It had been cold last night, a superlative squall of cold. My friend sent a call out this morning for some artist types:
“I have a dead flicker I found frozen on my doorstep this morning. I stuck it in a shoebox, so the dogs won’t get it. But it is still on the porch. If someone wants it, you can come by this afternoon, or I’ll put it in the freezer when I get home today.”
A dead bird in a shoebox. I couldn’t imagine who would want this. I had lots of questions. What type of person would stop by and pick up a dead bird from someone else’s porch? Why do they need to be an artist type? I’d been trying to be an artist type, without much success. Maybe I needed a dead bird? Should I take the flicker? What would I do with it? I couldn’t imagine what someone would do with a dead flicker.
I watched the conversation unfold. “Why are you giving it away? I might be interested,” someone wrote, “but you should keep it. Make a headdress out of the feathers for your son.”
That caught me. A headdress. Pluck the flicker? Use the feathers. That made more sense. It was not the dead bird; it was the feathers. Flickers are beautiful birds; I bet they have beautiful feathers. Gallant greys and reds. A touch of yellow.
They did, I soon learned. “The tail feathers are beautiful. So unusual. You can’t buy them anymore. Only the painted ones. The real ones are illegal, now.”
So that was how I found out that Native Americans in the United States now have to use painted feathers in their ceremonial headdresses. They hold these ceremonies that have never been written down, these patterns and traditions that have been passed down for generations, these deep connections to the land, to nature, embracing the natural rhythms of the earth, the waves, the sky. And now, by law, they must use fake feathers instead of those particular rare feathers that were prized for their rarity, their sparkle, their originality. All meaning is lost. It’s like the cubic zirconia engagement rings that people wear now or the bronze jewelry plated with gold. These trinkets become trifles: shining for a while, until the crystal fades, the plating gets thin, the paint wears off. But it’s not real. There is no centre, no core.
That’s it. I’d take the bird. I could make something out of the feathers. That would be nice. I could add them to a hat, a hat I could wear with feathers I plucked myself. I could pluck a bird. My mom grew up on a farm. My grandmother plucked her own chickens to fry for dinner. People do it all the time. All these people talking about the headdresses could do it. I could do it. Real feathers are important; they are worth the extra effort.
But I was too late. Someone else had claimed the bird. The shoebox was not on the porch when I got there, after I had dropped all the kids off at school. Someone else would pull out the feathers, one by one, tentatively or all at once, inside, outside? It would get done.
And I realized I had to find another bird, a bird to provide real feathers to wear in my hat. I sat in the park a lot, watching the birds there and on the beach, mostly seagulls. Their feathers were just white. People would think I had plucked a goose or cut open a pillowcase. I considered hiring someone to take me on a hunt for quail or pheasant. They were supposed to have pretty feathers. But I didn’t particularly want to shoot the bird. That seemed cruel—just for its beautiful feathers.
Then I was sitting on a bench in the city one afternoon, watching a little girl feed a flock of pigeons and wondering why she wasn’t at school with my children, and I had what I can only consider a brilliant idea. So, I commissioned a homeless guy to catch a pigeon for me. I’d been watching him too, those weeks I sat in the park, and wanted to help him, but I didn’t feel right just handing over my change. I understood right then that if I hired the hobo, if he worked for the money, it would be different. He would be providing a service, something I was reluctant to do myself. I needed the bird, and I could outsource the acquisition process. We would both be experts.
I watched him from the other side of the park while he did it. He sat on a bench, scattered some breadcrumbs in front of him, and waited, still, as the birds came closer. In one quick, fluid burst, he swept down and caught my pigeon in a Wonder Bread bag. Whether he suffocated it or broke its neck, I wasn’t sure. I hoped it wouldn’t mar the feathers. Pigeons have those beautiful iridescent patches of feathers on their necks, purples and greens shining out of the greys. It was dead when he presented it to me, still warm. I gave him ten dollars. That was probably too much.
I took the warm bag full of dead bird home on the bus. I felt the balmy plastic on my knee as I held it on my lap. I wondered if I could really do this, actually pluck the feathers from this bird.
At home, in the kitchen, I got the cutting board out of the cabinet then changed my mind. I poured the bird out of the bread bag onto the counter, and looked at it there. It was smaller than I thought it would be. Its eye was dull, its head slightly twisted. The homeless man must have broken its neck. I stepped back from the counter and looked at the pigeon.
I imagined the photograph of this scene, blown huge, hanging in a gallery: the dead bird in the kitchen that should be a chicken, but it’s a pigeon instead. That’s the arty part. Everything else would be standardized, like a real kitchen, like my kitchen here. Formica counters, a stainless steel sink full of breakfast dishes, a dishtowel draped nearby that matched the yellow saltshaker that both match the small bit of yellow wallpaper visible between the backsplash and the cabinets.
I thought about getting my camera. Maybe I didn’t need to pluck the bird to be an artist type. I don’t have to pluck it at all. A few feathers in a hat wouldn’t make any difference at all. Instead I could photograph it, capture this moment forever. But, then, I realized the photograph would need something more than my dead bird on the counter. A little blood, some gore, some action implied. I could put it on the cutting board, chop off the pigeon’s head. It would be there on the counter, in a pool of bird blood. The knife, lying nearby, would still have bird blood on it too. And maybe there would be a tiny spot of bird blood on the yellow wallpaper.
I wondered if I could do that, lop off the pigeon’s head. I have always hated cutting up chicken. Slicing through the bones in the wings feels like cutting through children’s fingers. That crunch of bone is too much, so usually I ask the butcher to do it, but sometimes he is too busy, or I forget. Cutting carrots does something similar, the snap and the crunch, but not as real. If chickens were banned, would people start cutting up carrots because they cracked in that similar way? Or put vegetables in their hats instead of plastic flicker feathers. That doesn’t have all that much to do with chickens, unless, of course, you’re trying to be arty about it.
Holly Flauto Salmon currently lives in Vancouver, BC, and works as faculty at Douglas College. Her work has appeared at Joyland, and she is at present putting together a collection of linked short stories and a novel.