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Death of a Ornithologist

by on August 22, 2010

I first noticed the feathers three days before my mother’s death. They were dark grey, fluffy and very soft. About ten of them were strewn around her head when I opened the curtains. She seemed unsurprised to see them; she just ran one gently across her lips. ‘Larus dominicanus: seagull’, she said and smiled. I smiled too, even in her last days, exhausted by endless pain, my mother was still an ornithologist.

The next morning the feathers were all over the room: not just down but also contour feathers and the long straight flight remiges. After I had cleaned up I tried to ask what had happened but between the morphine and the pain she didn’t seem to understand me. Instead she loosely mumbled about avian dreams: endless flights in lonely clear skies; diving through the sea mists above crashing rocks; surfing the wind of a tropical storm. I knew then her death was near, such sentimental flights of fancy were most unlike her.

On the third morning I found the last feather: A single, pure white basal rectrix: a flight feather from the tail.   She looked quietly happy lying in bed with the feather clasped in her right hand above the coverlet – it was some time before I realized she was dead.

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8 Comments
  1. This is a story about Our Hero’s mother as she dies. As she slowly succumbs to pain and morphine, feathers begin appearing around her room (she’s an ornithologist — presumably she’s getting them out from some collection she has), and it becomes clear that she’s dreaming of flying.

    Great piece, I really enjoyed it. It gives a good feeling for what the mother’s love in life was. I thought the emotion in it was kept tight and restrained, which I think makes the end more poignant for me. Nice.

    > not just down but also contour feathers and the long straight flight
    > remiges.
    This is the only sentence I had a (very minor) problem with: I first read “down” as a preposition, and not a noun. This is a very small niggle, though.

    > After I had cleaned up I tried to ask what had happened
    I think you could remove “tried to”.

    > such sentimental flights of fancy were most unlike her.
    I liked this sentence: the way it’s talking about sentimentality but with an ending (“most unlike her”) that seems quite formal, and feels opposed to sentimentality. And then the whole piece seems lightly sentimental, but maybe that’s just me reading in to it.

    • Glad you liked it. I never imagined the feathers would be understood as prosaically as from a collection nearby
      See what you mean with ‘down’ – will look for a suitable (more technical) replacement.
      ‘tried to’ – Yes! Sometimes you look at your own work and wonder what the hell you where thinking.

  2. A lovely piece of writing, restrained and evocative; I love the way it drifts between realism and the sense of something weirder and more literally fantastic. I think you undercut the potential sentimentality very nicely with the amount of technical detail you give on the feathers themselves – effective and well-balanced, and very much about the way that grief sometimes causes distraction into meaningless details.

    I may have to quibble with your commas slightly, since I find some of your sentences string together comma clauses in a slightly unweildy way. e.g.:
    “I smiled too, even in her last days, exhausted by endless pain, my mother was still an ornithologist” needs a colon after “I smiled too”.
    “After I had cleaned up I tried to ask what had happened but between the morphine and the pain she didn’t seem to understand me” – possibly needs a comma after “happened”?
    “I knew then her death was near, such sentimental flights of fancy were most unlike her” – I’d use a semicolon rather than a comma, but I’m unnaturally fond of semicolons.

    • Very flattered that you liked it and glad that it didn’t come across as too sentimental.

      Thanks for you punctuation help – I had changed and re-changed both the ‘I smiled too..’ and the ‘I knew death…’ sentences and was never happy with them – your way is definitely better for both.

      Have since read up on commas, ‘but’ and independent clauses – will get my ‘but’/’and’ commas right in the future I hope.

      • It’s actually not about “right” versus “wrong” use of commas etc – for me it’s about the balance and flow and cadence of the sentence. More like tweaking music than grammar :>.

        For the record, I think “I tried to ask what had happened” worked very well (disagrees madly with Rudy…) – the tentative failure of “tried” is an important modifier to the action, which is very different without it.

  3. cbraz permalink

    I found this piece very beautiful and serene (even with feathers strewn about the room :-)) I completely read it as the mother slowly drifting into another form/life as a bird – becoming something else as she died. It is a lovely and very positive death scene.

    I loved the flowing descriptions of avian dreams and wished for more of them.

    I work with commas similarly to docinatrix – by feel rather than a set of rules. I had the same problems with the same sentences.

    Thanks 🙂

  4. parfles permalink

    I agree with commenters – beautiful piece and not too sentimental!

    I saw it as a transformation but agree that Rudy’s view is valid and possible. In a way, there is a parallel here with Docinatrix’s story – the death and the transformation into a bird. Swap starlings for seagulls and you can read the chasm story as the dream of the dying ornithologist 🙂

    Thank you, I enjoyed this!

  5. Very groovy.
    Just sentimental enough.
    Sad but not pathetic.

    I’m with Doc re commas in “I smiled too” and “I knew then her death was near.” Semicolons feel more appropriate and give better flow.
    I’m with Rudy on “such sentimental flights of fancy were most unlike her.” Perfectly pitched.

    I didn’t have a problem with down. Mind you, I grew up with an Eiderdown instead of a duvet, so…

    I also really liked “it was some time before I realized she was dead.” Something about the day to day drudgery of long term illness and going through the motions really worked for me.

    The technical detail adds a lot of flavour.

    Me like!

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