by Dayna Patterson
Dayna Patterson is the author of Titania in Yellow (Porkbelly Press, 2019) and If Mother Braids a Waterfall (Signature Books, 2020). She is the founding editor-in-chief of Psaltery & Lyre, a former managing editor of Bellingham Review, poetry editor for Exponent II, and a co-editor of Dove Song: Heavenly Mother in Mormon Poetry.
Or right-click to download the audio file here: Fledglings
After Susan lost her 20-year-old cat Isabelle, she befriended a seagull. Every morning, he watched from a safe distance as she poured handfuls of hazelnuts or sunflower seeds or macadamia nuts onto the cement windowsill that adjoined the slanted roof of Old Main. Officially, feeding wildlife was discouraged on campus, but Susan either didn’t know or didn’t care. Soon she had a name for both her bird and his slender girlfriend: Sydney and Sabine.
Days when Susan took vacation, Sydney made himself a nuisance by repeatedly tapping at the window, demanding to be fed. (Sabine was never that brazen.) When we just chuckled and turned our backs, Sydney would release a sonorous cry that drowned out our phone calls and ruined our concentration. We’d rush at the window, and he’d squawk and fly off—for a few minutes. Then he’d return, persistent, cheeky. With mingled fondness and annoyance, we put up with the quirks of this brash bird.
In spring, Susan noticed a small grey fluff peeping its head over the edge of the roof. Keeping with the tradition of S names, she dubbed it Squirt. Slowly, it began to venture out, its downy cloud eventually giving way to the speckled plumage of adolescent gulls. Next to its full-grown parents, Squirt looked downright wretched. I disparaged the mud-brown feathers, black beak and feet next to Syndey’s bright white and yellow-orange. “Well, it’s a defense mechanism,” Susan responded. “The darker colors help it blend into its surroundings, protecting it from predators.”
I immediately saw she was right. Squirt’s dark feathers meshed with the dull roof shingles, rotting leaves, and mossy patches—as if its pubescent garb was a kind of invisibility cloak, shielding it from a world it wasn’t yet able to take on. The dusty colors yelled, “Nothing to see here! Move along, you meat-eaters!”
Every summer, we take advantage of a local Shakespeare festival. Amateur dramatists perform in the outdoor Blackrock Amphitheatre, a cozy space with an impressive dark cliff as a backdrop. In past years, we’d been careful to choose comedies—Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream—prepping our daughters in advance by reading Tales from Shakespeare. This year, however, the repertoire is hailed as the “Summer of Blood” and offers us slim choice: Titus Andronicus and King Lear.
I think of Shakespeare’s earliest known play, Lavinia’s rape and dismemberment followed by the Sweeney Todd revenge plot. By comparison, an old man sliding into madness feels subdued. On the short car trip, I discuss the bones of the plot with the girls (having left Tales at home), confident they’ll be able to handle a fractious family’s squabbling and demise, certain they’re mature enough. Something nibbles at the back of my mind, but I don’t let it trouble me.
Until the end of Act III when I remember about the eye-gouging.
Gloucester, in this production played by a woman, is cornered by Lear’s daughter Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall. They accuse Gloucester of treason. We watch as servants strap her to a chair and tilt her backwards against a table. She thrashes and cries mercy for what seems like ages. I prickle in my seat, acutely aware of my daughters. I silently hope there isn’t too much gore, but the Duchess has been tilted back so long that my hope dies.
And indeed, when the servants cant her chair forward and step back to reveal their handiwork, fake blood rivers down her cheeks, drenching her white blouse. And what’s more: there’s an eyeball, dangling from its fleshy cord.
The audience gasps. My daughters go rigid in their seats. One of them blanches, shrinking into my side. It’s okay, I hurriedly whisper. Remember, it’s just acting. That’s not real blood. As if to counter my efforts, a stream of red jets across the stage as Cornwall stabs a servant who tries to intervene. Then Cornwall holds Gloucester’s other eyeball aloft before dashing it to the ground and grinding it with the heel of his boot.
It was a week before my 11th birthday when I had my first period, I tell them, trying to walk that fine line between too little and too much. I was so excited and proud, I say. I held up my panties so my stepmom could see the drop of dried blood. Too much?
For some women, it doesn’t hurt at all, but because you’re my daughters, it’ll probably hurt like hell. Too much.
I explain about PMS and extra pimples, heat packs and ibuprofen. Never on an empty stomach, I warn. If you don’t have any pads or tampons, you can makeshift a pad with toilet paper. I show them how, twisting it around two fingers. Any questions?
