us settled on the floor, the bird at the center of our triangle. We skimmed the entries until we found a likeness. Brown feathers with tufts of black. White-spotted breast. Beak a long orange stinger.
“She’s a juvenile,” Ma declared, pointing to a picture. “But we’re lucky—she’ll eat on her own.”
She sent me and Nell to the pond again. We went with a dragnet and a bucket. In the shallows, we trolled through the murk. Whole schools of silver minnows found themselves ensnared. Nell tossed them into the bucket. From my legs I picked off the dime-size leaches that had slid over the tops of my boots.
When we returned, Ma had built that bird a house. She’d filled a cardboard box with pebbles and grass. In the center she’d fit a china bowl into burrowed-out dirt. I poured the fish into that dollhouse pond and watched them swish frantically. Some were already dying. They moved like drunks, dull-eyed and tipsy.
“Sure will be killing a lot of animals to save this one,” Nell observed.
“Hush!” Ma replied.
I lifted the box. I tried to carry it to the shed. But Ma buttonholed me halfway there.
“She will be staying with us,” she announced. “Can’t you see? This one needs extra care.”
Tenderly, Ma placed the squirming bird into her new habitat. The sandpiper explored cautiously. But when she saw the fish, her fear turned to famine. On her belly, she wriggled into the bowl. She seized one minnow after another with her needle beak. They slid with impossible ease down her straw-sized throat. Pretty soon the pool stood empty. Nell and I turned to each other. Catching minnows, we realized, would be our newest project.
Later in the day, Ma boiled half her garden in a pot. She told me she was going to cure those dead legs. Dandelion heads bobbed in a green brew of comfrey, wild mint, and coneflowers. A bitter-medicine stink filled the house. When the pot had cooled, she dunked the sandpiper into the liquid. Silent so long, the bird began to jeet.
“She’s upset,” I whispered to Nell.
“Annoyed,” Nell corrected.
Ma wiped the feathers dry with a clean towel, a good towel, one of the ones we used on ourselves. Then she took a magnifying glass and examined the bird’s legs top to bottom.
“Open sores,” she whispered. “Could be infected.”
As she hunted in the medicine cabinet for a long expired Neosporin, Nell and I realized we hadn’t eaten since morning. We made ourselves macaroni and cheese from the box. We made some for Ma too. Judging from the empty sink, she hadn’t bothered with breakfast.
During the next few days Nell and I made regular runs with the dragnet. I swear, that bird ate its body weight and then some. We experimented with other foods: earthworms, fat white grubs, four-legged water-gliders. The sandpiper devoured them all. Little by little, she began to improve. She dared to stretch her legs. She uncurled her three-pronged feet. They were gimpy at first, but grew sturdier every time we checked. By week’s end, she was standing solid.
With the bird’s legs on the mend, Ma started to worry about the wings. She wondered why the sandpiper couldn’t fly. I figured she was too young. But I never counted on her learning overnight.
One morning Nell looked in the box and declared it empty. Ma rushed from her bedroom, wild-eyed, fuzzy pink slippers skidding to a stop. She used to be a morning person, but now she wasn’t good for much of anything before noon.
“Did you see where she went?” she puffed.
“Nope,” Nell replied. Her bratty tone made Ma wince.
We searched for hours. Finally, Nell found the sandpiper in the kitchen, wedged on the linoleum between stove and cabinet. One thing was for sure, that bird had a habit of getting herself into binds. Ma and I had to disconnect the stove and pull it out, simultaneously discovering a pile of mouse droppings, before we could reach her.
Ma placed an old window screen over the box, and then a heavy book to weigh it down. But still she worried. She started to spend her evenings in an old sleeping bag beside the bird. It was clear to me and Nell that her caring had gone too far. We decided to hold a secret meeting, the kind we hadn’t held since Dad had come home drunk and started his screaming sessions. At night in Nell’s room, under the glow-in-the-dark sticker universe on her ceiling, we discussed what to do.
“Maybe it would have been better if I’d let that sandpiper be,” Nell confided.
“She’d be dead by now.”
