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Bird brain

A thoughtful story about life with a sparrow


B. is screaming at the top of his lungs. He wants another cookie, or someone to play with him. He isn’t being clear. And he’s been at it since Chris and Rebecca left this morning, leaving him in the hands of a kind and able, though less familiar, sitter. His boundless energy has him climbing the walls, dashing to the windows every time a car passes. It seems that the sitter can do nothing to placate him; he’s undone by the lack of attention, the right kind of attention that only Chris is able to give him.

He’s a spoiled child, but then again B. is a house sparrow and his are the demands of an ego a bit big for its britches.

Providence of a Sparrow, an account of life in the wake of a found fledgling, follows somewhat chronologically over the eight years of B.’s life with Chris and Rebecca Chester, but more than that it follows the ebb and flow of Chester’s psyche. Finches will pop up where none had been before; Marlowe the cat will grow old and sick while we are watching B. over numerous pages; relatives will come and go and a marriage will take place, all with the reader’s left foot dawdling in the present and the right foot firmly planted in B. time.

Contrary to Western culture’s love of linear, “rational” paradigms, the pace and subject of Providence of a Sparrow are triggered by the author’s brain—the unique consciousness that he deliberates over in the pages of the book is what shapes the narrative arc. And to good use. We may be trained to recognize and understand the linear, but the flow of consciousness here is recognizable without pedantry. Fortunately, too, Chester’s is a highly astute and humorous consciousness to be following.

Leaping through quantum physics, Aristotelian logic, the dos and don’ts of swearing, theories of consciousness, relativity and homoeroticism among birds, Chester paints a sweeping portrait of B. and his companion sparrows, finches and canaries while leaving plenty of room for reflection on the human world. Where avian and human realms intersect proves to be fruitful ground for the author, and Chester takes his time ruminating over these ideas. Just as with Chester’s days with B., there is no rush through the pages; patience and contemplation are far more rewarding.

We first meet B. in full form—happy and alert and playing a game of “War Bird”—only then to journey back and meet him on the day of “the fall.” Chris found B. bare and alone 25 feet below the sparrow’s nest in the eaves of his house. They began their relationship entirely unsure of one another: Chester, pessimistic about B.’s survival after a childhood of failed bird resuscitations, thought that “...determining he was a bird had seemed at the outset sufficiently precise.” B., too, had reservations and misconceptions: He was neither willing to touch the offerings of milk and cat food, nor particularly fond of his caretakers’ presence.

But soon feathers sprout, wings strengthen and B. finds himself courageously exploring the oddities of house life. B. confronts, and survives, the dangers of heating vents, a (brief) caged life, and the “warlord” cats that live downstairs. Chester recounts all these incidents and the various impressions they leave with him with a sharp wit. Remarking on the state of the cats—the previous holders of the Chesters’ undivided attention—after B.’s arrival, and subsequent domination of the upstairs, he says: “Their voices raised in lamentation, our cats began throwing themselves against the basement door. ‘I called thy name, O Lord, out of the low dungeon,’ they seemed to wail.”

This kind of anthropomorphism makes for much of the humor, care and understanding displayed throughout the book, but it is also the source of some of Chester’s anxiety about his relationship with B. While he doesn’t seem too concerned about “nauseating those for whom the commandment ‘Thou shalt not anthropomorphize’ is an ironclad law,” he often wonders how much of what he considers to be B.’s personality and conscience are merely “projections of [his] own self-absorption.” Chester’s back-and-forth deliberation pervades the book, but he also seems somewhat comfortable with his inability to draw a strict line between his own thoughts and feelings and B.’s.

At the opening of Providence, Chester states that B. does not represent some life-altering revelation that “drop[ped] from the rafters and resolve[d] issues of meaning and direction in a world I’ve frequently thought in need of less wrenching plots.” But B. does serve as a focal point, a sifter through which life is filtered, those day-to-day annoyances and petty misunderstandings coming out the other side as laughs and light-hearted reminders that life is a comedy of trifles. When circumstances such as death render life depressingly more serious, B. is there too, displaying an innocent vivacity that reminds Chester of what control we do have when confronted with loss.

The pages of Chester and B.’s memoir are filled with literary, historical and scientific allusions, each so well-placed and -timed that one wonders at the author’s encyclopedic mind. But Chester might have done well with one more, from another author who is at once a meticulous observer and compassionate philosopher. Martin Buber once wrote that “Repetition is powerless before ecstasy.” Through the daily watering, feeding, cleaning, playing—all much the same as the day before and what tomorrow will bring—Chester remains in awe of B. and his companions, in awe of the life that they have laid out before him.

Providence of a Sparrow author Chris Chester will give a reading Friday, Oct. 25, at Fact & Fiction. 7 PM.

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