I pull to a stop behind a railroad tie near the main office of Avian Sutter. A middle-aged woman crouching by a pile of logs stands to face me. She wears a reddish plaid button-up, unbuttoned, with a faded black Sturgis T-shirt underneath. Twin french braids of dark-brown hair drop behind her shoulders. She stares as I sit in the car, so I get out. The ground feels like rubber. I take careful steps towards her and hold out my hand.
“Hi. I’m the new—volunteer?”
“Yes, of course. Hi! I’m Stella.”
She wipes her hands on her jeans. Brown skid marks trail the tips of her fingers. Her nails are dirty. She squeezes my hand too hard. A clutter of silver bracelets, each with a piece of turquoise bigger than the next, crowd her wrists.
“Trying to feed my wolf spider,” she says. “She’ll usually come out if I toss her a locust.” Stella points to a milky web that funnels between a pair of logs into a dark crevice. A grasshopper struggles on its horizon. There is no spider.
Stella raises her shoulders and flattens her smile. “I guess she’s full. Let’s head on over to the office. There’s a bit of paperwork.” She nods toward my gold Toyota Corolla. “I assume you’re at least sixteen?”
“Yes,” I say.
Inside the office, a table made from the stump of a giant tree is bare except for a multiple-choice test and the stub of a number two pencil. Stella sets me down to fill in small ovals numbered one to five. Five means very comfortable; one very uncomfortable. The ovals pair with phrases: “Build a birdhouse.” “Plant a garden.” “Catch and clean a fish.” I fill in fives across the board.
As I wait for my results, I think about the pink Post-it note my sister left on the center of my steering wheel: I let Zoe out. Let her back in before you go. Hope you’re OK! I picture Zoe—a mound of black with a bright red collar. She sits outside and looks through the sliding glass door. A blast of snot-spit oozes down the pane. I don’t remember if I let her in.
Stella calls out to someone named Sharon, who comes up from behind me carrying the taxidermy head of a two-point buck. Stella holds the paperwork up to her face. Sharon leans into it and raises her brow. She never puts the deer’s head down.
“All good,” she says.
She tips the buck-head toward me like a platter of snacks. “Hit and run. A lot of that around here.”
Sharon disappears down a corridor with a line of windows on either side. I can see a large wooden barn; its red paint has worn into a patchy, dirty maroon.
“Let’s head on over to the quail house. To be honest, the last volunteer didn’t last long as a quail-hand.” I bob my head yes. “Don’t worry. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll be sure to find you something else.”
I follow Stella into a room with an old-style meat-locker door. There’s a small window at eye level. I can’t see anything through its smokey glaze. She equips me with a blue plastic tub with a tight-fitting lid. Close to the top on one side is a pinky-sized hole. “You’re going to need to grab that net there. Bucket too.”
Stella grabs the steel handle of the massive door and pulls it open. Shrapnel of tweets and chirps pelt my ears. Some unbearable pungent smell—piss, ammonia, death—burns my eyes and nose. I can’t make out what I see. A fuzzy wave that looks like a pile of exotic animal furs flutters in the breeze along the bottom of a vast chicken-wire cage. But there isn’t a breeze. It’s a shitload of little quail.
“First, scoop up any dead ones you can get at. They peck the shit out of each other.” Stella shoos at a dirty pink blob mashed into the wire mesh. “Put the bodies in the bucket. Then scoop up twenty-five good ones and put them in the tub. Make sure that lid’s on tight when you’re done.”
She lifts a cover on the edge of the enclosure, underneath, a little gutter speckled with eggs. “The eggs roll down here where the little bastards can’t get at them. They’ll peck the shit out of the eggs too, given half the chance.” Stella looks at me, and I nod. “I’ll get them this time, but in the future, you check.”
She fishes a few eggs out of the gutter and puts them into a little purple easter egg basket; plastic sprigs of green grass curl over its rim. She disappears with the basket behind the meat-locker door.
A scatter of motionless and fleshy slabs litter the base of the wire cage. I scrape at one with the rim of the net, but I only further smush and smudge what’s left; little bits of bird plop to the ground from my effort. I give up and scout for the more recently dead. The pecking order is extreme: little goblins gape with holes that ooze pus as the feathered press and peck into them in immense waves—a nauseous foam of pink and brown—feather against flesh. By the time I finish with the net, I’ve got twenty or so squashed and naked—a bucket full of bird mush. Twenty-five, still alive, bump and beep in panic inside the blue plastic tub.
