Geer Street, Chimney Swifts
When the other guys come running out of the gutted house yelling about bats, James looks up and thinks, for the first time in months, of his mother.
Roderick has his hands splayed over the top of his head, and another one of the guys, Marcus, is waving his work gloves in circles in front of him. James puts his hands in his pockets and grins. “Y’all are damn fools,” he says.
“Dude, there are hundreds of them,” Marcus says, pointing up. And there are, collected in tight black whorls against the gray-blue sky. It is dusk. And James has to admit that the high chirping sound they make – one he hasn’t heard in so long he’d forgotten it was familiar – did sound an awful lot like bats. “Fucking bats,” Marcus says.
“They’re not bats,” James says, hands still in his pockets, finding it hard to look away from the swirling flock. “They’re chimney swifts.”
They men are calmer now, still looking up, but their fear is turning to something else. “What the fuck’s a chimney swift?” Marcus murmurs.
“Y’all were working near the chimney, right?”
Roderick nods. “Yeah, busting out the brick to reface it. Probably needs to be sealed all the way up, too.”
“Chimney swifts are birds,” James says. “They live in chimneys.”
“How the fuck you know that?” Roderick asks.
“How the fuck do you know how to seal a chimney?” James replies.
Roderick just looks at James, and then back up at the birds.
It was James’ mother who had first spotted the chimney swifts in the abandoned smokehouse behind their bungalow on Green Street. He’d been about nine years old, and he’d thought they were bats at first, too. But his mother had shown him illustrations in a library book of a single swift, it’s bullet-shaped body and short, pointed wings. The illustration was pencil-drawn, in black and white, but James remembers reading the description of the bird over and over – the Audobon guide, an old edition, described the swift’s feathers as “sooty gray.”
At night, he and his mother would watch as they came to roost, taking turns lining up, one by one, in the chimney’s dark center. “They spend most of their lives in the air,” she told him. Like other types of swifts, they were unable to perch – could only cling to vertical surfaces – the insides of chimneys, hollowed out trees, and caves. James used to wonder where to find his group of swifts– a group of creatures who, like him and his mother, did not settle in one place, but traveled from one to the next, clinging with whatever weight they had to whatever small space they could claim.
The men watch the birds circle the chimney in the dusky light. “They’re getting in line,” James explains. “They go in a few at a time and give each one space to find their spot – then all the others file in after them.”
“Like getting on the school bus?” James remembers asking his mother about this phenomenon.
His mother had nodded. “Kind of.”
One by one, the guys walk off the job site, gathering their tools and forgoing their usual goodbyes and wisecracks about what they’d be doing later and with whom. They were reflective the way people are when they’ve just been bowled over by something bigger than themselves.
For James, the force isn’t the magic of the birds, but the magic of memory, the way it could force itself up through the cracks in your mind, growing fast and unexpected as a weed. A memory is like a living thing, thinks James, and he stands watching until the very last swift disappears into the chimney, feeling the tendrils of that living thing rise up through him, growing fast, sending out green shoots, reminding him that he was young once, and had a young mother who had cared enough to teach him things.
James walks back to his truck in the darkness. Seeing his own face in the driver side window, he remembers his mother’s soft features, how they’d sharpened when she watched the swifts, how her eyes had taken on a kind of fierceness. And also how his mother’s boyfriend, when the swifts migrated from the smokehouse to their own chimney, had insisted they build a fire anyways. “They’re just birds,” he’d said to her.
“The hell they are!” his mother had told him, and then she’d set fire to the entire woodpile while he was at work.