Short story: Rescue Center [Elizabeth Scheer]

Elizabeth Scheer, Untitled (detail), 2023, 3-dimensional construction.

Contributed by Elizabeth Scheer / I first discovered the Rescue Center while walking idly on the Upper West Side. I rang the bell and then stood in the atrium. A person came to the door and wrote my name on a clipboard. “You’ll be added to our mailing list,” they said.  I cannot recall if that individual was a man or a woman. Gender, race and so forth were not of consequence in such a place. The humans formed, in aggregate, a giant hand filled with seeds. 

One was not allowed to enter the rescue facilities prior to one’s training. So my first time inside came several weeks later, when I was finally contacted to begin work. Inside the patient center, curtains covered the windows facing the street, giving the room a sense of being swaddled in a big, dirty towel. You could hear wings beating in crates, the occasional glassy eye glinting  from the depths of a box. Behind a curtain, a gaunt swan floated in a plastic tub. On the floor, bits of fluff and crumbs. The room smelled of voiceless distress: wet wood and fur, loose stools. I was instructed to put on scrubs. 

I had recently moved to New York, and perhaps it was loneliness that cultivated my affection for the  city’s pigeons. Often one appreciates an animal because it has a certain human quality in its face. I am reminded here of the South American smiling fish, whose silvery countenance conveys a profound existential peacefulness one imagines could only be achieved on the other side of severe mental anguish. The eye of the pigeon, on the other hand, holds no such interiority. Its cornea is like a convex brooch whose surface is its interior,  a locus of both accumulation and evacuation. 

During my first several months in the city, I would spend my evenings after work in Central Park watching the pigeons. It was winter then, and the atmosphere in the park was one of petrification and rest. Snow gathered in capes of white around the trees. Pigeons flew here and there in the frigid cold. The Romans had read the future in avian flight patterns, discerning clues about their fate in whether the birds traveled in groups, or alone. But on those winter nights, I found no rhyme or reason in the movements of the pigeons. Their proclivities towards a particular traffic sign or park corner were inscrutable and seemingly patternless, like the underlines of a distracted reader. 

I came to see pigeons as particularly well suited to my new home. Oblivious to the pressures of self-actualization and self-denial which defined New York’s call to capitalize upon one’s talents, the pigeon was a secret in plain sight. I sat in the park with a cup of hot chocolate,  watching a speckled one on a tree-top unfolding and folding its wings. Another  was scraping a knobby red foot against the bark, while a third stood perfectly still. How magical and mechanical they were in their emptiness! How lovely to disavow one’s personality once and for all and roam the city in a brainless throng! I have come to believe that the renunciation of self-expression, which is the great charm and faculty of all animals, is pushed to a particular extremity with the pigeon, whose jerking motions and congregation and dispersal have absolutely nothing to do with the mind’s harrowing patterns of absorption and dissolution, intake and fallout. 

Given all this, I perceived work at the Rescue Center  a soothing thing to do on the weekend. Though there were other varieties of fowl and mammals under our care (a red tailed hawk with a fracture in its leg who was unable to perch; a possum with lead poisoning) the majority of our patients were pigeons. Each shift was four hours long, and I was told to begin by cleaning the pigeons’ cages before graduating to more complicated procedures. 

In the basement of the rescue center were rows of cages filled with pigeons suffering from various afflictions. Some squawked and stomped their bony feet, while others slept, their shining eyes covered by membranous, gray lids. Around me, seasoned volunteers attended to incubators and feeding tubes. An aproned man with bony hands showed me how to clean the cage; first, the bird would have to be removed and transported to a temporary carrier. Then the paper lining of the cage, now defiled with feces, would be removed and replaced. Subsequently, the water dish and seed bowl would be cleaned and replenished prior to the pigeon’s return. Certain patients were said to enjoy a mirror or a toy, but none I saw seemed to engage meaningfully with these items. One bird sat upon its mirror, while another turned away from a plush mouse. 

“I’ll get you started,” said a slight woman with a purple ponytail. She guided me to the first cage with a sticker on it that read: Hello, My Name is: Toffee. “Toffee had a growth removed on Tuesday,” the woman explained. “He’s very antsy.” 

Inside was a large brown pigeon. Its water bowl had been overturned, and it stood on  top, twitching its greasy head this way and that. 

 “Have you ever picked up a bird before?” 

I replied that I had not. 

“Grab it by the shoulders. Its shoulder blades are its ankles.”

Like a blind person, I stretched my quivering hands towards the animal. Toffee nipped and clawed. 

Fuck, I said out loud. 

A faster movement, said my guide. 

In one wild motion I lurched towards the bird and grabbed it and lifted it from the cage to the fluorescent light. I felt Toffee’s heartbeat in my hands, rapid and disturbed. I smoothed his feathers. He jerked his head towards me, regarding me with an  eye  that was red and distant, like Mars. 

 “Why, when I loved you?” The voice seemed to come from the eye.

Startled, I extended the bird away from me, then drew it near once more. 

The bird’s mouth did not move. But that eye…

 “Why, when I loved you?” came the voice again. It sounded like dead leaves.

Frightened, I released Toffee, who flew away and settled on top of the supplies cabinet.
It’s okay, said the woman. “It  gets easier to keep your hands on them.” In a single graceful motion, she retrieved Toffee from atop a canister of birdseed. 

The rest of the afternoon, I gathered the birds and put them in their pens. I cleaned their cages and refilled their water and feed.  But I dared not return to Toffee’s cage. 

Why, when I loved you? It was a message of betrayal and profound disappointment that unsettled me to my core. What was the meaning of this cryptic condemnation? 

I changed my clothes and went out into the street. Strangers surged in both directions. Voice of a parent. Voice of a friend. Voice of the politician as he lifts his hands at the podium: hello and goodbye to the past. Voice reflected on a convex shape, traveling over snow, thinned over tundra, through forest and fields, into the pool of a pink marble fountain, now loud like gunfire, now faint  like a pin dropping, like bristles passing over a child’s hair, like elastic waves on an plastic sea. Voice of the people, puny and cavernous.  Voice passing into the sound of branches overhead,  into vibration felt in the jaw of a snake, passing into the voice of someone you used to know whose memory you now use to keep your real life at a distance. When I think back to that day at the rescue center, I still don’t know whose voice I’d heard. 

About the author: Elizabeth Scheer is a painter and writer living in New York.

One Comment

  1. Terrific !

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