In the thick of fall migration, all the city kept watch. We’d heard the warnings; this year would yield more birds than usual, louder and hungrier than any season before. News stations blared reports. Headlines talked in caps-lock. PSAs explained homing, mating, destination and travel. They told us the flocks were kind seeking kind. Birds cast shadows like passing storm clouds. Wing beats replaced wind.
Residents bought up bread and milk. We covered our gardens with blankets to keep rooting beaks at bay. My neighbors called their children in for dinner full hours before sunset, for fear their progeny would get snatched up as snacks. I couldn’t blame the parents for their protectiveness. I’d left my door open a second too long on the first evening of September and endured a night with an errant mallard in my kitchen. I’d shut off my lights, folded my skirt around my knees to make my body as small as possible, then tried to coax the duck back into the wild with a trail of popcorn. When he took off at first light I felt a lift under my scapulas as though I should have flown along with him.
High rises downtown sent emails to their employees asking that we turn off all our lights each night. Most birds navigate by stars or the moon, and our skyline transfixed them. At my building, we arrived to work each morning to find shorebirds holed up by the courtyard pond. Geese and loons and scoters swallowed down our koi. I said during a staff meeting that I didn’t blame them, that I envied them, even, eating fish al fresco.
The faces along the conference table turned toward me in panic—all but one, the young, bespectacled lawyer in the corner of the room. His mouth twitched upward, though he kept his eyes trained where his pen met his paper. We were the last ones to leave the meeting, allowing the dozen others to file out in front of us. We exited, shoulder against shoulder, an unexpected touch, and when I glanced at his notebook I saw he’d sketched the curve of a white swan’s neck. Beside it, he’d drawn fish bones.
That day, we appeared for lunch at the same time and sat down at the same table. We sipped our sodas then wordlessly traded our halves of sandwiches. He swept the table with the side of his hand then tipped the collected breadcrumbs in his pocket. We rode down the elevator together and walked to the sidewalk. He emptied his pockets and, after we turned to leave, our grateful friends descended from on high to eat.
That night, the siren blared. We’d been told to shelter in place if we heard it. It would mean the sky droves were densening, avian waves strengthening. I was arriving home when the first whoop sounded. Kids ran inside. Dogs fled their yards. Garage doors closed. I sat in my driveway, close to safety and not yet safe. I buckled myself in and drove back up the street. Parked cars lined the highway’s shoulders; they appeared vacant until I saw the drivers bent over in their seats, arms protecting their necks, their postures defensive. The siren switched from loud, enduring howls to short, sharp blasts. I felt it in the nape of my neck and the heaviness of my foot on the gas. I flew through red lights, felt my tires lift during hairpins.
Longspurs and grosbeaks skimmed close to my windshield. By some miracle of instinct, we didn’t collide. The streetlamps extinguished in a cascading string. Office buildings blocked the horizon. Moonlight bleached the night slate gray. I could only tell my destination by our rooftop’s proximity to Polaris. I parked my car in the company lot next to the only other auto there. I waved my security pass in front of the elevator bank then punched a button for the eleventh floor. A flood light lit the hallway.
He had a corner office. We arrived together, crossed his threshold together, knelt by his window together. He’d lowered his blinds at afternoon’s end so the birds wouldn’t mistake his window for sky. Now he cinched them up an inch. We pressed close to the glass, cheek against cheek, eyes beside eyes.
The multitudes arrived. Hawks and gulls and passerines—we recognized them by markings we didn’t know we knew. Only white throats and snow caps stood out against the dark.
Cement ground against itself. Bodies pressed against the glass to show us their necks, their coverts, the long vanes of their flight feathers. Each brush pushed us. It loosed us from the ground. The building spun. I heard the lawyer inhale beside me as if in preparation. My chest filled with the same breath.
We felt the building lurch free from its foundation, rake down the boulevard, and lift. Above us, up where we couldn’t see, as near the sky as our skyline reached, talons gripped the stone edges of our hundred-story building and carried it off like sticks or twigs or strands of grass to be the material for this year’s nests.
They meant to take us, too, fledglings carried in a building sling. We sensed this the way birds sense winter, the way they turn toward warmth and food and mating grounds. The way, en masse, we depart.
As dawn fluttered up over the horizon, we gathered what we needed to begin again. Blankets and pillows and down coats, seed silos, trees torn up from the roots, whole acres of farmland — our brethren snagged up the sides of states-long riverbeds, unlatched and stole all telephone wire. Whatever we wanted, we reached for and caught. His hand found mine. Our fingers dovetailed and held tight.
Joy E. Allen is a writer who lives in Los Angeles. Her fiction has appeared in publications such as Third Coast, Post Road Magazine and PANK among others. She is currently working on a novel.