Teddy Bear, Bee, Bluebird, Snowflakes. Prison art by Crane-Station on flickr.
note: Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account.
Frog Gravy contains graphic language.
KCIW PeWee Valley women’s penitentiary, 1-20-09.
The birds know me. The inmates know that the birds know me, and everyone calls me Bird Lady.
As if by unwritten rule, many prison inmates are assigned nicknames; most often the names are apt. Pickles, Bam-Bam, One-Tit, Wheels. You can sort of get an idea where the name came from, if you know the inmate. I suppose fellow inmates changed the gender of the Bird Man of Alcatraz, dropped the Alcatraz part and left it at Bird Lady. At any rate, this is my name at PeWee. Many people will never know my real name. Since I am an ‘older lady’ by prison standards, some of the inmates combine a respectful Southern greeting with the name and call me “Miss Bird Lady.”
The incarceration experience is a bit like being a passenger on a train, in that people enter and exit my life like ghosts. I will learn the most tragic and intimate details of women’s lives, and they will learn mine, but then they are gone, and I will wonder if I imagined the whole thing. The woman whose nineteen-year-old son died in a boating accident and she attended his funeral in shackles. The woman who moved during count and was taken to the hole, where she labored alone and birthed a baby son. The passing parade of women in the overcrowded jail cells, who sometimes spent years warehoused in cement. Lasting impressions. Fleeting.
Over and over I am told to ‘do the time, don’t let the time do you.’ The prison birds, who do not have to be here, help me with this.
Starlings are very smart, and when I come up the path at 5 PM every day I whistle at them. They must know my walk or something, because they come when they see me, but not other inmates. Lately it has been bitter cold. When I come up the path the birds wait on the fence for me. They wait on a stretch of fence topped with coiled razor wire that serves no purpose.
The fence is a wall within the walls of the prison. You can walk around the end of it to get to the other side. The razor wire on top of this non-barrier barrier adds to dramatic effect and reminds me that I am in prison. If the fence could talk it would say, “You are a scumbag. Haha, of course no one would ever dream of climbing over an open-ended fence. I am here to snag the occasional bird, and remind you that you are a scumbag.”
The birds on top of the purposeless yet dramatic non-fence fence say different things to me. They say, “Bitch, look. We are here to show you that you are one of God’s children, but dangit, we’re hungry. Toss us some crumbs and we’ll show you a good time.”
A mockingbird who has graduated to the top of the utility pole gets my attention when he shouts, “Ebert!! EbertEbertEbertEbertEbert. Eeeee-bert!” He launches himself into the air like one of those cliff divers, does a perfect back flip, and returns to his perch. He acts as if this day in prison is the happiest day of his life.
Acting as if. As if life is good. As if all of the world is a perch, to dive from. I have heard that if you suit up and show up for long enough and act as if, that sooner or later your attitude will change, and you will be in the heaven of possibility and not in the hell of your own making. (I heard all of this on the outside, in twelve step meetings. In here, I am unable to attend meetings.) I begin, in earnest, to look for the good in people, and examine the irony that tragic events often bring out the good in people who would likely never mix in any other setting, or at least the sense that such events are an effective leveler.
My birds help me find my own humanity, but at the same time they must eat like everyone else, and so other inmates bring cornbread crumbs and other treats to the central distribution hub: the waistband of my khaki pants.
Starlings work together in a cunning glossy flock. Crows plot and plan and also work together, although they post up separately and communicate. Sparrows are my sweet scavenger; cardinals are the royalty; mockingbirds are the clowns; bluebirds are shy; woodpeckers act like they own the pole.
None of them have to be here, and all of them contradict the message of the fence.
Worth the watch. Nature By Numbers with hat tips to Kelly Canfield and Mary McCurnin: