Issue #15 |

What the Birds Knew

In my most vivid memory of my daughter, we are on the beach in Kauai and she is walking toward me, hair wet and tangled, legs pink with sunburn. Her purple bathing suit is too small for her. She extends her cupped hands toward me.

“Daddy, look,” she says, opening her fingers. There in her palm, a turquoise egg, broken and empty. “Can I keep it?” she says, crawling onto the beach chair and into my lap. “Can we add it to your collection?”

Claudia is six and this is the only trip I have ever taken alone with her. Before we flew here, the court decided she will live with her mother. I will see her every other weekend. We will split holidays.

My daughter hooks her feet around my calves, as if to hold on, and everything around me stops. How I will miss this gesture, the feel of her small toes on my legs, the weight of her in my lap. I put my nose to her head. I kiss that tangle of wet hair, taking in the smell of ocean and air and shampoo, and then I turn my attention to her hands.

“A myna egg,” I say. “We already have one of these.”

“But I like it,” she says, shivering, and I wrap the white hotel towel around her.

“Okay,” I tell her. “We’ll bring it home with us.”

She leans her head against my chest.

“Where did you find it?” I ask.

“Over there,” she says, pointing at a mound of sand near the water.

I know then that this isn’t a shell that has simply fallen from a tree, pushed out of a nest by a fledging bird. I know it was likely stolen out of some faraway nest by an eagle or a hawk, pierced open with a beak, left empty on the shore.

Claudia unwraps her feet from behind my legs and pulls them up into my lap. She puts the broken egg in the mesh nest meant to hold a drink, where I will forget it when we leave the beach that day. I wrap the towel tight around her, and I know that within a minute—maybe two—she will be asleep. And she is.

I have tried for many years to stop the memory here. I have tried to hold this moment in my mind, with Claudia asleep on my lap, folded up in my arms. I have willed her to keep sleeping, to pin her head against my chest, to never wake up or crawl down out of my lap. Sometimes I can make this part of the memory last for a few minutes. Sometimes I can suspend this moment for a few hours. But always, regardless of my efforts, Claudia wakes and pushes herself up on my lap, and I realize my shirt is soaked through with her sweat, her cheeks are red, her thin blonde hair is stuck to the back of her neck, and when I put my hand to her forehead, I confirm what I already know: she has a fever.

 

The night we arrived in this little hotel, high up on a cliff on the west side of the island, I stared into the dark, counting Claudia’s inhales and exhales, wanting more than anything to fall asleep to the sound of her breath. The longer I listened, the more unbearable it became. Finally, exhausted by the effort of trying to sleep, I got out of bed. I grabbed my sandals and a shirt from my suitcase, and I slipped out of the hotel room, careful not to let the door slam as I left. With my ear to the door, I listened to make sure she didn’t wake up, and when I was certain she was still asleep, I went out to the garden and sat under the window of our room, waiting for my weariness to subside. I sat there for over an hour, listening to the night. This became somewhat of a ritual for me that week, sitting outside after she had gone to sleep, and sometimes I walked to the edge of the property where I could look down at the ocean, blacked out by the night, and I listened not to the sound of the waves pounding the rocks but to the terrible shriek of a bird I recognized, a scream meant to warn me that I had, without knowing it, come too close to a nest. I tried to find that nest in the daylight so I could avoid it, not wanting to bother the mating pair. But no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t see it anywhere on those cliffs.

 

It is on this trip I am supposed to tell Claudia that when we get home I will move out. I will take all my clothes and the few books I own, half the furniture, and the maple cabinet shoved into the corner of the small bedroom where a dresser should be, the one that holds my grandfather’s egg collection. I will have to take it all away and move it into my new apartment, nearly an hour north, in Boston. I still haven’t told her because I am worried she will be most upset about losing the eggs. She will no longer walk into the bedroom each morning, pull open those heavy maple drawers, and peer through the glass at a thousand shells, pinpricked and drained, stored and preserved.

 

To read the rest of this story, purchase a copy of issue #15 or subscribe to the magazine

author amber caron

Amber Caron is the author of the story collection Lost Person Behavior (Milkweed Editions, 2023) and the recipient of the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, Southwest Review’s McGinnis-Ritchie Award for fiction, and grants from the Elizabeth George Foundation and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. Her stories and essays have appeared in …

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