Previously: The Hunger of the Caterpillar and The Giving Tree.
A mother bird sat on her egg. The egg jumped.
“Oh, oh!” said the mother bird. “My baby will be here. He will want to eat. I must get something for my baby bird to eat,” she said.
“I will be back!” So away she went.
The egg jumped. It jumped and jumped and jumped. Out came the baby bird.
“Where is my mother?” he said. He looked for her. He looked up. He did not see her. He looked down. He did not see her.
“I will go and look for her,” he said. So away he went.
Down and out of the tree he went. Down, down, down. It was a long way down.
The baby bird could not fly. He could not fly, but he could walk. “Now, I will go and find my mother,” he said.
He did not know what his mother looked like. He went right by her. He did not see her. He came to a kitten.
“Are you my mother?” he said. The kitten just looked and looked, and did not say a thing. The kitten was not his mother, so he went on.
Then he came to a hen. “Are you my mother?” he said to the hen. “No,” said the hen.
The kitten was not his mother. The hen was not his mother. So the baby bird went on. “I have to find my mother,” he said. “But where? Where is she? Where could she be?”
Then he came to a dog. “Are you my mother?” he said to the dog. The dog held her breath. A very old hunger that she thought had died stirred in her throat.
It isn’t right, it isn’t fair, the dog thought. You can’t — you can’t.
He doesn’t know any better, the dog argued with herself. He thought the kitten was his mother. She left him. She left, she left, she left. Christ, it isn’t fair, that I can’t have any and she would leave the one she has.
The dog would have to admit, if she was going to be honest with herself, that it was less likely that the bird’s mother had left forever than just happened to not be around when the egg hatched, and would be coming back soon.
But the dog was not particularly interested in being honest with herself that day. She wanted to be his mother so badly that she could almost convince herself that she was.
“Yes,” the dog said, after a minute. “I am your mother.”
“Oh,” the little bird said after a minute. He didn’t seem to disbelieve her, exactly; he was simply taking it all in. No one had ever lied to him before.
“I am your mother, and I was so worried when I couldn’t find you. Come here, and sit down right next to me, and I will tidy your feathers for you.”
“All right,” the little bird said, and he hopped over next to her, and she wept a little in relief and gratitude.
“Why are you crying, mother?” he asked, and her chest ached to hear the word.
“I am crying because I am so glad that you have come back home to me,” she said. Now he had been lied to twice.
He never asked the questions she lived in constant fear of — how he happened to be born in a nest when she lived on the ground, why they looked so different, whether or not a dog could lay an egg. Once he asked very sweetly if she thought he might ever have a brother or a sister, and for a moment she thought wildly about stealing one for him. But she wasn’t capable of that, she knew. It was one thing to take advantage of a moment that might never come again, a moment that had seemed designed by a compassionate universe to alleviate her sorrow and loneliness, but to go out and snatch an egg from the nest — she couldn’t even climb a tree.
“He’s going to notice, one of these days,” her friends had said almost happily. “This is ridiculous, what you’re doing. It will never work.” So she stopped talking to her friends.
Then the guilt mostly faded, along with the fear, and the two of them lived fairly happily together for as long as a dog and a bird can live.
There had sprung up a certain coolness, the dog noticed, as her little bird grew into a not-so-little bird and began noticing that all of the other birds could fly and had mothers who looked like them. There were places that she could not go, and she did not know how to apologize to him for her physical limitations.
“I don’t like this food,” he said one night at dinner. She froze. Was this not what birds ate? It’s what she would have fed a puppy. She had always lived in hope of having a puppy to feed. What did birds eat? Seeds, or worms, or berries, or something? She tried to remember.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said calmly. “Would you like me to bring you something else?”
“No,” he said. “No, that’s all right. I’m sorry I was cross.” She watched him carefully from then on. It was very important that he continued to love her, and she set up an altar next to his love, and tended to it carefully, and monitored its strength, and fed it and stoked it and banked it whenever necessary. She could love away their difference, love away the shame of his origin, she knew.
After enough time had passed she had almost managed to convince herself that just once, in her case, a dog had laid an egg.
He’s more mine than he is anyone else’s, she thought to an imaginary interrogator. No one else has the same right to him that I do. No one else has a better claim. He’s mine, he’s mine, he’s mine by choice and by routine and by time and by love and no one else has a better claim to him.
Now he had been lied to many times.
The day came — of course the day came — when they were walking past a tree (he had never learned to fly; she could not teach him and was in fact more than a little relieved when he never asked about it) and saw a robin perched on one of its bare branches. She knew that robin, had seen it flying wild-eyed and desperate over the countryside years ago, calling out a name she couldn’t pronounce and didn’t want to remember.
He didn’t look at her. At least, he didn’t look at her any more than he looked at any other bird. He seemed less curious about them now. And he looked so different, it had been so long; there was no chance that the other bird would recognize him. Almost no chance.
They walked past her, and the dog held her breath. She is still holding it, even now.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.