The Birds of St. Francis
As stiff as toys and tall as men,
And swaying like the wind-torn trees,
She talked about the empty world
With eyes like poison birds.
— The Cure, “The Empty World”
Beyond the benches and the pigeons, he rarely saw New York from this elevation. His eyes stayed closed during the horrendous taxi rides from the airport, and then elevators whisked him to penthouses the heights of which had only appeared in sermons about Babel when Oscar was a boy. Here, though, a little square of peace, boxed in like an aquarium, or one of the experiments of that man B. F. Skinner, and he, Oscar, was the reward button. The pigeons approached him, and through delightful bobs of their heads and indirect paths bringing them close enough to imperil their existences, they offered themselves, and for reward, they received bits of bread Oscar had baked himself. His friend Jake had insisted that he use the electronic power for the oven, even though the metal box and wires seemed to conduct heat just fine without such stimulus. The pigeons understood that Jake was limited by his perception of will, space, and time, but Jake had learned from the books Allen wrote. The chasm between them, Oscar knew, would never close; Allen’s understanding itself, capable of spanning, with marvelous wings, one side of the chasm to the other, still belonged firmly to one, whereas Oscar had spent much of the last century hovering above the center, held up by the infinite way down.
He sighed and tossed out another wad of bread, which two pigeons shared (Oscar let them know he was in no mood for aggression).
Some blast, maybe a car backfiring, made a black flock burst from a nearby tree. Humans milling around took notice, some of them oooing. Extending a mental hand, Oscar brought one of the fleeing birds to his shoulder. It perched and told him about what it had seen.
Ludicrous! Who would dare?
The bird, a goldfinch, not part of the main flock but still inspired to take flight, repeated its report, a stream of images into Oscar’s mind.
Oscar nodded and stood from his bench.
At almost the opposite end of the park, at another bench, a kid, maybe fifteen, sixteen, sat at a bench throwing out chunks of Wonder Bread. When a pigeon got close enough, another kid, a little older, maybe seventeen, leaned out from behind a tree and shot the bird with a loud BB gun. Nearby pigeons would squawk and flutter away, but their memories did not stay on the surface long, and that fake bread-substance brought them close enough again too soon. Bang!
Oscar walked swiftly. His slacks were loose around his legs, as he liked, swishing with silk lining, and they had elastic at a waist that was prone to change, as it did while he walked, as one person, a woman with a stroller, saw him as a man so old she could not fathom how he walked with such speed, and a girl, blowing bubbles through heart-shaped plastic, saw him as a skinny teenager and blushed. The shirt, too, variously swelled and deflated as his chest took different forms of burly manhood, shriveled age, and underdeveloped adolescence, but his speed remained constant. He kept to paths, knowing their superfluous turns would still be faster than navigating impediments on the grass. Finally, the bird-killing boys were in range.
What are you doing?
Oscar felt annoyed. Allen was the only extant being capable of entering his mind without an invitation, and he understood that it was a privilege he was wise to use rarely, and now here he was. Stopping a travesty, Oscar answered.
In broad daylight?
I wasn’t going to use my hands, Allen.
What, then? Sometimes your… creativity does not decrease the scope of problems.
Come down here, and we’ll talk about it.
Very funny. In time.
Oscar took a deep breath, as if the swelling of his chest could take in all of Central Park and the blocks around it, and he felt every life, which made him realize—the birds whose company the goldfinch kept had not gone far. They, and others like them in every tree, were very much present.
Don’t, Allen said.
You’re thinking of pulling a Hitchcock.
Come on, I’m dead, and I still go to the movies. Surely you’ve seen The Birds….
The Birds is a movie?
On cue, the birds took flight from every tree in Central Park, forming a grey-black blanket low enough to look like its corners could be tied to skyscrapers: a living, avian canopy. The boy crouching at the tree dropped his gun and stood tall, his neck pulled back, eyes up. His friend stood from the bench and mimicked the pose.
The birds spiraled down like two funnel clouds, drilling down and consuming the boys. That they took the boys’ eyes first, as birds know to do, didn’t matter, as so many pecking beaks stripped soft tissue in seconds, and the boys did not have to suffer. The funnels retracted, taking the remains with them, and when the canopy cleared, no trace of the boys remained.
The bench where the one boy had sat was covered with an unusual amount of birdshit.
Other park-dwellers marveled at the avian phenomenon, but no one remarked on what had happened with the boys. Soon, Oscar reckoned himself the only witness.
Close one, Allen said.
Oscar did not dignify the comment with a response.
