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The Return of Migrating Birds

by Ron Rindo
 

Kate had always hoped to marry a man unafraid of the ricochets of her consciousness, someone to whom she could reveal complicated feelings without fear of retributive anger or pouting.  To her first husband, she had wanted to be able to say, for example, that sleeping with only one man in her life had, in retrospect, not been a wise decision.  How to say such a thing without being hurtful?  Slip it in during a conversation about regret?  Let fly during an argument?  There seemed no ideal time, so she carried the information inside, a seed buried deeply.  It grew into resentment, blossomed in divorce. 

What she’d learned, perhaps later than most, was that each relationship had its unique archeology, its own striations.  There were layers, bones and fragments buried, small discoveries.  How deep you went depended.  The time to establish boundaries came before you were conscious of there being a choice, and you could not go back later and choose again.  What you did with your bodies, how or if you shared your minds, all of it could seem mysteriously predetermined.  In simplest terms, if a man did not hold your hand two months into your relationship, no matter how much you yearned for it, he would not voluntarily take your hand thereafter.  Conversations worked the same way.   If you did not talk meaningfully about sex by a certain point, then sooner or later, you simply could not.  Once the stratifications were established, and you’d marked where you would and would not dig, and how far, there was no going any deeper.

With her second husband Aaron, Kate could discuss such things, and this, at first, had been his most beguiling feature.  She told him once, shortly after they married, that she believed it had been a mistake to sleep with only two men in her life.  He laughed and nodded, said he sometimes felt he’d also been mistaken in sleeping with only twenty-six women in his.  To Aaron she could say that even though she was now, most of the time, extremely happy, if not actually content—contentment being, philosophically speaking, impossible in a country like the United States, led by millionaires and morons—she still felt restless and dissatisfied, as if some part of life might be passing her by.

Lately, oddly, she’d been missing small things about her first husband, the way he fumbled to tie a tie properly, for example, and how he became flustered when ordering food at a drive-through window.  She admired smoothness and savvy in a man, but also felt diminished by it.

She said this to Aaron one sunny, Saturday morning, the first of April, after they’d made love—just before the thing with Matthew had blown up her life—while their children, Josh and Freida, five and seven, ate organic cereal downstairs in front of the television.  Kate rested with her head on Aaron’s hairy chest, one leg thrown across his thighs.  She could hear birds singing.  She raised her head briefly, glanced out the window to watch two red-winged blackbirds and several sparrows eating at the new  feeder.  “What you’re saying,” he clarified, in his sometimes aggravatingly scholarly way, “is that life is not ameliorative, not a consistent, day-to-day improvement on what came before.  I tend to agree, darling.”

She returned her head to his chest, his heartbeat a steady thumping against her ear.  “Yes,” she said, “and sometimes even when we’re convinced we haven’t made a mistake, parts of what we’ve done still haunt us.”

“Of course,” he said.  “We’d be pathological if that weren’t true.  Little regrets are part of what make us human.”

She propped herself up on both elbows, looked into his face.  “Do you miss anything about any of your old lovers?”  He smiled again, ran his fingertips through the ringlets of hair that grew along the back of her neck.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Kate,” he said, lying, she was certain, bolstering her theory that a necessary lie wasn’t a lie at all, but an investment in contentment.  “You’re all I think about.”

“So,” she said, “sexually speaking at least, your life is ameliorative.”

“Absolutely.”  He pressed his lips to the top of her head, his kiss an exclamation point.  “Sexually speaking, my life is paradise.”

A really good man, this second husband.   Intelligent, attractive without being fastidious, Aaron earned a high salary as a structural engineer, shared the cooking, did the dishes without complaint, ran the children’s baths and washed their hair, unplugged the toilet with the plunger when one of the children went into a frenzy with the toilet paper.  He tolerated Kate’s indecision, her self-doubts about her choice of career (reference librarian at a Wisconsin Wesleyan, a small college ten miles from their home), the swings in mood provoked by her ruminative, often depressive nature.  He came to the rescue each time she let her car run out of gas, wherever she happened to be.  He balanced the checkbook when she neglected to track expenses and they were overdrawn.  He was an attentive lover.  And yet.  And yet, in spite of all, Kate often found him maddening.  Annoying.  She wanted to love everything about him.  As an intelligent, rational person, she realized this was an impossible and romantic impulse.  Aaron himself had confirmed it.  And yet—
  
Most annoyingly, Aaron was risk averse.  He had the furnace cleaned each fall and changed the batteries in the carbon monoxide detectors the first of every year.  He wouldn’t allow the children outside in summer without sunscreen.  They drove a Honda Accord with front and side air bags, one of the safest mid-sized sedans in America, and every month he checked the air pressure and tread depth of their car’s tires.  Later that April Saturday evening, babysitter and dinner reservations procured, she waited in the car while Aaron circled it with his pressure gauge.  When he finally got in, she asked if it was really necessary to check the tires every month.

