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High Gloom

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The vultures arrived in the neighborhood three years ago, or so I am told. At first, they were few in number and kept their distance by residing in the tall pines just beyond the cul-de-sac. They'd venture out on occasion, perching on one rooftop or another. In those days, there wasn't one particular house that struck their fancy. For the most part, the birds were in the woods, the people were in the houses, and all was natural and right.

But this afternoon, while we waited at the school bus stop, we watched vultures. I counted the dark, feathered figures huddled on a nearby roof—the vultures' very favorite one—and started the inevitable discussion. "Nineteen on the Patterson's house today," I said. There are many more within a stone's throw, but no one is throwing stones. We just kept looking up.

"Can you believe a hunnert-year-old law keeps our hands tied like this?" someone said. "The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Protecting these vultures! Unreal."

"But," someone contradicted, "they don't migrate."

"You got that right. Problem is, these are black vultures. They tend to stay put," went the answer.

No one smiled during the exchange. In fact, I cannot picture these people smiling at the bus stop. Somber faces simply gazed skyward, where dozens of vultures spiraled, riding the high thermals. More arrived in the distance, tiny black dots peppering the horizon, becoming wide V shapes as they approached.

Eventually, someone asked the familiar and dark question: "What I want to know is," it always begins, "what could all of these vultures possibly be eating?" There was silence, a pause for grim thought. "I'm not sure I want to know," someone muttered. It's been suggested there's a serial killer in the neighborhood, disposing of victims efficiently and naturally, by way of the vultures.

When the school bus arrived, the moment lightened slightly. I took control of my two young charges, rushing them down the sidewalk toward the safety of the house, glancing up, looking for vultures flying directly overhead. "The vultures might poop on us," I explained, "Please hurry." I am haunted by the image of warm, white vulture waste dripping from a child. "They're not going to poop, they're flying," one replied with innocence. After I explained that they could do both at once, the disbelief continued: "Really? You mean they don't have to sit down like we do?"

As we walked into the harbor of the garage, the conversation shifted: "That's our eagle feather collection!" the children told me together, pointing. I glanced at the numerous feathers, neatly aligned in order from largest to smallest, in the corner. No, they are not from eagles.

Tonight, I found an enlightening fact on the web: "Vultures do not eat at the same place they roost." Those specks in the distant sky? Those must be ones that are returning from a meal, devoured elsewhere. Tomorrow, at the school bus stop, I'll share this welcome news.

Suddenly, I can picture my fellow bus stop denizens smiling.

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