Prayers of a Bird and Boy

By b-leam via FlickrOn those mornings we whistled, the bird and I. He whistled and I whistled, he whistled and I. On those mornings I waited for my father and my brother, for the fullness of dawn and the day. I waited while breakfast was finished and while the sun rose sluggish and slow to meet the heat of summer. I waited by the work van under the tree, under the telephone pole, under the sky. The tree was a big red tree with thick red arms going up around the phone lines, and the sky was soft blue, broken down into odd shapes by the branches of the tree. I waited there, those mornings, that Texas summer, and that’s how I heard the bird.

He whistled two short notes, and then one long. He waited, and then did it again. The first note was slow, the second quick, and then the long one was left there, hanging there, long and lingering there. It was long enough for other birds to find a perch in the middle of the note. It was long enough to contain complicated questions, to clarify that they weren’t rhetorical, and then still to wait for an answer that wasn’t going to come. And then there was a pause. An impossible pause. An empty space where it seemed like the bird was waiting, where it made me wonder if he’d given up and gone away, where the silence was as strong as the longings for things that I couldn’t say. And the bird was waiting, and he was waiting, and he was — and then he whistled again: doo da doooooooo… And then again there was waiting.

I couldn’t stand the waiting. I couldn’t wait through the pause. The silence was impenetrable, inscrutable, unbearable. The silence stretched out like rejection. I knew this silence, this empty space where air was inhaled and held, held ’til the world went white, ’til blood beat aloneness in my ears. Held while I realized my mother wasn’t listening and my stories were chatter, childish clatter and noise ignored. Held while I saw her say “ah huh” so I could be ignored some more. Held while I sat through Pentecostal sermons, while I waited for the gift of tongues that never came, while I wept for forgiveness and said I was sorry, God I was sorry, was sorry again. I knew that silence. I knew that waiting. In the roar of a thousand people praying, I knew it as the space where God wanted something more before he’d speak. In the darkness of my top bunk in a room of four boys at night, I knew it as the thought of death, the thought of sex, and that ache of inarticulate want, inarticulate fear, worrying and wondering into the emptiness of knowing nothing. In the whir of lawn mower blades in summer and the rush of wind through car windows, I knew this silence as the place to try to fill as I would talk to myself, speaking in formless stories and sing-song attempts to say.

Doo da doooooooo. And then again there was waiting. I couldn’t stand the waiting. I couldn’t wait through the waiting. I waited — beat — I waited — beat — I waited — beat — and then I answered. I whistled what the bird whistled. He whistled and then I: A boy under a tree, under a telephone pole under a summer sky. We took turns. Doo da doooooooo. Doo da doooooooo. Doo da doooooooo. Doo da doooooooo.

He was there the next day and I was there the next day. He was there the day after that and I whistled again too. I never saw the bird, never knew what kind of bird it was or where it was or what he — I thought of it as he — was really calling for. I knew he wasn’t calling for me, obviously, because birds don’t need boys. But I called to the bird, and he called and I called and he called and I thought we had a connection, though I knew we didn’t really. But I imitated him. Interrupting his pauses, interloping on his longing, I whistled the notes, his notes, one slow, one fast, one long. Doo da doooooooo. I imitated. Doo da doooooooo. I imitated the way I would later imitate Spirit-filled sermons, and men in prayer, and prayers in tongues of men and angels. I imitated the way I would later imitate writers, picking up the pitches in their voices and copying down the words on the pages, not knowing what they meant but inscribing them with my own confessions, expressions of things I didn’t know how to say. Doo da doooooooo. Doo da doooooooo. I tumbled to join this songbird liturgy. Doo da doooooooo. Doo da doooooooo.

Daniel Silliman is an American writer living in Tübingen, Germany. More of his writing can be found at