In the adjoining room, a tall yellow gas canister, almost as tall as me, sits next to a stainless steel table. Next to the table is a deep sink like in art class. I plop the tub on the table and drop the bucket to the floor. Stella looks up from some paperwork. I look down to her white Reebok high-tops, Velcro straps instead of laces, and a trinity of freshly gutted rabbits that lay in a bin next to her feet. Stella pistols her hand—shoots at the yellow canister.
“Carbon dioxide. Stick that orange tube in that hole there, and turn that valve up on top. Count to thirty. That’ll do it.”
I feel like I’m on a boat, the room, the whole quail-house, the entire world’s a boat.
I count—the tub beats and vibrates with little bird bodies like twenty-five quail-sized hearts. Under the beat, softer sounds, like they’re trying to fly. The sounds drop off in rapid succession—a strip of silent firecrackers—the line between life and death, stark, punctuated, done.
“How old are they?”
“Quail sexually mature very quickly. In three or four weeks, they’re raining eggs. Then it’s this.”
Stella doesn’t wait. She sets two pairs of sewing scissors on the table and flips the top off the blue tub. I mimic her actions. She grabs a bird; I grab a bird. It’s still warm. She takes a pair of sewing scissors. So do I. We cut off their heads, wings, legs. We make vertical incisions down the center of their headless torsos. Warm blood, warmer than their bodies, pours over my fingers into the sink. Stella turns on the faucet to wash down the pool of sludge. We pour vitamin powder onto their entrails.
* * *
The moment I step into his pen, the Andean Condor wants me dead. He flaps a red mohawk of flesh atop his head as he strains and hisses. He’s tied to his talon with rope to the wall.
“Go ahead. He’s all bark!” Stella gestures to the back of the pen. “Shimmy into that corner and toss him three quail. He’s a big boy, isn’t he? Andies are one of the few birds of prey where the males are larger.”
I edge into the pen just beyond his reach and toss three quail at his feet. He clenches the dead baby birds in his unroped claw and retreats to the opposite corner—done with me.
“We got him as a gift from Hurricane Andrew. Miami Zoo was pretty messed up. We’re one of the few places in the country with the expertise to take care of a bird like him. Beautiful, isn’t he?”
The condor tears and gobbles at a feathery mix of dirt, blood, dust, bird.
“He’ll live out the rest of his life here. Out on the plains. From the jungle to the beach, to the plains! What do you think of that?”
I don’t say anything. Stella doesn’t press. We move on.
In the next pen, three cartoonish grey vultures bob and bounce on a human-sized cat tree. “Cape Griffons—a gift from the hurricane as well. Give them two quail apiece.”
I drop the quail. The Griffons pay me no mind. They shift about on their perches and puff up their chests. They eye the carcasses and wait for me to leave.
“Nowhere near as aggressive as our Andy. Let’s get on over to the hawks and eagles.”
I follow Stella through a dark hallway into a room of smaller enclosures. Each unit contains a solitary bird. There are little doors, like laundry hampers, to drop the quail into their pens.
“This is our gallery of hawks. Red-tailed, black kite, sharp-shin, and my favorite little guy, our American Kestrel. Give them a quail a piece.” I make my quail deposits. Stella stands before the last pen with her hands on her hips, looking proud. I open the kestrel’s hamper and peer inside. I see this charming bird, portly with solid patches of grey and orangish-brown on its wings. He scratches his neck. I slide the quail through the hamper. The bird keeps scratching—oblivious of me.
“Did you know that bald eagles mate for life? Let me introduce you to our resident elderly couple.”
Stella takes me to a set of pens that have actual jail bars instead of quail hampers. A pair of old and sad-looking bald eagles look out a wire-mesh window. “Give them three quail a piece.”
I drop the six bodies through the bars. One of the eagles screws its head around—points its beak at the baby-bird-bodies—spits out a hoarse hiss. The other remains still. Its gaze locked somewhere beyond the gridded window.
In the last jail-bar pen, a solitary golden eagle stretches; its wingtips touch the walls.
“He’s almost thirty years old. We think. They don’t live that long in the wild. Give him three as well.”
The blue plastic tub has become lighter. Three quail left. “None of those birds is ever going anywhere,” Stella says.
We emerge from the enclosures into a clearing encircled by massive old trees that I think are cottonwoods. Their leaves twinkle like stars in the breeze.
“But this next bird’s the reason I love this job. Rehabilitation.” Stella stops. “You can put that tub down. Give me the rest of the quail.”
