Barn Swallows

Every summer, barn swallows chitter just a few feet away from my study, skimming the air currents, landing precariously on a rope we strung up on the porch for the attachment of holiday lights. When Willie and I go outside, the birds swoosh away and begin swooping over the grass to snatch up more insects. Last spring a swallow nested in the garage, her nest built of mud and fiber on top of a light fixture. It was a foolish choice, because each day I’d leave the farm and close the garage door, keeping the parents either shut out or trapped inside while I was gone. I’d drive back up to the house, press the automatic door opener, and the adults would swoop in or out, squawking in what sounded like avian anger, desperate to get to the nest or out to feed. After a few days, I left the garage door open, unwilling to witness the slow death of a poorly placed clutch of baby birds.

Each day the chirps of the babies got louder, and soon they were so big their bodies leaked over the edges of the nest, like a blousy woman overflowing her bra. They began flapping their wings and leaning precariously into the air. I worried they would fall before their wings were strong enough to hold them. I kept the cat inside, and while she paced and yowled behind the door, I talked to the birds: “Hurry up, it’s time to move on.”

And then one day when Willie and I left the house on our morning walk, all five baby birds were straining so far out of the nest that I knew their first flight was inevitable. One at a time, they dived out and flapped in sloppy circles all around us, their movements uncoordinated and seemingly inadequate to keep them aloft. At the last minute, as they descended closer and closer to the ground, their wings took hold, and they managed to stay airborne. They fluttered for a few more seconds, seemingly at the edge of disaster, and then slalomed out of the garage and crash-landed into a nearby spruce tree. But they took off again, and gradually, flap by flap, the movements of their wings became more coordinated. Their paths through the air became cleaner, more purposeful.

They began to dip and turn, faster and faster, until within just a few minutes I was surrounded by five expert flyers, zooming right and buzzing left, streaking toward my face and banking away at the last minute, so close I could see their eyes shine. Willie and I stood together, still and silent, smack in the middle of the most amazing air show on earth, performed by five miniature pilots with the right stuff. As they swooped and soared around us, they appeared to be overwhelmed with the beauty and power they had inside themselves all along—they just had to take the risk to find it.


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