Wednesday’s Words/Short Short Story: Ardis and the Feathered One

(Photo by Jack Bulmer on Pexels.com)

It had come to this absurd situation. One wrong footfall and boom!–her ankle puffed up like it was packed with dense stuffing. Except it had nerves, too, and persistent pain. Swelling that made the skin ugly, tighter. So much for the fearless, iron-legged hiker that Ardis had always been. An easy trail through the woods brought her to her hip, now bruised and sore. But the ankle twisted on the way down a rutted, rocky slope.

Slouched in her cushioned and creaky rocker, she stared out the picture window. Books she’d piled at the side table were hardly touched. The TV in the corner was blank, meaningless. Her pitiful right foot, encased in a rigid plastic and padded therapeutic “boot”, made her angry and at times tearful. It lay there like a forgotten thing, a useless thing that taunted her from the old leather ottoman. Until she reached for the crutches, forced herself out of inertia to hobble to the kitchen for sustenance or down the hall to answer nature’s call. She hated to drink too much or she’d be often compelled to make that miserable trip.

If only the sun would shine. Ardis then might see past the low grey clouds, be able to envision an end to 6 weeks, make plans for resumption of her life. At first her buddies Harry and Joanie stopped by after work; Aunt Ellie brought scones and steaming cappuccinos; her co-worker brought magazines– as if Ardis was in the hospital and could only handle cheesy reading material, but at least she came by. Now, almost no one came. Except birds and squirrels, but there were far more birds in her yard–which she had only half-seen before.

So, by default, Ardis had become a bird watcher. Not that she knew much about birds. They came and went, pecking at the soil or berries in bushes, hiding in potted plants on the deck, snagging a spot in a makeshift bird bath created by rain in a cereal bowl used and forgotten. Their chirruping and singing were pleasant, and before long she was trying to figure out who was partnered with whom, where they were flying off to, and if they’d scatter or fight when crows–birds, sure, but lately seen as titans of trouble by Ardis– descended. Where did they all go when it rained hard? Did they have family to help them find food?

She thought the same handful returned every day and so began to name them: Johnny Red, Angel, Big Talker, Ivan, Little Mo. It was entirely unlikely she could identify them well–she couldn’t even tell what species they all were–but it didn’t stop the naming. She’d attempted wrestling with her crutches–which conspired to topple her between Point A to Point B–to go outdoors. Once at the back door she’d opened it with difficulty, then only listened and watched from there. The early fall air smelled and felt sharply soothing. But after ten minutes of leaning against a hard door jamb, crutches cumbersome and her ankle beaming at her with pain–that was the end of it.

One afternoon she kept trying to read a book Aunt Ellie had generously brought her about Pacific Northwest birds. (Though no coffee or scones.) It was far less dull than her aunt had warned but less thrilling than imagined. But she kept at it until her eyelids slid shut, fluttered, fell again. In a flash her mind had hopped on the sleep train and gone elsewhere. She was high up and everything was shining in whites and blues, a chilly, bright landscape. Calm, silent. Free. Far from feet and other human and mysterious impediments. Her rocking chair afternoon rolled away from her as she moved effortlessly.

Thwack! Ardis’ eyelids flicked open.

Something had hit a wall, the window, maybe the picnic table outside… was it the neighbor kid’s ball? a pinecone rolling off the roof from last night’s rainstorm? Then she replayed the sound and suddenly bent at the waist in the rocker, straining her neck to better look out the window and to the deck. There were some feathers. A bird had flown hither and thither as usual, then rammed right into her big window.

Trying to get a better view, Ardis rocked forward little by little, began to slide off the seat and steadied herself. But were those bird feet? She shouldn’t be able to see feet sticking out in the air. Her heart stirred. She grabbed the crutches, positioned them so she could stand and better look out.

Yes, the bird was certainly knocked for a loop, lying on its side with twig legs and clawed feet straight out. It lay stunned, perhaps paralyzed. Or–dead? She looked from every angle she could, noting the sleek black head, white stripe, two black stripes above and below dark bead of its eye, a dab of yellowish color by its face, body clothed in greyish-blue—taupe?– feathers, a colored breast. But its small face, still as can be. A handsome feathered thing. She didn’t think it had been given a name. Maybe a visitor? What sort? She watched then concluded her window had sent it to its demise. And she was filled with an attack of sadness, eyes going misty. What to do? She shouldn’t touch it, move it. Flummoxed, she retreated to the ottoman. Waiting for something to happen, hoping it might get up.

Hearing that awful thud again and again in her head.

It just couldn’t die.

She sat with hands crossed flat against her chest. Perhaps five minutes went by, then she skootched the ottoman to the window. Looked down at the bird, noted its right wing set a bit apart from its soft rounded body. The wing seemed to move rapidly; she deducted it was a breathing movement. She held her own breath, put forehead to glass wondering if the wing was damaged. If it would ever fly even if it lived. Suddenly, the bird smoothly hopped upright onto its feet. Stood still, just breathing more gently. The wing didn’t look bent but who was Ardis to determine anything? It wasn’t taking a step. It just stood there on spindly legs, not even the head moving. Maybe it was brain damaged and couldn’t figure out what next. Or, after all, there was that wing– or maybe something was hurt inside?

Ardis was pondering, still, how she might help, then admitted with a mutter that she was no use to a bird, surely not one nearly accidentally murdered in her own back yard. By her own picture window as she sat there, unaware. The beat up creature–why wasn’t it giving the offending window a bad look or, more appropriately, gazing toward sky and trees? She wanted to get up and walk out, make apologies to it–crouch down eye-to-eye with it.

Damn that ankle. Her inability to find a good solution.

From the distance there rose a clear bird call. And the not-so-dazed bird turned its head to the call, lifted off the deck and swiftly flew off with nary a wobble. Just like that! Ardis’ hand flew to her mouth as she grinned like a kid, amazed.

She pressed her face close to the glass, searching tree branches, the hedge next door. Not a feather to be seen. No significant bird chatter. The bird just recovered its senses and strength and oriented itself. Took right off. How could that be when it had looked like a goner? Unlike Ardis, it had not sprained a thing when it met with sudden changed circumstances; it had just lost its bearings, and perhaps consciousness briefly.

Ardis moved backward and sat down, thrusting the crutches aside. Stared out her window a long while, replaying what had happened. Her alarm, sadness, concern, surprise. A sudden desire to protect birds from her windows and even more from her ignorance.

And then: what bird was it? A nuthatch? A warbler? A chickadee? Those two black stripes, a white stripe between, some yellow or was it orange or…? She grabbed the Northwest bird identification book and began the search. It was taxing to recall the specifics of birds marking, beak shapes, coloration. It was hard to figure out what birds lived where or, if migrating, when and why. But she persisted awhile until she had come up with five different possibilities. She should have taken a photograph.

As time passed she also thought how she needed more patience with herself. The swollen ankle. Her mistakes and frailties. Her lack of knowledge of so much. The bird did what it was meant to do so it might regain its sense of self, its righted bird-ness. She could do the same with her own circumstances, couldn’t she–wait it out, let healing happen until she regained her Ardis self. Just be still. Worse might have happened to them both. She could manage this interval of time, as her little miracle bird had managed its situation.

Her fascination with the identification process continued until the room dimmed, then filled with soft rosy light. She put the book down, looked through her window. There was a bird sitting on dangling branch, looking right at her. Her feisty bird? Wishing it so, she imagined it had come back–or maybe it was a sibling or a cousin. No matter. Redux: she named it in case she saw it once more. Redux, as it had been restored to itself, to nature, to her. Ardis offered a wave and it flew beyond a scrim of deepening dusk.

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