(originally published as “Fragile Things” in Grow Magazine. Reprinted here courtesy of the author.)
Temporarily, they halted our demolition of a building–two fledglings huddled in a nest of mud and grass. We hoped that the mother would return. But, when she hadn’t by the next day and the babies were peeping furiously, I was elected to raise them. Actually, elected is the wrong term. In reality, the rest of my family humored me. In the heat, without a mother, they considered the two babies dead meat still squawking.
I tried supplying the fragile things with various foods including worms and raw hamburger but after a day I almost surrendered. The tiny creatures would allow me to drip water down their throat but they wanted no part of anything solid. Finally, I tried grasshoppers. Whether it was the crunch of a still warm exoskeleton or something else, the long legged hoppers grabbed their attention and the fledglings began to eat. For days, I gathered and mashed the bugs until I began to feel half bird myself. When I closed my eyes in bed at night, I pictured tiny insect heads crunching between my teeth.
The fledglings began to follow me around the house. Eventually, I would wander the meadows looking for victims to sacrifice to their rapacious appetites with the two perched jauntily on my shoulder. Occasionally, they would rise, flapping and tweeting in the air around me as if I were Cinderella with her entourage of animals.
This was back then in the Eighties when it was common for The Marijuana Eradication Team (MET) to raid in the hills near our home. Once, the whole neighborhood gathered on the hillside to observe as a group of camouflage clad officers handcuffed an older neighborhood woman. The birds and I joined them. We watched as large white official pickups were filled to overflowing with heaps of the dark green marijuana branches that were making Humboldt famous around the nation. The mood among the community members was grim. Several had lost plants from raids in other places that day and nearly everyone sympathized with the older woman being folded weeping into the squad car.
Even with the community in an uproar, I had to keep feeding the birds. Not far from all the commotion the tiny creatures and I picked our way through the grass at the edge of the road looking for grasshoppers. But when the car with the woman drove away, the startled birds flew up in the air higher than normal. For some ungodly reason, though one returned to me, the other flew down the road and lit on a branch of marijuana hanging over the tailgate of one of the pickup trucks.
And stayed there chirruping for me.
“Tlck, tlck.” I tried to coax him back by clicking my tongue as usual. “Chip, Chip,” he tried to coax me to him. In desperation, I kept edging closer and closer to the trucks and the officers. Fearfully, I eyed the men with their long black guns. And they eyed me suspiciously. We seemed like two different species with opposing agendas and opposing viewpoints on everything. But I hadn’t always lived in the hills. My family had been friends with police officers. We shared many Fourth of July’s with a local CHP and his family. Hopefully, I called to the nearest, a dark haired guy about my age, “Could I get my bird, please?”
He stared grimly at me— but with a fluffy sweater, big eyes, and one bird on my shoulder cocking its head jauntily from side to side, he had a hard time maintaining a straight face. First he grinned, then he started laughing and without even glancing at the other uniformed and armed officials, he said, “This isn’t exactly regulation but I won’t tell, if you won’t.” Motioning me to go ahead, he and the others watched as I reached out a hand and scooped the cheerful peeping bird from a sticky green branch.
As I headed back to the rest of the community, both birds were chirruping and hopping merrily from my head to my shoulders and back again. My knees were shaking as if I had been in actual danger and, judging by the fuss everyone made of me, the neighbors must have felt the same.
Soon, the officers left and, within a month, the birds were gone also—flying off to join their own kind. For many years, MET returned a couple of times every summer but I never saw my birds again. And I rarely saw the human side of the officers who came either. It takes a lot of magic and little bit of laughter to bridge the gap between Humboldt hill folk and city cops.