On the morning that Chet Alpine publishes his list “Six Surprising Birds That Will Fuck You Up,” the editors of TrendWire email us about an impending financial crisis. “As you know,” the note reads, “ad revenue has declined, and YouTube has again altered their monetization policy. This imperils ‘TrendWire LiveWire’ programming and, by extension, our journalism. The likelihood of revenue shortages may compel the editors and investors to reconsider their longstanding opposition to staff reduction and may culminate in the termination of positions.”
We gather at the double-decker Bunn coffee machine in the breakroom. We pull out our iPads and pull up the pie charts, graphs, and access numbers on our individual dashboards. We whisper and all of us suspect we’ll be cut. Apologies: we mean “reduced.” “Terminated.” Robin, a woman only months out of the journalism program at Columbia, tugs at her bracelets. The charms clink. Each is a robin: the grey feathers cast in silver, the red set in rose gold. A little on the nose, but none of us would call her on it.
“A hell of a week was being had by the passive voice,” Robin says.
The breakroom feels like a wake without bagels. We take a quick poll and unanimously agree: these are the contingencies for which expense accounts were invented.
Our usual roost is Ground Level, the coffee kiosk on the first floor of the BellCo Tower. The line snakes between pylons, down the elevator corridor, to the glass concierge desk. We cut the line. Usually, Tanya staffs the till: we know her name only because we guessed it, because unlike the men we noticed and called her out on her rotating nametags. One day, Isabel. Reyna the next. Then Denise. Clarita. But never her real name.
On the kiosk counter, a mourning dove hops on the register’s keys. Its talons click with each press. It wears a green smock, embroidered with the spilling carafe logo of Ground Level. A bronze streak over its eye resembles the barrette that clipped back Tanya’s bangs.
We staff the kiosk with the mourning dove until the line dwindles. We leave the bird perched on the stale rim of a multigrain bagel. Our only takeaway: skinny triple venti no-foam lattes are hell to make and should’ve earned us résumé lines and one of those digital badges that TrendWire likes to dole out. Even if badges are cop shit, they make us feel like we’ve earned something, for a change.
But we should’ve reported the incident at Ground Level, instead of just recording the mourning dove in its polo shirt, pecking at a bagel. We should’ve scooped it, before becoming the scoop.
We gaggle at the LCD monitors mounted to the lobby walls in the BellCo Tower. Exactly like extras in a boilerplate scene, because crisis is a screenwriter who lacks imagination. Behind us but in frame is Tanya the mourning dove, at Ground Level; she and three other doves perch on the pastry case and preen themselves.
On screen, the local news anchor squares the blue pages of her script.
“The black-billed magpie’s native range includes the Rocky Mountain region, the Dakotas, and much of western Canada. They’re strangers to the eastern seaboard, and yet locals are flocking to our tip-line with reported sightings. The video you’re about to see comes to us from Deborah in the Heights.”
The news samples Deborah’s cellphone footage. Grainy, silty: a quality usually reserved for old Super-8 cartridges of sasquatches and Scottish plesiosaurs. Rain slashes the footage with pixelated comet trails. An iron fence holds thickets of roses at bay. A silver-black fog gathers at the rail.
The camera zooms, focuses. The fog shivers. The shapes right themselves. Eleven magpies sidle along the iron railing. One grips a finial with its talon and stares directly into the camera. Its beak clacks: conspiratorial, confiding.
Eleven is worse, or so the nursery rhyme about magpies says. I call the editors from the lobby, pitch the story. Denied: we don’t need birds. Chet has a new list about to go live: baseball players who have lost fistfights to the Philly Phanatic. It’s sponsored content: guaranteed a few million clicks.
Days pass. Site users begin to email their own magpie pictures to us. Candy from Omaha has given birth to a baby boy, but he disappears from the NICU; in her teal hospital gown, Candy takes a selfie of herself by the window. On the ledge outside there are four magpie fledglings, their wings dewy as if with egg wash, their heads capped in blue-knit bonnets.
