On the Love of Wings

There is a small drawing, done in black sharpie, on the marble hearth just above my fireplace. It is almost unnoticeable – almost – as shortly after the artist created it I worked hard with hair spray and a sponge to scrub it out. Besides, it is nestled inside the permanent brown of soot which still lingers on the wall, making it just a bit less obvious than it might otherwise be. Shortly after my horror at discovering it, the thought occurred to me that one day it might actually remind me, in some poignant, nostalgic way, of this new era in our lives just then beginning. The thought might have been part sour grapes, part truth, however it has indeed come to pass that I now look with very different eyes upon that little inky transgression.

The little image is almost a fish, almost a bird. It is a creature morphing, rather, from one to the next. Elihu drew this the week we moved here, when he was five. At that time he was just coming to the end of his fish phase. There was a time, back in Dekalb, when he would beg me to buy a whole frozen fish at the market just so he could see it up close for himself. He was fascinated. On a lonely weekend in November, when it was just the two of us (as it was nearly all of the time) I bought him his fish. He spent two days on the floor of the kitchen playing with one almost frozen lake trout. I remember the faint odor of fish that lingered in the room all weekend. I was both disgusted and intrigued. My child was obsessed; in his play he mimicked the fish’s movement in the water, pulled out the fins admiringly, posited how his mouth might have opened…. did a fish blink? he’d asked. He was immersed in the study of his fish. And this is how my son has always been. Whatever it is that fascinates him draws him into deep, contemplative study. That had been the year of the fish. I still have dozens of fish drawings in a tiny child’s hand. Fish of every kind and from every angle. When we moved here to New York he was still a child of fish, yet in that one image, things were beginning to change. Its pectoral fins are unusually large; the fish appears to be flying. In fact, the creature almost seems bird-like.

Elihu is very fond of flapping his arms. At the age of eight it’s only just becoming a little suspect. If one didn’t really know the context – his unquenchable love of birds, of all things flight-related – one might begin to wonder if the kid might be behaviorally-challenged in some way. In a moment of great joy, he will beat his hands mightily upon his chest and, well, crow. For no apparent reason he might lift one leg up and spread his arms wide, bending forward slightly. For those who don’t know, I can tell you that he is in that moment a crane, a heron or some sort of stilt-legged water bird. Most often though, he simply flaps his arms. He will pick things up and flap them, holding them close to his face to feel the resulting wind. If it’s an impressive result, he’ll have to show me. He’ll wave the object beside my cheek and look at me, his face tense with happy expectancy; did I feel that wind? Did I think it was a lot of wind? When I come to wake him in the morning, he’ll open his eyes and begin to tell me of his new idea for a way to make himself wings that will actually work this time. He knows the story of Icarus well, and da Vinci’s contraptions too, but he is undaunted. He must be able to fly. He must. It is almost heartbreaking to watch this boy succumb to gravity.

Last night we had the perfect night out. After making calls and knocking on doors, we finally found a kind neighbor who agreed to close in our birds after nightfall so that we could go out. (When one has domestic birds who live outside, one cannot leave them until the birds themselves have roosted and can then be closed safely in. An open coop door after sunset means dinner for local wildlife to be sure. This situation poses many frustrating logistical hitches throughout the year.) After a fine start to Elihu’s Anchiornis costume for Halloween (an ancient, feathered dinosaur) we were off to see The Big Year! Starring Steve Martin (beloved man in my eyes, plus of course, the banjo thing, not to mention the writing thing, oh and the being brilliant… and funny), Jack Black and Owen Wilson, it is about these three men on a year-long quest to acquire as many bird sightings as possible. The men set out across the country to discover these birds, each with his own personal back story of conflict and self-discovery. I flipped when I saw the movie was coming out and I made an effort to see it soon as I didn’t see any way this one was staying in the theaters very long. And although it’s not a terribly funny or memorable movie, (however there are moments – like the one my son first quoted to his father in his re-telling: Steve Martin has a deadpan bit about being funny) the topic alone, and the images of birds to be seen makes it something of a miracle must-see for us. Never in my wildest dreams could I have guessed that one day there would be a movie made for the big screen about birding. Glad we caught it, cuz I don’t think it’ll last the weekend. But heaven for us! Heaven for my beloved son! We were two of four people in the theater for the movie, and it was just we two who stayed til the very end. Seven hundred and fifty-five species of birds appeared on the screen as the credits rolled, and we read aloud every family of bird as they passed, every now and again one would elicit a ‘that’s my favorite kind of bird!’ from Elihu. Can you imagine, an eight year old boy who delights in the Tufted Titmouse for his beautifully modest plumage, who will enthusiastically extol the mind-bending abilities of the Wandering Albatross to anyone who’ll listen and who finds the Golden Plover one of his top favorite birds? Elihu was transported. So was I, just watching his face radiate joy as I have seldom seen.

Today our day is less magical. On to the tedious but inspiring project of creating the costume. It’s to the table, the hot glue gun and the feathers. We study images of the Anchiornis, comparing many versions of it to the one we hold as our model. This past year Elihu has become long-distance friends with a world-class professional bird artist whose version of the feathered dinosaur we are using as our first reference. We agree, Michael’s bill is too cute looking; this is Halloween, after all, and as no one really knows what its size or shape was, we opt for a longer, more menacing profile. All of this flows rather easily. But when it comes time for the wings, emotions run high. In the end, I know that all Elihu wants from his costume are the few hours in which he can run through his world, flapping his wings. He wants a big wingspan. He wants to move some air. Thankfully, he leaves for a play date, giving me a few hours’ head start. When he comes home he is gleeful at the sharp contrast of black and white feathers. He straps on the wings and tests them. Air moves, feathers fly around the kitchen. He giggles and laughs. So beside himself with joy, he almost cries. He runs to the mirror and stares at himself, winged. No matter how the rest of the costume turns out, it is a private success for him already.

He is a boy in love. Finally, he is a boy with wings.