on the page magazine

issue no. 7, spring 2002
home & escape


Wild Birds of the Food Court

by Denice Aldrich Jobe

I am enchanted again this morning by the riotous plash of the stony fountain. Here, near its scalloped edge, I have dragged my café table squealing. Excepting me, the central square is empty. Even the wide pedestrian boulevards, all four of which meet at the square, are vacant. Down each of these spacious corridors, overhead lights illuminate clean-swept floors, intermittent park benches, and potted plants. Shop-fronts with glassed display cases offer a hint of treasures to be found inside. Colorful murals disguise the shock of vacancy.

As I spread out my sketches and notebooks, the chilled air lifts my fine hair. The draft is too weak to stir the saplings in their pebbled beds nearby. Several eateries line the square, and from these come the smell of food cooking. My stomach rumbles. After many weeks in the field, I have developed a taste for the local cuisine.

I would not say the natives are friendly, but I am so much a part of the landscape that I am hardly ever disturbed in my studies. Like all strangers, I have endured a measure of initial suspicion from the local population. In fact, I might have been cast out, had I not argued the importance of my work to the head of security. Indeed, I assured him that under no circumstances would I interfere with daily operations. I further explained that my intention was merely to observe the natural behavior of an unusual species of bird. Evidently, he must have understood the scientific significance of my undertaking, as he has never troubled me again.

The swarms who pace up and down the boulevards toting shopping bags rarely notice me until lunchtime, when all the café tables are full, and still other patrons circle the square holding trays, and my table is covered only with notebooks and a pair of scratched field glasses.

The birds themselves seldom appear until late afternoon, when the crowds have thinned, and the squad of bow-tied attendants, whose job it is to swipe at crumb-scattered tabletops, pause for a meal. Alone or in pairs, they chew impassively, dark heads bowed over paper cartons.

Today the birds—there are five at least—arrive just after three. They dart over the square, cheep excitedly, and perch in a tree. Several patrons look up; a small child points, delighted. The birds scan the square with unblinking eyes before swooping to the tiles. There, they feed on discarded French fries, cookie crumbs, and pickle slices. One, a rather plump fellow, pecks at a crust of bread under my table. He looks up at me, cocks his head, stabs again at the bread.

If I wanted to, I could capture him, hold him in my fist, extend one compact wing with my fingers. But I have spent innumerable hours sitting here, very still, in hopes the birds will not fear me and come closer. Over these several weeks I have become part of the topography; another object under which crumbs may be found. Each day the birds draw nearer to me. Shall I spoil such progress for an instant of contact?

When the bird hops on my knee I can feel the prick of his claws through my slacks. My heart beats so loudly I fear he will be frightened away. But he grooms himself idly. To him, I am a convenient perch, no different from a tree limb or a yellow pylon on the floor that warns Cuidado Piso Mojado. I scarcely feel his weight. Still, he is well fed, portly, even. His russet feathers shine with health. When he unfolds his wings I notice the feathers underneath are damp.

I imagine how he must have felt when first he was trapped, when his mate, the sky, the trees had simply vanished. This world—this modern cathedral with its pale icons and engineered sunbeams—must have seemed very strange indeed. For hours he must have shot up and down the corridors, exhausted, too terrified to land.

Ignorant bird; he cannot understand how he came to this place or who built it. He has no idea the natural world still exists, just outside. He only knows there is food here, and water; he is warm and dry, and safe. Days after he finds himself trapped he is scavenging with the others under café tables for scraps of food.

The bird runs a feather through his beak, looks up at me blankly, blinks in rapid clicks.

His behavior calls to mind an afternoon, years ago, when I asked my grandmother if God was real and if so, why I could not see Him. She smiled broadly, took my hand, and made me kneel down in the yard. Her hand, still damp from the dishwater, rested on the back of my neck.

I remember it resting there, her hand; I remember its weight. I shrugged my shoulders, to rid myself of it. And she took it away. I fear I may have deeply wounded her. But I was a boy then, a child who had often before been touched, a child whose life would be rich with the tender and sometimes tiresome touch of women.

