The Mud Swallow first appeared in June. It was sitting on the railing overlooking the stairwell, its tiny head darting back and forth. As soon as it saw me it dropped away, unfolded its wings and glided outside over the parking lot to take shelter on one of the shaded branches of the Linden tree.
It was there again when I came home from work, this time perched atop the red match-box of the fire alarm just outside my door, its body black and belly bright orange in the dim light. Again it flew away, chirping at me as it went. It was back the next morning and later when I returned home. Eventually we grew accustomed to one another and I found myself saying, "Good morning, little bird," in a high-pitched, sing-songy voice each time I opened the door, or as I came up the last landing of stairs, "It's just me, little bird." And the more I came and went the more it grew comfortable with me, staying on its perch and watching me as I fumbled with the key in the lock and slipped inside.
I didn't think much of it until mom and I returned from Pocatello after grandma's memorial service. As we carried our bags up the stairs I wondered if it would still be there and was just beginning to tell her the story when we spotted it. In the week I'd been gone it had built a nest atop the alarm, a yellow and gray mass of mud and grass that looked unsteady and precarious, but which held quite well. At first mom didn't believe it was a real bird but then its head swiveled in our direction as we approached and she let out a cry of surprise and wonder.
My little bird stayed all summer and was soon joined by another. Within a week the nest was overflowing with feathers and not long after that I heard the faint, tinny cry of hatchlings calling for food. "Good morning, little birds," I called as Duncan and I left for our first walk of the day, the brightly colored male watching over us from the railing while the female hunted for worms or wasps. And then again in the afternoon. "Hello, little birds."
Those words became the mantra of my summer. I was careful with them, alerting the new neighbors to their presence and shooing away their teenagers who congregated in the breezeway outside my door. Four little birds had moved in, quickly becoming my favorite tenants. They were quiet and polite and I was protective and careful with them. I watched and listened to the hatchlings grow, spotting them for the first time as little more than tiny white beaks peeking out over the lip of the nest, hidden among the feathers and grass, eventually seeing them stand upright so they could peer down on us with their new, curious and alert eyes.
And then one morning not long ago the nest was empty. The sun was bright and the day hot and I imagined they'd been hard at work learning to fly as soon as the sun had cracked the horizon. I stood below the red alarm box wondering about them, worrying about the hawks that glide in the skies above the golf course directly behind my apartment. But then one of their parents appeared on the landing, swooping in from the roof, chirped at me once and watched Dunc and I descend the stairs. The babies were there when I returned in the afternoon, their bodies overflowing the nest, and I knew it wouldn't be long before they found another home, their stay with us becoming a thing of the past. They remained for a week and then they disappeared completely. I stood under the nest and worried about them, and worried that the wind outside was signaling a change in the season. It wasn't until Friday when I came up the stairs and found the nest, crumbled and smashed, laying on its side on the cement outside the door. The last strands of it still clung to the top of the alarm, like the last stray bits of a dream that linger longer than sleep. The world has changed and they are finally gone for good. The nights have grown cool and the sun has shifted in its path across the sky. Orion has been seen prowling low along the horizon and I know these long, glorious days are coming to an end.
This morning as we slipped out, Duncan muddle-headed with sleep still in his eyes, one of the birds was sitting on the railing and chirped as soon as the door opened. "Good morning, little person," it seemed to say. "It's just me." We stopped and watched it a long time and as we stared at each other I felt the sweetness of summer fading slowly, becoming only a quiet memory.