There is a blind pigeon - a pigeon born without eyeballs - living in my house, and I'm not very happy about it. It's my mother's fault; she has a new habit of adopting these eyeless creatures, which are hatched in the barn rafters at my family's ranch. When the mama bird is done feeding her brood, she kicks everybody out, and the normal ones fly away to start their normal pigeon life. But this year, several babes have been born with feathers where the eyes should be. They fall to the floor early and stay there, flapping their tiny wings and gurgling. My mother cuddles them to her chest, coo-coos, and brings them into the farmhouse.
But now, she says, she needs a vacation - she's taking a trip. So she's standing in my kitchen with a cardboard box containing the following: one blind pigeon, three slices of moldy bread, two empty tuna cans, and some ground corn. "You know, Mom," I say. "I really don't think -"
"Oh, shut up," she says. "It'll teach you some compassion."
"Can't anyone else -"
"And you need it."
"But what about -"
She sighs and tilts her head at me. "Keep it alive or I'll shoot you when I get home."
"But maybe you're just prolonging her suffering?"
"No, not true."
"I could snap her neck."
She whacks me on the shoulder, hard. "Are you going to do that to me when I start to get needy? Huh?"
"Well, no," I say, eyeing the bird. "But you're not a pigeon."
"You're welcome," she says, whacking me again on her way out the door. "You should be thanking me. Don't worry, you'll love it."
I do not love it. This bird is a big slobbery mess, and let me tell you, feeding a blind pigeon isn't all it's cracked up to be. I have to sit, hold the pigeon to my chest, and with that same hand, press her beak together sideways until she opens it, and then jam a moistened piece of wheat bread down her throat. It takes a while to get enough in there. Then I dunk her beak in water, and then into a can of crushed corn, to get her used to feeding herself. She gurgles and does her best.
After her breakfast, when I'm wet with soggy bread and pigeon scat, I stick her in her cardboard box and put the box next to my computer. That way, I can chat with her while I work - or at least, that's the idea. But I get wrapped up in the essay I'm finishing, and whenever she flaps her wings or gurgles, I shoot her an annoyed look. Why do I have to baby-sit a Hollywood Horror Bird? (And why do I have a mother who collects them?) And what if I'm only prolonging her suffering, which is adding to my suffering in the meantime?
I want a normal, guilt-free life, I want to write a normal, guilt-free essay. The pigeon flies up enough to fall out of her box. I stand up from my desk, frustrated, and then do my breathe-in-breathe-out thing. I start up Pachelbel's Canon, just on the off-chance that the bird likes music.
"I'm sorry, bird," I say. "You're so alone, in the dark, and I just don't know what to do for you."
How I wish I could turn down the Suffer-O-Meter for every creature in pain: my brother with schizophrenia, a best friend's chronic illness, the monks and nuns in Burma, every child in every street, every hungry stomach, every abused body, and while I'm at it, my own neurological disorder and the resulting back spasms.
I do my best. I meditate, I sing raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, I think of the particular qualities of mountain mahogany seeds and the way mica glints off rocks. I think of tangible ways to alleviate suffering: visit my brother, take my father to the doctor, bring food to my friend.
This all sounds nice, but I'm simply trying to alleviate my own suffering about suffering. I'm trying to make a bargain with the Universe - that somehow I will be immune to it all if I'm careful enough. But this flapping, silent bird keeps reminding me that there is no such bargain to be made.
When I take the pigeon back to my mother, upon her return, I am relieved. No more bird scat to clean up. No more feedings. But most of all, no more wondering about what I'm supposed to do for the poor thing. "Here," I say, thrusting the bird at her. "She survived."
My mother cuddles the bird and says, "Well, hello, bird! It's been two weeks, and look how you've grown!" Indeed, the pigeon has gone from youngster to a teenager, with real silvery-green feathers replacing the yellow-gray fuzz. The pigeon lets out a grown-up coo. "Oh, listen to that!" my mom says, eyes lighting up. "She learned how to do that while I was gone!"
Indeed, she did. Indeed, it seems as if she's a little less raw now - able to sing, perhaps, even in the dark.
Laura Pritchett is the author of two award-winning books of fiction and is editor of two anthologies about environmental issues. This essay is excerpted from her newest book, a memoir about nature, disease, writing, and a ranch (and blind pigeons).