Shelter in the Night

Boston, Massachusetts
Tuesday, March 24, 1981

Every morning the blackbirds fly to the east in long arching streams. A continuous band comes over the condo project across the street and disperses in a scattered line that breaks up the failing pink of the dawn as they head, approximately, for the ocean.

All winter, as I crossed the street, the wind cutting cold through my trouser legs, my cheeks red, scraped by the raw, I suspected that the blackbirds had set some dubious course for their migration and it was taking them to the coast before they turned south. Through the entirety of that season they persisted, crowding their sky-lane silently as their path intersected the man paths below. Did they ever actually leave? Were these the same birds? Every day?

One late afternoon I thought I’d discovered at least part of their secret.

I was waiting near the Brigham hospital for a bus. An agitated whirring drew my attention to the bare trees in the neighborhood nearby. Blackbirds filled the boughs, hopping about, leaning and looking, as if waiting for some imperceptible signal. One or two birds in the highest branches of each tree tested the air, springing free, five, ten, fifteen feet vertically; their greatest leaps mimicked by as many as five or six converts from the lower realm. These preliminary sortees gained in frequency and magnitude, clusters of birds circling the trees and then lighting again. And then springing spontaneously from the midst of hesitance and confusion, one bird shot with urgency and conviction into the darkening sky. Others followed at virtually the same moment, and then more, in ranks, one after the other, filling the air again with that dark scattered stream. The winding, blackbird cloud, swirled its way to the south, yet the buzzing, whirring remained. Many birds were left in the trees. Some, unsure, had peeled off from the original departing flock; others, anxious but not yet ready, never left the limbs.

Gradually the performance was repeated several times by those remaining, each a near duplication of the last—except for the deepening background of evening that was making the performers indistinguishable from their perches. Finally they all took wing, vacating the last trees in an instant, rushing to some goal beyond the approaching gloom, seeking companionship on the journey, or shelter in the night. 

Gone. Activity and noise receded like a wave, leaving a brief and sudden silence, until the #69 bus surged through the darkness, illuminating flecks of rain in the soft sphere of yellow light it pushed before it.

 

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