Mind the grackles on your car, in the driveway here. They love side-view mirrors where they stare into their own button eyes. Hear them laugh? They cherish the bouncing sound of their own voices like sand passing through glass—the scrape of crystal in their gullets. I admire their blue-backed unabashed affection for shiny, broken things, these omnivores of pizza, jam, minnow, or best the humble ant, carcasses rubbed on their feathers—self-anointing acid-winged king. Shhh, don't speak too loudly or they'll mimic your voice and feed you to their queen.
You can see how the social weaver constructs its family nest around the porch. Twigs form the outer wall, creating the screened verandah I always wanted, though it hasn't quite solved the bug problem. Thinking our house is a tree, they discourage predators like the slithering cape cobras and boomslangs. They keep me in days at a time, but what can I do? I'm just the doorkeeper. This nest will live for the next hundred years, or so the men from the university say, unless I burn it down. Two birds nest within each comb but being such sociable things, they share the next, commensally, with the red-headed finch, the rosy-faced lovebird, the ashy tit, the familiar chat, the pied barbet, the pygmy falcon, and the bald eagles roosting above. We must duck within the chambers to enter, here behind the maze the door lies hidden like a baby bird, eyes still not open.
They say the heart of the house is the kitchen. I suppose that's why the cardinal roosts with the pots and pans, her wings white-tipped with flour. The chirps she makes echo the boiling teapot—high, cheeping lilts of purdy, purdy, purdy, or cheeeer-a-dote, cheeer-a-dote-dote-dote, or perhaps the what-cheer, what-cheer of a scalded heart. Her wing beats flutter as she granivours the oatmeal, her beak searching for worms in the raisin bran she'll never find. But feel her feathery warmth—oh how soft her breast! Go on, she'll let you get close—apron-stringed, her feet cobbled. Dull olive-red girl, she lives to feed her lover, wedged there within the breakfast nook.
The black-chinned hummingbird is crystalized in the living room—his wing beats timed to the television—Dr. Dre, Madonna, and Lady Gaga. From here he observes all the goings-on of the house, feels every nuance in the family wind. He migrated here from Canada, or perhaps the Great Lakes, just to fuel this house with his effortless energy. If the heat cuts off and the pipes freeze he'll never die, safe here within this shelter, as long as the food comes. I feed him a simple sugar water cupped in my palms—his beak a knife that leaves pricks of blood on my lifeline. His tongue forks and shaves away the wood of the house—the little bird that brought fire to the world.
You can't stay the night, I'm afraid. My guestroom hosts the traveling palm-warbler, in from sunny Florida. He's used all the towels and the hot water too, and he won't stop hitting on my daughter. Oh fair-feather friend! Oh tan summer-love of sunscreen sand-soaked loam, White Sea resting under mountain stone, fucker of the wind, napping in sphagnum moss at the base of the four-poster, his nest an open cup of weed stalks, grass, sedges, bark shreds, rootlets, and ferns, lined with fine grasses, bryophytes, hair and feathers. Thief in the night away with the good soap and the pens!
Peep within the master for a look at the barbary dove, but do not wake her with a knock, nor cross the crusty threshold of her bower, built of tissue-thin flesh of her lost children—heaven's outcasts. How many miles she must have flown to bury herself in their bones, her head tucked beneath their ribs to rest in the sand. She'll never leave. She lacks the homing instinct. Her coo is stronger than the rattlesnake's tail. Mind the offerings at her door—the white yarn, the white pebbles, the white bodies of the dead.
One swallow takes in the attic dust, the taste of my crumbling wedding dress and my sister's bones, the guilt and shame I keep locked away. Her red face pales and blue breast-band wanes. Look how she clings to memory, pecking at the photographs we long abandoned. She swoops and keens, no nest to build in these pointed eaves, no more black-breasted joy to share, no speckled-egg guardian worn with loving pecks of regurgitated pity. No longer will her voice call su-seer or witt-witt, nor the cheerful splee-plink of friendship. She has not even the siflitt or flit-flitt to warn us away.
Long-necked egrets in the backyard bog await suicide of alligator teeth on spindling legs that seem too thin to hold them. Weak from hunting river grub, speckled frog, and sea-salted cod, they're a poem of white-winged cease fire, a white flag of surrender. But take care, don't follow the wulla-wulla-wulla through the sylph-lights—they'll only lead you to a watery grave.
Trickster god, seven in the Old Testament, Odin's friend, goddess bearer, talisman against invasion. He chained me to his castle years ago. He's been known to eat a king's heart, to lead women astray, to hide the corpse of a brother, to find the last patch of land on a flooded planet. I can't remember if the house was his or mine to begin with, or perhaps we've always been this way. In Sweden he carries the souls of victims, in Germany the souls of the damned. But here he merely perches on the gable, waiting for the rain. I was young and stupid and in love. I gave it all up freely for the brush of his wing.
Step softly on the basement stair, descend into the cool darkness, hold the rail there. This is the secret root from whence the tree is born. All the eggs fall down here to boil on the slab. See the bone-cage? Hear the phoenix trapped within? Neither Herodotus, Pliny, nor Lucian could pin him down, but he answers to my call. I feed him the eyeballs and entrails of men and children. He's misery incarnate—if I let his wings go unclipped he'd flame, he'd fireball, and what good would that be for the rest of living things? Immortal, his feathers are the well of life. A single prick of their red-gold and you'll stay young the rest of your days. I've no use for them anymore, although they make handsome pens. Go on, take one. Feel the feather's silky edge. Press it into your palm, there. Bleed springtide. Live again.