A penthouse. Oscar preferred the Park. Some graduate students from Columbia had responded to the reports, looking for magnetic disturbances, and the tourists’ videos on YouTube were getting a lot of hits, but none of them showed the funnels and the boys. Somebody on Fox News suggested it was animal activists engaged in a terrorist protest, but the explanation “birds do weird shit” was working for most people. Nevertheless, Jake agreed with the Council’s decision that Oscar needed to be back out of sight for awhile. After all, the last thing they needed was some Jimmy Olsen to start matching Oscar’s photo with newspapers from other generations. Oscar knew the Council had been covering up his public appearances since long before they introduced themselves—which was, frankly, a little offensive, but the Council had myopia problems—but yes, a significant enough public record existed for dots to be connected by a nosy someone who would be tedious to kill.
“Jake,” Oscar said. “What would you tell the media if this building suddenly fell?”
Jake sat on the sofa opposite the classic wooden chair Oscar had chosen to frame his tuxedo, and he crossed his legs. His feminine form, the high heels and hose and short skirt and tight top and BREASTS, unnerved, as he intended them to do, but he was still Jake in a borrowed body, and being better looking only gave him the slightest of advantages.
“Come now, Oscar, you’re not making threats, are you?” Jake spoke with the accent he had picked up in the South. It was charming, in a way, but also saccharine.
Too Steel Magnolias, Allen said.
Let me guess—another movie?
My friend Louis liked movies.
“I am merely informing you,” Oscar said, “that due to your actions, I must decide which I prefer, a space in which this building stands, or a space in which this building does not stand. You may attempt to influence it, but the decision is mine to make.”
“Hasn’t that always been the case?” Jake said.
Oscar nodded. “But I never before considered any advantages to this space not being occupied by this building.”
Jake nodded. Fondling his left breast, he said, “Well, before you start playing Hand of God, consider that the reason you came to the city in the first place had nothing to do with having your birdy friends eat up boys in Central Park and everything to do with being here in this building so you can talk to me and Tildy and Eli and Melia. So you’re where you decided to be all along, not being held somewhere against your will, so please take that into consideration when you decide who and what ought to occupy this space.”
“You make a good point,” Oscar said.
A door opened, and Melia entered. Although Oscar cared little for such things in any but the most abstract ways, he judged her the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and he had seen more than most. An effortless blend of African and Asiatic features, her dark skin made her green eyes ornamental daggers, and her luscious black hair, dense waves mirroring the curves of her large breasts, wide hips, and thick thighs, suggested new dimensions. As she walked, her feet did touch the ground, but only just, as her toes seemed sufficient to propel her even though her ample middle would never play at the ballet. Hiding her body, a dress, glorious draping folds of red and gold, wrapped around her, announcing royalty. She took a place at the head of the room, standing near a recliner, forming a triangle with Jake on the sofa and Oscar in his wooden chair.
“Gentlemen,” Melia said, bowing.
“Excuse me?” Jake said.
She looked at him. “For real? Okay.” She cleared her throat. “Lady and gentleman,” and she bowed again.
“Oh Melia,” Jake said, extending a limp wrist, as if for her to kiss, “how lovely to see you.” The woman whose body Jake possessed, whom Oscar had observed, had never spoken with so high a voice.
Melia moved forward, making sure the edge of her red-and-gold dress brushed against Jake’s wrist, and extended a hand to Oscar. “I am so honored to see you in person,” she said.
Oscar took her hand and shook it. Then he decided to kiss it, and she smiled. She saw him as a handsome twentysomething, a gigolo in a tuxedo. No, she wasn’t fooled, but he didn’t need her to be. Immediately, they had an understanding, and it was good. “My origins are humble,” Oscar said. “In all my years, I have never been in the presence of a woman so—”
“Stop,” Melia said. A thump against glass made them all turn their heads toward a window: a mass of birds was growing thicker. “And stop that, too.”
“It’s not… conscious,” Oscar said. “I’m… nervous. And like I was just trying to explain to our friend Jake, whether this building is still standing an hour from now depends on whether it doing so is in the best interest of my safety. These decisions are mine alone… but… I can’t say they’re always conscious.”
Now that he was listening, he could hear them. The birds. They coordinated their calls.
“Hey, y’all, thanks for coming up here on such short notice for this little confab.”
Oscar didn’t feel certain, but Eli was speaking in that manner he used when he thought he was being hip but was actually being anachronistic.
“I know travel is easier for some of us than others,” Eli continued.
Melia looked at her long painted fingernails. Their colors changed as she contemplated them, lavender to aquamarine. “I like to get back to got old NYC. By the way, avoid the subways tomorrow.” She stretched out on the chaise in the brightest corner of Eli’s office. Eli sat on the edge of his desk, too connected to be behind it, too engaged to relax. Jake sat at one of the two stools at the office’s small bar. He kept crossing and uncrossing his legs while readjusting his bra.
“Casualties?” Eli asked.
