Homework

Author: 
CIELO LUTINO
Issue: 
Spring 2013

 

“She wants you to do what?” My father stands with me in the backyard, smoking and skeptical. We are peering at the blue autumn sky, the pines, the crepe myrtles, the slender saplings, and out past the fence to the woods and Mr. Limehouse’s farm. The pines are too tall to climb; the others, too thin. Not that it makes a difference. We don’t see any nests.

That’s my assignment, and I repeat it to him: Find or make a bird’s nest to bring to class next week.

He takes a hard, quick drag, exhales smoke. “Why?”

I sigh. My father treats me and my sister like adults, though I am only seven and Maralea is just four. I mean, honestly – that question. Does it matter? It’s what the teacher wants. Who cares? I shrug. Scowl at my father. He’s the adult; he’s taller. He’s supposed to find me a nest.

But as we walk the perimeter of the yard, our heads tilted up toward the trees, I know I’m a goner. There are no nests. Or maybe there are, but the birds don’t build them for you to see. That’s what my father tells me, that most creatures want to blend in with their surroundings. It’s safer, he says, can’t pick them out as prey that way.

We reach the chain-link fence separating our yard from Mr. Limehouse’s property. “Yeah, but what about bluebirds and peacocks?” I ask. “They don’t look like the woods, and they’re prettier. You can always spot them, I bet.”

He leans against the fence and squints at the tree-filled horizon. “I don’t understand your teacher,” he says, ignoring me. “She told you to steal a bird’s nest, its house?”

My voice stutters with exasperation. “Ye-eh-eh-eh-es. I already told you, Dad.”

“Well, that’s weird. Don’t seem right.” He finishes his cigarette and walks back towards the house. “Sorry, ain’t none out here.”

He’s only been in the States three years, but already my father talks like a hick. Yesterday when I told him I wanted to start a band someday, he chuckled, flashed at me the dimples I inherited, and said, “That dog don’t hunt.” I just stared at him.

Now I stomp behind him. I know there are nests nearby, and this is my chance to take the easy route, to find – not build – one. But my father’s giving up just like that. Back inside I know he’ll fry up corned beef hash from a can instead of scouring Mr. Limehouse’s farm for my nest. I sulk my way past him in the kitchen where he’s whistling and banging cupboards shut. In the living room in plain sight of him, I watch two episodes of Tom and Jerry one right after the other. When I turn around an hour later to see if he’s sorry, he’s not. He’s moved to the garage. I can hear him in there, fiddling with the car. “I’m not doing my homework, you know,” I yell in his direction. No response.

I am going to have to build that nest on my own.

 

At school I’m never lippy like that because I don’t talk. I keep my hands on the desk where the teacher can see them; I still my foot from tapping against all the things it wants to tap against. And when we’re handed fat, green pencils with dull ends for tracing the alphabet, I don’t frown and mention my crayon-width pencil at home with its sharp lead point. I’m good, the kind of girl the nuns would’ve smilingly patted on the head.

The nuns. I can picture them back in the Philippines at the private Catholic elementary where my Tita Loy teaches, where I spent a happy year of school. She’s there, stopping to gossip with the nuns before leading my uniformed classmates, one line of boys and another of girls, both sets linking hands, chattering and content as they cross the school courtyard. I’m here in the States, in the suburbs of South Carolina, looking for a bird’s nest.

“Does anyone have questions about their homework?” Ms. Murray asks. She’s dark-haired, fair-skinned, pink-cheeked, and I think she looks like Snow White. I want her to like me and to give me four – no, five – gold stars on everything, but I don’t answer. Next to me Melanie Bowen passes a note to Rhonda Greene two desks ahead, and up front I can see Chris Smith drawing a dragon in his notebook. No one pays attention to Ms. Murray. Most of them have found their nests. I know because they talked about it before class, Rhonda gushing about how she and her older brother had found a robin’s nest, Justin Bello saying he thinks he’s got a cardinal’s but he’s not sure.

