THE LITTLE BIRD

It happened long ago, but itís still with me.

I was young then, and had learned my lessons well. Mother had told me of the diseases one could catch from wild animals; and I had heard, somewhere, that once baby birds were touched by human hands, their own mother, put off by the scent, would have nothing further to do with them.

When, one day, while walking towards the center of the town, I discovered a small and helpless bird with fledgling wings crouching in the gutter of the road, looking up at me in confusion and chirping, I thought at once that I must lift it up and place it on the grass. Then, realizing that on the grass by the side of the road, a stray cat such as sometimes passed might find it and end its infant life, I decided that the bird ought to be lifted from the road and placed on the other side of a tall iron fence, on property beyond the reach of strays. What good would it do to save the little bird from the thoughtless wheels of a car, only to deliver it to the jaws and claws of a more deliberate destroyer?

I looked all around me, up into the sky, seeking to discover the branch the helpless bird had fallen from, the nest; to spot an anxious mother bird hovering somewhere in the vicinity, eagerly awaiting the results.

I saw nothing, only a clear blue sky and disinterested branches, too busy dancing with shut eyes of bark in the gentle breeze to detect the crisis at their feet. I looked again. Nature often disappoints us.

After a little while, I stooped as if to pick up the little bird, who was ringed all around with feathers too big for his tiny body: a little, lost ball lying in the street with two shining eyes that were everything. Eyes are what gives an object life. If a stone had eyes, we would love it.

But just as I was about to pick the little bird up and carry him to safety, I remembered what I had been told: the diseases one can get from wild animals! I hesitated. I started to reach down again. Again, I hesitated. This time, because of the scent I might impart to him. What good would it do to lift him out of the street if, after that, his mother, and no other bird, would ever again have anything to do with him? What held me back? Was it the parasites he might have, the filth on his feathers, or the thought of exiling him from his kind, and negating the rescue by poisoning him in the eyes of other birds? Sometimes, after all, you destroy things by saving them.

I saw a car coming down the road, fast and careless, as are most cars in the town I live in. People here are successful and have nothing left after their victories; they donít wait and they donít look. Fearing for the safety of the bird, I stepped off the curb into the street between him and the speeding motorist, knowing that the car would surely see me standing there and take action to avoid me, since half the people who live here are lawyers and there was no telling that my father might not be one of them.

Dutifully, the car moved out to the middle of the road, and passed us by. The driver didnít waste any energy by allowing himself to become upset. Large houses have a calming effect on the soul.

Once more, I considered lifting the bird out of the street with my bare hands. Once more, the knowledge that I had prevented me.

I thought: I must go home, at once, it is but a couple of blocks away, to get a pair of gloves! Then I can pick him up without risk!

But what if another car should come in the meantime?

I looked down at how close to the side of the road the little bird was, as he sat there, fat and helpless, chirping away in the gutter, and I thought: he is too close to the sidewalk for any car to run him over where he is; to drive over where he is, they would have to risk scraping their tires against the curb.

With this reassuring thought, which seemed to guarantee the safety of the little bird while I was gone, I convinced myself to make the dash back home to get the gloves with which to save him.

Loyal to the gravity of the moment, I moved with speed. I crossed the avenue against the light, I strode quickly up the hill which led to my home, past the mailbox and the decorative boulder. I went into the garage where we kept a mass of unused gardening supplies from the days when we had done our lawn ourselves, past the rakes and hoes and hedge-clippers, the awkward, heavy lawn-mower, and insecticides, past the cans of paint and turpentine, and box of ancient sponges, until, at last, I reached the old box with the heavy workmanís gloves, and seized a pair for myself.

Then, at a business-like gait, neither panicked nor unhurried, I headed back towards the gutter where the fallen baby bird sat, imperiled, on his unwelcome nest of concrete.

Once again, I crossed against the light, I placed the gloves upon my hands, and looked down into the gutter for the little bird.

What I saw, then, I will never forget: there he lay, crushed beside the curb, his insides squeezed out of him and smeared onto the street, his tiny eyes still open and looking upwards for succor. In just those few minutes I had been gone Ė and in the place I had left him, deeming it to be safe!

My eyes moistened; the devastating reality, somehow savage and ironic in spite of the small scale, shook me to the core. I looked at the gloves with rage; I hated myself. I hated myself, but it was he who was dead.

The parasites! The scent!

What had knowledge done?! To him - and to me?

For a moment, I burned with a deep and scathing hatred of my teachers.

But this had nothing to do with them.

It was between the bird and me. And would always be. He had been there, chirping in the street; and I had been there while he was still alive.

God save us from the knowledge that keeps us from lifting the little bird out of the street!

 

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