I neared her house and saw her squatting in the front yard, in the shade of the big maple tree. There was something in her hands that quivered slightly. She was looking up the street, so she saw me at the same time I saw her. She smiled, but she didn’t get up. I smiled too, not knowing what to say, and crossed the lawn to her.
I felt tall and awkward, walking up to Eliza sitting there in the grass. She didn’t say anything until I was right in front of her, and then she asked,
“Would you like to hold him?”
I grinned and said yes. She told me to sit down. Then she placed the warm, fluffy thing in my hands. Geoffrey adjusted his stubby wings to regain his balance after the transition. I wasn’t prepared to feel how light he was, and how small. Like a handful of seedpod dandelions. The queerest thing was the sensation of his body against my fingers; I could distinctly feel his breastbones beneath the down. That surprised me: there seemed to be nothing but airy fluff and a thin membrane of skin between my fingertips and his bones. But nearer to his feet I felt no bones, only his belly, warm and moist. It swelled in and out. His little feet clutched at my skin in a funny way. I laughed, and Eliza looked at me, enjoying my initiation. I felt like I should say something so I asked,
“How old is he?”
She answered that he was probably about two weeks old, but she wasn’t sure because she’d only had him since Friday. She said she knew this because his eyes were well open but he still had baby fluff.
I was always impressed by Eliza’s solemn knowledge. Maybe that was why I loved her so. She was a child, but her mind was sensible and probing. I still don’t know what she saw in me; I was such an overgrown excuse for a teenager. Maybe she sensed how I appreciated the meaning in things, the way she did.
I gazed back down at Geoffrey, who was blinking and rustling his little sheathed wings. I bent my head to inspect them. Each feather on his wings was growing out of a semi-transparent tube, made of quill material. The tips of his feathers were already free and fanning out, but the roots were still tightly bound up in their tube-sheaths.
With my face close to Geoffrey like that, I smelled him for the first time. It was a curious delicate smell: eggy, a bit like mild urine, and sweet. I didn’t find it offensive, and leaned there, inhaling for a moment. Then Eliza moved beside me and I saw her pick up a recycled yogurt container from beside her left leg. She reached into it and pulled out a small worm. She took it with both hands and methodically tore it into three bits. They wriggled and exuded guts, but she placidly lay two of the pieces on her bare knee, and leaned over to feed Geoffrey the third. I watched her in silent admiration. I had never known a little girl to be so unconcerned with such things, and I wanted to say so. But I didn’t. As her hand neared Geoffrey, he lifted his head with open beak, and flapped his tiny wings and chirped. I could feel his whole body straining up toward that bit of worm.
“Don’t parent birds sometimes eat and regurgitate the food for their babies? I asked. “What if you spit on the pieces to help Geoffrey digest them?” I was hoping this was an educated question.
Eliza leaned back and squinted for a moment while her mind worked. Then she turned back to her knee and picked up another bit of worm, saying,
“Bird spit is different from human spit.”
I nodded. And I watched Eliza carefully feed Geoffrey the last two pieces. He was warm, and my palm sweated, so his down stuck to my skin. When I gave him back to Eliza my hands felt refreshed by the air. Eliza took him in a motherly sort of way, and I felt something like a father. Protective, and proud, and a little in wonder.
As I walked home I wiped my nose, and smelled Geoffrey on my hand.