1. Origins and distributions
We hear birds at night. I imagine they are cardinals but Lou argues for sparrows. We know for sure they aren’t supposed to be here. But then again, neither are we.
2. Dispersal and migration
Lou and I called our home the Bridge House because we thought it would be merely that: a temporary bridge between our old life and new beginnings. I guess it became what we used to call “settling down.”
Mainly, the Bridge House was just too comfortable to leave. There was a basement full of wine and plenty of warm beds in various rooms. Lou and I used to come up with theories on why the original owners left. Sometimes the stories were short, like maybe one of the kids got sick and the whole family had to be quarantined. Others were long, narrative tales, starting from the day each person was born and ending with tragedy: a shoot out in the backyard or a long trek to safety, abandoning the Bridge House in search of a better life.
Lou and I slept in the master bedroom on the top floor. We were cautious at first, sleeping in shifts. The last house we found, a looter hiding in the bathroom attacked us the second we went to bed. He managed to get on top of Lou, pale hands wrapping around his throat. It took me a few seconds of disoriented panic to get to my feet and grab the knife I kept hidden in my coat. My fumbling fingers slipped and I cut myself, scarlet spilling onto the floor. One moment I was standing above the two of them, and the next moment, the knife was buried in the looter’s spine, his slumped body sleeping in a red pool. His eyes stared at us, glassy.
I dreamt of his eyes for a month afterwards and often woke up in a cold sweat. The dreams only stopped when Lou and I finally left and found the Bridge House.
3. Flight cycles
I find it funny sometimes, thinking about how terrified I used to be of haunted houses on hills when I was younger. When I was a kid, my only experience with abandoned old houses on hills were driven by the late night slasher flicks my older brother used to watch in the living room. I wasn’t allowed to watch them but it was fine if I had to use the kitchen to get a glass of water. Screams erupting and knives sharpening, I couldn’t help but slow down as I walked by, the condensation from the cold glass dampening my hands. I pretended to be disinterested but my eyes roamed hungrily over the screen, craving the fear swelling in my chest when I saw the dark and shadowy haunted house or heard the encroaching horror music.
Shivering in my yellow Spongebob pajamas, I’d sit at the top of the stairs, pressing my face through the wooden bars and absorbing all I could. My brother, drunk on cheap beer or some girl he brought home, never noticed I was there. Sometimes his neck would turn, as if hearing something, and I’d bolt up the stairs, light as a bird taking flight. When I got to my room, I’d lie awake for hours, as bones snapped and naked bodies shrieked, the blood-spatters coating the back of my eyelids.
Lou asked if I thought those moments contributed to the self harm later on. Rubbing the scars running along and up my legs like miniature ladders, I shook my head. Of course not.
4. Avoiding predation and other losses
The birds were the first to be consumed by the Rovers. Birds, once an ancient, dinosaur power ruling over the Earth, were easily taken.
They were the first to warn us about the Rovers. Birds of all kinds, robins to geese, ducks to cranes, would screech and soar away when the Rovers came close, despite the non-threat we thought they posed. Some birds even tried attacking them. It was hard not to stare when a Rover landed at a nearby clinic and the sleek black metal was marred with long, deliberate scratches all along the surface. They resembled a war vehicle rather than an oversized ambulance.
While the company claimed it was a mechanical failure, most people knew that at some point, a pilot got fed up with the damage caused by birds against his Rover that he programmed the machine to take the birds whenever they sensed their movement. From there, other pilots started doing it, until nearly every Rovers’ wings were coated with the blood of their consumed birds. It wasn’t long before the Rovers malfunctioned, became volatile. They started taking anything that moved.
5. Brief encapsulation
My mother once took me to the doctor as a baby because I wouldn’t cry: even back then I feared showing weakness. I imagined my chubby-cheek, baby self staring blankly at my mother and the doctor, hoping they’d take me home soon so I could watch TV.
I was allowed to watch TV from a very young age and abused it well until my teen years. While horror movies like the ones my brother watched were off limits, my mom seemed to think anything on public cable was fine.
I watched the screen until my eyes ached. Fictional life looked so much better to me than real life. My mom tried to make me read more books but I grew bored after a few pages. Books were quiet, and the quiet gave me too much time alone with my thoughts. For a gay kid growing up in the 90’s, television had power. Television was loud. It was alive. The screen literally crackled like fire. And as the screaming matches between my parents increased, all I had to do was turn up the television volume.
