It was just a pigeon. Sam found it on the doorstep, still warm despite the snow. It was covering the “L” on the welcome mat.
“Dad” she said, wiping tears from her cheeks, “I found a dead bird outside.”
There was a chill in the air so I grabbed a bathrobe. Me and Grace had matching bathrobes and I still wore hers from time to time. Sam led me by the hand to the bird. It was an intensely bright morning, the sun reflecting off the snow that had fallen the night before and covered the streets, the cars, everything. I could see the Catholics struggling through the fresh snow on their way to church. Black-clad figures cutting into the white of the world in front of me. They would be by to call on us after Mass as they had done every week since she’d been gone. Grace always wanted us to go to Mass more often but we would go to the park most Sundays instead. Sometimes I can’t remember how long ago that was.
I had remembered to salt the front steps the night before so the bird lay on a relatively snowless welcome mat. Sam picked the bird up with her bare hands and placed it in a shoebox and told me that it didn’t matter if her smell was on it as it’s not going to see its parents again. I told her we would have to wash our hands before we ate lunch.
We cleared the kitchen table of the magazines, coffee mugs, and the old pizza box with stalactites of hardened cheese clinging to the inside top of the cardboard, to make room for the bird. I chewed on the inside of my cheek and looked into the cloudy eyes of the creature.
“I’ll need a razor blade, a needle, and string,” I said.
* * *
Sam ran to get the supplies. I put on some latex gloves, laid some newspaper out on the table and when she arrived with the requested items, we stood over the bird and observed it silently for a few minutes. I rubbed my chin, contemplating the bird and watched Sam out of the corner of my eye do the same.
“If you make the incision here,” she said, and pointed to just above the bird’s chest where the feathers started to turn from green to purple, “and go all the way down to here, that should give us the most room to work without damaging too much.” Her finger ran down through the grey and stopped a few centimeters above the legs. It was a particularly plump pigeon, which promised many possibilities.
“Let’s see what we’re working with,” I said, and I cut into the bird with the razor.
It was a fresh death and a small stream of blood shot out and landed on Sam’s cheek. She looked out the window and there was still no sign of church having been let out. I could see that her focus shifted to her own ghostly reflection. She stared at the splatter of blood on her cheek and dabbed her finger in it and made tiny little circles on her upper cheek bones. I had a vague memory of her and Grace doing this once, playing dress-up and putting on makeup. She seemed happy in that memory.
I started to worry about avian flu, so I had Sam wash the blood from her cheeks and refocus on the task at hand.
“I think we’re going to have to replace most of these parts,” I said. “Nothing is moving in here.” I pushed around the squishy insides with my fingers and landed on the gizzard. “Let’s start with this.” I pulled it out. It looked like it belonged in the ocean. I held the tiny but meaty little organ and rolled in around with my fingers. “Do you think you can find me a replacement for this?”
She thought very hard for a moment and seemed to be overcome by her thoughts. Children often emote like an actor in a silent movie. She furrowed her brow and nodded to herself as if I just told her she had to go out back and shoot her beloved horse, and, with a stiff upper lip, I saw her come to terms with it. She ran upstairs and returned a minute later with a finger puppet. It was a stereotypical witch: green skin, a long nose, black scraggly hair and a black hat. “This should do the trick,” she said and handed it to me like a nurse hands a scalpel to a surgeon.
“Yes, this should do nicely. Do you remember when you got this?” I asked her.
She nodded. “Last Halloween.”
Grace hadn’t come out with us trick-or-treating. She’d stayed home and felt terrible about it, so she’d driven to the supermarket in a fit to get Sam a present. A bucket of monster finger puppets was all that was left of the Halloween merchandise and Grace sifted through the mummies, vampires, and werewolves until she found the witch. The rest of the monsters would be seventy five percent off the next day. The witch had had cartoon googly eyes attached to it that night, but they fell off the next morning. This made Grace feel even worse, so she glued these black fabric circles in their place. No whites, just dead dark little circles. In the past few months, when I would check on Sam while she was sleeping, the witch would be on her finger, seeing her through the night.
