SMT Holiday StoryFlod Part 1 - Featuring “An Incomplete History of the Birds of New York”
For this holiday season, we’ve selected a few favorite stories from the first six months of the year to share — unlocked — with readers far and wide. We had a difficult time choosing, as they’re all favorites, so if you love what you’re reading, please share and recommend, and dig into the archives for more. As well, please tell us YOUR favorites from 2023 in the comments, and by emailing email@example.com
* Please note: We are looking at strategies and platforms for 2024 and will update as we have further information.
This week’s unlocked stories are Victor Manibo’s “An Incomplete History of the Birds of New York” (June 2023 and below), and (linked) Karen Lord’s “A Timely Horizon” (March 2023), Kat Howard’s “Unreal City” (April 2023), and Trent Jaimeson’s “Fierce Happening” (May 2023).
Enjoy them all.
~ Julian and Fran, December 24, 2023
An Incomplete Catalog of the Birds of New York
By Victor Manibo
The afternoon she saw the dead hummingbird in the backyard, Amaya went through a sequence of emotions typical of an eight-year-old: an easy curiosity at the lump on the grass, followed by shock at the revelation, then remorse at the loss of something so small and pretty. She knelt on the grass and gently touched its wing. She stroked its iridescent green-fuchsia feathers, each barely the length of her finger. Then, seeing that there was no one around, she cried. A loud, piercing wail. What her older brother called her “ugly cry.” She heaved and bawled, tears and snot running in a stream down her face.
In between sobs, she decided she would bury the bird.
As she dug a hole in the grass, she wondered what had happened. Did something attack it? Was it old age? Did it die of exhaustion, always having to flap its wings in a frenzy? The questions so enraptured the girl that she completely forgot what drew her to the yard in the first place.
A soft yet insistent call. Lily. Lily. Lily.
Amaya didn’t know anyone by that name.
Later, as she scrubbed the dirt under her fingernails in the kitchen sink, she noticed a smudge on the kitchen window. A small maroon blotch. She marched out to the yard, up to the other side of the glass, and found herself standing right where the hummingbird died. She leaned in closer, and under the sunlight, she saw an impression of the bird’s head. Once more, her tears fell.
When she heard her mother calling, Amaya wiped herself dry with the hem of her shirt. She checked her reflection on the glass before heading back inside, completely missing what was beyond the pane.
On the kitchen counter sat one of her mother’s vases. It teemed with daylilies: blazing orange, resplendent, in full bloom.
They were everywhere in the city. The pigeons, yes, but also the pimply-faced college-age kids with a clipboard, ready to impede one’s pace to ask for petition signatures, or maybe donations for a fundraiser. Bone-weary from a long workday, Amaya would have easily ignored one such canvasser. Yet this kid, wearing a beanie and high-tops, crouched over a gray lump on the sidewalk as traffic weaved around him.
“Is it dead?” Amaya asked.
“Still breathing, but barely,” the canvasser replied. He took a brown paper bag from his pocket and blew into it. Then he gingerly nudged the pigeon into the bag. He then lifted himself off the pavement, holding the open bag with both hands as though in offering.
“What are you gonna do with it?”
“I’m taking the li’l fella to the animal hospital,” he replied. He cooed into the bag, an attempt at reassurance. “This part of town’s rough on birds,” he continued, gesturing at the skyscrapers all around them and along the island’s edge.
Curious amusement compelled Amaya to help in some way, and so she picked the clipboard up from the sidewalk. Oppose the Lower Manhattan Reclamation Plan! She handed it to the canvasser, and he placed the paper bag on top of it, used it like a tray.
As she went on her way, Amaya found herself looking up. How many pigeons strike how many windows in this city on a daily basis, she mused.
Lost in thought, she walked toward the tower, the highest one in the city. She would later come to believe that something called to her on that early summer afternoon, a pull that drew her away from her subway stop. At that moment, though, all she sensed was awe, at the tower’s sheer size, its shining panes set alight by the setting sun, its lines that moved ever upward, higher than the two towers that had stood there before or would ever stand there again.
And then there were the pigeons. They flew up, past, and around the tower in a dance. Some turned sharply up, and some flew down in a nosedive.
Then a pair of them began to fly in a helical pattern, dancing upward in a fluid, spiraling ballet. She could hardly believe her eyes, until another pair of pigeons did the same.
“Did you see that?” she exclaimed at no one in particular.
It was then that Amaya first noticed the old man. As indifferent to the world as it was to him, he sat cross-legged atop one of those large concrete blocks that the NYPD used to barricade traffic. He held his head up, eyes toward the tower, uttering words that only he could hear. His manner had intentionality and a great degree of concentration, and Amaya was almost convinced he wasn’t mentally ill, despite appearances. Lifting a hesitant hand, he then began to wave at the dancing birds.
