The wreath is still on the back door. The jingle bells tied to its branches reflect just enough of the floodlights at the corner of the house to make tiny blue and green starbursts. The ends of the big peacock-colored bow move only slightly in the night breeze. Christmas is over, and I really should have taken it down.
My arms are full. I am struggling to find the key on the ring that holds too many. Once found, I am trying to fit it into the keyhole without dropping my purse, my briefcase, the box with the leftover lunch pizza. It slides in with some reluctance and I feel all my weight, physical and psychic, push against the door. Just get me inside.
I lean forward to let gravity pull the leather straps of purse and briefcase over my shoulder and down my arm to the floor. As I do, I feel something brush past my face, sweep lightly across my eyelashes. Too soft to have been the wreath or the wire-rimmed bow, too substantial to have been an errant curl. I reach for the light switch.
On the smooth, white floor lies a tiny sphere of dark feathers — a baby bird. I gasp, knowing immediately that the tiny thing has been either hiding or sleeping inside the wreath and that I have rousted him from his haven.
“Please!” I entreat the creature, crazily trying to loose myself of my coat and find someplace to deposit the pizza box before figuring out how I will get the visitor outside again. “Fly away!”
And he does. He obediently and politely flies away, out into the December darkness.
I catch my breath and think, that was too easy. It did not follow the pattern of my history with birds — and I do have a history with birds. Birds have made nests in my mailbox and my dryer vent; they have flown into and not been able to find their way out of my car and my house, the latter infesting my couch with a theretofore unknown insect, the bird mite, an unfortunate parting gift that cost me an exterminator’s visit.
What I have learned about birds, lovely and melodious though they are, is that they can be troublesome; challenging; problematic. Gathering up the discarded burdens at my feet, I am relieved that this bird, this singular member of the avian community, has deigned to leave me alone this night before New Year’s Eve, this evening when all that is left of Christmas is cardboard to be hauled to the recycling station and leftovers to be dumped into the garbage and remnants of ribbon to be swept from the corners of the living room.
But he has not left me alone. He will not leave me alone. I keep feeling the light touch of the feathers across my cheek. I keep seeing his little body swell like a yeast roll rising in a warm kitchen, wings lifting him just high enough to get over the threshold.
And now I am thinking of the legend of the Christmas robin, the bird in the stable on the night the Christ child was born. I am thinking of how it is said that the wind blew hard and cold and the fire was about to go out when Mary began calling to the animals for help. The ox was asleep, the donkey was lazy, the sheep with all its wool was warm enough without a fire. Just as the fire was about to die, Mary heard the flapping of wings. A robin, it is said, heard the young mother’s cries and flew to the stable to offer help. He flapped his wings at the dying embers until the fire was rekindled. To make sure the fire stayed alive, the bird used his beak to gather some twigs for the fire, which rose abruptly and burned his breast. The fire did not go out that night, and the breast of the robin remained red forever as a sign of his valor and selflessness.
I catch my breath again. This time I let it go slowly. My visitor has come in response to my call for help, the call that falls from every person who has ever woken up on Dec. 26 tired or disappointed or just a little uncertain as to why she went to all the trouble or why he can’t maintain the feeling of joyfulness all year long. The little bird has come to remind me that it is in giving that we receive, that it is in the presence of courage and sacrifice that love is born, and that the story will never end for want of a fire.