The Secret of the Birds
Richard Cater was seven years old when he ran as fast as he could down the parched grassy hill on his uncle’s farm, trying to set the record for human flight. The decorated cardboard wings he’d cut from a discarded Frigidaire box in the barn proved insufficient, and when the force of gravity overtook his small legs’ ability to keep up, he tumbled rudely, leaving a scar shaped like the letter “S” that half-circumnavigated his left kneecap. In later years, when he was tense, he would absentmindedly run his finger over the scar, tracing its curve like a symbol on a cryptic map whose meaning he could not yet decipher.
He would also, once he was old enough to know the word, trace the source of his acrophobia to the incident. From a very young age, Richard had prided himself on being the kind of person who figured things out for himself, and having demonstrated to his own satisfaction that flight was impossible, the idea was set in his mind. The existence of a flourishing aviation industry aside, he couldn’t help but think that air travel was some sort of consensual delusion; drinking heavily whenever he boarded a plane was the only way he could go along with the ruse.
He discovered girls the same way, in fifth grade, when Betsy Kramer kissed him on a dare from Tammy Evans. She was a year older and a good hands-breadth taller than Richard and had to bend down a bit, catching him unawares near the end of fourth period recess. He’d been leaning, flat-backed, against the wall of Classroom 7 working out which animals you’d have to cross with which others to make a fire-breathing dragon and didn’t notice her until she was inches from his face, descending for the final approach.
It was a sloppy kiss by any standard, the sort you might expect when neither party has ever kissed before. Especially when only one of the two even has any idea that a kiss is being attempted. And Betsy had long retreated, giggling and squealing across the tetherball court, back to the gaggle of sixth grade girls at the lunch table before Richard was even able to assemble the evidence and conclude that he’d been kissed.
“Mom?” He waited until they were alone that night, after his sister had excused herself from the dinner table to hide in her room.
“Why do people kiss each other?”
His mother didn’t try to guess at the day’s events. Richard was a curious enough child that she knew he’d educated himself about human reproduction from the age-appropriate materials they’d left lying about the house. Sex, surely, was not a mystery to the boy. But love, some kinds of love, perhaps were.
“Mostly to show affection. To show that they care about someone.”
There was a full five seconds of silence. “What if they don’t know each other very well?”
“It’s best not to kiss someone unless you know them well.” She thought a moment. “No matter what happens in the movies.”
She knew it wasn’t really an answer and braced for the next question. So she was surprised when Richard gave his familiar nod, jutting his chin while looking downward to show that he understood, was satisfied, and considered the matter closed. Women, he decided, especially older women, were attracted to him.
Richard’s confidence in this conclusion was self-fulfilling: he did not so much “ask” Suzanne Potter to the Junior Prom five years later as inform her that he would like her to be his date. That she said yes surprised her more than it did him, but she found herself defending the decision to her friends, saying he was “worldly and mature,” despite being only a sophomore.
The date itself was as much a disaster as any high school prom. Suzanne had somehow assumed that Richard would pick her up in some elegant convertible fetched from the Bat Cave beneath his mansion; being chauffeured by his mother in the family Oldsmobile was the first of many such shocks. After an awkward dinner in which he mostly lectured on the half-life of atomic isotopes, they found themselves drifting awkwardly between corners of the school gym, occasionally shouting over music that was (mercifully) loud enough to preclude any serious attempts at meaningful conversation.
She fled to the company of her classmates at the first opportunity, scribbling a note to the effect that she was not feeling well and had arranged a ride home. Richard was not particularly put out by her disappearance. He had already come to the conclusion that dates and dances — high school or otherwise — were nowhere near worth the time and money involved.
By his 32nd year, Richard had established a long list of things that were not worth the time or money involved. And he’d found that his power for rapid discernment of these things had brought him swiftly and comfortably up the corporate ladder at Lambert and Fraiser.