I got back to work inserting the felt finger puppet into where the gizzard used to be. The opening for the finger fit nicely around the end of some tube-like organ that I couldn’t identify. The next thing to come out was the small and large intestines, respectively. The meaty ropes lay there in a pile, their juices seeping through the travel section of the newspaper giving the sky above a Florida beach a wash of crimson. It was Grace’s favorite section of the Sunday paper although we never went anywhere. She used to cut out pictures of any place tropical that they featured and use them as bookmarks. Once, when she was pregnant with Sam, we went to the beach for a weekend and rented a little beach house. It rained the whole time and we stayed inside and did what we would do if we were home. Watched a little TV, did the crosswords and ordered take-out. While we watched TV, she knitted little mittens.
“It’s cold where we live,” she’d said at one point, not looking up. On our last night there, I fell asleep on the couch. I woke up in the middle of the night to Grace with her head and hand on my chest. Feeling my heart and softly crying. The rain was loud on the roof but I could feel my heart beating against her fingertips. It seemed to overpower the rain. She looked up at me and I mouthed I was sorry, apologizing for the storm and everything else. She didn’t say anything and I fell back asleep.
I calculated all of these memories. It became a math problem in my head. As if the sum total of a few bad memories would equal “wife throws herself out of window”
Sam went up into the attic now and brought down a cardboard box that was marked ‘baby clothes’ and handed me the mittens Grace knitted. We went back to the operating table and unraveled them so all that was left was a small pile of bright red yarn sitting next to the intestines. Two hills of scarlet, one dry and frizzy, with the musty smell of an attic, the other oozing and slowly collapsing in on itself. I made the necessary transplant.
We took a break for some grilled cheese sandwiches. I thought about what a blessing that pigeon was. I looked out the window but saw only white. Mass wasn’t over yet. We still had a little time.
The heart of the pigeon was the most important. Sam knew what to do. She went to her room and came back with her hands behind her back and told me to close my eyes. Like Grace, she was always a little clandestine by nature. At night I could see the light from the flashlight glowing from under the door, and if I opened it to check on her she quickly turned it off and pretended to be asleep.
I indulged her and closed my eyes although I did take a peek. A small pink dinosaur eraser, purchased for Sam’s back-to-school shopping a few months before Grace was gone. A tiny ferocious heart of synthetic rubber crudely molded into a likeness of the deceased bird’s ancestors.
“I think it’s going to need a little help from some electricity,” I said.
“I have two batteries in my flashlight by my bed.”
She went to her room to get the flashlight and I walked over to the junk drawer, dug through the rubber bands, matchboxes, and takeout menus, found an old phone charger, stripped the nylon off until it was only a pile of exposed wire. Wires were needed. The electrical currents were integral. We wrapped each end of the wires around a battery, freed the pancreas, trachea, and the kidneys and installed the electrical equipment. I looked out the window and it seemed that the Catholics were out of church and headed toward our house.They would be there within fifteen minutes, so we left the rest of the bird’s original parts untouched. The new parts would have to be enough. I took out a needle and some thin plastic string and sewed it back up.
* * *
Sam and I went to the attic window that faced the backyard. She gave me a big optimistic smile and the doorbell rang. I lobbed the bird out of the window and we went back downstairs happy and satisfied.
Walking down the attic stairs, I snagged the sleeve of the bathrobe on a nail sticking out of the wall and tore a hole. I stuck my finger through it and yanked at the loose threads. I tore it more and made the hole bigger. I took the robe off and tossed it in a box that had ‘Graces clothes’ written on the side in marker.
Outside, a racoon undid the stitching and opened the bird back up. She started to feast on the remaining meat and got tangled up in the wires. Covered in blood and yarn, she spit out the felt witch puppet. Then she took the dinosaur heart and disappeared into the woods.
Justin DeCarlo grew up in New Jersey. He now lives in New York. His work has appeared in the Brooklyn Review.
featured photo by Geoff Vasile, @geoffvasile