My youngest child has always had a fondness for birds, though as I try to trace it back I can’t quite describe when it began.

When I was pregnant with his older brother, I dreamt that my little baby was a songbird. I don’t know that I ever shared that story with the boys.

His older brother’s favorite stuffed animal since birth was a large penguin named Narnie.

I sing the song “Little Bird” from The Man of La Mancha every night as I tuck them in. It begins, “Little bird, little bird, in the cinnamon tree…little bird, little bird, please take pity on me…”

When my youngest turned four I began calling him my duckling. His soft light hair reminded me so much of a baby bird’s pin feathers.

We have a bird feeder, though quite often we forget to fill it. Near our house we have seen red-winged blackbirds and Canadian geese, robins and cardinals, finches and seagulls, herons and red-tailed hawks.

My youngest has a collection, now, of stuffed animals that are birds. There are a mama and baby owl set named Snowy and Syrup. There are huge ducklings, smallish penguins, a chick and even a wild turkey. The birds nearly always keep the coveted stuffed animal spot on the bed, and rarely see the inside of the toy chest.

I suppose it was just a natural progression of his fondness that two weeks before Thanksgiving he suddenly found it unbearable to think of chickens and turkeys being eaten. I admit that all the billboards and television cooking shows made his sadness thicker. Everywhere there were raw birds, golden birds, chefs advising ways to tuck back wings and tie up legs. The carcass of a bird was identifiable as the body of something missing a head and stripped nude. He cried, quite often.

For those two weeks, and a few weeks after, he would not touch chicken or turkey, though both had made up half of his dinners before. We shielded him from seeing our Thanksgiving turkey as much as we could, and at the long dinner table that night he got to sit next to his uncle who is vegan, and revel in being with a like-minded soul.

In the midst of it all I wondered aloud with him if one thing that troubled him was the language we use. When we eat beef we don’t say were having “cow”. When we eat pork or bacon or ham we don’t automatically call it “pig”. I asked him if it would help him at least feel less sad if we called chicken and turkey “poultry”. He agreed that it would, that he would not have pictures in his head of a live chicken and a dead chicken at the same time.

As a whole family we’ve had more vegetarian meals lately, and also more beef and pork overall when we do eat meat. When we go to fast food restaurants I ask the boys if they want “Poultry Fingers” or hamburgers or mac and cheese. At home for dinner we still sometimes have “Poultry Vesuvio” or “Poultry Cacciatore” or “Barbeque Poultry Baked Potatoes.”

The word “poultry” seems to soften his stance on not eating “poultry” – since we started using that word he will sometimes choose the fingers or have a bit shredded in a soup. And while it buys me some time to get him acclimated to healthy vegetarian food and makes life a little easier from meal to meal, I feel dirty. I have marketed chicken differently, and so hidden the parts that are so objectionable to my five-year-old, and made it okay for him again. I am wondering how much longer I will hold out using the word “poultry” before I decide to say “chicken” or “turkey” again. When I switch back I have to be prepared that might be the end of my child eating meat and some radical changes are going to be happening around here.

He is developing empathy for other living creatures, and I cannot be mad at that.

The day before Thanksgiving he and his brother made posters about saving endangered species, protecting the food chain, discouraging hunters.

One says, at the top, “Do not hurt animals”.

Another of the posters asked, “Do you promise?”

I promise to try, my duckling.

I promise to remember that birds are your friends.

I promise to be respectful on that day when you finally do tell me you won’t be eating poultry ever again.

Ghost Town

defalted santa

I drive my youngest to afternoon kindergarten every weekday around noon. If it is cold outside, or if we are very early, we will wait in the car until we see the first of two yellow school buses pull up to the front doors. Sometimes my five-year-old will get bug-eyed and giggly and give me a scene to imagine. “Mommy, what if…” giggle, giggle “What if all of our clocks were wrong? And what if we didn’t know what time it was ever? And we are waiting for the bus, but it never comes because it already came?” His eyes are shining with possibilities. Would we wait forever until we turned old and grey? Would we try to find out if the bus had arrived only to be turned away because we should have known school started hours ago? Would we shrug and say, “Well, we gave it our best shot. Instead of going to school, should we go to Disney World?”

