Mother of All Things

In the last months of my marriage, I helped my mother-in-law with the bluebirds. When the eggs hatched, Elaine held them in her hand as softly and surely as a vow. The new birds were small and bulbous, ugly and breakable. I hated touching them. It was like holding a yolk and hoping you wouldn’t press so hard the color spilled out. I wasn’t scared of the birds, or even the worms we were checking them for, but always afraid of myself. Something could come over me and I could squeeze them too hard. Part of not knowing your worth is not knowing what you’re capable of. If I kept on not knowing my worth, Elaine could’ve stayed my mother. A divorce is not the loss of a person but a family.

On bad days, David talked to his mother in stones. You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re doing it wrong. That’s stupid. Get out. She wanted to be part of what we built. She reached her hand into one of our mama goats and pulled something dead out. Then she swung it back alive. But when his mother was around David became a child, his highs and lows exacerbated.

Be nicer to me, Elaine told David one day. The way you talk to your mother is how you’ll end up talking to your wife. I turned to the window. Outside the lilacs bloomed purple and darker purple.

My mother-in-law built wooden boxes to protect her bluebirds from the evil yet common sparrow. A non-native species, the house sparrow is a very aggressive predator, killing female bluebirds on the nest by pecking their heads and killing the nestlings. So, Elaine rang the sparrows’ necks. Sometimes she electrocuted them, but she preferred to do it with her hands. Later she started a whole organization—imagine a whole society dedicated to saving the color of sadness while it goes up in flight—but what I still can’t figure out is how you decide which thing to kill if they both fly.

I gave up everything, Elaine said to me as we refilled the mealworms in the boxes. My job, my youth. Before David she was an eye surgeon. She saw things with sickened sight and fixed them, restored human vision to its highest capabilities. Now she was in a marriage she hated with a man who didn’t notice her haircut and a son who didn’t respect her. She had nothing I wanted, and I saw myself accumulating everything she had.

You are an angel, she said to me one of the times David slammed the door and reversed the car out of the driveway and screamed that it was all her fault for having him. It was cruel how she put him through this, his mood swings and anxiety and depression, when he never asked to be born. She hugged me, and I felt her tears on my sunburnt neck. This was when she loved me, before I crossed the border, went from the thing that flew to the thing that flew.

I think she wanted me to beg. I think she wanted me to take David to some sort of court where I could win on the basis that our life together was worth everything that was so hard about it. But I didn’t want a husband I had to convince. What I wanted was small but so clear, like a diamond or a splinter.

A couple months after David left and I was trying to find someone to take over our lease of the land, I found a young hawk who’d fallen out of its nest. It had a huge beak and soft white feathers and was too young to stand. The only meat I had was a hot dog, so I chewed it up and spit it into the hawk’s mouth. By then I knew not to name the creatures I found.

After some phone calls, I drove this hawk in its down-feathers stage two hours down 89, then along the 202 to a homemade cut-and-paste bird sanctuary owned by an older woman. Cat ladies are cat ladies, but bird ladies are birds. The woman of raptors told me I was an idiot for giving the hawk a hot dog. I agreed, but I did what I thought Elaine would do. I didn’t want to be a mother to all things, but I didn’t want to be a mother to nothing either.

Though the woman of raptors found worms in my hawk’s ears, it was treatable. No bones were broken. She would rehab it and see how it progressed. She knew a professional tree climber who’d scale the hundred-foot pine and put the hawk back in her nest. But don’t get your hopes up, the woman told me. I didn’t tell her how little there was to get up.

Several weeks later the divorce papers were signed. The bird was rehabbed and released, not in her own habitat, but nature doesn’t take requests no matter how fervently we make them.

On nights like tonight, when I am alone in my bathtub, down almost ten grand just to have had the blood kicked around my heart, I hear the old bird asking, What kind of miracle are you after anyway?

The answer is none, I don’t think. I think I am after the small act before.

Florence Gonsalves is an author, poet, and educator at Virginia Tech where she teaches creative writing. She has published two novels with Little Brown Young Readers, Love and Other Carnivorous Plants and Dear Universe, and her essays and short stories appear or are forthcoming in Lit Hub, Hobart, and Pulp Magazine. In 2020, Florence founded the Dandy Line Poetry Troop, a community arts endeavor based in the New River Valley that aims to demystify “high brow” art through the spontaneous production of free, typewritten poems. For commissions, events, and inquiries, visit her online.