6. Patterns of behavior
A few weeks after we first moved in, I began to dream of birdsong.
Since clocks don’t work anymore, time has become a matter of estimation. I guessed it was just past midnight when I woke up, raven calls echoing in my head. Lou’s back warm against my cheek, I raised my head and stared into the darkness. The house was silent. I curled and cracked my tingling fingers, raising my arms above my head to stretch out my shoulders.
Half-delirious, I started wandering the house’s halls, imagining I could still hear the birdsong from my dreams. Cobwebs reached out and touched me as I passed through the hallways, their silky tendrils whispering secrets of the house.
As I made my way downstairs, the calls grew quieter, likely from my slowly waking self. The staircase creaked with each footstep, an aching spine.
When my eyes finally adjusted, I stared at the empty house. The old, dusty furniture. The dark walls with pictures of unknown people, their smiles frozen in time. The building slept, undisturbed, holding me in its weary embrace. I walked back to the bedroom and settled down next to Lou. As I fell back asleep, the birdsong continued, weaving their music into the atmosphere of my mind.
7. Protective behaviors
Sometimes we still heard the Rovers hovering across the skies. Their deep, metallic hum could be heard from miles away until they flew directly above, deafening in their groans. Lou and I froze whenever we heard them approach, closed our eyes so they couldn’t sense the blinking.
If they found something living, their vortex would sweep the struggling being up into its doors and carry it to the Hive. Only, I doubt the panels on the Rovers open anymore. Rusted over with age, the vortex would drag you into the sky and slam you against the ship, dropping you back down again. Then, no longer sensing a living thing, the Rover would move on.
Lou hated them. I pretended they were lonely, only looking for living things to keep them company, but unable to open their doors to welcome them inside. Surely we, as humans, could understand that.
I was beginning to get tired of potatoes, fish, and strawberries. We were ecstatic at first, when we realized that the Bridge House had a hidden storage basement filled with canned goods, bottles of old wine, and seeds. Unfortunately, the only viable seeds happened to be potatoes and strawberries. Strawberry plants grew wild and erratic, the vines crawling all over the yard like drunken snakes. Luckily, a few miles away, a small lake provided ample fishing grounds, so we weren’t only stuck with roots and fruits. My first attempts with a makeshift fishing rod brought the tiniest of perches. But as I got better, I managed small trouts and even a few larger bass.
Neither of us had experience planting anything but I once spent several weeks hooked on gardening TV shows, so I usually handled the garden while Lou cooked whatever I managed to grow. He invented new potato recipes that would astound french fry lovers before the world ended, and strawberry shakes or pies that would send us both into sugar highs.
9. Synchrony of emergence
It only took about a month for Lou to find the piano. Some of the bedrooms on the second floor were locked but Lou, bored one day, finally broke into one. Covered in a white sheet in the middle of the room, surrounded by walls of books, it waited for him.
I was in the garden planting more potato plants when I heard it: the opening notes of Bohemian Rhapsody. It was one of Lou’s proudest moments, learning the chords. I made my way up the stairs, dirt still clinging to my fingernails, and watched him play. If I didn’t know him, I would’ve thought he was one of the house’s ghosts. His eyes were closed, his hair tied back with a blue ribbon, one of the ones we found in the master bathroom. The sun coming in from the window illuminated his skin a golden brown, and for a moment I wanted to go mad with love. Then he started singing.
Too late, my time has come.
I sat down next to him and kissed his cheek.
Goodbye everybody, I’ve got to go.
In my teeth, I felt strawberry seeds.
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth.
I thought of my parents, my older brother.
Mama, I don’t wanna die.
One night I told Lou if I was alone out here, I’d kill myself.
Sometimes I wish I’d never been born at all.
Lou stopped playing. He held his face in his hands, his whole body shuddering. Unlike me, Lou had a big family. Growing up, his siblings were his best friends, his parents and grandparents annoying but loving. I still dreamt of their big suburban house on Nightingale Lane. I used to pretend I lived there too.
I wrapped my arms around him, his sobs rocking my rib cage. After a long while, I told him we had to finish the song, or at least get to Galileo. He nodded and we continued. As usual.
10. Living in a seasonal environment
I remember a song Lou used to play on the piano. It was called Ladder Song, and I knew he was in a bad place whenever he would play it.
When he was sixteen, he tried to kill himself, his friend leaving him when the weed ran out. He downed pills and played this sad ass song for hours on end. He imagined himself climbing a wooden ladder up to heaven, each pill a single rung. By 5 AM, the bottle was nearly empty, and the rungs in front of his eyes had turned to melting candle sticks, dripping off under his fingers with every movement.
