The inexorable pull to move south grows. The sun hums to me all day long that it’s time to go, go, go. The night sky is even more persistent–every constellation in the big Montana sky makes arrows pointing south. My appetite increases and I develop a layer of fat on my belly. My senses grow more intricate–smells carry layers of meaning, gnats and mosquitoes become visible everywhere I look, and the normal sounds of human civilization hurt my ears with all their chaos.
And now my eyes have changed. The cornea and pupil widen so that the white is barely visible. A mercy that the genetic modifications left me normal eyes for summer and winter, but when it changes, it is unsettling for everyone. My vision increases three-fold. It is the last sign that it is time.
“Your eyes look funny,” Marion says. My wife drops her fork onto her plate and starts to cry.
This is another sign, as real and inevitable as all the others.
“Josiah, don’t go this time. Stay here. Stay safe. We’ll manage, somehow.” She cries harder. Marion is beautiful when she cries. She breaks my heart every time. “Why won’t they ever leave you alone?”
We’ve been avoiding this for the last month as though time was not passing–as though summer was not heading toward fall. I don’t know what to say to her. I never know what to say.
“I’ll be leaving tomorrow morning.” I reach out for her hand, but she pulls away from me. She doesn’t want to touch me, to be any more vulnerable than I have already made her. Later there will be an intensity burning in her as she takes me into our room and undresses me, touches every part of my body as though there will be a test later and she must memorize it all. This too is another one of the signs.
Marion drives our old griesel out to a lonely stretch of road in Glacier National Park. She doesn’t say goodbye to me, but holds me tight and then lets me go. Despite her words, she and I both know what I will do, if I have to. There are three other men waiting on the road.
“Good summer?” Scotty asks.
“Yep,” I say. “Hot enough for you?”
There’s Keith who’s twenty-eight, the youngest and darkest skinned of us–he’s mixed; Scotty, gay, thirty-seven, and a beast of a rider; and Hector, forty-four, Mexican but from the US. He doesn’t speak Spanish but his wife and kids do. We’re a strange migrating flock, not much in common, nothing like the huge numbers of wild birds who used to travel across the US and wore a monotony of feathers on their bodies. But once you see us dance, then you know we belong together.
“How you been, Josiah?” Hector asks. I feel his eyes looking me over, wondering about me now that I’m the oldest: now that Siv’s dead.
“Ready to ride.” Christ, I’m only fifty-six.
“Any one seen the new guy yet?” Keith asks.
Silence. It had been a good seven years without any casualties. Fourteen migrations without any big accidents: a stretch so long I think we all forgot what could happen. No one noticed Siv getting older. He didn’t show any weakness, not up until the very end. And now we had a new guy coming on.
Our Sponsor arrives in a long black four door car spewing enough exhaust to make my eyes water. He steps out wearing sunglasses and skin stretched so tight over his face that he looks like he might pop. All the immortals look like that. Even though they have enough money to buy life, they have that look to them like it’s been a long time since they’ve lived at all. We smile at him, each of us thinking, I reckon, about the last time we saw him.
He was yelling and calling us murderers as we all stood around the broken body of Siv. He threatened us with life in prison, even though we all knew he couldn’t do a damn thing about it.
Now he’s showing off his white-as-paint teeth and looking at us like we are racing horses: profitable flesh. He frowns as he looks at me. Other doors on his car open and men that look like him, but with cheaper clothing, get out. You can’t get them to talk to you, I’ve tried.
The new rider comes out of the car and blinks like he’s just waking up. It takes a while to get used to the eyes. He’s too skinny–someone should have told him to fatten up–but otherwise he looks tough enough. He has thick black hair, olive skin, and a five o’clock shadow even though it’s only noon. He looks us over. He smiles at Keith, who must be the leader, I can see him thinking, because he’s the youngest and strongest. Keith smiles back enigmatically.
“This is Theo Anders, boys, and he’s going to make me proud!” The Sponsor tries to act like one of the good old boys, but there’s a billion dollars and ownership issues between us.
A trailer pulls up with our bicycles, and Scotty runs over to them. He’s our resident gearhound. Our Sponsor chats him up about all the new components on his bike.
“No way! Awesome!” he says.
The new guy stands near us nervously. For him it’s the most important day of his life so far. The first day of the migration. For the rest of us, it’s not so special.
“Hey Theo, I’m Josiah,” I say. “Welcome to the migration.” I introduce him to Keith and Hector. “A man’s first migration is the most dangerous,” I say. “Just like with real birds. You won’t know the route, the dances, or how to pace yourself. All kinds of changes will be coming on inside of you all the while you’re expected to keep pedaling. Just don’t do anything stupid.”
“I had the operation three months ago. I’ve adjusted to the changes. The Sponsor told me everything I need to know,” he says.
