Things that come from the sky (excerpt)
by Kym Ragusa, Hunter MFA Memoir 2008
An extract from her MFA thesis
In the mornings, very early, I used to watch the birds outside my living room windows. There’s a large tree across the street, a white-barked tree whose twisting branches reach toward my window, as if the tree were actually growing just in front of my building. In winter, the branches were jagged and bare but for the round spiked pods that hang here and there like austere Christmas ornaments. With the branches clear of leaves, I could see the birds. Mostly, there were starlings, a handful of sparrows, every once in a while a red robin or a blue jay, a flash of color against the white morning sky. When I was a child, New York trees were filled with sparrows, tiny, sand-colored, nervous. They shared the spoils of city life - the pieces of salty pretzel tossed into a gutter, the dry breadcrumbs scattered by old women on park benches – with the pigeons, who always seemed too heavy to perch on branches.
Some time ago, starlings began to occupy the sparrows’ territory. My landlord told me, after catching me scattering breadcrumbs on the sidewalk, that the starlings are a scourge. Vicious and aggressive in the competition over food, he said, they’ve almost decimated the sparrow population. And the blue jays, and the robins. Yet I found the starlings beautiful. Sleek and black, with iridescent feathers interspersed with the darker ones, they looked like something out of a children’s story book. They sat on the branches of the tree outside my window in twos and threes, picking at the bark for insects and whistling to each other. Their calls were high pitched and whooping, wry, playful sounds that echoed over the treetops, over the rooftops.
Soon after my husband and I moved into this apartment, I noticed that some starlings had built a nest in the arched façade just outside one of our living room windows. There was a brick missing, and they managed to burrow into the space behind it. Over the years I watched successive generations of starlings come and go out of that small space. Often I heard them scratching and stamping, so loud it seemed as if they were in the room with me. I didn’t know how many birds were in there at any given time, though sometimes other starlings trid to make their way in, and they were chased out by the birds inside. The sound of these sudden battles was unbearable: the frantic flapping of wings, the shrieking and squawking, the jabbing of sharp beaks and the helpless peeping of the chicks when they were in season. Unbearable too the thought that these other starlings, the invaders, were after not shelter but food, the raw, blind young of their own kind.
Early in the mornings the starlings swooped down out of the nest and onto the branches of the tree. They dove from the small opening in the brick, straight down as if they were free-falling, and then they soared upward, landing cleanly, precisely. In the air their wings arced downward toward their tails like the wings of some high-tech spy plane; starlings are made for stealth and for speed. Sometimes before they dove they called out to each other in a perfect round whistle, and once they landed, they’d whistle again. To get back into the nest they had to hover at the small entrance to find the right angle to enter, then they raised themselves up and disappeared into the hole. Sometimes they missed; the hole was small, and they came at it too fast. They’d bump up against the brick, whistle in frustration, and try again. Back and forth they went, all day, from nest to branch, surveying the street for signs of a meal.
The top of our window, just outside the nest, was streaked with greenish starling shit, and bits of nest were actually starting to come through a crack in the moulding on the inside of the window frame. My husband said their nest was dangerous. They could have loosened other bricks that might one day fall on someone, the feathers and nest material that were slowly making their way into our apartment could carry disease. Reluctantly I went with him to tell our landlord, who in his dismissive and preoccupied way said he’d get around to it. Soon after, there were workmen building scaffolding over the front door of the building. It’s an old structure, built in the late 1800’s, used then as a dormitory for orphaned boys who sold the New York Times on the streets of the city. There were holes in the roof, water was coming into some of the apartments each time it rained. I hoped they wouldn’t notice the nest. I hoped my husband would forget to remind the landlord. I had nightmares of someone covering up the nest with the birds still inside, blocking their only escape with brick and cement, and I woke up with the sounds of their dying echoing in my head.
Six months ago, I became ill and, my days took this shape. I woke before sunrise, and made my way down the narrow stairs from the bedroom to the kitchen. I filled the old steel kettle with water, holding it with both shaky hands, made my tea. Then I settled onto the couch, wrapped a blanket around myself, and watched the birds. After awhile, I’d fall asleep again, for hours, sometimes for the whole day. Until my husband woke me, gently, with a bowl of soup, or until the birds began to squeak and scatter in their nest, disturbed by an intrusion. When I opened my eyes, the sky was dark again. In the evenings I pulled myself up the stairs, got into bed, and fell asleep once more. From black morning to black night, like an animal in hibernation.
