Compassion keeps knocking

Our front door seems far too accessible in this African city.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

“Don’t answer it,” I said to Sam. Our door in the inner city is constantly knocked on; our previous door in the suburbs rarely so, blocked from view by a high brick wall and warning signs of armed response. Sam has a full-time job and cannot spend his days answering requests to fix leaking baths or carry cash to the bank. 

Sam opened the door.

Mervin shuffled his feet. He likes to stare just to the left of your face as he talks, passing his hand over his brow and then resting it on the small paunch protruding through his pale blue shirt. 

“There’s a bird on the second floor,” he said. We’d moved to this apartment two years ago and since then had taken in two stray parakeets. “It’s in trouble.”

Sam followed Mervin upstairs. Mervin pointed and turned to let Sam look. It was a pigeon, the most common of all birds, the bird most likely to foul your newly washed car. And it wasn’t flying away. It was stomping in circles, one foot clacking on the gray cement, the other foot all scurrying claw. Sam bent to look at the stump and as he did Mervin coughed, “Number two.”

Sam asked him to repeat that. “Number two,” Mervin told the space to the left of Sam’s head. “The pigeon has been sitting in his own number two, and now it’s stuck to his foot.”

It had rained for five days, and the bird was young. It could have been sheltering in a wet nest of its own excrement, which had then dried on its foot, preventing it from flying away. The pigeon clacked a few more circles. Sam bent to take another look. Mervin said, “All right, then,” and walked away.

“Why does everyone think you must solve the problems around here?” I said to Sam when he returned with his story. “It’s a bird. Just leave it on the stairs, and let nature take its course.”

Sam agreed. Then he went to the garage, emptied the cardboard box containing our imported camping mats, and made a nest. He returned with a cellphone photo of a soft gray pigeon nestling in his old T-shirt. He showed this photo to our children, and they decided to keep the bird.

One Friday night, not long after moving out of the suburbs (where we had never owned pets) and into the inner city (where we could never own pets), a parakeet came knocking at our window. When we opened the door to investigate, it scurried inside. It’s still here. I am opposed to pets for their mess and cost. 

“Keep the door closed,” I said after that. To survive in an African city, you must keep the door closed.

The next parakeet came in on Sam’s shoulder. “Where are all these budgies coming from?” I said. And how do they know I live with suckers? A second bird cage, with room to flutter and play, was set up in our small kitchen.

“We are not keeping a pigeon,” I said. 

Sam was on Facebook, typing his story. Soon, responses arrived, mostly from grannies: Take it to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, call a vet, soak its foot in a warm water bath. 

What kind of bird kicks back for a soak in a warm water bath? Sam went to check on the bird. A neighbor passed, and Sam called him in. 

“You must soak its foot in a warm water bath,” the neighbor said, reaching into the box. The pigeon erupted in a bomb of feathers and began flying into the garage walls, settling at last in a far dark corner.

“Some people want to help and by helping make things worse,” Sam said when he returned. He had decided to return the pigeon to the steps. “It is only a pigeon. It is not an eagle.”

When I went to find Sam later, he had coaxed the bird back into its box-nest and placed it in the car. Our car is for extreme circumstances only – like taking children to the emergency room at midnight. The pigeon was in the front seat, safely strapped in, nestled in my husband’s T-shirt and refusing to look me in the eye. “You can’t think like that, that ‘It’s only a
pigeon,’ ” Sam said. “It’s like thinking, ‘He’s only a vagrant.’ ”

I don’t know why our family chose the term “vagrant” instead of so many others – drifter, derelict, itinerant, rover, vagabond, transient – to describe the hundreds of people that wander and live off our city streets. Our block’s security guard calls them maparas, Zulu for “parasites.”

“I have decided to take the pigeon to the society,” Sam shouted through the firmly closed window. “They’ll know what to do.”

“Tell them I want my box back,” I shouted in return. 

The lady at the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals looked at the pigeon and then at Sam. She listened as he explained about the rainy days, the smallness of the pigeon, and the high likelihood that it had cast its own foot in a plaster of number two. “Bring it this way,” she said.

They walked down a long linoleum passage as she reassured Sam: The staff would soak the foot in warm water; they knew how to do it. They would get the pigeon rehydrated; they would feed it with an eyedropper.

When Sam arrived home, he wiped out the feathers and smells and moisture, and replaced our mats in their neat box.

It was months later, when I looked up “vagrant” to check that it wasn’t derogatory, that I found it was also a birding term. It describes a bird that has strayed or been blown from its usual range or migratory route. “Most birders are hoping,” the dictionary said, “to find the wind-blown vagrants of migration.”

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