“That’s what he’ll have told you,” I point my thumb at our owner, “but it’s not true. It takes awhile for it all to settle in. They never know when they’ll need a new rider, so there’s never enough time to change.”
Hector steps toward the fledgling and says quiet enough that only we can hear, “He only cares about getting you migrating as soon as possible. He doesn’t care about you.” Hector shakes his head and gives Keith and me a look like can you believe this kid? Nevermind that he was just as ignorant when he came on.
Theo’s face turns a dirty pink. “You saying something bad about our Sponsor? That’s against contract clause twelve B.” His voice is too loud.
“Calm down,” I tell him. “We’re all friends here.” But his words make me uneasy. Our owner has tried to get a man on the inside for years. Someone who will tell the truth of what actually happens on our migration. Maybe he’s finally found one.
Theo eyes me again, and I can see he thinks I’m worthless. America never had any use for the old. I could tell him I’m going to be more useful to him than he can know, but I don’t. Let him learn.
We grab our bikes with fat panniers loaded up with MRE’s, protein bars, and watergel. The first day of our ride we’re not riding hard: we’re just getting onto our bikes, checking out the upgrades, and learning to ride again. It’s a relief to get on the road and get moving. Tonight will be the first time in a week any of us will be able to sleep. When the change comes there’s nothing for it but to start moving. That’s what birds always did, and with how they modified us, we’re no different. The bikes are custom made for each of us, and we get a new bike every migration.
Hector takes the lead and we ride slipstream on both sides of him on the two lane road. We look like a flock of geese flying in V formation. People say part of our augmentation is to copy the geese, but that’s crap. We ride like them for the same reason they do: it’s the best way to cut the wind. And with two thousand miles and twenty-two performances to hit in the next month, we’ll need it. No matter how slick our bikes are, when it comes down to it they are still one-hundred-percent powered by our legs and nothing else. So we’ll do anything we can to make it easier. We’re lazy like that.
The Going-to-the-Sun-Road is smooth and lined with trees turning pretty colors in front of deep blue mountains that look like the ocean in rock form.
Keith races ahead then slams on his regenerative brakes. He races forward again, brakes, then pops the hover gear and his bike floats up three inches off the ground for about five feet. Bless the mechanics who figured that one out twenty-one migrations ago. It makes our ride almost manageable through the lower states. We won’t need to hover in Montana where roads are still all right–cowboys will never give up the dream of driving, even if no one can afford the gas.
Scotty pops wheelies and bounces up and down on his bike. He’s got all kinds of boing-boing with twice the shocks and gearing of any of us. He carries the extra weight and drag of them. He likes the challenge.
I bike elbows to the grooves of my handlebars, laying my forearms against the warm metal. The curve of my back likes being here with my neck craned toward the horizon. My helmet feels like something I’ve been missing, a part of my head returned. It feels easy, like I could sit here all day and pedal, which is good, because that’s what I’ll be doing. I straighten up and warm my hands under my armpits, reminding myself of all the ways to ride, all the muscle sets I can use.
Something big skitters across the upper edge of my vision and I turn my head, excited. But it must have been a bug, because there’s nothing there. There aren’t many wild birds left, but sometimes, out in the middle of nowhere, a little miracle will fly through the sky. I like to imagine them living out here and surviving, despite everything.
We reach our first campsite–an old RV campground with a sign up to welcome us. Hector twists around to confer with me, then takes us another ten miles so we can stretch our legs a little bit more.
“Aren’t we supposed to stop there?” Theo asks.
I turn my head around and see he looks peeved.
None of the others answer him, so I say, “It’s good to not be predictable. You never know when the Sponsor might try to show up with his cameras and get into our business. Speaking of which, these sponsors can be quite a suspicious lot. They get the top wearable spy cameras on iShotify and have it on them all the time and if they smell a rat at any time between interactions, then the deal can be off.”
“What do you have against him? That’s his right. It’s part of the contract,” Theo says. “And what’s our route? The Sponsor says we could add in a couple more dances if we rode faster.”
Theo can’t help talking stupid. He’s like a baby eagle who’s half pin feathers, half fluff. Even so, the other guys glare at him.
“Missoula to Stevensville, then Darby, then over to Wisdom,” I say. “As soon as you’ve ridden it once, it’ll imprint into you. Easy as riding a bike.”
“What happens if our bikes break and we’re not at the right spot?”
“Never?” he asks.
“All the components are internalized. The wheels are braided tungsten-rubber. The frames are torture tested carbon-fiber. We’ll break before these bikes do.”
That gives him a moment’s pause, then he asks, “You like being a migrator? You ever get tired of it and think of retiring?” There’s something sly and mean to his words.
I don’t answer him. There’s no way to express the combination of love, rage, fear, hate, joy, and sorrow I feel about migrating. Most humans never have to know about that feeling.
