One Wing and a Prayer

One Wing and a Prayer

From A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul

One Wing and a Prayer

Jouncing down a twisty trail on our Arizona cattle ranch one morning, we suddenly came across thousands of mourning doves. They were lined up like clothespins along miles of telephone wires, their bead-bright eyes riveted on our pickup loaded with grain.

“Dumbest birds on earth,” Bill grumbled as he pulled up beside a cattle-feed trough.

“Daddy, why do you always call them dumb?” asked Jaymee, our eight-year-old daughter.

“Because they’re always out to kill themselves,” Bill said. “They fly into windowpanes and break their necks. They lean over too far and drown in stock tanks. And they build nests with holes so big they wouldn’t hold a Ping-Pong ball, let alone an egg.”

“Then how come there are so many?” Jaymee asked as Bill ripped open a sack and began to pour. He never had time to answer.

Alerted by the clatter of grain, scores of doves swooped down in a frenzied quest. Some lit on the cows’ horns, others blanketed their backs. But most settled around the stomping hooves of our cattle.

“Daddy!” Jaymee screamed. “That cow’s standing on a dove’s wing!”

Bill hurried toward the cow and twisted her tail until she shifted her weight. “Dumb bird,” he muttered. The dove was free, but one wing lay on the ground, severed at the shoulder.

The pathetic creature flapped its remaining wing and spun in circles until it mercifully lay still. Thank God, I thought with relief. It’s dead. After all, there was nothing we could do for a bird with one wing.

Then Bill nudged the dove with the toe of his boot, and it flipped onto its back, wild-eyed with pain. “It’s alive, Daddy!” Jaymee cried. “Do something!” Bill leaned down, wrapped the tiny broken creature in his red handkerchief and handed it to Jaymee.

“What are we going to do, Mama?” she asked, her brow creased with worry. She was forever rescuing kittens, rabbits and squirrels. But this was different: This was a grotesquely wounded bird.

“We’ll put it in a box and give it water and grain,” I said. The rest would be up to God.

When we got home, Jaymee put the bird into a shoe box filled with dried grass, and set the box near the wood stove for warmth.

“What are you going to name it?” asked her ten-year-old sister, Becky.

“Olive,” Jaymee answered.

“Why Olive?”

“Because Noah’s dove flew all the way back to the ark with an olive branch—and that wasn’t so dumb.”

While the girls were in school that day, I lathered the hideous wound with antibiotic salve. Poor thing, I thought, looking at the small, ghost-like creature. Certain it would die, I closed the lid. We’d done everything we could.

The next morning we heard a stirring in the box. “Olive’s eating!” Jaymee shouted. “And she’s a girl. I can tell because she’s just plain gray—and sometimes pink.”

We put the bird in a wire-mesh cage filled with leaves and twigs. In the sudden shock of light and space, Olive sensed freedom and flapped her wing, repeatedly hurling herself against the mesh screen. Finally she stopped and wandered around off balance, like half a bird, yet taking the time to rearrange her feathers as though trying to draw a cape over the gaping hole. When evening came, she curled her pink claws around a small manzanita branch we’d wedged in a corner. She perched there in a trance like state—dreaming, I supposed, of life in the sky.

Early one morning a few days later, Jaymee squealed, “Olive laid an egg! Come look!”

Resembling an elliptical, oversized pearl, the egg rolled around between a few twigs in the dove’s favorite corner. “But why didn’t she build a nest?” Jaymee asked.

“Too lazy,” Bill said. “They slap three twigs together and call it home.”

He was right. Doves’ nests are flimsy little platforms that appear to be tossed at random among the bushes. I’d often discovered at my feet the empty broken shells of eggs that had fallen through. Yet these birds kept right on laying in the same miserable nests.

Now here was Olive, piteously wounded, soon laying an egg almost daily. Since she had no mate, the eggs would be infertile. But for Jaymee, it was magic. She began collecting the eggs in a teacup.

At first Bill didn’t pay much attention to the dove. Then one day he noticed Jaymee’s teacup was full, and he disappeared into his workshop. When he emerged he handed her a wooden egg-box he’d made. It had forty two-inch compartments that were padded with black velvet. “It’s a treasure chest,” he told her, “with a special place for each egg.”

“Oh, Daddy, thank you!” Jaymee said, hugging him. “Maybe I can show Olive and her eggs for a 4-H project.” At the Cochise County Fair that year, there was a special 4-H competition built around Arizona’s wildlife. Kids’ projects would be judged for originality, effort and record-keeping. “Maybe I could even win a blue ribbon!” Jaymee said. It was her big dream.

By this point, Olive was becoming tame. At the sight of Jaymee she cooed softly, pecking seeds and morsels of apple from her palm. When Jaymee took her out of the cage, the dove perched contentedly on her finger and shared an ice cream cone. She especially enjoyed her shower, a gentle misting from a spray bottle.

We liked to think she was happy. But when we moved her cage to the glassed-in porch where she could see other birds sail by, Olive’s wing would quiver and her little gray head would bob anxiously.

