Three Dead Animals
The rain stopped close to twilight. It had started nearly as suddenly about an hour beforehand, stranding me at a friend's house only a few blocks from my own. It was a terrifically fierce summer rain, and as I walked it seemed that the rain had imbued in the world a selective luminescence, causing that door, and that roof, and that tree to glow vibrantly in the post downpour haze. A handful of items on every block shined while colors of everything else were muted. Newly sanctified, the brightness of these items swirled in the mist around them. By the time I turned the corner onto my street most of the haze had been burned off and the sky had turned a bright lavender which was darkening into an inky violet when I saw the bird struggling to stand in the middle of the street.
I walked toward it. The bird was bald save for a few ratty patches of down. Laying on the sidewalk, its head wobbled atop its hairless neck. Its oversized, still-closed eyes looked to me like two pink marbles. It swiveled its head from side to side. I continued my approach, placing my heel on the ground and then leaning forward in an attempt to remain silent. A pebble crunched under my toe and the bird began to flap its wings and flop away from me on unfinished legs that could not support its body.
I hopped after it, scooped it up as it reached the pitiful apex of its leap. "Gotcha." I muttered, and walked the remaining distance cradling the bird in my palms, attempting to silence its mild protests with low soothing murmurs. "Shoo shoo shoo." The sky was black and the moon was out. I turned the knob of my front door with my right hand, supporting the bird's body with my left. Holding the bird close to my body, I bounded up the stairs and banged on the door of my parents' bedroom. Without waiting for an answer I swung the door open and found my mother sitting, watching television. "Mom, look what I found," I said holding out my left hand.
"What's that?" She twisted the switch on the lamp next to her bed, and leaned over the arm of the chair towards me. "Oh, Jesus, where did you find it? Quick, go put it in something and wash your hands."
"Okay, Okay. What should I put it in?" The words ran together.
"Well, uh, a cardboard box," she replied, rising. "I'll go find one for you, just hold on for a second."
I shifted from one foot to the other, waiting for her to return, which she did, a few minutes later, carrying a box marked "PEACHES." I lowered the bird into the box, and pushed it off my palm onto the bottom. I stood there for a moment, hands on hips, and watched the bird flop around its new home in ever tightening circles. My mother shooed me out of the room. "Hey, go wash your hands. And don't touch your face."
When I returned from the bathroom, my father and brother had joined my mother, and all three were leaning over the box. "I found him out in the middle of the street in front of the Cody's house. He was jumpin' around, and I didn't see his mother or anything so I grabbed him," I announced.
"Must of been knocked out of a tree by the storm," my father suggested.
"He's ugly," Nick added helpfully.
"I think he's a cardinal," I said.
"You don't know what that is."
"What are we gonna do with him?" I asked.
My mother took the lead. "Tomorrow I'll call the nature center in Arbordale and see what they say. Tonight I think we can just leave it in the box."
"That's a good idea," my father said, "The nature center'll know what to do."
The bird began chirping and squeaking, trying to escape the box. My family and I watched it in silence for a moment then Nick, my senior by three years, and my father lost interest in the bird and left my mother and I to deal with the pathetic, but loud, creature. "It's hungry, let's feed it. I carried the box into the kitchen attempting to keep the trip gentle, the box level. We agreed to feed it a smooth paste of banana mashed with water.
I prepared the mixture and leaned into the box with a teaspoonful. I held the bird steady with one hand and attempted to maneuver the spoon in between the halves of its beak. The beak opened a crack and the banana mash spilled off the spoon, onto the bird's neck, and dripped down onto the bottom of the box. "Come on, open up, babe, come on, food for you, open up, open up, almost, come on, open up." The bird refused.
"Hold on a sec'," my mother said and shuffled out of the kitchen. She returned with a medicine dropper. "Try this." The mixture was too thick, so I watered it down until the medicine dropper would accept it. I slipped the dropper into the bird's mouth and squeezed the greasy rubber bulb. The bird swallowed hungrily, and began its chirps and complaints anew. For the next forty minutes I continued to feed the bird. Suck in, squeeze out, the bird pitches its neck until the serving is swallowed, the bird begins chirping. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. After fifteen minutes my mother left me alone with it. After about ten I had secretly named it Randall. I continued to coo to the bird, "Good boy, good boy, keep eating, yeah, keep eating, good, good. Shh. Shh, I'm getting you some more, shh. Okay, there you go, good boy..."
I wanted to keep the bird in my room for the night, but my mother protested. "You don't know if that thing's sick, it could give you something. No, it stays in the hallway tonight--end of story." I placed the box outside of the door to my room. A pet cardinal, I thought, drifting off to sleep.
My mother woke me early the next day. She was sitting on the edge of my bed gently rubbing my shoulder, and quietly saying "Max." When I opened my eyes, she told me that the bird had died during the night.