Tammy from Santa Monica writes that she sent her husband—a furloughed construction worker—to sell their Buick and her jewelry. Her picture is watermarked with the logo of the highway patrol, who called her to the scene on an overpass bridge. Their Buick, with six magpies fighting in the cab. Gold flecks their beaks.
There are others. Too many others. Children missing. Produce trucks and refrigerated big rigs abandoned on the highway. Subway trains that arrive at their stations with no engineers but a crew of magpies in orange vests and blue transit caps. Our member of Congress delivers a live-streamed press conference from the safety of his home study and its mahogany panels.
Meanwhile, we’ve lost Robin. She’s not answering her phone, her emails. Her twitter is still going, but it’s all emojis and none of know what to make of things like 👩🏻💻 🍔 🍺 ✨ 🦜 ⁉️.
In the work Slack, most of us agree to work with partners but keep it from the editors. They don’t know what to do with us, how to help us. We present a dossier to the full-team listserv and Chet replies-all with a comic list of magpies—a sequel to his birds. We threaten to quit en masse if they run it.
Only then do the editors dispatch us to Deborah’s Tudor house in the Heights. The sidewalks are flush, level, the oatmeal-pale of fresh concrete. The magpies buffet their wings. My partner and I ring the bell. The door creaks open; a magpie peers around, cants its head toward us. The white of its chest gleams silver; the black of its feathers and beak look obsidian-hot. Like we’ll get burned if we touch it.
The magpie hops from the porch and wings to the fence, where it joins the eleven others—a curse of magpies, hexing us from the rail.
After six weeks, our video of Tanya at Ground Level finally receives recognition as the first documented case. We get three minutes at the end of Stephanie Ruhle’s morning show on MSNBC. She jabs her pen at the camera and asks why our work at TrendWire gets buried under an avalanche of—and here, she literally checks her notes—lists of birds, rocks, and store-brand sodas. Those are all Chet Alpine, the targeted ads on those lists our primary revenue stream.
A white pin by the collar of Stephanie’s blouse reads, in tall red letters, Love. Robin’s successor, Devon, says, “We love you, too, Steph!” Devon fist-bumps the air; her jade necklace sways.
We watch her clip. Replay it. Tweet it. Watch the infinite loop of it in our tweets. Re-tweet each other. A dozen of us sign a card with a kitschy image—the words “Filled with Thanks” sealed in a mason jar—and we post it to 30 Rock.
The editors send out an email: “Our fiduciary situation has been improved temporarily by a surge of ad revenue from Chet Alpine’s recent list, ‘Twenty-four Pairs of Puma Shoes as Actual Pumas.’ Consider signal-boosting the list through your social media channels.”
Meanwhile, our week consists of these assignments: a dog show, where the trainers vanished but the hounds chased after suited mallards; a presser by the UN Secretary General, who outlined containment measures that had worked in South Korea; a walking tour of independent coffee shops, though the editors removed all references to the roosts now owned and operated by songbirds.
At the end of it all, we meet at Joyce’s Fiddle, where every drink tastes like wood polish, but who can argue with two dollar draughts?
Devon’s partner arrives last. She sets a jade necklace on the bar. “I was looking right at her. Right. At her.”
“What did she become?”
Devon’s partner slams her old fashioned like it’s Tylenol. “Blue jay,” she says.
There are worse birds. We buy all her drinks but worry she’s marked. Porters, old fashioneds, and shots, each dark as the wood of the bar. For what good it does, we watch the Stephanie Ruhle clip again.
That’s about when the bartender drops to his knees, his forehead crashing into a row of pint glasses.
The ambulance arrives quickly; a few squad cars, minutes after. The blue-smocked finches can only tug at the buttons of the man’s shirt. So, we assemble a stretcher: the Irish and American flags rolled around their poles, which we slotted in the sleeves of our blazers and cardigans.
In the back of the ambulance, the finches prise miniature paddles in their talons, press them against the bartender’s chest.
A swell of finches deploys from the open windows of the squad cars. Six of them perch on the bartender’s shoulders, his throat. And they peck, pulse up and down like derricks, and when they turn their coal-dark eyes on us, blood oils their beaks.