“Meh. Not many deaths. Some nice footage of burn victims on the news, though.” Melia regarded her fingernails with dissatisfaction.
Oscar sat on a high-backed leather chair near Eli’s desk. Proximity to Eli wasn’t optimal, but the seating was.
“Is Tildy going to put in an appearance?” Jake asked. He crossed and uncrossed his legs.
“Sharon Stone!” Oscar shouted. He cocked his head to one side. Eli, Melia, and Jake gazed at him with casual puzzlement, as this sudden non sequitur would hardly be Oscar’s first.
“Beaver shot!” Oscar clarified.
“Has anyone ever considered giving this one a night-night pill?” Melia asked.
Jake looked at her, genuine terror in his eyes. Eli faked a cough. “Ha-ha, Melia, good one. Very funny.”
“I wasn’t joking, motherfucker.”
Oscar nodded and smiled at Eli. “It’s true, motherfucker. She wasn’t.” A tremor shook the building. Eli’s face looked more similar to Jake’s.
“I believe,” Eli said, coolly, “Oscar was referring to the movie Basic Instinct.”
“I was?” Oscar looked over his shoulder. “I was!”
“Which, since Jake isn’t wearing any underwear, makes sense. Google it, Melia.”
She closed her eyes for three seconds. “Well that was skanky. Fine then. So what, did you bring us here to talk about movies?” Melia’s fingernails turned black.
“What about Tildy?” Jake said.
“She can’t make it,” Eli said.
Melia began, “Without her—”
Eli clapped his hands. “But we have Oscar!”
Somehow that sounded bad.
Melia sat up on the chaise, her red and gold gown draping like feathers against her curves no matter the angle of her pose. Sensuality repelled Oscar in virtually all its forms, but the longer he looked at this woman, the more the suggestions of her shapes, the more the textures of the burnt deserts of her skin, the more the scents and the heat and the hypnotism that surrounded her, all of it managed to combine and affect him. Experienced enough to recognize the will’s potent medicines, he could observe the affectation without succumbing. The result was pleasure, new experience, hairs strung like a bow from his groin to his brain and played across finely tuned strings by the hands of a master. “I’ve heard so much about you,” she said. “But tell me, in your own words, what it is exactly you bring to the table.”
The building shook. Car alarms sounded from far, far below.
Jake looked at her. “Melia, darling, the last I checked, of the three of us, I was actually the best at teleportation, and I have no confidence whatsoever of escaping if this man gets pissed off. So may I ask you, honestly, what you are trying to accomplish?”
Eli walked through the center of his office, creating an aisle, where none had been before, between Oscar on one side and Jake and Melia on the other. He bellowed a big fake laugh. “Come on, Jake! Surely Oscar here can respect Melia’s combination of Aphrodite and Ares, can he not? You and I respect his nature, accepted him as he is long ago. Now that these two are meeting, they will have an opportunity to learn and gain mutual respect.”
“This woman is making me uncomfortable, Eli,” Oscar said. Somewhere—one of the lower floors—heavy glass shattered, an explosion. Another, closer. Another, closer. Another, in the next room.
Melia gave Jake a glance, and he nodded with wide eyes. A bulb in one of the tasteful wall-mounted fixtures near Melia’s head burst.
“Okay,” she said. “Sometimes actions speak louder than words.”
“Oscar, you can stop now,” Eli said.
Oscar looked at Eli, and at Jake, so different from the silver-haired fellow in the Panama hat, with the breasts he couldn’t stop touching, and at this new woman, Melia, who felt the need to test him, a thing he tolerated rarely, but since she gave him so much pleasure he felt inclined to oblige, but his inclination was not in control. He thought of speaking and explaining to them all that what was happening all around them was not him, that it never had been. How many times, though, had Jake listened, smirking, to his argument about the oven? To his explanation that all he needed to do was ask the metal to get hot? True, an oversimplification: the asking pierced through the molecular level, where, to achieve the outcome of heat, Oscar just had to act like a cheerleader, but Jake always thought Oscar was offering some ritual intervention. How then could he understand that, just as the birds in Central Park needed little convincing to dispatch the teenage predators, the ground beneath the heavy skyscraper needed small encouragement to tremble, and the air between New York towers agreed readily to form massive sub-audible waves to destroy entire floors of windows on Oscar’s cues?
Oscar played a part in influencing the wills of others, often others humans didn’t even recognize AS others. Others’ wills, once pushed, might not be so easily influenced again. So the birds massing not far at all from the penthouse windows were not flying their holding patterns according to Oscar’s design, but according to another. Likewise, the birds flooding into the room beside Eli’s office, the room opened by the glass that air, receiving Oscar’s encouragement, had decided to shatter, also did so without Oscar’s bidding.
“Please restate your request,” Oscar said.
