I found myself in grubby clothing and flip flops on a sweltering July day mucking out exotic bird cages while said exotic birds fuffled and fretted around me. A messy business, birds. Especially the ones at this place, which is a story in and of itself. I was mucking out cages so someone else could stay the night for free and so we could use the temple space for a rehearsal. They’d asked for strong bodies and wanted to know which ones of us weren’t afraid of animals, birds, or reptiles, and I’d volunteered. I finished my water and followed the woman in charge of the birds to a tool shed to gather gloves, paper towels, a rake, a broom, and we headed to the first of the enclosures.
The woman who gave me direction had faded tattoos and old, worn-in boots. She couldn’t have been more than 35 and was probably under 30 but she had the attitude and the bearing of a person who had lived decades longer. I went into her trailer while she looked for some of the supplies we needed to clean the bird cages, and the skinny shorthaired black cat claimed me as his own as she searched fruitlessly for whatever it was she sought. Her dirty blonde hair was pulled back into a no-nonsense ponytail and she had biceps like mine, which is to say she obviously had seen some hard work in her time. She wasn’t especially talkative, other than to give me specific instructions about what to do in certain cages and what not to do in others. The peacocks needed their mirror cleaned, and they found me alarming but not as alarming as some of the desert pheasants did. I was to collect the nicer feathers, pull down the wired-on dead branches from the sides of cages, clean the food bowls, clean the water bowls, rake the stuff in the bottoms of the cages, and clean off any area especially befouled with droppings; a perch, a ground nest.
The finches fluttered helplessly around my head, and one of the guinea hens got out the door while I was trying to refill the water dish. I found one egg in a pheasant cage, and the remains of several others. It was hot, dirty, disgusting work and I was closer to the birds than I’d been to any birds possibly ever. The birds were used to her, she said, but not to me, and they looked at me in wide-eyed terror when I’d enter their enclosures and disrupt the familiar, lived-in foulness of a week’s messied cage. The feathers were white, or red, or green, or blue, or brown, or striped, or with small iridescent patches, and I found at least a few pretty ones in each cage. Some of the best I stuck in the hat I’d borrowed from Alice, having forgotten mine at home because I’d had so many errands to run that morning before arriving at the location.
She slowly warmed up to me, during those hours of dusty smelly work, those hours of modern dinosaurs looking for all the world like they’d prefer I just go away and have you seen the beaks and clawed toes on those things? The gorgeous white male peacocks across the grounds screamed their bloody murderous scream, and the smaller birds in each pen I mucked out looked as though they’d do the same given the chance to own a different set of pipes. She told me a bit about how she came to live there, and how she’d been married but was now divorced, and how she had a child but she didn’t see him very often. It’s called an oasis, this place, and many people seek it as a place of refuge. I don’t know why she needed to retreat from the world or why the birds responded so well to her. Perhaps it was because she had the same natural distrust as they had, kindred spirits in the scary and arbitrary environment of the modern world.
We could see some of the cats as we came around the back side of the enclosure area. Servals and ocelots and African wild cats, many aging, many with lifelong partners, one who liked mint and some who would hiss at you if you even thought in their direction. As we worked in mostly comfortable silence, I thought about how it might feel to be a bird who could smell those natural predators nearby all day long every day, but not see them, and wondered if it was the same way a really paranoid person feels.
After four hours of hauling dead branches and hosing off muck and raking the floors and sweeping the steps and misting everything in each enclosure, I was desperately hungry and needed to get away from the strong bird smells for a minute. I made my way to the kitchen, wolfed down the leftovers I’d brought for lunch, and sat in the hot room gulping my lukewarm water. When I got back, she’d finished the last of the cages and told me I’d worked hard, thanked me for volunteering, and directed me to where I could clean up. I found my friends who were finishing up their task of shoveling and spreading landscaping rocks in full sun, and felt grateful for my stinky bird cage task. At least I’d mostly been in shade and around water for those four hours. My feet felt grimy and alkaline, like the dust at burning man if it gets on your wet skin, and my head was sweaty, and I was covered in bird detritus, but it was a job well done.
Later that night, she came to see our rehearsal, along with most of the others who lived or stayed there, and she was a different person – in a skirt and Chuck Taylors, with her hair down and brushed, and some lipstick on. She was laughing and flirting and I almost didn’t recognize the no-nonsense taciturn woman I’d spent the day assisting. I was glad she had an outlet, glad she could relax and enjoy the evening we’d put on for the people at the center. Glad to see her in a different environment, laughing and pretty, and not so suspicious and jaded like the other birds in their cages.