TrendWire refuses to run the story. The police department releases a statement that the bartender had a record and was a “known agitator.” We research him: donated ten bucks a month to Bernie, volunteered at a Catholic soup kitchen, sent most of his money to his mother in Tulsa, who had stage-four breast cancer. We turn our research—and our videos—over to a friend at the Washington Post and pray all that Bezos money can do some good with the evidence.
Afterwards we begin carrying folding fans, bamboo webbed with elaborately printed mulberry paper—ivy trellises, Monet’s water lilies, cherry branches, stone lions. We can only promise ourselves this: we’ll try not to glance when a finch hovers near us, but if it’s wearing a black cap badged with a rhinestone-small shimmer, we’ll flick open our fans and swing.
We agree to meet Sister Mary Katherine in the sanctuary of Saint Sebastien’s. She sits in the back pew, her hands clasped and her head tilted down. She sings to herself: the lyrics, about a deer slaking its thirst. The river, a covenant between God and man. Incense singes the air.
We join her in the pew. Sister Mary Katherine crosses herself and stares at the crucified Christ, mounted over the tabernacle. A thatch-work of brambles wreathes his head, tufts of blood-matted hair peaking over it, nuthatch timid. In her hands, a clutch of rosary beads gleams. Staring ahead at the crucifix, she says that she saw the report about us on MSNBC and thought she’d try us, first.
Some of the novices have reported cardinals flocked on the ledges outside their windows. She shows us pictures on her phone. The vermillion males and the dun females, their serrated crests pompadour slick. “Gertie—one of our novices—she last heard from her family two weeks ago. Her parents, her six younger siblings. No calls or emails. And yesterday, she saw these cardinals pecking at her window. They kept swooping off and returning with some of Gertie’s favorites. Blackberries. Bits of chocolate. Look.”
A photo, with eight cardinals. A male and female, with six chicks plush with their pollen-bright infant feathers. Arrayed at their talons are segments of blackberries, pebble-sized chunks of chocolate, and twigs.
This time, we know to roll the cameras on our smartphones.
Sister Mary Katherine taps at the door of Gertie’s cell, calls her name. There’s a metallic click, like a thumbnail chinking against a keyring. A warning, to fend off predators. “Gertie?” Sister Mary Katherine whispers. She leans her ear to the door.
The door gives, its century-old hinges churling for want of oil. Nine cardinals trampoline on the mattress of Gertie’s cot. Sister Mary Katherine genuflects and eyes the hopping birds: “Hoping cardinals,” she mis-states, or maybe we mis-hear, “hoping cardinals.”
A hope of cardinals: we cannot correct her. In their midst is another adult female, smocked in a novice’s habit. Her head and neck are dun, her crest edged with a red dark as clots. The abbey bells peal. Together the cardinals sing the hour’s dolorous liturgy, slurring the chromatic scale: cheer, cheer, cherry, cheer.
Robin and Devon from the newsroom. Marcie in accounting. Teddy in IT. Desi who coded the website and wore her braid pinned in a crown and once, for Halloween, dressed as a redwood dryad. She had looped her braid into a nest, threaded it with twigs and dried rose stems, thorns tipped with silver; in the brambles on her head, Etsy-fuzzball starlings fledged from plaster eggs.
“Difficult people,” Vince, the HR manager, says. He sips his coffee and shakes his head. The fine cracks in the tile floor are patterned like twine, wired into a bowl. “They’d have been gone soon. I can guarantee that.”
Later, after we stoke ourselves enough to march on Vince’s office, we find his desk cluttered with CVS advertisements, paperwork for a divorce settlement, and a ball of twine. The window is open. On the sill are a palmful of brown-black feathers.
The chatter in our Slack decides it: anyone still without a partner gets one, effectively immediately.
But someone narcs and the editors shoot off a warning. “Staff are expected to complete solo assignments as normal. Individuals who deplete TrendWire resources by overstaffing assignments may be faced with hour reductions or position termination.”