“Back when I started,” I say, and then grin at my grandpa words, “there used to be trackers on our bikes. They were real useful to our owner for planning our performances and getting the crowds ready. Except they always fell off or got broken somehow. That’s what happens when he tries to spy on our migration: things get broken.” I give him a knowing look.
He pauses for a moment, but then he starts in on me again. “He’s made you all rich. You talk like it wasn’t your choice, like he made you migrate.”
The young are always under the illusion that they are free. “He owns enough of us as is. Two migrations every year. When a bird migrates his flock follow the same route every year, but where they stop and rest–every year is a little different.”
“You study birds?” Theo asks.
“I’ve read some books, thought I should, since I am part bird.”
Theo nods his head. “What else do you know about them?”
“They’re quiet when they fly.”
The sun is a cold sliver on the horizon by the time we stop. We set up camp–five orange tents staked down in one corner of a fallow field. Scotty lets into the fledgling about uniforms.
“The more flow to our costumes the better, but you have to be careful about tripping. What do you think, Theo?”
The fledgling doesn’t know what to think, but Scotty doesn’t mind. All he needs is a sounding post. We all have our tricks for getting through the migration–Scotty’s is uniforms and gadgets. Hector’s is his tattoos, one for every migration. Maybe mine is thinking about birds. Theo stays up late talking with him, getting in a couple of ‘uh-huhs’ and ‘I guess sos’ in between Scotty’s monologue.
I zip into my tent and open up the sky window. It’s a big sky in Montana, everyone knows that, but the way it makes me feel lonely is all my own. I miss Marion and our two girls, all grown up now. In a day or so I won’t think much about them–everything will get focused down to the tunnel vision of migrating. I’m a man who lives dual lives with little overlap. But for the moment, I like to think about my family. I’d do just about anything for my wife and girls, like turn myself part way into a bird and migrate across the continent.
Three hundred and fifty miles later, give or take a dozen miles on my sore ass, we reach Yellowstone.
A huge banner stretches over the park’s north entrance reading, “See the Dance of the Sandhill Crane!” We sit back on our bikes as we coast into the park. Keith has been singing an old camp song to himself, over and over.
“I like bananas, coconuts, and grapes–that’s why they call me Tarzan of the apes! I like bananas…”
No one would blame me if I strangled him. Too bad I like Keith.
Theo is full of all kinds of talk again, playing the role of the good little stooge. He’s riding behind Hector, who treats him like a mosquito just out of slapping range.
“What can we do to make the dance more exciting and draw in more people? It’s great how the Sponsor is meeting us with more provisions, isn’t it? He really takes care of us.”
I bike steadily and let my leg muscles do the work. My left Achilles aches, but the rest of me feels strong. Yellowstone has crap roads that twist and turn on themselves like they were drunk when they laid the concrete. I pop and coast into hover a couple of times. Until the day I’m dead, I’ll always love hovering.
There are whiffs of sulfur and foul minerals on the air. Yellowstone is nature’s fartlands, but it’s the most popular American park. Go figure. Cars pull over and line the roads, waving and honking at us as we pass.
Hector increases our pace and we turn down a long stretch of road that’s less crowded. Even though it’s not the first stop in the park, we go to Old Faithful first. It puts an extra fifty miles on our ride, but that’s what the contract orders. We bike along the Madison River then down to the Upper Geyser Basin. The road loops back and around to where we start our performance, so we won’t be seen ahead of time. We dismount just out of sight of the Anemone, Beehive, and Plume geysers.
Our Sponsor is there with the costumes and body paint that Scotty radioed to him after talking us all to death about what we should wear. It’s not so different from last time. There’s cloth sewn along the arms and attached to our shoulder blades with a long skeletal frame to approximate the sandhill crane wingspan. The rest is sleek gray material so tight it shows off every line and muscle of our bodies, save for the modesty crotch-cups. This is a family event, after all.
“And now, what you’ve all been waiting for….” A tinny sounding drum roll pounds through the park. “Once thought to be extinct, the sandhill cranes have been resurrected for one day only! The oldest birds known to man! Closest in kin to dinosaurs! The sandhill cranes’ mysterious movements might be how the dinosaurs danced! Please welcome the Western Migrators!”
The applause of five thousand people is a little unnerving. Theo takes a step backwards. We’ve painted our skin gray, except for our eyes, which are blackened, and our foreheads, which are a shocking red like the actual birds. Scotty leads the way forward, and we follow him, picking our legs along the ground carefully, straining our necks upward and moving them from side to side. Three of us move in unison for a couple steps then fall out of it, as though any uniformity were random. My legs are sore and my neck’s stiff, but never mind that, a crane doesn’t know about that. A thousand cameras click and follow our motions. As many people as they can fit into the bleachers lean forward and stare at us. A screen twenty feet above us projects our dance to everyone else. A kid starts crying.
