the Near-Sighted Turkey Vulture
The trail ran down to a pond. It curved around the trees along the way. At the edge of the pond, it climbed up and over a big root then veered left.
Ben liked to ride his bicycle down the trail. He pedaled furiously past trees with trunks straight as nails, missing them by inches. Sometimes he peeled skin from his elbows on their rasping bark. Big ruts grabbed at his front wheel and tried to fling his handlebars sideways and catapult him into the blue. When he got to the waters edge he would sail over the big tree root like a jack rabbit over the toe of a giant. He would land the jump, lean into the turn and pedal away along the shore.
It was Friday afternoon and Bens' head was in the clouds, even though it was a sunny day. He didn’t notice the dark speck high over head, a tiny black check mark against the big blue bowl of the sky.
The pond was straight ahead. He shot over the big tree root, standing on the pedals as his bike left the ground. Time seemed to slow down. He floated in midair like a feather on a summer breeze. In a glance he saw an orange spider on a green leaf, a red kite high above the trees and a silver fish fling itself into the air. He didn’t see the dark shadow growing bigger and bigger on the trail ahead.
Time slowed but didn’t stop.
There was a loud noise overhead. He craned his neck to see. It was the sound of a hundred plastic bags caught in a tree on a windy day. It was the last thing he heard as he sailed toward the pond like a shining lure spinning on the end of a perfectly cast fishing line.
The water was cold but not deep. His bicycle landed upside down. The front wheel rotated slowly in a wet, wobbly spin. Ben sat in the murky water. Goo oozed into his shorts and shoes. Something big crashed onto the shore in a cloud of dust and leaves, like a black Halloween costume tumbling in a clothes dryer. It had tiny yellow eyes.
It was a very big, black bird. Feathers floated to the ground around it.
Ben remembered something he had seen on television. “Are you a Condor”, he asked?
“The scientific Latin name is Cathartes aura”, said the heap of feathers. “Ornithologically speaking, I am classified in the order of Ciconiiformes, along with storks, flamingos and that other bird you mentioned”. Its head was bright red and wrinkled like a deflated balloon.
“’I don’t mind the familial association with storks and flamingos”, said the bird, “but please do not confuse me with . . .”, the bird took a deep breath, “. . . a condor.”
“Condor’s are endangered. They live in California and the Andes Mountains.” said Ben.
The bird rolled his eyes. “Young man, a condor is incapable of the stylish and complicated precision landing you've just witnessed”, said the bird. “My name is Proctor. I am a turkey vulture.”
Ben righted his bike and hauled it up on shore. “I’m Ben”, he said. “I saw this televison show about condors. They soar really high on big bubbles of warm air called thermals.”
Proctor cocked an eyebrow. He said, “Altitude isn’t nearly as impressive as a perfect dihedral wing profile.” He spread his wings into the shape of a V. “Turkey vultures soar with an elegance and grace condors can only dream about.”
Ben examined the bird closely. “What's wrong with your eyes”, he asked?
Proctor frowned and turned to walk away. “Turkey vultures have an acute sense of sight. We can read the fine print on a candy wrapper from . . .”, but he never finished his sentence. He walked straight into a tree and tottered over like an empty soda bottle.
Proctor had left his winter home in Mexico weeks before to migrate north for the summer with his fellow vultures. No one gave the order to leave. One morning it just happened. It started with one or two birds soaring on thermals in lazy circles, then five, then ten, then twenty more. Soon, the sky was full of big black birds with red, wrinkled heads, all headed north.
Somewhere over Arizona, the flock turned left but Proctor turned right. It was dinner time before he noticed he was all alone. His stomach was growling. Ben was right. Proctor was blind as a bat. A turkey vulture that can’t see is a turkey vulture that can’t eat.
Turkey vultures eat road kill, fresh or sun dried. They’ll snack on pulpy pumpkins and mushy melon, but they prefer squirrels squashed by cars. As long as he flew with the flock, Proctor had plenty to eat. He simply followed the crowd to the next roadside buffet.
He had managed to hide his myopia from the other birds. “Oh, yes, he’d say, I noticed that opossum, but I was holding out for a plump raccoon.” Or, “You guys go on ahead, I’m right behind you. I’m really not all that hungry. I had a REALLY BIG breakfast”.
Proctor had found himself all alone. He met a crow named Kevin who craved fast food. He followed the fat bird on an endless round of restaurant dumpsters. After a week of fries, burgers, pressed chicken and the occasional super-sized plastic cup containing a dollop of milkshake foam, Proctor began to worry about his health. The two birds parted company somewhere east of Terre Haute, Kevin bound for a New York City hot dog stand on a tip from a sneering gull. Proctor was bound for, well, he wasn’t sure.