As our Friday night ritual, we snuggle together for an episode of Star Trek. The title flashes on the screen: “Violations.” A few minutes into the show, Deanna Troi is prone on the floor, pinned there in an involuntary memory of Commander Riker. In a confusing blur he’s replaced by a telepath who recently boarded the Enterprise. Throughout the episode, this alien, Jev, proceeds to “mind-rape” several members of the crew, forcing people to recall uncomfortable memories and warping them. The violation always results in the victim falling into a coma for several days.
I squirm through the episode, occasionally making eye contact with my husband. We both grimace a little, but neither of us feels the discomfort warrants turning off the TV. At breakfast in the morning, we decide to make it the subject of our next Family Night lesson.
What do you do when someone touches you and you don’t want them to? he asks.
Say ‘please stop,’ they answer.
Okay, good. Yes, you can ask them to stop.
My youngest chimes in, Sometimes when you’re tickling me and I say stop, Mom, you don’t.
That’s true, I concede. I will try to be better.
My husband continues, What if when you say ‘please stop,’ they don’t stop? What can you do then?
Blank stares. Well, if you say ‘please stop,’ they should stop, my oldest answers.
Yes, we reply. They should, but what if they don’t?
We eventually drill down to the answers we need them to voice: yell, run away, find a teacher or adult. And we wade deeper, reminding them of Deanna Troi, how she punched, kicked, clawed her attacker.
Go for the eyes, the throat, or the groin, I hear my husband say. As the words leave his mouth, I’m miles underwater. Everything blurs, darkens, spins a little like the air is liquid and I’ve forgotten how to breathe. I don’t want to live in a world where my husband says these things. My heart is whooshing blood to my head. I sense my daughters, peach lights in a haze.
It reminds me of the first time we pulled out the board game Clue to play as a family, then realized we had to explain murder and murder weapon.
How would you even kill someone with a rope? they asked. Would you rope burn them to death?
Except this isn’t a game. I don’t want to live in a world where I’m relieved that we’re explaining about predators and absolutely terrified that we have to.
We’re wrapping up the lesson when my oldest tentatively declares, That probably won’t happen to us, though.
In “Good Bones,” dubbed the official poem of 2016, Maggie Smith writes: “The world is at least / fifty percent terrible / and that’s a conservative / estimate.” She tries to keep this from her children, as I’m trying to keep it from mine.
Right, we intone. I’m swallowing back the bile of college rape stats, the necessary bite of #MeToo narratives, the face of Ashley (age 13) under the words Have you seen me? My own grim experience.
Right, we say again. For emphasis. Remember the buddy system. Remember: eyes, throat, groin.
I recall the end of Smith’s poem. Speaking of her children, she says:
. . . I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
After this difficult conversation, after walking them through one of the shittiest rooms in the shithole, part of me wants to clasp my girls tight, apologize for bringing them into a world that is at least half terrible.
In one of my favorite scenes from King Lear, Gloucester’s son guides his blinded father to the cliffs of Dover. Gloucester is suicidal, ready to jump. His eyes are gone, his king seems doomed, and he believes both of his sons are lost to him. He is unaware that the man leading him is his faithful Edgar, feigning madness to protect himself. As they reach the edge, Edgar describes in detail what he sees below, that the crows appear as small as beetles, the fishermen as mice. Then he says:
Give me your hand: you are now within a foot
Of the extreme verge: for all beneath the moon
Would I not leap upright. (4.5.25–27)
Gloucester pays the man off, waits to hear him leave, then with a final curse for the world and a blessing for Edgar, he allows his body to fall.
But Edgar has tricked him.
There is no cliff. Only level ground. He has tricked him in order to save him.
Edgar has the advantage over me. I am as unable to see as the blinded Gloucester whether or not the cliff is real. Yet, as a parent, I need to describe the peril in enough detail that it seems real.
Later, my husband and I worry. Did we say the right thing? Too much? Too little? Is eyes, throat, groin really the best we can do? We half wonder if we’ll get a call from the school reporting that one of our kids has broken someone’s nose.
Maybe my girls will be lucky enough to elude cliffs altogether. Maybe there will be only potholes, short drops, tumbles after which they’ll land on their feet. Mild bruises. A broken bone. I don’t have the eyes for that kind of seeing. I must proceed searchingly, saying not so much that I freeze them with fear. Saying not too little that they move without caution.