We walk toward them slowly, until we are centered just right in front of the bleachers. Theo walks behind us, mimicking, not yet on the inside of what we are doing, not yet trusting the instincts within him. A force builds in my throat, and I raise my head to let out a loud, ugly “Augaroo-a-a-a‚ au!” The other birds… men sway away from me. Keith raises his arms and with it the long stretch of wings unfold behind him. He hops once, twice, up into the air. I cry out again.
Scotty echoes my cry, and Hector hops up into the air and moves his neck from side to side. He lands. A vent of steam hisses up from the ground, and we crouch down and spread our wings, except for Theo who’s a beat off. He crouches down as quick as he can.
Don’t think, be. Let it come, I’d tell him, but the bird within me takes hold. Grafted DNA and bird memory pulses through my muscles and limbs. My neck moves from side to side, tasting the air, feeling the wind against my cheek and the warm air blowing at us from beehive geyser. Anemone geyser starts gurgling and filling up with water, building pressure at the same time pressure builds in me. Everything is syncopated and my wings move with the rotation of the planet and sun.
Two birds start hopping up and down with their wings beating. Jumping toward each other, then popping back, testing their strength and virility. I crouch lower to the ground and sweep forward with my wings outstretched. Two hop over my wings. Another screams “Augaroo-a-a-a, garoo-a-a-a‚ au–a challenge and a promise. The cry passes to me, and I rise up tall and proud. I crouch down and jump up, my wings spread high above me as I twist upwards and fall back to the earth in a spiral. Beating my wings aggressively, I turn and face Theo–stare him in the eyes and lunge toward him twice, my body hinging at the waist. Still uncertain, he mimics my motions. I back away, feeling the heat of his movement, even if he can’t feel it yet.
“Garoo-a-a-a!” he yells at me, moving closer to the bird inside of him. I step away and bend toward him. Keith joins our circle and spreads his wings, his gray and red face blank as a bird’s. In unison, we run toward Plume geyser and, one by one, we jump across. The pit in the earth gurgles with boiling water below us. A dare, a challenge to the mother, and she lets us pass by, unburned. We turn and dance mirroring each other, facing the crowd of ragged Americans chewing on soya-dogs and deep-fried kelp bars.
Keith jumps up and does a somersault in the air. Theo does the same and I bend toward them, challenging, receding, moving. With a gurgle and suck, Plume geyser spews up and we run around it, our dance becoming more urgent as the hot mist hits us and stings.
People scream and clap their hands. Keith uses Theo’s shoulders to launch himself up higher. Theo watches him, then does the same with me, his weight pushing off me as he twists into the air. We are birds and we are magnificent. We get lost in the movement that goes on and on, ebbs and flows, reinvents itself and repeats. Garoo-a-a-a. We end by sweeping our wings along the ground.
People clap and kids jump up and down on the flimsy metal seating. I smile up at them. There’s few enough things the people of this country look forward to anymore, and I’m glad to be one of them. Young women with a hungry look to them check us out, as do a few men. Not that it will do them any good–none of us can be sexual on the migration. Just like birds, we have other fixations. Still, no one minds the appreciative stares.
We turn and walk away from them, back to the fake log cabins they put us up at.
Theo walks beside me, deciding, I guess, that I’m not so useless. You learn things about a man when you dance with him.
“That was… tell me about those birds.”
“Sandhill cranes danced for courtship, hierarchy, territories, and maybe, sometimes just because they wanted to. At least that’s what I think. They went extinct in May of 2012. Word went out that there was one surviving flock, and everyone shot at them, wanting to be the one to cause the extinction. We’ve got some of them in us. We’ve got every bird that we dance in us. They tell you that?”
Theo nods. “I didn’t all the way believe it. But then, the dance… it was magical.”
“What’s your favorite bird dance?”
“California Condor. Huge, ugly, awkward vultures. We dance it in the Narrows of Zion. There’s something about that bird. Some say it’s the little sister to the Thunderbird.”
“A big old vengeful bird that stirred up storms with the beat of his wings. A birds that carries lightning bolts in his beak, at least that’s what the Lakota Indians say.” I pat Theo on the back. He’s okay. Sometimes you dance with a man, and you know you don’t like him, plain and simple. But Theo’s all right.
Yellowstone has fixed us up a huge dinner set up at one of their picnic tables, and we eat like starving men. Like birds a long time between meals. There are platters of fat burgers with all the condiments; three kinds of slaws–red, white and green; potato salad with plenty of hard boiled eggs; and my favorite, this kind of chocolate cake that is gooey in the middle like they put the frosting on the inside.