"Where is he?"
"Your father buried it for you."
I looked up at her. "Where?"
"It's in the backyard by the tree…in the corner."
She stood up and walked of the room, pausing for a moment at the door, "It's not your fault, Max, you did your best for it."
"I know," I said, and then rolled over.
That afternoon, on my own, I walked along the edge of the yard, half-wandering towards the spot in the corner. I looked down and saw nothing. No cross, no slight mound of dirt. I scanned the area, confused, finally turning around entirely—towards the house. I saw my mother watching me from her bedroom window. She backed away from the frame when she realized I had noticed her, then returned—too quickly. I knew. I lowered my eyes, looked around one last time for anything, and then headed back inside.
It was a cold day at the end of November. The kind of day in which November seems to specialize. Bitterly cold, the world was browns and grays. The leaves, drained of color, brittle and crushed were whipped off the road in miniature tornadoes and then further ground down on the unforgiving asphalt. I exhaled and warm, wet breath met cold, dry atmosphere, surrendering in a cloud that I had used to pretend was cigarette smoke. Two of the five people I was walking with were actually smoking cigarettes. The smoke bothered me, but I didn't want to say anything so I coughed as silently as possible and tried to stay away from them in a way that wouldn't draw attention to myself.
"Hey, Max, this botherin' you?" Greg Terris, one of the smokers, asked me.
"Nah, I'm okay, I think I'm just gettin' a cold."
"It's this weather, screws ya up."
"The weather don't do shit, you get sick 'cos of germs not 'cos it's cold out. That's bullshit."
"No it isn't...then why do most people get sick in the winter?"
I listened to the argument, but stopped when I was distracted by movement in the high branches of a tall tree a few blocks in front of me. It was black and swinging randomly. Another plastic bag in the trees. The wind's really got it, I thought. As I got closer I saw what it was. A crow. Must be tangled in something. The crow twisted and squirmed in the grip of an unseen tether. It looked miserable.
I can't climb up there and untangle it. Crows don't really help one another. I doubt the fire department is going to come untie a nuisance. It's got to do it itself (or just get lucky). Or not. There's nothing I can do about it:
It frees itself and lives or remains tangled up
It frees itself and lives or remains tangled up
I can do nothing about it.
Should I point it out?
Well, okay...I point it out and what happens: They do nothing because either it frees itself and lives or remains tangled up and dies, and they realize that or they do something. The something they do isn't necessarily good...they might figure out a way to get it down—unlikely. More likely they'll decide to throw rocks at it, or caw at it and make fun of it. Throwing rocks is probably the safest bet. If they throw rocks at it, I can throw with them or stand by not throwing, but feeling shitty because it's my fault they know it's there to throw rocks at, or tell them not to throw rocks at it.
It frees itself and lives or remains tangled up and dies.
The first two leave me feeling guilty as shit, I think I'll choose three. Then they don't throw the rocks because they see I'm right or don't throw the rocks while I'm there, but come back sometime later and throw rocks at it or don't throw rocks at it, but only because they now have something better to do: call me a faggot or ignore me and throw rocks at it or call me a faggot and throw rocks at it.
Unlikely. Unfavorable, unfavorable, unfavorable, unfavorable.
It frees itself and lives or remains tangled up and dies.
So that's what will happen, but it will probably die and so it might be merciful to kill it quickly with a stone.
By the time we reached the bird, having considered everything, I decided that I should allow the bird to attempt to free itself. If it didn't free itself I figured it would probably die during the night, and that was, I thought, soon enough to be not particularly un-merciful. We continued our walk to the train station. The train took us to Fordham and it was on to another day at school. Throughout the day my thoughts returned to the struggling bird. On the walk from the train station I saw that the bird was still straining against whatever held it. The tree is reluctant to let go, the tree keeps it fast, I thought without reason.
That night, the struggling crow my secret, I lay on top of the covers on my bed with the window beside me open a few inches. As the cold air moved over my chest I thought, Please die tonight or be free. It's supposed to rain tomorrow. Please be cold enough to die tonight.
The rain fell the next morning without passion. It was cold rain, creating murky puddles in the cracks of ill-tended sidewalks, in potholes. It was cold enough that ice formed in random spots, that miniature icicles hung off branches, off side view mirrors. It fell evenly, not hurrying to exhaust itself. I saw the crow from a long way off. It was still struggling, though with less energy than it had been the day before. It flapped its wings. It swung its neck from side to side. It clawed at something I could not see. It pecked and cawed low. It invested all of its energy on freeing itself but seemed, to me, to be in exactly the same position in which I had seen it the day before.
On my walk home the bird was struggling even more feebly. Flapping its wings intermittently, swinging its neck from side to side as if looking for help. The rain continued, slow, patient, beating the bird into acceptance. Dear Jesus! just die already. Stop it, just stop it and die now. That's enough, you did your best, now just stop.
