I came home after work to my daughters bubbling with excitement over someone they called Featherfly. On our porch was an antique birdcage, complete with a small Javanese sparrow.
We live in Indonesia, a beautiful island country filled with lush trees, rice paddies, mountains, and exotic fauna. It is also filled with birds in cages. They hang from the lowliest houses to the fanciest mansions. Birdcages sit perched on the back of motorbikes, being delivered through wild traffic. Markets in town are dedicated to selling birds, and the pet stores in the malls are full of caged avian. Bird song is a part of every track at the local reflexology shop; the bird is the symbol for Indonesian tourism.
Our nanny had found the little bird on the pavement, and because our neighborhood is teeming with cats, she rescued it. Once my daughters saw it in the cage she borrowed to keep it safe, they fell in love. They were also sure it was theirs forever.
“Mom will let us keep it! She always said we could keep a bird if we caught one,” my five-year-old claimed.
As a child, when my mom got sick of my brother and me playing – probably fighting – in the house, she would give us each a salt shaker and send us outside.
“If salt gets on a bird’s wing, it won’t be able to fly. If you catch a bird, you can keep it.”
My brother and I would rush outside, each armed with a salt shaker. We’d plan elaborate attacks on birds. Sometimes we’d sneak up on them; sometimes we’d rush them. Other times we hang out in trees, waiting for birds to swoop under us as we imagined them falling to the ground, unable to fly due to the weight of the salt. However, no matter how what we tried, no matter how fast we ran, holding the red, tin salt shaker up high and tossing salt at any bird we saw, the salt grains never quite got on the bird’s wings. We’d come back into the house with our cheeks red, out of breath, warm even in the cold autumn nights. Our hands would be empty, but we’d be filled with talk and plans for our bird once we caught him. We’d have a big cage and would take turns having the bird in our room. We’d name him Cheepers.
It wasn’t until I was in high school physics that I realized I’d never get a bird this way.
Now, as a mother, I have handed the saltshaker off to young hands that need to be outside.
“If you catch it, you can keep it,” I’ve told them.
Here’s the saltshaker and off you go. You can catch a bird. You can control nature and stop flight with these white grains.
As they play, planning ways to get close to birds, I’ve enjoyed the half-hour’s peace. I’ve enjoyed listening to their plots and stories of how the birds just barely got away. I’ve enjoyed the play-by-play of their bird stalking when they come back in empty-handed except for the salt shakers.
But, I don’t want to own a bird. I don’t want to have a thing of flight sitting in a cage. I don’t want to see a “thing with feathers,” so close to Emily Dickinson’s hope, trapped behind wood and wire. Maya Angelou’s analogy is too apt for me, and as I try to raise my daughters to think they can be anything and go anywhere, how can I have a trapped wild thing, even if it is in a beautifully painted prison?
My five-year-old is so excited about the bird, though.
“Isn’t it cute? See how pretty it is?”
It’s not really that cute. It’s brown and white and petite, nothing like the exotic colors of other birds. It chirps; it does not sing. It is a sparrow, an ordinary bird that is not usually kept – even here in the land of birdcages.
“We can keep it right, Mom? Can’t we?”
My youngest’s face shines with optimism. The older one is more hesitant. She remembers all the discussions it took to get fish. She does not have the hope that her sister has.
“You told us if we caught a bird we could keep it, remember?” says the five-year-old. She looks at me with the look of someone who expects adults to keep their word.
I begin the task of breaking down this expectation. We talk about how the bird is a baby, and how babies need their moms, like how she needs me. We talk about how wonderful it would be to fly, and how hard it would be to give that up. We talk about how the bird needs special things that it can only get in nature. We talk about how when we move, the bird would need to be taken care of by someone else.
“Why did you tell me that then, Mom?” she chokes out, tears streaming down her face. “Why tell me that I could keep a bird if I caught it? Why give me the salt?”
I don’t know how to tell her the truth.
Can I tell her, “I wanted a rest from you and remembered my mom sighing at the kitchen sink, handing me a salt shaker”?
Can I tell her, “I told you that story, dear, because my mom told me that story and her mom told her that story. Now that my mom is gone, I want to carry on the tradition”?
Can I say, “Sometimes I miss my mom so much that I wish I could fly to her, but doing the things she did – like entertaining you with the dreams of bird-ownership – makes her feel a bit closer”?
Or should I say, “My dear one, it’s so important to have not-truths in our lives because they make magic seem possible. The idea that a grain of salt can stop flight is a dream I want you to believe. I want you to think you can go against physics and nature and make anything happen, even if all you have is a saltshaker. I want you to believe you can do anything.”
“Why did you tell me that? Why?” she asks again.
All I can do is pull her close, wrap my arms around her, feel her tears on my neck, and tell her I don’t know but she can’t keep the bird.
Andrea Cox Christen packed up her family and their nine suitcases and flew to Indonesia, leaving behind her much-beloved Montana. In search of adventure, she now teaches and writes on the island of Java. Though she loves the scenery and people of Indonesia, she misses snowstorms and wearing flannel.