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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St.

Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

Great Tits

In the spring of his second year, Peter split from the mixed flock of tits and sparrows in whose company he’d survived the winter, and returned to a wood not far from where he’d fledged. For a couple of days he tried out his song, two notes and two syllables, the second lower than the first and slurring at the end, something like his own name: “Pe-ter! Pe-ter!” But he’d arrived too late. Anywhere he tried to perch and sing, another male showed up at once to let him know unequivocally that the territory was taken. He’d never fought before and the other males were vicious, raining sharp beak-blows on his glossy black head and yellow throat. So he stopped singing and the other males left him alone. He did slip once—when he saw a particularly beautiful female, was overcome with desire, and let loose a few of the notes that strained for freedom in his tiny breast—but the nearest dominant male appeared and attacked him mercilessly, not even relenting when Peter tried to flee. Only when he’d given Peter a shallow cut on the left side of his neck did he seem to feel he’d punished Peter enough and fly away. After that Peter managed to control himself and stay quiet. That female mated with that male and they started to build a nest. The other surrounding territorial males attracted mates too. Peter kept his head down and fed across an area straddling territories, border areas rarely patrolled by the dominant birds. There was a fine empty woodpecker hole right in the middle of that area, unclaimed, but he didn’t try to attract a female to it. One morning as he foraged in the crown of an oak tree he bumped into a plain female he hadn’t seen before. That in itself was no great surprise. Other tits wandered in and out of the established breeding territories often. He was surprised, though, when she flirted with him, though he hadn’t sung to her. 1

Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

“You’re in good shape,” she said. “You must eat a lot.” “I mustn’t sing,” Peter told her. “I know,” she said. “We have to keep it secret. And secretly you should take me to your place.” Peter hopped into the air and headed for that woodpecker hole, pausing and looking back every ten yards to make sure she followed. He flew into the hole to show it to her, came back out again at once and perched nearby, watching. She flew in and he saw her wings fluttering at the opening as she turned this way and that, inspecting. It filled him with lust. She reemerged and flew up to his perch. “Okay,” she said and, beating their wings frantically for balance, they accomplished the awkward task of lining up their cloacae. He ejaculated into her. Her name was Elena. They mated a few more times to make sure. He didn’t think he’d have liked her if he’d had any choice in the matter. In many ways she was ugly: the streak down the center of her breast was broad like a male’s, her left foot didn’t open or grip properly, and she had little fat on her to spare. But in fact he wasn’t in a position to be choosy. Elena was a few years older than him, in the prime of her breeding life, and if she were fitter and prettier he’d have had no chance, not without a territory of his own. Sometimes, though, he saw the dominant pairs nearby feeding together or gathering nest materials and wished he had a mating relationship as forthrightly loving as theirs. Meanwhile he and Elena had to build their own nest. They carried in beakfuls of moss first and Elena showed him how to pile it against the walls of the burrow to make a shallow cup. This they followed with fine, dry grass, and down collected among the gooseturds of a nearby lake. The very day they finished she crouched inside the nest, only the nape of her neck visible outside. She stayed that way, quiet, for some time, and then whistled for him and edged aside so he could look in and see the egg: it was the size of a large beetle or small acorn, white with purple spots. The next morning she told him she’d laid another and he’d better go get her something to eat. In the afternoon she reported another, and then

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

one a day for the next three days. Six eggs in all. He didn’t get to see them after the first; his job was to fetch Elena tasty insects while she sat. This was easy enough at first. The dominant males nearby still sang most of the time to defend their territories from each other, which made it simple to steer clear. And he didn’t see any females at all—probably, since he and Elena had gotten a late start on the breeding season, they were already incubating their own eggs. He could forage among the leaves and not be hassled. He relaxed into the routine of feeding himself and feeding Elena as if it would last. When he passed her an insect larva and she thanked him, he felt a warm sense of satisfaction, and if those days had gone on, it would have been fine with him. Ten days along, while hunting in the crown of a tree he came on the pretty, haughty female who’d excited him to song earlier in the spring. She didn’t remember him and obviously distrusted him now. “Where are you taking that?” she demanded. Peter, who’d been about to take off with an inchworm for Elena, paused instead on the twig where he’d found it. If he flew away with it, the female would know he had a nest somewhere on her territory, and he couldn’t answer with his mouth full. So while he’d already eaten three, he forced himself to swallow this one too. “Nowhere,” he said. “You’d better not be,” said the female. “These are our trees, Mark and me, and the bugs in them are for our chicks.” He didn’t argue, though he thought she was being needlessly selfish. The trees were full of little caterpillars just then; they must have all just hatched. He flew into a different territory and found another easily. When he returned to Elena and gave it to her, she turned her neck toward him affectionately, all warm and loving, and that triggered some instinct in him that made him love her too. At the same moment, though, he couldn’t help superimposing the image of that other female onto Elena and wishing he were in love with her instead, though she reviled him. Soon their eggs hatched and Elena ate the empty shells. When she flew off to forage Peter gazed into the nest and down at the bottom, in the dark, he could just make out little featherless balls struggling to right themselves. He loved them too, his babies.

