I paused on my banana seat bike by a creek that meandered east into a narrow wood. A dash of color flashed across in front of me. I turned and saw a little bird gripping a front tire spoke. He must have been a fledgling: he stared at me with fearless curiosity and grew agitated only when I reached for him. Then he pecked at my hand but missed. Instead of flying away he held on tighter to his perch. I moved my bike forward an inch to shoo him away, but he flitted to another spoke. He wasn’t going anywhere.
I was six, old enough to worry about getting pecked, old enough to worry about catching the baby bird in the spokes and hurting it if I rode on, and old enough to envision being trapped at that spot indefinitely. I had no idea what to do.
Five minutes dragged by. A teenager lived in the house by the creek. He came outside and asked me what I was doing. I pointed to the bird and said, “I can’t move.” He slowly knelt down beside my front tire, gently cupped his hands around the bird, and set him down in the grass. The fledgling looked up at us for a second or two pleased that someone had finally discovered a satisfactory conclusion to our drama. He flew away. I said, “Thanks!” to the boy, and he smiled at me.
Whenever I saw the boy after that he greeted me as a friend. Sometimes he asked if I’d trapped any more birds lately. I laughed when he teased and felt flattered by his attention…I had always wanted an older brother. Mine had died a few hours after birth, and I sometimes felt the absence of a protective guide.
One day I stood at the edge of the ditch that led down to the creek. I wanted to wade for minnows and tadpoles, but the slope looked steep and treacherous. I feared a misstep and a fall onto the rocks that poked up in the shallows. My older friend crossed the street and stood behind me. I smiled at him and expected a joke and some help. Instead he grabbed my shoulders and said, “Want to go down there?” He pushed hard, but held on so that I didn’t fall. My head whip lashed, and I yelped in fear. I looked over my shoulder as I teetered on the brink. He smiled with his usual warmth and said, “You don’t think that I’d actually throw you in the creek, do you?”
I saw that he was only teasing and relaxed. He let go of my shoulders and shoved. I tumbled down the side of the ditch and landed on my knees in the gravel and mud bordering the stream. The teenager pointed at me and laughed when I looked up. The confused look on my face must have been hilarious. I waited for him to stop jeering and leave, and then I crawled up the side of the ditch and squidged home in wet sneakers.
I saw the boy from time to time when I played outside with Lee, George and Robbie. I shied away from the teenager if he came close and didn’t answer if he said something to me. He looked puzzled the first time I withdrew from him, but then he remembered his treachery and laughed at my caution.
I feared that I might become his source of constant amusement and avoided his house and the stream. But he soon discovered cars and girls and no longer bothered with me. He drove around the neighborhood with young women in his red convertible. They looked bright and innocent.
I hope they knew when to fly away.