She pulls her Sturgis T-shirt out in front of her belly like a basket. I lay the bird bodies inside one by one. Stella speaks in a raspy whisper: “She’s our current queen of the roost. Females are twenty-five percent larger than the males, and she’s above average.” she edges towards the eagle—indicates to me to stay put. “Look at her!”
She flanks to the left side of this big-ass American Bald eagle tied by talon to a long nylon rope attached to a post. The eagle stands in profile with one eye on each of us.
“This regal lady we’re nursing back to health. Back to independence. Once we fatten her up a bit more—it’s back to the wild.” Stella wraps the quail bodies in her T-shirt and presses them against her belly. She takes deliberate, quiet steps. “Wingtip injury. Farmer found her snagged up in a knot of rusty razor wire.” The eagle shows no distress. She’s alert, calculating, and pissed off.
“It’s important she doesn’t know we’re feeding her,” Stella says, “important she doesn’t develop dependency. It may sound quirky, but I need you to jump up and down. Wave your hands around. Make some noise, distract her while I drop the quail.”
I start in on a series of jumping jack-like movements and begin to whistle. I say:
My vision slows. Leaves on trees take on alien animal forms in the soft sway of the breeze. They surround me. Every branch reaches toward me; they sharpen, become distinct, and gain outlines, a sea of shadows that threatens to surge over and around everything. Stella dump-tosses quail from her shirt. The eagle jerks. She looks at the lifeless quail behind her then, back at me. I’m still jumping. She doubts everything, doesn’t touch the quail. Things speed back up: shadows recede and disappear behind trees as the animal forms dissolve back into scintillating leaves. The eagle stares straight through me into the forest. I wonder if any of this helps as my feet hit the ground.
* * *
Stella walks me to my car.
“I know it’s strange, but you did a great job today. I think this is important work. And it isn’t easy. Restoring balance. Maybe next week I’ll show you what we do with the rabbits.”
“Thanks,” I say.
I get into my car. I do want to know what’s up with the rabbits. I picture even bigger birds that await me.
I wave to Stella in the rearview mirror as I head down the spiral drive from Avian Sutter. She thumps the center of her chest with both hands then raises them to the sky. As I fold into the curve, she heads back towards the woodpile, her wolf spider.
The way down gets to me. At the bottom of the hill, I open the door and puke. I spit a blob of dense white on top of a green mound of vomit. It reminds me of the foam that would form on the weeds in the field behind my old house. In her soft, throaty, southern accent, my grandma told me: “That’s spittlebugs.” I feel so much better.
Gravity Hill is close by. A white mailbox stands on the side of the road by an abandoned house at the spot where you start. I turn around at the mailbox and point my car the way I came. The stretch ahead does look a bit like a hill. It doesn’t seem to go down. Children obliterated by a train—they were trying to push a stalled school bus off the tracks—their ghosts will push me. I turn off the ignition and put the car in neutral.
It doesn’t take long. The car edges forward, creeps uphill, gains speed. Everything I see tells me “up.” Everything I feel says “down.” I laugh.
A new landscape opens. The road continues across the tracks; gentle hills of yellow and green fold into the horizon beyond. The car slows, threatens to stop just at Gravity Hill’s peak. Instead, a spooky boost nudges my car over the top, and I roll down the ghostless side of the hill. I cross the tracks and crawl to a stop at the intersection on the other side.
I sit at a railroad crossing sign. Teenage quail circle about my mind. All these kid-quail, keeping a whole group of grown birds alive. I start my car and stomp the accelerator. The back-end of my car fishtails as a cloud of country road explodes in its wake. A glint of light catches my eye on the passenger-side floorboard. I cock towards it; it’s the half-liter Coke bottle of rum that I was drinking last night. I lean down to grab it. As I get hold of the bottle, I feel/hear a terrible thud and slam on the brakes.
I look at the bottle first and then at the road before me. A mound of black with a red collar lays in a heap twenty feet ahead. I get out of the car and run towards the dog I just hit. I hear myself speak under the strain of my breath, wispy gasps that don’t sound like me.
“Fat lab. Fat lab,” they say.
The dog lays on its side. It’s still breathing. I reach down and poke at it with my finger on its hindquarters. I notice big balls. I experience a brief relief as he springs to life onto all fours and snaps at my hand. I jump back as he scuttles off through ditch water into the brush. A wad of raw meat the size of my forearm bulges out the left side of his body. The gravel road where he had been lying is a terrible mess of red and brown.
