by David Morse

First came a fluttering in the gloom of the abandoned textile mill. Wings beating helplessly against dusty windows.

Sunlight flared through pinholes in the roof where slates were broken. A few window-panes were missing. But the bird, I supposed, was confused or in3ured and unable to find its way back out. The carcasses of birds similarly trapped lay on the vast wooden floor, planks swollen in places where rain had leaked through.

I followed the sounds, hoping to rescue the bird, thinking I might capture it or shoo it out through the rusty metal door that stood open behind me. It was not high on my priorities; still I don't like to see a poor dumb creature suffer needlessly.

The mill had been abandoned for decades. I worked here in my youth, as a bobbin-winder. In those days the place hummed with the sound of spinning-machines. Then the whole textile industry moved south - first to the Carolinas, then to the Philippines, Bangladesh, Haiti; wherever labor was cheapest. It was a sad thing. Now I was drawn to the place out of a morbid fascination.

We thought of it as a local problem, the town slipping into decline. But as I inspected the hulks of rusting machinery, I thought what a terrible commentary on all humanity it is that jobs are going to the places where life is cheapest and governments most corrupt.

No sooner had I come to this realization than I heard the bird close at hand, fluttering helplessly against the wall. Exhausted. Probably disoriented.

"There you are," I said, managing to trap it in my hands. My fingers encompassed it, pinned its wings to its struggling body. Drab bird. Starling, I thought. "Don't be afraid."

"Afraid?" the bird cried. "Afraid?"

Was this the normal call of a starling? I knew they weren't songbirds. But had this one been trained to mimic? "Don't be afraid," I repeated.

"Afraid?" the bird persisted, struggling in my hand. "I'm fucking terrified!"

Amazed, I dropped it. The bird landed on its feet and hopped some distance while I pursued it, my heart pounding. "I can't believe this," I muttered.

"Believe! Believe! Just leave me alone."

"I'm trying to help you!" Lunging with my foot, I managed to trap one of its wing-tips.

"Help me? Jesus! You and what philanthropist?"

Once again I nestled it in my palms as gently as I could. "I can help you escape," I crooned. But by now my scalp was creeping with recognition: either I was confusing the bird's random sounds for human speech, or I was holding onto something that could make me wealthy. "Jesus," I said, "I must be crazy."

"Crazy!" the bird piped. "Crazy!" Darting its head around. "Do you know how many diseases birds carry?"

Probably a trick, trying to make me let it go. Still, not wanting to inhale any of the crap from its feathers, I held my breath while it struggled. Finally it stopped. "How come you couldn't find your way out of this place," I demanded, "if you're so smart?"

"Smart? I never said I was smart. I'm just a bird, man. Just a dumb creature! And if you guys are so brilliant, how come this place is abandoned?"

"What's the connection?"

The starling rolled its eyes and sighed. "Humans!" It stared at me furiously for a moment, then I could feel its wings shrug. It winced. "Humans! You just don't see the big picture."

"What are you getting at?"

"Look around you! What do you see? You humans have fouled your own nest! Screwed up your own social structure. Look at the air, look at the water! You've messed up everything!"

All this was true. Still, I was annoyed hearing it from a bird. Not even an eagle or a kingfisher or something; just this dowdy little starling. "So what do we do?" I demanded, thinking I was condescending.

"You're choking me. Loosen your grip, and I'll tell you."

I loosened my grip. The bird ducked its head and croaked something inaudible. I bent closer to hear. Then it screeched so loudly that I let it go. With that it flew up to an oak beam, where it paced back and forth - regaining its strength, exercising its wings - looking down at me contemptuously. "Fly away!" it cackled. "Fly away!"

I have always considered myself a nature lover, but now I was taken over by cold fury. I still have a pretty good throwing- arm; I picked up a half-brick - slowly, so as not to arouse suspicion - and took aim. But the starling swooped out the open door.

"Fly away!" it taunted me, safely outside. "Fly away! Fly to the moon! Mess that up! Use up the water! Fly to Mars! Mess that up!" The bird flew out of sight. Its last words, delivered over its shoulder, were barely audible. "You old geezer!"

CyberCorpse, Exquisite Corpse © 1999