The Gift

“The cloud is free only to go with the wind.

The rain is free only in falling.

The water is free only in its gathering together,

in its downward courses, in its rising into air.” [1]

Tim (in his bedroom – the south side of town)

At the break of an icy dawn, Tim woke in a cold sweat.  His dreams of the past receded in his mind as the slow breathing of his wife beside him brought him back to the present.  Even though it was Sunday, he knew he wouldn’t get back to sleep, so he rose slowly, taking care not to wake his sleeping lover.  Walking on soft carpet, his right knee ached from the day before, though it was better than his left, which had been fully replaced.  The base of his left femur felt weak from the slow grind of bone against steel.  He walked through the pain of old joints and carried the weight of a restless sleep into the kitchen, where he brewed some coffee.  Then he bundled up, walked outside and sat on the old chair on the cold concrete front porch to listen to the birds sing each-other awake.

Alex (about two miles north of Tim’s house, in his driveway)

Alex is not an early-riser, unless he has to work.  Some Sundays, he works concessions at Arrowhead stadium.  Today, in the grey hours before the world woke, he forced his unwieldy car to life.  Nothing moved in the air except a sparrow song bouncing off the concrete walls, and now the rumble of his old car.  Alex wore a yellow shirt and black pants.  His uniform was still saturated with grease from his last shift.  His eyelids were heavy, and the energy drinks weren’t helping much.  The dawn had still not come when he pulled up to the parking lot, where crowds of yellow-clad Aramark workers waited to be shuttled to the stadium.

Sparrows (foraging for trash outside Arrowhead Stadium)

In the warm, blue haze on a grass field outside the parking lot, two young sparrows roamed, searching for seeds, grains and trash.  As they foraged, their songs were dampened by the passing of loud engines. They moved as if they shared one mind, and fed each others’ energy with song.  Without warning, one was seized by the talons of a hawk.  The living bird watched as his mate’s struggles were muted by the hawk’s unbreakable grip.  On open ground, the hawk pecked at his victim, edging it closer to the brink of death with every stab of his mighty beak.

“In law is rest

if you love the law,

if you enter, singing, into it

as water in its descent.” [1]

Tim (in his kitchen)

On Sundays, Tim cooks breakfast for his wife.  He’s a good cook, and he likes doing it.  His specialty is breakfast food, an inheritance from his mother.  A good breakfast helped make up for the times his anger got the best of him.  This morning, they were going to a football game, and he had some making up to do.  He made a country style omelet and braised breakfast greens with toast and homemade jam.  If circumstances were different, he may have been a successful chef, rather than a construction worker, but he’s never been one to challenge the lot he’s been given.  Besides, money would only contaminate his love for good home-cooked food.  It’s the labors of love, whose only payment is reciprocal love, that Tim likes best.

Alex (on the bus)

He’s always known how to make people laugh, in ways that lets you know he likes you.  All of his jokes feel like inside jokes, even if you’re a stranger.  At work, each of his coworkers has a unique connection with him, and feel they have a friend in him, and can count on him to cheer them up.  In a cold world, laughter brings warmth from the inside out.  People have come to count on his good humor so much that it can feel like a burden at times, when he doesn’t feel like laughing.  It’s at those times when the warmth he’s shared counts the most.  When his fire needs kindling, he gets back the heat he’s given.

The sparrow

The frost that coated the morning grass was melted by warm blood.  Scattered feathers lay on the cold ground.  Just above, the silent flight of a grieving bird.  He called, staccato and nasally, helpless in the absence of his fallen mate.  Others joined him.  Drawn by the cries of the anguished bird, this new company stirred the scene with an instinctive chorus of common misery.  It was a tangled melody: unanimously angry and out of tune.  Then, like a burning ember in a field of dried grass, the song of the resistance of life against death began to spread.

“Or song is truest law, and you must enter singing; it has no other entrance.

It is the great chorus of parts.  The only outlawry is in division.” [1]


Tim has two children by a previous marriage.  His first wife left while he was on active duty in Vietnam.  He was a bookish soldier, and generally kept to himself.  He liked to write, especially poetry.  He sent many letters home to the girl who would become his ex-wife.  Around his brethren-at-arms, he chose his words carefully.  His friends knew he was dependable for choice words when the weight of impending doom was too much to bear.  He was injured in battle only once, shot in the knee.  Much later, he met a woman named Martha, and has been married to her for 32 years.  He and Martha have one daughter, who, at 18, announced she’d be joining the Army.  Only then did Tim understand the look on his father’s face when he had made the same choice years ago.


Mostly, his grandmother raised him.  As a kid, he was very comfortable around social workers.  Alex never knew his dad, but always felt the pain of his absence in the empty stare of his mom.  Drugs had taken a firm hold of his mother’s view of the world, then distorted the hell out of it.  Still, she taught Alex how to laugh.  Humor is a family heirloom.  So is addiction.  He would never forgive himself for the death of his lover, who was taken by their common habit.  Alex had a daughter to that woman, now six years old, whose eyes look like his mother’s.  They’re different though, because in them, he can see that she is present, and that he is seen.  They burn with beauty and meaning, fear and expectation, clarity and curiosity, and restore those things in Alex.
Just days ago, down the street from where Alex and his daughter live, a three year old was shot to death by one of twenty three bullets that peppered his home in a drive-by shooting.  It is a fearsome thing to look your daughter in the eye, knowing you brought her into a world where such cold numbness is allowed to do evil.  What’s to be done but teach her to laugh?

