Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Memory of Birds

I reached her house and saw her sitting cross-legged in the front yard, in the shade of the big maple tree. She was looking up the street, so our eyes met at the same time. She smiled, but she didn’t get up. I smiled too, not knowing what to say, and ambled across the lawn to her. There was something small and brown in her hands that quivered slightly.
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 brown fluffy thing in my hands. Geoffrey adjusted his stubby wings to regain his balance after the transfer. I wasn’t prepared to feel how light he was, how fragile, like a handful of grandfather dandelions. The queerest thing was the sensation of his body against my fingers; I could distinctly make out 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 ribs. But below I felt his round belly, warm and moist. It swelled in and out. His little feet clutched at my skin in a funny way, so I laughed, and Eliza looked at me, enjoying my initiation. I felt like I should say something.
“How old is he?”
She answered that he was probably about two weeks old. She said she knew this because his eyes were fully open but he still had baby fluff.
I was always impressed by Eliza’s solemn knowledge. Maybe that was why she charmed me like no other girl I’d ever met. 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 saw 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 was growing out of a semi-transparent tube, made of quill material. The tips of his feathers were free and fanning out, but the roots were still tightly bound in tube-sheaths.
With my face close to Geoffrey like that, I smelled him for the first time. It was a curious, delicate smell: eggy, sweet, with a hint of urea. I didn’t find it offensive, and leant there, inhaling for a moment.
Then Eliza shifted beside me and I saw her pick up a recycled yogurt container from beside her leg. She pulled out a small worm, took it between her fingers, and methodically tore it into three bits. They wriggled and exuded guts, but she placidly laid two of the pieces on her bare knee, and leaned over to feed Geoffrey the third. I watched in silent admiration. As her hand neared Geoffrey, he lifted his head, beak open, and flapped his tiny wings, letting out a series of sharp, shrill chirps. I could feel his whole body straining up toward that bit of worm. With the writhing morsel safely in his beak, he bobbed his head and swallowed it, his eyes pressed shut.
“Don’t the parents sometimes regurgitate the food for their babies? I asked. “Would spitting on the pieces help Geoffrey digest them?” I hoped this was an intelligent question.
Eliza leaned back and squinted for a moment in thought. Then she turned to her knee and picked up a second bit of worm, saying,
“Bird saliva is different from human saliva.”
I nodded. And I watched Eliza carefully feed Geoffrey the rest of the worm. His body was warm, and my palm sweated, so his down feathers stuck to my skin. When I gave him back to Eliza my hand felt cool in 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 awe.

As I walked home I brushed my nose, and smelled Geoffrey on my hand

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