But we disobey and squad up for the Congressman’s presser on the bird situation. We’re surprised to find the stairs of the public library spare, the single podium between the faux Corinthian columns looking soapbox-small without a crowd to lend it significance. An aide in a navy suit introduces himself as Brent Masterson; he grabs us each by the shoulder and clusters us in the metal, folding chairs arranged before the steps. “It’s for the optics,” he says. A few of us register a quick mental note: this effort to engineer a crowd, now that’s a lede.
Thankfully, our photographers have their own cadres, stationed across the street, under the awning of the Dignified Bovine. We know they’re alternating between bites of gelato and incriminating shots.
We ask about our old sources in the Congressman’s office. Cordelia. Bill. Eunice? “The Congressman didn’t need them,” Brent says. “They were against him. I made him see that. Hey, squeeze together. We need to get some great shots from the dais.”
Does he not realize that we’re all carrying recording devices? Or is this how he wants to remake the Congressman’s brand, by courting every controversy he can?
The Congressman delivers a bland speech, a milk chocolate of political bloviating. He promises task forces, studies. He blames open borders, the jet stream, an invisible pathogen. We know that he’ll later release a correction. Clearly, the statement will say, he intended the “good health of America stuffed between the moldy slices of Canada and Mexico” as a joke.
After a few days the Congressman calls us to his home office. When we enter, we see him bracing himself against the edge of his desk, his back to us. The mahogany paneled walls radiate a whiff of lemon. The curtains shroud out the light. There are few decorations: a framed compass, a folded flag in a display case. The room is dim, hollow, as a woodpecker’s bolthole.
“I want to release a new statement,” the Congressman says. He steps aside. On his desk, there’s a leatherbound volume—its spine reads Constitution of the United States: Analysis and Interpretation. A hole has been gored into the cover, the edges slashed with little talon marks. The pages have been bored and shredded out. Inside sits the male cowbird, its russet brown head preening about. Its navy-blue suit looks too snug. At its claws are several blue-tinted eggs, the shells hatched with fractures and crusted with the yellowy residue of spilled yolks.
We need to mobilize but don’t know how. That’s when we think of the Silver Meteor—a diner run by Rooster McAvoy and his mother Mattie, a retired teacher and activist. Back in the 1970s, she steamrolled the millionaires on the city council until they funded libraries and bookmobiles in the low-income neighborhoods. She pushed for daycare programs, minimum wage, unseated a white man with a million-dollar campaign war chest for a state assembly seat. In the 1980s, she organized a protest that landed her on the nightly news for a week: her, leading a wall of protestors, who threw strawberry milkshakes at the mayor for his plan to “kneecap underperforming schools.”
Everyone knew what that was a euphemism for.
And we know what our circumstances mean, too.
Chet Alpine hasn’t posted a list for nearly two weeks. The editors haven’t left their offices. The air drones, constantly—the Xerox machines, the fluorescent lights, the electrical lines, the phone cords harboring their deliberations. We retreat from the lounge and the double-decker Bunn because a Lord of the Flies situation is manifesting: talk of a mutiny, of overthrowing the editors, greeted with raucous cheers. It’s the guys who usually latch tenacious as ticks to Chet’s shirttails and let their egos get bloated from gorging on his charisma.
Meanwhile, we receive another update. “We are aware that many of you, like us, are concerned for Chet, and we assure you he is in good health. The editors and investors wish to make clear that there is no cause to panic. Routine steps will ensure that TrendWire continues publication, even in these difficult times.”
A hell of a year was being had by the passive voice, as Robin might’ve said.
Or maybe she’s still singing it, and we just can’t understand it. Just last night there was activity on her Twitter, all emojis again: 🎊🍸🦜🥚🦜🍸🎊. Maybe she’s one of the robins perching on the handlebars of the baby blue Schwinn chained to the railing outside the Silver Meteor Diner. But we don’t see her charms, dangling by her talons.
When we push open the door, a bell tinkles and we talk about the cats of our childhood—escapees who hunkered like gargoyles on the branches outside our windows. Their eyes owl-bronze in the night, the breeze jingling the bells and tin tags on their collars. Feathers teeming from their mouths, their fangs opal as the moon.
