Marie Smysor Watson
It's said that "good fences make good neighbors." Unfortunately, animals rarely comply with our man-made boundaries. Just a note: no wildlife was harmed in the writing of this story. Also, I do like birds. Squirrels, on the other hand....
I was outside in that particular kind of god-awful humidity that only the Midwest can produce, building a fence to contain my just mobile, not quite two-year-old son when I was first attacked. A bird, one with a spiky red puff of a hairdo came swooping at me out of the scrub pine tree that stood too close to our house, its beak, open and gaping, as it dived at my head.
“Christ!” I yelled, a short loud bark. Undeterred, the bird swooped again, this time gaining close enough access to my face that I felt its small wing flutter against my beard. It retreated as quickly as it came, but I did not know where to. I recoiled, repulsed. I liked wildlife – I grew up in the woods, surrounded by trees and birds and rocks and things, ala Neil Young – but animals needed to keep their place. Not in my yard – I’m talking to you squirrels – not in my garden - sonsabitchin rabbits - and most definitely not in my face. Fucking BIRD.
Of course, my neighbor to the west - my backdoor neighbor, a little inside joke between my wife and I because he was gay, nothing against him, of course - was always feeding something wild. Squirrels and birds usually, once a baby raccoon whose mother had been hit on the street. I'd receive updates on the it’s progress every time he saw me outside. He bottle-fed him for weeks until he got too wild and went back to whence he came. Which was probably my trash cans.
I was just shaking off my attack, slamming my post-hole diggers into the ground – each hole had to be forty-two inches deep to get below frost line – when the second wave came in. Undeterred by my size, the bird flapped around my head, emitting terrible clicking, hissing sounds that absurdly conjured Arnold Schwarzenegger’s magnum opus, Predator. It sounded just like that. Unfortunately, I had no one to get me to the choppah; I was battling alone. This second attack only lasted about five seconds, but my vicious little enemy managed to graze my cheekbone, just above my beard. I wiped my cheek; it came away with a streak of blood. Fury rose like smoke in my chest. I threw down my post-hole diggers and stalked into the house.
“What the fuck, Brian?” my wife said as I crossed in front of her, treading loudly. She was watching a Christmas in July showing of It’s a Wonderful Life while our son napped. I was interrupting her, I knew, but I did not care.
“What's going on?” she hissed, following me to the bedroom.
“Bird.” I said shortly, spitting it out through my teeth as I rummaged around. I did not have time to explain.
I found what I was looking for in short order. I hefted it, admiring its sleekness for a moment. It was like holding my childhood sweetheart in my arms again. Daisy was her name.
“Oh Jeez-us!” my wife said disgustedly as I left the room. She could go back to her movie. I had more important matters to attend to.
After grabbing a hat and my phone on the way out of the door, I crouched/ran towards my car. It was sitting in the driveway with a primo view of the back yard. Our house was situated on a corner lot which meant that we pulled into our parking spots off of the side street. We had no garage, which put us at the mercy of our sometimes bitter Illinois winters. But it was good in this case; I had an unobstructed view of the battleground. Slipping into the driver's seat, I positioned my weapon out of the window, taking care to not show too much of the barrel lest someone driving by called the police. Defending my hearth and home from enemy attack was no match for discharging a firearm within city limits. Even if the firearm in question was a 25-year-old BB gun.
It did not take long for the bird to appear again, positioning itself on a section of fence that I had just put up last weekend, one that separated my yard from my neighbor to the north. Unfortunately it was also directly in line with his garage window. I was doubtful a BB gun would even kill the bird, but I knew for certain that it would put a definite hole in the window. If I could even hit it. I had earned an expert marksman designation as a Boy Scout twenty years ago (making my lifetime NRA member father inordinately proud).
But twenty years was a long time. I was able to get a shot of it with my phone, zooming in over thirty feet of yard, the picture came out fairly clear. Recon could help me better understand my enemy. It was one ugly mother.
As it sat there, making its nasty clicking and hissing sounds, still audible from across the yard, I googled Birds of Illinois to find out what I was up against. I went directly to the images section because the search engine coughed up pages and pages of information, most of it useless. I scrolled through the pictures quickly, keeping one eye on the fence line. After a few dozen pictures though they all started to morph together into one big, nasty avian problem. While I scrolled fruitlessly, I was interrupted by a ping from my phone.
I’m watching u, said the text from my beloved wife. I glanced up and saw her, safe behind the glass of the storm door. Flipping me off.
Giving me the bird, how apropos, I texted back, smiling at my witticism.
Ur an idiot. Don’t shoot ur eye out. Her parting shot, as she closed the inside door.
Luv u 2 my queen, I texted back.
I put down the phone, having forgotten my mission for a minute.
“Shit,” I said to myself. The fence line was empty.
It did not take long for my enemy to reappear. It flew boldly to the top of my freestanding basketball hoop and perched itself on top of the backboard. A clean shot for Daisy and I, nothing but sky behind. I took my shot, aiming carefully and sighting down the old BB gun. It's red crest stuck up above the barrel; it's odd unnerving sounds penetrated the slit in my window.
Pop! went the gun. My opponent fell straight to the ground, bouncing once before it lay still, less than a foot away from my beat-up Dodge. I stepped out, walking carefully over to it. I nudged it gently, half expecting it to reanimate and fly straight into my face, a just kidding! surprise as it went after one of my eyes. But it did not move. It was a good kill.
After making certain it was dead, I picked it up by its wing – it was so small - and carried it over to the hole I had been digging before the battle commenced. I measured, it was just deep enough. I threw the body into it, setting the 4x4 post square, its weight crushing the little body into the earth. I, the victor, began back-filling the dirt, tamping it down and keeping the post straight as I did so, a proper burial for the vanquished.
I was finishing up the last section of my fence two weeks later. The humidity had broken as July had segued into August, but it was still hot under the summer sun. I was daydreaming of a cold Miller High Life, its brown bottle glistening with its sweet-smelling sweat.
Jim - my backdoor neighbor - appeared, seemingly from nowhere. My guess was that he had been watching me for a while.
“Hey, Brian,” he said, in a friendly tone. He was always friendly, which made me feel slightly guilty for making private jokes to my wife about his sexuality. I was enlightened, not a bigot, not at all. I just could not help myself sometimes. But I genuinely did like him.
“Hey, Jim,” I said. I leaned against my post-hole diggers for support. I had just started the hole. Only four more left; the end was near.
“I don’t suppose you’ve seen my bird?” he asked, with a resigned sigh. He was holding a pair of binoculars. My heart rose to somewhere just south of my Adam’s apple.
“What bird?” I managed to ask in a reasonable, even tone.
“I took it in as a baby,” he said. “A Red-Crested Cardinal. Really unusual looking. It’s native to South America and Hawaii. Not sure what it was doing up here. Probably global warming. Had a red mohawk.” He waved his hand over his head. “He stuck around after I released him for a while, but I haven’t seen him for a couple of weeks.” He brought up the binoculars with a sheepish smile. “I was using these to look in your trees. I saw him there a couple of times.”
“Sorry, I haven’t seen it,” I mustered with fake sincerity.
“I didn’t figure. Just thought I’d ask.” He sighed and turned. “It’s hard raising something and letting it go.”
“Sorry, Jim,” I said to his back. I stared for a few minutes into the shallow hole and then continued digging. I was almost finished, no time to stop.