Now I have forgotten the feel of gentle hands on my skin. Only when the physician lays his dry, placid hands on my naked back do I remember. And grieve.

My grandmother had pointed at a column of ants, marching through the grass, and asked me if they knew we were watching them. "Yes," I said boldly, "The ants are scared of our shadows. See them scatter." "Ah," Grandmother said, "We are like the ants; we are frightened when dark clouds gather over our heads."

Just then, a cloud covered the sun and I looked up, eager to see what had cast such a shadow. "The ants know we're here," she had whispered in my ear. "But they cannot see what we are. Just as we cannot see what God is."

The bird perches contentedly on my knee for many minutes, grooming itself, until my daughter arrives to fetch me and shoos him away. "Ewww. That thing could be carrying some disease," she scolds, and for an instant I am reminded of her mother. "The boys are waiting in the car," she says, and begins to gather up my sketches and notes with much crinkling and carelessness. She is a busy girl, my Ellen, an impatient girl.

She wedges my papers—my day's labor—under one arm and reaches for my elbow. All at once her wide, pleasant face is made ugly by an expression of disgust. She pulls from her purse a fistful of tissue, clucks disapprovingly, and proceeds to wipe forcibly at my thigh.

A study of the bird's feces would have revealed a great deal about its diet. Alas, I am unable to wrest the soiled tissues from my daughter. She pulls them out of reach and hides them behind her back, as if it were a game and she were a girl again, creeping up behind me, stealing my book, daring me to chase her, screeching, about the house.

She bats my hand away and lifts me up by the arm. Her fingers, unrelenting, seize my wrist. "Let's go, Daddy," she says, and escorts me across the square. Reluctantly I follow, not at all eager to return to Ellen's house, and my tiny room, with its floral coverlet and wicker dresser, upon which lie an assortment of ceramic rabbit figurines and a basket of hotel toiletries, their paper wrappers long faded. Only my few belongings, scattered among the rabbits, mark my presence.

The head of security watches our progress, and as we pass, he shakes his head, no doubt impressed by my remarkable encounter with the bird this afternoon. Ellen smiles nervously, and quickens her pace.

Glancing over my shoulder, I observe a family taking possession of the table I so recently occupied and spreading out their paper-wrapped supper. Behind them the fountain bubbles inaudibly. I search the treetops, the floor, the striped awnings one last time. But the birds have gone.

We hurry across the wet parking lot, Ellen holding my pages over her head to shield herself from the rain. Her car, faded and yellow, is parked not far from the entrance to the building, and as we approach, the boys catapult into the backseat. The air inside is thick and hot, and smells of perspiration and musty carpet. As soon as we sit down, Ellen's youngest son proceeds to kick repeatedly at his mother's seat.

It quakes violently, but Ellen sits unmoved. She has just noticed my notes, clutched carelessly in her fist, and indeed, she seems perplexed to find them there, and in such wretched condition. Truly, it is of little consequence to me, and I tell her so, but still she flattens the warped and sodden pages against her thigh and tries to wipe away the sheen of rain. Her efforts, though, only succeed in smudging my sketches further.

It scarcely matters. The damaged notes, the rain, nothing can diminish my excitement. I tell her about the birds, about their sudden appearance in the square, and, especially, about the one that perched, fearlessly, upon my knee. Captivated by my narrative, the boys have fallen silent. Their mother too, says nothing, and stares mutely through the fog-mottled windshield at the building, rising dark and unadorned in the near distance. It stands impenetrable, but for a pair of glass doors, through which warm, golden light spills out onto the street.

"Is it not amazing," I ask, "That the creatures inside shall never feel hunger, or the sting of rain on their backs?"

In answer, the youngest shrugs, the eldest asks, "Can we go now?" and Ellen, child of my heart, covers her face with her hands, and begins to cry.

Denice Aldrich Jobe's work has appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, ENC Focus magazine, PBS Online, and WilmingtonBlues.com. She lives in Northern Virginia.

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