The Warbler’s Necropsy

by Joel Hans

The songbirds are dying, and when people have nowhere else to take the remains, they bring them to the veterinarian. Shrikes with black eyebands like robbers and a finch’s purple plume and chipping sparrows with copper domes. Their bodies roiling, wings extended as she sorts, tiny beaks grazing her skin. Warbler yellow like prairiegrasses against a slab of gray wing, flat-topped waxwing with its neck twisted, eye open. This, disease. This, an epidemic.

There is a policy: Suss out the species. Silktails here, small-bodies there. Bodytype, color, distinguishing features. Crowns, plumes, the width and angles of toes, patterns on the body. Triangles of color. Bodies roll in her hands like toys. In them, she cannot see any history of song or flight. They look so dead. As far as she knows, they have always been.

When the sorting is done, when all the corpses are laid out on the floor of the veterinarian’s clinic by color—taupe, auburn, mahogany, so many shades of gray—she stands back and she holds up her hands. She closes her eyes, counts the beats of her heart. And then she raises her arms, tries to orchestrate them in a choir, as she had dreamed about since she was a child. Only now, when it’s finally real, there are no more songs to be made.

Sometimes, the veterinarian brings her six-year-old daughter into the clinic. This works because the girl cannot talk, or refuses to. The veterinarian slips into the back of the clinic to see her daughter kneeling on the floor with the birds, rolling them between her hands. With each one, the girl opens her mouth like she is trying to trill the same songs these birds had chirped from treelimbs. Again and again, bird to hand, mouth open, tongue rolling, breath leaving her body. The cardinal, the thrush, the blue jay, the catbird, the cedar waxwing, the finch, the grackle.

“It’s not safe,” the veterinarian says. The girl shakes her head. “Well, at least wear gloves.” The veterinarian finds extra-small latex gloves and hands them to her daughter. She opens them at the wrist and looks inside of them, as though they contain treasures for her keeping.

And then the girl kneels once more, her hands clasped together as if in prayer, as she takes up the Hooded Oriole, fans out the wings, testing the humerus, bending the metacarpals. The veterinarian kneels alongside her and remembers the day she was caring for a Schnauzer with a broken hindlimb, when her daughter peeled open a bottle of high-concentration hydrogen peroxide and ravaged her throat. The latticework of burns down her throat and into her stomach have long since healed, but the veterinarian will never forget how the girl’s mouth and tongue turned black in the nights after, this gaping maw of darkness, a black hole where her voice descended.

The veterinarian wants to ask her daughter what she’s doing, but what she’s learned from having a mute child that questions without a lead only lead to her frustration. Instead, she just watches as her daughter ruffles the chestnut belly, opens her mouth, and ambles for the next subject in the line. Chestnut to umber to charcoal to cerulean and all the way to the threadbare plumage of that poor, poor warbler. Again and again, mouth open, voiceless.

The girl sleeps in the dog kennel and the veterinarian can work. A man brings in a plastic bag with a dozen corpses: mating pair of cardinals, three cedar waxwings, others she forgets. Too many species, too many variations. What is clear is they must be necropsied.

There are necessary tools: four-inch scalpel, forceps, syringes, bone shears, tissue scissors, bottles containing formaline. Needles for collecting blood from the heart. The veterinarian sanitizes, lays them out. She takes the closest: the yellow warbler.

There are required motions: Press water into the gold-colored feathers until it takes into the barbules. Scissor into the corner of the mouth, revealing the oral cavity, the bone-backed tongue. Continue that incision through the neck and toward the body, skin peeling back zipper-like and dousing feathers in blood. Snip the esophagus, the larynx and trachea. Take note of the smell. Look into each of the pink tubular structures. Take note of nothing.

Say a small thanks. Say an apology.

Reflect the skin of the thighs, disarticulate the hip joints. Expose muscles and joints with mechanisms small as clockwork. Incise into the breast, spread the skin and feathers. Cringe as bone scissors snap through the clavicles, left, right. Look at the organs. Everything is okay—there is no plague between the intestines and the stomach, no cancer, no cruel disease keeping the birds from breathing. Pull out the ventral abdominal wall, watch as air sacs tear, deflate.

Stop. There is a rustle, a movement of bodies. The veterinarian feels the girl’s presence, the way she leans into the examination table, rises up onto the ends of her toes. And when the girl gasps, uses her lungs to make sound, cease all patterns. Deviate from the procedures: say something like, “What did you say?” Or, “What are you trying to say?” Or, both.

The girl is still wearing the latex gloves—she must have fallen asleep with them—and she grazes her finger across the lungs, two blush burls. The veterinarian loops forceps beneath to pull them out of the cavity, but the girl shakes her head, uses her finger to draw a longitudinal incision. The veterinarian obliges, uses her fingers to tease apart the lobes and finds there, tucked among the parabronchi, a rock.

