It was after 6:00 when my long day ended and the offices were quiet at last. I surveyed my overflowing desk, then stood and stretched wearily. Alone in the silence, I could hear the snaps and crackles as I slowly rotated my neck to relieve the day’s tension. I hoped I could make a small dent in the mountain of paperwork before my husband arrived to pick me up. It was our anniversary and we had reservations for dinner at the restaurant we saved for special occasions. I didn’t feel like celebrating. Sighing, I sat down and attacked the pile.
Forty minutes later, I looked up to see the compact, athletic frame of my husband filling my doorway. Gently cupped in his calloused hands was an injured Mockingbird, its wing stretched awkwardly to one side. “I found her on the sidewalk,” he said, without any preliminary greeting. “People were just stepping over her.” A look of disgust flitted across his features as he recalled the sight. “Do you think we can help her?” He asked, his green eyes clouded with worry. I looked at his handsome face, weathered from years of working outside and thought, “Of course it would be you that picked her up.” Mike’s kindness is the quality that made me fall in love with him all those years ago. Still, I’m not surprised when people are sometimes wary when they first meet him. Maybe it’s because he’s not much for small talk or skilled at polite chitchat. Or perhaps it’s the demeanor he developed as a football coach. With his hands on his hips and a slight scowl, he can look rather stern. I don’t apologize or try to explain him to new acquaintances. I know that they will discover his soft underbelly for themselves soon enough.
I dropped what I was doing immediately and together, we carefully examined the injured bird. Her heart was hammering wildly in her soft gray breast, but as animals often are, she was stoic and resigned to her fate. “I’ll call Jane,” I said, and he nodded in agreement. Jane was one of three wildlife rehabbers in town, and her specialty was birds. Every room in her house— a noisy, messy, wonderful place— was filled with them. “Bring her over,” Jane said in her usual gruff way. All her softness was reserved for other species.
I drove, and Mike continued to hold his little charge, saying nothing. He was preoccupied, or perhaps he and the bird were engaging in silent communication. I’ve seen this look on his face before, when my father was nearing the end of his long struggle with cancer. Mike would sit quietly with him, his eyes moist with compassion, stroking Dad’s worn brow. The pain in my father’s face would subside, and the nurses, not wishing to intrude on such a private moment, would tiptoe away and leave them alone.
We arrived at Jane’s and she took the Mockingbird and disappeared into another room. We had to step over the large, albino raccoon sleeping in front of the couch to take a seat. He was one of the animals that she was not able to return to the wild because he became too acclimated to humans. Instead, he became part of Jane’s unconventional family. I noticed he had become quite rotund since the first time I saw him. With his clever little hands, he quickly learned to open the refrigerator and help himself to the smorgasbord of snacks just inside. He must have been in Raccoon nirvana. I glanced into the kitchen and saw that Jane had put him on a diet by wrapping a chain around her fridge. “Must be real convenient for cooking,” I said to no one but then realized that no food preparation went on in this kitchen. Every available surface was covered with first-aid paraphernalia, incubators, cages and baskets holding tiny forms clinging to life because of Jane’s skills. As we waited, I become aware of many pairs of curious eyes studying us. Two brilliantly feathered parrots sat on perches across from us and occasionally one or the other of them let out a raucous screech. Some pearl-gray doves peered at us mutely from another cage and a tiny bird of a species unknown to me hopped nervously from perch to perch, its routine disrupted. Beside me, Mike said simply, “I hope she doesn’t die,” then fell silent again.
A movie of scenes starring my husband began to play in my memory. The first was “Rabbit Run.” I was preparing dinner one summer night when Mike walked in our back door carrying the limp form of a large Cottontail. He’d rescued it from the middle of the rural road that led to our house a few miles outside of town. “I don’t know how bad it is,” he began as he laid the creature on our kitchen floor. “I don’t see any blood, but he must have been hit by a car. He’s still breathing.” I bent down for a closer look just as the rabbit snapped awake. Eyes wild, he began his frantic search for an escape route. “You get the back, I’ll get the front,” I yelled, sprinting for the door as the rabbit bounced wildly from room to room. We looked like a scene from Keystone Kops with two humans and three cats darting and dodging until our visitor finally found an exit. “Guess he’s OK now,” Mike muttered as we watched his white tail disappearing down the front walk.
