Sarah gave me an ornithology guide. I didn’t even know what ornithology was. We’d just decided to stop her chemo once and for all; the last thing I needed was some dumb bird book. I’d never shown interest in a bird our entire twenty-three years together. Not one fucking bird. So I asked her, is this the part of the story when you start to go crazy? Her skin was already gray, but she turned even grayer, like I’d made her sick to her stomach again. Sometimes I could still joke with her the same as before. We could tease each other and say true stuff. As a couple, we were big into teasing. But not that day. That day was a cancer day. You’ll understand in a month or two, she said, and wrapped her college sweatshirt tight around herself. It was dingy and frayed at the cuffs, but I remembered when it was new, how I wanted to tear it off her during late-night study sessions.
The kids and I have seen purple sandpipers and grasshopper sparrows, tundra swans and common loons. Little Bess is the best at spotting them. She tells me to keep my breath quiet and listen for the bird noises. Yank-yanks. Trills. Burbling, bubbling blips. Don’t blink so much, she says. Care more. You have to care more. If I keep still, sometimes I can sense the slightest motion outside myself. Flutters of color, of sound. Miniscule shifts of weight. When we find a piping plover or a kingfisher, the big kids write the date and time and take notes in the blank lines of the ornithology book. Wears blue hat. Lonely-looking. Beak like Uncle Stu’s nose. Where the book says “paste photo here,” we paste a photo—if we catch one. We splurge on a long-range lens for Sarah’s old camera. Bess gazes at treetops through 8x power. She says she wants to be an osprey because they spread their wings wide and mate for life and build enormous nests way up high. Closer to heaven. She’s always drawing osprey strongholds—monstrous, chaotic things with sticks and bits of litter pointing out in all directions. Sometimes, late at night when I can’t sleep, I study her sketches. I add a twig or two, then erase them, afraid of what I might damage.
Before she gave me the guide, Sarah drew circles in red ink around the tufted titmouse, the bobolink, the vermilion flycatcher. We don’t know why. The kids think it’s because of their funny names, but I believe Sarah was on to something more. We still haven’t come across these species. But we’ve taken long trips from home, climbed switchbacks up hills covered with blueberry thicket and candy wrappers. We’ve passed binoculars back and forth, walked in slow, silent motion through valleys split by streams. According to Sarah’s book, we might find them there.
Maureen Langloss is a lawyer-turned-writer living in New York City. She serves as the Flash Fiction Editor at Split Lip Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Jellyfish Review, New Delta Review, Pithead Chapel, Sonora Review, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. In 2017, her work was nominated for Best of the Net, and she was a finalist in the Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Contest, as well as the Gigantic Sequins Flash Fiction Contest. Find her online at maureenlangloss.com or on Twitter @maureenlangloss.