But it did not die for another two days, and I began to dread rolling from bed, putting on my shoes, walking to the train. I began to wish that school would continue on well into the night so that I wouldn't have to see the crow's dark outline against the pale sky for a second time each day. I hoped that I would somehow become stranded at school overnight, thereby avoiding the crow that afternoon and the next morning. Please die, please, please, please. By the fourth day the bird could no longer flap its wings. It hung straight down in a way that reminded me of some obscene Christmas ornament. It slowly swiveled its head from side to side, emitting the occasional weak caw. I imagined an icicle or two hanging from its lower beak.
Die now, die, give it up and die.
Even in death, however, it offered me no reprieve. I had, for some reason, expected the crow to fall from the tree like an overripe fruit when it died. But it didn't. The crow hung slack and exposed, freezing and thawing until Spring when the leaves grew in, but by then I had become used to it.
It was the sort of day that looked temperate, bright with a clear blue umbrella sky. It was, however, incredibly hot and miserably humid. Muggy. Mosquito weather, as my mother describes it. I walked out of my house and after only a few minutes felt the sweat rolling down between the blades of my shoulders. I knew that when I removed my shirt when I returned from work that evening there would be a Rorshak style salt stains on the back. It was the familiar walk from house to train station in order to get to my job in a mall twenty minutes away.
Halfway to the station I nearly stepped on a small, still, baby squirrel laid out in the middle of the sidewalk. Thinking it was dead and hoping to prevent anyone from stepping on it, I attempted to nudge it onto the strip of grass between the road and the sidewalk. It squeaked and waved its disturbingly human hands.
"Fuck," I grunted. "Shit, shit."
It had stopped moving so I nudged it again. It squeaked again.
I looked at my watch. Five minutes till the train, not much time to spend leaning over a squirrel. I pushed it off the sidewalk with my toe as gently as possible. A horrifying image crept into my mind.
A polished black dress shoe covering black socks and covered by charcoal slacks. Crunch. It comes down and the thing starts screeching. No screaming, crying, wah-ing and wailing. Shaking beneath the toe of a shiny black shoe. Those grotesque human claws waving and scratching, tail flapping back and forth. As the man pushes off, nonplussed, it stops altogether. Hideous, hideous.
I stopped and returned to the spot on the sidewalk, looked around and quickly scooped the animal up. I walked to my house, left hand cradling it, right spread over it like a dome, obscuring it
I'll bring it home and try to feed it. If it doesn't eat, I'll leave it in a little bit of shade in the backyard and go to work...if it eats, I'll feed it and see how it's doing and maybe wake Nick up and ask him to...
I pulled some paper towels off the roll above the kitchen sink and cradled the squirrel in my hands, attempting to feed it some warmed milk with a small plastic baster. It gulped the milk down, but seconds later would belch it from its mouth and sneeze from its nose. It's eating, but it isn't holding it down, what now? My brother ambled into the kitchen.
"What the fuck is that?"
"It's a baby squirrel. I saw on my way to the station. I couldn't leave it."
"Careful, man, you don't want it to get you sick. Oh shit, its head's fucked up."
I looked at its head and realized that, yes, it was fucked up. The right and left halves did not match. There was either a dent in the left side, a large lump on the right, or both. I continued to feed the squirrel, it continued to sneeze, my brother continued to watch over my shoulder.
"Don't you have work soon?"
"Shit." I laid it down on the kitchen table, called my job and said I'd missed my train and would be forty minutes late. They didn't really seem to care. "Nick, I gotta go, would you watch it?"
"I'm going to the beach, my man. All yours."
"Shit." I had to leave soon in order to catch the next train. I called the nature center. "Hi, yeah, I found a squirrel on the sidewalk. It's a baby, and, uh, I don't know what I should do with it."
"Okay, what you want to do is bring the animal back to where you found it. It was probably blown out its nest, and so if you leave it in the vicinity hopefully the mother will probably find it. That's really the best thing to do."
"It looks like it's hurt."
"Well...the best thing to do is just return it..."
"There's no chance that you'd take it?"
"Well, uh, thanks."
I followed her instructions, and pushed the animal out of my mind while I was at work.
On my way home I saw a cat that looked exceptionally plump sitting a few feet away from where I had deposited the squirrel. Oh well, nature. I walked over. The cat fled, and I found the squirrel in much the same position I had left it. I nudged it with the toe of my shoe. It moved. Alive. I cursed under my breath and picked it up, holding it in the same manner I had that morning. There was a bridge that extended over a small stream a few blocks from my house and only a little out of the way. I paused at the bridge, dropped the squirrel into the water, watched it swirl for a moment in the current then sink silently, and walked home. My brother returned later that night from the beach and asked me if I had seen the squirrel along the way.
"No," I said, and that was all.