Life is like a minefield, where we are forced to make decisions again and again with every step we take. Do I go left at this junction or right? Do I use my coveted free time away from my son to go food shopping, or do I wait until he gets home from camp and suffer the consequences of shopping with a tired, petulant four-year-old who wants something in every aisle and doesn’t mind having a tantrum in order to get it? And if I take him shopping, will he like his father better than me because with daddy, he plays basketball and goes rollerblading while with mommy, all he ever does is run errands and go food shopping? Which is how we ended up in the bird store in the first place. I thought if my son is going to accompany me food shopping, I should give him something in return.
When we walked in, there were bird cages everywhere. There were big bright red and blue parrots, parakeets, and finches, blue jays and canaries, big birds with big beaks and little birds that moved so fast, you couldn’t even see their beaks. Some birds were in cages while others were in one of the rows and rows of plastic compartments that lined the store like condominium complexes.
I was struck by all the signs listing what you could not do in the shop. Do not feed the birds from crumbs on the floor. Do not touch the big parrots. Do not take photos or use camcorders. There was so much negativity, I was surprised to see a gumball machine filled with bird food that one could buy for a quarter, like you might see at a petting zoo.
I bought my son a fistful and turned to the man behind the counter.
“So what do we do? Put some food into our hands, and the birds will just eat out of them?”
“Put a piece between your fingers and put it toward his beak. He’ll take it from you.”
I naturally assumed that if the storeowner allowed people to do this, the birds were friendly. I imagined the bird would gently remove the piece of food from between your fingers without even touching you, like someone playing the board game “Operation” might pluck out a bone or a heart with a pair of tweezers.
Which is why I put a piece of food in between my four-year old son’s small fingers and pushed him toward one of the bird condominiums and said, “Go on. Put it toward his beak. He’ll take it out of your hand.”
The bird leaned out toward my son’s hand and grabbed on to his finger with his beak and bit. My son howled and dropped the food, and tears started streaming down his face.
I began rubbing his finger and feeling like a heel. Why did I not try it first, before thrusting my son in front of a cage with a wild animal.
“Oh, buddy. I’m so sorry,” I said.
The storeowner didn’t even look up from his book, as my son wept in front of the counter.
“Does this happen a lot?” I asked.
“You’re not supposed to put your finger too close to his beak,” the man said, matter-of-factly.
You’re supposed to put your hand close enough for the bird to pluck the food out, and yet you’re not supposed to put your hand that close? It would take a protractor and a fancy algorithm to figure out precisely how far one’s hand needed to be to avoid being bitten.
My son was still crying when a woman emerged from the back of the store and attended to some business behind the counter up front. She looked up but didn’t say anything. They must be used to this, I thought. I also thought if my son had a choice between rollerblading with his dad and getting his finger bit with me, he’d most assuredly choose the former.
I still had a fistful of food in my hand. I was beginning to understand why there was food on the floor of the store. People probably drop it after they’ve been bitten. Perhaps it was penance or an attempt to teach my son to get back on the horse from which he’s fallen, but after having thrust his small hand into a vulture’s cage, I felt obliged to feed one of the birds myself. I put a small piece of food in my hand and looked for a bird with a smaller beak than the one that had just bitten my son. I held my fingers out, close enough for the bird to reach me but not too close. As the bird approached, I let go of the food, and it dropped to the floor. I tried again with a longer piece, and as the bird came toward me, my heart started pounding. The bird grabbed the food out of my hand, barely touching my fingers. Salvation accomplished. I threw the rest of the food on the floor and took my son’s hand.
As we walked out of the store, I looked at the sign that said, “No photos,” and I was about to pull my camera out of my bag out of spite, but I remembered I’d left it in the car. So I did the next best thing: I left the store without saying goodbye. That’ll teach him, I thought.
When we got back to the car, I inquired about my son’s finger.
“It’s fine, mommy,” he said and then went on to talk about the birds. “I liked the red one by the door, and the one that bit me.”
“You like the one that bit you? Why?” I asked.
“Because he was so cute,” my son said. “I can’t believe it.”
“You’re not mad at him for biting you?”
“He’s just sort of like a silly guy. He’s a silly guy. Sometimes, if you put your arm out like this, they fly onto your arm, and when you’re really, really loud, they fly off your arm,” he said. “I think he’s a baby one. So maybe he doesn’t know any better.”
At that pivotal point in the minefield, my son had to choose between love and hate, and he chose love.