A Body in Motion

David Álvarez López/Flickr
David Álvarez López/Flickr

“That’s a happy ending,” I thought, walking back to my car from the aviary at Isabel la Catolica Park, after turning a pigeon over to the attendant there. He’d been kind. “What have we here?” he’d asked, sticking his hand into the box I held and pulling out the bird. It flapped strenuously, as it had two days earlier, on a drizzly Saturday afternoon, when I’d chased it along the fence line while the two cats, who were responsible for the situation, followed closely. My visiting friend followed at a distance. Soon the pigeon had pushed through some slats in the fence and moved into the dogs’ territory. I yelled for my son as the bird flapped along the ground and I stumbled after it, hissing at the cats, grabbing for the dogs, and wondering how this was all going to end. Drops spattered down from tree branches with the wind, and the tall grass at the fence was bent with water. The drizzle started up again.

My son appeared from inside the house and while my friend held the dogs and I ran for a towel and a box, he caught the bird. It couldn’t fly so catching it was a trick of assertion, not more.

A quick examination revealed no gaping wounds, no flow of blood. But the bird wouldn’t survive long on the ground. I put it in the box. Then I wondered what to do about it. Pigeons, I soon read on the Internet, are intelligent and friendly, and even wild ones can adapt to life as a pet. This one might have to, having lost so much plumage in its encounter with the cats that it didn’t have enough left to fly free. Piles of feathers and trails and scattered fluff covered the back yard—it was a wonder the bird had any left at all. It was these feathers that had first caught our attention. Like a blood bath, but in feathers. A matanza—a massacre. When had this happened, my friend and I wondered when we revisited the scene after the bird was safely stowed in the box. Had the bird been fighting for its life while we obliviously ate our pizza at the kitchen table? No, my friend said, because when she’d tossed the breadcrumbs out the kitchen door, there’d been no feathers. The bird had come afterwards. Her hand went to her mouth in sudden understanding. I was a second behind her.

In the yard, several feather clumps were so big I’d feared on first seeing them that a bit of wing was attached, but no, just feathers in the trail. Make that trails. Among the uses of feathers—keep you warm, keep you dry, let you fly, make you beautiful—I now had another: defensive mechanism, like a lizard’s detachable tail, that keeps the attacker from holding on to you. How many times had the bird been on the verge of flying free to be brought to earth again by a cat’s claws raking through its feathers, yet, shedding those feathers, had flapped away again? The trails indicated three times, and at the end of each attempted getaway was a pool of feathers. No trail indicated escape. But where was the body? Eventually I’d found the bird behind a big rock beside the fence, not a corpse, to my surprise, but an alert and determined bird. I had no more luck catching it than the cats.

After the rest of the weekend in a large metal cage, the pigeon still peered at me with high mistrust. So, Monday morning I took it to the aviary.

The attendant said the bird looked good. “Torcaz,” he told me, naming a large pigeon species that has become more numerous in this area since hunting them was restricted. (The cats had not read the proclamation.) In English it’s called a ring-necked wood pigeon. It’s bigger and hardier than the pigeons that wander the parks and city streets, and the beak is lined in red.

I told the attendant I’d applied antiseptic to what appeared to be wounds under the wings, but he showed me it was more like a rash from the feathers being wrenched out. I was still full of wonder at the quantity of plumage the bird had lost. “We saw the feathers, astonishing amounts,” I told him. He nodded, still turning the bird in his hands.

I asked how long for the feathers to grow back. Oh, a long time, he told me, then assured me the bird would be taken care of. It would go into a large enclosure with a high roof, full of parakeets, pheasants, and pigeons. When it could fly, it would be released. Taken back to where it came from, I asked, and the man said that that was done for raptors but not other kinds of birds. I nodded. Every detail added to my conviction that I had done the right thing, first in capturing the bird and then in bringing it here. Now I could turn around, go back home, and resume my life along its customary track.

Was it a happy ending for the pigeon? Pigeons mate for life. They are territorial. They have nests, two eggs, and then nestlings, called squabs. All of that was lost when the bird shed its feathers. “The pigeon lived in a grove of bay laurel trees, happily eating the berries,” I recited to myself. “Then one spring day, everything changed.” How strange that alighting in my yard on that particular day had such dire consequences for the pigeon when alighting there never had before. How strange that the pizza my friend and I shared and the crumbs we tossed out the kitchen door led both of us, the pigeon and me, here.

Every step I take in one direction is a step not taken in all the other directions. Even stranger than the tugs and jabs of fate that push us off our usual track is the notion that we have a particular track to keep to. Instead, we have what’s left as we forge forward. All those destinations, all those possible lives, shed like bunches of feathers, some dropping with no tug, some hurting as they’re torn away. The loss as we go doesn’t kill us. Our lives are not necessarily poorer. But our futures are corralled.

Jingling the keys, I didn’t think about where I might be if I’d made different moves—or if anyone I’d crossed paths with had. Instead, I thought about the pigeon. What was in store for it? New friends? A calming sense of safety now that it was protected from predators and had plenty of food? Perhaps a longing for former haunts?

Pigeons have a remarkable memory for faces, I had read when looking for information about them. Maybe I would visit the aviary and gaze into the pen, from one bird to another, looking for a spark of recognition. My pigeon, gazing back, might hide that spark, wary of becoming another moment in my life. Once was enough. I would turn away, disappointed. That day, like this one, I would return to my car on a path entirely new but entirely familiar. When might this happen? In two weeks, in three? Or never. Plucked free of the possibilities we imagine, mightn’t we feel very light? Giddy almost, though earthbound, determined, and caged, kept going by our own inertia.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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