"Make sure you're careful," the mother warned her son.
"Ma-aa," he answered, with all the exasperation a four-year old could muster. He was just walking up the short block, to Grandpa's apartment building.
"And remember to mind your manners!"
The boy rushed by the dark stairs leading to the alley between the tall buildings, and as always, refused to turn his head, or even sneak a peek. He got to his grandfather's and, with all of his strength, pulled open the creaking, wrought iron door just wide enough to slip inside.
A small brown bird was fluttering around the vestibule, banging against the chipped mustard-yellow walls and crashing against the glass in the doors. The boy tried to catch the bird, the way his mother went after flies and moths that had gotten in through rips in the screens. He jumped around, swatting at the bird, and when he finally made contact, the bird sank towards the floor. He got it cornered and then stomped on it with his new Buster Browns until it was crushed and still.
Mommy would be proud, he thought. Triumphant and satisfied, he yanked open the lobby door and went to tell his grandfather all about it. But by the time Grandpa was done talking with his long-time roommate, and turned his attention to his grandson, the boy's excitement had ebbed and he never did mention it.
Forty-five miles away and eleven years later, the boy-turned-teenager was furious that his mother would not let him eat the apples that he could pluck right off the backyard tree. When his mother was at the A&P, she was always so particular about picking over fruit and vegetables and watched over him like a hawk when he helped her select them. She slipped the blemished or worm-holed ones he had chosen back into the bin. She wasn't about to pay for imperfect produce.
But at home, the disfigured, tart-sweet apples didn't cost anything. "Mom? Why can't you slice them? Cut away the bad parts? Or just let me eat around the holes?" She wouldn't relent even though she knew the tiny gouges were only from joyous blue jays who subsisted on the almost-ripened yellow-green apples.
One summer day, when he was home by himself, he heard the jays squawking with excitement as they flittered through the tree feasting on his apples. He slipped out of the house through the front door and chose several round stones from a basement window well. He slunk around to the back. There were so many jays that the tree seemed alive.
He slowly brought his arm back and hurled a white stone at the tree. The blue jays immediately scattered, but one smacked to the ground. It wasn't moving and seemed to be in shock. He bent over the jay and poked at it with a stick. There was blood oozing on its body near the wing. When he stood up and flattened it with his worn-out Converse sneakers, he made sure that this blue jay would never again gouge into one of his apples.
The teenager-turned-running-man pulled off the parkway each Friday to lace up his high end Sauconys and then run through the state park and around its lake. It was his drug-free way to end another five difficult days teaching "urban youth" and a relief from the stop-and-go traffic he faced both ways. He knew that when he got back on the parkway for three more exits, purposely staying in the right lane, his head would be in a different place, a far different place from the other commuters honking and weaving from lane to lane in their frenzy to get home.
Halfway into his run along the wooded path, he slowed when he noticed a crow struggling in the underbrush. With its wing askew, it certainly couldn't fly away. He had seen feral cats in the park and he figured what would happen if they came upon the crippled bird. But he couldn't leave the crow to suffer. The flailing bird's plight brought back long-repressed memories about having killed birds for no other reason than their being in the wrong place or their eating apples that really weren't that good anyway.
He turned and walked back to the crow, then knelt down and grasped it. It was so weakened it didn't put up much of a fight. The running-man held the bird firmly against his body to calm and soothe it. He was so heartbroken about his decision he almost started to cry.
He held the crow firmly in his left hand and grabbed the bird's neck with his right. He gave the neck a sharp twist and a pull, hoping to break it, to quickly end the bird's misery. But the bird, suddenly frantic, thrashing and desperate, didn't succumb. He tried again, and yet again, while screaming, "Die already! ... Die! ... Goddamn it, die!" Finally, finally, the bird went limp.
Tears ran down his cheeks as he placed the crow back onto the ground. He scraped dried leaves and dirt away to make an indentation in the earth and slid the bird into its makeshift grave. He covered it as best he could, knowing that it would probably be discovered by cats on patrol.
Cooled-down and stiff, running-man pulled himself up to finish his loop.
Another twenty years flew by, and the running-man-turned-grandfather looked out through the kitchen window at the cylindrical Lucite bird feeder. It was empty, as it was every morning, so he slipped on his worn-out moccasins and went to refill it from the pail of bird seed he kept next to the back door. Keeping the bird feeder and the suet cage replenished and scrubbing and filling the birdbath were first-in-the-morning chores he did every day throughout the year.
The birds came in droves: wrens darting back and forth, starlings cackling and arguing, cardinals in pairs as always, dive-bombing blue jays, iridescent grackles, cooing doves and red-headed woodpecker, and, later in the afternoon, pigeons swooping in to sweep up like a fleet of B-52s. Occasionally, a cowbird, a robin or a red-winged blackbird visited, or a stray parakeet as out of place as its plumage. Once, a red-tailed hawk perched atop the feeder, as if posing for the photo the grandfather snapped, and followed, several days later, by his discovery of a pile of light gray feathers in a corner of the backyard. That's the way things go, he thought.
This time, a tiny brown and white wren on the bottom rung was futilely flapping its wings. It couldn't fly off because its head had gotten stuck in the feed hole. The grandfather clutched the bird and tried to gently maneuver its head out, but without success.
The grandfather noticed that the bird's neck was bent - either the reason for or the result of its being stuck - but he tried again. By using a bit more force, he was able to pry the bird loose. He noticed a speck of blood on the neck, which remained oddly bent. Although the bird barely struggled in his hand, he didn't want to euthanize it unless he had to.
He brought the wren to the birdbath and urged its head downward to drink, but it resisted. He scooped up water in his hand and pushed the bird's head towards it. Its beak opened and seemed to be sipping. When the water had sifted through his fingers, he scooped up another palmful. When the wren seemed to have had enough and becoming reanimated and agitated, Grandpa placed it on top of an evergreen bush. It skittered away and out of sight.
For the next few days, after refilling the bird feeder, suet cage and birdbath, he checked the branches within the evergreen and the ground beneath.
But the bird was gone.
Rev 11 / July 21, 2008
July, 2008 Copyright © 2008, Lloyd B. Abrams