It’s December and once again I have become obsessed with a nest in the crassula shrub outside my window.
Last year I watched as two Willy Wagtails prepared a similar nest in the same location. Industriously they gathered strands of grasses, bark fibre and dog hair and wove them together with spider web to form a lustrous, cup-like shape, the shape of a breast swollen with milk, or an expectant mother’s tummy.
Simultaneously, and with equal devotion, I was preparing the nursery for my anticipated first-born son. A tall, narrow window allowed soft light to kiss the lemon walls and timber floorboards of what had become my favourite room. A traditional white bassinet, given to me by my mother, took pride of place in the corner; a comfy cane rocking chair, adorned with a wide-eyed grouping of colourful soft toys, was positioned nearby. Shelves were arranged with neat piles of clothing, linen and nappies. An array of wipes, creams and powders stood at attention, like a troop of toy soldiers ready for duty.
I felt a surge of excitement when I finally noticed three precious eggs appear in the nest, their cream shells bearing a ring of speckled brown markings like a designer belt. From that moment the Willy Wagtail parents became passionate guardians of their territory, swooping, swirling and fluttering noisily to ward off any perceived intruders.
I began to wonder about the incubation period of Willy Wagtails and decided to look up some information. I was touched to read that Willy Wagtails usually pair for life, and was somehow comforted to know that their offspring would have two carers. Next I read that the eggs typically hatch after fourteen days. Lucky creatures, I thought, reflecting on the nine anxious months that humans must endure. I later wished I had read no further, because next I discovered that some parts of Aboriginal folklore have depicted the Willy Wagtail as a bringer of bad news and sometimes a stealer of secrets. This detail presented itself as an omen, imparting immediate dread. Despite the fact that in other cultures the Willy Wagtail is considered extremely intelligent (apparently he won a contest among all birds to see who could fly the highest by riding on the back of an eagle) and a good bird, whose appearance signifies excellent crops, these heartening and positive legends scarcely impacted on my superstitious mind.
Within days of doing this research I found the Willy Wagtail eggs smashed on the ground at the base of the shrub, possibly victims of a predator species. It seemed vulgar to witness these splintered shells and stagnant smears of yolk. How the Willy Wagtails handled their loss, I don’t know. Not long after this encounter, I had a stillbirth and withdrew behind closed curtains for the rest of summer.
A certain chill accompanies my surveillance of this season’s nest, for in uncanny timing, Iam again expecting a son. Is it neurotic to check these new eggs each morning? Is it irrational to believe that emergence of life in this specific situation will mean hope for me? It doesn’t matter.
My probing eyes finally behold a trio of naked and helpless forms huddled in the bottom of their lavish, silken crib. I see tiny hearts pounding resolutely through fragile flesh. I feel my own heart hammering too, and my hands instinctively caress the warm expanse of my abdomen.
A constant chitta-chit-chittta-chit begins to resound through the garden as the parents broadcast their happiness to the world. I am amused to observe their horizontal tail-wagging, which was always quite aggressive and frantic, become more flamboyant and arrogant. Protectively, they hop from a range of vantage points on gutters and in nearby trees, with vigilant brown eyes peering from beneath flaring white eyebrows; the predators have no chance this time. Generally one parent remains with the newborns, while the other gathers insects to poke into perpetually ravenous little mouths; but at night they both settle on top of their brood, forming a remarkable dome of contentment and security.
Development of the juveniles occurs in fast motion. Mounds of delicate, puffy plumage promptly swell into more robust forms and spill over the edges of the nest. Before long independence beckons and, after some intensive practice sessions in foraging and flying, the fledglings advance to their freedom. At this point the chitta-chit-chitta-chit fades and the garden scene outside my window returns to a state of tranquility.
Inside the house my characteristic fussing intensifies. I check and recheck lists. I rearrange the nursery and polish every surface. I test the baby monitor more than once.
It is almost midnight when the pains begin, but there is no panic as consciousness stirs. I linger while I can in a wonderful dream where I am riding high on the back of an eagle with a Willy Wagtail on my shoulder. Below us in all directions are flowing fields of healthy crops, all sprouting from a carpet of minute cream and brown eggs. Hope has become certainty. I am soaring towards a miracle.
“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown. In my heart it don’t mean a thing.”*
As our children grow and become more independent, we might become a wee bit complacent about their existence, lost in the daily grind and focusing on the world outside the home. But it doesn’t take much to realise how shockingly fragile human life is, and how quickly childhood will be over, though the connections and feelings that bind us will remain for eternity.
* Tony Morrison (American novelist, editor, and professor)