I saw the body before breakfast.
Sitting on the red bench by the window, a hot plate of food before me, I glanced out at the bird feeder.
As I turned my gaze back toward breakfast, my eyes rested on a still form below the feeder. It lay belly-up, wings folded into its sides, stiff as a soldier. I cried out and ran to kneel beside it.
Or him. A chestnut-backed chickadee.
Charcoal wings, a burnt sienna vest, swirls of white across his cheeks, a crown of black, a belly of mottled cotton. I scooped him gently, his shadow of warmth remaining, and he did not stir. Pressing a finger to his breastbone, I hoped to feel even a distant thudding. Nothing.
Between the slits of his eyelids, I saw glossy black flecks frozen in place. A crumb of seed clung to his beak. His toes, smokey and scaly, curled in like miniature fists with razor ends.
He was perfection.
Another chestnut-backed chickadee flew in and landed on the birch branches strapped to the balcony rail. Cheeping, fluttering, hopping from branch to rail to feeder, head cocked and swiveling—looking, it seemed, for someone.
I held the body up, cupped in my hands as an offering.
He’s here, I said. I’m so sorry. He’s right here.
She kept shifting and spinning, alert, with sidelong glances. And then she flew off and I wept, because I know what it’s like to see the lifeless body of a loved one.
I carried him inside and stood, unsure of what to do. His death pierced my otherwise mundane morning ritual, and now, I couldn’t lay his body in my home, sit back down, and eat as if nothing had happened. As if this death were only a pause between bites.
I wrapped him in a scrap of red cloth, abandoned breakfast and coffee, slipped on sandals, and left home.
I needed to lay him to rest in the field.
Along the way, the bullfrogs croaked unseen. The white-crowned sparrows and mourning doves and red-winged blackbirds piped their songs from the trees. I gathered wildflowers as I walked, his body still warm beneath the cloth.
I had walked this same path, two years before, with a baby cottontail in my hands. I could have laid them anywhere, but the field always calls with arms wide open, ready to embrace both life and death.
From pavement to field, I crossed over. We walked past the aspens standing in a row, their limbs draped with leafy wind chimes. Past the shoots of green spiraling upward from overgrown grass, the purple heads of clover, the yellow wildflowers, the garter snake undulating by my feet before it disappeared.
I plucked two large, heart-shaped leaves and walked deeper into the field. I stopped 10 feet from where a white-crowned sparrow perched on a reed, singing. And there, patting down the stalks of grass, laid the chickadee on a leaf. The wildflowers overwhelmed his tiny frame, so I pulled the petals one by one and spread them across his body, a sprinkling of purple.
I didn’t know you from the other chickadees, I spoke to the lifeless bird. But it was a pleasure to have you on my balcony, at the feeder. Watching you all bob for seeds, peck at branches, disappear and return. Listening to your songs.
You brought me joy. I didn’t know you, but I do now. And you mattered. Your life mattered, to me. Thank you.
I pulled a translucent feather from his tail and slipped it in my pocket, Thank you, friend.
One last look at his perfection, one tear dripping on the leaf, before I covered him with the other frond.
I hope you rest now.
I turned and left him there, in the arms of the field, under the opaque summer sky, in the chorus of wind and sparrows.
Because everyone deserves a funeral.