Spreading out like a dense forest, shaking and rippling like a field of corn combed by the north wind, a hypnotic wave, a river above craggy peaks, the flock is like a cloud-filled sky when a storm is mounting, when more than a thousand eyes are needed to encompass them all or none, so as not to see them at all, and hear the simultaneous fluttering and fashioning of this hologram, the flock above, a whole mirror.
“Do birds float?”
“Yes, of course they float,” his father says, “and see everything, smell everything with the sharp beaks they have, and know everything, through their small, beady eyes that are always still, though they say nothing, they know everything. Now the harvests are poor they feel starved, and nervous, and live fearfully above the plains; ever since we started killing them, they are afraid of the nets and tarred branches. Yet still they swoop down. Fly down and eat the olives or peck at maize, or go inside barns and steal feed. The forest is black, pitch black, and falls from high in the sky, an ever trembling, dancing mass, appearing, disappearing, and only thrushes fly this way. Huge flocks of thrushes float and darken the sky like thunder clouds, change direction and the light and allow the sun to shine, in unison, as if the flock had a single brain; the bastards know everything, can move all at once,” says his father.
Yes, of course the birds float, float through the air and move quickly like fish, fins fluttering; they float approaching from afar like a dark forest, a distant, rippling line that keeps thickening. There are times when the whole sky is covered in black and neither in the distance nor beyond the plains can you see clearings where there are no thrushes, and then they drop down, as if plummeting vertically: from our farmhouse I saw the plains turn black, and us shut inside so they didn’t know we were inside, peering through the crack in the wooden door, the holes in the windows and listening to their nails scraping the tiles. The first two years they left us no olives, grapes, corn or maize, and there was a shortage of oil and wine and bread as well, and green walnuts didn’t manage to heal the wounds left by the first flocks for the next wave had already eaten them.
The first small flocks arrived at the beginning of spring, as if those playful, ridiculous smudges were a warning, a derisory anticipation of the big clouds that would arrive days later—the first days of April—the grandiose vessels that ravaged the planted fields, stripping the ears that had just seeded, pecking at the still small, green peaches; and mid-autumn they’d come from the west spoiling grapes, ravaging olive trees, turning the silvery green of the trees black, casting a deep shadow over the plain; and there were no sweet-smelling green ferns or siren songs: they just spread fear from one field to another and I saw peasants clinging to the ground—because you sent me to them—fighting to the death on the side-paths in the middle of a circle of thrushes, as if the latter were egging them on; an emboldened circle that ignored them and scrutinized the seeded fields, looking for planted seeds or young shoots, as the olive trees stiffened their branches to withstand the weight of the birds, rather than any olives, and if the peasants had killed one another, nothing would have remained of their bodies. The birds float effortlessly, look for nothing, because they want nothing, only to eat, only to continue to live, and you can be sure they would eat one another if needs be, one after another until only one would be left that would re-create the whole flock, his father said. They seek out food like a single body, those first flights like an exploratory hand, a hand groping through the fields, searching for food, shaping the remaining limbs that then come like a black body, a flock with hands and nails and an immense belly to stuff. They turn over every clod, their beaks strip the sheaves of seeds a second time, to give every farm a cold, barren December, and leave us without food, his father said.
It was then the General came. He arrived in the thick of the worst weather with army trucks and his dark glasses, rubbing the instep of his boots against his trousers to make them shine; in the miserable, sterile times when the soldiers unrolled nets through the village, and dressed some houses and streets to show us how to get rid of them. They had to be spread at night over the Burnt Ravines covering the gullies where reeds acted as stables for livestock, or quickly over the tops of trees. They also showed us how to put them over open fields, using sticks covered in glue or long poles to which they tied the stretched netting, the walls where they leaned them. The General said nothing, just slowly waved his hands, gestures of latent violence; without ever betraying a glimpse of the gaze behind his glasses, but everyone obeyed his slightest movement. We kids had to run in front of everyone with the nets and spread them over the sleeping birds, or rush down into the gullies to the deafening twittering and beating of wings of the birds that were waking up and covering us in their shit, from the loads they dropped as they took flight.
The soldiers gave us nets, and days later we caught thousands and beat them with sticks, women and children too, and we trampled on them as they poked their beaks through the netting to bite boots, we crushed their fragile bones, cracking them underfoot; it’s not much fun killing animals, they were only hungry like us, and their little legs cracked as well. You sometimes stumbled on the black mass—the stinking feathers, unbearable chirping—stirring from its incessant death agony under your body, on top of each other, injured or dead, and your hands sank down into wings and heads and felt their bones slide as their wings beat furiously and bloodily. We walked over a mound of dead animals—birds on the ground also know how to float and not sink—scattering the sheaves with still, black dots, the landscape after the battle, a few feathers fluttering on windy days on dried out bodies or on side-paths, lying there or hanging from the hedges. On the hottest days of summer, the village stank with the stench that came from the trench of the rotting remains. Two months later the village expected to see the first signs of their return. Aware there were families that winter—after a bitter, inane autumn of ravaged harvests—that would have to eat thrushes because there was nothing else; birds they left to dry, plucked and cut open like quails, in attics or pigsties, that afterward they turned into broth, broth mixed with potatoes and pig crackling. They are the birds of hunger, visiting us after we lost the war, avenging, sweeping up all they find, people said.
The following spring the flocks returned, it was three years before they stopped coming to the plains. And time and time again we untangled the nets and spread them over gullies, trees and by the river. The General returned in these years of ruined harvests to direct the farmers’ activity, to make spaces to put the mounds of putrefied birds, make plans of the places where screens of netting should be raised among the sheaves and visit the wife of a local party boss, a war widow. The General always kept a wary, hermetic distance from the small farmers, and our mothers grabbed us when they saw him coming down the street, always in green, addressing everyone arrogantly, walking down the middle of the street, signing bits of paper without looking at them, as if he had no eyes behind that tinted glass, a dark green under the shadow of his peaked cap.
Each year there were fewer birds and gradually the hunger began to go. The number of soldiers diminished, but the General would still appear in the center of the village when nobody was expecting him, and he would come and go, stroll around, only seen by one or two people who would stop in the middle of the street, look down and wait for him to utter an inaudible “good day,” a high-pitched squeak, before they could continue on their way commenting that he was every inch a real general, in those gleaming boots he was always cleaning on the back of his trouser legs.
They say they saw him for the last time really strutting around near the Burned Ravines, in the jagged hillocks that acted as a parapet during a battle, in the war, when he explained in his shrill tone that right there, they’d killed the lot of them, just like the thrushes, by encircling the enemy positions with a net of men, and pouring petrol down rather than netting to erase any sign of life from those starving animals that were already in retreat when his troops arrived.
From De fems i de marbres. Copyright 2003 by Francesc Serès. Copyright 2003 by Quaderns Crema, S.A. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2008 by Peter Bush. All rights reserved.