We were in a summer cottage and our 6-year-old, Jimmy, was playing outside. Suddenly he appeared at the back door, tears streaming down his cheeks.
"I didn't mean to . . ." he blurted. "The little bird . . . I didn't think I'd hit it . . . I was just . . ."
Margaret calmed him down, and we learned what had happened. He had seen a wren near the ground and had tossed a stone at it, never dreaming he'd come close to it. To his surprise and horror he'd hit the bird and killed it. Or so he thought.
We knew this wren. There was a small birdhouse near the back door of the cottage, and when we sat on the patio we'd see a pair of wrens flitting to and from its tiny entrance. My wife said there must be eggs in the nest and that the wrens we saw were the parents. Now one of the parents was gone.
"Oh, Jimmy," my wife said.
"Where is the bird?" I said. "Maybe he isn't dead."
"He is," Jimmy said. "I buried him."
"You buried him? Where?"
We went outside and Jimmy led us to where he had scooped a shallow hole and had laid the bird to rest.
Except there was nothing there but the hole. The grave was empty.
I wondered if a cat had robbed the grave, but my wife spotted the wren lying nearby among some leaves and twigs, obviously hurt but alive. We picked him up — he looked at us without enthusiasm but gave no resistance — and carried him into the kitchen. We put him in a small cardboard box with shredded newspaper as a nest of sorts. He lay sprawled on his side, his bill half open, one wing splayed outward. His feathers were lined with dirt. He looked awful.
We put the box on a counter and stood around awkwardly, watching. Nothing happened. The bird just lay there. We felt helpless.
"Maybe we should give him some brandy," I said. "Don't they give people brandy? Would it work with a bird?"
"We haven't any brandy," my wife said.
"We have gin. Maybe we should give him some gin."
"You always think of gin."
"Well, we ought to do something."
I poured some Beefeater into a small glass and found a toothpick. Gently, Margaret reached into the box and lifted the bird. I held his beak open with one hand and with the other dipped the toothpick into the gin and shook a couple of drops down his throat. Wham! The wren reacted violently, broke from Margaret's grasp and fell into the box.
"I think we've killed him," I said.
"Oh, God," she said.
But he was still alive, his tiny chest rising and falling rapidly.
That night he was still alive, even seemed a little better. We worried about leaving the box in the kitchen in case the bird got out of it during the night. To be safe we put the box on the screened porch and made sure the doors were closed tight.
In the morning, with my wife watching from a window, I went out to the porch to check on things.
"He's not in the box!" I cried.
"Where is he? Where did he go?"
"I don't know! He's got to be around here someplace."
Then I saw him, a dirty, ruffled, rather indignant lump of feathers in a corner of the porch.
"There he is!" I yelled, and my voice must have startled him because he took off and fluttered around, looking for a way out. He hit a screen and collapsed to the floor, breathing hard. I opened the screen door and stood to one side, inviting him to escape. After a doubtful moment or two he took off and flew crookedly toward the door. He missed it by a foot, banged into another screen and hit the floor again.
We were appalled. That does it, I thought. He's cooked. But the little bird gathered himself, got to his feet and, I swear on my mother's grave, walked through the open doorway. He seemed to be limping a little. When he got to the top of the steps outside he paused for a moment and then took off, flying out in a wavering circle, around the house, we presumed, and back to the birdhouse near the kitchen door.
When Jimmy awoke we told him the good news, and to celebrate we decided to eat breakfast out on the patio. As we carried the breakfast dishes outside Margaret said, "Listen!"
It was a chorus of chirping, little piping chirps.
"The eggs have hatched!" Margaret said. "There are baby wrens in the birdhouse."
I stood silent for a moment, awed by the resiliency and persistence of nature, and then — I couldn't help it — I started to laugh. I couldn't stop.
"What are you laughing at?" Margaret asked.
"I'm thinking about that poor bird."
"What about him?"
"Well, he doesn't get home until 8 in the morning. He reeks of gin and his clothes are a mess. His distraught wife has spent the night all alone bringing six or seven children into the world. She says, despairingly, 'Where were you?' He says, 'You won't believe this, but I was hit over the head and buried alive. I dug my way out, but then I was kidnapped. They forced martinis down my throat and kept me prisoner all night. I couldn't escape until this morning.' His wife, now furious, says, 'You're damned right I don't believe you. Where the hell have you been?'"