The Song Inside the Bird Song
The boy thought there lived a child in the sun and stared up into the sun until the child could be seen: a baby swaddled in blue, curled up and sleeping in the sun’s arms. The sun has no arms. The sun is a circle and embraces itself. The child stared and stared. When he turned his eyes away he still saw the sun. It hovered in front of everything else. Everywhere he looked there was the baby cradled in the sun’s arms.
The boy took to sitting on his stool for many hours watching the baby. The baby always slept. It never sang. The baby lived in the boy’s eyes. When the boy saw the baby he smiled. The boy smiled for hours sitting on his little stool in his room.
The boy’s parents painted the walls of his room. They worried about their little boy who stared and smiled. They thought he smiled at the way the sun fell against the wall, the way the sun sparked out between the leaves, between the shadows of the leaves on the wall. His parents painted a tree on one wall. The canopy filled the wall, so that the room seemed a nest within the tree. They painted birds: yellow warblers with fire on their chests, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and shy night herons. They painted green leaves whose undersides were silver, and on the wall the wind had blown some of the leaves over, and the sun caught the silver which said rain was soon to come. Rain was soon to come. There was a window in the middle of the tree, and in the window were the dark clouds. Other days the window was bright. Then the sky was open in the tree. On another wall the boy’s parents painted the ocean. They painted the ocean so the ocean extended back to the horizon where sky and sea seamlessly met. They painted rocks rising up from the floor, and the crashing waves cast up drops they painted those drops on the wall. There are rainbows in the mist. They painted ocean birds: white pelicans in sea and in sky, their white wings flashing in sunlight as they fly, arctic terns, and on the rocks sandpipers on their yellow legs. There was a light where the sea met the sky his parents turned on and dimmed at night. His parents painted a meadow on a wall. The meadow was ringed by pines. The tall grass bent down when the head grew heavy with seeds. Wind pushed the grass into a pattern. Where deer slept the grass was matted down. There were flowers in the meadow: the wild carrot whose white lace blossom had in its center a single purple petal. Ants crawled up the stems; the stems of some flowers were finely haired. There were bees in the field, bees deep in the flowers in the field, the pollen heavy on their legs, heavy on the legs of the bees in the flowers in the field. The meadow rose up and touched the ceiling. There were birds in the meadow: bobolinks with the yellow sun behind their heads, yellow-headed blackbirds whose head was a sun, the meadowlark who wore the sun on his chest. In the middle of the meadow a mirror hung so the boy could see himself looking at the meadow. His parents painted the sky on a wall. The sky was darker as it rose, with a single star, the morning star, placed in the darkness. The middle of the sky was bright and filled with clouds. None of them built darkly into thunderheads. These clouds were gentle clouds. The boy could see animal shapes in the clouds if he looked long enough. That cloud was almost a rabbit; that cloud was almost a mouse. That cloud was the lion’s mane but the lion had escaped from the sky. His parents painted birds in the sky: blue heron with his neck curled into an s as he flew, common goldeneyes flying in their v, and swallows, swallows, who once hatched, never touch the ground. The lower sky was pale yellow as if the sun were rising. This wall was a day. There were a row of hooks nailed to the sky where the boy could hang his jacket.
His parent worried about him, their little boy who sat and smiled, who never misbehaved, who was docile and kind, who seemed to live in his own world in which they didn’t know if they too lived, and so they painted his room. The painted the world on the walls of his room. But when the boy looked at the walls, when he stood inside the tree, when he stood in the meadow, when he stood by the sea, when he stood in the blue cloudy sky, he saw everything through the face of the baby cradled in the circle of the sun, and he smiled.
His parents met in a little town when the man who was his father travelled through. The woman who was his mother sat in the garden painting watercolors of bees in irises. She sang softly to herself as she worked, and the man stopped and listened. He stayed many days. They would walk, in the late summer evenings, when the day extended out through time, to the meadow beyond the town. A trail led through the woods, and when the woods ended, the trail opened into a meadow that sloped gently down to the sea. The man didn’t know they were so near the coast and the woman laughed. They would lay down in the meadow and watch the sky and the clouds filling the sky and the birds flying below the clouds.
After they married, after the young woman had left the town, after they had settled in the city where they now live, they would try to go back to the meadow, but could never find it. They could not find the woods, they could not find the meadow, they could not find the ocean or the sky. They could not find the little town the woman was from, and this caused her much grief. Where was the garden with the bees in the irises? Where was the song she sang in the garden?
The boy’s parents painted his walls from their memory of the place in which they talked and fell in love. The boy became possible in that field. He was for them the field’s embodiment: tree growing up from shoulders, body as fragrant field, eyes as sky above mouth as ocean. They had in him what they lost in the world. But when their boy ceased to speak, when moods stopped flashing like weather across his face, when he sat on his stool and smiled, his parents felt as if they’d lost the place again; that the field had retreated, the woods and the sky and the sea had retreated deep into their little boy, in a recess forged by deep silence, by simple faith, a chamber in the heart, perhaps, or a chamber behind the eye; their child began to escape into himself just as the meadow escaped into itself, just as the woods and the sky and the sea escaped into themselves, and his parents began to fear that soon they’d have only the charcoal portrait the woman had drawn of their son sitting and smiling on his stool to remember him by. The portrait hung in an oval frame in the hallway. In it his eyes were closed.