It started in November. I had been trying to get pregnant, at forty years old, for the first time. I tracked my monthly cycles obsessively, scanning each month for that window of opportunity, the window that was closing with each passing month. Before I got out of bed every morning, in the dark, before the birds began to stir, I took my temperature. I reached for the digital thermometer in the dark, pressed the tiny “on” button and waited for the beep, put it into my mouth. Half a minute later, it beeped again, and I read the little LED screen with a pen light while my husband slept beside me. 97.4, 97.3, 97.6….98.0, 98.7, 98.3…Half the month my body was cool, half the month it warmed in anticipation. I charted the temperatures, connected the lines on a graph, up and down, up and down. It was the first thing I did, before I spoke for the first time, morning after morning. Marking time through the passing seasons of my body, in the silence and the dark. When the window opened, my husband and I summoned desire. After long days of work we fumbled toward each other. Each month we hoped. That November, my temperature stayed up. There was no dive when I bled; I did not bleed. I felt sick to my stomach each morning when I rose, and a web of blue veins appeared on my breasts, veins reaching and spreading like winter branches beneath the pale yellow skin. And then my temperature dropped.
My doctor called it a chemical pregnancy. The blastocyst never implanted in the uterus, or it was rejected by the uterus, the cells stopped dividing. I would have been two weeks pregnant. One afternoon I got dizzy, seized with cramps through my belly and legs, and rushed for the bathroom. A thing came out of me, like a black, quivering jellyfish. My husband and I agreed to keep trying, and I took that to mean try harder. I searched through books and web sites on fertility, spending hours going over the same information about diet, exercise, sexual positions, PH balances, and thinking positively. I bought bags of vitamins and other supplements: prenatal pills you had to take six times a day, megadoses of B-vitamins, packets of vitamin C powder, royal jelly and bee pollen, cod liver oil, wheat germ, herbal tinctures and topical oils. I knew that I didn’t want to go through IVF or any other artificial method of conception, not that we could afford it anyway, and I told myself that I was taking care of myself, doing things the natural way.
In December I wasn’t pregnant. Instead I had a flu that wouldn’t go away. I had days of fever, followed by chills and night sweats. A raw throat that wouldn’t heal. It subsided for a few weeks and then came back, worse than before. I took more supplements, sure that if I just took enough I would knock it out of my system. In January, a strange exhaustion took hold of my body. I couldn’t get enough sleep. A few times, on my way to work, my head began to spin and I collapsed in the street. My body, once thin and quick, grew ponderous and slow. I felt like I was under water all the time, pushing my body against some powerful current; after a half a block I was breathless, had to lean against the side of a building, sit down on the ground before I could gather the strength to take the next few steps. I told myself, this time, that I was just stressed-out, or still getting over the flu. I adapted. Until I couldn’t think anymore. In class one afternoon, I lost my train of thought. What is it I was trying to say? I searched the air for the words, but they didn’t come. My students looked at me, their eyes empty of concern. I let them out early, came home and wept. The words didn’t come. In the following days, and then weeks, my head filled with fog, a flood of emptiness.
The morning comes slowly in winter, a spreading stain of light that seeps through the windows and fills the room. The apartment faces south, and by noon there is so much brightness in the room that I have to draw the shades, so much warmth that I walk around in a tee shirt and underwear on all but the coldest days. The sun touches everything in the room with invisible fingers, it bleaches dark material left out too many days, pale spots on black scarves and sweaters where the light pooled and seeped. It fades photographs in their frames; people become spectral shapes, backgrounds disappear into a green haze. It took me some time to discover these changes, though. They happen so slowly, the light doing its work silently over months that at first I didn’t notice. I used to have a photograph of myself, a snapshot in a little wrought-iron frame, propped on a side table where I keep my books and notebooks. My mother found it among my grandmother’s papers after she died, and had given it to me. It was taken in 1968, when I was not yet two years old, and it is one of the only images of myself as a child that I have. I had only seen one other baby picture of myself, one taken when I was just a few weeks old; it has long since been lost. So when my mother gave me this picture, one even she did not remember, I was fascinated by it.
I’m standing alone against a white wall, a little off to one side, looking up at whoever was behind the camera. I have on a white turtleneck sweater, with matching white ribbons in my two lopsided braids. My arms stick out just above my round belly as if I were a cowboy ready to draw my weapon. But I’m smiling, and my dark eyes are gleaming, and I look happy, comfortable, safe. At that moment I must know where I am, know the person taking the picture, my face, my innocence, is unguarded. I like to think of this as my before picture, as an image of my pristine self, before the chaos and violence of the ensuing years, before that sense of profound insecurity which became the foundation of my later life. And before, just before, my father came home from the war.