Thursday, April 19, 2018

Sparrow Feathers

By Burl N. Corbett

As I limped along the roofed walkway outside the commissary building, my recalcitrant left knee silently grumbling, a tiny feather spiraled to the ground. Before I could lean and snatch it up, an affronted sparrow plummeted from its nest and seized it with its beak. There we stood, the bird and I, contending over a silly feather.

It was early November; nesting season long past. What use could the bird have for the feather now that its spring offspring had...ahem...sprung the nest? Perhaps it served double duty as a chink of insulation against the approaching winter. Or was it the avian equivalent of the bronzed baby booties placed on living room mantels by sentimental mothers to evoke pleasant memories? All I knew for certain was that my pipsqueak adversary wanted it more than me.

The truculent little runt, the feather firmly scissored in its beak, glared at me with disdain and hopped a few times in triumph. Then with a wee victorious chirp, it flew up to its shadowed nook, unwittingly taking with it a small segment of the collage I was constructing for my youngest granddaughter, Ava. Well, thought I, I'll just have to scavenge more material somewhere else. Perhaps I could find a soft breast feather from one of the annoying resident geese that booby-trap the walks and lawns with their ubiquitous droppings, or maybe pick up a glistening wing feather from the pair of crows who patiently wait on rooftops every mealtime for postprandial offerings from dissatisfied gourmets. No matter the source—whether donated by our resident Canada geese or by the occasional sea gull blown inland from a Lake Erie storm—every dropped pinfeather or tail-feather becomes grist for my artistic mill: at the age of sixty-seven, I've become a collagist of no small renown among the only cognoscenti whose opinions I value, my four grandchildren.

When I came to prison seven years ago, the three girls and one boy were very young—the oldest not yet eight—and I had scarcely begun to teach them all the things my only grandmother (indeed, my only grandparent) had taught me: the names of her childhood friends, the flowers and birds, and a hundred other small facts that helped enable me to navigate this strange and wonderful world. Alas, it's too late now to pass on that knowledge to my rapidly aging grandchildren, but I still entertain faint hope that if I ever get out—and live long enough—perchance I can hand down my grandmother's wisdom to my great-grandchildren. So for now, I have to be content, if not pleased, by a long-distance relationship via what my hip "tween" granddaughters sneeringly call "snail mail."

Troubled by my inability to buy them birthday and Christmas presents, l was at a loss for what to do. Then I read in The New Yorker how Picasso and Braque had invented the art form of collage. Voila! Through serendipity I had discovered a solution! I first sketched crude outlines of owls on the cardboard backs from writing tablets, then I Scotch-taped goose and sparrow plumage inside the lines. After coloring yellow their hooked beaks and glowering eyes with a colored pencil, I drew balloon queries, asking "Whoo, do you love?" and adding a parenthetical aside, "It better be Grandpa!"

I sent the first two of these masterworks to my older granddaughters, Savannah and Aryanna, and was working on the third when the Sparrow and I had our little standoff. My initial disappointment over the loss of the feather was tempered by the realization that Ava would be quite angry with her inconsiderate Grandpa for stealing even a tiny part of the poor sparrow's winter bedding. And could I blame her? After all, hadn't my beloved Granny taught me compassion for all of God's sentient creatures, even... ahem..."jailbirds"?

The next day I found an uncontested feather to complete my masterpiece, and I hope that it now hangs above the bed of nine-year-old Ava, a silent reminder for her to pray for not only her faraway grandpa, but all the birds as well.

The End

Burl N. Corbett HZ6518
SCI Albion
10475 Route 18
Albion, PA 16475-0002
Born 6/9/47 in Reading, PA.  Raised on a 123-acre sheep farm only three crow miles from John Updike´s famous sandstone farmhouse of “Pigeon Feathers,” The Centaur, and Of the Farm.  Graduated from Daniel Boone High School in 1965.  Ran away to Greenwich Village to become a beatnik in 1966 with only a Martin guitar and the clothes on my back.  Lived among the counterculture for 3 years, returning disillusioned to PA for good in 1968.  Worked on a mink farm; poured steel in a foundry; chased the sun as a cross-country pipeliner; drove the big rigs, baby!; picked tomatoes with migrant workers; tended bar on the old skid row Bowery; worked as a reporter, columnist, and photographer for two Southeastern Pennsylvania newspapers; drove beer truck (hic!); was a “HEY, CULLIGAN MAN!”; learned how to plaster, stucco, and lay stone; published both fiction and nonfiction in several nationally distributed magazines and literary quarterlies; got married and raised four children; got divorced and fell into the bottle; and came to prison at the age of 60 with no previous criminal offenses other than a 25 year-old DUI. The “crime”? Self-defense in my own house without financial means to hire a decent lawyer.  Since becoming the “guest” of the state in 2007, I have won six PEN Prison Writing Awards (two first and four honorable mentions); the first and only prize of $500 in the 2013 Eaton Literary Agency short fiction contest; written a children/young adult book, Coon Tales; a novel of the 1967 “Summer of Love,” Dreaming of Oxen; a magic realism novel, A Redneck Ragnorak, and many short stories and memoirs.  My first novel, A Haven from Violence, and Coon Tales, are available at or

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