Early one morning, as I’m making coffee, it suddenly appears on the narrow, dirty ledge right outside my open window. A ruffled pigeon that coos softly as it pecks at the crumbling brickwork.
I try to be quiet as I make coffee. I slowly reach for the canister of whole beans and fill the electric kettle with water. I hear it click when I turn it on. The pigeon raises its head and looks at me, but seems otherwise unperturbed. I hear the garbage men making loud noises down in the alley. They don’t say a word. It’s just the sound of containers being dragged across the concrete. I’ve noticed that garbage men rarely talk. The question is whether it’s because of the hour of the day or the nature of the work they do. Does removing other people’s waste leave you silent?
When I was little, Mom and I moved from our house in Søborg and into a first-floor apartment facing a back alley in the Nørrebro neighborhood of Copenhagen. For years I suffered from nightmares because of the garbage men. My mom had covered my windows with frosted adhesive window film as they faced the garbage containers, and when the sound of the rolling containers woke me, the garbage men appeared like ghostlike shadows gliding back and forth. The shadow men never spoke, and I was convinced they communicated telepathically about their evil plans to sneak soundlessly into my room and snatch me up. The entire dark morning I’d lie there, tugging my duvet up to my chin, and keeping my feet and hands under the cover, with only my eyes, forehead, and hair sticking out. Because I knew that the minute something stuck out, they’d immediately grab me.
These days I find the garbage men almost reassuring. The way I find a snoring man reassuring. I still wake the instant I hear them moving about down in the alley. The clatter of the resistant wheels across the cobblestone, and the buzz of the machinery when the container drops its contents. But I lie in bed, reassured by their presence and confident that reality exists outside my window.
The pigeon, on the other hand, seems indifferent, both to me and the garbage men. I pour the aromatic beans into the holder and push down on the electric grinder that transforms them into grounds. The pigeon stares at me for a second, then it clumsily hops farther down the ledge, away from me, and resumes pecking. It looks like a real city pigeon. Its plumage is greasy and dull. The blue color that on a wood pigeon is soft and enticing looks, on this bird, worn and revolting. It scratches itself with one of its pale red, scaly feet, and I notice one of its claws is missing.
A nauseating shiver runs down my spine at the sight. At the end of the day, I think pigeons are unbelievably disgusting, always too intrusive, like jovial people without situational awareness, stepping into your personal space so you can smell their sweaty armpits and bad breath. The sort of people who don’t notice that you pull your head back but just keep closing in.
A couple of years ago I ran over a pigeon on my bicycle. It was a sick and maimed pigeon perched in the middle of the bicycle path, and it didn’t budge as I approached. I shouted at it, shooed at it, and it staggered from one side to the other. I thought I’d missed it, but it toppled over and hit my front wheel, then my sandal. When I recollect the incident, I can feel the bloody body of the bird striking my toes and hear the crunch of its bones under my bike wheels. I couldn’t get off my bike when I hit the animal, because a testy crowd of rush-hour bicyclists charged forward, so I kept cycling, practically hypnotized, still feeling the dead bird on my foot. When I got to the office, I saw the remains of feathers and blood and pus at the tip of my sandal and toes.
I slip one stockinged foot over the other to drive away the feeling of the crushed pigeon, and when I look up again, the bird on the ledge has flown off, so I can drink my coffee in peace.
It’s back the next day. This time with a little stick in its beak, which it deposits on the ledge before quickly alighting again. I don’t see the bird again that morning, but by the time I get home that afternoon, it has gathered a small pile of twigs and moss and has begun to build a nest. For a while I stand there, still in my coat, looking for the industrious pigeon, but it doesn’t return.
Over the next few days the pigeon arrives in the morning carrying more twigs. Other times I simply notice that the nest has grown bigger and better lined.
