The dog must have spied some cheeky interloper through the back window: a squirrel, or perhaps a magpie on the lawn. Whining and pawing at the carpet, she forced me to rise from my desk and let her out. As soon as the door was ajar she exploded up the path to bark at a fir tree with her chest forward, tail high, and forefeet wide apart. It was a spectacle that always made me laugh. I watched her nose the lawn in angry pursuit of something unseen for a few moments, then closed the door and set about my emails. It was only later, coffee-time in fact, that I realised she was still outside and hadn’t eaten her breakfast. I went out to look for her, vaguely wondering if something was wrong, but found her perfectly well and sniffing at the base of a low rhododendron. I thought little of it (frogs often bemused her) and whistled her in. Later, after lunch, I let her out again and she darted for the same spot to point, foot raised. She kept looking back as if telling me to come.
“What is it? What have you found?”
Then I saw it. Behind the bush, tight up against a fence post, a juvenile pigeon had tucked itself into a low hollow. Its wings, roundly defensive, made it look plump and wholesome. The head darted from side to side, like a schoolboy cornered by a gang of youths. Two adult birds, the parents I assumed, slender and groomed, strutted along the fence rail, cooing. I backed away, calling the dog with me. Somehow I was sure they would find a way to get the youngster back to safety. This late in the year the bird must have fledged.
After the evening news I let the dog out for a final wee before bed. She darted over to the rhododendron and I followed, pulling the backs of my slippers up round my heels because the grass was wet. The pigeon was there, as still as death. I watched until it could hold its breath no longer. It shuddered, the wings expanding and falling in a jagged, ugly manner. “I predict feathers,” I said to the dog as we turned back inside.
In the morning we found that the bird had survived, but did not look happy. It shivered constantly, the head pulled low into the body so that the stiff little beak nestled into the down along the breast. The flight feathers were unkempt and covered in short, twisted, dun coloured threads. The eyes had a pleading look about them, like a child begging to be let off school. I shrugged. This was one of life’s ungainly truths: one could not intervene. I went to work, but by lunchtime the creature looked too terrible for words. The head hung to the side, uncaring of my proximity. It had suddenly become quite scrawny. The parents had forsaken it and disappeared. I decided to help, thinking of the last time I had watched nature take its course.
It had been a few days after Christmas last year, or maybe the year before that. I was treading carefully through the fresh snow along the canal when I found a dog fox swimming in circles within arm’s reach of the towpath. Eight broad paw prints led across the ice from the far side to where the beast had fallen through. It must have been paddling for hours, slowly freezing. The movements had become languid. I watched, appalled and yet fascinated, as each circle became ever slower and the sweep of the feet less dynamic. After a few minutes it could no longer keep its head above the water and bubbled at the nostrils, as if swimming alone would sustain life. Though I wanted to, I did not dare snatch the animal from the jaws of death in case I was bitten. A cyclist slithered past on his commute into the city. The fox gave a sudden, terminal twitch, and curled into a ball. The spine rose out of the water like a prayer. I grabbed a stick, hooked it, and lifted it out by the tail. I was awed by the russet magnificence, the remaining body heat. Holding it at arm’s length, the lungs drained of fluid, spattering my boots. Suddenly ashamed, I heaved the limp and gurgling body into the ditch at the bottom of the cow field and strode away.
Why should I not intervene? Surely I was the sort of man who protected the weak? Leaving the pigeon by the fence, I rushed inside to fetch the tupperware box of muesli and scattered a handful by the bird’s side. I added a saucer of water for good measure. All it needed was strength, I told myself. Then it would survive. That evening the dog skipped round my feet as we went out to see what had happened to our bird. Would it remember this inter-species kindness? Would it return, year on year, to nest in the same tree?
The grain had disappeared, every morsel. The pigeon lay with wings outstretched, tail splayed, cruciform. The roots of the flight feathers were skeletally exposed. An ant crawled out of the upper eye socket. The adults flapped guiltily along the fence rail. On the lawn two magpies, hard eyed and ravenous, skipped a few steps then glided away into darkness.
I picked up the dead bird by the tips of the tail feathers and dropped it in the bin.