Nell shrugged. “She should get back to her own.”
I knew this to be true. The pantry was practically empty. Nell and I had been doing the shopping ourselves. We couldn’t remember the last time Ma had gone to town—or even used the car. We hadn’t had a grown-up visitor all summer. Unopened bills were piling up on the kitchen table, spilling out of the basket Nell had put them in.
“Let’s set a release date,” I said.
“Yeah,” Nell agreed, sinking her teeth into a Twizzler.
Warily, we broke the news to Ma. These days, we never knew if she’d nod in agreement or howl in dismay. To our surprise, she told us we were right: the rehabilitation was over.
We decided we’d give the sandpiper three more days of first-class eating, all the minnows we could find. She’d grown healthily plump, her feathers glossy, her tail lengthened to adult proportions. But she was still untame, miserable when we plunged our hands inside her box. That’s how we noticed something was wrong. For the first time, she didn’t act skittish when Nell cleaned her bowl. She didn’t move at all. Instead, she nestled lower into the dirt, her body softly trembling.
From rescuing all those barn swallows, I had an inkling. Sometimes injured birds get well, only to go sick again. Nell and I had seen this happen with ducklings too. How one hangs on to life, then gives up just when it turns the corner. There’s no explaining it. I wondered if we’d kept the sandpiper too long, if she’d gone sick from nostalgia. It was possible, I thought. That’s what had happened to Ma.
Nell and I watched the sandpiper carefully. She ate as much as she used to—a good sign. But she refused to walk. She resorted to the weeble-wobble movements she’d used when we’d first found her. She wasn’t pooping either. When she started to close her eyes, that’s when we called Ma. I was surprised when Nell yelled at the top of her lungs. Tears glazed her eyes. I punched her in the arm to keep them from spilling.
Ma’s hair looked like a tornado had ripped through it as she bent down over the box. She cooed at the bird like she would at a baby. She rubbed its head with a fingertip. She dangled a worm, but the sandpiper picked at it disinterestedly.
We stood vigil by the box, discussing what to do. Once or twice, the bird managed to stand, only to tip and tumble. I felt the tears in my eyes too, but went to the bathroom to wash my face. Much as I disliked the sandpiper’s effect on Ma, I’d grown attached.
At last, we decided we’d take the creature outside. Maybe fresh air would invigorate her. Maybe she’d find something to live for.
We placed her by the shore of the pond. She barely had enough energy to lift her head.
“Let’s give her some space,” Ma declared. So we walked several paces back. That’s when the miracle happened. After a few minutes the sandpiper found the strength to pull herself up. She tottered on each leg. Then, still shivering with illness, she lunged toward the water.
“Should I grab her?” Nell asked, voice squeezed.
“No,” Ma said. “Let her go.”
I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t have an eye, not like Nell. She was the only one whose mouth fell open when the water trembled. My stare lingered on the sandpiper, whose feet were now below the surface. I saw only the moment: sudden and colossal, the kind you recall, even years later, with the very same degree of astonishment. The shell of a snapping turtle floated up large as a platter. I had never seen one so huge. Pieces of emerald algae cascaded down its side. The turtle’s spiky tail snapped the water and the sandpiper froze. We were caught in shock too. The turtle wheeled ’round, its neck springing to full length. It pitched forward, taking the sandpiper from behind. Then it dragged our bird from the shallows. It pulled her into higher depths. By that time, we’d gathered our wits. We splashed into the pond, pink slippers and all. But the turtle had already dipped. The sandpiper’s beautiful plumes fanned only a second longer before they vanished in a quiet whirlpool.
Nell and I grabbed Ma to keep her in place. I knew she’d dive into the pond if we let her. I knew she’d find that snapping turtle and wrestle it until one of them were dead.
It took all our might to lead Ma inside. Nell changed her into dry clothes and together we put her to bed. We gave her soup, our last can of chicken noodle. Then Ma fell asleep for two days.