Incredibly, the egg-laying continued: sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. How much longer can this go on? I wondered.

Around that time a fierce storm pounded our ranch. Fearsome winds ripped nests from trees, dashing eggs and newly hatched birds to the ground. Jaymee gathered many different kinds of eggs, miraculously unbroken, and put them in her treasure chest. Then she ran into the kitchen cupping a pink, open-beaked baby bird in her hands. “Maybe Olive can be its mama!” she cried.

Well, why not? I thought. My broody hen had raised ducks, pheasants and quail. Besides, if it worked, Olive wouldn’t be so lonesome.

“We’ll fix up a nice nest first,” I said, “a sturdy one like a dove should make, soft and deep so the baby won’t fall out.” The girls found a storm-damaged nest and lined it with horsehair and chicken feathers. We laid the newborn in the nest and placed it inside the cage. “Maybe Olive will think the baby is really hers,” Jaymee said.

During the night I awoke to strange sounds, reminders that wild birds belong outdoors—not in my kitchen. Expecting the worst, I hurried to the scene. The nest was destroyed. But huddled in one corner on three small twigs, Olive nested, bright eyes aglow, with the newborn cradled under her wing.

The egg-laying ceased, and Olive became a proud and protective mother. She chirped anxiously when we took the baby out for feeding and examined him thoroughly when we put him back. It was clear she loved him.

The fledgling thrived, and silver-white and black feathers soon appeared first on stubby wings and then everywhere. The short hooked beak was soon topped by a tiny black bandit mask. Our bird book dubbed him a loggerhead shrike; Jaymee named him Bandit. Soon he was perching on Jaymee’s finger, gobbling down spaghetti, bologna and pepperoni strips. His passion was live flies, which Jaymee fed to him with tweezers.

The morning we’d been dreading came when Bandit discovered he had wings. We found him clinging upside down to the top of the cage, fluttering his wings eagerly. Olive cringed in her corner, feathers frazzled. “You’ll have to let him go,” Bill told Jaymee. “He’s scaring the dove.”

When Jaymee removed Bandit from the cage, the young shrike instantly shot up to the chandelier. “Take him outside,” Bill said. “I don’t want feathers in my coffee.” By now Olive was chirping with alarm.

I placed Bandit in a cottonwood tree so he could practice flying. We watched him flit from branch to branch, and grabbed him when he landed on the ground. But the moment we tried to step inside, he zipped through the doorway and landed on the chandelier again. Hearing Olive, he dove back to the cage.

Bandit grew increasingly adept at flying and darting in and out of the door at will. Soon he was flitting between barn roofs, trees and barbed-wire fences. Our little shrike had grown up, and gradually he flew farther away. One day we watched him head for the river. That was the last we saw of him.

Shortly after Bandit’s departure, Olive began sleeping most of the day, perched unnaturally fluffed on her manzanita limb. In the early dawn she uttered a plaintive “oooh-ah-hoo-hoo-hoo,” like the sorrowful cry of a lost soul seeking comfort. Then she started molting.

We added sugar to her water and a night light to her cage. I played happy songs on the radio. Nothing seemed to work.

Then Bill returned from the feed store with a small box of “special diet for indisposed canaries.” Looking sheepish, he said, “I thought maybe a couple of vitamins might help Olive.” To our surprise, she seemed to perk up.

In her 4-H journal, Jaymee entered a paragraph about Olive’s baby, listed miscellaneous dove-project expenses and wrote facts about doves. Meanwhile, Becky counted the eggs. “You have only thirty-one,” she said. “That leaves nine empty holes.” Unless Jaymee filled the box with forty eggs, Becky feared the judges might consider the project incomplete.

Despite the vitamins, Olive had never fully recovered from her sadness. She’d become frail, almost spectral. Yet the following morning, she laid another egg. Hope lit Jaymee’s eyes. “Only eight more to go,” she murmured, dashing off to catch every live fly she could find.

Olive rallied with six more eggs. Then, three days before the fair and two more eggs to go, our weary little dove huddled on her manzanita limb for the last time. We found her in the morning, motionless, like a tiny piece of driftwood washed up on the sand.

“Do you think Olive was happy in a cage?” Jaymee asked Bill as he wrapped the dove in his old red handkerchief.

“Why, of course she was,” he answered awkwardly, trying to make sense out of the bird’s life. Then, in a blur of words that a man could only say to a child, he stumbled ahead. “You took care of her, fed her and gave her showers and a baby. And you told her how smart she was.” He paused. “And she was smart because she knew you loved her.”

“And she gave me her eggs because she loved me, too?”

“Her treasures,” he said. “All that she had.”

He watched Jaymee gather two handfuls of pale pink and gray feathers and fill the two empty velvet nests. “Even though Olive died,” she murmured, “I’m going to show my egg collection anyway.”

He smiled and hugged her. “I’ll bet you win the blue ribbon.”

And she did.

Penny Porter

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