The market for financial advisors put a premium on decision-making that was fast, consistent and unapologetic. Richard quickly realized that his clients did not so much care for quantitative proof that their money was multiplying faster at L&F than it would at Morgan Stanley or Vanguard. What they wanted was handholding and glossy PowerPoint assurances that they were in the hands of the best in the business. Which, as far as Richard was concerned, they were.
Along his way up the ladder he’d acquired — or been acquired by — a wife, two indifferent children and a brownstone on West 76th Street. He was an arguably good catch: stable, predictable, and not likely to roam. And his hobbies, such as they were, tended toward the benign: chamber music at Lincoln Center and birdwatching in Central Park.
If a client should happen to go on too long about his hopes and needs, or drift into a story that had no obvious actionable consequence, an attentive observer might notice that while Richard’s sympathetic eyes remained focused on the speaker, the pinched fingers of his right hand would be swaying in precise, minute orbit of a baton conducting the Brandenburg Concerto #3.
Music soothed him, he said: it distilled the tangle of human emotions down to concrete, repeatable expressions. For any sentiment Richard could name — and as many more he was sure he couldn’t — a dozen decent composers had snatched the stuff out of thin air, pinned it to the examining table like a bug collector and extracted its essence. The formula was there, copied down in a series of precise circles and dashes: black ink on a white page. Settled.
The birds were another matter. While he enjoyed recording the first Bicknell’s Thrush of the season or spotting the so-called “Common” Redpoll, he was at a rare loss to explain his fascination. At first Sylvia assumed it was yet another thing to categorize and master. She purchased for him, at ridiculous expense, a first edition of Darwin for the glass-fronted oak bookcase he’d decided was appropriate for a man of his stature. But after he’d read it cover to cover (it hadn’t occurred to her that people actually read books like that), he stood it upright in the bookcase beside his Audubon Ruby-Throated Hummingbird print, closed the glass front and returned to his favorite park bench.
Because the thing was, it wasn’t the speciation that intrigued him. Not the fleck of tail-feather green that differentiated a Magnolia warbler from its Canadian cousin, nor the nesting or migration patterns of the Bohemian waxwing. In fact, Richard had no idea what it was about the birds that intrigued him, and this lack of comprehension maddened him. He watched sparrows flit about the stone arches on 77th the way one might stare at a hopeless expanse of the Sunday crossword, furrowing his brow as if to will the answer to blossom, fully-formed before his eyes. Even the squalid, rogue gulls that harried Columbus Circle seemed to be a part of the mystery, and on summer evenings he was known to disembark the A Train there to observe them as he walked the rest of the way home.
He’d learned that walking was essential. If he sat in one place, finger absently tracing the scar on his knee as he watched, an hour might go by unnoticed and he’d wake, as if from the snap of a hypnotist’s fingers, only when the nesting vireo that caught his attention had taken flight and vanished entirely from view.
“It just means that you have extraordinary powers of concentration.” That’s what Sylvia told him when he came home after dark one night, having been waylaid by a pair of herons stalking the western edge of the Ramble.
But the fascination, and its inexplicability, bothered him in a way nothing else did; his dreams were often filled with images of birds in flight, weaving an ephemeral tapestry, and he took to discreetly Googling “bird obsession meaning” and related terms from his desk on the 89th floor of 2WTC.
Richard was on a call with a prospective client, a widower from Paramus, when the first plane hit the north tower. His first impression from the windowless conference room was that a subway train had just passed, inexplicably, through the building somewhere down the hallway. He thought momentarily of the thunderstorms that billowed out of the summer sky on his uncle’s farm and found himself far away, remembering the sweet, wet scent of the late afternoon and the feeling of electricity in the air just before it rained.
But no — the sky had been cool and clear when he’d left home an hour earlier, and the cloying pseudo-news announcer on the elevator screen had been gushing about what a glorious fall day was in store for the city on his way up.
An earthquake, then? He recalled the pictures on the TV, Turkey he thought: rows of apartment buildings, lopsided and squashed, like so many birthday cakes dropped side-by-side on the floor. Thousands, tens of thousands, dead in an instant. Memories of the late-night newscast, voices screaming, wailing in the background.