We eat and eat and there is a light that shines out from each of us. They’ve genmodded us into gods, and here at American Valhalla, they feed us well.
Our Sponsor pops up out of nowhere, and his men follow behind him like a long dark shadow. He yanks everything good out of the day as he looks us over proudly. He plunks down different products on the table–sparkle ketchup, muscle-grow lotion, and bird-men model kits. One of his men sets up lights over the table and starts taking pictures. I look over at Theo in the washed out light and it hurts. I see all his pride turning into shame. For the first time he’s realizing how the bird parts embedded into him exists to make money. Tie-ins, tell-alls, television, action figures, and that’s not to mention all the tax write-offs our owner gets for having us dance at national parks. I lose my appetite as the Sponsor sits down at our table.
“How’s the ride, boys? Any problems?” His men check our bikes and start resupplying them with provisions. “I brought you a surprise.” The way he says it, I just know it’s gonna be nasty.
One of his men brings old Ray to the table. Cruel. Being here and seeing us reminds Ray of all the things he’s lost. It’s been ten years since he last rode with us, and the years have not been kind. His red face is weather-burned and even though he wears a big smile, I can see it’s all uneasy sleep and hardship underneath. All ache inside to migrate, even though his body can’t make it anymore.
“Hi boys.” His southern drawl reminds me of all the good rides and dances we had. It makes me uneasy. I liked Ray. Hell, we all did.
“Hi Ray, have a seat. Have some food. Plenty of it,” I say.
He sits down next to me. I glare at the Sponsor until he leaves our table. He stays within earshot, of course.
“How you been?” I ask.
Bleak eyes with a migrator’s wide pupils meet mine, then dart away. Behind us I hear one of the geysers–probably Old Faithful–explode upwards as people clap and yell.
Ray takes a burger and studies it like maybe the answer is written on it. He sighs and says, “Couldn’t be better. Best thing I ever did was quit the ride.”
“Yeah, you look happy. You heard about Siv? That’s why you’re here, right?” I ask.
“Shame, that. Should have stopped while he could.”
Everyone’s looking at me and stuffing food into their mouths so they won’t have to talk. Thanks, boys.
“He died well,” I say, easy as I can. “I visited Jenny and his three kids. They’re doing just fine, set up in Texas on an old sheep ranch.”
“It’s not worth it to die for the pension,” Ray says loudly. Behind him the Sponsor looks smug. “A man should get to live after all that providing. He shouldn’t have to die just to get his family taken care of. Hell, they give me plenty of money to live on.”
“You call what you’re doing living, Ray?” I say real quiet, just between him and me.
“The operation worked fine. They were able to reverse all the changes. I live like a normal man, Josiah. You should try it.”
As clear as the bird eyes on his face, I know he’s lying. I forgive him, because it’s probably one of the things the Sponsor wants him to say.
“You want to give it all away? You want to die just so your wife can have nice things?” Ray asks.
It’s a good thing he’s old and ragged. I remember that he never got on so well with his wife. The woman was always angry at him for migrating, and could never forgive him for it during the months in between.
“That’s why you’re being paid to talk to us, Ray, because you don’t need money? Where’re you living?”
He looks down at his old man hands with dirt in the creases. “Here and there.”
“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, Ray, but don’t come around here questioning any migrator’s decision, and don’t ever talk bad about Siv again. He was a great rider.”
“He was a fool.”
The Sponsor follows Ray, then calls back to us, “See you in Utah, boys.”
That night, sitting around a good smelling cedar campfire, we talk about Siv. Theo sits next to me and does a good job of listening, for once. Maybe too good, like he’s trying to memorize it to tell the Sponsor.
“Remember when Siv talked us into a detour up into the Rockies where he heard some raptors were nesting?” Scotty asks.
Chuckles all around.
“Four migrations back. We lost four days chasing those imagined birds,” Hector explains for Theo’s sake. “Everyday uphill on crap roads, too. Siv was crazy for nature.”
“One time he talked us all into doing peyote so we could really know what it felt like to fly,” I say. “Three of us almost jumped off a cliff.”
“Josiah got so paranoid he tried to set our bikes on fire. And we all saw these huge birds, big as cars, circling over us in the sky, black as midnight, spookiest thing I’ve ever seen,” Hector adds.
“Two days of headaches and diarrhea after that, and Siv wanted us to trip again, this time with mushrooms.” Scotty laughs.
“He was a good man to have on the ride,” I say.
We get all quiet, maybe remembering the last time we were with him and what we had to do.
“What was Ray like?” Theo asks.
“Good enough.” Damn fine, truth be told, but hell if any of us were going to reminisce about him.
“He doesn’t look good,” Scotty says. “I bet he regrets his decision.”
“What decision?” Theo asks.
Silence all around.
