Chapter Fourteen



Monday night Joe Mayland had snoozed while watching reruns of NCIS, his hand clasping the book he had snuck from Blake Burkert’s place after their last friendly round of chess. Kabūtarnāmah was an interestingly detailed text on pigeons, the many different types, their habits, their optimal diet. It was a favorite among pigeon fanciers and Blake had lent it to him many times.

But his last visit with Blake had left Mayland more worried than ever. His longtime acquaintance and loyal tenant was spending more time to himself, rarely came out, crept to the cages on the roof more frequently than Mayland himself did. And he noticed a change in his birds too. His rock doves were more vocal than seemed natural and the ravens Oscar and Felix surprisingly less vocal but their eyes always appraising, watchful of every activity on the roof. A few days ago when Mayland had made his morning trip to feed the birds he noticed his homing pigeon, Charlie, huddled in the corner of his cage. Felix was perched outside his own, black empty eye trained on Mayland as he crossed to check on Charlie. There had been a beak-sized gash in the pale cream down of Charlie’s chest and the poor bird didn’t even respond as Mayland cupped him into his hands.

On Monday night the bird still sat in a cage in Mayland’s first-floor apartment, nearly healed. Stitched up and fed on the best stock of seed and organic apples, he was ready to go back to the task of homing training, Mayland’s latest obsession. But at midnight Mayland lurched awake, Kabūtarnāmah falling to the floor, as Charlie beat his wings and began to rattle the door of his cage. Mayland slipped on his wire-framed glasses and ruffled the tuft of white curls on the top of his head, blinking sleep away.

“Charlie, fella, what’s this? What’s got you worked up?” He shuffled into his plaid slippers and walked across the kitchen to the cage. Half of the kielbasa he’d fried for dinner still sat on the kitchen island and Mayland idly picked it up and chewed a bit off as he approached the cage. Charlie was pacing and flying at the door. His little beady eyes were wide.

“Charlie, I’ll be letting you out tomorrow morning, promise.”

The bird halted his flapping. He paused in front of the cage door, the feathers of his chest pressed against the bars. “Too late.”

Mayland, thinking that he had heard the bird speak, took off his glasses and wiped them on his shirt, as though it were his ears he was clearing. He watched Charlie for a moment, assessing whether he had truly calmed, and began to shuffle back to his armchair to shut off the TV.

“Too late Joe. It’s too late.”

Mayland turned back to the cage. Charlie was still by the door, calmly planted, left eye looking directly up at him. Well, if he was dreaming this was a new one. He decided to play along. “Oh yeah, too late for what?”

“To save them. It’s started.”

Mayland let a puff of air out and shook his head. He put the kielbasa back on the counter. Heartburn. It must be giving him strange dreams or waking delusions. He had to lay off the sausage. “I don’t know what you’re talking about Charlie or why you’re talking at all but I think I better go bed so I can wake up more clear-headed.”

After spending the last thirteen years of his retirement around his pigeons he had often come to imagine their coos formulating words. He had come to imagine he could tell when they wanted to stretch their wings, when they wanted more food. The trills of “coo, coo, coo” had at most resolved into “you, you, you”—an acknowledgement of his care, his daily devotion. Blake in the last few months had starting talking about an ancient connection, a “green language” that only birds knew, a channel to the divine. Mayland had dismissed it as simply part of his neighbor’s growing strangeness.

But now. “No Joe. We must leave.”

Short sentences were all the bird seemed capable of. “You’re going to have to explain a bit to me Charlie. You see, I think I’m having a dream or maybe going crazy. Either way I don’t like it.”

“It’s the ritual. He woke us.”

“Who did?” He had a feeling.

“The Fool. The man from below.”


Charlie cooed, bobbed his head.

“Okay, well, why?”

Charlie began to flap about the cage again. “Now now we must leave.”

Mayland was about to speak but a flash of white halted him. Images filtered into his brain. Kitchen floor in a familiar apartment thick with blood, a green ooze on concrete steps, bubbling, the cage doors swinging, wind whistling through empty wire, human bird-cries from tree to tree, feathers feather feathers.

“Alright alright.” Mayland patted the pocket of his flannel shirt as though searching for something. “I’m going to go visit my ladyfriend anyway. This is just a regular visit, not because my bird is talking to me. It was something I was thinking of before I drifted off. Yes.” He did sometimes drop in on Nancy unexpected. Unexpected at her door with a bird in a cage at midnight would be a new one.

Mayland gathered together a bag, tossed a few granola bars in, a sack of birdseed, a razor and toothbrush, a box a kolacky to smooth the surprise visit (Nancy loved her Polish sweets), and at sudden last thought his copy of Kabūtarnāmah. “Okay buddy, we’re off but I still want to know what’s going on.”

So Mayland fled the building he owned and the six floors of souls kept therein with a wink of guilt. What could he do and was it on him to do it? He shifted his bag on his shoulder and took comfort in heeding what the bird had said. Charlie must have spoken for a reason.

Holding the cage close to his body, Mayland continued to receive flashes of images and the near future or potential future became clear to him. He saw the army of bird humans being created, humans turning themselves to an evil, murky cause on the promise of flight, kill and maim for the promise of flight and for that alone but that was enough. Thousands would transform. Thousands would poke out the eyes of their fellow humans and savor their sudden feelings of power. They would watch bodies fall but feel detached inside their bird skin. But they weren’t birds. They would never be birds. Human in their cores, and that was the key.

And it was on the dawning of Tyr’s Day as the sun shunted aside the clouds in the sky that Mayland climbed to the roof of Nancy’s high-rise and released Charlie from his cage. To his secret network of bird fanciers, an appeal: “What was human can be made human again. Send help. Let’s do all that we can.”


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