One day when I return from work, the pigeon is lying fat and complacent on its nest, cooing. Birds are repulsive: their disgusting, wrinkled old-man’s feet, hooked claws, piercing little eyes, and pointy beaks. The plumage that looks as though it’s full of lice and mites. And their gluttonous broods. Countless wildlife documentaries flicker past my inner eye: greasy little hatchlings batting their way out of the thin shell of the egg, bald and blind. The greedy little beaks that stretch toward the sky, the shrill squeaks as they wait for their mother to regurgitate half-digested worms and insects down their throats.
When I was about six years old, my aunt gave me a parakeet. It was yellow and named Rasmus after her son who had passed away. All day Rasmus sat tweeting in his cage, and at night, I had to cover it with a dish towel to make it go to sleep. One morning when I removed the dish towel, Rasmus lay at the bottom of the cage, his small stiff legs sticking straight up in the air. Dead as a doornail. I buried him in a cigar box by the big beech tree at the end of Læssøesgade. My mother was with me, and we held a small ceremony with two minutes of silence. When we walked home, hand in hand, I glanced back to catch a glimpse of Rasmus’ final resting place, and saw a large dog, its snout poking the ground right where we’d buried the cigar box. I wanted to dash over and chase the dog off, but my mother said we’d buried it so deep down that the dog wouldn’t be able to get hold of it. I couldn’t sleep that night. Every time my eyes slid shut and sleep took over my mind, I was haunted by images of the big dog, and I decided to exhume Rasmus and find a spot for him where there weren’t any dogs. Finally, I fell asleep, and in the morning I’d forgotten all about the pledge I’d made. Several days passed before I remembered. One afternoon I walked resolutely down and found the spot where we’d buried the box. I’d brought my red shovel and began digging where I thought it would be. It took me some time to find it. We really had buried it deep. I had to force my fingers down around the box to retrieve it, and when I finally held it, I lifted the lid a tad just to make sure Rasmus was still there. The box was completely empty, as though someone had beaten me to it, had dug up the box and removed Rasmus. I didn’t know what to do and ended up bringing the empty cigar box home. I put it in my book case where it sat for many years, undetected, holding its hollow mystery. A couple of weeks after the incident, my mother gave me a guinea pig that lived for three years before dying of old age.
Now I stand here, captivated day after day, keeping an eye on the plump bird. It doesn’t seem to ever move at all. Its flaccid, lazy cooing repeatedly waking me and lulling me back to sleep. It’s like a constant soundtrack to my existence. One evening I open the window and cautiously hand it some crumbs.
The next morning the pigeon is gone. Two small, abandoned eggs sit in the nest. The nest rests unsteadily on the rim of the narrow ledge, and it looks as though it might crumble in the smallest gust of wind. With the pigeon no longer sitting on the nest, I can see how shabby and disheveled it is. The sun has been shining these past few days, but now I am looking at a dark sky. If it starts to rain, the nest will wash away.
You’re not allowed to touch baby wild animals because their mothers will reject them. Any child knows that. So I decide to hold off doing anything. Maybe the pigeon is just gathering food.
The next few days I keep an eye on the abandoned eggs, but never see the pigeon. I’m afraid my bread crumbs scared it off. I decide to bring in the eggs if the pigeon hasn’t returned by the following morning.
That night I woke to the sound of large, heavy raindrops pounding on my bedroom window. I sit up in bed and stare out into the night, which is darker than usual. There is no moonlight. Only a black cloud cover and rain beating down. I slip into the kitchen without turning on the light. The nest looks every bit as abandoned as it did earlier in the evening. It’s wet and I can tell that some twigs have started coming loose. After deliberating briefly, I carefully open the window, reach out, and retrieve the eggs. They are small and fragile. I grab a deep plate, and with care place the eggs in it, then place it on the radiator and cover it with a dish towel to keep them warm. The rest of the night I sleep fitfully, twisting and turning, with one ear constantly attuned to the kitchen, terrified to hear the sound of the plate crashing onto the floor, the sound of eggs breaking.