It falls on me to talk to him, although he probably knows damn well what we are hinting at. Hector and Scotty make a fire and everyone is real quiet as I talk.
“Why’d you join us, Theo?”
“I’ve always wanted to dance. No money for dance anywhere else.”
“No, not the reason you told the Sponsor. The real reason. You’ve got a big family, lots of siblings, probably, and maybe a girlfriend who wants to get married and have kids soon. That about right?”
“All of us do, and the contract states that we’ll get our fat paychecks so long as we migrate. Hell, in this economy, it’s impossible to turn it down. But when we quit, our pension is set at five percent, nothing more. Maybe one man can live on that, but not well.”
He nods again vaguely. He’s young and will stay that way forever right?
“So long as we ride everyone is happy and you get to be the man that brings them security. You quit and your bird parts are telling you to go, only your body’s crap and you’re too poor to own a decent bike. What do they give you? Five percent of your wage, for the rest of your life. But under Federal law, if you are genetically modified and die on the job, they have to pay a lump sum of ten year’s wages. Simple as that.”
“Are you saying Siv killed himself and made it look like an accident?” Theo asks softly.
“I’m saying there are four men on this migration who will swear to every police investigator that it was an accident. I’m also saying that the Sponsor would pay a man, let’s say a new migrator, good money to prove dancers don’t die on accident. Then he wouldn’t have to pay out one red cent when we died. Wouldn’t you agree, Theo?”
The fledgling had the decency to blush.
We make a loop in Yellowstone and double back to Mammoth, then Tower Falls, and Yellowstone lake. We dance as Tundra Swans, American Kestrels, and Black Terns before we leave the park and cut through Wyoming into Idaho and the City of Rocks. The crowd there is small and some elderly hippie chicks try to join in our dance. Scotty comes close to breaking a leg. We haul ass the rest of the way through Idaho. Pretty country full of bright yellows and pink rock-face sticking out underneath rolling green hills. I’m feeling my body more than I would like, more than I have in the past.
Just before we hit the Utah border, black clouds hover all morning on the edge of the sky and grow as we bike toward them. We feel the electricity in that storm–migrating birds have metal in their heads to follow the magnetic poles, and so do we. It makes me feel buzzed. The temperature drops ten degrees and a mean wind kicks up. Bless the makers of our smart cloth that knows when to keep us warm.
We ride down a busted up highway that smells like grass and petrochemicals. There’s no sign of anything human in sight. There’s less and less on this stretch of highway every year. They bulldoze the old barns and farmhouses because the dirt is contaminated and they don’t want anyone coming here to squat and then suing later for cancer.
Something big and dark flits across the sky. I look up, but there is nothing. A wall of rain rushes toward. When we hit it, there’s so much rain it’s three inches deep on the road.
Hector lets out a ululating cry and raises both of his hands in the air as he raises his head toward the sky. We all do the same. As I stare up at the whirling flecks of rain coming down, everything stops and is made eternal. Then we hunch over our bikes and peddle on.
My belly starts to feel shaky and two protein bars don’t do anything to help it. It grows darker and colder. My arms feel rubbery and numb. Scotty sets a good pace to keep us warm, but not so fast that we keel over. He looks back at me, worried. I grin at him. Mind yourself, Scotty, I’ll keep up. There have been other migrations where we’ve ridden all night just to stay warm, and we’ll do that, if we have to.
Then a sway-backed barn as beautiful as a mansion comes into view, and Hector lets out another loud bird cry.
It’s not that dry inside, and the moldy hay makes my nose itch, but it’ll do. We climb up into the loft where it’s drier and settle in to sleep, except for Theo. He sits in a corner near an open window and stares outside. I’m exhausted and need sleep more than the rest of them, but I go sit next to him anyway.
“Big storm,” I say.
“What’re you thinking?”
A lightning strike illuminates his face. He looks worried. “I’m changing… more than I thought I would. More than he said I would,” he says, not looking up from the hay his hands play with.
I wait for him to explain.
He holds out his arm. “Touch it.”
I do. It feels smooth one way, prickly the other.
“Feathers,” he says. “Real small ones.”
I try not to, but it’s been a long day. I laugh.
“It’s not funny,” he says.
“Yes it is. We all have weird side effects. Hell, that one might even be intentional. They don’t exactly know what they are doing with our augmentations.” I hold up one of my hands. The tan polish on one of my nails had chipped off to show the black. “I’ve got talons on my fingers and toes. Have to keep them trimmed real close or else they cut my wife. Keith, though he hates to admit it, loves to eat worms. Ask him about it. And don’t ask Hector and Scotty about their tail feathers.”
“You’re doing fine, Theo. You’re riding well and dancing well. That’s what this life’s about.”
“It’s just… I can’t go back, can I?”
