At school hookup today, the vice-principal tapped at my car window. She bent down and told me gently, with troubled eyes, and twice because I didn’t really hear the first time and it sort of sounded like a question, There is a dead bird under the car in front of you?
At bird, I realized I’d been hearing that word while children had chattered past my car. Hookup in the garage requires that all five grades—K thru 4—file down this sidewalk to an assigned spot, where they wait to be called. All five grades must have seen the bird. Fourth grade was still seeing it, because they were now sitting next to my hubcaps.
“Do you want me to get it?” I asked.
What? No, no, I just . . .
We exchanged several sentences that got me no closer to divining what it was she wanted from me. To not pop the bird with my tire? To wait for the car in front to leave so she could kick the corpse to the curb? To stay put till our security guard found a shovel? I had a migraine, so my brain had already taxed itself to remember which direction and how far to twist the car key to lower the window in the first place. But, even on a good day I am not known for triumphs of interpersonal communication.
So I interrupted with, “I have a dog poop bag. You want me to get the bird? Let me get the bird.”
Really? Are you sure?
“Sure, no problem.”
And then, I was inspired: “I’ll bring back the bones!”
It was an English sparrow—they nest in the ceiling’s acoustic fluffing every year—a male, dead but unmarked, and under the SUV’s bumper, but close enough to grab. I was wearing the hand-me-down jeans that show quite a bit of underwear when I bend over, so I snatched it very, very fast; bag inside-out; wooosh.
As I hustled back to the car, the vice-principal said something like, You are amazing!
“I’m a volunteer naturalist!” I blurted.
“Really.” And again, for some reason, “I’ll bring back the bones.”
And while I slipped myself, my jeans, and the stiff poop bag into the car and tried to slow the throbs behind my left eyeball, she turned to face the fourth grade, which was collectively watching this drama. They were seated parallel to the row of waiting vehicles. They were bunched and staggered on risers as in an amphitheater.
Panicked options began spooling. Bones? Bones. Could I impose myself on a biology lab’s flesh-eating beetles? Pay a taxidermist? Find a fire-ant nest? Pour a bleach bath and hope the skeleton won’t dissolve? Mummify in salt? Boil in a pot on the barbeque grill? Because there was already a backlog of tiny (well-labelled) roadkill in my freezer. Because all my dead things—all my would-be anatomy lessons—disappear from the yard no matter how carefully caged.
The sound of applause slapped me back to hookup. Fourth grade was staring at me, some smiling, some blank, but most were clapping. Over them stood the vice-principal. She was egging them on, nodding, beaming, eyes bright with a Discrepant Event, a Teachable Moment, and so excited.
And what I heard her say was this: She is going to bring back the bones!
I have not been clapped at in a long, long time.
But now, I have to bring back the bones.
Author Bio: Joanna Brichetto is a naturalist in Nashville, where she writes the urban nature blog Look Around: Nearby Nature. Her essays have appeared most recently in The Hopper, About Place Journal, City Creatures, Longleaf Review, Hippocampus, storySouth and The Fourth River.