By Coco Mellors
“Three words,” said my mother. “Birds of prey.”
She was calling to talk about my sister’s wedding, which was being held at my parents’ home in the English countryside in the coming month. At this point, she talked about little else. Planning a wedding was something that came naturally to my mother, who was prone to both ruthless organization and elaborate fantasy.
“We’ll have them on perches in the fields when the guests arrive,” she said. “Kestrels, falcons, owls. I wanted an eagle but, apparently, he doesn’t travel well. The children will love it.”
“The children might get carried off,” I said.
It felt a bit like inviting God to the party, for if God was anything, it was surely a bird of prey. Whether you believed in a benevolent or a punishing one was, I suppose, the difference between viewing the birds as friend or foe to children. My mother believed in a benevolent God.
“I was a little aggrieved that the eagle couldn’t make it,” she said. “But then I read about a wedding in Israel where the dance floor caved in and the carpet sucked everyone to their deaths, and I thought, well, that sets the standard of tragedy for me. Everything else is just inconvenience.”
“So as long as all the guests don’t die in a freak accident, the wedding’s a success?” I said.
“I like to set a low bar,” said my mother. “Now tell me, are you bringing your chap?”
My chap was my next-door neighbor in New York. He owned a pizza restaurant and was never free. We’d been together on and off for over a year, in a relationship that mainly consisted of him waking me up when the restaurant closed at 1 a.m. to have sex. It was obvious to everyone, including me, that this was no good, but I was very in love with him, bafflingly so. He was not the kind of man who appeared capable of arousing great feeling of any kind. Yet he produced tsunamis in me. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and forest fires. This perhaps said less about him than my own inner climate, which was prone to natural disaster.
“He doesn’t travel well, either,” I said. “I’ll come alone.”
It turned out I would not be completely alone; when I arrived at the wedding, I was four weeks pregnant. The day I found out, I told my neighbor that I loved him. What I did not yet know was that I was in the midst of something called a chemical pregnancy, meaning that the egg was never viable to begin with. Of course, the experience of it didn’t feel chemical at all, but achingly biological. How useless words were, how flat and inert, when what you needed them to do most was spark life.
Nobody commented on the fact I wasn’t drinking at the wedding. I’d been sober for a few years and, apart from my neighbor, spent most of my time with other sober people, including my immediate family, who were also recovering alcoholics. This was, in part, why my mother put so much effort into the wedding entertainment: a treasure hunt, a concert, a firework display, and, of course, the birds. When half the wedding party doesn’t drink, you have to find more expansive ways to celebrate.
The birds of prey were the biggest hit. They perched on wooden stands around the fields, regarding the guests with cool judiciousness. Sometimes, one would whisk into the air at the behest of its handler and perform an aerial trick for the reward of a dead field mouse. My favorite was an elegant, slate grey falcon, whose yellow-rimmed eyes shone with a ferocious kind of intelligence. When it was her turn to perform, she unfurled her huge wingspan and launched herself off the perch with one powerful movement. Instead of doing a loop-the-loop, or whatever trick had been asked of her, she simply flew and did not stop until she was nothing but a tiny, black dot above us, until she was nothing at all.
“She’ll be back,” said the bird handler. “It’s her way of showing us who’s boss.” And then, somewhat wistfully, “Her stunning exterior belies a terrible attitude.”
“Oh, I do hope someone describes me that way some day,” said my mother.
The birds didn’t end up snatching any of the children away. Except, perhaps, mine. I don’t know the exact moment the baby, who would never be a baby, slipped away from me. I only know that I bled again, and by the time I returned to New York I was no longer pregnant. Sometimes you feel a loss as it happens, sometimes you only get the echo later. You can watch your sister smile at her new husband across a marquee. You can hear that a friend is drinking again. You can try to call your mother from New York when she is asleep. Or you can tell a man that you love him, and he can say that his second restaurant is more important than that, in which case you feel it right away.
As the handler predicted, the falcon did return. I walked back down to the fields after the ceremony to watch her being packed away. She stepped gingerly onto the handler’s arm and ate her mouse with an imperious head roll. Then, she turned to me with a look so direct that it made me start. She held me in her pensive, primordial gaze and cocked her head. Don’t worry, she said. Life happens. Love will come again. This ends well.