is the author of six books and is currently working on a novel. A Californian native living in Boston, he is the Editor of LatineLit.
Ancient accounts of plagues always begin with portents of the imminent arrival of pestilence. A month before a fever struck Corinth in AD 20, for example, Tacitus says that a Greek aristocrat named Polypodus reported that a comet filled the night skies. For eight days and nights, its lacy tail stretched from horizon to horizon, east to west, terrorizing citizens as it could only mean painful, premature death. While some residents spent their evenings planning their funerals by the bright light of the comet, Polypodus took it as a warning to flee the city. Unfortunately, he brought the disease to Athens, where he had sought refuge, and fifty thousand died there along with him, his family, and his servants.
Similarly, Saint Eusebius the Elder of Celles-lès-Condé, France, wrote of local cattle blinded by madness. “The crazed beasts are throwing themselves into the Marne as if they are afflicted by hordes of biting flies,” his 1417 message to an abbot read. “But except for a strong odor of stale rat urine that has taken over our humble village, we can find nothing that might have enraged them.” A week later, as bloated carcasses washed up on riverbanks for twenty miles downstream, the Black Death struck. Fortunately, Saint Eusebius had prepared for the epidemic and had at the ready a store of leeches which he selflessly used to go door to door to bleed the sick until he, too, succumbed.
My wife, much more in tune with these sorts of things—she could predict the hour of the coming of fall by the last time she shivered each April—was the one who first saw a dead bird. “There was a sparrow under my car this morning.” Clara was a strong woman who could manage any task with efficiency and stoicism. In high school she played varsity soccer and earned a 4.0 grade point average while she cared for her four siblings because her mother worked two jobs. Yet her voice quivered when she told me about the carcass upon her return from work that afternoon. “When I pulled out, I saw the poor little bird lying there lifeless. I immediately stopped but by the time I put the car into park, a cat was running away with it in his mouth.” Seeing the horror in her face, I put an arm around her to console her and while this gesture usually helped her relax, this time it did not. Similarly, my go-to move of rubbing my nose along the back of her neck, her favorite, failed, and despite everything, her shoulders remained taut from that vision of death. She let me hold her for a moment, for my sake not hers, but then brushed me aside to start dinner. The moment passed and she had her responsibilities to attend to. She had no time to devote to sentimentality over the ruthlessness of a natural world that was red in tooth and claw.
A week later when we had forgotten about the sparrow, our daughter Tila was in the way when it was my turn to get dinner ready. She was up on her toes to reach the faucet, vigorously washing her hands at the kitchen sink while she sang a song to time her soaping up. “Are you okay?” I asked. This was the spring when Tila would only wear pink. Clara and I had sworn we were going to raise our children free of the shameful gender stereotypes our society imposes on people and were horrified by her preferred color, but by now we had given up on our ability to influence how our kids behaved. They were way too smart and headstrong for us and they knew it. Fortunately for Clara and me, we had managed to teach them the sanctity of mercy and they rarely flaunted their independence to our faces.
“I need to get my hands clean, Daddy. I just finished burying a baby bird in the back yard.” She looked at me with those wide, dark eyes she had inherited from her mother. Someday, she would drive boys crazy with those eyes, the way I had lost all control of my future the day Clara first looked at me and I swore I would marry her. I was nine years old and dressed in my little league uniform that afternoon. I played on a team with Clara’s brother, and we had stopped at their house because Pablo had forgotten his glove. While he was in the garage searching through piles of dirty clothes looking for his lost mitt, I was so taken with Clara that I couldn’t speak and spent the time rubbing my hands all over my uniform to dry the sweat pouring off my palms. I thought it took hours for Pablo to find that glove, he claims he had it within a few minutes, but it didn’t matter, I just stared into her eyes. Many years later, Clara told me she had pitied me because she thought I must be too shy to talk because I was infested with body lice. Why else, she reasoned, would I be rubbing myself so vigorously if not to satisfy such an extreme itch?
“You did the right thing, mija,” I said to my daughter. “It was kind of you to treat that bird with dignity.” Though I certainly loved our two boys, our daughter was my favorite, and while I hoped I hid this, there were times when I couldn’t hold back. After she finished washing up, I put on some rowdy music and we danced in the middle of the kitchen for several minutes, dinner be damned, as Tila’s pink tutu twirled and my dark-blue shirt tails billowed in the air. That’s what the dead wanted us to do; just because they can no longer dance doesn’t mean they would sit out a spirited cumbia before their evening meal.
I almost said something about Tila and the bird to my wife that night as we were getting ready for bed, but I stopped myself. I didn’t want to seem like a worry-wort, though we both knew I was. That was the central irony that made our marriage a success: my wife saw everything yet shrugged it all off while I, who walked around so in my head that I noticed nothing, took all the world’s sorrows to heart. Silence was sometimes the best way for us to communicate with each other.
The next morning on the way to the clinic, two city public works employees were using a shovel to put several dead crows into a plastic trash bag. “We’ve had a dozen complaints about dead birds overnight,” one said, feeling obliged to explain his actions to me. I recalled that a group of crows is called a murder and I wanted to ask him if the word applied to deceased crows as well. But never, as the old proverb went, say the word “murder” to a man with a shovel. So, I kept quiet.
As I sat at my desk to wade through a lengthy list of emails that had arrived overnight, I couldn’t concentrate so I called Chaz, a buddy of mine who worked for an environmental organization. They were the people who spray painted the sidewalk to warn against dumping toxic chemicals in storm drains. He was always eager to tell me about the latest environmental insult and he would know if anything was amiss. When Chaz paused before answering my question if there was anything to be alarmed about, I had to fight the urge to shake the phone to speed up his reply. This was not a time for deliberate speech. “I’ve been trying to tell people about the birds for a couple of months now, but no one will listen to me,” he said at last. I know how Chaz felt. I’ve often worried that I was the Cassandra of the barrio, especially at times like this when anxiety frazzled my nerves and the need to suppress my urge to shout alarms strained my vocal cords. “We have birds dying all around us and no one cares.” I was pacing back and forth while I talked to him because there was no way I could sit through his news.
“What does this mean? What is killing them?” I had spent my entire life making incorrect associations and applying inappropriate analogies. Yet I still relied upon them to make sense of life around me. When I was thirteen, for example, I was so convinced that tectonic activity in my cheeks was the cause of my acne, that I had spent many futile hours in front of the bathroom mirror on the lookout for slowly traveling slabs of flesh colliding on my forehead to send up arcs of blemishes. Now as an adult, my morning shower routine included a little pep talk to all the cells in my body, hoping that by so engaging them in the minutiae of my life they would voluntarily refrain from becoming cancerous.
“The autopsies are all over the place,” he answered. “Some birds had burst hearts, others had lung infections or enlarged livers. Some had just starved to death.”
Terrified, I told a doctor at my clinic what was happening to the birds. He scowled at me for bothering him and gave me that look that made me second-guess my growing panic. “It’s the wrong time of the year for avian flu. That’s a fall-winter kind of thing, so birds don’t have mass die-offs in the spring.” As always, I annoyed him. “I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.” Because I was an administrator and not a clinician, he often spoke to me as if I were a child, despite my MBA. I would later feel guilty for being angry with his patronizing attitude when he became the first clinic employee to die from the virus.
Not having anyone else who would listen to me, I called Anastacio, who also dismissed my fears. “When I took the kids to the zoo on Sunday, the bird house was full and lively. Certainly, if there was a problem, we would have seen it there.” My older brother always played a rational counterpoint when my nervous rants were approaching a clamorous finale, and as usual, his calm manner had a soothing effect on me. At least the caged birds were safe, I reassured myself, even though they were damned by an alternate bad fate. Then, as usual, Anastacio went too far and used my panic against me. “Maybe the problem is you. Have you been watching too many horror movies? You know how they give you nightmares. Try a glass of warm milk with whisky and you’ll sleep through the night,” he advised.
Anastacio was right. It must be my nerves. If no one else was worried, why should I be? And so, by lying to myself, I felt relieved enough to get back to my work and the morning went quickly. Then at lunch the fears roared back with such force they almost knocked me over. It was the silence that terrified me. In my two-block walk to the taco truck where I always went for lunch, there was not a single bird call and not a bird to be seen. Usually, the birds would be singing to the heavens, sometimes alone, sometimes in great choruses of chirping and tweeting. Today, however, there was nothing. Beneath the warm spring sun, I could only hear the honking of impatient cars, people yelling into their cell phones, and the sound of my breath, now aggressively loud in a newly silent world. Adding to my ill ease were the food scraps covering the sidewalk. Normally there would be birds ready to swoop down on any dropped piece of bread or lunch as the birds kept the street clean in their own peckish fashion. But today there was discarded food everywhere and the street was a mess.
Usually, the man at the taco truck, José Limón, and I would trade insults, a friendly ritual as long standing as my always asking for extra jalapeños and him complaining that my greed was eating his profits. He was Salvadoran and he’d ridicule the Mexican national soccer team’s pitiful record in Olympic play to get under my skin, while I’d tease him about the problems of the Salvadoran team just to assert my own jingoistic sports fanaticism. But today he was all seriousness. “You’d tell me if there was anything wrong at the clinic, no?”
José Limón had a big nose, very bushy eyebrows, and deep, dark circles under his eyes as if he had been selling tacos for several centuries and the sadness of saying goodbye to so many meals, he had prepared with such methodical devotion had brought him to the brink of emotional exhaustion. “Of course, my friend,” I told him with complete sincerity. He had been feeding me for over a decade and I owed him the dignity of his intelligence. “I asked the Chief of Internal Medicine this morning if anything unusual was going on and he said no. And neither of us have noticed any great influx of patients.”
“But you asked?” His dark-brown face was creased with worry. “You’ve felt something is off?” We spoke in quiet Spanish so as to keep the Anglos from knowing what we were saying. Though we both knew there was something terribly wrong, this was not the time for spreading false alarms. Neither of us wanted to be responsible for sowing panic in the streets.
“Just a problem with the birds. They’re either dead or missing unless they are locked up in cages at the zoo.” I always went for my tacos after the lunchtime crush so there were only a few customers in line behind me. José Limón looked at me gravely, returning my respect for him by carefully considering my story of dying birds. He was an evangelist, a member of a storefront church a few miles away that was noted for the intensity of its worship. Every Wednesday night and Sunday afternoon, he would be one of the rollers, speaking in tongues as he was fired by the blood of Christ. In contrast, I was proud of my lack of faith: a good Mexican man only went to church for baptisms, weddings, and funerals, or in other words, no more than a couple of times a month.
“Have you told anyone about this?” he asked.
“No one will listen to me.”
“Claro que si. They never see us. They never hear us. We are just part of the background hum of the universe.” José Limón became lost in thought as he weighed the physical veracity of the legends told by old women. “My grandmother always said that a bird flying away was a good omen. It meant that your problems were being lifted into the sky. But the old folks, did they really know what was going on? Do any of us?” As he turned away to serve the next customer, he said, “Stay safe, brother. I’ll say a prayer for you and your family tonight.”
My mother had a different slant on the augury of birds. She believed that they symbolized marriage and when my Clara innocently showed up at dinner one Sunday afternoon in a blouse covered with toucans, my mother spent the meal glaring at the woman who had the audacity to think she was worthy of marrying her precious baby son. Demonstrating her uncontrollable emotions as she brought our meal in from the kitchen, my mother threw down a platter of chili rellenos on the table with such violence that it was a miracle the plate didn’t shatter into a thousand pieces, and I took that intact serving dish to be a sign that our union would be blessed by God. Fortunately, my mother’s anger was quickly overtaken by the pragmatism that would keep her alive until after her ninety-fifth birthday. When I finally proposed a year later, my mother confessed that she was glad, in retrospect, that she hadn’t kicked Clara out of the house because my wife was a better catch than I deserved. Was the death and departure of birds an omen of the end of my marriage? That was silly. Clara and I were more in love today than we were on the night I had finally summoned the courage to ask her out on a date, back when we were both college freshmen.
My tacos were perfect and José Limón, as was his practice, had given me extra jalapeños. As I ate, I carefully studied the pictures of my wife and children at my desk. I couldn’t control the world and I certainly couldn’t influence the coming and going of birds. So I vowed to redouble my love for my family and hold them extra tight tonight. I’d even try to give my youngest son, who always squirmed when I had my arms around him, a hug. Ten-year-old boys were too old to be embraced by their fathers.
That night I could barely fall asleep as my anxiety rose to the point of boiling over. I realized that I had been on edge for several years now because I was always facing another tragedy or moving through another ill omen. I couldn’t see the pictures of children locked up in cages without seeing the faces of my own kids, for example, because they looked identical. I felt myself attacked when politicians called Mexicans rapists and murderers. The rising rhetoric of violence shook me to my soul because any country that accepted such hideous thinking was already in a dark place. I didn’t have to be a seer to know that.
Every season brought more evidence that the climate was changing, and the seas were boiling up: winters were now warm and dry, and every summer included a rain of ashes from forest fires. My problem was not that there were no omens announcing doom but that there were too many. Their constant noisy onslaught drowned each other out. Every time we listened to the news, it seemed like there was something underneath the headline trying to warn us of a coming disaster. All around us were whispers of concern and shouts of warning that were impossible to ignore. Now that I thought about it, we had all been expecting a calamity, all of us felt as if we had doom rising up to our necks. The birds were simply the final sign that the apocalypse was at hand.
I slept for an hour or two only to awaken and feel as if my anxieties were crushing my chest. The voices in my head argued with each other, each one telling me that their particular terror was the worst. Together, they swarmed to convince me that I was the problem and that the auguries I was seeing everywhere were just my imagination coloring my vision. That was the final omen: I had come to accept that the future was so terrifying that it couldn’t really be so bad. I would have laid there for hours in that stew of fear, but my wife’s steady breath allowed me to finally relax and return to the security of my dreams. It would be my last full night’s sleep for a year.