Bon Iver and I are babysitting, and though we don’t say it, we are pretending to be parents, feeling it out, enjoying each other’s solutions and quirks. I smile as he lifts little Mary over the fence by her arms, fat legs kicking, and gives her an extra swing for a thrill. He catches me smelling her damp hair, soft and salty and as sweet as lilacs.
As the world darkens, we build a nest on the porch, commissioning every blanket and pillow in the house. Mary, drowsy, clings to me with an intensity I find heartbreaking. Bon Iver clicks off the porch light, making available the wide world of nature to our eyes, and he begins to tell a story.
A fable of his own invention, and not one I’ve heard before.
‘Why does the grasshopper sparrow sing an insect’s song?’ he begins.
Mary curls up against my belly like a little worm. Her eyes are unfocused already, and her finger finds its way to her mouth.
When Sparrow was young, he didn’t have natural enemies. Sparrow was friends with bees and elk and lizards and eagles and all the fishes in the creek. He knew the names of every mouse, every vole and squirrel, and he even knew the habits of the old Fox, who slept most of the day on a sunny flat log.
At school, he and his friends learned to read and sing and play together in a big meadow filled with flowers.
Mary’s breath is hot on my arms, rhythmic and audible. Now the story is just for me.
Sparrow’s closest friend was Grasshopper. They played endless games indoors: puzzles and word games and guess-which-hand, but it was in the meadow that they were a spectacle. Wild, energetic sports. Grasshopper leaping high into the air and Sparrow swooping from great heights to gently take her in his beak and lift her up again, both of them laughing, tears streaming down their faces from their inconceivable velocity and untrammeled glee.
And all the while they would chatter on in a twin-language that was incomprehensible to anyone else, a true melange of bird and bug, a product of their unbreakable bond.
‘I love you,’ said Grasshopper, her voice nearly lost in the wind. And Sparrow tenderly dropped her onto a branch, hovered before her, and replied, ‘I love you, too.’
But some of the older animals were talking.
‘Sad,’ said the Bear.
‘I wonder when they’ll learn?’ sighed the Walking Stick.
Once, Sparrow overheard one of these conversations. ‘Learn what?’ he wondered briefly, but then he had forgotten, and he was loop-de-looping through the air again, his mind and heart utterly free.
One day, a new bird appeared in the meadow. Sparrow and Grasshopper were bouncing through the grass, giggling, because they had played a prank on the old Fox. The new bird sat on the limber branch of a pin cherry, silently observing the meadow. When Grasshopper took a break to laze on the long, bent tip of a timothy blade, Sparrow flew up to the new bird with a greeting.
‘Hello!’ he said, breathless. ‘What’s your name?’
The silent bird looked down her beak at Sparrow. ‘Jay,’ she said finally.
Sparrow was very excited, because he had never met a Jay. But before he could answer, Jay had left the pin cherry branch, which sprang skyward with the sudden loss of weight, and Sparrow was tossed like a flapjack into the air. He laughed as he tumbled toward earth and caught himself on an updraft before falling into the grass. As he came right-side up he saw Jay speeding through the air in the other direction, something wriggling clamped in his beak.
‘What an odd bird,’ said Sparrow to Grasshopper.
But Grasshopper wasn’t there.
Sparrow looked up to the sky, where Jay was now just a point vanishing into the endless blue.
All the other animals were silent now. The Walking Stick slunk beneath a tree and vanished. Every vole had found his hole. Even the bees were minding their own beeswax in the hive.
The old Fox opened an eye and sighed, raised himself up on sinewy legs, and hobbled over to where Sparrow stood, still unsure, staring into the vanishing point in the sky.
‘That’s just the way things are sometimes,’ said Fox. ‘That’s nature.’
Sparrow shuddered. His eyes felt as though they would fall out of his head. His entire being was taken over by an unnamed horror. He tried to speak, but the strangled sound that escaped from his mouth was half bird, half twin-language, and horrifically sad: a sound unlike anything anyone had heard before.
Fox regarded Sparrow piteously for a moment, and returned to his log.
And since that day, you can hear the Grasshopper Sparrow’s insectlike song, mournful and desperate, crying out for his little lost love.
Mary is snoring like a puppy, and I eyeball Bon Iver, who has now folded his arms with satisfaction and is sipping his cocktail, gazing off into the distance.
‘It’s a bit dark,’ I say finally.
‘Baby,’ says Bon Iver, yanking a juicy green stalk of grass from beside the porch and placing it between his teeth, ‘that’s just the way things are sometimes.’