“There’s something… he offered me five years pay for every migrator I ratted on,” Theo whispers.
“That’s a mighty fine offer.” And half of what the bastard would pay out otherwise, I think. “A man could get rich real quick, but there’s a price for all that money.”
There’s an awkwardness between us. “Do you want to die, Josiah? Don’t you want to keep living?”
“Did the Sponsor tell you migrators don’t live as long as normal people, even without accidents?”
“Course he didn’t. It’s true though. It’s a heavy strain on the body.”
“But don’t you want to live?”
“Of course. No one wants to die, but we all do, don’t we? You set your mind on getting through this migration. Leave the macabre thoughts to old men like me.” I put my hand on his shoulder and let it rest there.
Lightning pulses outside, and I see what looks like a huge bird flying up in the middle of the storm.
When the morning sun wakes us up the world has been washed clean and pretty. We ride on and pop into hover over huge gashes in the road. We discover a diner that serves up pieces of peanut-butter chocolate pie that we eat as townspeople gawk at us.
In Colorado we run into some angry types. They catch up to us on a gut-busting climb out of Steamboat Springs up to Rabbit Ears Pass. They chug passed us spewing griesel fumes that smell like burnt french fries. The environmentalists have joined up with the local dance troupe and picked up some anti-genmod types by the looks of their bumper stickers. They stop their van about a quarter mile away from us. Ten of them all pile out to make a human line across the road. There’s forest on both sides of us that we could run into, but we’d have to leave the bikes. We could ride back down the hill, but hell if we’re going to.
“What should we do, Josiah?” Hector asks quietly.
One reason birds have died out, beyond all the toxins, is that they just couldn’t find hospitable places to live.
“Let’s just talk to them,” I say.
We grind on up the hill and stop ten feet away. I’m bonked enough by the ride to be glad for the unscheduled stop, come what may, and squeeze some watergel into my mouth. I keep an eye on them and on my migrators. Usually protesters show up at performances and try to mess us up, but there’s nothing but us and them out here.
“Morning,” I call out.
Hatred thick as cream on each of their faces.
“Hacks,” one of them says. She’s a dancer, by the thin, ropy look to her. “You’re not dancers. You’re monkeys!”
“Freaks,” a man says.
A bird streaks across the air above me, but when I look up, nothing’s there.
Keith takes a step forward. I put a hand on his shoulder and he stays put. Ten to five ratio is not good odds, and we’ve got a dance to make by nightfall.
“Your owner destroys all the wildlife, and then gets tax breaks for sending you out to the parks and make people forget all the animals are gone,” a hungry looking man says.
Anger grows among us. A tensing of bodies. A shifting of feet and stances. Like a dance. I feel my hands curl into fists and the desire to hit something grows in me. “We’re just getting by, same as everyone,” I say, calmly as I can. “Your beef’s with our Sponsor. Go harass him.” But they won’t. He’s too heavily guarded. “We’re just men doing our jobs.”
A woman spits on the ground, and I can see the time to talk is over. When they run at us, we do the same and start beating at each other in the middle of the road. Only it’s not a fair fight. They pull out the kind of cheap sticky-tasers you can buy at any 7-11. They aim and fire and we wriggle on the ground and gasp for breath as they put collars around our necks and spray paint the panniers of our bike. They drive off.
“Fuck!” Scotty yells. He’s the first one to get his legs back and stand up. He’s wearing an inch thick collar that says “Bird Killer.”
We sit up and look at each other. Keith is “Genefreak,” Hector is “Corporate Slave,” Theo is “Dance Whore, and mine says, “Earth Raper.”
“Well, boys,” I say, “looks like we got ourselves some new nicknames.” We bike all the way to Echo Park with our new logos, too proud, I guess, to call our Sponsor for help. We bike through small one road towns and get laughed at by shiny clean Mormon kids lining the street to watch us. The collars rub our necks raw until we meet up with the Sponsor who hires a welder to cut them off.
From Echo Park we change out our tires for heavier treads and bike into the middle of Utah down old cattle roads along the Green river. We swim in the hot water every day and try to avoid the dead fish floating around. The only people out here are long-bearded men living in little blow away shacks. They glare at us even though they see us twice a year, every year. We stay up late and watch bats catch mosquitoes. We tell stories. I tell more than anyone else, which is unusual for me, but somehow I want to tell all of them about me and make sure they remember. When I talk it feels to me like the other riders no longer with us are listening in too.
When a goose dies on a migration, the other geese leave a spot for him in their slipstream, an empty space of air where he used to be. I wish we had something like that.
The migration drags on through Arches, Canyonlands, Rainbow Bridge, and Bryce Canyon. Everyone is still riding well and dancing well. I’m the only one who’s feeling it, but I hide my aches and pains. Every night I’m so exhausted I don’t ever want to move again. Every day brings us closer to the end: I remind myself of that daily.
