First, I could hear chirping, but I couldn’t locate the source. I noticed a disorder in small things and a general rustling above me. I thought mice, I have had problems with mice before: making warrens in my collections, but I have engineered solutions for mice. Then the feathers and shit. Once a lone downy feather fell like the first sign of snow. Then a discarded chickling, but no sight of the birds themselves. I made a stepladder out of my boxes and books and sprayed the nests—there were only a few of them—with ammonia. A solution engineered. But these nests were only the first growths from an already impressive root. Soon they were hazarding my nights, scraping between the walls. It was then that I began to have problems with the wiring: lights would flicker, the radio would come in and out of life, and the garbage disposal would choke midway through its meal. Once, I was rewarded with the smell of burning feathers—there is a bit of sulfur to it and a savory aftertaste. Then the nests appeared in several places all at once. I crushed them, then ran them through the disposal. That morning, I found a pecking of them sprinkled on the kitchen floor, they had jabbed a hole through the belly of a bag of Oreos. I scattered rice. (I remember Kate wouldn’t let us throw rice because the little birdies peck at it, and it grows in their bellies, distends them.) And sure enough, I was rewarded for the next few days with a few rounded pests, but they learn, they’re cunning. Like mold the nests grew, each morning impressively.
They collect in the corners and behind the boxes, beneath the furniture, and in the walls; they use their beaks to scrape holes just large enough to struggle through. They disorder the pantry. At night, the little pests pull the horsehair from an old sofa and tangle it with bits of soap, threads from a rug, etc. and make catacombs. I set traps for them—mouse traps with peanut butter for bait—and I have managed to catch a few, but the parliament of pests grows. In the mornings I hunch over my cereal bowl and try to ignore their pecking. A pair of them will tease me, snap at me, and swoop till I swat them away. And as soon as I do, another dives down to get a bit of Captain Crunch in his beak. It is a game with them, there is plenty else to eat and more easily got, but they enjoy their little tortures, they have a sense of humor.
A flutter crowded in the eves and along the molding, in their cavernous nests tucked into the walls, in their warrens strewn through my boxes. Once, in a desk drawer, I found half a dozen hatchlings nesting in a collage made of my birth certificate, utility bills, and the Francs that Kate and I brought back from our trip. I took the nest to the center of the living room, felt the host of beady eyes mark my progress, cleared a space, and crushed the orphans with the heel of my shoe. By dinner they had removed every sign of the murder but the pink smear of their children.
This is a game of patience. I pour bleach and hydrogen peroxide into a five-gallon plastic bucket, stuff a wet towel into the crack of the door, seal up their mouse holes with spackling paste and chunks of nests that I rip from the wall. I press my ear to the door to hear them thud on the tile. They retaliate: that morning I find a long tear of lace, like a white scar, woven through the nests in my bedroom.
I have along the hallway every telephone book used in Boston, MA (from a few collected pages, worn through on the crease in 1878, to the grey 1959, to the tooth-aching yellow of the 80s). I have them stacked by decade so that you can see the city bloat. I used to play any number of games with them. I used to find a number from ’78 and try to find who it belonged to in ’09. I delighted in crawling through the pages, picking at stray misspellings (I found 50 in the 1930 Waterbury, Connecticut). I did not notice at first—the collection regrettably pressed behind my collection of Wizard of Oz paraphernalia (I have Toto’s collar)—but they have made pulp and weave out of my books. The ’57, the year she was born. The ’75, her first listing. The ’79, the ad for our shop. All now a nest for squawkers, a loomery for chicks.
When Charles comes I tell him to just leave the bags at the door, but he says he has to bring them in. I open the door as far as the chain will allow, he crinkles his nose. Crinkles his whole face like old paper. Wrinkles, creases. Only for a moment. He tries to look past me into the room—a flock of chirping behind me has him confused.
—Leave them at the door.
—I can’t do that, Mr. Mayhew.
I don’t need his paper towels anyways, only be nests in the morning. He knocks for a while, but in the end he leaves a bag with some Campbell’s soup and some frozen vegetables. When I go to fetch them, two birds escape, and I chase them down the hall, then run back and shut the apartment door before any more get out.
I pull apart one fantastically long arm that has extended, pseudopod like, along the dining room ceiling. I yank it from the wall with a rake. I lay it on the table and dissect it so as to know the extent of my infection. Along the sinews of newspaper, hair, feathers, and dental floss, I find ribbons of my photo books. The pale face of my brother with peck marks, like some aggressive disease had overtaken him overnight. Yes, pictures of Kate and me. A photo of my grandmother holding a little .22 rifle. A crumpled but still intact picture of the whole family, a quarrel of peeps, taken at my grandfather’s ranch. Some wire, bits of my dress shirts (where did they even find that box?), some, as of yet, unidentified grey fluff. This will do fine. As I cut and disentangle, I feel a slyness of eyes on me.
They do not bother to stay further than an arm’s length, they know I am old. I fling at them only to topple a box of paperbacks and spend the next half-hour repacking. They chirp and hop and barely deem to flutter when I swing a ladle at them or try to get one with an old atlas. When I bathe, they dip their beaks in the water, and if I manage to drown one there is an ache, a handful, a dozen to replace it. Yesterday, I opened a cabinet to a push of some twenty, I fell over and lay there while they squabbled, the beating of their wings like the beating of a fire.
I scatter rice over my leftovers with the hope of choking a few more of the bastards, but they’ve gotten wise to my ways. No matter. Today, I shave and put on what’s left of her perfume. I take a hammer and a screwdriver and go through the rooms making hundreds of holes—I want the walls to breathe. They chirp and bicker. I make a few holes large enough for my fist, and I pull chunks of my memories and hair and boxes from the wall.
A plague of sparrows follows me from room to room. I turn on the CD player—only one speaker still has its wire—and even that one has terrific rips in its face. I let it howl. If it hisses, that is lost in their confusion. In the end, it takes only one match.