Haunted by John James Audubon

Ross Konikoff Weekly Hubris top banner 2018.

“Naturally, this entire incident was deemed supernatural, the symbolic final good-bye from Mother, despite her somewhat graceless departure. The owl story became an instant family classic, one to be recounted every Mother’s Day in a loving tribute to the old bird (the owl, not Mother).”—Ross Konikoff

West Side Stories

 By Ross Konikoff

“Sign Language with Birds,” by Kati Thamo.

Ross Konikoff

Editor’s Note: This column first appeared in Weekly Hubris in May 2018.

MANHATTAN New York—(Weekly Hubris)—February 2020—My mother died suddenly, so my brother, my sister, and I gathered together for the first time in a decade in order to grieve, redistribute her possessions, and clear out her Tampa co-op.

As we settled in the first evening together, the wine began flowing, along with the family stories, recounting the fun we had growing up together and marveling at the fact that we had somehow survived our childhood in light of the crazy and dangerous things we had gotten away with back in the days before seat belts, smoking bans, child car seats, the silly notion that playing with matches was dangerous, and before children were considered sacred snowflakes, no longer allowed to participate in a game of “tag,” where the stigma of having been chosen “IT” might lead to irreparable psychological scarring.

We recounted story after story until, eventually, my brother got up and headed down the hall. My sister and I talked on, until we heard our brother loudly whisper to us from the bathroom.

“Come here, quick! Come here!” he hissed.

We jumped up and ran to the bathroom as he frantically gestured towards the window. There, in the window, were two gigantic owl eyes staring right back at us. I whipped out my smartphone, started the camera app, and pushed the lens right up against the window. Surprisingly, the bird was not frightened off by the sudden movement, perhaps feeling safe behind the twin layers of glass between us.

What he hadn’t figured on however, was the flash from my camera, suddenly reproducing the precise lumen equivalent of a 50-megaton nuclear device detonating two inches from his fully dilated pupils. This was enough to send what had formerly been a creature with the sharpest vision in the animal kingdom, into blind, panicked flight, following which a sound could be heard that was not unlike the sound of a blinded owl flying directly into an adjacent apartment building wall. Naturally, this entire incident was deemed supernatural, the symbolic final good-bye from Mother, despite her somewhat graceless departure. The owl story became an instant family classic, one to be recounted every Mother’s Day in a loving tribute to the old bird (the owl, not mother).

Last spring, Deborah and I departed for Hallandale, Florida for a much-needed break from the tedium of dizzying success and unfathomable wealth.

One of our favorite characteristics of Florida is the widely diversified bird population inhabiting the state, beautifully plumed, plentiful, varied, loud, and slightly more aggressive, demonstrating a considerable lack of the skittishness shown by our city avifauna.

One morning, while we were sitting out front on the porch, a bluebird approached on the railing in front of us, seemingly begging for a scrap of food. Always the soft touch, I went inside and brought out a piece of bread, laid it a few feet from where he stood, waiting for him to walk over and peck at it while gazing back at me with overwhelming gratitude.

However, instead of going for the bread, he took flight and began fluttering around me, trying to land on my shoulder, which I could not allow. Upon closer inspection, it became obvious the poor thing had recently been injured, attacked, most likely: his feathers were damaged and broken; one eye was missing; a foot was broken; and he appeared very frightened. Deborah suggested he might have been someone’s pet, but one that had escaped and found himself totally unprepared for the rigors of survival in the wild.

I suddenly realized that I was his last resort as an ever-growing gathering of larger birds had begun landing around us, stepping toward him and then retreating, waiting to swoop in for the kill. He fluttered around the door to our apartment, making it even more obvious that he sought shelter from imminent attack. I had no cage, no way to confine him safely and, as he continued trying to enlist my help, I was without a solution to his problem. I was as helpless to save him as he was to defend himself. Finally, he flew away and we never saw him again.

