The Last Wild Passenger Pigeon
Its story is the boy who kneels to see what he's shot: a bird of
uncertain origin, beak parted, feet curled.
This is 1900. This is at the edge of a thirsty cornfield. The sky is
grey. The bird is grey with blots of red and blue. The day is a cool
March day enveloped by other cool March days.
Its story is the boy's mother. She strokes it as she'd stroke the hair
of a feverish child. I was your age last time
I saw one like this. People said they were all gone.
She wears a deep sadness the boy has not seen in his lifetime.
The boy's creeping feelings, the melt where there once was pride: this
is the bird's story, too. He watches his mother wrap the bird in rags
and put it in a shoebox, whisper to it. We'll find a home for you.
That night, he turns in his narrow bed.
This is where the carcass of the last wild passenger pigeon goes: a
museum in Columbus. The woman who's prepared the bird has thick arms
like bolster pillows. She guides the boy and his mother to where she's
perched the bird.
used shoe buttons for the eyes,
she says. We
call him Buttons now.
This is not the last wild passenger pigeon: overstuffed, with a dull
unlidded look that betrays no secrets. It's under a glass box that
throws back the boy's own reflection.
And this is suddenly and forever in the boy: the living bird, still
high in the tree where he sighted it. He feels it gazing out
his own eyes like through a thicket. He feels it cock its head at the
sight of itself. He thinks he might even feel it sigh.
Soon, he will never know his own heartbeat from a flapping of wings.
Bess Winter is from Toronto. Her story "Signs," from American Short Fiction, won a Pushcart Prize
and was included in the 2012 Wigleaf Top 50.
Read more of her work in the archive.
Detail of photo on main page courtesy
of Amit Shah.
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