“Remind me again why I can’t just kill him?” Melia said. The chaise beneath her collapsed. The wood had become dust; the screws, fabric, and cushioning remained.
Eli retook his position half-sitting on the edge of his desk. “My request,” he said, “is for you to stop whatever you’re doing with the birds and the breaking glass and earthquakes. You’ve made your point.”
“The birds are on their own,” Oscar said.
To punctuate the point, a bird smashed into Eli’s office window. It thumped without cracking.
The flock, or swarm, on the other side of the office wall beat its wings and slammed its bodies against interior barriers with indignant rhythms. Collisions with the glass became repetitive, and birdsound engulfed them.
Everyone was standing now but Oscar, who remained in the high-backed leather chair, which he knew was Jake’s contribution to the office décor.
“So,” Jake said, “you mean to say that this, um, bird siege is not under your control.”
“Nope,” Oscar answered.
“Yet you are oddly unfazed,” Jake surmised.
The wall and window gave at the same time. Birds flooded the room, but their currents were gentle, and they wrapped themselves around Eli, Jake, and Melia. They took Oscar in his chair, at once a boy, and then a man, but always a Prince. Carried by hundreds into waiting thousands, the four were flown through the broken penthouse window into the sky high above New York. Like a black escalator into the clouds, the creatures coordinated, passing the humans higher from ground and away from the building that had held them. Inside clouds that turned them all into partial shapes, they stopped.
After a quick gasp, Eli shouted to them, “I’ve got air pressure and temp covered!” He made the OK gesture with his right hand.
Eli, Melia, and Jake all sprawled, disoriented, on an unstable, bobbing bed of flying birds that kept them flying more through percussion than support. Oscar sat on his similarly maintained high-backed leather chair, beard long and grey, majestic as Moses.
Jake gave Oscar a sincere, sad look. “All kidding aside, I thought we were starting to be friends.” The birds beneath him faltered but did not release.
Oscar shook his head. “I have no idea where this is going,” he said.
But don’t you?
Of course. You have them here. Wrap them up in clouds, and let them ride with you to Central Park.
You were worried about my last public appearance!
Use the clouds to make sure no one knows, or records, what they see. But when the vapor clears, there you all will be, and none of you should say you have any idea how you got there, but stories will begin. Or maybe you will tell stories. Oscar, you make your own decisions.
“All of you: give in, and ride.” Melia, Eli, and Jake exchanged glances, and Oscar saw comprehension. The descent began, swift enough for a breeze to move their hair and clothes, Oscar still in his tuxedo, a man in his prime, riding the backs of hundreds of birds, but slow enough for all of them to stay safe. From the corner of his eye, Oscar recognized someone and called him over. The goldfinch. It landed on his shoulder, and it tried to tell him something, but as it did, something sliced through Oscar’s mind and the bird’s body. The dead thing fell away with the breeze of Oscar’s descent.
The clouds that were falling with them thickened. “Oscar!’ Eli yelled. “What are you doing?”
“The clouds,” Oscar muttered.
“OSCAR!” The voices of Jake and Eli in unison. Oscar might have even heard Melia.
Oscar kept muttering. “The clouds want to freeze.”
The water in the clouds began to gather and freeze around the particles that had previously given the clouds substance, so in places small chunks, and in others gathering boulders, of ice began to form. Melia, Eli, and Jake could all feel the moisture freezing on their skin, and maneuvering as well as they could on the bouncing backs of descending birds, they tried to huddle together and remember what means they had for summoning warmth without setting themselves or the birds beneath them on fire.
The ice storm in Central Park, on a clear sunny day, began minutes before the birds began to arrive. The first bits to hit seemed like regular hail, so people moved toward shelter without urgency. The first blocks of ice as big as basketballs moved people faster, and by the time the chunks of ice as big as cars starting to crush people, screams and sirens claimed ubiquity. Then, amidst chunks of ice taller than men, flocks of birds streamed from the sky toward the crowd, swooping into the park, colliding with some of the few people straggling in the open, and fear of the ice left few others in the open to witness, and the ice itself left no good angles for any of the cameras that tried to capture the phenomenon—which many believed, and many more did not, at first—of the birds setting down four people.
The identities of the bird riders—fact or shared delusion?—were unconfirmed. People speculated widely that one of them was reclusive billionaire Elijah Eagleton, but he had been spotted in so many places where he’d likely never set foot that witnesses’ credibility faced automatic challenge. Some scientists suggested that the bizarre meteorological event and bizarre zoological event were likely connected, as such wild atmospheric disturbances could easily disturb birds’ daily flight or seasonal migration patterns. Global warming. Occult or religious significance should not, they suggested, be placed on the waves of birds descending on the center of the city with deadly boulders of ice, carrying on their backs an Elijah and three others.
The Age of Miracles had begun.