The tired man and the sparrow

In the dim twilight inside the old barn, the man stood on the stepladder holding the screaming circular saw waist-high and pushed the blade along the blue chalk line in the old dry boards. The late afternoon light bore in through the raw slice; a laser of gold teeming with swirling sawdust, tracing a perfect horizontal line along the far wall of the new horse stall. The man stepped up higher on the ladder and pushed the saw again, this time along the top chalk line, and each severed board tipped outward and tumbled 15 feet onto the 200-year-old granite foundation blocks. When the last board fell, the man lowered the saw to the floor by its cord, its blade spinning down in a metallic whine, and then he stepped down off the ladder.

He took off his leather gloves, held them together in his right hand, and smacked the dry pine sawdust from his jeans and from the sleeves of his torn work shirt. He skidded the ladder away from the bright new rectangle of light in the wall of the barn and then he crossed his arms on the sill of the opening and looked out.

The opening would be a window for a horse that was due to arrive any day. A window the horse could look out from so it wouldn’t be bored. The man had been working on the stall for two weeks because his daughter was 14 and she dreamed of having a horse — and the man knew that his daughter would be 14 exactly once, and he knew that he would be her father exactly once, and he loved her so. Those three things made it all worth it.

But worth it wasn’t easy. The lumber for the stall had cost more money and the project had taken more time than he had expected. He had burned up a bunch of vacation days from work. Was getting behind on other things. Was tired and his back hurt from working off the ladder. So, he leaned heavily against the new window opening and caught his breath.

The circular saw had gone quiet, now. The October air was warm and sweet and the afternoon hung limply like a wet blanket on a line. The man’s wife and daughter had gone to town. There was no breeze. Only stillness.

In the stillness, the man began to think. Think about the mortgage and that busted windowpane in the shed and that funny noise his car had been making lately. About insulating the back room and digging the last carrots and buying propane and coiling up hoses before they froze. About time and money and energy and just not enough of any of them.

As his mind swirled, the man caught a tiny movement at the edge of his vision. He shifted his eyes, but saw nothing. He kept looking because he was certain he had seen something, a tiny twitch down among the fallen leaves and dry grass. He stared hard. For a minute. For two. Then, the something moved again, perhaps an eighth of an inch, and he saw it. A tiny chipping sparrow the color of fallen leaves and dry grass was perched on the tipped edge of an old rusty bucket buried in the weeds and half filled with black rainwater. The twitches had been the mere turnings of the bird’s tiny head.

For 15 minutes, the man didn’t move. Didn’t shuffle his feet. Breathed deliberately. Hardly blinked. Every minute or two, the sparrow would take a cautious lateral step along the rim of the bucket. Then, it would dart its head north and south, to the sides and behind, up and down. Watching. Listening. Wary. At last, when it was sure the world was good, the bird took a final small step, bent, shut its shiny black eyes, dipped its beak into the old, rusty water and sipped.

That’s what I really want, the man decided as the sparrow drank. Clarity. Simple clarity. The kind of focused purpose that means you can spend a quarter of an hour deciding to take a drink of water. Imagine that kind of single-mindedness, the man thought, and his tiredness pulled down hard, and for a moment he longed to be the sparrow.

Then, a car pulled into the dooryard and the spell was broken. The man’s daughter came bouncing into the barn and ran up to him. “Oh my gosh Dad a window for my horse!” she said, and then she wrapped one arm around his sawdusty neck and laid her head on his shoulder. The man was still quiet and still hadn’t moved and his daughter caught him staring down into the fallen leaves and dry grass. “What are you looking at, Dad?” she asked. “Nothing. Nothing at all,” he said, and then he turned and kissed her forehead. His tiredness had lifted with the sparrow, and both were gone

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