The sky is tender as a fitted leather glove lined with silk; firm but soft. Safe. The brightness of it, cap-like and rounded across the horizon, makes me feel tethered.
When the birds drop from the sky, I’m not sure where the fall begins, because I never see them in the cap of blue. The cap of blue today looks spotless, but the streets are lined with feathered carcasses. This is the kind of day that makes me feel more like a janitor than anything else.
My latex gloves are smeared with blood and yellowish fluid and stuck with feathers. I’ve already loaded five bags of the tiny bodies into my truck. By the time I’m done cleaning the street, I’ll only have enough time to test ten of the corpses. There is no way I can convince myself that ten would be a representative sample. Ten will be statistically insignificant.
I go home and do it anyway, submit my report a little after 8 p.m.
Analise wants to have a baby. A real baby. I tell her that if we had a baby together, it would be a real baby. It would be a real baby and it would have parts from both of us, and it would be a real person made from both of our genes, and that I want parts of myself in a child just as much as she wants parts of herself in a child. When I tell her these things, she turns on the faucet or runs the vacuum or opens the refrigerator door wide and sticks her head in like she’s looking for something so she can pretend not to hear me and I can pretend not to see how damp and salted her reddening cheeks are, and on days like these, when I tell her things like these, the bed sheets between us stay cool and dry and I remind myself of the virtue of silence and I bite my lip to draw blood so that in the morning, when I move my mouth, the pain will remind me not to say a thing.
The sun is a whitehaired girl, fever sleeping and swaddled in a blue blanket. The sun pretends not to notice that birds are shaking free from her blanket in alarming numbers, broken and useless. As the sungirl sleeps, she becomes hotter and hotter. One day we will die from her sickness. Our death will only be a symptom, not a final result.
Government work is not glamorous, but it’s stable and pays relatively well. I have a pension, and the pension is guaranteed. The work, it’s not going anywhere, no matter how much further the economy dives. Analise told me that when I say that phrase to her, that the economy is diving, she remembers photos she saw in a history class when she was a little girl, of a man named Jacques Cousteau and another named Émile Gagnan. Men in suits made for breathing beneath impossible circumstances, all rubber and harness and threatening tubes, explorers from a time when the sea was nothing but an expansive blue geometry of cold and mystique. Explorers from before we knew what we know now. She imagines them combing the bottom like man lobsters, like simian bottom-feeders, fingering pockets into the smoothsoft ocean floor, searching for coins.
The slush of bird skin and gore lining the streets in the morning: that’s my job security. I am only worried about what happens when we discover the cause of the mass avian deaths. The discovery of a cause is the true threat to my job. I tell myself that even if we do find the cause, another species will start dying, and my pension will be safe. Donkeys. Wasps. Rabbits.
And we are so far away. So far away from anything right now. It’s been three years now, and we don’t know if the problem is a short circuit in the battery of the caudal thoracic air sac or an organic de-evolution of the nidopallium. We can’t replace the birds as quickly as they’re disappearing, either. Birds are one of the most expensive animals to produce; even a dustbrown nothing of a finch costs more than pig or a horse. Especially with the Chinese economy also diving, and them pulling out of the bioelectrical species rehabilitation project.
My hair is clumped with sweat and sticking to my skin in spite of the low humidity in the air, the atmosphere dry as bleached bones. I slick my bangs back with my fingers, only to realize that I have not yet removed my gloves. I peel the latex off of my hands, a synthetic skin gummied with sweated powder, shed my clothing, step into the shower, and stand beneath the hot water, face up, rubbing the sticky blood from my forehead.
Analise’s preoccupation with our baby’s source began after she made new friends. A group of Naturalists who had been frequenting her restaurant for the last year or so. At first suspicious, Analise began to hover by their table as they talked, motivated more by boredom than anything else. What began as entertainment gave way to something else that took hold of her like religion on a child. I can’t say that I understand, no matter how many different ways she has tried to explain it to me, and if I do admit to myself that I understand, I am overcome with an overwhelming sadness that pitches me through the night like a dying gull.
“Because soon,” she says, “nothing in the world will be real.”
“But I’m real.” I try to hold her in my arms, and she shrugs away. “The birds; they’re real,” I say. “I hold the corpses in my hands every day. Life; all of it is real. It doesn’t matter what the specific components are or how the life is made.” I pause, searching. “Wires don’t unmake reality.” I know this is the wrong thing to say to her.
Even in the dark, I can see her eyes shining with tears. I can barely remember anymore what she looks like when she’s not crying.
