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Fear from above

A morning with the peregrines.

The rain has passed and the curtain of clouds soared open, ushering in clear skies and the first frost of autumn. In the sharp light of the low sun the fog is lifting is waves of steam as the city wakes. Red and orange and yellow spotted trees speckle the cool gray city streets for their final days until they, too, succumb to the drabness of winter.

I’m downtown, within the towering confines of the tallest buildings, looking up. I catch the frantic flocks of pigeons lit alive by fear and wobbling maniacally. And then, a dash of a dipping peregrine that cuts across the sky into the shadows of a building. It is lean and long winged; likely a male from the size and skinny proportions. He passes between the shadows and emerges into the light, slashing through throngs of pigeons threading chaotic lines of fear. When I emerge from the darkness of the buildings, my eyes waver in the sudden brightness and I lose the peregrine in the sun. Like the anxious birds I whirl around to find that poetic flight of the peregrine, but he is gone to the sunlight. He mounted the wind like a great steed, and rode away.

The pigeons settle back to their roosts on the brick window sills, catching warmth. Gulls glide languidly with scraps from the streets. I cannot find the peregrine, but I know he is not near with the relaxed attitudes of his prey. Calm is restored and I wait in the sun with the birds; my eyes growing heavy.

Beneath the sun, the sky is a singular blue; deep and infinitesimal. It is so vast and empty that it begins to pull the light from my chest and my body begins to feel like horizons — hollow.

I’m pulling myself back from the blue when a peregrine flutters to the south against the skyline of arching freeway bridges and smoke stacks that reach in defiance to the heavens. He is flapping rapidly, like a kestrel, and as he nears I see he is held heavy by the limp form of a starling hanging in his talons. He had gone fast away from the mobs of pigeons that faltered his stealth and crashed into the oblivious starlings lingering by the bay. Now he looked even smaller with the weight of the dead bird, smaller against the cavernous sky. He flew directly toward the downtown skyline and vanished into its depths.

The peregrine is always betting on fear. He will not strike the pigeon pressed against a windowsill, he will not attack the shorebird huddled against water. No, he is betting that fear will push his prey into the sky. Fear draws the starling away from the safety of its murmuring flock when the hawk soars above. Fear wills the pigeon off the window ledge and into the exposed air. In a flock of healthy birds, fear will crush the weak-minded and pull them toward the grasp of death. When fear erupts, birds are cast into the domain of the sharp-winged killer.

Perched in the sun somewhere in this city, the peregrine is feeding on a building ledge. He is ripping the warm breast meat from a starling that drummed with life and fear just minutes earlier. Its coagulating blood is still spiked with adrenaline. And as the falcon feeds, the bloodied-brown feathers of the dead starling catch the wind and spin into the empty blue.