“But isn’t this a good thing,” he responded, “to care about the safety of our family and the health of the planet?  Under-inflated tires decrease gas mileage and are in danger of exploding.  Bald tires provide almost no traction in the rain and snow.” 

“Yes, of course it’s a good thing,” she said.  “It’s just the way you do it.  It’s like the way you do everything.  It lacks something.”

“And what is that?”

“I’m not certain.  Spontaneity, maybe.” 

“Spontaneity?”

“Yes.”

“We should drive with bald tires in the rain, hit our brakes, and slide off a cliff somewhere?”  He smiled.  “Would that be spontaneous enough for you?”

She shook her head.   “That’s not what I’m saying.   I’m saying that sometimes—maybe—life is richer if it brings you things you’re not prepared for.  That’s all.  We’re always prepared.  For everything.  You carry band-aids in your wallet in case one of the kids falls down and cuts a knee.   You refill your gas tank when it’s still half full.  And you always wear a condom.  Always.” 

His jaw dropped.  “Is that what’s been bothering you?” 

She shrugged.  No, she thought, but now that you mention it, add it to the list.

“But we agreed!” he said, shaking his head.  “Years ago.  For the sake of the planet.  Two children.  Didn’t we agree, Kate?”

She nodded.  “Of course we agreed, and I still agree.  It’s the responsible choice.  But Aaron, I’m forty-one years old.  It won’t be long and I won’t be able to bear children.” 

“I don’t understand.” 

“But you should understand!  You should.  I wish you did.  I wish I didn’t have to explain it to you.”

 He sighed.  “You’re being unfair.”

 “I don’t want to get pregnant,” she said.  “At my age, all the risks.  But sometimes, at least, I’d like there to be the chance.  That’s all I’m saying.” 

“And that would make our lives better?  Worrying that you’re pregnant?”

She shook her head.  “Not better.”  She paused.  “Maybe more interesting.” 

“More interesting,” he said, flatly.

She nodded.  He looked at her and squinted.  He inhaled deeply and shook his head, shifted into reverse, backed down the driveway.  Slowly.  Safely.

She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, let her memory distract her.  Kate had not been completely honest.  Complete honesty in marriage was not a thing to be desired.  Besides, it was a myth.  Daily, in the random vibrations of consciousness, there were tiny lies and betrayals.  Tell your spouse everything and you risked becoming the same person, two clear streams merging into a single, muddy river.  Years ago they had seen an older couple at the mall, in their 70s, dressed exactly the same, the way some parents dressed identical twins.  Matching white sneakers, navy pants, three-button shirts striped in red, white, and blue.  Kate and Aaron found such a willing surrender of autonomy almost repulsive.  

What Kate hadn’t told her husband: two days earlier she’d kissed someone else.  Really kissed him.  A young man at the college, almost a boy, really, twenty-two years old.  Matthew Jenkins.  The first time Kate saw him, back in February, he wore jeans torn open at both knees, hiking books, and a green t-shirt with a diving whale’s tail silk-screened across the chest.  A knotted leather band encircled his left wrist, and a silver and turquoise ring shone on his little finger.  He was at least six foot three, with a curly mop of brown hair and a thin beard, cut close to his face.  Lanky, loose-limbed.  Lovely. 

She could not stop watching him.  He was beautiful, yes, but there were dozens of beautiful young men on campus.   Who knew why we found certain people so engaging and not others?  Why some crawl into our brains and nest there?  In Current Periodicals, he paged through Science, Wisconsin Natural History, and Field & Stream.  When he finished, he approached the reference desk, and Kate felt her face flush.  He smiled at her, set his backpack on the desk.  Blue eyes.  Perfect teeth.

“Hello”—he glanced at her college nametag and smiled—“Kate.  Could you tell me where the books are in this library?”

She smiled.  “On the shelves!”

He laughed.  “Thanks for clearing that up.”

“Are you new?” she asked.

