A family of swallows has taken up residence under the eaves of the corrugated shed roof that covers the weight yard. I can hear their flutterings when I stretch out after my runs. Me, sprawled out on that sun-warmed concrete pad with the thump, thump of blood pulsing through my ears and them, flitting about in rushes of wings and the scritch, scritching of claws against tin.
As hard as I have tried, I have never been able to catch a glimpse of them in action. What is it called? A sussuration? A murmuration? I can’t remember. No matter how still I lay in wait or how far askance I cast my gaze, whenever I look up, the sounds of movement suddenly halt and then, there they are, sitting in a row on the edge of that roof, looking blankly back at me.
How hard could it be to catch a bird in flight and, besides, how do they even know we are playing this game at all?
Today, while I run my loops, the grunts and clanging of weights comes to a sudden halt. In the peal of space that follows, a crowd of inmates gathers. Many too have their orange jumpsuits unzipped and folded back exposing their markings. Bared and rippling arms and chests. Tattoos that reveal or conceal. Some have violent scars on their chests and upper shoulders. Purple, smoothed and hardened over, these the marks of the Sundance where, after periods of fasting and meditation, the Lakota drag buffalo skulls or suspend themselves through piercings in their skin that tear away their flesh. Clarity through pain. Marks of the spiritual warrior. But, when I squint my eyes and pretend not to stare at those scars on their scapulae, all I can see are a congregation of dark angels; wings shorn and banished from Paradise.
At the feet of the gathering circle of men lays a grounded swallow. Its feet and wings entwined in a tangle of blue, plastic thread – the discarded remnants of a woven plastic bag.
The curious circle parts as Spotted Tail strides into the center of the ring. He crouches to scoop up the bird; expectant but still surprised by the lightness of the tangled bundle. The circle closes behind him, some even offer suggestions, but only space for one set of hands exists and those are Spotted Tail’s. With hands burnished and calloused from carrying weight, he cradles the bird in one swollen hand and uses the other to so delicately pick at the blue strands to unravel the shivering swallow.
His task now complete, the man with clipped wings raises his cupped hand aloft.
For a moment the bird remains there, not realizing it is free. Then it shudders and flutters up and off.
For a moment, we, with our gazes cast upward, hold our breaths. And then, as our eyes follow the bird upward and away, collectively let out a sigh of relief.
Christopher Wang is currently a commercial salmon fisherman in Alaska with a small California based direct-to-market business called The Gypsy Fish Company. He has formerly been a private chef, worked and sailed the world aboard tall ships and interchanged living out of his van with living and surfing in remote locales. Existing outside of the conventional framework of the US, he has been creative about how he earned a living – sometimes too creative. In 2011, he was arrested in South Dakota while transporting a vehicle load of marijuana. He ended up spending some time in prison there. The food was terrible. This is his first published work.