When I was younger, maybe five or six, we visited the zoo for the first time.
I didn’t really like it much. Most of the animals were hiding in their man-made habitats—too high up or too closed off to be seen. But it was for Stacy’s birthday, and at that age, it was a sign of honor to be invited to a classmate’s party. So I shut my mouth and looked at the seemingly empty pens.
I don’t remember much from that trip, mainly the screaming boy who dropped his popcorn and the girl who had her braid pulled by a tree limb. Yet, clear as rainwater, I remember staring into one cage, one that felt as large as Ms. Brown’s first-grade classroom. I couldn’t see the animals inside, but rather the zebra carcass lying in the middle of the decaying grass.
At the time, I thought it was real. After all, the way the kids pretended to retch made me believe it. But it was just a prop, Stacy’s mom said. One to remind the animals of their true home rather than this despicable excuse of one.
Vultures, they were called. I immediately despised them. I couldn’t understand how horrid a creature must be to allow another living animal to end up like this, splayed across the ground with its skin flayed off to reveal wooden ribs painted eggshell white.
Whatever these animals were, they deserved to be locked away in this prison, never to see their homes again.
This biology project was supposed to be fun, Mrs. Ether said, as if she failed to remember that projects were projects, regardless of their level of entertainment. It was still a large portion of our grade. Even though middle school grades didn’t matter as much as high school ones did, we still dreaded it.
She gave us the option to pick any animal, save for common ones that we already knew about, like dogs or cats.
I was scrolling through a list of animals and their corresponding pictures to discover one that struck a chord deep within the confines of my chest. Some were especially interesting, like the jackals that were crude imitations of the friendly pets many often loved. But I continued to swipe mindlessly, destined to find something memorable.
Just as my eyes began to lose focus from the constant blur of images and words, everything froze.
There was a vulture. Unlike the pen at the zoo from so long ago, the bird was displayed for the viewers to see.
And it was truly horrifying.
Brittle bones disguised a sheer layer of muddy charcoal wings—wings so large they looked as though they could smother anyone in their way. Its beak was rounded, a soft curvature that molded itself into a point so sharp that it could scratch diamond. Matted blood clung to the little scruffs of mangy feathers it had. A string of crimson was tethered to the tip of its beak, hanging like a rope of saliva.
The image gripped me in a chokehold. My lungs burned, but my eyes refused to move away from the picture glaring back at me. Its amber eyes—eyes that were weathered from time but had been whetted from prosperity—bored into me, as though they were looking through my skin and inspecting my innards. Determining which pieces of me to consume and which to leave for the next animal to pick through.
I shut the laptop, not even closing the page first. I didn’t want to look at it any longer.
After high school, I had practically forgotten about the image from the library computer. I had more important things to worry about.
The apartment kitchen permanently reeked of musty air and cigarette smoke from the previous owner. The bills piling up on the stained, cornsilk yellow counters made me nauseous. I didn’t have the money to pay for them, but I refused to allow the water or electricity to be turned off without a fight.
I fingered the edges of the envelopes, the red “final notice” stamped on them angry and impatient. I couldn’t force myself to open them. Opening them would mean accepting they were real, accepting that I had to pay for them eventually.
The apartment was overwhelming. The fear of the future and the lack of preparation on my own end made my head spin. I needed a break.
I tore the apartment key from the hook off the wall and snatched my wallet from the bowl beside the door. The weather was frigid, but I couldn’t find it in myself to go back for a jacket. I would simply suffer through the cold.
Before I knew where I was going, my feet led me to the desolate park near my apartment complex. Long lost were the days that children would flood the equipment with laughter and little bodies. The only dogs that would walk on the cracked sidewalks nowadays were strays. The park had resorted to nothing more than drug deals and teenagers groping each other in their cars in the solitude of the parking lot.
I took a seat on one of the benches that didn’t have too much bird feces on it. The wood was damp from the previous day’s rain, but it didn’t bother me. The soft thrum of the streetlight beside me was soothing, and my dismal attitude faded as the weight seemed to seep off my shoulders.
A pigeon moseyed over to my feet. Its little beak pecked at nothing, and its eyes revealed no thoughts within its skull.
A smile pulled at my lips. There was something about birdwatching that was comfortable. The animals didn’t mind the attention, and I welcomed the distraction.
I wondered what it would be like to be a bird, flying thoughtlessly above the clouds and my only concern where I would find food.
Little did I know that that too would be my only concern one day.
Elbow-deep in the trash can behind the strip mall of fast-food restaurants and soot-streaked retail shops, I prayed to anyone that was listening to send me something. Anything.
My fingertips brushed a paper bag from one of the burger joints, one not fully crumbled into a small ball. My heart sang. There could have been food inside, likely from a child who claimed to no longer be hungry. I stretched as far as I could to reach it. Once I grabbed it, I yanked my arm out of the trash can and clenched the bag as tightly as I could manage. Maybe there was no food in there, but there could have been, and that was enough to give me even a fragment of hope. And these days, I craved hope, desperate for even a sliver.
At that very moment, a woman stepped out of one of the boutiques and immediately met my gaze. My throat was too dry for words, so I used my eyes to beg, to muster the sadness within me and reveal it to her, as if that would make her more likely to help.
Her eyes trailed down my figure, glazing over the shoes studded with holes and the loose clothes that barely disguised the frailty of my body.
Once she realized what she was doing, she immediately whipped her head around and marched off. She gripped the strap of the purse on her shoulder even tighter, as if I would snatch it the second that she lost focus. Her footsteps were rushed, in a hurry to escape my presence. As if homelessness and desperation were contagious.
Her reaction reminded me of my own from so long ago. The moment where I was sitting in the middle school library, staring at the computer screen at the vulture. It was a car crash that I couldn’t look away from, but only up until I realized I was staring and immediately turned away from the sight. And that woman was the same way.
The pit of desolation in my stomach felt like a stone, growing heavier and heavier until it consumed me.
Once, I too had shunned the scavenger. I evaded it for having been so desperate for food that it was willing to take the scraps of others. I hated it for having been ugly and so gruesome compared to other more alluring birds. And now, here I was. Having become the very thing I despised.
I squeezed the fast-food bag in my fists and tucked my chin to my chest. I didn’t register the tears as they dripped down my cheeks.
My mind was swimming. My legs felt weak and gelatinous, as though my weight had become too much for them to support. I could feel my kneecaps shake and wrestle with their inherent need to keep me upright.
I just needed to get to the bench. If I could get to the bench, everything would be okay.
However, it was a fruitless attempt. I was too tired to do anything more than collapse on the dried grass, focusing my bleary eyes on the wooden seat that now seemed unattainable.
The days of watching the pigeons peck at my shoelaces at this very park felt so long ago. I wondered if they were even real or if I had simply made them up, replaced my memories with better, softer ones.
The wind scraped my bare arms, and I curled into myself. I wanted to cry, but my tears had dried long ago, and there were no more left.
It stung. It felt like my connection with humanity had been severed. Bystanders’ perceptions of me had been beclouded by my lack of material possessions, transforming me into nothing but the lonely scavenger I had despised for so long. I was no longer living. I could do nothing more than merely exist.
I heard a soft sound of something hitting the grass behind me. Mustering up any remaining strength I had, I turned my head to look and see who or what was behind me.
It was a vulture. Muddy-brown feathers coated its tucked-in wings, and immense, black pupils punctured my skin. He did not look anywhere as macabre as the image on the computer years ago, but he too held an intimidating disposition.
He sat several feet away from me, simply watching.
I knew what he wanted.
And finally, I was willing to accept it.
After all, I knew desperation too.