The Last Wild Passenger Pigeon
Bess Winter

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.

I 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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