But perhaps I’ve gotten the analogy all wrong. Perhaps life itself is the cliff and living in this world is to feel one’s bare toes curl off the inevitable and all-too-real drop. By birthing children into a perilous existence, I’ve already placed them at the “extreme verge,” a strong wind at their backs.
Exhibit A, 1992: 7th grade social studies. Black and white reels of Nagasaki. The baby’s eye melted to pus in its socket. Fall.
Exhibit B, 1998: 12th grade trip to D.C. Four hours at the Holocaust Museum. The piles and piles of shoes. Fall.
Exhibit C, 1991: 6th grade lunch. First boyfriend sends his buddies over with mouths full of branding irons. Their words sear into my brain. Fall.
Exhibit D, 2016: 23rd grade family vacation. A mother-beggar in old-town Córdoba. The black, sweaty curls of her toddler. The raised cup of her whimper. Fall.
And yet—there must be an and yet—with all the falling comes potential for something else. Deepened empathy. Increased motivation for advocacy. The kind of growth that painful experience can evoke. I would never wish for the removal of Exhibits A–D from my memory’s museum. Each downward plunge was a pivotal moment, a metamorphosis. Instead of shrinking from life’s manifold cliffs, I can teach my girls about ripcords and parachutes, how to hold one’s body as it falls, how to watch out for others. In other words, I can embolden them as they fledge.
1) (of a young bird) develop wing feathers that are large enough for flight.
- bring up (a young bird) until its wing feathers are developed enough for flight.
2) provide (an arrow) with feathers.
mid 16th century: from the obsolete adjective fledge ‘ready to fly.’ Related to Dutch vlug ‘quick, agile.’
Guillemots have fascinating fledging behavior. The parents nest on rocky cliff outcroppings where their nestlings are protected from predators. Below them is a maw of jagged stone, and just beyond that swells the dark blue ocean. When it comes time to fly, adults call to the fledgling from the water. Others will even nudge it to the edge. The fledgling must tap into some deep instinctual reserve to fling itself into the air for its first flight. Its parents rush to its side, wingtip to wingtip, as it half-glides, half-flaps to the safety of the waves.
My daughters are fledging.
I am fledging my daughters.
When Gloucester wakes on the ground, Edgar puts on a new voice, greets him as a survivor, as indeed, he is. His attempted self-harm has failed:
Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,
So many fathom down precipitating,
Thou’dst shiver’d like an egg: but thou dost breathe;
Hast heavy substance; bleed’st not; speak’st; art sound.
. . .
Thy life’s a miracle. (4.5.49–52, 55)
On the first day back to school, I make breakfast burritos with a generous handful of sharp cheddar and bacon crumbles. I set the plates on the table. In my peripheral vision, I note my youngest’s bra strap peeking out from under her short sleeve. My oldest rejects the word “bra,” referring to it instead as a third of a tank top. So be it. I wet a hairbrush and smooth and smooth her stubborn cowlick. It refuses to be tamed, poking out like an unruly feather from her crown.
Before she slips out the door, I slide the take-home questionnaire into her backpack. One question reads: Describe your child in four words.
Only four? I wonder if this is a test to see if I can count, if I can limit myself to only four, if I can help protect the teacher’s limited resources of time and focus by reigning in my praise, if I am capable of mustering an objective assessment of my own child. I struggle with this question far longer than the others. I try on possibilities:
Maker. Writer. Baker. Leader. (Too rhymey. Too abstract. Too hobby-oriented.)
Marches to own drum. (Too cliché. Too abbreviated.)
Fragile: handle with care. (Too needy, directive, and possibly not true.)
I consider paraphrasing a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem: a dappled thing: swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim. (Too abstract, again. Too lofty and erudite. Too many words.) I decide I don’t care. I ink them in the last blank space.
No part of me apologizes to the half terrible world for bringing into it these bright, gangly, inquisitive, awkward, soulful, and sassy daughters.
I imagine in the near future, Squirt will be identical to his dad. But then, I’m no bird expert. Maybe she will be identical to her mom. Her flight feathers will grow in, and after three winters, she’ll lose her dark plumage. Her beak and feet will gradually lighten, like a sunrise, from black’s camouflage to yellow’s loud brilliance. Perhaps Sydney and Sabine have already taken her to the roof’s edge, perched above the rain gutter and a five-story drop, instinctively knowing she was ready, that she wouldn’t plummet and break her neck on the red brick below. And perhaps, like her parents, she will learn to seek—no, beg—no, demand what she needs from the half beautiful world, waltzing up to a window, rapping unabashed at the glass.