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The Empty Nest: Pandemic Winter

By Jan Zlotnik Schmidt

On a winter day I watch my golden doodle, Rufus,  amble across the snow-crusted lawn, just a trace coating flattened, dead grass and stray stalks of bamboo that he furiously tries to snatch and gobble down.  I try to distract him, for the bamboo can cut his lips or gums, or stomach my vet has told me.  I throw a branch in his direction, then his stuffed rabbit that he carries around, buries and unburies; finally,  I yell, “Run, Rufus, run!”  My words don’t cajole him to play a new game, chase—these my diversions in this pandemic time.  Stomping my feet to keep warm, breathing into my gloves, I trek around my yard until I notice a brown clump caught in the bushes of the quince with a pink newspaper wrapper, hanging down, floating slightly in the wind.  I traipse over to the bush, scan it, look for where the brown is hidden among branches and find a bird’s nest.  A perfectly thatched one, filled with some mold spotted oak leaves, bits of feathers, and a stray piece of newsprint.  The inhabitants of the nest long gone.  I wonder why I didn’t notice it all summer when the quince was full with gloss-green leaves and pink blossoms, when I could hear the buzz of a thousand honeybees inside the house, even with closed windows.  I remember the tangy, sharp taste of a quince. That residue stays with me on this frozen day as I watch my dog snuff the earth for the remains of rabbit poop, or deer or bear—that musk that will make him roll over in delight.

I look more closely at the nest.  Glorying in its perfect woven form, its empty hollows, its intact shape.  What bird constructed this beautiful home?  A warbler, a purple finch, a wren?  I know it wasn’t a barn swallow, for one darted all summer out of its mud and twig ill-shaped home in the eaves of my barn.  I see shadows of wings, the fireflies sparking, the night coming on cool and sweet as we sat socially distanced on the back porch laughing with friends. Candles lit and flickering, masked, we watched the night descend, shared stories—our eyes filled with warmth breaching the distance between us.  The pandemic was at a low ebb; now in December that time is gone.

How did I miss this nest in summer I wonder.   How did I miss the sheltering mother?  How did I miss the eggs carefully laid and protected?  How did I miss fledgling bird tweets or chirps?  How did I miss the small wings flapping in the nest, then taking off into the sky?  Why do I only now experience this absence of life not presence?     

I return to watching Rufus race around the yard.  We must make do with small pleasures.  Past visions of pre-pandemic times sift through my fingers like dry crumbs of bread.  I imagine these crumbs mark  a path in the snow, traces that take me not to a witch’s den, but memories of unmasked times, of heartfelt embraces. 

Now the nest is empty.  The babies hatched, no  beaks opening wide for food, no mama sheltering them—the brood on their migratory journey.  And what about us?  I stare at the bare branches of trees, the twined hatched nest.  I think of the hollows of space I now inhabit, of houses emptied of touch, of hugs, of gatherings, of smiles.  In this small town I live in on the edge of the Catskills, we all must be satisfied with  our empty nests, hoping for a return of spring.  Haunted by yowls of coyotes,  calling out to each other, echoing  in far off hills.

Jan Zlotnik Schmidt’s work has been published in many journals including the The Alaska Quarterly Review, Cream City Review, and  Kansas Quarterly.  Her work also has been nominated for the Pushcart Press Prize.  Two volumes of poetry were published by the Edwin Mellen Press (We Speak in Tongues, 1991; She had this memory, 2000) and another, Foraging for Light recently was published by Finishing Line Press. (2019).

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