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The Fate of Fledglings (Afflatus Part 3)
SIX YEARS AGO, I was invited to speak at the annual meeting of the Philpott
Society, a group of people—a small group of people—devoted to improving
the literary reputation of John R. Philpott, the author of Oysters and
All About Them, a work that I have long regarded as a masterpiece of
idiosyncratic organization and one that I eagerly acknowledge as one of
the inflationary influences on my memoirs.
The honorarium from the Philpott Society paid our
expenses and left us a little surplus, so Albertine and I spent a week
in London. Nearly every day we visited the discount ticket booth
in Covent Garden and got theater tickets for the evening.
One day, (I believe it was the day after we saw
a performance of Jean Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles), instead
of waiting in the queue for twofers, we took a boat ride up the Thames
to Kew and visited the Royal Botanic Gardens. It was a gray, cold,
drizzly day, not the best day for walking, but we do love a ramble, regardless
of the weather, so we spent hours divagating through the drizzle, observing
and chatting. It was, until the time came for us to leave the gardens
and return to London, one of the most pleasant days we have ever spent
together, I think, a gem among gems. Distant as we were from our
usual life and its quotidian cares, we had nothing to do but enjoy each
other’s company and see what there was to see. The day did not require
sunshine for its pleasure, nor could sunshine have improved the pleasure
that it brought us.
Inevitably, though, the time came when we had to
cease our carefree strolling and find the shortest route back to the entrance.
We stopped where we were to consult a map of the gardens. We were
standing on a paved path in a parklike area, where we could see quite a
long way across damp and verdant lawns. Several other paths led here
and there. We began to study the map, but were immediately distracted
from our purpose by the call of a bird—a mother’s urgent, anxious cry,
if I may so anthropomorphize. Beside us, no more than a few strides
away, a long, sturdy branch stretched out from the trunk of an ancient
tree, an old chestnut, I think. In the nearly bare branches at its
extremity there was a nest. A mother bird, a tiny bird, some type
of sparrow, I think, was nudging a tiny fledgling toward the edge of the
nest, and as she urged it on she was—I can’t think of any way to put this
but in human terms—shouting a few final instructions to it. It her
cries that had caught our attention.
“Oh, my gosh,” said Albertine. She turned
toward me, we smiled at each other, and I put my arm around her shoulder
and hugged her warmly. We were thoroughly delighted with the little
drama. We shared the feeling that we were witnessing the defining
moment in the fledgling’s life, a moment bursting with metaphor, a moment
that I for one had previously known only as a metaphor, never having observed
the moment when a fledgling left the nest and braved the hazards of the
great world. While we watched, the mother, still shouting advice,
lowered her head and gave the fledgling a good shove.
“She’s saying something like ‘Now, Charlie, remember
what I taught you: carry a clean handkerchief and don’t talk to strangers,’”
“To me it sounds more like ‘I’ve had enough of your
lying around all day smoking and watching television, Charlie! Get
out and get a job, you bum!’” I said.
The fledgling flopped over the edge of the nest
and fell toward the ground. I felt the hollowness—the cold, empty
feeling of fear—that a parent feels when a child steps into the street.
The little bird seemed to have no idea at all about flying, no notion that
it could fly. The branch that held the nest was only about twenty
feet above the ground, and the thought had just flitted through my mind
that the little bird could probably survive such a fall into the longish
grass when, suddenly, silently, swiftly, a crow, a very large crow, swept
in from our right and snatched the bird in midair.
“Oh, no,” said Albertine. She gripped my hand.
The crow made a sweeping turn and took the fledgling
to another tree, not very far off, where there were other crows—not that
we could see them, but we could hear them—cheering when the catcher in
the sky brought dinner home. Crowing, if you will, about their champion’s
“Ain’t nature grand?” said Albertine.
Incredibly—to us, who could see the fate that awaited
any fledgling that left the safety of home—the mother bird began nudging
the next little one toward the rim of the nest.
“Oh, no,” I said. We couldn’t turn away.
It was a fascinating sight.
The bird pushed the second fledgling over the edge,
and like the first it plunged toward the grass. Again, the crow swept
in, snatched the hapless creature, and carried it back to its own nest.
We watched, dumbstruck, horrified, while the mother
pushed two more fledglings out. The crow got them both.
“I can’t take this anymore,” said Albertine.
She put her arm through mine and we began making our way out of the gardens.
Our way took us toward the crows’ tree, and as we passed the crow flew
right over our heads, on its way to snatch another falling fledgling.
When it had returned to its nest again, we could hear the fading cries
of the mother bird, but it seemed to me that there was a different quality
to the cry now, and I supposed that all her offspring must be gone.
So did Albertine. “I know what she’s saying
now,” she said. “She’s asking, ‘What fucking asshole decided that
this is the way life ought to be?’”
FOUR DAYS AGO, while I was still working on the preceding chapter, before
I had found a pantomime for my father to perform when he killed Patti’s
idea, I quit work early to take Albertine to lunch.
While she was trying to decide what to wear, she
asked me to step out onto the balcony and bring her a firsthand report
on the state of the weather. I stepped onto the balcony, looked to
the sky, estimated the temperature, and then looked down to the street
to see how lightly or snugly people were dressed. I saw that the
area in front of our building was cordoned off by yellow police tape.
A small crowd of spectators had lined up along the tape, and a few cops
were inside the cordoned area. A body was sprawled face down on the
sidewalk directly below me. Some people were looking at the body.
Others were looking up in my direction. Some of those looking up
were pointing, and after a moment I realized that they were pointing to
some floor above ours. I went back inside.
“What’s it like?” Albertine asked.
“It’s chilly,” I said, “and there’s a body on the
sidewalk below us.”
“I think that at some time earlier in the day, while
we were reading the paper, someone on a floor above ours must have fallen,
jumped, or been pushed from a balcony or window. He—at least I think
it’s ‘he’—is lying on the pavement—”
“It looks that way to me.”
She went out onto the balcony and looked down.
After a while, she came back in, shaking her head.
We dressed in silence, and we left the building
and walked through the crowd in silence, but in the subway station, when
we were standing on the platform, waiting for the train, Albertine said,
“He must have fallen right past our balcony.”
“While we were reading the paper,” I repeated.
We looked at each other and burst out laughing.
We began making wisecracks about death, about suicide by lethal leap.
We were shaken, and we were frightened. We were laughing at the edge
of the abyss, trying to be brave, trying to pretend that death held no
terrors for us, as if we did not expect to meet the fate that all fledglings
eventually must. Nothing we said was funny enough to be worth recording
here. When we came up out of the subway, we sobered up, and neither
of us said a word about the dead man during our lunch (chicken for Albertine
and swordfish paillard for me). Then, after we had left the warmth
of Café des Artistes, with her arm through mine, huddling against
me in the cold January wind on Central Park West, Albertine asked, “Do
you remember the fledglings in Kew Gardens?”
“I’ve been thinking about them all afternoon,” I
THAT NIGHT, while we were lying in bed reading, at about midnight, when
the man who lives directly above us began throwing his furniture around,
as he seems to do every night at that time, Albertine gesticulated toward
the ceiling and said, “Of course, he wouldn’t be the one to jump.”