We sit at the diner’s bar. The pleather stools suction to the backs of our legs, the undersides of our knees. Rooster’s back is to us; he scrapes at the flattop with a spatula. It sounds of summer, of grill grates, of sandpaper smoothing the splinters from picnic tables. As Rooster works, we eye the pies in the display case. Without their labels they would all appear the same: elaborate crowns of whipped cream or meringue, peaked into stiff crests.
Without turning around, Rooster says, “I can dish out the regulars for you, real quick. But y’all need to help me with something first.”
We agree: of course. He nods, unknots his apron, lays it on the cash register. He disappears into the back, returns with a shoebox. He’s punched a constellation of airholes into its lid. The box emits a hoarse too-too-too. Rooster pulls off the lid.
A diorama of a sitting room, with an owl at home. Around its broad neck, a honey-pink strand of pearls. Its body is a foliage blur of green cardigan and brown plumage; its eyes, button-black. The owl is palm-sized, furzed as an artisanal skein of wool. By its talons are a cup of fine-tipped sharpies, a stack of 3×5 cards. No Justice, No Peace. The saw-whet owl pecks at her cardigan sleeves. She twitches her neck and the strand of pearls shimmies. She kicks at a stack of clipboards, each small and squat as a thumbnail
“What do I do?” Rooster asks. He strokes the owl’s head with his broad thumb. Already the flesh of his arms is stippled, the hairs sprouting there barbed. He doesn’t yet know that he’s fletching, that the loose flesh of his throat will soon wrinkle into a waddle.
BellCo Property Management has cut the power to TrendWire’s suite even before the terminal email crosses the transom. There’s neither ad revenue nor Chet Alpine and we have twelve hours to clear our personal belongings from the BellCo Tower. Collapsed cubicles, toppled potted shrubs, massive touchscreens ripped from their moorings on the walls—we navigate these corporate catacombs of what was TrendWire by the flashlights built into our iPhones. A few of us step into abandoned buckets, trash cans: we can’t tell and don’t care to look, all we know is that the contents are shin-deep and slimy. Soap-skinned water or mold. Or both.
The vents clatter: it sounds like marbles tumbling down a chute. We breathe through folded tissues to avoid tasting the frigid air—salty and resinous, like the breeze at the docks.
We take our computers, our iPads, every hard drive and loose cord we can find. Some of us will write books, the contents of which already incubate in those drives.
The editors have ransacked the outer rim of offices, except Chet’s. As we near the door, the rattle from the vents loudens, and the expelled air sours with a saltwater reek. With a sledge hammer improvised from a push-broom handle, duct tape, and a few copies of the Chicago Manual of Style, we demo the door. Brittle particle board. It crunches, pops.
When we crack our knuckles afterwards, we identify the sound: vertebrae, cartilage, flesh.
The shattered door takes some jockeying, but we get through, into Chet’s lair. Scattered around are papers, foam trays blackened with mold, New York Yankees bobbleheads, photographs with Chet’s young Carson Daly mug scratched out in black gel pen.
And then we see the bulk of the grey bird, sitting in Chet’s ivy-green chair. It’s taller than several of us.
Whoever called it a shoebill stork missed out on a hell of an advertising campaign. Murder pelican might do. A murder pelican could inspire an entire generation of podcasts.
We say his name. Chet. The shoebill’s spade-broad beak dips down and clamps around a trout. It emits a rat-a-tat-tat and then swallows the fish whole. Our foreign correspondent—our former foreign correspondent—dry heaves and says it sounds like the first clip of a semiautomatic during a clear dawn.
Chet, we say, again. The shoebill clambers from the chair and mounts the desk.
Then it kicks from the debris on the desk a hand—a human fist, shriveled and the flesh desiccated—clutching a cobalt blue lanyard with Chet’s faded press credentials.
Patrick Thomas Henry is the fiction and poetry editor at Modern Language Studies. His work has recently appeared in LandLocked, Lake Effect, Clarion, Passages North, and Best Microfiction 2020, amongst others. He teaches creative writing at the University of North Dakota. Find him online at patrickthomashenry.com, or on Twitter @Patrick_T_Henry.