The Vulture, Pt.2
Trevor completely ignored her, favoring the mutilated hawk instead. It was difficult to see amidst all the scrunched feathers, but the waking hawk only had half of one wing. With a scoff, Tiffany stuck Trevor’s ticket to his chest. There they stood in silence, raptors squawking all around them. Adam had never been to any sort of zoo in his life, this was the closest he’d come. He wasn’t sure when they would move on, but he, and now his mother, were getting fidgety. Adam noticed that the hawk was now staring directly at him. There was a precision, an animosity in that stare. In that frozen moment, Adam was sure that the bird could tear him limb from limb if it could just get past the bars, much less fly at him. He dropped his gaze from the bird, frightened, but too embarrassed to admit it. His sights turned to the rest of the circular path. Identical wooden cages lined the outer perimeter of the winding cobblestone, each containing some fierce animal, some raptor, that could swallow him like a mouse in his imagination. He tried to spot a cage at the far end of the path, towards his salvation, towards the eagles. However, a broad oak stood in the grassy center of the circle, obscuring his view of the far end. His brow furrowed and he scrunched his face in impatience.
He turned quickly back towards the hawks, ready to give them a final lookover before saying goodbye, but something was caught in his periphery. Something in the cage with the hawks. A lump of black. An oblong. He focused on it and made out separations in the black mass. Feathers. Two arched wings against a hunched back. Then, as if it sensed eyes upon it, the enigma shifted, ruffling its feathers. An ashen gray, bald, scaly head snaked its way past its shoulders. Adam caught sight of a single, inky globule set in the head and a vicious curved beak. The eye absorbed Adam, sucking him in with a bemused curiosity. Repulsed, Adam buried his face in his mother’s hips, throwing his arms around her leg.
“Adam, what’s wrong?” Tiffany asked, rubbing her son’s back.
He didn’t have words for the monstrosity. He lifted a trembling finger towards the beast. Tiffany laughed, relieved. Another flush of juvenile anger and embarrassment filled Adam. Why is she laughing at me? he wondered.
“Honey, that’s just a vulture.” Tiffany explained, peeling her son off her leg. “It’s not going to do anything to you. Look.”
Adam didn’t want to look, but as his mother turned him around to face it, he was forced to. He squinted at it to avoid letting the whole image sink in. Adam thought he had heard that word before, vulture, but never knew it was a type of bird. As he tried to recall every time he heard the word vulture in passing, he could never remember it meaning something good.
“Why’s it in there with the hawks?” Adam asked.
“They eat dead things.” Trevor’s breath rolled out as languidly as he moved and spoke. The crippled hawk tracked the breath upwards, becoming bored with the non-threat of these gawking apes.
Adam was confused. “Don’t all these birds eat dead things, dad?”
“No, like, they find it dead first then eat it. Like a…like a vulture. How do you not know that?”
Adam felt stupid but how was he to know? No one had taught him?
“Really, Trev?” Tiffany snapped.
“What? He’s gonna know about fucking carrion birds eventually.”
“No, it’s not that, you didn’t have to make fun of him.”
“How am I making fun of him? I just thought he’d know what a vulture was by now.”
“How, Trevor? How would he have known?”
“School? I don’t know.”
“Did you learn about vultures in school?”
Adam tuned out his parents and continued staring at the vulture, becoming used to its alien features. The vulture eventually shrunk its head back towards its breast, hunching its wings again. His mother placed a hand on his back, giving him a light push to move along to the next cage. Adam looked back just in time to see his father rolling his eyes and shaking his head. “C’mon, honey”, his mother whispered, “let’s just keep going.” Trevor remained at the hawk pen.
The next cage along the path was only spaced a few feet away. Two barn owls were situated high, high up on a platform in the top corner of the cage. These two were both asleep, huddled and scrunched up close together.
“Are we going to see any birds fly today?”
“Maybe. Not the owls though. They’re nocturnal.”
“What, you don’t already know?” Adam’s mother said in a spiteful impression of her husband. She laughed at her own jab. Adam didn’t pick up on this, merely frowning and looking at his shoes. Tiffany felt ashamed. “It means they’re only awake at nighttime. They sleep in the day.”
“You know, bald eagles aren’t nocturnal.” Tiffany whispered close, anticipating her son’s fear. She was warmed to see a smile come to Adam’s lips. Still hope for a good outing. They heard Trevor’s footfalls. Apparently, he was done with the hawks. Adam wasn’t quite done taking in the owls but his mother was pushing him along again, this time towards a pair of chittering ospreys. As Adam took halting steps, resisting his mother’s prodding as politely as he could, he caught another one in the corner, on the ground. A vulture. A twin to the one in the hawk cage, sat hunched exactly as the first one. A live gargoyle, obsidian feathers flittering. It craned its head back at Adam. Adam’s eyes snapped forward.
This was the uncomfortable pattern kept up along the remainder of the Center’s path. Adam and his mother would stay a cage ahead of his father, only progressing when his father was ready. Adam was a clever enough child to pick up on the power play between his parents. He wished his father wouldn’t lollygag so much, though. He idled, pretending to care about the birds, their illnesses, their injuries. Pretended to read their plaques, about their migratory patterns, their breeding habits, so on. Things Adam himself wasn’t interested. He always waited just long enough before he thought Tiffany would start squawking at him and then start moving to the next cage. The emotional edging prevented Tiffany from appreciating the birds as much as she wanted to. She kept a firm grip on Adam, ready to usher him along the moment Trevor began advancing. By the fourth cage, a mixed group of kites and falcons, all Adam could think about, despite the main attraction of each cage, despite the poisonous ebb and flow between his mother and father, was where the vulture in each cage would be. Without fail, he saw one hunched in the corner, separated from the other birds standing like a sentinel.