It was days later, weak from hunger and high on a thermal, Proctor thought he saw a glint on the ground. Visions of decomposing porcupines, squirrels and woodchucks filled his head. He was so hungry even a snack of snake sounded good. He peered into the gloom and dropped into a steep dive. At that very same moment Ben had been launching himself over the tree root, his black bike helmet gleaming in the sun.
“Turkey vultures eat rotten dead things”, said Ben. He was on his hands and knees, nose to beak with the bird. “That’s really gross”.
The bird lay dazed on the ground from his collision with the tree. He cleared his wrinkled head with a shake. Proctor asked Ben what he had for dinner last night. Barbecued chicken, a favorite of his. What about lunch? Turkey sandwich with lettuce and mayo. Breakfast? Bacon and eggs.
“So you like to eat chickens, turkeys and pigs, do you? Do you find them along the road, or do they just show up at your door at dinner time”, asked Proctor?
Ben considered this for a moment, but pointed out that at least his meals were cooked and eaten off plates at the dining room table.
“I repeat, Cathartes aura”, said Proctor.
“It means cleanser. If it weren’t for turkey vultures, dead animals would keep piling up on the road until there was no room left for cars to get by. Harmful bacteria would multiply exponentially and make people sick. Clouds of green flies would breed. I won’t even mention the unspeakable stench”, he said.
Proctors' stomach let loose a low gurgling sound. He covered his beak with a wing and looked embarrassed. Ben asked him how long since his last meal and when the bird didn't answer, told him him to hop on his bike.
This is crazy, thought Proctor. He was perched on Bens' shoulder, flapping his wings for balance. Ben pedaled furiously and scanned the ground ahead. They were looking for dinner.
“You’re going too fast”, said the vulture. Unlike eagles, birds with big, powerful talons for snatching and killing live prey, turkey vultures have small claws. He wasn’t sure how long he could hold on.
Suddenly, Ben jammed on the brakes and the bike skidded to a stop. Proctor kept going and slammed into a triangular, yellow sign suggesting he yield.
“A word of warning would have been nice”, said the bird.
Ben was off the bike. He peeled something off the pavement and waved it over his head, like a flag. “Come and get it”, he said, grinning with good fortune.
Proctor squinted at the remains of a dry, brittle toad. The unlucky amphibian had been on the road a very long time.
They spent the rest of the afternoon grocery shopping. By the time the sun went down they had found two more, fresher, toads, a chipmunk, a blackbird, a sack of half-eaten hamburgers and something big that looked like a groundhog. Proctor just picked at the chipmunk, but made quick work of the toads. The blackbird reminded him of Kevin and the fast food made him gag. He couldn’t even look at the groundhog.
That night Proctor roosted in the garage at Bens' house. He had trouble falling asleep. His new friend was doing his best, thought Proctor, but the boy was no scavenger. The thought of another beak-rattling bike ride made him shudder. He fell into a fitful sleep, perched on a high shelf next to a dusty old duck decoy.
Much later, Proctor woke with a start. The wooden duck seemed to be addressing him in a stage whisper. Proctor! Proctor! The bird stepped back, tumbled off the shelf and landed on the hood of Bens' fathers’ car, a Condor Convertible Coupe.
“I brought you something”, said Ben.
He held out a brown paper sack. Proctor peeked inside.
“Mice. The perfect start to a perfect day”, said the vulture.
“My dad sets traps”, said boy. “I brought something else.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of heavy, black-framed eyeglasses with very thick lenses.
“My grandmother used to work for a doctor in Washington, D.C., Doctor Kissinger I think.
Proctor examined the glasses. This Kissinger fellow, he thought, must have been blind as a bat.
“It’s a spare pair. They got mixed up with her stuff when she retired. She said you could have them”, said Ben.
The boy placed the spectacles onto the vulture’s beak and fastened them with a special strap. Proctor blinked once or twice, eyes huge behind the lenses, grinning like a vulture.
Fall returned and the turkey vultures migrated south, back to Mexico. The flock roosted in the trees. With their big black bodies, wrinkled red heads they all looked the same under the hot Mexican sun, except for one perched alone on a big Sahuaro cactus.
Another turkey vulture joined him. “Pardon me, but has anyone ever told you, you look just like Dr. Henry Kissinger”, asked the bird?
Proctor adjusted his glasses, nodded at the bird and soared away on a rising thermal in search of decomposing animal carcasses.