One of the birds was lame, struggling gamely along the perimeter of the fence. The bird was large, a soft color of blue, and rotund like a pheasant or a hen. Its head was adorned with a crown of hazy blue feathers, which had the curious effect of making it seem at once beautiful and stupid.
A family watched the bird. It was a small family: a mother, a father, and a little girl.
The fat blue bird had white tape on one knee and lurched sideways when it stepped down on the hurt limb. The little girl sat on the end of a wooden bench to watch the bird, and the mother and father, tired of walking and glad of the chance for a rest, sat down too.
This was inside the zoo’s aviary, an oval garden with high fences and a ceiling of net. Here birds and visitors were allowed to commingle. Black-and-white stilts stood on straw-thin legs in a shallow cement pond and bleeding heart doves strutted across the pebbly path, looking shot in the chest with their flowers of red.
The little girl watched the lame bird solemnly as it hobbled around the inside of the fence. There was something doggedly persistent in the bird’s steady and lop¬sided gait; it did not stop after one rotation, nor after two. The little girl conti¬nued to gaze. At first the mother and the father watched the little girl as she watched the bird, smiling tenderly; then the mother remem¬bered a household problem and asked the father about it. The two began to converse.
The zoo was soon due to close for the day and the aviary was empty except for the family and the birds. Small birds hopped among the branches and squawked. Large birds stayed on the ground and sometimes made a quick dash in one direction, then turned suddenly and dashed back.
A keeper came into the aviary in a grubby baseball cap and clumpy boots. The little girl asked her why the lame bird did not fly instead of walking. The keeper smiled and said it was a kind of bird that walked more than it flew.
“But can it fly?” asked the little girl. “Could it fly if it wanted to fly?”
The keeper said it probably could, and then she moved off and did some¬thing with a hose. The mother and father talked about flooring.
The little girl got off the bench and followed the lame bird, clucking and bending and trying to attract its attention. It ignored her and continued to walk along the inside of the fence, around and around and around.
The aviary was not large so each circuit was completed quickly. But the bird did not stop and the girl did not stop. After a while the father remembered his life outside the aviary, his office and car and his stacks of paper. His presence in the aviary became instantly ridiculous to him. He got up from the bench and told the little girl it was time to go. The little girl said no, she was not ready. She wanted to stay with the bird. The father said that was too bad. The little girl tried to bargain. The father became angry and grabbed the little girl’s arm. The little girl began to cry and the mother waved the father away.
It was several minutes before the mother could fully comfort the little girl. During this time the father left the aviary and opened his telephone. He paced and talked into the telephone while the mother sat on the bench with the little girl, an arm around her shoulders. He waved to the mother and pointed: he would wait for them in the car.
The mother told the little girl her father loved her very much, only he was busy. He had stress and pressure. He did not mean to frighten her by grabbing. The little girl nodded and sniffed.
When the little girl was no longer agitated her mother wiped the tears from her face and the little girl looked around. She told her mother she could not see her bird anymore. Her mother put away her tissue and then looked around too. The bird was not visible. Through the leaves in the trees came a glancing of light; the stainless steel dishes were empty. The water in them was still.
The mother looked for large birds on the dirt of the ground and did not see them. She stood and looked for small birds in the green of branches but did not see them either.
“Where is my bird?” asked the little girl.
The mother did not know. She did not see the lame bird and she did not see the other birds. She did not even hear them.
And yet time had barely passed since the birds were all there. The mother had barely looked away from the birds, she thought now. She had only attended for a few minutes to her child’s brief and normal misery.
“It’s time to go, anyway,” said the mother, and looked at her watch. “The zoo is closing.”
The little girl said that maybe the birds flew out at night, through the holes in the net into the rest of the world.
The mother said maybe. Maybe so.
As they left the aviary the little girl was already forgetting the bird. She would never think of the bird again.
There was almost no one left in the zoo, none of the day’s visitors. But it seemed to the mother that the visitors she did see, making their way to the turn¬stiles, were all walking with a slight limp, an unevenness. She wondered if they could all be injured, every single one of them debilitated: but surely this was impossible. Unless, the mother thought, the healthy ones had left long ago, and what she now saw were the stragglers who could not help but be slow.
Ahead of her the limping people went out and vanished.
Along the path to the exit the cages seemed empty to the mother: even the reeds around the duck ponds faded, and the signs with words on them and images of flamingos. The mother looked upward, blinking. In the sky there was nothing but airplanes and the bright sun.
The mother’s eyes felt dazzled. The sky and the world were all gleaming a terrible silver. How she loved her daughter. Urgently she took hold of the little girl’s hand. She felt a brace of tears close her throat.
Why? It had been a fine day.