In the morning I call the zoo. I imagine taking the eggs to them so they’ll care for them, put them under a heat lamp until they hatch and make sure the chicks are fed. I once saw a wildlife TV program about a condor recovery project in California, where the zoologists gathered abandoned condor eggs and fostered the young once the eggs hatched. They’d created a special hand puppet that resembled the condor mother so the chicks never experienced human contact. After being transferred and redirected to other departments several times, I end up speaking with a zookeeper who informs me that it’s illegal to raise wild birds in captivity. He mentions Darwin and evolution, and I finally hang up without saying goodbye, still hearing his monotonous voice on the other end of the line. I go to the kitchen to sit down and think things over. I can’t put the eggs back on the ledge. The nest was swept away. Only a few scattered twigs remain under my window, the only evidence the nest ever existed.
Then I make a decision. I can easily save those chicks myself. As a child—after the parakeet incident—I managed to keep three guinea pig pups alive for three weeks, armed with a pipette and infant formula. I can do that again.
I line a mixing bowl with dish towels, put the two white eggs inside, and wrap the dish towels around the eggs. Then I retrieve my desk lamp and aim the light directly at the swathed eggs.
The next several days I check on my pigeon eggs every couple of hours, peeking under the dish towel to see whether the little creatures might have hatched their way out the thin shell and are sitting there ruffled, waiting to be fed. I stopped by the pet store, where the shop keeper tried to talk me out of it. Chicks are apparently very demanding, and he told me that bird parents may feed insects to their young up to a thousand times a day. That can’t be right. I’m sure he’s exaggerating to discourage me. I’ve bought rubber gloves and some pincers to feed them with, so I’m just waiting for them to hatch. And I can dig up some insects down by the reservoirs. I’ve scoped it out a little, gone for walks every night to find the best location, and also to determine when the fewest people are out. I’ve found a place where I can dig in relative secret. But the eggs haven’t hatched yet, and it’s starting to smell in the kitchen. A faint reminder of something that lies beyond the reach of my sense of smell.
The smell has gotten worse. It’s pungent and cloying. To air out, I sleep with my windows open throughout the apartment, even though the weather this summer is unpredictable and rainy. I probably ought to throw out the eggs, but I hesitate to do so. If I throw them into the trash they’ll get crushed by the garbage men or eaten by an alley cat.
The next day the air is so fetid that I wake up with an urge to vomit. I can barely swallow, and my eyes water as I approach the kitchen. When I open the door to the kitchen, the smell is so intense it feels as though you have to cut a hole in the air to breathe. But there is no room to breathe. I hadn’t notice it earlier, but swarms of flies congregate on the edge of the bowl and stir as I step into the room. I scarcely manage to cover my mouth with my hand before bile rises into my mouth and the half-digested remains of yesterday’s meals splash onto the floor.
After I’ve taken the eggs and the bowl and the dish towel to the alley, I scrub the floor with undiluted Ajax, but the stench of vomit and rotten eggs still won’t go away, not even after I spray my deodorant. My shower is burning hot and I feel the water penetrate my skin as I scrub and scrub to get rid of the dead smell.
There’s been a faint odor of rot in the kitchen ever since, but it helped after I got an air freshener that sprays a lemon scent at set intervals. Every twenty minutes you can hear a faint puff from the wall by the radiator, and the scent disperses. For a brief time, it masks any other smell. Or maybe I’ve just grown accustomed to the unremitting stench of death.
What I haven’t grown accustomed to, however, is that the pigeon has returned. It happened three days after my vomiting episode. I went into the kitchen briefly to see whether the coffee maker had finished brewing. I don’t usually linger in the kitchen for very long. But a loud cooing made me raise my gaze. There it was, ragged and shabby, staring at me, a reproachful gleam in its beady eyes.
It’s been sitting out there ever since, and I am not sure what to do. It doesn’t react when I shoo it. The other day I opened the window and tried shoving it away, using the dustpan. Only reluctantly did it move, and it kept staring at me. A few minutes after I closed the window, it was back.
So I’ve called animal control. They’re out there now.