Or a growth of keratin, curved and with an entrance, like a shell, with a small darkness within. The veterinarian extracts it with tweezers and holds it to the light. The girl gives her mother a look. The veterinarian knows this is not the cartilage pessulus that hides at the base of the avian vocal chords. It is something different. Still, there is a reason to be thankful: The answer is here, in the lungs, and the necropsy is finished as far as she is concerned—this way, she will not have to decapitate a hundred songbirds tonight.

The next evening, after the veterinarian has euthanized a Pit Bull pockmarked by cancer, she carries the body to the freezer and sees her daughter standing over the necropsied bodies of the songbirds, each paired with a small plastic bag for the stone found in its lungs. She has one bag in her hand, and she holds it close to her eye.

“Honey, please don’t touch those,” the veterinarian says.

The girl shakes her head. She points at the bag, and the stone within, and then at her own chest.

“I know. It came from inside of them. From their lungs.”

The girl nods, repeats the motion. The veterinarian is exhausted from work and threadbare from her daughter’s nonsense—doctors affirmed the girl was physically capable of speaking, and now, all the veterinarian wants is to be called by her other title, this small word mom. Until then, she is nameless. The girl repeats the motion: stone breath lung, stone breath lung. The veterinarian wishes she was finished with caring for creatures that cannot explain themselves.

“Stop it,” the veterinarian says. “Go back to the kennel. Try to sleep, please.”

And when the door is closed, the veterinarian pushes aside the songbirds and sleeps on the floor amid them. She wakes later and reaches out for the bag holding the warbler’s stone. They must have come from somewhere, she thinks. She unzips the seal and rolls the bead into her palm. She thinks about her daughter: stone breath lung. Only now, she reverses the process, blows across the shell to make a whistling: teeea, teeea, teeeeeea.

The veterinarian pulls a dosage of butorphanol and diazepam in the dark. Her body half inside the kennel with her sleeping daughter, the patterns are the same as any dog: stroke a hand through the hair, sterilize the entry point, apologize, slide in the needle.

The veterinarian pulls the girl’s limpness out of the kennel, drags her into the birdless space on the floor, in which she had slept. She kisses the girl’s head and takes out the endotracheal tube, the laryngoscope, slips her finger into her daughter’s mouth, widens the space between her teeth, inserts the tube.

And then she opens up the bags containing the stones, one by one, letting them drop into the palm of her hand. She fills her hand with their delicate structures, rolls them around, begins to insert them through the tube, into the pocket between the girl’s lungs and her vocal chords. She gives her something she can’t quite define. Hope, perhaps, or simply a prayer solidified.

When that is done, she pulls the tube from her daughter’s throat and holds her, body so cold and limp she may as well be dead. Together, they sleep.

The veterinarian wakes to her daughter’s wide eyes, open mouth. She says everything will be okay. The girl is eventually strong enough to stand, and when she uprights herself, she starts coughing, deep sighs from inside a hidden part of her body. The veterinarian prays she will not have to slice open her daughter’s throat tonight.

The girl stands upright and opens her mouth. She purses her lips and makes the songbirds’ language. She trills and holds soprano notes and waltzes through the scales. She speaks in abstract ways, with words the veterinarian can barely understand, so twisted and murmured that she wonders if she’s just hearing what she wants to hear.

Sweet sweet sweet! I’m so sweet! The yellow warbler, the first. Of course.

The veterinarian embraces her daughter. She knows the songbirds had lost their songs as they grew into ossified and hardened nodules of melody. And when they dropped down into their lungs, what else did they have to live for?

Please please pleased to meet ‘cha! The chestnut-sided warbler.

Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will.

The girl is parrot-like in her repetition of these vocabularies, and when the veterinarian asks her to name certain objects—chair or dog or mom—she receives only coughing in return, followed by more birdsongs. She remembers there were no mockingbirds in the collection, nothing capable of mimicking the human voice.

“I’m sorry,” the veterinarian says.

But I DO love you! The eastern meadowlark, now.

Is this when she is supposed to hold her daughter and tell her everything will be okay? Maybe it’s enough, just for now. Maybe she should be thankful for the vocabulary of dozens instead of one, even if they are short-stocked. Maybe she should just appreciate the beautiful languageless of her daughter’s new voice. But all she can do is wait for a lonely knock on the door late in the night, another delivery, another batch to be necropsied. More death, please, and quickly.

But I DO love you!

The veterinarian wants to believe this will be enough, but knows it won’t. A dozen phrases isn’t enough. Is this the point where she hopes it will continue, that it will spread and make all these species extinct, so that she might be able to find the right combination of stones, of swallowed songs? The girl is smiling for the first time since her throat bubbled and burned. Is this the point where epidemic matures into hope? Into beauty?

Please please pleased to meet ‘cha!

“No, honey, this is your mother,” the veterinarian says. “Mother. Mom. Please.”

But I DO love you!

But I DO love you!


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