“Josiah, we can ride slower,” Keith says.
I glare at him. “You tired, Genefreak?”
I see birds all morning on the ride. They keep playing around the edge of my vision, then disappearing. They got a fancy word for that–heat-induced-hallucinations–but I could just swear they were real.
I bike alongside Theo. He keeps getting stuck in the sand drifts that cover the road into Zion. I show him how to peddle into them with just enough momentum to coast through. I lean over to point to Theo where he needs to stop pedaling, which is why I don’t see the hole in the road that sends me end-o off my bike.
End-over-end-over-end, and then I hit the hard-rock ground with my legs, and something in my left leg snaps. Like a painful rubber band ricocheting up my calf and thigh, then biting into my ass. The pain’s like getting a tooth pulled out, awful for a moment, then a kind of relief. Until I try to stand up, that is. I scream so loud tears pop out of my eyes.
“Don’t move, Josiah,” Scotty says.
I try to get up again, then I curl up on the ground and yell some more.
A torn Achilles takes six months to heal, and it’s never very strong after that. Every migrators knows about leg injuries, and which ones are recoverable. This one isn’t.
It gets real quiet between us all. There’s a question that they don’t want to ask, and I don’t want to answer. I’d made my decision years ago, but it’s different being here, having finally arrived where I always knew I’d end up. Finally, I say, “This’ll be my last dance. As long as that’s okay with you, Theo?”
We all look at him, but he won’t look back at any of us. I can see the struggle going on inside of him, deciding what kind of man he is going to be. Finally, he nods his head and says, “I’m a migrator, aren’t I?”
I ride tied up behind Theo and he uses up all his hover on me, riding gentle over all the rough spots. Scotty rides with my bike strapped onto his back. We take a trail through desert back-country so no one will catch sight of us. We’re only thirty miles out from Zion, but it’s the longest ride of my life. Funny how time stretches out at the least convenient times.
“Hey Theo,” I say, just as the ridge of the Narrows comes into sight.
He looks sick. I remember the first time I was part of something like this on a migration. I tell him the same thing I was told. “This is nothing. Don’t let it worry you. Okay?”
Theo hits a bump, and I hold back a groan. As soon as we get to the top of the canyon where the ropes are all set out, Hector radios in that we are starting the dance in four minutes. I hear the Sponsor start to complain and ask why, real anxious like, but Hector cuts him off.
They make a circle around me, and dress and harness me as gently and quickly as they can. The Sponsor will be on his way up the old canyon road. If he makes it here….
Hector radios in again and says they better cue the music because we’re starting right now. Scotty and Keith cut both the ropes that will hold me up. Not all the way through, but enough so they will snap. Later on the police will examine the ropes and suspect foul play, but there’ll be four men swearing nothing happened. We walk to the edge of the canyon. Theo and Hector hold me up, and, as one, we all jump out into the Narrows Canyon, arcing and spinning around in the air, holding up our arms that are the wings of the California Condor.
The ropes are tethered to both sides of the canyon, and one rope pulls taut as I hit one side of the canyon, then kick out from it with my good leg. The harness pushes on the bulge of my snapped muscles. I hiss and grunt with the effort: the California condor has no vocal cords. Around me others hiss and flap. I spread my midnight wings out to their full length and look down at the canyon, at all the people looking up at me. I flow towards Keith, who grabs my hands, midair, and spins me around. I hit the other side of the canyon and swoop out from it. The other dancers fly around me. Their wings and hands touch me, saying goodbye. I see them with a clarity I don’t think I’ve ever had before. I see the birds in them, and the men. I wish I could tell them this–that it is something more, not less–but there are only hisses and pain.
One of my ropes snaps and I fall hard, hitting one side of the canyon. Hard rock smashes across my head, back, and legs. People scream, though of course this is one of the reasons so many come to see us perform. The other rope holds me above the Narrows, above the silvery Virgin river that wants me to come home, and I kick out into the canyon. A sixth bird joins us, and I know that I don’t want to die, am not ready to die yet. It is huge with twice the wingspan of any of us, and I feel the uplift from its wings as it flies beneath me. I recognize it is the bird I’ve been seeing the whole ride. I reach out to touch it. Its feathers are hot as fire. A Thunderbird. It fills my vision and there is nothing else. My body slams against the side of the canyon again, and the other rope snaps. My body falls, and it is all feathers and flight.
Copyright 2011 Katherine Sparrow
About the Author
Katherine Sparrow lives in a commune in Seattle with a bunch of strange and lovely birds. She likes to bike and has the calf muscles to prove it. She’s currently working on a book about monsters and the teenagers who love them. She blogs at ktsparrow.livejournal.com and has a website at katherinesparrow.net.