Despite my healthy respect for the perfect impermanence of nature, it was a very sad moment. He had managed to communicate the desperation of his situation to me, yet I found myself unable to come to his rescue.

Months later, we had a terrific snowstorm here in Manhattan, covering everything in a thick blanket of white. Afterwards, I noticed that my breathtaking view of the brick wall across the street had become impaired, so I opened my living room window, brushed off the five inches of snow that had accumulated on my air conditioner, closed the window again and then left the room. When I returned a few minutes later, something outside caught my attention. I looked out my window, and there stood a nasty looking hawk, staring back at me, his claw squeezed around the newly headless and profusely bleeding body of a sparrow. I walked quickly toward the window while fumbling with my cell phone in a hurried attempt to start the camera app and document this rare sighting, but the perpetrator took off, corpse in hand before I could man the shutter.

Being a city boy, my first perception of what I had witnessed was that a vicious atrocity had occurred on my Friedrich. A split second later, I realized that a hawk’s diet consists of, among other things, small birds, which means that what I had seen was the equivalent of the hawk watching me eat a cheeseburger. Either way, what remained outside my window resembled the aftermath of a Jeffrey Dahmer slumber party, so I leapt into action and grabbed a 48 ounce cup, filled it with water, and began sloshing one cupful after another over my gizzard-spattered 14,000 BTU cooling system, until the internals from the heaven-bound avis had been washed away.

Only the stubborn little head remained, despite the minor tsunami I had created to wash it away. I grabbed a chopstick from a recent bag of Chinese take-out and flicked the head over the side, timing it the best I could in an effort to avoid gaining the attention of any passing ornithologists who might look up and misinterpret the entire situation, resulting in a charge of animal cruelty being leveled, however unfairly, at me.

Then it was one final rinse and off to the kitchen sink to wash my hands 23 times. I dried my hands, then sat down and sketched out a treatment to pitch to the Fox Network about a city couple, tired of the unforgiving life in the fast lane, deciding to chuck it all and buy a rundown farm somewhere in the Midwest, then make a go of adapting to farm life. Hilarity ensues every week as one conflict after another arises on the farm, each a situation that sharply contrasts with their previous lifestyle in New York City. It was going so well until I realized I had already watched six seasons of this show, from 1965 through 1971. Right then and there, I decided that this would be the last time I would clear the snow from my air conditioner

If I am forced to endure one more unusually personal encounter with our denizens of the sky, I will take the A train to Trinity Cemetery at 155th Street and Broadway, where the remains of John James Audubon lie buried, and put by his headstone a bag of birdseed and a cage that locks from the inside, a refuge for any frightened birds in need of a temporary safe room. I would hope that someday, some bird in a position to help me out in my time of need will do the same for me.

Note: Read more about the image, by Australian artist Kati Thamo, used to illustrate this essay here.

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Ross Konikoff, freelance New York City trumpet player, states he is delighted and honored to have his work put before the highly discriminating readers of Weekly Hubris, published and edited by his friend and mentor, Elizabeth Boleman-Herring. Konikoff was born in Buffalo, New York, a cold environment; surrounded by desperate people, out of work, out of money, and out of opportunity. And that was just in his house. Determined to pull himself up by his mute straps, Ross quickly ascended from his first job as a seven-year-old paperboy to his second job as an eight-year-old paperboy. Eventually, he taught himself how to play the trumpet and learned many songs; managed to make something of himself; and accumulated a Manhattan condo, a trophy wife, and a phalanx of deadbeat friends along the way. The trumpet requires hours of daily maintenance to stay in tip-top shape, but Ross’s desire to write things that make people laugh also requires hours of work. Splitting his time between his lips and his laptop, he humbly presents to you his first efforts at getting some laughs and, most importantly, some attention: Breaking Even Every Time; and You've Got To Be Carefully Taut. (Banner image: Ross Konikoff on trumpet, far right, with Buddy Rich.) (Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)