As usual, I had stood at the edge of their conversation, waiting for a chance to join in. I still wasn’t sure about my new classmates, though I’d been in school with them for almost a year already. None of them looked like me, and when I mentioned the kinds of things we ate at home – eggrolls, rice, sinigang – they just looked at me. I shut up after a while and spent a lot of recesses alone, wondering what Doris, my best friend back in Manila, was doing or what happened to the wooden toy snake I’d left behind. The months at school had been lonely and painful, but I kept quiet about it around my family. It didn’t seem like I was ever going to get back to Tita Loy or Doris or the nuns. No use explaining how my chest tightened at night with missing them or what it was like to sit hushed all day while everyone else chatted and giggled. Maybe my parents felt as I did. No one ever visited our house, and sometimes, when my mother and I looked at albums together, she lingered over photos that our relatives in Manila had sent, images of cousins I had never met, outings with aunts and uncles we would never join. Afterward she would get as quiet as I was at school. But now I had to know about the nests.

“How did you find them?” I ask, remembering the greens and browns of the tree branches my father and I had scanned. They had all just seemed to meld together, hiding their treasures. “Where did you get your nests?”

Melanie rolled her eyes and said slowly like I didn’t understand English, “In. The. Trees.”

The scene replays in my head as I sit quiet for the rest of class.

 

At home, there is no sitting still. I clomp around the backyard gathering twigs and leaves. Maralea trails at my heels, picking up pine needles and lingering at the back fence where she talks to the goats across the gully at Mr. Limehouse’s farm. Eventually she joins me by the hose at the back of the house where I’m kneeling, combining dirt and water in a large mixing bowl I took from the kitchen before our mother got home. A mud pie. I figure I’ll sculpt it into a nest shape.

“You’re dirty,” Maralea says.

I ignore her. “I need newspaper,” I say pointedly.

She sighs, drops her pine needles on my pile of sticks and Spanish moss, and toddles off to the house. I hear the screen door slide open and shut, and after ten minutes she returns with newspaper and our parents.

My mother stands with her arms folded across her chest, eyebrows slightly knit. “Chi-chi,” she says, calling me by my nickname, “you’re getting dirty.” Maralea shoots me a look. Our mother hates messes.

“Put the newspaper here,” I tell Maralea, gesturing to the ground beside me. She and our parents watch as I lift the muddy mass onto the newspaper. The mud-pie-as-nest oozes a little, and I begin adding sticks and leaves as reinforcement. It’s tough going because bits of the newspaper rip and stick to the mud. It doesn’t look like a bird’s nest.

“That doesn’t look like a bird’s nest,” Maralea says. I frown and settle muddy hands on my knees. My mother clicks her tongue against her teeth.

“It needs a good base,” my father says. “We can use the leftover plywood from the patio.”

He leaves for the garage. To his back, I say loudly, “It’s my nest. I can do it myself.”

His answer floats back to me as he heads in the garage. “Yeah, yeah, I know.”

My small-boned mother flits around me, simultaneously trying to remove and avoid the dirt covering my hands and knees, her weaving like the flight path of a disturbed wren. “Let’s go inside and wash up,” she says finally. I grumble but follow her inside. She’s saying something about the sticks I used, but I’m not listening. My mother is an engineer; she talks about boring stuff all the time.

“I’m going to help your father find that plywood,” she says suddenly.

“It’s my nest, my project,” I tell her, but the next day my family rallies around the assignment as if it’s theirs. My father paints a square of plywood an inexplicable shade of royal blue, which confuses me long enough for him to shape chicken wire into a frame for the nest. I plaster mud onto the frame and have to admit that the wire holds everything together better.

“But it’s my nest,” I repeat.

“Yep. Yours,” my father says.

I draw from the stack of soft twigs my mother convinced me I needed and weave one into the mud and chicken wire. We had argued about the twigs earlier outside in the dewy morning, me not understanding why they had to be soft. “They’ll need to bend for the roundness,” she said, ripping a twig from the dogwood.

“But the birds don’t do this,” I said, as I imitated her pulling and tugging at the littlest branches. “They need these branches to put their nests on, Mom.”

“You’re not a bird,” she replied.

Later, as I bend a twig around the circular frame, I concede that my mother might have had a point. The branches twist easily and stiffen with the mud and leaves and Spanish moss as they dry together over several hours. I spend the rest of the day running in and out of the house to see if the nest has dried, poking it where it sits on the patio table, and when it’s finally hard, I call everyone outside to look at it.

“You guys, you guys! It’sreadyit’sreadyit’sready! The nest is reehhhdee!” I holler through the screen door.

My mother, father, and sister join me on the patio where I beam and tell them to go ahead and touch it, touch the nest. They circle it, pat its cool mud surface, and make appropriate cooing noises. It’s a foot wide, three inches high, and three inches thick. A real mother of a nest. My family and I smile at each other across the table. We did it. It took the whole weekend, but we did it. “Good job, Chi,” my father says.

