I still remember the day my grandpa took me to the zoo to see all the animals. We started in the aviary. He opened drawer after drawer, pulling withered birds from thin glass formaldehyde-filled tombs. I stared in wonder at their soggy bodies and imagined them flying through the air singing their forgotten songs while he read the tags attached to their legs by thin pieces of wire.
Aren’t they beautiful, he whispered, holding them out for me to admire one-by-one. Here in his wizened old hands were the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet, the dusky seaside sparrow, the Bachman’s warbler, the Eskimo curlew, the great auk, the Labrador duck, the ivory-billed woodpecker. He told me how someday their DNA would be used to bring them back, but he didn’t believe it any more than I did; it was only rote justification recited like a verbal ghost dance, a spell to ward away despair.
In another drawer, he showed me the tufted titmouse, northern cardinal, turkey vulture, house sparrow and common grackle. I marveled at the play of light in the grackle’s iridescent feathers, moving my head back-and-forth to find the place where purple became black, all the while wondering at the beauty the thing must have once possessed. I’m sorry, Grandpa said over and over again, looking away from dead eyes and knowing that these birds would only ever fly again in the memories of his generation, a generation soon to be consigned to its own silent aviaries.
I’m sorry, he kept repeating as his shaky hands placed the bird back with the rest of its flock. I’m so sorry. I couldn’t bear to see him this way so I just asked him if we could go see the tigers and bears next. Maybe get a hot dog.