Ornithology by Jocelyn Royalty

I saw the Yellow-crowned Night Heron for the first time when I was on bedrest. I’d come down the stairs too fast because Cupcake had been pulling me like she always does, and I fell hard on my leg. My knees aren’t what they used to be. The doctor gave me a big brace and told me to lie down for a week, and the girl next door had to come walk Cupcake for me. She’s real nice—all “good afternoon Ms. Davis,” and “is there anything I can get for you?” But there is nothing she can get for me.

When the night heron first tapped on my window, I thought I was dreaming. I’d never seen a bird that big up close, and never a heron this far into the city. He had a ragged mess of feathers, kind of like an ugly mop. He wasn’t pretty like he should’ve been. He knocked his beak against the glass, his head turned to the side to get a better look at me. I thought about opening the window, maybe letting him fly in but I’d heard about bird-borne illnesses, so I just laid there until he flew away. His wild and ancient body dissolved into the flashing lights of some pizzeria on Wooster Street.

As soon as the girl came to walk Cupcake the next day, I had her bring me the phone. It was a landline, because I won’t get a cell no matter what the service companies say, so she had to stretch the cord from the upstairs den to my bedroom. It just barely reached. I couldn’t breathe for a second when I finally got the receiver in my hand; when I realized there was no one that I could call. My mother was dead. My daughter was in Rhode Island with her new wife, and she didn’t want to hear from me. I had never had a husband. The apartment felt like a church that no one had gone to in a very long time.

I called Mara from book club. “Mara,” I said, “You won’t believe what I saw last night.” Mara didn’t know me all that well, but she came over right away. She brought her laptop and sat on my bed, and we researched herons together. That’s how I found out I’d seen a Yellow-crowned Night Heron.

“Huh,” Mara said, pointing to an article from the Audubon Association. “That’s funny. It says they nest way up in trees. Over water, too. Not a lot of trees in downtown New Haven.” I heard a little doubt creep into her voice. Don’t say it, I begged silently, but the words were already coming out of her mouth: “Are you sure that’s what you saw?” I made her leave after that. I knew what I’d seen. It was impossible and that was why it mattered.

He visited me again that night. I put my hand up to the window and he craned his neck slightly to meet my palm. We were only a few millimeters of glass away. “I’m not crazy,” I told the Yellow-crowned Night Heron. He shivered in the smog. “You’re far from home, aren’t you?” I asked. I told him about when my daughter was in fourth grade, and she read only field guides. She could identify any plant or animal. We would walk in the park, and she’d pull me to where the knotweed lined gravel. “Persicaria,” she’d say. I remembered that one. It sounded like “precarious.”

The Yellow-crowned Night Heron visited me for the last time on the Fourth of July. I worried about him all day, about how the fireworks might scare him or set fire to whatever high-up nest he’d built in a storefront. But he was unscathed when he appeared at my window, his throat pulsing with the same mild anxiety it always did. The house was empty and I opened the window. Cupcake was still on the foot of the bed as the night heron stepped inside. The night heron laid down under my arm like my daughter did when she was very small and we watched TV together.

When I met my daughter’s father, I was only sixteen. He was a basketball player at the high school, and he knew every state capital and could hawk a loogie farther than any of his friends. He liked to throw stones at my window like we were in a movie, but it always woke up my parents. We snuck out a few times anyway and had a lukewarm summer fling before he left for college.

The night heron stood up. He took long, wide steps off my bed and towards the bedroom door. My bedrest had ended the day before, so I followed him, hobbling a little on my bad knee. He turned his head quizzically at the knob, and I opened it for him. We then walked downstairs to the front door together.

He stayed at my side, as we stumbled out the front door and into the heat-black night. The sky was red-white-blue chaos. I followed the night heron to Union Station, careful to keep my eye on him amongst the cyclone of mini-skirted girls and drunk men waving sparklers. He led me down the escalator, into the cool underground where a few people waited in line for coffees. There were no windows here. That had always scared my daughter. She said the domed metal ceiling made it her feel like the inside of a Xiphius gladius. I thought it was strange that he would want to go there, somewhere dark and subterranean. I followed him anyway.

He and I found the back corner the station, behind the caution-taped entryway to platform 10. All my life, platform 10 had been closed for maintenance. At some point, maybe, the staff had forgotten about it entirely, or they’d given up on it, and now it was in limbo: not demolished, not repaired. The Yellow-crowned Night Heron flapped his wings a few times. He glided upwards a foot or two, and I saw what must have been his nest. It was wedged haphazardly into the railing, a salad of telephone wires and newspaper bags and scraps of cardboard. I sat down under it, and he perched on my shoulder.

From here, we could just make out the shape of a girl who could have been my daughter. She was talking angrily into her iPhone as she climbed the stairs to platform 8. “It’s not that you didn’t listen just this once,” I heard her say through the fog of the robotic voice announcing the next train to Boston. “It’s that you never do. It’s like I’m walking through this world shouting and shouting, and you’re somewhere underwater or something. But calm down. I’m coming home.”

I stroked the night heron as I watched the woman’s patent leather boots click up the stairs, watched her depart into the mouth of the station. The heron wrapped his neck around my head, and I knew his eyes were closing. I could feel his feathered chest slow against my face. We were falling asleep.

 

Jocelyn Royalty is a junior in the creative writing program at the University of Maine at Farmington. Previously, she attended the ACES Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven, Connecticut where she focused on creative writing and interned at The Yale Alumni Magazine. Her work has recently been published in The Oyster River Pages, The Rockvale Review, Club Plum, and The Allegheny Review, and she currently interns for the Burlington Writers Workshop. You can find out more about her publications and awards at jocelynroyalty.blogspot.com.

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