Next up was “Possum Gap.” We were awakened in the middle of the night by the scuffling of two possums locked in mortal combat just outside our bedroom door. Perhaps the fight was over territory or maybe the affections of a lady possum but whatever the cause, the battle was intense. When we turned on the lights, the combatants became aware they had an audience. In a moment frozen in time, everything stopped as we looked at them and they looked at us. Then the younger, smaller one turned and scooted quickly through a gap in the lattice with the bigger male at his heels. Alas, the heft of the latter, up until moments ago an advantage, was his undoing. He made it halfway through and then lodged firmly in the too-small opening. He was hissing furiously and his little back feet were pedaling in the air like a cyclist gone mad as Mike worked to free him from behind. With a final push, he popped out the other side and scampered into the night, minus a little fur but free to fight another day.
I smile as I replay the scene from “Night of the Armadillo.” (“Why do these encounters always happen at night?”). These slow moving, nocturnal little mammals are common in central Texas and completely harmless—but oh, so destructive. They have very strong front claws and dig ferociously in search of grubs and bugs. We had one that had made our front yard look like a minefield. We tried every kind of trap and bait to no avail. “I’m going to catch him one of these nights and then that will be the end of him,” my husband vowed as he surveyed his wrecked landscape. But, of course, it didn’t happen that way. Mike arrived home late one night with a sheepish look on his face. “I had him dead in my sights,” he admitted. “The little guy was standing in the middle of the drive when I turned in, staring right into my headlights. He was frozen in place—blinded—but I just couldn’t kill him.” In fact, I’ve never known him to kill anything—with one exception.
Mike has a soft spot for all creatures great and small except for snakes. One spring, a family of Swallows built a nest so close to our house that we could look down through a high window and watch the hatchlings developing. On one of my observational forays, I had a shock and let out an involuntary yelp. “What’s wrong?” he asked, running into the room. “Snake,” I spat in disgust. “All the babies are gone!” A chicken snake had found the nest, lunched on its contents, then settled in for a nap.
We were both indignant this violence had occurred under our watch. Armed with a hoe from the garden shed, Mike stalked out, bound for revenge. He pulled down the nest, weapon at the ready, but the snake did not try to get away as he’d anticipated. Instead, it slithered right toward him at top speed. I’ll never forget the spectacle of him running and chopping—backwards—at the same time. “My hero,” I chided him and laughed until the tears came.
Jane interrupted my mental mini-movie fest as she reappeared to give us her prognosis. She had set the broken wing and when the bird regained her strength, she would be set free. Mike smiled for the first time all evening, said his thanks and turned to leave. His business finished, he felt no need to engage in social banter. Jane understood. She is a kindred spirit. I stayed to exchange a few words, and then joined my husband.
Outside the moon was full and the sky rich with stars. We breathed in the warm night air and locked hands, content. How easy it is to become disconnected! While we are confined in our little fluorescent-lit boxes, focusing on what seems to be important, a whole world with its endless cycle of life, death and renewal goes on around us unnoticed. In a moment of perfect clarity, I relished my place in this magnificent world. I also remembered why I chose to spend the rest of my life with the man who was standing beside me.
As if he could hear my thoughts, he turned toward me. “Now,” he asked with a grin, “don’t we have something to celebrate?” “Yes” I respond, looking at the face I know and love so well. “Yes we do. I’d almost forgotten.”
And indeed, I had.
Oh Janet, you should be writing books. This is such a wonderful story. I especially like the way you brought it all back around for the close. Really enjoyable reading. We plan to meet Mike one day. I'll get him talking...or laughing one!!
True stories are better than novels. But this romantic tale reveals enough personal glimpses, it might as well be dreamed up. Of course it was dreamed up, or re-dreamed many times over the years. Great story, Janet.