The nest looks amazing.

 

On Monday my mother and I slide the nest sideways into a brown paper bag for me to carry to school. She lifts it onto my outstretched arms, my knees buckling from the weight when it lands. It feels like my arms are going to break.

“Are you sure you have it?” my mother asks.

“Yes,” I say.

She must hear something in my voice because she offers to carry the nest to the bus stop for me.

“No! It’s mine,” I say.

“Well, let me at least take it to the end of the driveway for you,” she says, sighing.

I let her do this, but when we’re at the street, I make her give it back to me. “It’s heavy, Chi,” my mother says.

I tighten the straps on my backpack, take a deep breath, and put my arms out, palms up. “Okay, I’m ready.”

She slowly lowers the grocery bag onto my arms. I tell her I have it, but I can feel her watchful eyes following me as I wobble off to the bus stop around the corner. I’m hot and sweaty when I get there, and Cathy, who lives across the street, asks wide-eyed if I need help.

“Uh, no, I’m okay,” I say, lying.

“What is that?” she asks. Maurice and Jeremy from the next block over swarm around us, and the three of them peer into the bag.

“It’s a nest,” I tell them.

“You got an eagle’s nest! Girl, you got an eagle’s nest,” Maurice booms. “Where’d you get an eagle’s nest?”

“It’s not an eagle’s nest,” I squawk.

“I didn’t know eagles lived around here,” Jeremy says. “I have to tell my dad.”

“It’s not an eagle’s nest,” I reassure him.

The bus pulls up, and the new worry becomes how I’m going to climb onto the bus. Somehow I make it up one shaky step at a time, relief washing over me as I sit flexing my red, numb arms out in front of me, the nest resting on my lap. The ride to school is filled with buzzy talk about the nest, the kids from class holding the ones they found up for comparison. Theirs are small and delicate.

“Where’d you find yours?” Debby asks. I tell her I made it.

“Wow,” she says. Uh huh, I nod.

The exhausting process of picking up the nest and walking it to class begins when we arrive at school, but I’m flushed and energetic from the attention of the kids around me. “It’s an eagle’s house,” I hear Maurice say behind me. “No way!”someone responds.

When I finally rest the bag on my desk, it takes up the entire surface. The nest is unveiled, its herculean grandeur dwarfing those of my classmates’ more humble finds. They circle it, Maurice insisting it’s an eagle’s house. Justin argues with him, tells him, no, it’s from a dinosaur. Hearing this, one of the girls squeals, a sound the other girls take up until Chris snorts loudly.

“Dinosaurs are extinct, stupid,” he says to Justin.

“Yeah, well, she found it, dummy,” Justin shoots back. “You did, didn’t you?”

All eyes turn to me where I sit at the center of the circle, but I don’t answer because the bell has rung and Ms. Murray is striding over to the crowd at my desk. She smiles at the lot of us. “Why do you think it’s an eagle’s nest, Maurice?” she asks.

“Look at it,” he says. “It’s gigantic!”

A chorus of voices melts with his. A million birds could live in that nest, one shouts. No, a billion! Big Bird, someone else says. The answer meets with scorn. No, just one big bird, not Big Bird, I hear scoffed. Like an eagle, an eagle, another person interrupts. Ms. Murray shushes them and begins to question the group, turning the next thirty minutes into a lesson about birds and nest-making and seasonal migration. We finally move away from my desk to Carrie Westing’s spectacularly small specimen up front. Melanie turns to me as the crowd moves towards the front of the room. “Really cool nest,” she says.

“I agree,” Ms. Murray smiles at me. “Very good work.”

I grin up at her, thinking, Five stars, Ms. Murray, five stars. “I had help.”

“You’re the only one out of the whole class who made a nest,” Ms. Murray says, still smiling.

I walk slowly behind her toward my classmates. I feel funny after her comment, like I’m left out again, so I try to focus on something else instead. I look for Melanie in the crowd ahead of us, but I can’t make out her brown curls from the other heads bent over Carrie’s desk.

I look back at my nest. It really is so much bigger than the others. I’m sure it could hold more than one bird. I’m sure it could hold a family of them, bluebirds nestled side by side, tucked warmly against one another behind hard, temporary mud until it’s time for them to rise together and fly to wherever bluebirds go in the winter. This I’m sure of.