He nodded.  “Transfer student.”

“Well,” Kate said, “Upstairs—we’re in the East Wing now—we’ve got Government Documents on the second floor, and call numbers A through D, and E through H, on the third.  The rest of the call numbers can be found on all three floors of the West Wing”—she pointed through the reference doors that led to the lobby connecting the wings.  “Can I help you find something?”

He reached into his back pocket and withdrew a small, crumpled piece of paper with a call number written on it.  She took him to Third Floor West and directed him to the book, Refuge, by Terry Tempest Williams.  Chatting along the way, she found out he was an environmental studies major from a small town in Illinois, a birder, a vegetarian, an avid trout fisherman.  She left him, holding his book clutched to his chest, on First Floor West at the check-out.  He made a point of shaking her hand when he thanked her.  His sweaty fingers smelled of sandalwood.

In the weeks afterward, Matthew stopped by the reference desk often.  Sometimes he just said hello, but usually he had a slip for a book he needed, and she would lead him up into the stacks to find it.   She began to pick out her clothing each morning with greater care, favoring styles college-aged women found popular: low-cut blouses, low-rise blue jeans or raffia peasant skirts, T-shirts dotted with peace signs, butterflies, or little books with wings.  Bandanas.  Long earrings that dangled against her neck.   On the first day of spring, March 21st, Matthew brought her a gift, a bird feeder he’d made of cedar and glass, along with a small bag of bird seed.  She took the feeder home, lied to Aaron about its provenance, filled and hung it from a branch of the green elm that grew just off the patio, where she could see it from the kitchen table and from her bedroom window.   Matthew told her about the birds he’d started seeing on his walks through the college’s wetlands, spring migrants returning or passing through on their way north: starlings, yellow-headed blackbirds, house wrens, cowbirds.  He taught her things about various species—that European starlings, for instance, were invasive, introduced in New York City in the early 1890s, and that brown-headed cowbirds were a parasitic species, laying their eggs in the nests of other birds who did the work of incubating and raising their young. 

Kate found Matthew’s passion for birds endearing, his crush on her sweet and inspiring.  She’d asked him to recommend the best of the books he’d been reading, work by Muir, Carson, Snyder, and Dillard.  She bought herself a copy of the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds.   Aaron, of course, noticed her newfound interest.  He asked if she’d joined a birding group at the college, and she said no, but she’d been helping students find books about birds, and that had provoked her interest.  Aaron nodded, not fully content with her answer, she could tell, but thankfully unable, or unwilling, to take the conversation further.  Even so, she thought, there’s nothing to tell.  Nothing had happened, nothing tangible, other than the gift of the birdfeeder.  Perhaps she was on the border of dangerous territory, glancing over barbed wire, looking at it, daydreaming about it.  Perhaps.  But she was under no obligation to map every nuance of her interior life for her husband, was she? 

The trips Kate and Matthew took into the stacks, gliding shoulder to shoulder up the stairs, squeezing together between shelves filled to the ceiling with books, began to feel like intimate hikes into uncharted caves.  The library’s aging climate control system rarely worked properly, and the temperature on the upper-floor of the building sometimes approached eighty degrees.  But they didn’t mind.  They were explorers seeking rare specimens.  Sometimes the tension between them, the surge and swell of their bodies in such proximity in the library’s muggy stillness, surrounded by the smell of bound and aging paper, seemed as thick as humidity in the spring air.  Third Floor West, the location of most of the titles Matthew desired, was almost always deserted.  Even so, they whispered there, their faces sometimes so close together Kate could feel Matthew’s breath against her cheek, could smell the fruitiness of the gum he chewed, or the sweetness of the syrup he’d poured on his pancakes that morning.

One afternoon, the 29th of March, on the landing just before the door that opened to the stacks, the backs of their hands touched.  And almost naturally, as if each hand contained a magnet, their palms came together and their fingers entwined.  They seemed to pretend it wasn’t happening, or had happened by accident, but they held hands as they continued into the stacks, and once there Matthew dropped her hand, pulled her to him, and kissed her so passionately she had to struggle for breath.  She broke away for a minute, took a cursory look around the stacks, then led him by the hand to the most remote corner of the wing.  She pulled a chair from behind a study desk, pushed him into it, hiked up her skirt, and straddled him while they kissed, her arms around his neck.  For ten or fifteen minutes they kissed, and she tasted his lips, his tongue, the sweetness of him, felt the sharpness of his beard against her cheeks and chin.  Their bodies urged themselves through their clothes, sticky with sweat and yearning, her own wetness leaching through her underpants, she felt certain, into his jeans. 

