Birds of Prey
It is the time of a plague in the rest of America, but not in Florida. The neighbors let me know, in their subtle southern ways, that the plague is only in the northeast and in Europe, where all those liberals live. They shout from across the street how only the really old folks are going to get it and, of course, the cripples and the bums.
The neighborhood moms, Victoria and Diane, continue to get together for play dates. Lindy across the street can be seen on any given day with strange children in her backyard laughing on inflatable water slides. Little changes in our neighborhood, except that the dumpsters visible from the Starbucks drive-thru are noticeably missing the mobs of turkey vultures that normally swarm our privileged garbage.
It’s a good thing, too, I suppose. Our golf course community backs up to a nature preserve and these vultures have driven people from their homes in other parts of the state. I’ve never seen them up close, but the richest part of our neighborhood gets the worst of them. They’ve torn apart screened lanais, taken over pools, patios, and barbecues. Before the plague, people complained loudly on their cell phones at the gym of having to keep their cars in their four-car garages, the birds denting their luxury cars with their beaks and talons. The worst, they say, is the smell of the vomit and the shit – the stench of carrion birds that feed on the discarded and the dead.
Here in Florida, you don’t need to wear a mask. You don’t need to maintain a safe distance. It isn’t neighborly. Roland is about 70 and lives three houses down. He has no problem rapidly approaching me, closing in as I backpedal the sidewalk into the yard, close enough to smell his aftershave. I half apologize for fleeing and remind him I have to be extra careful, and that my child is particularly vulnerable. He scoffs: “Oh, come on. You’re not gonna get that virus.”
To take precautions against it is the same as welcoming it, and the thing to do is to carry on as we always have in the untouchable Florida sun. Victoria proudly announces to her Facebook audience that she will not live in fear. The real worry is that goddamned raccoon.
He’s been trolling the backyards along the easement for weeks. My next-door neighbor, Diane, had been out playing with her kids and the raccoon ran right up to her. She told me she’d had to sprint into her house. I imagine her grabbing her little boys by their striped shirts, dragging them to safety, beyond the sliding glass doors of the behemoth 5-bedroom, 3-bath, 2-story, $400,000, home under contract.
We don’t know what to do and we need to protect our children, so we google options for dealing with it. There are no laws against killing raccoons in Florida. My husband threatens to shoot it, so do the other men in the neighborhood. Something must be done, they agree, and it won’t be pretty. I take screenshots of claims that shooting raccoons is a protected religious practice in the state and Diane and I laugh at the absurdity from the other side of our cell phones.
There are other ways of dealing with the animal, of course. The internet tells me poisons are ill-advised, though Walmart sells them, and put you at risk for angering the beasts or making them increasingly deranged and aggressive. There are traps for catching and releasing them, spring-loaded traps that will crush the poor creatures upon entry. Then there is the problem of removing the raccoon from the trap once it’s been caught.
But Diane and Mike head to Tractor Supply and a cage appears along the edge of their yard and Roland’s fence, and Mike shouts over to my husband that he’s bought a tarp to cover the back of their SUV. Both husbands agree, from across the driveways and rose bushes, that a scared raccoon would certainly shit everywhere. It couldn’t be avoided. And in the bracing humidity of matching palm trees, the inevitability of all that shit and fur and piss and blood is too much to bear. But, until the raccoon is dealt with, it simply isn’t safe.
So I take to my stroller, hand-holding my toddler daughter and pushing my infant son. Each day we turn left out of the driveway and, in the increasingly hot spring, my daughter returns with her bangs a little more wet, a little flatter against her forehead. She plucks errant flowering weeds without permission now and knows which blooms are wildflowers and which belong to somebody. We make up names for the ones we don’t know, we point at the ones we wished we could reach in the ditch beyond the fence at the end of our block before turning back each day.
But we tire of turning left, of visiting the fairy ring of ceramic mushrooms. We tire of waving to the same cement-poured cats, dogs, owls, and rabbits who live in the manicured lawns. One day we turn right out of the driveway and walk along the front of our neighborhood. My daughter is energized by the new sights, the new lawn ornaments, and she begins to jog. Her tiny red shoes shuffle with increasing speed along the perfectly spaced, unstained sidewalk squares. She stops and points at something in the pine needles and walks toward it.
At first it looks like dried newspaper, discarded and wet, reformed like a plaster cast to the ground. As we get closer, bits of hair become apparent on what are now clearly bones. I grab my daughter’s hand and redirect her to the path ahead, away from the long-dead carcass of some small mammal.
We turn to go back home, but low, weighty shadows have gathered on the path behind us. My daughter shouts I see an eagle! Black birds, dozens, have taken over the sidewalk. Turkey vultures.
I don’t smell them, but in my mind, I see them. They’re swooping over with their hooked beaks and their long black necks, wing tips like long fingers, clutching my baby and clawing the straps from his shoulders. They pull him from his harness and lift him into the sky, lumbering back to the sidewalk and crouching over his soft body, clambering over his golden-brown skin. My daughter is flailing her hands, her pigtails waving frantically, unable to protect herself, swatting at the massive bowling balls of feathers and flesh.
But the birds don’t frenzy, they don’t swoop. The vultures do not move from the path. I talk loudly to my toddler and tell her we are going to turn around, that it’s time to go home. My daughter wants to see those birds!, she wants to go!, get the black-eyed Susans! She wants to find the special purple flowers. She wants to find a daisy for daddy.
The birds rustle about like they’re waiting for the next bus into town. They stand close together, wing to wing, breathing the same filthy air. Now they’ve all turned to look at us, and they are unmoved and unafraid.