“What made you stop?” I used to ask, whenever he told the story. He liked to tell it to me sometimes, as a reminder. He paused, his fingers tracing the scars running over my arms. The ones I made when I decided life was taking too long. Climbing the ladder of my skin.
“When I got to the top,” he said, “a yellow bird landed on the last rung. She told me to wake up.”
11. Mating habits
One night, drunk off a bottle of wine older than either of us, I asked Lou to marry me. The next day, we had a ceremony outside by the lake and with the ghosts of the birds as our witnesses, we consummated the marriage in the grass.
12. Juvenile pairing
My first love was a girl named Fauna. Sometimes, to make her mad, I’d ask where her twin sister, Flora, was, and she’d spend the next ten minutes chasing me around the library stacks.
In my old town, there wasn’t much to do. If you didn’t have money, there was even less to do. Mostly, we spent our time hanging out in free places like the library, or wasted gas by driving around neighborhood roads late into the evening.
Fauna loved driving with me. She would tell stories as I drove, pretending we were explorers sailing along a wide ocean. It always amazed me how she could detail the history of the universe while staring out at broken sidewalks and pothole-ridden streets.
I was 16 when I told her I loved her. We were sitting on the roof of my car, illegally idling in some shabby parking lot, listening to the cicadas hum and watching the stars above. For a while, she didn’t say anything. Then she took my arm and, with an ink-filled pen, carved a heart into the soft skin below my palm.
“There,” she said, “now you’re mine forever.”
A few years later, she was killed by a Rover. I read about her death in the obituaries section of a Sunday paper. Papers at this point were almost entirely obituaries. That day, I took a knife from my kitchen cabinet, and even though I hadn’t had a relapse in years, I carved a heart into my palm.
13. Orientation and navigation
In college, Lou used to wear sweaters that swallowed him. At some point, I thought one day as he walked into class wearing a bright pink striped sweater halfway down his thighs, he has to run out of those goddamn sweaters. But each day, he came in wearing a new monstrosity, or an old favorite. The pink stripes was a particular love, as was his navy blue Jurassic Park piece or the bright red Hollister-brand crewneck, each one several sizes too large.
Each week, his nails were painted in vivid colors, the edges chipped and uneven as if his fingers had trembled putting it on. He bit at his cuticles as the professor lectured, and I was so equally disgusted and fascinated that I didn’t say anything to him for the entire first semester.
A year later, we ended up in another class together. This time I didn’t wait. The second he started biting at the thin skin, the sleeves of his orange crewneck drifting down his wrist, I leaned over and said, “You wanna, like, not do that?”
He turned slightly, looked at me and scowled.
“You wanna, like, not stare at me?” he replied, then turned back around without a second glance. I reeled back, and we didn’t speak for another year.
In our third class together, I started buying and wearing very large pants, as equally oversized at his sweaters. Despite the heat outside (the Virginia weather hitting record highs every year at this point), I sweated through the class, defiant.
He didn’t notice at first, sitting down in his usual spot and chewing the skin around his periwinkle-painted fingernails. Then, finally, while huddled under a desk for a Rover-warning, he noticed the balloon-like quality of my green camo pants.
“Are you stealing my look?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I merely adapted it. Do you wanna hang out after class?”
As the hum of the Rovers faded into the distance, he considered my offer. He looked at my ridiculous pants again and smiled.
14. Population monitoring
When the disease first started, we thought it was a fluke. A lot of hysteria about air pollution and contaminated meat. People started losing their senses one by one, from their taste to their hearing. It persisted until they were unable to even move or feel the touch of a loved one. The Rovers were developed for “house visits,” so they could fly directly to the place of contamination and bring the sick human (deceased or otherwise) to a secure facility.
Everyone lost a different sense at first, which is why we thought each one was a separate disease. The internet blew up with What sense would you want to lose first? quizzes and memes like When your girl says she loves your blond hair but you’ve always been a brunette.
Lou used to say he would lose his sense of smell.
“So I don’t have to smell your dank ass all the time,” he said, pinching my sides.
“Oh, yeah? Well, I was going to say taste because who needs it, but now I’ll say sight so I don’t have to look at your stupid face,” I retorted.
Lou moved close, his lips on my neck. “If you lost taste, how would you be able to remember how this feels?” He tilted my head back and pressed his mouth to mine.