They left the floor separately, without speaking.  Matthew first, disheveled, glowing.  After a stop in the bathroom to check her hair, smooth the wrinkles from her skirt, straighten her blouse, Kate wandered back down into the reference room.  With each step along the stairwell, she felt the descent as powerfully as a metaphor:  she was coming back down to earth.  She felt energized, entranced. 

The following Monday in a moment of temporary insanity she arranged a study carrel for Matthew on Second Floor West, a small cubicle with walls eight feet high, a tiny study desk and chair, a locking door that went all the way to the floor.  Such private carrels were reserved only for graduate students, but she signed for him, got him the keys.  They met in the carrel to kiss four days that first week, their longing, the weeks of pressure rising to flood stage, funneled through their mouths.  It’s only kissing, Kate told herself.  But the kisses ripened her body, caused her to swell and blossom, left her aching, wistful, electrified.

Matthew asked if she’d remove her clothes.  She didn’t agree at first, but a few days later allowed him to undress her, but only on the condition that his clothes remained on.  Once naked, she did whatever he wanted her to do, stood on the chair facing him, sat on the desk, let him kiss and touch her anywhere, any way he desired.  She allowed him to remove his shirt—she pulled it off of him—but his jeans stayed on.  A young lover with a hairless chest and muscular stomach, he did everything with great vigor.  Even with his pants on he finished quickly, and wasn’t always attentive to what she needed without being told.  But he did anything she asked, often clumsily, sometimes provoking laughter from both of them.

Though her brain swirled with the folly of her actions—the risk to her family, her relationship with Aaron, her career—and guilt settled in afterward like an unwelcome fog, she also could not help thinking: maybe this is what she’d been missing.  Play.  It was—and she abhorred the ubiquity of the word—fun.  Not the sneaking around.  The adultery manuals were wrong about that.  Sneaking around was not part of the thrill.  She hated it.  But once inside the carrel, she felt like a young girl undressing for a bubble bath, free and easy and uninhibited.  Maybe this is what people need to be happy, she thought.  A library carrel for everyone!

April at the library was one long, beautiful, bewildering dream.  A narrative of new beginnings with no thought or need of middles or endings.

One afternoon she arrived at the carrel and opened the door to find Matthew waiting, naked.  For just a moment, she considered closing the door and leaving, but she didn’t.  She went in, pulled the door shut behind her.  “What about our rules?” she asked.  “Life evolves,” Matthew said.  “You believe in Darwin, don’t you?”  He smiled.     Seducing a woman by citing Darwin?  Who could resist?  Within minutes her clothes were a bundle of rags on the floor.  She abandoned discretion.   They did everything. 

Later, seated on her stool at the reference desk, staving off alternating currents of panic and exhilaration, she knew something had changed.  Kissing had been fun, a game, a happy diversion, like picking wildflowers in the sun.  Sex—intercourse—was something else, two bodies fully joined, a geological conjugation.  Kate thought of pictures she’d seen of natural sandstone bridges in Utah’s Arches National Park.  Stone arches linking mountains.  When a man came inside you, something happened, something big that could not be dismissed easily.  The cells of your bodies yielded to instinct, the summons of geological time, like tides pulled by the tug of the moon.  Joined by that bridge of rigid flesh, both of you crossed over, shined a flashlight into darkness.  Kate decided President Clinton had been right after all.  Lecherous and undignified as Bill Clinton had been, he did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.   There was a difference.

At home with Aaron, April proved the cruelest month.  Kate found herself picking fights with him.   She criticized him for leaving his shirts thrown over the foot of the bed, for forgetting to buy milk for the children on the way home from work, as he’d promised.  Meals were tense, sharp words broken by prolonged silences.  She began to take long walks alone after supper, left him with both the dishes and the children’s homework.