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

Now it was harder than ever for Peter and Elena to conceal what they were up to. The growing chicks demanded nonstop feeding, meaning dozens of chances a day for Peter or Elena to be caught with a caterpillar. They tried to be sneaky, keeping away from the territorial males and watching for their mates, but it was probably inevitable that they be discovered. The males sang less than before, making it harder to keep track of them, and Sonya, the female who’d confronted Peter, was already suspicious. One day Mark caught him heading home and thrashed him. Peter fled to a neighboring territory. The same thing happened to Elena: Sonya fought with her and chased her. Then other nearby territorial pairs started to harass them too. They weren’t as aggressive as Mark or Sonya, but they didn’t have to be. All they needed to do was make Peter or Elena drop the caterpillar. The logic at work was pitiless. Each chick needed to eat every twenty minutes during the day, so if both of them hunted he and Elena each needed to find nine caterpillars an hour, or about one every six and a half minutes. That was already a lot of work, and by the end of the day they were exhausted. Now though, they lost at least one in three caterpillars, because it just wasn’t possible to dodge or run away and keep hold of the food in one’s beak. Peter, being a bird, was hardly capable of figuring all this abstractly. He only realized the problem when he noticed that two of his babies had stopped begging and only lay in the bottom of the nest, wobbling feebly. He had never discussed it with Elena, but both of them fed the loudest, gapingest mouths first, so the runts only ate once the others were full. Now that the others never got their fill, the two weakest hadn’t eaten for days and were dying. His heart broke for them. He waited by the nest until Elena returned, emptymouthed, and showed her. She climbed inside and nudged one with her bill. It stirred a little, a pathetic little ball of new fluff. The other didn’t react at all. Tenderly she bit hold of its neck and forced its limp body up the wall of the next cavity. Peter clamped his beak to the skin of its head and pulled, and working together they levered the body out the entrance hole. Elena crawled halfway outside and peered down to see where it landed. Peter thought she must be as sad as him and pressed his body to hers to comfort them both. 4

Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

She pressed back. Mixed with the reassurance he took from her, though, was a rush of resentment at having to feel this crushing grief over what he was convinced was an inferior brood, raised with an inferior mate. If he had to love them this fiercely and painfully, they should be a family he could boast of, not one he had to suffer for in secret. In the morning the other chick had died. They ejected its body too. Then a few days later a third chick weakened and died, leaving three almost ready to leave the nest. Because they’d started so late, those three were among the last in the wood to fledge. All of a sudden, everywhere Peter went he saw dully colored juveniles trying to collect their own food. Their breeding complete, the territory-holders stopped abusing him and Elena, leaving them free to forage for their nestlings. The three chicks grew to full size, and they moment they learned to fly he abandoned them. Elena may have kept feeding them or taught them to fend for themselves. He didn’t know. He never saw her again.

The next spring he left his mixed flock very early, staked out a territory around the same woodpecker hole he’d used furtively, and defended it. He mated with a female who looked a lot like Sonya and she laid seven eggs. At first he especially liked seeing her in the same nest because it reversed the unflattering juxtaposition of Sonya over Elena he’d made in his mind the year before. This was the mate he’d wanted. He soon realized, though, that the joy of a proper mate instead of Elena was no greater than what’d he’d felt when he mated with Elena instead of no one. Elena had loved him when he’d had nothing; he didn’t doubt Sonya II loved him truly, but she wouldn’t have been attracted to him if he’d had no territory again. When he brought her caterpillars she made him melt, but no more than Elena had done. He loved this brood fiercely, but no more than he’d loved his lesser chicks the year before, and after all those had turned out well, the ones who survived. He was prouder of this year’s chicks, maybe. But when a crow killed two of them and wounded Sonya II, he felt no less crushed and angry just because he’d been prouder of them. Then he was wistfully sorry that he hadn’t loved Elena better.

In his third year he kept his territory and mated again, and again it felt the same. This time he expected it, and cherished it: the pleasure of sex, the toil of foraging, and the 5

Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

contentment of feeding his mate and their chicks. When they lost three babies to parasites he suffered as much as his heart needed. He knew, finally, that there were no experiences better or deeper than these. No one could live more than he.

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