“Please tell me you saw that too,” she asked him.
The old man took a sidelong glance at her, then returned his attention to the tower and continued murmuring.
“Are you—are you talking to them?” Her tone bordered on condescension, and the old man rapidly scratched his nose.
“Can’t I talk to whoever I want?”
“Of course you can. I was just . . . curious. It’s not every day that I see someone talking to birds.” Amaya recognized a bit of untruth in this; the city had a healthy share of people who spoke to phantoms, to streetlamps, to their reflection in a puddle. Pigeons weren’t so unusual, considering.
“They’re the only ones who talk to me anymore. And the occasional monkey,” he added. She gave him a quizzical look. “George. Curious George. The one with all the questions.”
“What do you talk about?” she asked.
“More questions,” he scoffed. He gathered his collar about him. The streetlamps came on, and the tree-lined plaza before them glowed. “The tower. We talk about the tower.”
“I tell them to look out so they don’t crash.”
Amaya returned after work the next day. The old man was still there, still cross-legged atop the NYPD barricade, as though he hadn’t moved an inch since yesterday. And he still wore the same khakis fraying at the hem, the same threadbare flannel shirt.
Soon enough she learned his name. Satur. Satur was the self-appointed air-traffic controller for birds transiting through One World Trade. He lived alone, all the way uptown, well past where the train lines ended. He was a man of few words, and each detail took time to elicit, but Amaya found that consistency was key: showing up at the same time every day, not forcing a conversation, not invading the old man’s space. That, and a cup of coffee, quietly offered.
The more she took these post-workday detours, the more she learned about the birds. She knew how to identify a robin from a swallow, a kestrel from a Cooper’s hawk. Of course she also learned how often they crashed into windows, how the city’s sidewalks and yards and awnings were littered with their lifeless bodies.
“They can’t tell where they’re going sometimes,” Satur explained. “Daytime, there’s the reflection, and nighttime, there’re lights. So—thwack! That’s why I’m here.”
Amaya wasn’t sure when exactly she’d come to believe the old man’s claims. Perhaps it was around the time the hummingbird resurfaced in her memory. In flashes as fast as the flapping of its wings, she remembered that afternoon in her parents’ backyard, and the call that seemed to have come from nowhere.
A megaphone, was how Satur explained it; he spoke to the birds as though he had a megaphone. They flew too fast to have one-on-one conversations, so he guided their journey by yelling at them en masse, in their unspoken, secret language. The birds usually replied with a greeting or a thank-you or, occasionally, a dismissive I know where I’m going. Many of them were born and bred locals, after all.
One afternoon, Amaya came to their usual concrete barricade and found it untenanted. Satur was nowhere to be found. She allayed her worry by assuming the old man’s post, crossing her legs like he did. With him gone, someone had to be on the lookout, and so she thought to try.
She tuned out the din around her, trying to isolate the sound of the birds. Maybe by focusing on their twitter, the flapping of their wings, she could hear again, the way she’d once heard the hummingbird. But the birds were too far, and the noise of rush hour drowned them out.
When the sun dipped low and Liberty Plaza’s lamps lit up, Amaya left her post and walked toward the tower. Without Satur, and having failed herself, a bird might be in need of rescue. She searched along the base of the building, eyes glued to the pavement, brown paper bag at the ready.
Eventually, she found one. A black-and-white warbler, its bold stripes mottled with blood. It was dead. She gently lifted the bird off the sidewalk and slid it into the bag. With cupped palms, she made her way back to the barricade, a one-woman funeral procession.
In as long a time as she can remember, Amaya allowed herself to cry. Without a care if people saw, she sobbed, tears rushing down her cheeks like a deluge from a broken dam.
It was in this state that Satur found her. “I’m sorry,” he said, gesturing at the bag.
He’d changed his clothes. He wore a faded brown sweater and a striped button-down, dressier than anything she’d ever seen him in. “I had a . . . meeting,” he tried to explain. Amaya guessed at what he meant and didn’t press him.
“I’m sorry, this is embarrassing,” she replied, wiping her face dry. “I don’t know what’s come over me.”
“You’ve never seen one before, have you? Dead, I mean.”
She shook her head. “Once, a long time ago. It was a green hummingbird, with the shiniest red throat. I cried my eyes out.” She chuckled. “I was eight, so. Everything felt immense, and it was a difficult year for me. I was a loud, ugly crier too. My mom couldn’t stand it. It’s not like she didn’t let me cry; she just wanted me to be more . . . dignified about it.”
“Pain’s pain. No need to be all dignified.”
“That’s not how we were. We had to be strong. Resilient. That was her favorite word. And she is resilient. I’d like to think I am too. Life, though, and this city . . . it grinds you down sometimes.”
