Little White

Memoir by M. K. Anderson


My husband Jacob loves birds. I make a token donation to the American Bird Conservatory each year so he will get a full-color magazine monthly. When we lived in our 200-square-foot studio apartment two years prior, he’d cut his favorite photos out and tape them on the ceiling above the loft bed. This is where he spent 18 hours a day when he first got ill.

One day normal, the next always asleep. That quick.

He can’t do much. We don’t watch movies. Jacob has trouble following movies. He is tired and bored and angry with being bored.

But now, in October, we live in a house. When we moved, we took down all his pictures and didn’t find a new place for them. He lies on the cold, poured concrete out back, shrouded in a bug net so he can hear the birds. I want to buy a hammock. He says we can’t afford one. I conspire with his mother to get one for Christmas. I ask him to come inside because it’s chilly and the birds have gone south.

“I can still hear a couple.”

I text a good friend, I’m thinking of getting finches. He asks if I knew he once kept finches, and I did from Twitter, but I lied and said I did not. I once had someone leave a wallet at my house after a party, and I peeked inside to find out whose it was. Still know her Social Security number. I’m not sure, socially, what one is meant to remember.

This good friend is getting married, but I don’t know her name. Not because it’s a secret, but because neither of us is comfortable with being effusive. We talk about the things we love the second most: writing, politics, and birds.

My next text to him was a video of the finches I was buying.

Are those yours???

I bought four and asked my friend about finch care, and he obliged.

We have a dark gray girl, a shitty pied boy who is a bully, a boy with orange cheeks, and a female who is white except on her rounded shoulders and head, which are powder gray like the shading on a cloud. The boy with the orange cheeks was not kept with other birds and is ill-socialized. He does not bathe or sing or fly. We pair him with the white girl, who is the first to explore new objects in the cage. She’s the first to bathe, the first to ring the bell on a new toy. She is very patient with cheeks, and he imitates her, eventually learning from her a full repertoire (as small as that is) of normal bird behavior.

She is my favorite.

In the mornings we uncover the cages and the birds jump down from their sleeping perches onto lower branches, which thrum like guitar strings when they land. They are smaller than golf balls and silly. They sound like little bike horns. The boys sing individual whistle tunes to please the girls and declare the space theirs. We tune them out, except to admire them.

My husband sleeps in the living room with the birds and not outside on the ground. In between nodding off, he watches the bird cages. When I come home from work, he tells me about the finches and their dramas.

When everything is bad, no matter what, birds are always good.

One day, I’m home from work and the white female is asleep all morning, orange beak tucked behind her shoulder, and I get a little chill. I put her in an isolation cage and ask my friend what to do, and he reminds me about heat and hydration. We look away for an hour and then find her, limp and dead.

I’m a bad bird mom, I say.

It’s not your fault. Birds die, my friend says. You have to understand, they’re fragile, and they die.

My husband asks if we should bury her by our back door or by the great oak tree. I want her near us. He wants to bury her himself. As Jacob heads out back, the boy with the cheeks sits nearest to where he last saw his little white and sings for her to help her find her way back to him.

M. K. ANDERSON is a writer living in Austin, Texas. She is currently working on a literary novel set in a fan art community in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. You can find her on Twitter.