But now the voices were real — someone really was yelling. Jesus Christ, he felt dizzy. And there were more voices, a rising chorus of urgent disbelief in the hallways outside as the fire alarm went off. He remembered the sound of glass breaking nearby, looked behind himself and saw where the elegant L&F monogrammed whiskey service had been knocked from its caddy and now lay shattered on the rug. Turkish, he noted, and some part of him was worried that this was more than coincidence. But it wasn’t his imagination: the building was swaying, and something extraordinary had clearly just happened.
“Mr. Salzedo — I’m afraid I’m going to have to call you back.”
Botticelli? No — Bosch. Professor Dugas couldn’t ever understand how he confused the two. But here there were flames. Or flame — a single, howling, shrieking wall of flame and heat where reception had been. Looking directly at it was out of the question — it was an incinerator, consuming the building from the inside out. Metal blistered and swayed, then surrendered to the inferno. The wind and noise was extraordinary, pulling him in, pulling everything in like a tornado of fire.
There had been a small playground near his house when he was young, with a climbing structure that, when he remembered it in later days, evoked some desperate attempt by the sculptor to drag Escher’s more esoteric imaginings into the realm of tangible steel and plastic. When forced to “play” on a Sunday afternoon, Richard would plot climbing trajectories across the structure, attempting to traverse it in novel ways, tracing, for example, the path a rope might take to form a secure knot around its apex.
Those memories came to him now as he crawled, hand over foot between the gaping crevasses, away from that awful fire. What was left of the 89th floor buckled up and down in ragged, shattered waves of concrete, steel and pipe, the flames below sucked inwards toward the conflagration at the building’s core. There ought to be a plan, he thought, once he got away from the fire. But in the billowing, choking black smoke, anything beyond the next crest of debris seemed an imponderable luxury.
There was an arm from the elbow down, nothing more, resting on a skewed fragment of drywall, red fingernails glinting in the reflected flames. It looked almost as if it had been placed there for safekeeping, and it momentarily occurred to Richard to bring it with him, in case he should find its owner.
But there was light ahead, daylight through the swirl of smoke, and the inferno at his own torn and bleeding heels. Yes, something was wrong with his knee — he should tend to that at some point — and the fire was gaining on him. He could still deal with the pain with some sense of detachment, noting that the Kenneth Cole blazer had been a fortuitous choice for the morning. Wool, he recalled, was known for its flame retardant properties. His trousers, on the other hand were some cotton/polyester blend — would they melt or catch fire? He deliberated the challenges posed by either alternative before discarding the line of inquiry as fruitless.
The sound was terrific, unfathomable, and he discovered that he could only pay attention to one of his senses at a time. Here, now was a slab of white marble, tinted in pulsing orange — there must be a name for that color. It was strangely cool to the touch and up-ended though shattered, dripping concrete at an angle that reminded him of the Titanic, slipping beneath the waves. No, he dismissed the comparison — it wasn’t like that, but finding a better image would have to wait; there were more pressing things to attend to. There was the fire, the awful, screeching fire, and ahead, closer now, amid the swirling black and throbbing red pain, the promise of an idle pale blue.
It was increasingly difficult to make progress. A sort of vibration had set in, as if the whole tower were part of an enormous pipe organ, playing toward some grand crescendo. He’d never liked pipe organs. But the Tocatta came to him now as a sort of comfort, its descending tones somehow guiding the small, methodical advances that kept the heat at his back as glass and concrete rained, seemingly noiselessly, around him.
And then there was daylight and he was free.
He didn’t remember jumping, wasn’t entirely sure he had. But as the whistling, cool morning air came to him, rose to a sweet thundering embrace, he knew it didn’t matter. It was then, as he spread his wings against the rushing wind, that he understood the secret of the birds. He understood with a calmness and clarity the simple truth they had been trying to teach him, understood that his whole life had been a preparation for this one short, beautiful flight.