Behind the Door

February 17, 2015

Our backyard is a kaleidoscope of birds. Ana adores them and loves to keep them happily fed throughout the winter. Yesterday, we lost one.

I was at my desk, writing, when I caught a split-second flurry of motion out of the corner of my eye, followed by a loud whump! against my office window.

I got up and walked over to look out. There, on the frigid snowy ground beneath my window, it was.

A little Carolina wren, perhaps spooked by one of our local Red-tailed Hawks, had flown headlong into my window and knocked itself out.

I don’t know if it was the force of the blow that killed it, or if it was just so cold outside (it has been back-to-back sub-zero days up here) that it couldn’t quite recover from its stunned state.

Watching, I saw its little heartbeat, no bigger than the depression of a tiny sugar spoon pushing out against its chest – thoomp, thoomp, thoomp thoompthoomp.

I had an impulse to rush outside and around to where it lay. But what would I have done? Mouth-to-beak? I stayed glued in place, watching. Thoomp. And then the little bird was still.

The moment felt ineffable, poignant, but also mysterious. It seemed to me that my Carolina wren had slipped away behind a curtain.

I thought about it all day. What happened to the wren?

I tried on a number of words — died. expired. disintegrated. deceased. — but none of them seemed to fit what I’d observed.

Today, for some reason, I thought about the nighttime sky.

What if, instead of an empty bowl of space filled with flying chunks of burning gas, the nighttime sky is actually a big piece of black construction paper with lots of tiny moving pin pricks in it, and what we’re seeing when we look at them is the light behind the construction paper peeking through?

Watching the flurry of wrens, jays, doves, cardinals, and others flocking around outside the window today, that’s just what they seem like to me: pin pricks in the paper, letting some sort of moving, multicolored light peek through, as if each little bird is in reality a doorway into something else, and what we’re seeing when we watch a bird flutter around is really a glimpse of that something else.

Maybe my wren didn’t go away and slip behind a curtain; maybe it was more that when its heartbeat stopped, a little doorway simply closed. Maybe it was always back there, fluttering around behind that door.

Maybe it still is, and I just can’t see it.

It was only a bird. Still, today the world feels like a slightly sadder place — though at the same time, considering what’s behind all the doors and curtains, a more amazing and beautiful place, too.



(Photo of Carolina Wren © suefeldberg)


  1. Laura Steward

    John, to see any light die is, for me, a sad moment. What I love is that you saw the light that was this wren and you shared that light with us. And because you shared it, the wren now holds a special place in my heart and the light it brought to the world continues a bit longer. Thank you for adding light to my day.

    • John David Mann

      You are so welcome, Laura! Sometimes when we are just waking up in the morning, one of those Carolinas perches at the corner of one of our bedroom windows, pecking at bugs. We wake to this sound: pik-pik-pik … pik-pik-pik-pik…. Cutest little things you ever saw.


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