Rita smoothed suntan lotion onto her shoulders as she watched her niece sitting cross-legged in the sand, poking a shell fragment with someone's discarded straw.
"Why isn't she playing with the other children?" she asked her sister.
"She'd rather sit and mope."
Mae picked up a thermos, unscrewed the cap and poured iced coffee into a paper cup.
"Because I'm heartless. Did you put sugar in here?"
Days earlier, Cynthia squatted to look at a tiny creature on the sidewalk. It was a baby bird, rubbery pink like a pencil eraser, jerking its head back and forth on a neck so thin it made her chest ache. She looked up at the branches overhead, wondering if there was a nest it had fallen from.
Her mother had told her you could get a disease from touching birds. Cynthia examined her hands, considering. Then she stretched out the bottom of her tee-shirt and used a twig to gently roll the delicate thing onto it. Cradling it with one hand beneath the fabric, she stood, walked into the house and marched softly upstairs to her bedroom.
Still holding the weightless bird in her shirt's hammock, Cynthia pulled an empty shoebox from her closet and lined it with a bandana from her dresser drawer. Slowly, she transferred her foundling to its new home.
"Mom?" Cynthia entered the kitchen timidly, holding the box in front of her like a sacrament.
"Did you make your bed?"
"I found a baby bird. On the sidewalk."
Her mother turned to face her, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. "Good lord," she said, peering into the box.
"I rescued it."
The bird lifted its head in the direction of Cynthia's mother, and she stepped back.
"It can't fly," the child said.
Her mother waved away the comment, as if it was too obvious to respond to. "It can't survive without its mother. It's too young."
"I'll feed it."
"I dunno. Can I call a vet and ask?"
She took the box into bed with her that night, as the vet had explained that the bird would need to be fed every four hours round the clock. Tucked into the corner was an eyedropper bottle, washed clean and filled with the formula he had told her how to make using milk, water, sugar and a driblet of scotch. Before she went to sleep, Cynthia whistled the best she could and the tiny beak opened. As she squeezed in one-two drops, the frail neck moved wildly as it did before, making her tummy flutter, again, with worry.
She clicked off the light and closed her eyes, willing herself to wake up at least once during the night to care for her charge.
After the second night had passed, Cynthia grew more confident that her foundling would flourish. She held the box on her lap as she sat on the swing in her backyard, whispering to the bird that it would one day grow feathers and fly.
Her mother appeared at the back door.
"We're going to the beach with Aunt Rita," she said.
"Put on your bathing suit. The orange."
"I'm taking the bird."
Her mother folded her arms. "Absolutely not."
"It has to be fed every four hours round the clock."
"Sabine will feed it," her mother said, referring to the lady who came once a week to clean their house.
"She won't! She'll kill it!"
The screendoor slammed as her mother went back into the house.
Cynthia patted an indentation in the sand and began to line it with shards of driftwood, snaggles of seaweed and delicate shell fragments.
"What are you making?" her Aunt Rita asked.
Rita turned to her sister, who shrugged.
"She's playing mama bird," Mae said. "She found a sickly little chick and thinks she can nurse it back to health."
Rita smiled and lowered the back of her lounge chair. "Reminds me of someone else at that age."
"What are you talking about?" Mae dabbed sunblock on her nose.
When they got home from the beach, Cynthia bolted out of the car, leaving her sandy thongs on the stoop, and rushed into the kitchen where she had left the bird with strict instructions for Sabine.
By the time her mother got in the door, the girl was hunched over the box, her face contorted and red. Her mother looked inside at the small, still creature and nudged it with her fingernail. It was stiff. Cynthia let out a wail and ran into the backyard with her dead treasure.
She sat on the swing and sobbed over the shoebox. Her mother stood at the screendoor for a long time. Finally, she approached, lowering herself into the swing next to Cynthia's.
"It was too young," she said softly, the swing creaking as she moved back and forth.
"It wasn't," the child seethed. "Why couldn't you let me take it with us?"
Mae reached into the box and picked up the tiny carcass, holding it in her two hands. Cynthia sniffed hard and looked at her mother, whose knees were bent, her sandy toes curled beneath her.
"Why couldn't you?" Cynthia insisted.
Her mother stood and placed the tiny thing back into the box and set it on the ground. Then she wiped her daughter's tears with the same hands that held the dead bird.
"You killed it," Cynthia said, but her voice was soft. Already, something in her mother's presence diminished the edges of her fury.
Cynthia rested her head against her mother's chest. "You should have let me take it with us."
Her mother absently stroked the back of her head, as if she was trying to remember something.
About the author:
Even at five in the morning, Ellen Meister can find things to distract her from writing. Still, she has managed to string together enough paragraphs to write several short stories and one novel, which will be published in early 2006.