“It’s spring, Shoshi,” Baba says. “Get the shithawk eggs.” I’m the girl Baba never had. She gave birth to five boys and their antics made my Baba’s knees ache. She wanted a girl like me with a round face who sets the table for supper and feeds the chickens the right way. I complete the chores she gives me with attention to detail. “Do it right, Shoshi,” Baba says and I always do.
I slip on rubber boots that are sloppy big and trudge across the farm yard to the barn. Baba is watching from the porch. I can feel her eyes. I bet she’s smiling because I do chores without a single complaint. I swing the gate open to each of the empty pens in the barn and, “Give a good look see,” as Baba says. Sometimes there’ll be shithawk eggs wedged into a spot you’d never expect.
I don’t find a single egg in the barn pens so I climb the ladder into the loft. Last spring I got 23 eggs. I rummage through the boards for a stick that isn’t too heavy and not super long. I stand on a rusty five-gallon pail and dig the tip of the stick under a nest wedged in a corner of the barn ceiling. With a strong jab and a twist of the stick, the nest plops in front of me. Feathers and dry mud trickle down onto my head but I’m not a girl that worries about getting dirty.
I turn over the nest but it doesn’t have any eggs; it has five baby birds. My eyes stretch wide as a porridge bowls. The chicks don’t have any feathers, just tufts of fuzz and pink skin stretched over twig bodies. They aren’t real birds yet, just babies. Tiny veins snake through their round tummies. Their necks are as skinny as a piece of straw. They can’t see me because their eyeballs are covered in cloudy skin and I’m glad because I don’t want them to know who did this.
I bury my face in my hands. A mama bird watches from a ceiling beam and screeches at me. She knows I hurt her chicks, that I knocked down the home she built to keep her babies warm and safe. She swoops in circles through the loft and dives at me. Feathers fall from her flapping wings and float through the air. I know that the mama won’t be able to build new nests in time to save the babies. They’ll die and it’s my fault.
I run to the house and wait until Baba isn’t noticing me. I gather shoe boxes, Kleenex, soft fabric, a ball of yarn, tape and scissors and lug everything to the loft where I make the babies a new home. “I’ll be your mama,” I say. I pick up each tiny bird and softly pet them: they need love. I rub their tiny bodies against my face. Their skin is warm and smooth. They get hungry and squawk for food. It would take too long to dig worms and the babies are hungry now. I sneak into Baba’s kitchen and get bread and dunk it in milk to fill their tummies.
I want to spend the night in the loft so that they aren’t afraid but Baba would never let me. She would be royally mad if she finds out that I’m feeding shithawks. I place a big cardboard box over my babies’ rooms when I go to the house for the night, so I know they’re safe. Before I go to bed, Baba brushes my hair careful while we sit in front of the TV but the babies’ yellow beaks and toothpick wings keep flying into my mind. I can’t keep my worry about them on the outside of my brain. They could be hungry again or maybe they’re afraid of the dark. I could sneak out during the night but I’m too afraid of the barn when it’s black as night can get.
A morning sunbeam peeks around the curtains in Baba’s room and I’m warm and comfy cozy in her bed. Just when I’m liking the sunbeam, a lightening thought snaps into my brain: how am I going to teach the baby birds to fly? How will they stay safe from the barn cat if they can’t fly? How will they know which animal is an enemy like skunks and raccoons who sometimes sneak into the barn when it’s cold outside. Only a mother bird can teach them other stuff too like how to build a nest with soft feathers on the inside and hard as rock mud on the outside. My stomach cramps.
I race across the farm yard to the barn and climb the loft ladder. Before my legs get to the last step, I hear the babies squawking. Their beaks are wide looking for worms and their skinny bodies look sad and weak. The bread and milk gave them the runs. They need real worms. Plus, I’m going home after supper and no one will be here to feed them. The babies’ screams fill up my brain and bounce around my skull.
Real farmers don’t let animals suffer. “I’m sorry,” I say to the babies. I hold a brick over my head and start to cry. I bite the inside of my cheek but my fingers won’t let the brick go. I hear my heart thump in my neck and my arms shake. I know I’m a bad person because I poked the babies’ nests down, but I’ll be a strong girl if I can do this. My cheeks are hot and my shoulders shake. I hold my breath and drop the brick. It crushes their skulls and explodes their tiny stomachs.
At lunch, Baba says, “Eat, Shoshi, eat.”
I’m not hungry. “Why don’t you like shithawks?”
“They shit in the grain,” she says. “How many eggs did you get?”
“Didn’t find any,” I say.
Sherryl Melnyk has an interdisciplinary PhD and has taught post-secondary students for the last 15 years. She primarily writes plays that have been published and produced and across Canada. However, she is currently working on a creative nonfiction memoir. She lives in Calgary, Alberta with her partner, step-daughter, and poorly trained but greatly loved pug, Scarlet.