Watch the Birds

My mother always told me to watch the birds. She believed that they were supernatural, that they existed somewhere between reality and chaos. I suppose she had a point: Some take to the air and never look back, the journey ahead pushing them forward into the skyline. Meanwhile, others return to the same tree year after year, with the same mate, decorating the forests and fields with their songs.

When she passed away, the same crow hovered around our back porch for three days. He would perch on the wind chimes next to my mother’s favorite chair, the afternoon sunlight causing his feathers to gleam with a purplish hue. His beak was chipped on the bottom, but the bird didn’t seem to mind. His hungry eyes always preoccupied with something else, scanning our property as if it saw something the rest of us weren’t able to locate. On the fourth day, my dad began to throw away all of the leftover funeral food. The crow never returned.

A year later, the birds began to tell me things. This started suddenly, with snippets of messages filtering through the air every time I watched for more than a few moments. Move the horses to this pasture, this section of fence needs to be fixed. Don’t eat chicken today, a bunch of hens have fallen sick and cannot be consumed. Call your grandmother, she doesn’t have much time left. I would watch for hours as their wings beat airborne messages just for me. I never spoke; they never asked for a response.

The night the storm rolled in, two vultures took to the sky in a restless frenzy. As I settled into the barn to weather out the storm, I watched their rotation above the wheat fields. Golden waves rippled across the landscape, against a backdrop of brooding, far off hills and darkened storm clouds. While one vulture circled, the other would dive toward the ground, as if it was diving toward water, only to shoot upwards again inches from the dirt. The second would do the same, and the process would continue. I’d never seen vultures act this way.

Afraid one of the barn cats had attracted their attention, I stepped into the storm. No rain had fallen, but I could feel an electric charge in the air that should have sent me running for the storm shelter. No animal could be seen through the sea of wheat. I dipped beneath a break in the wire fence and moved closer. It was as if I wasn’t there at all. Neither vulture made any noise as they continued to hover, dive, and then circle.

Feathers stung my ear as a vulture swooped down beside me. My initial reaction was to scream, but it was as if I was frozen in place. Looking up, I realized that I had walked directly beneath them. The pair were reunited briefly before the second began to take its dive, and I was barely able to move out of its way. My arm hair stood on end, and I had never felt so securely planted on the ground. A density had taken to my feet, securing me firmly in place. For the first time since my mother died, I felt as if I wasn’t going to float away.

I tried to remember what I had been taught about vultures by my mother. She used to get excited when they would come around, suggesting that they were a symbol of rebirth. To her, the vultures had the ability to pass between the worlds of the living and dead. As they consumed the flesh of dead animals, they produced life and maintained a balance necessary to keep life and death in balance with one another. But, these vultures weren’t consuming anything.

Soundless wind picked up around me, sending the fabric of my dress spiraling out in all directions. I was so surrounded by silence that I began to lose the concept of noise. The vultures continued their routine, appearing to ignore my existence. I realized they never swooped in the same position twice. Each time a vulture came within inches of the earth, it was ever so slightly ahead of where it had been before, creating symmetrical circles in the sky and on the earth. I wondered what would happen when they completed both.

As they worked, a heat built up in my chest. It started just below my stomach and then spread, the white-hot feeling taking up most of my perception. My head began to feel heavier, as if being filled with lead. I could see my blood separating into droplets just as easily as I could see the vultures slowly closing in on a completed circle. I didn’t know where my body had gone, or if it was even there at all. I couldn’t see it, or feel it. All sensation was gone. The last vulture turned toward the ground, his eyes hungry for something on the other side of the dirt. For the first time, I closed my eyes.

The ground began to fall away beneath my feet, and I felt the pressure of one vulture beneath each of my arms. When I opened my eyes we were flying, propelled upwards with a force that knocked the breath from my lungs. Our descent back toward Earth made me realize something. My mother always told me that the best way to make a decision was to watch the birds. We must have watched them a little too closely.

Rachel Gonzalez is a 21-year-old burrito enthusiast and plant mom who spends way too much time attached to her laptop. Lately she has been attempting to capture "weird little moments" in her writing, which led to the writing of this piece.