The parents decided to take their boy on a trip. They thought that a change of location, leaving his room with the painted walls, leaving his little stool, might waken him out of his reverie. They packed clothes and packed food and packed the tent in the car. The boy sat in the back seat looking out the window. His parents thought the quality of his smile had changed, had become more thoughtful, more aware or attentive, but it hadn’t. The boy saw the baby on the side of the road, hovering above the weeds, keeping pace with the car. The boy saw his own face reflected in the window he stared out of, so that his own face hovered in front of the baby’s face hovering in front of the world. His parents talked amongst themselves. They’d grown so used to the boy’s silence that they forgot he might be listening. They spoke of their own parents. The boy’s mother cried. The boy’s father came to the grim conclusion that everything we love we lose and he said so. Then his parents were silent. Then his mother stared out her window as the boy stared out his own. And the father drove.
At lunchtime they pulled the car off the road. They found a picnic table by a river. Across the river were dark woods. The noise of the highway and the sound of the river were a song in counterpoint. They found in the weeds and grass the typical highway detritus. The mother picked up a receipt for charcoal briquettes and relish and bird-seed that, according to the date printed on it, was 12 years old. “Look,” she said to her boy, “this page is older than you.” The boy smiled. The baby hovered over his mother’s face and seemed to say to the boy, “Look, this page is older than you."
His parents spread out a blanket. They didn’t want to sit at the picnic table which looked in disrepair and was inscribed all over with declarations of love and curses against those in love. They spread out their red blanket near the river and laid out the food they’d brought: sandwiches, orange slices, popcorn, and lemonade.
While his parents prepared lunch the boy stood by the river looking at the woods across it. The baby’s face had grown larger in his eyes. All the woods were within the baby’s face, and when the baby opened its mouth bird song sang out. The boy thought the baby was speaking to him, asking him to come into the woods. The boy could understand the song.
When his parents called for him the boy was gone. His father ran to river and saw, walking across the field toward the woods, his boy. “Come quickly,” he yelled to his wife, who ran over, breathless in panic. The river was deep and swift from the spring melt. How could our boy have crossed it? they thought, as the father slowly made his way across the current, his wife holding on to him as he went. The boy was entering the woods as his parents stepped up the river’s bank. They watched him as he disappeared. The mother thought, but did not say, I knew it would happen. I knew it would be this way. The father did not think at all, just grabbed his wife's hand and, keeping his eye on the spot where his boy walked into the woods—between two black cherry trees whose joining bowers seemed to form an arch—hurried through the field. Where the boy had walked the grass was tamped down. Out of the corner of her eye his mother saw a fly land on a sprig of wild parsley. His father saw a cloud’s shadow pass over the milkweed and bindweed. But when they reached the edge of the woods, when they stood under the bower of the black cherry trees, their boy was gone. The forest floor kept no prints.
The father was desperate but the mother thought, We must quiet our despair. She held her husband’s hand and said “Shh, Shh, Shh,” over and over again. And when they were both quiet they heard, not footsteps, not a voice, but a bird song ringing out clearly among the other sounds of the woods. It was a little oven-bird singing “teacher, teacher.” The parents stepped toward the song, and as they walked toward it, the song stepped back, singing again clearly to them. So they moved through the woods as if in a dream. His parents did not know how long they followed the oven-bird’s song. The light in the woods never changed but it felt as if days had passed. His mother still had the receipt crumpled up in her hand but, when she looked down at it, the ink was smudged, as if erased, almost blank. When she looked up the song ceased singing. They stood on the edge, the opposite edge, of the woods the bird had guided them through. Below them a meadow sloped gently down. In the meadow, where the deer had slept, the grass and the flowers were bent down. A bee stood on a thistle. The touch-me-not fell apart at a touch. A beetle crawled across the dirt, leaving in the fine dust a script behind it. The parents walked through the meadow. They didn’t see their boy but their panic had been replaced by a calm filled with expectation. The sky was blue and the clouds in it white and the birds flying in the sky below the clouds looked gray and black or, suddenly caught in the sun, a brilliant flashing white that made the clouds seem suddenly, strangely dull. They felt they had found something or been found by something. They kept walking. They heard the sea crashing against the rocks before they saw the sea crashing against the rocks. Where the meadow ended the ocean began. An arctic tern gazed at them with its head cocked and then flew away. His father thought the tern might fly around the world. His mother thought the tern would dive into the ocean and sleep on the waves.
It was when they turned their heads back toward the meadow, the golden meadow crowned by the dark woods, that the saw him, their son. Their hearts didn’t leap but beat steadier. There was their boy, back turned to them, looking up at the sky, and gently rocking back and forth. His parents walked to him. They didn’t call out his name. They didn’t hurry. There was no rush. They walked toward him through the field where long ago they fell in love. And when they reached him, he seemed not to notice they were there, standing so close behind him. His father almost said his boy’s name, but stopped himself. His mother almost reached out her hand to touch his shoulder but stopped herself. The boy stood and gently rocked, looking up at the sky. Time passed, but time had ceased to measure the progress of the day. Time measured something else, some nameless thing. And when the boy did turn around, his eyes were open, and he was smiling. He looked at them and saw them. His parents could feel in his gaze that he saw them. The baby had left his eyes where it had been living. He held in his arms a bundle wrapped in blue cloth. He smiled and smiled and his parents smiled back. His mother began to cry. His father’s hand was shaking slightly. The boy looked down at the bundle in his arms, the blue-wrapped bundle, and looking back up at his parents, he smiled, he smiled and opened his mouth, he looked around him at the meadow, he looked down to the sea and up to the woods, and he said, as he held out his arms, “Here it is.”