They lived in a sprawling suburban subdivision west of the city, inappropriately and grandiosely named Fox Run Estates.  There were no estates, just large houses sided in various colors of plastic with SUVs parked on concrete driveways.  No foxes lived anywhere nearby—Aaron always joked the subdivision should have been named “The Foxes Ran.”  Walking along Bobwhite Lane (all the streets in the subdivision, Aaron noted, had been named for animals driven from the area by development), she passed an elderly man joylessly marching behind a self-propelled mower on his vibrant, chemically-enhanced lawn.  She smiled at him, and a thought came to her like a revelation.  Perhaps what she feared most of all was the future.  Aaron might become that man and she could become his wife, hidden away somewhere inside the house, watching a hundred-year-old Pat Sajak spin the Wheel of Fortune.  Would Aaron spend his twilight years meticulously tending his lawn as parts of his body slowly failed him?  Would menopause leave her angry and regretful, her body a copse of sagging flesh and brittle bones?  

She turned a corner, passed a mailbox hidden inside a giant rubber bass, its open mouth the door.  Banality lurked everywhere here, Aaron always said, the curse of the American middle-class.  Ironically, she was the one who’d wanted to buy a house in this neighborhood.  Aaron had hated its ostentatiousness, rued the thought of living among glib, overweight businessmen who wore black socks and sandals and voted Republican, detested the inane chatter about mutual funds at neighborhood parties.  He’d even made fun of the house they’d bought, imitated the rehearsed cry of awe the realtor exclaimed when she opened the front door and escorted them into the grand entry, its two-story foyer lit by a massive light fixture that looked like the lighted ball they drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. 

In spite of Kate’s cruelty, and her rejection of the principles and schedules that organized their daily life together, Aaron seemed to move steadfastly through each day and night.  He poured the energy he once gave to her into their children.  She’d arrive home from her after-dinner walks to find the kitchen clean and Aaron reading books aloud to Joshua, or helping Frieda with her math facts at the kitchen table.   He had also taken over tending the bird feeder and now kept it clean and filled in his usual responsible way, washing it in bleach water between fillings to keep disease from spreading bird to bird.  She noticed two other trees in their yard had sprouted new feeders, one a tube filled with thistle seed, often covered with goldfinches, and the other a hanging basket filled with suet.  New bird houses, too, swayed like ripe fruit from the crabapple tree, the mountain ash, the white oak at the far corner of their lot.

Moreover, when she arrived home from work, her Field Guide would sometimes be open on Aaron’s chair by the window, certain pages freshly dog-eared: house finch, downy woodpecker, white-throated sparrow, rose-breasted grosbeak.  Sometimes in the carrel Matthew would tell her the name of a new bird he’d just seen in the marsh, and a day or two later, shocked, she’d find the page for that bird marked by Aaron in her Field Guide.   She didn’t tell Matthew—they never talked about her home life—but it was the kind of thing she once would have raved about to Aaron, the irony and coincidence of it.  She missed not being able to tell him.  Over the weeks, their short silences became linked, grew into a longer chain of estrangement.

Then one night in late May, while she read in bed, silently, Aaron let out a long sigh. “Is there anything you need to tell me, Kate?” he asked, his back to her as she read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book so magnificent that not long ago she would have woken him to read sections of it aloud.

“No,” she responded, so clearly a lie it nearly caught in her throat.  Her stomach clenched.  “Why do you ask?”

He turned to her then, propped on one elbow, his face a mask of astonishment, his eyes brimming with tears.  “Why do I ask?” he repeated.

If she hadn’t had the book before her, she might have broken at the sight of his tears.  She flipped back a few pages.  She read a page to him about how Eskimos would kill wolves in winter merely by slathering the blades of sharpened knives with seal blubber and burying the hilts in the snow.  A hungry wolf would come by and start licking the blubber, cut his numbed tongue on the knife blade, and bleed to death.

“Is that what I’m doing by asking you for an answer?” Aaron responded.  “Am I licking a knife?”

She shook her head. “ Go to sleep,” she said.  She tried to ignore his gaze, returned her eyes to the page, but could not read.  He dropped to the bed, punched his pillow, turned his back to her.  She thought she felt the bed quivering, the subtle quaking of his stifled sobs transferred through the mattress to her own body.  She was shocked, really, at how sadness had filled the house right to the ceiling, how the necessity of dishonesty had so quickly undone them.  Their marriage, once so like a tended garden, in seven weeks had gone to weeds.

Of course, the end of many things comes without the joy and promise of  beginnings.  The following week, as she and Matthew put their clothes back on inside the carrel after the sixth time they’d made love—she’d kept track and was going to pull the plug after number seven, lucky seven—Matthew wouldn’t meet her eyes.  “What’s wrong?” she asked.  He stared at the wall and told her that he would be leaving for Colorado at the end of the semester, in a few days.  He had a summer job lined up with the U.S. Forest Service, clearing hiking trails in the Rocky Mountains.  He looked forward to the opportunity to see Western birds, to fish for cutthroat trout in the mountains. 

