I’m a turkey vulture, Cathartes aurain scientific ornithology. I’m an ugly old bird, just about dead, but that name matters to me. It’s from the Greek katharsis, which means to purify or cleanse. To transform, anyway.
I don’t fly a lot these days because when I spread my wings, to 8 feet, it scares the shit out of everybody, including the morons with guns down below. They think I’m coming for them. I am, of course, but later, when they’re dead. One of them tagged me today, almost blew off my left wing.
I guess that’s why I walked these blocks up from the park, why I’m pecking at this mess on Donaldson Street. A dog got run over. Sure, it’s gross, you think vultures like what they have to for for a living? Not anymore than you do. We do it because we have to. We’re not equipped to hunt animals down. We’re parasites, like you. We wait on your demise and decomposition–although it’s true, we prefer fresh carrion, and some of us have attacked small mammals.
I eat anything that is, in fact, dead. That’s what vultures do, it’s our brand, you could say, speaking without permission of the species—the comrades, I should say–I’m just thinking out loud.
But remember this, what sets us apart from all other birds is that we can smell death, even while riding those thermal towers, wings stretched but unmoving. That’s how we survive.
But now a car slows, it’s a Subaru so I know the driver is a lesbian or a green enthusiast, either way I’m safe. No firearms on board.
It’s a man, a guy as they say in these lower latitudes, and he looks scared. He should be, I’m almost five feet tall with wings folded, head down. I could kill him easily enough. He gets out of the Subaru, crouching, his hands up as if I’ve got a gun.
He’s limping, and he’s bleeding—there’s a six-inch gash on his right forearm. He’s as good as dead.
“Are you all right?” He approaches and his hands drop, as if he wants to embrace me.
I lift the right wing and turn my feet—not quite talons, I’m a buzzard, not an eagle—to face him. I notice they’ve been damaged, too, they look like amputated limbs. It must have been a shotgun, scattering pellets. I don’t make any sounds, but I can hear the wind move my feathers, as if some thing is breathing down my lacquered neck.
I say, to myself, “Leave me alone, I’m here to die.” He flinches. I believe he hears me.
“Are you all right,” he asks, and now his hands are up again.
“Yes, I’m fine,” I say. I believe he hears me. I know he does, because his hands drop, his shoulders slope, and his eyes move down the street.
“Did you say something just now? I thought I heard you,” he says.
“Yeah, you did. I did say something.”
“Jesus fucking Christ.”
“He can’t hear me. Species specific. Don’t worry. If you can hear me, all it means is I’m dying.”
“You’re dying? I am, too. Why? I don’t understand. Who are you? Would you please stop picking at that carcass and talk to me?”
“They shot me. And somebody cut you. You’re right, you are dying, I can smell it. You call this a carcass?”
“Can I come closer?”
“What do you want?”
“I don’t know, just that I couldn’t leave you here all alone. Pecking at the pavement, this slime.”
“It’s food, that’s all.”
He comes closer, his body at the wrong angle, like a shortstop waiting on an unruly ground ball.
I raise my right wing, he flinches again, but I beckon him this time. When folded in these coarse feathers, he looks harmless. Even helpless. He closes his eyes.
He dies under my wing. May I say in my arms? I’m the next to go. As I wait to become fresh carrion, I notice that there’s no traffic. I rest my ugly beak on his tousled head, and I try to weep.