I stand there and don’t move. The fat lab is long gone, and I’m not going after him. I hear the crunch of tires stir up gravel on the road behind me. A cloud of dust chases behind a truck headed my way. I get back in my car. Let the truck pass. I picture the trucker stopping; he reaches over to roll down the passenger side window. He tips up his cowboy hat and looks down at me through dark shades. His white leather face stroked with a deep lightning of wrinkles.
“Anything I can do to help?”
The truck blares past me. I barely catch a glimpse of the driver: their hands firmly clasped at ten and two, their gaze fixed on the road ahead. I grab the plastic Coke bottle and dump the rum out the window—chuck it into the ditch, and drive off.
* * *
Nobody’s home when I get there. I check the front end of my car: a smashed passenger’s side headlight with a splatter of blood on the fractured glass, tufts of black hair wedged into a crushed section of the plastic grill. I walk down the hill to the backyard to grab the hose.
Fat lab’s flying through the air. He completes a half a barrel-roll and lands on the gash I’d torn into him with my car. I see his frantic escape into the brush from his perspective—a staticky black and white rush of branches and weeds, an occasional patch of small farmland that fuzzes like TV interference. Each step is pain. A whiteout. He settles on the edge of a small creek, exhausted and afraid—the sound of its babble.
As I gather the hose, I look up and see Zoe. She’s sitting in front of the sliding glass door. She stares straight into it; the tip of her nose bumps against the glass in beat with her panting. I didn’t let her in. She looks over at me; neither of us knows what to think. I kneel.
“Come here, girl; you must be thirsty!”
She saunters her way to me; dips her head towards the ground like she’s in trouble. “Come on, girl! It’s ok!” Each of her steps covers less and less distance. It seems she’ll never make it, but then she’s on me, leans her entire weight into me.
“Come on, Zoe, let’s get you some water.”
I grab the hose and drag it up the hill, Zoe follows, but as I turn towards the front door to go inside to get her bowl, she keeps walking straight to the car.
I let her do it. I go inside. From the window above the kitchen sink, I see Zoe scout the car. She sniffs at the headlight; gets excited. She circles; sniffs at the headlight again. She completes several cycles before I get her bowl filled. I bring out her water and lay it on the front porch.
“Zoe!” I call out, “Water!”
She ignores me, keeps her guard.
“Zoe! Come on, girl!”
She won’t stop. I get the hose, blast off the blood and hair from the front of my car; Zoe bounds to the backside. She starts to bark—a lot. I pounce towards her—give her a shot with the hose. She bolts back to the front; barks at the freshly cleaned headlight. I run around the other way; shoot again. She continues to circle; continues to bark. I give up.
I go inside. In my bedroom, I shut the door and take off my shoes. I leave on my clothes. I lie down on my bed and pull the sheets up to my neck. I can still hear Zoe bark.
With my eyes closed, space seems to open up—that swirl of pixelated black and brown behind my eyelids somehow expands. I twist and turn and spin through it. It’s not like flying, though. It’s like I’m shooting through some sort of tube—it branches like the roots of a tree. I’m underground.
Then I’m encircled by the green of trees; a hole of deep blue blazes above. A halo of piled sticks bounds a majestic bird. The sticks morph into quail bones. Little ones. A graveyard of meals.
I kick the thick sheets off my body. Keep my eyes closed. Pray the cool will bring sleep. It doesn’t.
In the slaughterhouse. Warm blood running over my fingers. Vitamin powder.
I rock my body side to side.
Out of bed to look through the window. My face; a few inches away from the closed Venetian blinds. My breath; shallow and labored. Moisture spreads out from the center of my forehead. I raise a solitary blind with my index finger.
The backyard is a flood of birds: big, agitated, black. They jolt from tree to tree, flash iridescent accents from their wings. The fat lab lies belly-up. His guts pour out amongst an orbit of flies, each the size of my fist. I let the blind fall back into place and lie back down. Zoe continues to bark at my car. There’s nothing I can do to stop her. There’s nothing to do. I lie there and wait for someone to come home.
Brad Gallagher is a third-year PhD candidate in the Department of Intermedia Art, Writing, and Performance at the University of Colorado Boulder. His practice-based research interrogates philosophical posthumanism through creative writing and coding. To see more of his work visit: https://jbgallag.myportfolio.com/
featured photo by Brad Gallagher using DALL-E/CLIP models from OpenAI and a Google Colab notebook modified from @advadnoun