Adam wondered how he would draw a vulture with his crayons, just using blacks and greys. Would he scare himself while drawing one? Would he be able to capture their sickly, vacant eyes? What was that look exactly? Curiosity? Patience? Hunger? Adam couldn’t tell. Birds were sick and injured here; cracked beaks, broken limbs, salmonella, feather-loss, but not dead. Were the vultures injured too? He didn’t care. A thought occurred to him. Would there be a vulture with the bald eagles? If there were, it better be as far away from eagles as possible.
He didn’t have much time to dwell on this, as his mother gave me a light shake on the shoulders.
“Here we are”, she gasped, feigning a match to her son’s passion, “the bald eagles are next!”
“In that one?” Adam pointed at a pen just up a small flight of stairs that rounded out the circular path. The bald eagle pen sat at the highest point in the Center, atop the small hill on which the whole facility sat. From where he stood, he could only make out just the top half of the cage. The platforms and branches that high were empty, meaning the eagles must be somewhere towards the floor. Closer to me, Adam thought gleefully. His mother released her grip on his shoulders, and he turned to her, eyes expectant. She nodded and he leapt up the stairs two at a time, his mother calling out for him to be careful.
Adam noticed the plaque first, another painting of bald eagles soaring against a mountainous vista. The text might as well have been in French for all he cared. He planted himself firmly in front of the cage, dead center. He saw one. It was definitely a bald eagle. The striking white head was unmistakable. However, it had its back turned to him. It did not turn or let out a cry at his arrival. No fanfare. No lion’s roar. It stood still, statuesque, looking instead out the back bars of the cage, towards a lake that was obscured from farther down the hill where the Center’s entrance was. Vapors blew off the lake, the early morning haze obscuring the far side. Adam could not stay focused on his avian idol for long. Next to the eagle, to his horror, a defiant inkblot stood, wings outstretched to their fullest. The vulture seemed a cutout of the space next to eagle, like the ones Adam saw cartoon characters leave when they ran through walls. It took a moment before Adam realized a difference with this vulture. It’s head, while normally coiled back against the body in the case of the other vultures, stood erect. Adam caught the creature’s face in profile. A pink, fleshy thing hung from vulture’s beak, slippery, shiny, and dangling. While Adam stood, aghast, the vulture began tossing and catching the bloody worm in its beak, tilting its head to swallow and yank off pieces. Adam shouted, unable to contain his disgust.
“Hey! Hey, you! Get outta here! Get away from him!”
Adam’s mother, wanting to give her son a few moments alone with the eagles, began climbing the steps herself. “Adam!”, she called out, “Shh! Don’t shout, please!”
Startled by the young boy’s shouting, the two birds, vulture and eagle, hopped apart and turned to assess the newcomer. The eagle (the male, Swanson, if Adam had read the plaque) was missing an eye. The remaining one, however, was just as powerful as Adam had seen in every depiction of the bird. A calculating, iron gaze he knew he could never capture in crayon. The vulture on the other hand, slunk its neck down below its hunched wings, still trailing its breakfast as it looked towards Adam. Getting a better look at the whole beast, Adam saw it’s entire front side, neck, breast and al, were doused in a red bib. A smell hit Adam where he hadn’t noticed one before. It was sweet and rancid. He could taste the hours of decay. He saw, behind where the vulture stood only seconds ago, a dead eagle.
“Oh my God…”, Adam’s mother gagged. Trevor was right behind her, clamoring up the steps to see what the commotion was as well. Neither of them approached their child for several moments, all soaking in the scene. The other eagle, Lucy, was lying on her side. A large, misshapen gash surrounded by claw and beak marks leaked more entrails. Tiny pink and red organs were spilled onto the hay and dirt. Lucy’s eyes were wide open, still bearing the dignity of the eagle in life. The actually live eagle returned quickly to its post, maintaining vigilance on the lake. So too did the vulture return to his janitorial duty, leaning in to pick at the entrails.
Snapping to it, Tiffany swooped in front of her son, kneeling down to come face to face with the shaken boy. Tears and snot rolled down his face.
“What h-h-happened?” Adam blubbered.
Tiffany stuttered and shrugged pitifully. She looked to Trevor for help, he was still staring at the feast. It was official. The outing was over. She gathered her son in her arms and he clasped his hands around her neck. He spoke to her collarbones, demanding answers.
“Why did it k-k-kill the eagle?” he wailed.
She rubbed his head and patted his back, descending the opposite stairs and walking as quickly and carefully as she could with the fifty or so pounds of quivering, dripping dead weight.
Minutes later, Tiffany had Adam buckled into his car seat. She wiped his face with tissues she kept in the glove compartment while they waited for Trevor who was still trailing them. Once Trevor made it to the car, they got in wordlessly, shutting the doors. Trevor started the engine. They hadn’t made it out of the parking lot before Tiffany decided that she could not hold her contempt any longer.
“Are you happy now? We’re leaving.”
“No,” Trevor admitted, “not happy. This was your idea. I want you to remember that.”
The car rolled to the stop sign at the exit of the parking lot. Adam stared at his feet dangling in front of him in the car seat. Tiffany turned to her son, mustering up the most genuine smile she could.
“Hey, hon. Next week, we’ll just stay home, okay? We can watch movies, have a pajama day…”
Adam wasn’t listening. He could only imagine there was a vulture perched in the trunk, waiting for him to die so it could dine on his innards. He imagined the bird’s scythe-like talons holding down his neck for support as it yanked out his bowels like taffy.
Adam sighed. It was a sigh that demanded to be acknowledged.