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The Journey

First appeared in The Washington Post

Small as a baby's sigh, the sound ruffles the silence in the den where I read, sitting sideways in my husband's recliner, feet dangling over the armrest. I glance up at one of the cats batting something around on the floor and decide that must be the source of the noise. I go back to my book, but hear it again -- a tiny sound, a little trilling, only shorter, fainter, slightly hollow, like a single, spoken word in a deep underground cave. It comes from the fireplace.

I unwrap myself from the chair and put down my book. Stopping at the old double fireplace doors, I put my ear against the cold glass and hear nothing. I am reminded of a similar experience.

We were leaving for a week's vacation when we heard the terrified flutter of wings and mournful cries of something caught in the fireplace. Opening the doors we found a tiny bird, stunned with fear. My husband scooped it up and set it free in the front yard, where it flew away, wings see-sawing hard against the sky. We closed the damper.

I think of the small brown bird in the fireplace and with difficulty crack open the old doors to peek. No bird. I force the doors shut again and move back to my book, savoring the quiet until my children return from school.

There is no silence when they come home. They bang around in the kitchen, opening and shutting cabinets and the refrigerator, arguing about who will eat the last of what and why he wasn't where he was supposed to be so she could give him a ride home.

This eternal argument shapes our lives: he is never where he is supposed to be. And no matter what we do, we cannot change this. It is a given, a fact, a peg upon which our lives are predicated.

I find him with his back against the neighbor's basketball goal ignoring the other boys as they toss the ball at the hoop; trudging to the store, money in his pocket, money he was saving for something special, now going to a package of Oreos and a bag of chips; curling up for an impromptu nap, his long lashes splayed against his cheeks, hands clenched with tension even though his breathing is soft and rhythmic.

He is always someplace else, someplace that winds us into a confrontation. There are many arguments. Trying to avoid them is like cutting leather with one's teeth. It is a painful, messy and mostly futile process.

The day after I hear the first small sounds I dust the mantle and once again detect the presence of something inside the chimney. The noise is muffled by the brick and old mortar. We do not use this fireplace any longer. My allergies make wood smoke difficult, and my husband hates cleaning the leftover sooty debris. Later that night my daughter confesses that she, too, hears the noise.

"There really is something in there," she says.

Over the next few days my daughter and I catch occasional sounds coming from the fireplace, but he never hears them, no matter how still the room. My son moves in a bubble of noise. Things crash and break around him, walls sprout holes, glass shatters.

It is the nature of his beast.

My male child does not fly in sync with others. He never has. He breaks out of formation and heads straight for the sun, even though he has been told over and over that this is a dangerous trajectory. Just the same, this is where he insists on flying.

As the days pass and summer heat closes the blinds on the den windows, the chimney sounds become louder and more frequent. Now everyone hears them and we recognize the beating of wings against the dark air inside the wall. I wonder if they are bats.

My son now catches the stirrings in the chimney as he sits on the edge of the sofa, spinning a nonsensical scheme that will take him places he should not go. He is denied and storms away, while behind him the creatures in the chimney underscore his unhappiness with the chaotic sounds of many wings fluttering.

I do not know much about bats but understand they are gentle, shy creatures. I worry about disease, though, and look them up on my computer. I learn they should not be in our chimney.

The beating wings grow daily in volume. They seem to multiply. I call a chimney sweep.
My son's noise is not so easy to muffle. Years spent sensing the difference in my child, knocking on doctors' doors, testing, watching his genius ebb and flow as darkness replaces much of the light in his mind, have brought explanation, but no relief. We know he will fly into the eye of the storm even if his wing is broken, even if his eyes do not see, even if his fall from the clouds would be too sudden and steep for us to catch him. Still, he strains to spring upward.

The chimney sweep, a lean transplant from Maine, climbs off the roof and says we do not have bats.

"Chimney swifts," he says, and he uses his hands to illustrate their diminutive size.

"Tiny little birds they are," he tells me. "They eat thousands of mosquitoes."

"You can take them out?" I ask him. I am sure I see a glimpse of sorrow cross his face and he hesitates before speaking. He says he can remove them, but the babies will not survive.

The little birds migrate here from South America, he tells me. They build their nests inside chimneys and when their babies are able to fly, the entire flock leaves and returns home.

"They are a good little bird," he assures me.

I tell him I will talk to my husband and let him know what we decide. Later that evening, the chorus of birds inside our wall swells and we hear them chattering, as if they understand they no longer need to tiptoe. We decide to let them stay until they migrate, then clean and cap the chimney.

The summer passes, but does not cool. The heat drives everyone indoors. My son talks to me in a rare moment of calm as the birds swirl and chirp within the wall. He pauses and cocks his head toward the fireplace.

"They're loud," he says, and grins at me.

I grin back in agreement. A few days later the tiny birds -- which we’ve glimpsed a few, lucky times -- are gone. They swirled from the chimney without warning, their young in tow, to begin the long journey back to their homeland.

The den is quiet now as I read. Every once in a while I glance at the fireplace, but it remains mute. My son enters, all noise and bother. He begins to deconstruct the stillness. I shush him with my hand and he stops mid-sentence, eyes wondering.

I no longer hear the beating of wings against the chimney, but placing my hand on his chest, I feel the beating of his heart. And, like the birds that came so briefly and left so suddenly, I know that the silence in his absence would be deafening.


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