She had been sitting there for hours. In her green plastic lawn chair, at the top of her building. A building dwarfed by the skyscrapers she could see on the other side of the river. The City of Dreams.
She heaved herself up with a sigh. Trudged toward the door to go in.
Suddenly, behind her was a noise like a dog’s squeaky toy being rapidly squeezed, or the laugh of a dolphin. It was the only warning she got before she felt a brush of feathertips in her hair and the sudden pricks of talons on her scalp.
She yelped. Something had landed on her head. She reached up and swept the thing away from her.
It swooped heavily to the ground. A pigeon.
No, not a pigeon. It was too sleek, too elegant. Not grey but a purplish pale brown. The almond-shaped eyes that blinked up at her were somehow more soulful than a pigeon’s.
A mourning dove.
She had stumbled backward, away from the bird. Her left hand had seized hold of a tall planter to keep herself from falling, and her right hand covered her racing heart. She tried to gasp in a lungful of air through a constricted throat.
The dove cooed softly, almost a purr, reassuring. She watched it for a sign of injury, but it seemed unhurt. Tentative, she kicked a stone toward it. It took one step away, unbothered.
She rubbed a hand over her head, eyebrows pulled together in befuddlement.
The bird cocked its head and stretched its neck, looking at her from every angle. It stepped toward her, lifting first one leg, then the other, in an awkward march.
She sidled to the left, aiming for the rooftop door. She made a careful, wide arc around the bird.
But it seemed intent on following her.
She turned and hurried to the door. There, she stopped and looked back.
The dove spread its wings and lurched forward, flapping but not gaining height. It took a few more wobbly steps toward her, then tried again to fly.
Not waiting for it to get any closer, she slammed the door between them, and took a few breaths to collect herself.
After a moment, she hurried down the stairs to her seventh-floor apartment. She unlocked the door and was grateful for the wave of cool, conditioned air that washed over her.
She opened her laptop on the small kitchen table. It was still open to her email inbox, full of rejection letters. Ignoring those, she opened a new tab and quickly typed, Can birds get rabies?
Mostly satisfied that the dove did not have rabies, she Googled mourning dove, and was sucked into the bird’s Wikipedia entry. She was surprised by how much she didn’t know about this simple creature. Her heart tugged a little when she read, “The mourning dove is monogamous and forms strong pair bonds.” She learned about how the male and female work together to raise their young, and how the species has a high mortality rate.
The next paragraph of the wiki was about drinking and diet. Inspired, she jumped up from her chair and dug out her mother’s old glass pie plate. She filled an empty soda bottle with cold water and carried both up to the roof.
The dove was still there, nestled in the shade of a potted plant, preening.
She tiptoed half the distance to the bird, set down the dish and poured a couple inches of water into it. Then she scurried away.
But she watched. From behind the steel rooftop door, open just a crack, she watched the dove approach the dish. It pecked the glass rim, then the water. Flapping its wings in delight, it hopped in. Raised its tail and shook its wings, sparkling water droplets flying everywhere. Then dipped its beak under to drink.
A smile spread across her face.
She watched it frolic for a few minutes, then quietly shut the door and headed back downstairs. She took the elevator down to the lobby and walked to the convenience store at the corner. She felt lucky that they stocked pet food and had a bag of generic bird seed. She also grabbed a cold lemonade for herself.
She returned directly to the roof of her building and settled into her plastic chair. When it saw her, it perked up, not at all afraid of her movements.
She pulled out the small bag of birdseed. Hands trembling, she withdrew a handful and feebly tossed it in the air. Tiny white beads of millet, flakes of yellow crushed corn, and black oil sunflower seeds showered the gravel between them.
The dove strutted forward, picked up one kernel, then another. It drew ever nearer, eagerly harvesting a feast.
She slid from her seat to sit cross-legged on the stone. She poured a bit of seed into her palm, and taking a long breath to steel herself, shakily extended her arm.
The bird walked right up and stopped before her, tilting its head at a funny angle to meet her eye.
She held her breath.
It clucked once. Then it lowered its beak and pecked a seed from her palm.
She flinched, expecting pain. But it didn’t hurt.
She held her hand before the bird, steady now. It selected a crumb of corn, then another. It felt kind of nice, actually, the scratch of its bill like a pencil tip on her skin.
It quickly gobbled up all the seed in her hand, then gently nibbled for more.
She tossed out more seed, and watched until the dove lost interest in eating. It walked near and squatted down to rest not more than six inches from her knee.
She reflected on her earlier research, remembering that mourning doves mate for life.
For the first time, she spoke to it. “We’re the same, you know,” she said. “I’m alone, too.”
She very slowly reached over with her right index finger extended and stroked the top of its head. It closed its eyes in contentment. It’s feathers were soft and sleek, like silk beneath her fingertip.
After a few moments, she rose and started walking along the path through her rooftop garden. Really it was just a huge, motley assortment of containers and planters--all her landlord would allow. But it was enough.
The dove followed her on her stroll. She slowed her pace to accommodate its rolling gait. The bird would sometimes stop to investigate a bug or fallen bloom, and she used the downtime to redirect the reaching tendrils of a Creeping Jenny, to crush a faded marigold bud and smell its pungent seeds, or to run her thumb over the felted leaves of a Lamb’s Ear.
Above her, shafts of light cut through the flat-bottomed clouds, bouncing off the topmost windows of the surrounding buildings.
The sun was setting.
The dove suddenly diverged from the path and hopped to the top of the rooftop wall with a mighty effort of flapping.
It adjusted its wings and settled down with its feet nestled beneath its plump breast, gazing to the west. For several long moments, she felt frozen in place, watching, afraid to move and break the spell. The late summer air was thick and silent around them.
Then the dove extended its neck, puffed up its throat, and gave forth its mournful cry.
She was startled, not even sure it had made the sound. It hadn’t seemed to open its mouth.
But she watched as it repeated the notes, the first two drawn out then sharply ended, haunting, like the cry of a wolf, followed by three softer, thrumming coos.
As it called out again, goosebumps popped up on her arms.
The cry seemed familiar, a more melodic echo of her own grief, months ago. She remembered: Sitting on the edge of a bed much too big for just one person. Alone. It’s not fair! she had screamed at the universe. Then she clutched his red flannel shirt to her face and sobbed, her heart repeating, Why? Why? Why?
Unexpectedly breaking through her reverie, she heard in the distance an answering call. Next she heard the same strange whistling noise she’d heard this morning, getting louder as it came nearer.
A second mourning dove flew in and landed next to her dove. The pair clucked very softly at each other; after a moment the newcomer had taken off and flown away.
Her dove turned and gently regarded her. It seemed to be saying that everything was going to be okay. The mourning dove softly cooed one last time.
Then it launched itself from the ledge and flew away.
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A very elegantly written story, thanks for sharing!
Such a beautiful tale. Wonderful storytelling.