Joel wheeled his new red bicycle expertly into the driveway, lowered its kickstand with his heel, and bounded into the kitchen. “Is Willie hungry yet, Mom?” he asked. “Do you think it’s time to feed him again?”
His mother, who was scraping carrots, nodded. “Yes, he’s been calling for his supper,” she answered.
Joel reached gently for the small box on top of the water heater in the laundry room. It was faintly warm to the touch, just about the right temperature for a baby bird. He lifted the top off the box. Willie, still quite featherless, crouched in one corner of his paper-napkin nest. But when the lid was lifted, the young bird craned his thin neck and was suddenly all mouth.
“You look like you’re hungry enough to eat a whole sack full of worms!” Joel said with a smile. Willie was important to Joel, because the boy lived with his parents at Crest View, a new apartment complex where the tenants were not permitted to keep a dog or a cat for a pet. But there was no restriction about keeping birds, and when Joel had rescued Willie from the front lawn several days ago, his first thought was, Now I have a pet!
“You know, Mom,” Joel confided as he spread newspapers on the kitchen floor, “I think I love Willie just about more than anything in the world.”
“More than your new bike?” Mom asked in amazement.
Joel frowned. “Well … that’s different. Everybody’s got a bike. But nobody else in Crest View has a baby sparrow that he rescued all by himself!” Willie had tumbled from his mother’s nest high on the corner light pole, and Joel had carried him home to the apartment in his hands.
From a cardboard carton, Joel took some grubs and worms and put them on the newspapers. Then, with a pair of tweezers, he carefully dropped these morsels into Willie’s gaping mouth. “I think Willie’s forgotten he’s an orphan, Mom. And when he gets bigger, we can buy a birdcage for him and I can keep him forever.”
“Forever is an awfully long time, Joel,” his mother replied quietly.
Joel glanced at her, puzzled by her thoughtful tone. “Do you mean I can’t keep Willie?” Joel asked.
“Willie is a wild creature, son,” Mom explained. “In a little while, he’ll want to be out-of-doors, to be free.”
But Joel lowered his eyes and set his jaw. No, he vowed silently, Willie is my pet, and I’m going to keep him forever!
As the summer days passed, Willie quickly acquired tail feathers and some soft gray down on his naked breast. It soon became obvious that his cardboard home was too cramped for him to live in much longer.
“We’ve just got to buy Willie a cage Mom,” Joel declared at last.
The supper dishes clinked in the sink, and his mother turned toward her son with a little smile. “I think Willie really wants to be free, Joel,” she reminded him softly.
“But, Mom, Willie doesn’t even know how to fly!” Joel protested. “Something might happen to him, something terrible!” The thought of it made Joel’s eyes sting.
He looked fondly at Willie. But something had changed, he had to admit. Willie’s eyes seemed dull. His feathers were droopy. He refused to chirp anymore. His appetite had waned. “Are you sure it would be all right if we let him go?” Joel asked at last.
It would really be easier if Mom would just order me to turn Willie loose, Joel thought. Then I wouldn’t have to decide what to do myself.
But Mom only smiled again and looked out the kitchen window at Joel’s bicycle. “Do you remember how you learned to ride your bike?” she asked.
Joel pondered a moment. What a silly question! “Well … I just tried!” he exclaimed indignantly. How well he could remember the first time he rode alone down Butler’s Hill—the wind tore at his hair, pressed the breath back in his throat. The thrill of that day rushed back to him. It was just like having wings, he realized. It was just like flying!
Without another word, Joel lifted the sparrow’s box down from its familiar place on the water heater and carried it out in front of the apartment. With tender fingers he lifted Willie from his napkin nest. The young bird hopped curiously across Joel’s open palm.
Joel held Willie a few inches above the grass. The bird tottered, spread his wings in vain, and plopped awkwardly onto the lawn. “You have to try,” Joel encouraged him. “You have to try, Willie.”
The next time, Willie spread his wings and landed gracefully several feet away. Then Joel picked Willie up again, lifted him high, and gave him a gentle boost into the evening air. The little bird sailed away, over the vacant lot across the street and out to the golden haze of wild clover at the edge of the road. “Good-bye, Willie,” Joel called softly. “Good-bye!”
Joel closed up the empty nest and returned to the kitchen where Mom was waiting. From the open window they could both hear Willie’s chirp grow fainter and fainter in the distance. Joel smiled to himself as he remembered that first ride down Butler’s Hill.
Suddenly he felt happy.
“Now Willie has wings, too,” he murmured.