It was right around my college graduation day that the snake came. I wasn’t home to witness any of what happened. I was in Chicago, selling everything in my college apartment and using the cash to go out drinking. It was hot, and my days of packing produced a sticky feeling of discomfort that would come back like bile minutes after stepping out of a cold shower.
I had been following what was happening at home because my dad liked to write me about it most days. I imagined him typing out his emails to me in his study, around 8:00, right after the sun had gone down and his beer had leaked language into the happy peacefulness of his mind. He was elated, these days, to spend each evening after dinner out on the porch. He and my mom had recently renovated it. They bought new, comfy furniture– the familiar rusted chairs with mildewed cushions were gone. My mom hung potted flowers all around the porch ceiling, and somehow convinced ivy to grow along the beams. At the edge of the porch, as if to mark off this magical space, they strung white Christmas lights and windchimes.
Because of all this beauty, a California wren had ventured into our backyard to nest in one of the hanging porch baskets. Among my mom’s peonies, she laid her eggs. California wrens are small and fat. Their color is a humble light brown, and when they look at you with their inscrutable bird eyes you see dignity in the streak of white, eyebrow-like, on the sides of their heads. In the summers, you hear them everywhere. They sing often, and with impressive range.
June in Chicago, the sounds outside were of cars pulling up outside of soon-to-be-abandoned college homes, the growl of suitcases along sidewalks, and the smugly triumphant shrieks of day-drunk seniors. I was impatient and sloppy in packing all my stuff into boxes. I threw wine glasses in with leftover boxes of pasta and didn’t fold my clothes or even turn them right-side-out before stuffing them into duffel bags. It was hugely satisfying to see my cluttered room turn clean and empty. A guy bought my desk for $50, and I used half the money for a cheeseburger and beers at the campus pub with my friends. We talked about our plans for the summer and what we thought we might do after that, and didn’t think of how easy it was to take for granted that we would always get drunk together.
The next morning, while I dozed sweaty and headachy, my dad sent me an email about how the wren’s eggs had finally hatched. When he went out on the porch with his coffee, he heard a chorus of little squawks in brand new voices. He wanted to look at the eggshells, now empty and useless, but he didn’t want to disturb the babies. The mother wren was so excited, he wrote. She flitted back and forth, chirping at her babies with a new, joyful song he hadn’t heard before. He was proud that she had gotten so used to him that she let him listen in on their celebration.
Goodbyes came in stages: I can’t believe this is the last time we’ll eat here, the last time we’ll drink together on campus, the last week we’ll be living in Chicago, etc. They did not seem real except for one. I’d had a falling out with my oldest friend. First year, we used to laugh so hard on the floor of her dorm room that beer dribbled out the corners of our mouths. Now, we stood braced against separate walls and I told her I hoped she enjoyed Oxford. “Thanks,” she said. “Maybe next year when I come back, we can…start over, and see how it goes.” The cause of the falling out was a mutual feeling of abandonment, not worth describing, which day to day seems irrelevant but builds and builds.
The next day there was no email. My dad called me instead, while I was lying on my bed doing nothing, with the fan on. He said that when he had come outside for his beer, he had found the California wren jumping from spot to spot but never landing in her potted plant. She was calling out sharply. He could hear a commotion from the unseen baby birds, and it was a sound he had not heard from them before. When he looked in the basket, seeing the chicks’ soft brown feathers for the first time, he also saw a snake. It was curled lazily around two of the baby birds, the third a lump in its stomach. He picked up the snake and flung it by its tail into the yard. It hit the ground with the thump of a thing already in motion. Then my dad went to the shed and got the hatchet that he used to weed kudzu out of the garden. As the snake slithered away he brought the blade down hard. At the age of 62, he killed his first living being. While he stared at the two pieces at his feet, the wrens cried.
But–two babies still remaining under the safe white lights.
My bed was the only piece of furniture remaining in my room at that point. I couldn’t sell it, because a couple of the slats were broken from a drunken and overly aggressive hookup with someone I did not know well or much like. I was just going to throw the bed in the alley, after my last night in the blank white room. Graduation was a day away. When I hung up the phone with my dad, picturing the events that had led up to him standing there over the dead snake and baby bird, I felt fear swallow me. Cliches ring true because we seek them out, match them up to the experiences that would otherwise bewilder us. They become signs, omens as bright as Easter eggs.
Heidi Siegrist is currently trying to make it/fake it in Chicago. She is also an MFA student at the University of the South, and is working on a collection of essays about entanglement (whatever that is).