Kate smiled, took a deep breath.  “That’s great,” she said.  “You’ll be outside all the time.”  He nodded and smiled back, visibly relieved she had taken it so well.  But then he went too far.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out his carrel key, handed it to Kate.  She’d given it to him on a ribbon braided of green and blue floss and several strands of her own hair. 

She squeezed the key so tightly in her palm that it hurt. 

“What?” Matthew asked.

“So this is goodbye?  Just like that?” 

Matthew shrugged.  “What do you want me to say?”

“Go!” she said, pressing a hand into his chest, pushing him against the door.  He pointed at the floor, his face pale.  “My Birkenstocks,” he said.

She bent over and picked up his shoes, slammed them against his chest.  He put a hand over them, lifted his backpack over his shoulder, opened the door, and squeezed out of the carrel.  She closed the door behind him and sat on the desk in her bra and underpants, her bare feet on the chair.  All along the border of the desk were little pencil drawings of birds, dozens of them, pictures Matthew had made when he’d gotten anxious and arrived at the carrel long before their agreed-upon time.  She didn’t cry.  She didn’t want her eyes red, her face puffy, as she finished her shift at the reference desk.  She felt more angry than sad.  Disgusted with herself.  Behavior she’d once rationalized as personal development, as a stay against the creep of mortality, as fun, now seemed ridiculously stupid and trite.  The boy will have stories to tell in Colorado, she decided.  What people say about librarians, he’ll tell his co-workers.  It’s true.

Only he didn’t wait until he got to Colorado.  She began noticing young men sitting in the reference room, staring at her over copies of Maxim and Sports Illustrated.  The boldest ones even approached the reference desk, handed her slips of fake call letters—PLS FK ME 2—and asked if she’d help them find what they were looking for.  Humiliated and furious, she took the last two days of the semester off, rattled around the house alone after the kids left for school and Aaron drove off to work.  Sat staring out the window into their back yard, which now sported two huge, concrete bird baths, one of them gurgling with a small, electric fountain. 

So she was left alone in a mess of her own making, a nest she herself had soiled.  How are such things undone?  She had a husband no longer speaking to her, children who looked at her as if she were a stranger.  Neighbors who waved and smiled each evening even though she didn’t know their names. 

That first night she skipped her walk after supper.  Frieda and Joshua stared at her across the table as Aaron rinsed the dishes at the sink and loaded them into the dishwasher. 

“Shall we do your math tables?” Kate said, to Frieda.  Frieda glanced over at Aaron’s back, as if seeking permission, but Aaron did not turn away from the sink.

Frieda shrugged.  “Okay, I guess,” she said.  “I passed my plus nines last week.  I’m on minuses now.”

“Great!” Kate said.  She pulled the box of subtraction flashcards from Frieda’s backpack and held each one up until Frieda said the correct answer.  Joshua continued to stare at Kate for awhile, then went into the living room and turned on the television.  Aaron glanced at her occasionally as he wiped down the kitchen counters.

At bedtime, she sat next to Joshua on his bed and read to him from a book about dinosaurs.  One of the pages explained that modern birds were descended from dinosaurs, that paleontologists had found fossils of small dinosaurs that appeared to have been covered in feathers.  Furthermore, the record showed that a few species, such as Sandhill cranes, lived today with virtually the same bodies they’d had millions of years ago.  Aaron entered the room while she was reading and sat down at the foot of Joshua’s bed.  He put one hand on Josh’s foot, left it there until the book was finished.

The next night, after supper, Kate jumped up to do the dishes, and Aaron sat down with Frieda and her homework.   After she finished cleaning up the kitchen, Kate started a load of laundry.  She transferred it into the dryer a half-hour later, then emptied the warm clothes into a laundry basket.  Folding Aaron, Frieda, and Joshua’s socks, she felt a rush of sadness.  Pushing her hands into the warm, cotton tubes, pressing matching pairs together, placing them in appropriate piles, she was struck by how oddly comforting it seemed, given how beaten down she usually felt by her life’s many small repetitions.

For a week her life went on this way, normal at least in its external details.  She did the dishes, vacuumed the house, filled the tub for the children’s baths.  But people could look well and be wracked by illness, carrying tumors or viruses that slowly killed them.  She and Aaron continued to share a bed but slept without touching.