Without the sandpiper, trouble fell around us like rain. Now that she didn’t have that bird to take care of, Ma needed full-time care herself. Nell walked her to the toilet and washed her hair in the tub. I did the laundry with Palmolive, shredded bars of Ivory, whatever I could find. Days passed. Ma didn’t bother fending off the sparrows. She didn’t even go outside. When Nell told her that the barn swallow chicks had grown up, that their parents were giving them flying lessons out back, we thought she’d be excited. Other years she’d danced around the house, gotten drunk on chardonnay. This year she barely blinked.
In her garden, the overripe tomatoes bent the vines, then tumbled to the ground. Insects feasted on mushy red flesh. Late summer had left a trail of decay. The grass turned to straw. The water in the pond receded from the shore, leaving a foot of beach. The swampy end stunk like rotten eggs. Night pursued day until the exhausted sun sank early on the horizon. But one dark evening, the lights never switched on.
I tried to call the electric company, but the phone wasn’t working either. I found Ma’s checkbook and paid some of the bills. It was time; we’d been avoiding this task, Nell complaining how Dad’s checks weren’t coming in any more and how Ma’s bank account was down to two digits. She practiced for an hour until she mastered Ma’s jagged signature.
The next morning, we trudged to town. We went to the post office to buy stamps. We watched the mailman put our envelopes into his bag, thinking some of our problems were past. But a whopper was on the way.
A neighborhood kid, Toby Santorini, caught up with us on our way home. He wanted to know why we hadn’t been on the school bus.
“What do you mean?” I demanded.
“School started Monday, turdbrain.”
So busy with Ma, I had forgotten all about sixth grade. But Nell came to the rescue.
“Vacation,” she said calmly. “We were in Egypt. You know, to see the Sphinx.”
“Don’t lie,” Toby warned. “My mother said your mother’s a nutcase.”
“We went with our dad,” I seethed. “Got that?”
Nell grabbed my shirt and tugged me back from my fury. With the last of the cash we’d filched from Ma’s hideaway spot, we bought supplies: Bic pens, Trapper Keepers, Number Two pencils, and White Out—which Nell liked to paint on her fingernails. She found a pay phone, located a number from the phone book, and called the school. Using a grown-up’s voice, or her best interpretation of one, she apologized for our absences. She told the lady we’d be in tomorrow.
We were worn-out and miserable by the time we got home. Without talking about it, we went to Ma’s room and crawled in bed beside her. The blinders were drawn and the room smelled a little sour. I noticed a lump under the covers—the Audobon book.
“School starts tomorrow,” Nell told her.
“Really?” Ma asked drowsily. Her body felt over-warm, like just-baked bread.
“Do you have what you need?”
Nell poked me, a sign to stay quiet. “Nope, uh-uh. We need you to drive us to town.”
We didn’t expect anything to happen. And nothing did at first. But around six-thirty, just when the stores were about to close, Ma came into the kitchen. She was dressed in normal clothes for once. Loafers replaced pink slippers. A checkered scarf kept the crazy coils of her hair in place. She was wearing earrings, two different kinds, but it didn’t matter.
“Ready to go?” she asked.
I kicked the bag of our school supplies under the table. Nell sprang from her chair and hugged Ma tight.
So long idle, the rusted Volvo wouldn’t budge. But nothing was going to keep us back. I tested the oil like Dad had showed me years ago. Nell blew dust from the dash. Ma turned the key in the ignition eleven times. On the twelfth, the motor caught. Ma didn’t talk much on the drive. The longer the silence, the more my hope faded. Maybe this was a fluke; we should have known by now that these lulls of normalcy were just that: lulls. I looked to Nell, beside me in the backseat. I thought maybe she’d read my mind. But she was happily distracted, watching the outside world whip past her window.
I cleared my throat and still she didn’t turn. Finally, I leaned over and whispered in her ear. I told her all about it, how tomorrow Ma would probably stay in bed again.
Nell didn’t let me finish. She put her hand over my mouth. With her other hand, she drew on the inside of my arm. At first, I didn’t understand the letters. They came to me one by one, curving a slow but certain goose-pimpled truth. By the time we reached the store, I read her meaning. Little steps.