The bare bones of the story.
My daughter found an ill or injured goldfinch beneath the bird feeder. We contacted a bird rehabilitator. We did what we could. The bird died.
That’s all a story is, at it’s most basic. Event, reaction, action–some jumble of the three. Even those where it seems nothing is happening, somewhere. somehow, there’s a shift, a window opening or closing, a hand tightening to hold back a memory and failing, succeeding.
Events. Reactions. Actions. Found a bird. Tried to tend. Bird died. In the strict sense, that is my story.
Only it’s not. It’s lacking a few things. Yes, it details a few choices that suggest one set of characters over another. We have a bird feeder. We stopped for the bird. We called someone else about the bird. Those decisions suggest at character, but the world is full of people who would try to rescue a bird. What would make this my story?
Shall we start with some setting? Something like this?
The January cold had returned. During the walk up the hill, through snow frozen into layers so brittle that no one could be heard over their crackle, the air had been pleasant. Now, as the dark began to settle in, it turned bitter. Black shells littered the ground beneath the bird feeder they’d hung a month ago, evidence of the crowds of birds and squirrels that came during the day.
My characters, Jennifer and Daughter and Bird, now have a landscape of sorts. I could add more details, their home, for example–yurt, cabin, McMansion, castle. By omitting that detail, I’m making assumptions that the reader will fill in a house in the woods, instead of a fourth floor apartment, or the remnants of a crashed spaceship.
We also now know that Bird will be found in the cold. Bitter cold, to be precise. Bird will not be a fledgling stranded on the ground while trying to figure out her wings.
What more should I add? Setting gives something, but not enough.
The children kept their winter things on and left to walk Dog almost immediately. Once upon a time, Dog would have dragged them up and down the hill and through the woods. Now she moved slowly, arthritis and age weighing down her every step. Each day, Jennifer whispered a little prayer to Dog, asking her to stay with them longer, to not leave so soon on the heels of the cats, the horses, but she knew the end would come before long.
A little something about the emotional landscape of the characters, to match the physical. Shall we continue?
Daughter returned almost immediately. Jennifer’s first thought was about Dog, but the words that tumbled from Daughter’s mouth had nothing to do with her. “There’s a bird under the feeder. I think it’s sick. It’s hiding in the stone wall right now.”
For a moment, Jennifer wanted nothing more than to say no. “It will be fine,” she would say, knowing that the dark was coming, and with it the weasels and the owls and the foxes. She didn’t want to invite Death into the house again, not with Daughter there.
But she put on Son’s boots and followed Daughter out into the cold.
In theory, the physical and emotional landscapes should be working at this point to provide some tension. In a story without an obvious villain, unless Death counts, there still must be tension, right? Without that, we have found a hurt bird, tried to tend, it died. Tension is the system of tendons and ligaments and muscle that make the story move, thereby moving us.
At first glance it looked as though the bird could be fine. A little cold, a little stunned, perhaps. There had been a hawk in the yard today. Had this little one had a close call? Would a good night’s sleep make everything better?
Then she saw the labored breathing, the way it sat fluffed up, alone in the fading light, all the others gone to roost. “Oh, little bird,” she said.
Are those questions necessary? Perhaps not. Perhaps those are the sort of things I write in and later cut, once I understand everything the character was thinking.
Again, the longing to walk away, to tell Daughter that it would be fine and let the night take care of it. As she shifted, the bird flew, and she all but clapped her hands. A short flight, away, and then back again, behind her, the sound of its wings so close she didn’t dare move.
“It’s between your feet, Mom.”
This isn’t a big story. This isn’t one where the Bird Ambulance will pull up, sirens tweeting, and Bird Heroes will jump out and push Jennifer and Daughter aside, telling them that everything will be okay. This is just a mother and child in the dark with a dying bird. It holds your attention only as long as the characters do.
“Oh, little bird,” Jennifer said again. She crouched, slowly, the bird cocking its head and watching her. Perhaps this story will have a happy ending, she thought. Perhaps this will be one of the ones that ends with opening a box and watching a bird fly off into the morning light.
It flew again, this time to the front step of the house, where it sat, hunched, its breathing obvious even from fifteen feet away. No, this bird would not live, but Jennifer would do what she could. “See if we have a small box,” she said to Daughter.
This story could very quickly become overburdened with detail. It is not a how-to manual for caring for injured wildlife. The readers have already been warned, in so many ways, that Bird will not survive. The payoff is in the characters, not in explanations of phone calls or spaces cleared of cats.
If we changed the players, made the bird an owl hit by a car, or a rare hummingbird washed north in a storm, or an albatross, if we made Jennifer and Daughter innocent of death, or indifferent to birds…all of those would set the story on a different track. We started out in the switchyard of possibility, but at this point, as character and action become linked, the ending becomes certain.
The bird died in the box Daughter had filled with an old turtleneck that no longer fit. They examined it, the tiny claws, the closed wings. “We gave it what we could,” Jennifer told Daughter. “A quiet warm place to die.”
Not that she could comfort herself with that fact. For all she knew, the bird had died of shock because she had handled it. No, the bird was dying even when it had flown, even when it sat between her feet and struggled to breathe. The bird had come to them to die, and she couldn’t help but wonder if even birds fear the thought of waiting alone for Death in the dark.
Anthropomorphizing. But minds crave stories, crave connections. And grieving children long for answers.
As they snuggled together that night, Daughter crying quietly, Jennifer tried to find the right pieces, the ones that could take away the sadness. All the sadness, all the goodbyes.
“I know it seems like a lot,” she said. “It is. My life is much longer than yours right now, and in it there have been terribly sad things. I know how that feels. There have also been amazing things, like you being here with me. And a whole lot of days that are just days, bits of happy and sad and nothing much, all rolled together. All those things, they help us figure out who we are. They help us know how strong we are, and how much we can love, and how brave we can be. We get to feel it all.”
And the words seemed like so little, but they were all she knew to say.