“We understand suffering if someone cries,” he replied. “Loneliness when someone sighs. But yeah, this city. It gets too loud and some people learn to be soft. Some become so soft, no one hears them anymore. But now you’re grown. Now you don’t have to cry how she wants you to.”
The two of them sat in silence. As Satur resumed his air-traffic control duties, Amaya reached into the bag and cradled the warbler in her hands.
“People think I’m crazy,” he said after a while. “But not you.”
“I used to hear them, I think,” she replied. “Right before I found the hummingbird, I heard it call out for someone named Lily. At first I thought it was my lolo’s ghost or something. That’s my mom’s dad. He had just died. But when I went to where the call came from, all I found was the bird.”
“Everything has a frequency,” he replied. “Animals . . . plants, too. Birds are the masters of the air, of sound, so of course they do too. Most people can’t hear it, but it seems you do, same as me.”
“I don’t know about that,” Amaya said. She ran her fingers over the warbler’s wing. “All this time I’ve spent with you, I haven’t heard a single bird. If I ever did have it, it’s gone now.”
“Well, it led you here, didn’t it?” Satur tapped the space next to him. “It’ll come back to you. Just wait.”
That night, Amaya began her catalog. She listed out all the birds she’d ever known, the ones she’d come across—living, injured, or dead. The birds that might have spoken to her, but she didn’t hear well enough. It was a catalog of possibility, a what-if list of conversations she could have had. A tally of missed opportunities.
The scaffolds went up around the tower in the last week of summer. Amaya had heard they were coming—the rumor was persistent at the New York’s avian society meetings. She’d begun attending them and, in between stories of rare sightings, a birder would often mention how their advocacy was getting attention from the powers that be. Change was coming. The old-timers kept dismissing it as another empty promise, the kind politicians and real estate developers liked to make. Yet Amaya held out hope. Along with a few others, she sent out flyers, wrote to her city council rep, spammed her friends with petition emails.
She’d told Satur about the rumor, once. For someone who devoted every waking moment to the birds by the tower, he seemed wholly uninterested in the plans to replace the tower’s windows. Like the old-timers, he’d heard it all, and he knew better.
“It’s really happening,” Amaya said to him in greeting, that day of the scaffolds. The steel lattice encased the first few floors of the building, and its windows were tarped up from the inside.
“It’s supposed to make a huge difference, this new glass coating, plus the ultraviolet patterning on the outside,” she replied.
“Don’t believe a word of it. This tower was supposedly built with no-glare glass up to the twentieth floor, but that’s horseshit. I know it’s horseshit because they”—the old man pointed to a row of pigeons perched on one of the beams—“they tell me it’s horseshit. First twenty floors, what a half-assed job. And birds fly much higher than that during migration. And with tailwinds? Forget about it. You should’ve seen last year—a goddamn massacre.”
Satur was never one to hold his tongue, but Amaya suspected that there was more to his reaction than frustration at half measures. The old man might be less concerned with failure than success.
“But what if it works?” she asked. She left unsaid, What will you do then?
“I’ve been here every day for five years,” he replied. “Doing this is the reason I get up in the morning. At night, when sleep forces me to leave this spot, the only thing that stops my heart from breaking is knowing I get to do this all over again the next day.”
“Because this is where you’re needed most,” she replied.
“No—because it’s how I pay them back.”
That day, Satur told her how he had discovered his gift.
It had happened three years ago, the day he turned sixty. The figure surprised Amaya; the grooves on the man’s face evinced more years than they actually did. He’d been living alone a long time, though he’d had a family, once. His wife had long since left him, and so had his children. “Pushed away, truth be told,” he said, sighing.
He’d forgotten when exactly the last of his kids moved out, or when he lost his job at the water-treatment plant, but they all happened around the same time, and for the same reason. He was a drunk.
His neighbors checked in on him once in a while. He’d gotten accustomed to the super barging into his apartment with Mrs. Yan from next door, who hadn’t heard a peep for three days and worried that he’d drowned in his own vomit. She was usually half-right.
“I thought about going back home. That’s what people do,” he continued. “The guys I used to drink with, they all went back home when things got rough. But I have no one back in Honduras. All I have is here. Section 8 housing and whatever money my daughter drops off when she has a little extra.”
It had been that way for years, living off charity begrudgingly and often belatedly bestowed by family or neighbors or the state, while he drank himself blind every day. “It’s not that they didn’t want to care. They did, in their way. But they couldn’t do more. They had their own shit to deal with. Life here makes it hard to care too much about too much.”
At some point his loneliness had made unbearable the thought of living another day. So on his sixtieth birthday, he bought a box of rat pellets from the corner bodega and dumped them into a handle of Gilbey’s London Dry. No tears ran down his face, but his hands shook violently as he raised the bottle to his lips.