Population monitoring (cont’d)
We knew Lou was sick when he started losing his eyesight. The disease moved slowly for him, with blurriness and loss of color. He started tripping going up the stairs, and would run into door frames. I hid my panic by telling him he was just clumsy. Then one day, I was picking weeds from the garden and told Lou to take out “that red plant,” and he grabbed a green one.
16. Displays of affection
We forgot how to sleep. I strained my eyes to stare at him as long as possible while he could still see me. We spent nights talking, making love, and building outfits from the house’s many closets, choosing the brightest colors and making the hallways our runways. Lou always chose the oversized dresses and shirts, dragging the fabric along the ground behind him like a wedding train. I flourished in long, flowing tops and the highest of heels, and he pronounced my beauty to be that of a god.
Compliments were never a big thing between us but as his vision faded, Lou never ceased to compliment every aspect of me. He weaved his fingers into my hair, Gorgeous, traced my cheekbones, Stunning, held my hips, Angel.
When he could no longer see, he refused to stop. Now he said things like The sound of your voice is gospel. Or Your smell makes me go crazy. Or I would do anything for you. I devoured his words, not knowing how much longer I’d be able to hear them.
17. Habitat loss and other debilitating factors
Lou died in January. His eyes were open when I woke up next to him in the morning. For a while I couldn’t move. I only stared into the now muted brown of his eyes and pretended we were in one of the many staring competitions we had before he lost his sight; first one to blink loses. I played it with him all morning, and lost every time.
18. Unnatural behaviors
A week after I buried Lou, I heard a Rover approaching in the distance. My heart leapt in my chest. Lou would have killed me but Lou wasn’t there anymore. I ran outside, waving my hands around and dancing a demented dance, moving as much as possible. The Rover hovered right above the Bridge House, its unearthly song blaring in my ears.
I screamed at it to take me. I screamed at it to rip me from the ground and break my neck against its locked gateway. I screamed at it to fucking consume me.
It didn’t. After waiting a few seconds, the Rover flew away, its deafening hum gradually fading until there was only the silence of the Bridge house.
Hours later, I finally walked back inside. I swept into the basement and took all the wine bottles we had been saving for special occasions. I brought them upstairs, lined them up on the piano in the library. Then I took them by the necks and smashed every last one.
19. Coping with small and isolated populations
The birds are my only company. I’ve given up trying to find them in the house, knowing they are only the ghosts of a past world.
20. Interactions with other animals
After several months of living alone at the Bridge House, I was visited by a lone dog, a scrawny little thing that marched into my kitchen and started rummaging around in the pantry for scraps. At first I couldn’t believe there was another creature alive besides myself that I just stared at her. She was small and deformed in the mouth, born long after the carnivorous canines died out. Her fur was matted and brown, caked with dirt. Her eyes were liquid ink.
Finally, after she tried to run away with a whole bag of potatoes hanging from her jaw, I snapped out of it. I chased after her but she was gone. She came back after a few days, hungry again, and this time I was ready. I had food and water waiting, a makeshift bed set up in the living room, and I sat next to the door, ready to close it the second her tail passed the threshold.
It took a few hours for her to calm down but when she realized I had a nearly endless stock of food available, she decided it would be worth her while to stay. I named her Sparrow.
21. Survival and conservation
I saw a bird today. An actual bird. I was outside with Sparrow, planting potatoes for the new season. She started barking, the sound so shocking to me that I stumbled and fell into the dirt, the wetness of the soil sinking into my skin. I looked up and noticed a dot in the sky, a roving object with clearly defined wings that shifted as it dipped and flew over the trees.
I couldn’t help it. I burst out laughing. Sparrow, confused at this new noise escaping from my throat, barked at me, which only made me laugh more. I laughed until my stomach hurt and I could no longer feel the dirt underneath me. Giggling, I collapsed into the potato plants and stared up at the bird, trying to make out the details as it hovered above me. It was a dark red, I thought. Or maybe blue.
Eli V. (they/them/theirs) is a queer poet and writer from the Washington D.C. area. Eli recently graduated from George Mason University with a BA in English with concentrations in Cultural Studies and Creative Writing. They are the recipient of the 2020 Joseph A. Lohman III Award in Poetry from GMU and the Academy of American Poets. Their work appears in Pussy Magic’s Pride 2020: Bi Babes Edition.
featured photo: detail of artwork by Céline Chevrefils (instagram: @cattywampus.creates)