He flew back to me from long, long ago.
My memory of him is dim, fleeting. I can only see partial scenes, the way a migraine sufferer is unable to look directly at objects because of a big gray spot but can see things around the periphery.
In a summer writing session last week, my co-facilitator challenged participants with quick-writing a bird story—for “everyone has a bird story.”
I have quite a few, some of which I’ve already written.
I looked at the page, waiting, my thoughts circling like birds themselves, tiny dark things against a whiteness, when suddenly there he was, crisp and clear, his black feet gripping the black perch, his crested blue head tilted, white face gleaming, a bright, black-rimmed eye regarding me with curiosity.
Oh, I breathed in my mind, I’ve been wanting to write about you! I’d almost forgotten.
He blinked, ruffling his beautiful blue, black-striped feathers. He watched me expectantly.
Aunt Jack’s house is different from anyone else’s. It’s full of stuff but not messy. I feel a strangeness here. Maybe it’s the animals. A big, speckled brown bird with a white ring around its neck and long tail feathers stands on a hunk of wood. “A pheasant,” Grandma explains. Aunt Jack is her youngest sister. The deer heads mounted high on the wall watch me with their big, soft eyes. I am scared of the bear head and its disconnected feet with sharp claws up there. On a shelf stands some small cat creature, the color of sand with brown spots. I think its mouth is open and its teeth are showing but I look away and hurry past.
I’m in a zoo of dead animals. Stuffed. Someone killed them all.
I do not know who or why.
Aunt Jack is small with a white, heart-shaped face, always smiling. She has brown hair almost to her shoulders and brown eyes as big and soft as the deer. She’s always moving, even when she’s sitting. I like to listen to her talk; her voice is like music, her words quick notes skimming through the air like stones tossed over water, or sunlight flickering through tree leaves on a summer afternoon. As much movement in her light voice as in her slight body.
She’s always happy to see me, hugs me, says my name in her pretty, musical voice, and I remember how I have the same name as her father. Because it’s also Grandma’s middle name. It’s a special thing.
I follow Grandma and Aunt Jack from room to room. When we go back through the living room, I see him.
On a tall, black perch, in front of the backside of the sofa.
A blue bird with a white chest and black stripes on his body.
I think he’s stuffed, too.
But his crested blue head tilts; a bright, black-rimmed eye regards me with curiosity.
“Oh!” I say, coming to a dead stop.
Aunt Jack laughs. I think of wind chimes.
“That’s Kilroy. He won’t bother you, honey.”
“He’s your pet?”
“Yes. I found him on the sand by the river when he was just a baby, so I brought him home.”
Kilroy blinks, ruffling his beautiful blue and black-striped feathers. He watches me expectantly.
I take a step closer. I have never seen a bird that wasn’t in a cage inside a house before.
A living one, that is.
“Hi, Kilroy,” I call in my friendliest voice.
I jump. He sounds like Grandma’s screen door opening.
Grandma and Aunt Jack just laugh.
I don’t know how long Aunt Jack had him, or how many times I saw him. He was free to fly around the house, and I don’t remember any droppings. If I remember correctly, he stole shiny things like pens, rings, and coins, and hid them, sometimes behind the refrigerator, and he liked to crack nuts open and eat them.
I try to imagine my great-aunt walking on the sandy riverbank by her home, discovering the fledgling, carrying him to the house, feeding him by hand. Kilroy was devoted to Aunt Jack. The most enchanting part of their story is how he’d wake her in the mornings by walking on her chest.
Aunt Jack couldn’t have children. I can only guess how much she loved Kilroy, the living spot of color and joy amongst all those dead, unblinking creatures.
The grayness overcomes my memory here; only a little bit’s left around the edges. I can’t recall if Kilroy was allowed to fly in and out of the kitchen window. Maybe. But I’m not sure. It’s too far away, too dim. The memory, like gossamer, disintegrates when I try to touch it.
What I do know is that one day he flew out of the window and never returned, although Aunt Jack went out, calling and calling for him.
And that she still felt his little bird feet walking on her chest every morning, long after he was gone.
My last remaining aunt tells me that Aunt Jack did leave a window open enough for Kilroy to come and go as he pleased. He’d peck on the window when he wanted her to open it. When Aunt Jack was outside, he’d fly to sit on her shoulder. Remembering Kilroy piqued my interest in blue jays; I had to look them up. They can live twenty-six years in captivity and usually around seven in the wild. And they aren’t really blue. The color is produced by their feather structure scattering light— if a feather is crushed, the structure is ruined and the blue disappears. The feather is dark brown or black. Blue jay feathers, then, are illusions of light.
No illusions, however, about blue jays symbolizing energy and vitality—Kilroy embodied it, in all his blue glory. As did Aunt Jack herself.
As for the dead creatures: The stuffed bear and wildcat are apparently from another early memory that’s merged with this one over time, but my last aunt says there were definitely stuffed birds on Aunt Jack’s mantel. I opt to leave the bear and the cat in the story with apologies to Aunt Jack, who’d be delighted, I think, that she and Kilroy are still remembered.