In the Time of the Birds

Categories Fantasy

When the birds first appeared no one knew where they came from, what species they represented, or why they swarmed into the trees of the world.

Their inexplicable arrival mystified people all over the Earth, confounded ornithologists, and left scientists incapable of providing an explanation for their presence.

When Michael first saw the birds for himself, he knew that no one would be able to construct a logical explanation for their existence. Reading reports from all the countries of the world left him certain these birds were a supernatural phenomenon, not a natural one.

And all the birds were identical: as large as condors, though capable of unassisted flight, dressed in deep black feathers and adorned with pure white beaks; and their eyes, unlike other birds, flashed scarlet in both daylight and at night. Once roosted in trees or clasping the stone ledges of buildings they lingered apathetically, fluffing their wings from time to time, but never moving from their perches. Their only activity was to twist their small heads in order to observe the places they inhabited and the people moving beneath.

The phenomenon continued for weeks as millions of birds appeared and settled in cities and rural communities. And still no one had an explanation for their arrival—they neither drank nor ate, and all efforts to capture individuals for biological study proved futile. The birds moved with unnatural agility and seemed incorporeal.

Michael, having only begun his university studies earlier that year, watched the birds over time from his dormitory window, or the windows of buses, or restaurants. The birds persisted like specters, initially frightening, but then, as people became used to their presence, they seemed more of a nuisance. But he knew, in his heart, they represented something special, something supernal, perhaps even something magical—

One morning, as he was walking between buildings on campus, he noticed one of his professors sitting on a concrete bench beneath an oak tree decorated generously with the large, black birds. Dr. Menard taught Philosophy, which, to Michael, seemed an anachronistic subject in a world of unrelenting technology. Menard was an older man, and balding, who wore an unkempt white beard which now tilted in the air as he studied the birds.

Michael sat on the bench beside the professor. He hadn’t had an opportunity to discuss his beliefs about the birds with very many people and wondered if Menard had formulated an opinion.

“Why do you think they’re here?” he asked. He was a thin young man with short hair, and filled with an impetuousness of youth that disavowed small talk.

Dr. Menard continued studying the birds. “I honestly don’t know.”

“I believe they’re spirits.”

“Why do you say that?”

“There’re millions of them all over the world, but no one can catch one to examine it.”

Menard turned his head and smiled. “They seem very real to me.”

“If they are physical creatures, where did they come from? Millions of birds simply can’t appear from nowhere. They would have had to hatch from millions of eggs. And they don’t eat or drink. All they do is sit watching us.”

The professor gazed up at the birds again. “If they are spirits, why have they come?”

“Perhaps to herald a new age of spirituality. People have been turned into machines, haven’t you noticed? We’re too concerned with technology. We’ve lost our connection to the supernatural.”

“I don’t believe in the supernatural, I’m afraid.”

“Then what else could they possibly be?”

“As I said, I honestly don’t know.”

“I think they’re very beautiful, don’t you?”

“Yes, they’re beautiful. Very much so. But that may be an illusion.” Menard glanced at Michael again. “You’re an optimist, young man.”

Michael smiled, because he agreed. Yes, he was an optimist, and because he was an optimist he believed the birds had appeared for a divine purpose. “Just wait, professor. We’re going to witness something truly wonderful. Something that will transform humanity.”

Menard looked down at his hands, slowly shaking his head. “I guess you’re one of those people who can live in a supernatural world. The rest of us are lost in our desire to maintain a reality based on cause and effect. I’ve studied a great deal of philosophy over the years, but nothing I’ve learned has prepared me for these birds. They shouldn’t be here. They shouldn’t exist.”

“But they are here.”

“Yes, that is undeniable.”

“And now the world is changing for the better. Don’t you believe that?”

“It’s all a matter of how you look at things. I’m not certain we’re seeing these birds in the same way.”

“Are you afraid of them?”

Menard smiled at Michael, the way an adult might smile at a child from whom he is hiding an abiding fear. “No, I feel rather peaceful in their presence. But perhaps I should be afraid. Whether they are good or evil is undoubtedly a matter of perception.”

A few days after his conversation with Dr. Menard, when the people of the world began abruptly dying, Michael wandered the city in tears. People died by the billions; and when they died, the birds flew from the trees and the ledges of buildings and the sides of hills and mountains, settling on the corpses and dipping their beaks into lifeless flesh, cleansing the world.

And it was beautiful, this transforming of humanity, this changing of reality for the better.

In its own way.

Working in multiple genres, Lawrence Buentello has published over 100 short stories and innumerable poems in journals, magazines, and anthologies, many of which can be found in several volumes of collected fiction and poetry. He is also the author or co-author of several novels. Buentello lives in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, with his wife, Susan.