I tell him that would be pretty strange, but pretty cool. I give him two hugs and a kiss and tell him what time I’ll be coming to pick him up (more to remind myself than to reassure him). Afterwards, I decided to go take a walk. I was feeling decidedly blah. It was only ten days before Christmas, and Chicagoland was abnormally warm at fifty degrees. It felt like spring, which meant mentally I’d checked out of Christmas festivities and moved on to fretting about swimsuit weather, soccer schedules and Easter. We had fog, rain, confused lawns trying to turn green again and confused Canadian geese going North instead of South. I started my short walk out by our pond.

The first part of my walk took me past a garbage can that really needed emptying. Sticking out of the top was a grocery store shopping basket filled with vitamins and supplements. I am trying to figure out what it all means. What if…what if someone managed to shoplift the whole basket of stuff? He ditched it here because…the cops were on his tail and he had two strikes already? What if an unfaithful husband had taken on an affair with a much older woman, one who needed joint pain supplements specifically? What if his wife is one step away from finding out the truth about them, so he ditched the evidence?

The path I take winds away from a small parking lot with the garbage can that contains a mystery, past cattail-filled wetlands and ponds. Then it runs alongside an elementary school.

No one is outside, not the kids who would be out for recess, not the joggers. I suspect that the drizzle coming down kept the kids inside, and that Christmas shopping has kept the adults I might normally see in the mall. It is eerily quiet and still.

I pad along hearing only a faint thud of my boots on the sidewalk. I keep tossing and turning my head looking for evidence of other human lives around me. I try to remember what human activity there might normally be: construction workers cleaning out storm sewers, SUVs passing me on the street, older neighbors wrapping up garden hoses or raking leaves, a mom slamming the trunk of her car in the driveway and grappling with grocery bags. None of it is here. All I can see is evidence of human beings having once lived here. All that remains are their houses and the sad, deflated reindeer strewn across their lawns.

Trees are budding and birds are singing. I start to imagine it really is spring, then become alarmed at how many houses are still covered in Christmas decorations. From my understanding of this community, the people are good upstanding citizens who (for the most part) take down the lights and inflatables and signs in a socially prescribed, timely manner. Responsible. What has happened here? It is as if something mysterious called them all away at once.

I suspect that if I looked in windows I would see that the inhabitants left so fast that there are still dishes in the sink, laundry in the washer. Everyone has simply vanished! Like Roanoke, like a ghost town, like a zombie apocalypse. Was everyone killed? No, no bodies. Were they somehow abducted? Possibly, but if so by whom? Aliens? A government agency who decided the whole town knew too much? Did they leave of their own accord? Was there a disaster of such magnitude that no one could still live here? Is the air poisoned? Is the presence of geese and ducks and new grass evidence that we are the weakest of all species on earth, that humans pretend to be so tough but we can be wiped out in the blink of an eye and the rest of the world will still move on? Will this ghost town become a time capsule and mystery to future generations, a costumed tour guide exclaiming how, “No one really knows what happened here,”?

I pause to take a picture of a squirrel trampling all over a flattened Santa, a reminder that one day nature will triumph over all of human culture, and that maybe that day is upon us. In the stillness I ask myself, am I the last person left on earth?

“Excuse me.”

I startle out of my story and realize that I am squatting in the middle of a sidewalk and blocking the way of a very nice and polite woman. She had to have been no more than a few feet behind me, and I never realized she was there.

I have a feeling that in front of her she saw a discombobulated woman, a woman a little wild-eyed, a woman who was possibly muttering to herself and oblivious to the world around her, who inexplicably squatted down right in front of her to photograph someone’s unremarkable front yard.

I get up quickly and mutter a shy apology while blushing and let her get twenty feet in front of me before I begin my walk again.

And I wonder what story she is having to come up with to explain me.