I hear an odd sound and go out front to investigate only to find my mother holding a vulture on a leash with a harness like people buy for tiny yippee dogs. There’s snow on the ground and on the pine trees by the house and I can see where they’ve been by the tracks. She’s been walking the vulture through the neighborhood.
And now she’s walking it back and forth out front and it hops and waddles, occasionally flapping once or twice. It’s large enough that I bet if it really wanted to fly away my mother wouldn’t be able to hold it. Maybe she knows that too, and knowing the vulture could leave whenever it chooses but continues to stay, offers her a kind of comfort.
Hey Mom. What do you have there?
Oh isn’t he beautiful? They’re really such elegant creatures. And clean too. Everyone has misguided notions about them just because of what they eat. She cocks her head to the side and then, as if speaking mostly to herself she says, But eating carrion is a kind of cleaning too isn’t it? She looks at me, eyes bright. You’ll never guess how I got him.
A pickup truck passes our house, the driver oblivious to my mother, to the vulture, and I wonder how many odd occurrences I’ve missed just because I was on my way somewhere and too preoccupied to look around. Maybe the world is filled with women who have been recently abandoned by their priggish husbands strutting around with giant birds on leashes and I’ve never noticed. Maybe there’s strange things happening all the time, just out of sight, just beyond my focus. An odd feeling sweeps over me, something akin to loneliness.
Mom. Why don’t you come inside? Warm up a bit?
A compact SUV pulls into the driveway a few houses down and two women in dark dresses get out carrying pyrex casserole dishes covered in tin foil. One of the women shifts the dish to one arm and opens the rear driver’s side door, offers a hand to a kid—maybe five or six years old—wearing a dark suit and snow boots. He’s holding a mylar balloon that says Sorry for Your Loss. When he doesn’t take the woman’s hand and jumps down on his own, she joins the other woman inside.
The boy is looking our way and his eyes grow wide as he realizes what my mother is doing. Children always see more than adults and more than we give them credit for. The vulture flaps once, twice hard, but my mom pulls it back to the ground. I know the bird is probably attracted to the shine of the balloon but I can’t help but think it’s going after the child. It’s beak and talons are meant for tearing flesh and a terrible image flashes through my mind
My mother hasn’t noticed anything.
Did you know, she tells me, that in areas suspected of containing natural gas people will walk them like this, like I am, because they’re so good at sniffing it out. Amazing. Aren’t you amazing? Yes you are.
The boy takes a few steps toward us like he’s deciding whether to come over. I move to the edge of our lawn, in between the boy and the bird, in case I need to intercept.
Mom, I say with my eyes still on the boy, you know that’s probably because they’re used to sniffing the gas escaping from decomposing bodies, right? Why don’t you take a stroll and see if anything has gotten hit? Maybe you can use that bird to clean up like you said? Or go inside? We can go through some of that stuff you wanted to donate.
The boy moves closer. He’s only one yard away now, just an icy patch of mostly dead grass away from the vulture. I don’t want to have to run at him or yell and scare him, particularly after what I’m guessing has been a terrible day for him. But I will.
Hey, I call to the boy, that bird isn’t so friendly. Can you stay back a bit?
Instead of listening to me, he steps closer.
I’m so focused on the boy that I don’t realize my mother is staring at me.
You don’t have to manage me, be so delicate. I know you want to protect me from this. To help me shoulder what he did and all that he ruined, but you know he left you too. I’m doing my best. And it will get better.
The boy chooses that moment to let go of the balloon. The vulture flaps once, twice, and again my mother pulls him back down, but this time he doesn’t stop. I run and grab the leash and the bird drags us both forward, our boots slipping on the ice, but it doesn’t get away. The boy cackles and runs off. I guess he knew what would happen the whole time.
We hold on together until the balloon disappears and turns to a bright shiny dot over the snow-crusted trees. The vulture settles.