Step One: Get a cage and some bird food from a pet store.
Maybe she found it funny that I was an English teacher. Maybe, she was like one of those elderly ladies who, instead of 200 cats, had 200 birds sitting in her basement. Either way, the bird didn’t come with an instruction manual, or in a wrapped box. It was sold online by Bitmouse, on Holiday Realty.
My townhouse had been abandoned for months before I inherited it from some long-lost uncle, the townhouse residing in a strange town with a small school building surrounded by green shrubbery. The brownstone was extremely cold, and though I’d had layered myself with blankets every night, it’d done little to suppress my shivering. Outside, Mauve had been preparing for doomsday, and I didn’t want to venture out into her territory, but I had found myself staring into the honey-dipped sky that day, which was when the bird had arrived.
The Holiday Realty advertised houses that were listed during the holiday season, and the rest of the year, even though if they advertised houses in all seasons, the name “Holiday Realty” didn’t make much sense. In fact, hardly anything made sense here. Somehow, I had signed myself up for a subscription, because, when your town has only one school, terrible internet services, no Starbucks, is cut off from the real world, and your neighbor is preparing for doomsday, you’d want to move.
“Dream high!” My mother lectured.
“Dream high!” My father stated, “and you’ll find your true calling.”
Dream high, and you’ll find yourself in Dale Harbor, Michigan.
“Jules! The stars have aligned yet again! Twice this year, I'll tell you!” I had nodded curtly at Mauve, trying to take in all the odds and ends sprawled on her meager front lawn.
“Hey, Mauve.” I had spoken in a bitter tone, watching the woman hobble about, tossing eggs into the air, each one splattering on my porch.
“Hey, hey yourself. Better take this. I won it from Bitmouse on the radio show at Holiday Realty last night, but you don’t need no belongings in the afterlife hon.” I didn’t bother pointing out the double negative and had inspected the bird, which had been flitting in the palm of my hand. A mockingbird.
To be frank, I hadn’t realized the bird was a mockingbird until I’d driven to Holiday Realty’s main office. Everything was close to one another in Dale Harbor, except the harbor and the rest of civilization. And, of course, I was a 5th grade English teacher, so I couldn’t have known anything about the bird’s identity anyhow.
So, that was how I ended up sitting on a fake, pink leather couch, the bird still cupped in my hands, earning me awkward stares from everybody at Holiday Realty. Holiday Realty was a realty company, and they did not specialize in the care and hospitality of mockingbirds, but I was here anyway. After all, I had never owned a pet, and there were no pet stores in this town.
“Okay, so this here is a mockingbird. Maam, are you aware that this is not a pet store” I didn’t respond to the woman at the counter, hoping that if I stared at the clock long enough, it would hypnotize me, and my presence would be lost amidst Dale Harbor forever. “Even if I could help you, we don’t carry many food items either. Would you like to take a look at some houses?” The woman asked, biting a fingernail.
Two hours later, I exited the small department store down the road, a plastic bag glued to my side, filled with packing peanuts, me thinking about wishes.
I could’ve left the bird by a gutter or handed it back to Mauve, but I couldn’t leave some living creature to die, and Mauve was still engaging in her doomsday rituals. The bird would also not leave my shoulder since it had flitted from my hand. Even if I wished it to go away, reality would find me. It would hunt me down and bear down curses upon my back. Wishes weren’t shooting stars. Reality doesn’t do business with wishes.
Step Two: Come up with a name for the thing
“What’s its name?”
I had woken up to the quiet silence of my temporary home. Surprisingly, the mockingbird was not singing. It was perched atop my bed, scratching the bedposts. The bird hadn’t needed any sort of habitat/cage, and it did its own business somewhere I didn’t look in the house, which didn’t matter; the whole brownstone smelled funky no matter what the bird decided to do.
“What’s its name?” He asked again, bringing my attention back to where I was now, half a mile from the house across from a man I didn’t know. I tried to sidestep his large, bony frame, but he encompassed the whole sidewalk.
“Um-I don’t have a name for it yet.” But the man wasn’t satisfied with my response. The bird stayed still and unmoving.