Kate returned to work—the college’s summer session had begun—but each day brought her additional worry and heartache:  she was late.  Two days late, not an emergency by any means, since her cycles weren’t strictly regular, but cause for some concern, since she had not always insisted Matthew wear a condom.  Once or twice—okay, twice—they’d gone without. 

Three days late.  Then four.  She found herself crying in the shower, in a bathroom stall at work, in the car on the way home.   Five.   Six.

Arriving home early on a Friday afternoon she found Aaron already there, sitting on the porch with a bottle of beer.  Waiting.  She wiped her eyes as she pulled into the garage.  She sat down beside him, the six inches of air between them, she felt, a galaxy.

“Hitting the hard stuff?” she asked.

He smiled and nodded.  “Father’s little helper,” he said.  He held the bottle out to Kate, offered her a swallow.  She declined.  “We’ve had a rough stretch lately,” he said.

Kate nodded.

From behind him, Aaron produced a book, crudely gift-wrapped in newspaper.  He put it on her lap.  “I got you something,” he said.  “Open it.”

The Atlas of Bird Migrations, a beautiful book, the cover a photograph of Sandhill cranes crossing the night sky before a red moon.  He told her he used to think birdwatchers were a bunch of obsessive old loons creeping through marshes with binoculars looped around their necks.  The last couple of months, he said, he learned differently.  Birds had saved him.

“Ironic,” she said. 

He nodded.   “I figured it might be.”  

Tears filled her eyes.  “Do you want to talk?”

“Not now,” he said.  “Not like this.”

That night, after they tucked the children in, she got into bed while Aaron showered.  Propped on pillows, she opened her new book and began to read.  Ten minutes later, her husband appeared in a white t-shirt and printed boxers, smelling clean, his hair wet.  He crawled into bed beside her, rubbed his fingertips gently along her arm.  Tears flooded to her eyes, a gossamer film between her and the words.  She wiped them, tried again, but emotion overcame her, and she lowered the open book to her lap as she sobbed.   She cried openly, the profusion of tears a full confession, a spilling of secrets.  Aaron gently took the book from her lap.  He brushed one hand over her head and down her hair, encouraged her to lie down, to close her eyes.  Still sniffling, her eyes and nose inflamed by tears, she did as he wished.

He opened The Atlas of Bird Migrations and began to read aloud, softly.  He read about arctic terns, once believed to be the species with the longest annual migration, a 22,000-mile trek between the polar icecaps.  Ninety percent of their lives were lived in the air.  Scientists had recently discovered, however, that another tiny bird, the sooty shearwater, traveled farther, an annual 46,000-mile figure-eight pattern over the Pacific Ocean, up to 680 miles a day.
 
Listening to the steady, reliable timbre of her husband’s voice, Kate felt her body relax.  She watched his lips move, saw shiny flecks of his teeth in the lamplight.  Flocks of brant, he read, staged one of the most incredible migrations of all waterfowl, traveling from the Arctic Circle to their wintering grounds in Baja, Mexico, in a single, non-stop 50-hour flight.  Most spectacular of all was the journey of the demoiselle cranes, who migrated over the Himalayan mountains, flying at icy, oxygen-thin altitudes up to 26,000 feet.  Many died from hunger, from exhaustion, from predation by eagles, but the survivors flew onward, eventually reaching nesting grounds on the steppes of Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine.
  
Aaron closed the book.  He got out of bed, opened the windows, stared briefly into the darkness.  The night sky was clear and spangled with stars, and the light of a half moon reflected off the trees.  Cool air blew in through the window screens, fluttered the open curtains.  After removing his clothes, Aaron lifted the covers, slid his warm body beside Kate’s.  With one hand he encircled a ripening breast, brushed his lips against the nape of her neck, a feathery kiss.

He tugged off her camisole and underpants, caressed her stomach with his fingertips, his mouth, his tongue.  Cold night air flowed across Kate’s skin.  She closed her eyes as Aaron’s body hovered over hers, and he entered her with nothing between them, and everything unknown and unspoken.  Kate felt the bed gently rocking, her body pressed against her husband’s, gliding over mountains, through the thinnest of air, returning home.

  

An English professor at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, Ron Rindo lives with his wife, Jenna, and five children on five acres of wooded land in Pickett, Wisconsin, where they raise Shetland sheep. His most recent book is Love in an Expanding Universe (New Rivers Press, 2005).
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