It was morning downtown and the sidewalks were nearly empty except for a few solemn shoppers and people late for work. I was walking east on Adams when a heavyset woman, strolling in my direction with a friend, stopped in her tracks and began to pull violently at her hair. She staggered like a drunk, flailing her arms high in the air, her mouth opening and closing without a sound, until she finally fell slowly backward to the sidewalk like a toppled statue. A moment later I had joined the frightened circle that cautiously gathered around her.
“It almost killed me, it almost killed me,” she gasped in a broken voice to her companion, who had knelt beside her and was anxiously gripping her arm. Both women were probably in their early 60s, modestly dressed, their shopping bags already half filled.
The woman sat awkwardly on the pavement, trembling as if her entire body had been filled with bees. Strands of hair dangled in front of her eyes, and her smeared makeup made it appear as if a mask was dripping from her face. Just as she started to regain her composure, she abruptly began kicking her right leg, her voice rising frantically.
“Get it away from me! Get it away from me!”
Her friend wrapped her arms around the woman in reassurance, almost dragging her backward a few feet. I still didn’t understand what any of this was about until I followed the woman’s wild stare. Lying stiffly near her feet was a small dead bird.
“Am I bleeding?” she wanted to know. “I can still feel it right up here. Am I bleeding?” She nervously parted the gray hair on one side of her head while her friend looked carefully and gently through the woman’s scalp without finding anything.
By now the small crowd began to relax enough to have their say.
“Looks like you almost had a dead bird living in your skull,” drawled one passerby.
“The sky is falling,” smirked another man before striding away.
Others were more sympathetic, offering various theories as to the cause of death, most of them strange and useless. The general consensus was that it must be as much of a jungle up in the sky as it is down here on the ground.
A slick young girl with mirrored sunglasses edged toward the bird. “It’s just a toy,” she said bluntly, nudging the bird with the edge of her running shoe, “it’s not real.”
“Take off your sunglasses, baby, and you won’t be callin’ that dead thing a toy,” shot back a guy about her age.
“Take off your sunglasses,” she challenged him.
“You’re the one who isn’t real,” replied the guy.
They glared darkly at each other for a few moments until the girl turned her back on us. “Boring,” she decided, and jogged off.
Meanwhile, as the two women collected themselves, I looked at the bird. Despite the force of the fall, it was untouched and whole. Not a drop of blood stained the sidewalk. Its feathers–dark green over most of its body with a gentle wave of yellow near its breast– were still luminous in the cool shadows of the buildings. But even as the wind blew over it, almost giving it the appearance of life, there were signs of death as well. Its head was at an impossible angle to its body. Its eyes were tightly shut in a fierce, reluctant sleep, a sleep so heavy that for a moment it seemed as if that creature must weigh more than the entire city.
By now everyone else had drifted away. Still breathing hard, the woman held out her arm to me. As I helped pull her to her feet, her friend stepped quietly behind us. She reached down, and with a deft motion of her hand gathered the bird into a handkerchief. To my amazement, she buried it quickly inside her purse. Our eyes met; she looked pleased about her secret, as if it was part of some odd design that was already beginning to unfold inside her head. Before I could think of anything to say, the two of them had thanked me and were walking down the street. Every few steps one or the other would turn around and point sharply toward the sky, but there was nothing up there to be seen.