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The Bird Lesson
by Rachael Conlin Levy

Vultures roost in my neighborhood. The three old cottonwoods they call home are five minutes from the bowling alley and taco stand. The birds circle on thermals above sidewalk and strip mall, sniffing for the scent of dinner. I yell for my sons and head out the door.

"Where we going, Mama?" Max asked. The smaller of my four-year-old twins, he pulled on his brown cowboy boots (wrong feet) and tugged at the Superman sweatshirt.

"Mom, what are vultures?" Sam asks.

"Birds, sweetie, big as you. They're the ones we see circling at night. Let's take a look."

We'd been watching them for months, mesmerized by their flight, incredulous that vultures lived in town. They're magnificent gliders, coasting on currents of air with wings in a V-shape. They can keep aloft for up to six hours without ever flapping. My sons, on the other hand, resemble the vulture trying to take off as they flutter about the backyard in their red capes, jumping off the picnic table and disappointed when they fall.

The turkey vulture or Cathartes aura has feet similar to a chicken's, better suited for running on the ground than for lifting or carrying off food. And it shares more genes with the stork than with Old World vultures.

The difference between my sons, who share a birthday but little else, continues to amaze me. One is short and slight with dark brown eyes that sparkle with mischief and a smile that melts an irritated and angry heart. The other is taller and thoughtful. His conversations are peppered with questions—and whether his interest falls to birds and pretending to be a baby duck, or knights and sword fighting—his passions govern both his day and his brother's. Perhaps it was Sam's interest in birds that pulled us from our home this morning. For months, he would pour over the glossy pictures of owls and finches, starlings and gulls in his favorite book, The Encyclopedia of North American Birds, and ask me to read the descriptions. We turned to this book when we first noticed the large birds in the evening sky. They rise like bubbles in a boiling pot of water. Groups of them are called a kettle.

As we walked, Max raced ahead and I yelled for him to wait at the corner.

"I'm going to be Superman when I grow up," Max said when we reach him. "Then I'll be able to fly. What are you going to be, Sam?"

"I don't know. Maybe nothing. Maybe a fireman. Or maybe a fairy," he said.

The turkey vultures are quiet, basking in the pale morning sun as cars back out of driveways and traffic congeals on Pyramid Way. As we stand on J Street the world slips and exposes a secret hidden among the grooved and brittle branches of the old cottonwoods—16 birds hunched in the trees, darkly feathered, small heads red and nearly bald. I smile and shudder, thinking of my husband's joke that the circling vultures are waiting for our neighbor, a twig of an old woman who wears turtleneck shirts in July.

Vultures, like other birds of prey, prefer the carcasses of plant-eating animals over cats, dogs, and coyotes. But it amazes me that over the car fumes and fast food, they can smell decay: methyl mercaptan gas, which stinks like rotten cabbage. I don't want to think about anything rotting, not before my second cup of coffee, but Sam wants to chat as we stand beneath the giant trees, surrounded by a sidewalk splattered with bird droppings. I point them out to him and he wrinkles his nose and scooches his boots away.

"I've decided what I want to be when I grow up," Sam said. "Santa."

"Why Santa?"

"Because than I can eat cookies and milk. And Santa lives forever. What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"A writer."

But I can't seem to find the time to write. My desire to put down words is dying. Even this essay is a chore, but I keep plugging along. Because I haven't found a new passion or interest to replace the writing, I keep at it, praying that either the fires will flare or some new interest will kindle. A firetruck's siren whines down the highway and the vultures shift in their roost. I hope Sam and Max will be patient long enough for me to see the birds take off. I glance down at Sam and his lip is quivering.

"If you're a writer, you're going to die and I don't want you to die!"

I kneel down and hug him. I want to write so I won't forget. So others won't forget me. Writing is good, honest, life-giving work and my soul is craving it. I didn't even know that as I spent hours turning into an efficient, snappy mom, I was turning off my creativity. My soul is sterile and empty, and it's only now that Sam and Max are a little older and a little more independent that I sense the hollowness. It's been so long since I've allowed myself any time for my ideas to develop and gently shine.

Sam wiggles out of my arms and asks: "Can you be Mrs. Claus when you grow up? Then you won't die."

"Sure," I say.

"They're married," he said and smiled.

I turn and take a small hand in each of mine. As we watch, the vultures stretch their wings, and I see their feathery silver underside in the pale sun.

Rachael Conlin Levy lives in Sparks, Nevada with her husband and three children, who are both inspiration and impediment to her writing. Her articles and essays have been published in the Christian Science Monitor, Psychology Today, The Mothers Movement Online, and in the anthology Twice the Love: Stories of Inspiration for Families With Twins, Multiples and Singletons.


feature added on 2007-04-28 :: ::

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