Alternative Hypothesis

The birds are dying so fast now. I find the bodies in gutters, on sidewalks, in parking lots. This is the delicate science of contagion.

On Friday, a woman called to report a rook decomposing on her lawn. The technician on duty laughed, but then relented. Said to dispose of it with gloves, and after that, to throw the gloves away. The woman wanted to know if we would record it, make note, collect the remains for study—isn’t that what we did?

He told her no.

It’s not like it was a person, and after all, everyone already knows that the virus is creeping around, getting under the skin of things. We have other problems, bigger things to worry about. Children are dying lately, and grandparents.

Yesterday, at just past noon, I took off my twill smock and went outside to eat my lunch in the heat. I sat on the curb and watched a crow flounder on the asphalt three feet away. It stared into my face, one shining eye at a time. The left, and then the right, like it was waiting for me to murder it or save it. When it flapped its wings, the sun reflected off its back in a slick, dirty rainbow. This morning, it was dead, looking smaller and blacker than it had the day before.

Every evening, I come home in the long twilight, just as the city is cooling. Tonight, my husband met me in the hall, wearing his classroom demeanor, his scholar’s face. He was holding the pied cockatiel, which lay crumpled and still in the palm of his hand. Its legs were stiff as little twigs.

He said, “What have you done?”

“Nothing.”

When what I should have said is, What difference, really, when the world will always make its own chaos?

There are wars in countries I’ve never been to, and they said on the news that a man has been breaking into girls’ bedrooms. I open my windows at night, but the air is quiet. This is the oppressive height of summer. Who’s to say those people wouldn’t have died anyway?

What have you done?

Nothing.

I followed instructions and procedures. The population is largely still immune.

Nothing.

I performed tests, studied mutation rates and polyhedral cultures, slipped needles into vials and into veins.

Nothing.

I bit my tongue. I sat on my hands.

Nothing is singing anymore.

9 thoughts on “Alternative Hypothesis

  1. Creeeeeeeepy.

    I love the paragraph that starts with “Yesterday, at just past noon…” Fabulous imagery.

  2. Way to make me paranoid about my Friday piece standing up to you guys!

    Nice atmosphere.

  3. Hah, I expect nothing but the chilling and lyrical best from you.

    (On a sidenote, when I first saw this comment, I somehow read it as I’d made you paranoid about virally contagious birds. Which, seeing that written down, strikes me as an improbable fear, but not an unreasonable one.)

  4. I had some winning political snark to respond with, but then realized this is probably the place to keep my mouth shut about politics. 😉 No politics or religion at the dinner tablewriting blog. 😉

  5. I’m having trouble reading this, but maybe because of my stupid browser. The font is all wonky.

    Lovely piece and for some reason I don’t find it as creepy as others. The detachment is perfect, however. Its so easy to do “nothing” and wonder why things only get worse.
    I liked your analysis on it later that you posted–about the difference between a vignette and a story.

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