The kitten is black, with one blue eye and one yellow eye. She says the imperfection of its face is what makes her love it. I ask her what makes her love me and she ignores my voice completely.
Geraldo, the Naturalist she talks about the most, gave her the cat. I am too worried to ask her how he got it. I am worried that we will be discovered and I will lose my job and we will be arrested. I am worried that she is moving farther and farther away from me in both her mind and her body. The second worry is greater than the first worry, so I don’t mention what being charged with a felony for harboring an unlicensed naturally bred species will do to our family. I know I cannot say my worry out loud because she will contest whether two people constitutes a family, and that argument would be more than I could bear.
After she brings home the kitten, she allows me to make love to her for the first time in months. I am overcome with gratefulness and need, even as I realize that this moment is tinged with something terrible; the same terrible thing that has overshadowed every moment of our togetherness for longer than I can remember. That thing that moves her to tears at any moment of the day has taken hold even in this moment, and as I run my tongue inside the groove between her legs, I can feel her body trembling, choking back sobs.
I give up and hold her against me. She pushes her face between my breasts and covers my skin with sticky tears. I know she is thinking about what is beneath my flesh, and cataloging the difference between us.
I curl up on the couch and cuddle the kitten against my cheek and it purrs loudly. I keep the animal there, a warm radiant of blood-heat and quivering muscle, and I whisper in its ear, to show Analise what a nurturing person I am, to remind her that I want desperately to be a parent. I can see her body tense with jealousy that the kitten does not reserve its affection exclusively for her and I wonder what can happen to a person to change them so absolutely.
“Analise,” I say, “It would not even be possible.” The kitten climbs onto my shoulder and chews on my hair. “Between us, the way you want a baby, would not be possible, even if the internal differences did not exist. You know that.” The kitten begins making hacking noises and I reach back to remove my hair from its teeth and its tongue. While I am engaged in this calming endeavor, studying the miniature teeth of its mouth carefully, unwinding the threads of thin brown protein, I finally ask what I have been asking with every unspoken word for over a year. “Do you want to have a baby with me or not?”
Seconds later, Analise is next to me on the couch, sobbing so loudly that the kitten runs, frightened, to hide behind the refrigerator. Analise is clutching at my arms and my legs and my breasts, words pouring out of her that I eventually recognize as repetitions, that I eventually am able to pair with meanings. “I want to raise the baby with you,” she is saying, “not Geraldo. I want to raise the baby with you,” and this is when I realize that it is not a theoretical baby she is speaking of; that she is speaking of a baby that is alive, a pod-like cluster of flesh that is blossoming in her abdomen; that she has gone out and created a new life form the way she wanted it, free of wires or hardware or synthetics or any of the miracles that will keep the planet running until a temperature change too fierce or a bomb too large makes scientific advancements inconsequential.
I feel my heart convulsing against my chest like a test rabbit in a cage, panicked and sick and wild, and I know that this is the same way Analise feels her insides and emotions, regardless of whether they are tinged with circuitry or not. She and I are exactly the same, except that she only has compassion for kittens and criminals.
I rise from the couch and coax the kitten out from behind the refrigerator; no small feat with Analise wailing on the sofa as if someone has died. I stand with the kitten clutched to my hip, manage to keep it there even while it squirms in a mixture of confusion and defiance. “We’ve had this kitten for a month and you’ve never even named it,” I say. “You’ll make a terrible mother.”
I am so filled with hurt that I don’t know what I believe about anything. And the issue of naming is, admittedly, a less serious offense than her selfish disregard for potential disease or immune deficiencies the kitten, to say nothing of the baby, may pose to the delicate circuitry of my nervous system, or to our ability to live within the confines of the law.
Even beneath this enormous emotional strain and shock, I am able to make it to my van without losing the kitten. I place it in one of the government issued canvas bags I use for my collections and draw the string at the top. I look away from its squirming and when I hear its mewls, I envision Geraldo and his body and his hands against and on top of and inside of my wife, and this quickens my hurt further and muffles every other sensation.
I pull to the curb down the street from the police station. A bird thuds against the windshield and sticks, and I trigger the wiper. The band of rubber grinds the bloody clump of feathers to the hood of my car. A smear of gore streaks the glass. The kitten screams.
“Evidence,” I scream back at it. “You are evidence,” I scream. “They will slice you open and your insides will be damning enough to issue a warrant to search Geraldo’s house.”
I pick the canvas sack up and press the heat of the kitten against my face for a long time, then pull away from the curb and drive back home. When I arrive, Analise is gone. I fall asleep beneath the evidence, its delicate, antiquated body rumbling like a dying motor.