“And that’s when I heard the thwack. Like a gunshot.”
Satur had set the bottle down and lifted the window that led to the fire escape. Right by the landing lay a gray bird, its breast as orange as the setting sun. He took the bird into his hands and laid it on his kitchen counter.
“I nudged its chest to move, tried to spoon water into its beak. I panicked. I begged for it to live. ‘Please don’t die, please,’ I said. And then he spoke back to me.”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Thank you.’” Satur’s eyes began to water. “He kept saying ‘Thank you’ until he stopped.”
Not a lot has changed since that day. Satur was still estranged from his family, still lived in the projects, with no job and no one to care for him. But he no longer drank, and now he had the birds.
“Yeah, it might work, these newfangled windows with their fancy patterns,” Satur said, finally. “But there are thousands of towers in New York. There always will be. And there will always be birds.”
Amaya packed two thermoses: one for coffee, another for lentil soup to last the night. Despite the weather (and the old man’s insistence that he didn’t need them), she also packed binoculars, a change of clothes, extra socks, and plastic bags.
Her subway ride was eerily quiet. It had been an unseasonably warm September and people would have been out in droves on a Sunday afternoon. Yet it seemed everyone had heeded the alerts ringing on their phones all day. Extreme Weather Advisory: Stay Indoors.
She arrived at their concrete block and as expected, Satur was underdressed. She took a hooded raincoat from her pack and insisted he wear it over his flimsy windbreaker.
“It’s not as bad as I thought,” the old man said as he distractedly slipped on the raincoat. He meant the precipitation. As freak hurricanes went, this one was dry so far. Drizzles, for the most part. Yet the winds blew violently, and the tower lights were still on. As if a storm wouldn’t be disorienting enough.
“The flocks are fine,” he continued. “Too busy to say more than a word here or there, but no strikes yet. They said they’re gonna try to beat it before the hurricane makes landfall.”
She knew it was still early, but Amaya allowed herself to feel relief. The new windows worked—Satur didn’t have to strain himself as much, and strikes were down significantly—but that night was going to be different. It was the peak of migration season, and birds were predicted to be in the hundreds of thousands. Red knots and thrashers and many more would be passing through, and though flocks ordinarily knew to wait out bad weather, a pit stop was difficult when they’d already left their breeding grounds and a storm shifted its pattern overnight.
As the skies darkened, more formations arrived, steadily growing in number. The winds whipped unabated, and the rain started to fall in earnest. The binoculars were no use. Amaya sat silently with Satur, whose fingers twitched in tune with his unspoken messages, worried that the birds wouldn’t hear him.
What’s the point? she had asked him, a while back. This city’s full of skyscrapers. You can’t save them all.
No one can, but we do what we can.
In that moment, that meant keeping the old man company, keeping him safe and fed and warm. It was the most Amaya could do, and it would have to be enough.
“Look—sparrows! It’s a big one,” he said, pointing. The host was visible even in the dark and the downpour, and the tower’s lights seemed to flicker as it passed.
Please make it, she said in silent prayer.
Amaya repeated the words, over and over. Please make it. Please make it, all of you. She recalled the hummingbird, the warbler, the other birds whose deaths she had witnessed since. She let herself mourn each of those small tragedies—tragedies that happened too often, that up until a few months ago she didn’t even know about—and they filled her with a fervent hope.
The host passed overhead, and suddenly birdsong filled the air. Yet it was of a different kind, not the trill and twitter of the sparrows that Amaya had grown familiar with. It was an anthem: part work song, part battle march, part hymn. Its harmony had notes both low and high, and the anthem’s cadence had a call and response. Most of all, it had words.
“I can hear them,” she said, nudging the old man. “I can hear them!”
“Well then, try to see if they can hear you.”
Ahoy, travelers! She felt the words in her throat and her lips, held the message fast in her mind. Tower ahead, please mind the lights and glass. Tower ahead, please be safe.
She gripped Satur’s arm in anticipation. Then, in a clear and wondrous euphony, the chorus replied.
Yes, we see it! Damn, I almost missed that. Oh, there’re two of them down there! Pah, the building’s kinda hard to miss. Who says ahoy anymore? You got it! Look, this isn’t my first time out. You think I’ve never been around these parts? Thanks for the heads-up! You’re a lifesaver.
Thank you for joining our journey this week.
Victor Manibo is a Filipino speculative fiction writer living in New York. A 2022 Lambda Literary Emerging Voices Fellow, he is the author of THE SLEEPLESS, a science fiction noir novel. His next book, ESCAPE VELOCITY, comes out Spring 2024 from Erewhon Books.
“An Incomplete Catalog of the Birds of New York,” © Victor Manibo, 2023.
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