“Are you doing anything for the holidays? We can have some tea-it would be my pleasure.” Suddenly, I had forgotten why I was coming down this road in the first place and figured I could use some tea, so I nodded.
The strange man’s name was Dale, which was ironic to me in many ways. He lived by the harbor, and there was a roaring fireplace inside the cottage. I was beginning to wonder if everyone in Dale County had a roaring fireplace and enjoyed fishing, getting a glimpse of the fishing rods hung carefully over Dale’s fireplace. Dale kept his eyes locked on the bird, tapping his finger to his chin thoughtfully.
“Do you know of Mauve...the Mauve two blocks from here?”
The mug of tea warmed my skin, watching Dale’s mouth curve upward. “She gave you that bird, didn’t she?” I nodded, then looked out the window at the desolate blue-black of the pond scum, where the cottage rested upon. Inside, there was a fire and a kitchen and a bird, with a man sitting on a pullout couch. It was at this moment that I realized I had never been to the harbor, or walked the thin boardwalk down to the edges of the water. Dale seemed to notice my gaze out the window and opened the door to the harbor.
“Come with me.” He spoke somewhat solemnly, reaching for my hand. Come with me. So I did.
The sunset had already begun as we stepped outside, the glowing orb setting into the inky illuminating sky. At the edges of the water, I dipped my palm into the scum, letting the bird explore the water curiously, and Dale followed. The glowing light that had once guided the Earth now gave way to a starlit sky.
“Tomorrow, fishing?” I gestured to the murky stuff, getting up to brush the dirt off my jeans.
“I’ll warn you in advance; even though this is a harbor, you won’t find much fish.” We laughed to nobody in particular, then set off our own separate ways. The bird cooed, and I sighed, the openness of breath filling my chest. The only thing we hadn’t done was come up with a name for the little bird.
Step Three: Sing it a song
A week later, the mockingbird had not sung a note. Dale had tried playing it music, but nothing came like it was drowned by the words it was meant to sing. Today, I watched a band set up in the middle of the sidewalk, barely able to push the drums on the curbside. The bird did not sing. It hadn’t moved from my shoulder the whole time.
“Need any help with that?” An older man grunted a harsh yes, then motioned to the drums.
“Call Tasha. She can help you lift it.” Right at that moment, a young girl wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt emerged from the back, offering me a friendly wave. I barely knew anyone in this part of Dale county, especially the few visitors who came to play in the streets. Anyone who came to this part of town wouldn’t find anything but dust mites and a murky harbor to sing to. Or maybe, they just needed somebody to listen.
“Nice bird you got there.” Tasha pet the bird affectionately, then moved to unpack her microphone. “I can see you have a mockingbird. They’re great singers…” She pointed to the microphone, and etched on its side was a bird cooing into the moonlit sky.
“Yeah...but it doesn’t sing.” Tasha didn’t seem surprised by this and instead began warming up her voice.
“Of course dear, there’s always the possibility that it doesn’t have anyone that’s ready to listen yet.” She sounded older, wiser, and understanding, but the bird didn’t sing. I thought back to my brownstone, and that day at Holiday Realty before I met Dale, when I looked at some houses. Could this bird already know the news I wasn’t ready to tell him? Slowly, I sat down on the pavement, right in front of the band, and listened.
Not many people were out, but the ones who came stayed. And I listened, and I clapped, and I felt as though I should care. But Holiday Realty could be a chance. Or a chance I didn’t want to take.
“Thank you,” I told the girl after the show, also stopping by the old man to wish him safe travels. Tasha handed me a flyer, then waved until she was lost in the dense fog separating me from the real world. Reality would never be able to fulfill all the wishes I had. Wishes, they were lost with the shooting stars I dreamed of in my youth. The bird and I, we walked alone into the night, like nothing had changed. Because nothing had changed.
And that’s when the mockingbird began to sing.
It was soft, and it was true, and it was a song I knew. We sang together, the bird and I, and I remembered what it was like to feel at home. What it was like to raise a pet. To raise a mockingbird. And when I reached the doorstep of the brownstone, Mauve was waiting for me, knitting on the porch steps.
“Look up.” She ordered, not looking up from the knitting. “Look up Jules.”
I looked up, and the bird did too.
It was a shooting star, and it was here to stay.