Few westerners are born vegetarian or vegan. Unlike my husband, a Gujarati Jain from India who was born into a family and community that’s been diligently vegetarian for thousands of years, I have a “becoming vegetarian” story. My very own veggie tale.
When I first started getting asked for this story—a story vegetarians are asked to tell over and over again, every time dinner orders get awkward—it was embarrassing. It sounded hopelessly overly sentimental and like a PETA recruit in training. But now I don’t brush it aside or make up excuses when people ask and push.
Why did I turn vegetarian? There are a lot of reasons, many of which we’ve heard before. The moral and ethical reasons, the environmental reasons, and (lack of) sustainability reasons. And then there was the pigeon in Stratford.
I spent one summer in a tiny village in England as the poet in resident. Clifford Chambers had a population of around 300 people on a single street, and it was an hour’s walk to the nearest actual town, Stratford-Upon-Avon. There were no Ubers, no Lyfts, and to this day I’m too scared to try driving on the “wrong side” of the street. I had no car. Every day, I’d walk an hour each way to the gym at dawn to get in my morning workout before the heat of summer pressed down on the village.
At five in the morning, there were rarely any people on the streets or cars whizzing by. As I rounded the familiar corner where sidewalks, thankfully, finally appeared, I saw a bird in the intersection I always crossed. “That’s sad,” I thought. A perfectly normal, human response. But as I got closer, I saw it was still alive. The neck was visibly broken, and fresh blood poured from its head. It looked at me with wild eyes, unable to do anything but weakly flutter its wings. A garbage truck and a single car sped by as I stood on the sidewalk. Both times, I hoped they would hit it. Neither did, and neither stopped.
I tried to toe it onto its belly, hoping ridiculously that such a shift alone would stitch up its skull and right its neck. Of course, that did nothing but highlight how limply the little head flopped on the broken vertebrae. There was no other choice. I picked it up and began to carry it across the street. Its eyes softened and its breathing grew steadier immediately.
In the sprawling park that I always cut across to get into the heart of the city, I sat beside a tree and cradled the dying bird in my palms. Even if I called a taxi, it would take at least thirty minutes to arrive—and where would I have it take me? Googling local veterinary hospitals told me they didn’t open for at least three hours. For fifteen minutes, I cooed to the bird. “It’s okay, it’s okay.” We both knew it wasn’t, but what else were you supposed to say?
I wished with everything in me I had the strength to snap its neck, but I was scared. What if I didn’t do it right? Hard enough? What if I made it worse? The least I could do was make the bird’s final moments as peaceful and quiet as possible.
Finally, I set the bird down to pick up a fallen log a few feet away. If I couldn’t snap its neck, surely I could crush its skull. There was still the refrain, “What if I miss?” ringing through my head, but I trusted a hefty log more than my own thin fingers.
In the seconds it took me to pick up the log and turn around, the bird died. It was obvious, even from steps away. Not just in the stillness, but in the hush of the air. Every living thing breathes life into the space around it. Still, I touched it again to be certain. Part of me knew it was waiting for me to leave before it died. Another part of me will always think I failed it.
Vegetarianism was a long time coming for me, well before the bird. But I promised that pigeon, the first dying thing I ever held. And we keep the promises we make to the dying.
The poem “Dawn and Death in Stratford” will be included in my eighth book, the forthcoming Savagery by Airlie Press in 2019. However, it also appears at the Colloquial: A Poetry Review here: