n the distance, Bird saw a glimmer of light, his first sign of hope since entering the maze. How long had he been lost in this labyrinth? It seemed like days, maybe even weeks, though given his tendency toward the overly dramatic, possibly only hours. In this darkness, who could tell? What was time anyway, when the passing of each minute felt like an eternity?
He should investigate the light. Really he should. But Bird was too hungry to move. He didn’t know when he’d eaten last, though he remembered what. Someone had tossed sunflower seeds and scraps of bread onto the sidewalk. Always the same seeds, always the same slightly stale bread, as if he wouldn’t know any better, as if he had the indiscriminate palate of a vulture. The pigeons had devoured most of it, anyway, those greedy, overstuffed gluttons. Bird darted between their legs, pecking at whatever he could get his beak on before taking a kick to the chest or a wing to his head. He could still feel the bite of Glock, the pack’s enforcer, on his neck. The ugly brute, with speckled feathers that looked like guano, had made clear it was time for Bird to scram. “Shithead,” Bird muttered as he scurried away.
To think, those tasteless crumbs might end up as his final meal. Too depressing. Bird wanted to go out on a blaze of fruit, like pineapple. Or blackberries. Or mango. Oh yeah, a sweet, juicy mango.
Stop it. Thinking about food at a time like this would get him nowhere. Bird needed to focus on the light, which, by the way, he wasn’t totally convinced truly existed. It might be a trick, some sort of optical illusion. Or maybe he was hallucinating. Isn’t that what happened when you were starving, you started seeing things? That raised an interesting question: If the light was a figment of his imagination, and he followed it to freedom, would he gain independence, at least in his mind? Whoa, existential. The implications were too deep for Bird’s pea-sized brain to contemplate. Even if the light were real, he’d already been down so many blind alleys, come to so many dead ends, his sagging spirits couldn’t take another disappointment. Never much of an optimist, Bird had long since exhausted his meager reserves of pluckiness. He decided to plot his next move after a good long nap.
Sleep wouldn’t come. The metal walls around him hummed and vibrated, a soothing white noise that lulled him toward unconsciousness. But every time he was about to drift off, a sharp bang or thump would startle him back into wakefulness. Was this someone’s idea of torture? He couldn’t begin to guess who or what was on the other side. More prisoners? At one point, he had called out to these potential fellow captives—Hello? Who’s there? Anyone? Anyone?—but there had been no response. Only the echo of his own voice, which had surprised him with the sound of fear.
Bird was familiar with traps and cages. He’d been warned to stay away from nets. Had heard horror stories about zoos and laboratories. But this place was something altogether different, the long dark tunnels with their twists and turns and slides. Bird searched through his memory for some reference, some long forgotten tale that might explain his surroundings, but there was nothing. Probably because no one in his predicament had ever made it out alive.
Well that was a cheerful thought.
Enough. Mustering what little strength he had left, Bird roused himself for one more foray and flew toward the light, his wings brushing the sides of the ever-present, unforgiving steel. The glow grew brighter as he approached, and Bird allowed himself to mistake it for sunlight. He swore he could feel its warmth and blinked at the strength of its rays. Too late, he saw that while the light was most definitely real, its promise of escape was not. He clanked, head first, against the razored edges of a metal grate that barred a small rectangular opening. His beak bore the brunt of the impact; aside from a few lost feathers, no bodily harm done. The same couldn’t be said for his wounded spirits. Overwhelmed by the futility and desperation of his plight, Bird slumped against the cold hard wall of the maze. He could smell his own death.
Smell his own death. What a clever turn of phrase. If Bird did survive this ordeal, he would be sure to include it in his memoir. Assuming he could muster an audience for his tale.
Bird wasn’t like the other starlings. Uncharacteristically quiet and shy, a bit of a loner, he found it hard to make friends. Large groups caused him anxiety, drained him of his energy. Quality, not quantity, was his motto when it came to relationships. He had been close with his siblings, but they were scattered now, some leaving the city in search of open country and fresh air, others busy with families of their own. His older brother Grey—such an uncanny mimic, he could pitch his voice to sound like a car alarm—had been killed in a recent thunderstorm, crushed by a falling tree. Bird had warned him not to build his nest in the park—the ancient cottonwoods were notoriously fragile despite their sturdy appearance—but Grey, never one to change his mind, had, as per usual, ignored the advice. Should’ve listened to me.
Not that Bird was gloating. He’d been horrified and grief-stricken when he’d heard the news about Grey. So much so that he’d needed to visit the scene of the accident, to confirm the details with his own eyes. And also to retrieve, if possible, a family heirloom: a certain twig that had been part of their parents’ nest, and their parents’ nest before them. Bird, now being the eldest, considered himself the rightful heir.
It had been awhile since he’d flown to the park. He and Grey had feuded of late, over what he couldn’t quite remember, except that it had something to do with Bird calling his brother an elitist snob. Under the circumstances, he wished he could take the words back. Even if they were true. Even if he had meant them. So he’d grown unfamiliar with the route.
After wandering in circles for the better part of an hour, Bird crossed paths with Casanova and asked for directions, god knows why because, typical pretty boy cardinal, Cass was a complete ditz. Couldn’t tell up from down. “The park? I feel like it’s over that way, maybe,” he replied to Bird’s query, pointing with a less-than-definitive sweep of his wing toward a wide swath of the city’s Northwest Side. That was helpful. Not. If Bird were given to self-reflection, he’d have to admit that he sort of, definitely, enjoyed making Cass look stupid. Every now and again, beauty ought to be taken down a peg or two.
After that fruitless tete-a-tete, Bird aimed for one of the towering brick piles humans seemed to favor of late—nest stacked on top of nest stacked on top of nest. Any other day and he would have complained about how these monstrosities took up space better occupied by grass and trees, but today he welcomed the chance to land and catch his bearings from such a lofty height.
Here’s where he’d pause in his memoir for a little foreshadowing. “A fatal mistake,” he’d note. Ominously.
Normally, rooftops were safe—no dim-witted, sharp-toothed dogs to contend with—so his guard was down; intent on scanning the horizon, he hadn’t heard the squirrel. By the time he sensed the approaching danger, the rodent—don’t be fooled by the fluffy tails, squirrels are rodents—was closing in fast. Bird panicked. There, he admitted it. He panicked. Bird’s mother always said he lacked common instincts and he guessed she’d be happy he’d proved her right. He froze, recalling his ability to fly just as the squirrel prepared to attack.
Take-offs had never been Bird’s forte. For most starlings, a simple jump sufficed and poof, lift-off. Not Bird. He’d always mirrored the technique favored by much larger members of his species, using a running start to generate the airflow critical to flight. Mother called this his “illusion of grandeur.” “Duh-lusion,” Bird had corrected her, mentally if not verbally. At the moment, though, Bird wished he were a little less quirky and a little more competent. With the squirrel now just feet away, he judged he would have time to take maybe three or four steps, half of what he normally required, before attempting his ascent.
One, two, three, four, and Bird was miraculously airborne. But not high enough. Just as he was congratulating himself on foiling the squirrel, a paw clipped his left wing, costing him precious balance. Struggling to right himself, Bird lost what little altitude he’d gained and sputtered over an inconveniently-placed vent pipe. Down he went. Plummeting into the narrow chute, his feet flailed for non-existent toeholds against the smooth steel. Gravity had him in her grip, sucking Bird deeper into the void. For a brief moment, he managed to twist sideways and wedge his body, head to talon, between the walls. Then what? Bird was screwed and he knew it. There was no point in prolonging the inevitable. He cursed everyone and everything, including his own sentimental obsession with a goddamned twig, then gave himself over to the free fall and braced for a crash landing.
That had been days, weeks or perhaps hours ago.
Bird wearily lifted his head and peered through the slits in the grate. He could make out furniture—a bed, dresser, nightstand—and windows. Beyond that, the outdoors. The outdoors. How many days and nights had Bird shivered in the cold and rain, longing for shelter, for walls or a roof over his head? Now he wanted nothing more than to feel the elements on his skin, let the air caress him, tickle him, even toss him. What was a little rain? He’d take a hurricane over this stuffy tube.
Thinking about hurricanes reminded Bird of Grey. Had his brother been frightened in the storm? Had he felt helpless and alone? Had he been killed instantly or had he lain there waiting for a rescue that never came? Bird tried to picture Grey cowering in his nest or gasping for his last breath, but the only image he could conjure was one of strength and pride. Grey had always been fearless and if Bird could inherit his brother’s twig, why not a little of his character too.
There had to be a way out. With renewed purpose, he hopped to his feet and began to pace, working the blood back into his legs.
As he strode back and forth, Bird heard voices. Human voices. He stood still, trying to make out the words. “Rat,” they said. “Or bat,” they added. “Maybe a pigeon or squirrel.”
Him. They were talking about him.
Sweet Jesus, humans were idiots. How could they possibly mistake him for a pigeon or worse yet a rat? Did all creatures look and sound alike to them? Could they not tell the difference between a garbage eating, freakishly reproductive parasite and a graceful, elegant aviator? Bird stamped his feet and flapped his wings at the insult.
The female human screamed.
“They’re more afraid of you than you are of them,” Mother was fond of saying. Though their size advantage alone ought to assure people of their dominance, the animal kingdom had conspired to keep them on edge: Pigeons perfected the dive-bomb attack, rats popped out of dumpsters, mice scampered across kitchen floors. Simple yet effective scare tactics. The payback he had witnessed from humans—poison pellets and traps hidden in alleys, bowls of toxic anti-freeze left out on porches, cars used to flatten enemies until the carcass all but melted into the pavement—always struck Bird as excessive use of force, especially in retaliation for receiving little more than a startle. If these people thought he was a rat, my god, it occurred to Bird, what would they do to me? He thwacked his wings against the maze. “I’m a starling, I’m a starling.” Thwack, thwack. “Not a rat, not a rat.” Thwack, thwack. “You like to feed me yummy seeds and bread.” Thwack. “I’m your friend.” Thwack. “Let me out.” Thwack. “Let. Me. Out.” Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
Bird paused. Clearly his outburst had been counter-productive. Or had it? He heard movement near the grate. They had understood him after all. Bird was their friend and he just wanted to go home. They would set him free. Maybe even offer him some mango.
At the thought of fruit, he started salivating and realized how thirsty he was. Bird modified his release scenario to include a bowl of water, but he’d scarcely had time to envision wetting his beak when the grate slammed shut. The light went out.
There would be no deliverance. Clearly, the humans had decided against him. He’d committed no crime, but they’d sentenced him to die in this infernal maze anyway. Bastards. For the first time since plunging into this nightmare, Bird cried. He cried for Grey and the loss of the childhood they’d shared. He cried for Cass and all the beauty in the world he would never see again. He cried for himself and a life that though far from perfect was decent enough to want to keep living. He cried himself to the point of exhaustion and when sleep overtook him, he didn’t bother to dream.
Hours, possibly minutes later, Bird awoke, his sense of hopelessness replaced by a new emotion. Anger.
So, these people were afraid of him. Alrighty then. He would give them something to really scream about. Bird began running back and forth in the tunnel, pounding his feet against the floor and slapping his wings against the walls with the force of all his fury. Let them think he was a rat, hell, he’d whip up such a frenzied racket, they’d mistake him for a possum.
The maze rumbled like thunder. The sound was wild and primal and Bird felt elated, the kind of high that comes when you mix too little sleep with too little food and add a dose of terror. With or without anyone to behold his final act of rebellion, Bird felt proud that he hadn’t gone quietly to his end.
In the midst of this self-congratulatory reverie—Bird took a moment to contemplate who would play him in the movie version, should the story of his adventure ever surface—he was blinded by a spear of light, coming from the direction of the grate. The grate that was no longer there.
Overjoyed at his good fortune, Bird didn’t stop to question this unexpectedly positive turn of events. With a surge of adrenaline, he shot once more toward the opening. This time there was no crash, just a rush of air. Bird was free.
And then not. He’d escaped one trap, only to find himself in another: the room with the bed and the dresser and the nightstand. And a man. With a net.
You idiot. Bird chastised his gullibility. Determined to evade capture, he aimed for the window. He would smash his way through the glass or die trying. What actually happened: he became snarled in a curtain before he even reached the pane. Bird thrashed against the drapery, managing only to further entangle himself in its folds. Then he felt the hand close around his breast and throat.
He waited for the snap of his neck. Would he hear it first, and then die? Or would it happen simultaneously? Bird strained against his captor, his ears thrumming with the sound of his pounding heart.
But the hand wasn’t cruel or harsh. It held him firmly, yet gently. Bird stopped squirming, slowed his breathing. A pungent odor hung in the air, as sharp and sour as rotten cheese. It was Bird. The smell of his own death? Not exactly. More like the smell of his own panic. Bird should have been mortified—this surge of noxious hormones marked him as a scaredy-cat, dashing his hopes of impressing the humans with his bravery—but instead he was ecstatic. All things considered, a little body odor was eminently preferable to, if less poetic than, execution.
There was little time to rejoice in the thrill of being alive. As the hand placed him in a cage of wire mesh, Bird recognized a developing pattern: a false hope of salvation followed by the bleak reality of confinement. The cage provided a strong dose of the latter and forced him to ponder his potential fates. Perhaps he was headed to the pet store, where he’d go crazy listening to parrots beg for crackers. Or maybe they would ship him off to the zoo and sentence him to live out his days as some flamingo’s bitch. Worst-case, this cage was a one-way ticket to the dread laboratory that had featured so prominently in what Mother passed off as bedtime stories; there, he would be poked and prodded and eventually sliced and diced into pieces with less dignity than a chicken nugget. He gazed up at the humans with their towering trunks and big, fat heads and wondered why. Why they hated him. Why they feared him. Why they built mazes in their nests.
The cage swung off the floor, down the stairs and out the door. Outdoors. Trees, grass, earth, sky. Hello and good-bye.
The man with the net paused. The door to the cage sprang opened. The hand reached in and once again closed around Bird. Before he could register what was happening, he was stunned to find himself flung aloft.
Catching a draft, he spread his wings and soared, the wonder and awe of the moment recalling the magic of his first flight. In a fit of pure giddiness and delight, emotions mildly foreign to Bird, he swooped in a celebratory loop-de-loop—I’m alive! I’m alive!—before going weak in the wing at the sight of the dread rooftop, the scene of the crime as it were, and the vent that had nearly been the end of him. It looked so benign, it was hard for Bird to conceive of the horror that lurked within and the death sentence he had so inexplicably avoided. He shuddered and turned his gaze to the street, where he spied the man with the net walking toward a row of parked cars, the now-empty cage dangling from his hand. The man stopped to crane his neck, shading his eyes with his hand, to catch one last glimpse of Bird whirling above in the sky.
Bird dove and released his bowels. Just because he could.
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