Ellen Kathleen Smith
The Forgotten Lungs of Birds
When 4.5 billion gallons of water are flowing through midtown, nobody stops to remember that a tablespoon could flood a bird's lungs or that the raindrops are shaped like shrapnel to shoot 'em right out of the air. Forget feathers are water resistant, not waterproof. But after the clouds parted and the floodwaters receded there were dead birds littering the sidewalks, belly up, throats to the sky, baking. Waterlogged in the roads, their tiny bodies saturated with sludge.
We were hanging tight, safe in our island apartment, following orders to get inside, do not travel, head to higher ground, stay dry. Meanwhile, Momma bird was alchemy. Momma bird was making umbrellas of her wings to cover her babies. Spreading her feathers into ceilings.
Be still my darlings. Keep your head down darlings. Baby birds were crying. Baby birds were hungry. Baby birds wanted to go find the worms. Baby birds remember shells being waterproof. Wanna go back into the shell.
Momma bird said stay. Momma bird said we go hungry for a couple of days. Momma bird said keep learning your song. The rain's a dizzying metronome. Keep singing along. Sleep it off. Momma bird said the dry gonna come but it ain't ever rained so long. Said I thought we were born in a desert. Said this don't make no sense, my skeleton arms are getting tired.
Said our nest is an abrupt pond, a sinking ship. Said remember our ancestors on the ark, babies: only two of 'em were invited to survive, the rest they had to tread air the whole time to stay alive. Said remember: it's the hollow in our bones that makes us fly. It's the hollow in our bones that makes us fragile.
The dove was our kin, was the first one free from the flood, the first one to see the sun. The dove, the olive tree, the olive tree, the peace. Still, Momma bird said the air don't feel quite right. The air feels heavy like a blanket tonight. Said hold your breath, babies. Keep humming.
The whole time, the loudest birds we heard were the black hawk choppers rumble, rumble in the sky. Echo off the mountainside.
Wings turned to helicopter blades.
Chirps alchemized into sirens.
Birdsongs drowned into silence.
Ellen Kathleen Smith
is a writer, artist, and art teacher living in Washington State with her husband and chickens. She has competed at the National Poetry Slam and facilitated numerous creative writing workshops in her community.