The hawk

Far above the trees, closer to the clouds than the ground, the hawk sits at his perch, stoic and waiting.  From the alpine concrete structure, he looks out upon a vast expanse of land.  To the west, the city looks unexceptional, a pebble on the beach, a wrinkle in a bedsheet.  Far below, tiny men gather on a small field to repeatedly bump into each-other.  Outside the green plain, there is a large red hill, which drops like a cliff to the black fields, now filled with the steel beasts.  At their edges, he sees the gathering of his prey.  He is the eye of death at the heart of life, motionless in the howling winds, heated by the common light.

“Whatever is singing is found, awaiting the return of whatever is lost.

Meet us in the air over the water, sing the swallows.

Meet me, meet me, the redbird sings, here here here here.” [1]

Tim (near the top of the red hill, nosebleed seats)

Full heat of the day still had not come, when Tim and Martha reached their seats.  They had gotten the tickets from a co-worker.  It was not their first game, but the first in a while, so they were breath-taken when they walked through the tunnel to see the mass of humanity before them.  They found their flip-down, orange-red seats just in time for the national anthem.  As well as anybody, these two knew the darkness in the world.  They feared for their daughter and were haunted by memories of war.  They believed, though, in the goodness at the heart of the world.  They believe in a future where peace is allowed to reign.  They know that there is decency and valor in men, and that whatever good is in the world, it’s worth fighting for.

They saw, while maybe not in practice, at least in theory, those ideals represented by the red, white and blue.  So when the banner was raised and the anthem sung, they stood at full salute, honoring the sacrifice of the men whose lives are carried on by the songs of their kin.

Alex (in the kitchen of a concession stand in the upper concourse at Arrowhead)

By 10 till noon, there was a thin layer of grease coating his face and hands.  Order after order of hot dogs and hamburgers had been flushing in since 11:00 or so.  There had been no stoppage of motion.  He was exhausted, when the national anthem finally offered a break.  The customers stopped and turned and put their hands over their hearts, and many of his coworkers did too.  Alex finally got a chance to stop and look around.  He saw that there was a division between the front of the counter and behind the counter.  A racial division, that is.  People giving orders were mostly white, people taking orders were mostly black.

Of course, this is an arrangement Alex was used to, both personally and culturally.  Having been born into it, it never really bothered him, nor did he ever stop to question it.  It was a mistake of the past, a dark detail in the history books, a slip of a bygone era.  With the clarity a daughter provides, though, he began to question these things.  Was it really in the past?  Can hundreds of years of brainwashing be cleansed from a country in half a century?  How can I bring myself to honor a symbol that, for most of its history, endorsed the exploitation of millions of lives for the good of the richest, wealthiest white men?

Maybe because he had hope that his daughter could live in a world where his friends aren’t taught to feel different or inferior because of their skin color, maybe because he felt powerless to speak against those norms that are changing but not yet changed, maybe he just wanted to help his friends, or maybe he was just tired, but when the banners raised and the anthem was sung, he knelt, eye level with the grease trap, and caught his breath.

The sparrows (in a grove of trees just outside the parking lot)

It started with a single song.  The disharmony of the grieving birds was shot through by a new melody, which sounded more like hope.  It silenced the sighing of the grieving company.  The song hesitated briefly, before it was taken up by another.  The song drifted between the birds, who took it as it came to them.  As the singing grew, the weight of the loss seemed to have been forgotten.  This was the resistance of life against fear.  Beneath the shadow of death, the sparrow had not forgotten the gift he was given, which was born a part of him.  He refused to deprive the world of his song, and when the hawk finally finds him, or the cold takes him, he will give up his moisture and return to dust, singing.

What the sparrow knew Tim and Alex had missed.  The resistance against the darkness isn’t fought on the battle field with a gun, or in protest of a song before a football game.  In Alex, the laughter he spread set fire to cold hearts.  In Tim, the words he spoke and meals he made, out of love, for his wife, turned anger into forgiveness.  The best defense against hatred is compassion.  Whoever you are, wherever you are, you’ve been given a gift, a song to sing, for the good of the world.

The undertaker is watching you, stoic and waiting, in many forms beneath the common light.  You can’t escape him, that’s the first rule of life.  The only assignment you were given in this brief moment in time we call living, is that when you finally meet him, you’d better be singing.

“Temporary is my time,

ain’t nothin’ in this world that’s mine

except the will I found to carry on.

Free is not your right to choose,

it’s answering what’s asked of you

to give the love you found until it’s gone.” [2]


– Based on a story by Loren Eiseley

[1] – Wendell Berry [2] – The Avett Brothers

7 thoughts on “The Gift

  1. Brendan, This is excellent. I loved the personification of the birds…. there are so many messages we can get from nature. Best line….”This was the resistance of life against fear.” Yes, not succumbing to fear is a form of resistance and we’ve all been given a gift to resist in some way. “The best defense against hatred is compassion.” Thank you for these thoughts which were expressed through relatable characters and beautifully expressed thoughts. Keep it up.


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