Today I had the privilege of walking down an ancient street in a small medieval town in Portugal. It was a sunny day and extremely hot, typical climate for the south of Portugal this time of year. Cats meandered through the streets along with me, my husband, and groups of other tourists, while the local residents sat in the town center sipping red wine and cold beer. I could hear the sounds of pots clanging as women cooked Sunday meals in their flats, dogs barking in the distance, and the birds sang so sweetly overhead. This is the life I thought.
Then suddenly I turned a corner, and I noticed one bird that wasn’t singing very joyfully. Not only wasn’t he singing; he wasn’t moving. My husband glanced down and continued to walk by as the pigeon lay there frozen. I stopped and began to speak to the bird, forgetting that this was a Portuguese pigeon that clearly could not understand English. Yet I was certain he could understand my good intentions by the gentle sound of my voice as I leaned down to give it some water. It was obvious that the pigeon was injured as he wobbled and stumbled with each little step, but he was very hot and very thirsty so he did his best to move towards the water and drink some. I continued to gently run the water from my bottle, and I splattered some on his feathers to cool him off. He really liked it and seemed to be coming back to life!
My husband reminded me that we had to move on to get our lunch before the tour group left town without us. So we continued walking down the street and up the hill to find a restaurant. We waited quite some time for lunch, and as we sat at the table I couldn’t help but think of the pigeon alone in the street. So I left my husband at the restaurant and headed back to the pigeon with some more water and bread. I made little feeding dishes of water out of the tops of several bottles, and I sat next to the bird on the cobblestone ground and spoke gently. I felt certain I could save him!
Out of nowhere an elderly local man turned the corner and came towards me and my pigeon friend. He started speaking to me in Portuguese, and I awkwardly tried to explain in English that the pigeon was injured and must be saved. The man and I exchanged words, each in our own language, and I believe we were communicating somehow although neither of us could comprehend one word that the other was saying. The way I understood the local man as he stared into my eyes repeating foreign words over and over again as though enunciating more clearly might help me to understand — he was telling me that the pigeon was sick and was going to die — an outcome that I just could not accept.
So I began making dramatic hand gestures to try to tell him to do something to save the pigeon, and I tried to explain with my index finger that I was sad as I drew an imaginary tear from my eye. The old man wanted to help, so he leaned down, and to my great surprise turned into an apparent pigeon expert. It was a miracle I thought as the man swooped the pigeon up gently in his hands and examined its wings while trying to explain to me (in so many words that I could not understand) that the wings were injured. “No, his foot is hurt,” I retorted as I motioned with my hands again pointing to the pigeon’s foot. “No,” my Portuguese friend replied (that I did understand), “it’s the wings.”
Before I could stop him he threw the pigeon up in the air to prove to me it was his wings. And of course, the poor pigeon fell fast to the hot cobblestone ground. I gasped in horror, and the old man shrugged and motioned as if to imply that his assessment was correct — it was the wings. I still couldn’t accept it, and I was trying to ask if he could just bring it to an SPCA or something (clearly there was no such service in this small ancient town), so the old man tried again. He scooped the pigeon up, stretched out and examined each wing one at a time, then checked each foot (“yes! yes!” I shouted — “it’s the feet!”). “No,” the man replied, and again he tossed the bird up to prove it was the wings. This time the bird not only fell on the hot cobblestone ground, he fell behind a basement window grate! “No!” I gasped. “Take him out of there” I shouted and motioned.
Still wanting to help both me and the pigeon, the old man reached behind the grate and pulled the pigeon out. I breathed a sigh of relief and began to explain (in English and with lots of hand motions!) that the bird clearly needed water. So the elderly man motioned for my water bottle, took a swig, and began to offer the water from his mouth to the bird's beak. The pigeon and I were terribly disturbed and confused! But the man seemed to be a pigeon expert, so I watched and felt slightly hopeful about this mouth-to-beak resuscitation of sorts.
Now the man placed the bird gently behind the grate, explaining to me (I’m certain I know what he was trying to say) that the bird must die, and that spot was the safest for him to do so in a quiet, secure space. I filled the tiny water bottle caps with more water, splattered some more on his body, and left lots of bread crumbs for my little friend to at very least die in peace and at best to regain his strength. The old man and I turned the corner and climbed the cobblestone hill step by step, side by side in silence. Once we reached the top we went our separate ways feeling better because we both worked together and did the best we could despite the language barrier. I think the pigeon understood that too.
Though we probably didn’t save the bird, I learned a valuable lesson. Communication can be ambiguous and harmful when speaking the same language, and it can be clear and beneficial even when the words that are being spoken are foreign. Perhaps we put too much emphasis on speech and too little on genuine expressions that transcend words. Kindness, gentleness, and concern are expressed in so many ways that are unmistakable by all beings, human and otherwise. It was frustrating at first, not being able to say what I needed to with words. But in the end, the experience was very special because we spoke with our hearts — me, the man, and the bird.