All the Songs the Little Birds Sing

2:17 a.m.: House Sparrow―These birds generally roost at night, though some flocks may shift hours in intensely lighted environments and forage during the early morning.

A thud against her window shook Alice from sleep. Half-sleep, really. All she could manage with this deep throb in her leg. She pulled the sheet over her face and clenched her lids to try to keep out the brightness that would follow. She could hear it almost, that loud light from the street. Alice cracked her left eye to that light that screamed in through her window like a welding arc. Desmond hadn’t stirred. She slipped out of bed. Her bed. Her room. Desmond snuffled. His turn next time, always his turn. But it was her window the building’s owners wouldn’t fix. Her window that was supposed to keep out the light all night long.

Her window.

The owners should have coated the outside with whatever it was that kept the little birds from flying into it. Little birds, always flying into windows, trying to get away from whatever was trying to catch them. Which was everything at all hours, since they kept the lights on all the time. No night meant an easier time of watching who came and went. No night meant the little birds started scavenging later and later. No night meant the hawks started hunting them down when they could.

Which meant Alice had to bang on her window to shut out the light at least twice a week.

Her window.

She looked out for a moment after her eyes adjusted. On the ledge lay the broken body of a starling. Her boss’s little girl, Genesis, had pointed them out to her, told her what they were called. They came in big groups to the feeders the girl hung just outside the shop, live twittering things. This one lay still, its head too far toward its wing. A little blood and something Alice didn’t want to think about smeared the window glass. Hawks got too fat, maybe they didn’t eat everything they killed. She looked back at Desmond before slamming her hand against the window to knock back into place whatever circuit had broken.

Her room went dark.

Alice made her way to her bed. Her room was small and spare. The pain from her calf muscle and the blinding green afterglow slowed her. Alice felt Genesis’s birding guide on the nightstand. She felt Desmond’s back under the ratty sheet. Soft, warm. So unlike her thin wiry body. Big. Her bed, but he took up most of it. Careful not to wake Desmond, she slipped in next to him. He’d come to start sleeping here a few months ago. They’d said they’d take turns with the window, but Desmond never woke for anything except that internal alarm of his. Four a.m. breakfast prep to do, and him never late for it.

5:00 a.m.: American Robin―You’ll find the robin a familiar sight in rooftop gardens that use earthworms as soil aerators.

The alarm woke Alice. Desmond had managed not to wake her. He never did, pushing his big soft body out of bed so early, never needing an alarm for it. Not Alice. Not now.

Her need to run used to wake her. She dressed, then made her way down the twelve flights of stairs and out into the empty streets. She was a runner: she needed to run.

Gulf humidity settled between the buildings. Birds sang from the balconies, maybe from the rooftops too, but she couldn’t hear them from here. In the glass of the buildings she ran past, she watched herself, her arms pumping, her gait that favored one leg. These miles in the morning used to be easy. She was a runner. No use trying to be a starver, like she did back in school. Hadn’t bled in twenty years or so. Didn’t know at forty-one if she still could. She couldn’t be a starver anyway and still work on Big Mike’s crew. Had to be a runner to keep up and to keep Desmond around while she could.

Pain grabbed her calf. She’d need to walk this off before she got back. Big Mike’s policy: no injured workers on machinery calls. She wanted to crawl back in bed. She wanted Desmond. Her bed. Desmond with his cook’s hands to knead the cramps from her leg. Desmond with his soft, warm body who could roll out of her bed and into someone else’s any day now. Alice stopped.

She leaned against a window. Her reflection glared back at her, laid over the view of the lobby, filling with people. Early. Probably cleaners. Workers like her. Women in those soft blue dresses, long hair tied up just so. She ran stiff fingers through her nearly buzzed hair. Too long. Desmond had asked her to grow it longer, just a bit, but this was just laziness. She’d set the trimmers out when she got back.


6:30 a.m.: Great-Tailed Grackle―The grackle produces a variety of noisy calls commonly heard throughout the city. Grackles are often mistaken for crows, but the two species are not related.

Alice cleaned up, dressed in loose coveralls for the work day, and walked back down to the first floor cafeteria. By the time she made her way to the breakfast line, she’d found a way to step that didn’t put so much pressure on her leg. Probably hurt the other one going around like this, but that was a problem for later. She tried not to lean so much on the tray rail.

Behind the glass, Les nodded. Les must have been what, sixty-five at least, and she still did occasional runs when Big Mike needed an expert hand at figuring out what ailed machinery twice as old as she was. Now Les mostly slung hash in the cafeteria that fed all of Big Mike’s crew and those of a half-dozen other clunk operations. Clunk, what you’d think these old machines would do, but they were in better repair than most of the new stuff that really clunked and died a week after you bought it. “You ain’t heard word yet?”

Alice shrugged. Les knew Alice better than anyone else. Knew about her sick momma, knew about her daddy who’d run off before her younger brother was born, knew about her younger brother who’d run off just before the border closed twenty-odd years ago. Not even Desmond knew that last one. “Run off.” Not her words. Her momma’s. Escaped. Knew better. Alice hadn’t seen Evan since he was sixteen. He’d known himself better, always had, even though he was two years younger. He knew he needed the middle ground that was closing up with the border between Texas and the rest of the world. She did too, but she figured she could find a way. Besides, her momma didn’t want her to leave. She’d told Les that one night, or maybe Les had sussed that out herself. Either way, Les knew.

“They’ll find him,” Les said. She slopped a ladle-full of gravy on a biscuit.

Alice took the plate. “They’ll find him for enough cash, yeah,” she said. Gravy seeped between the curds of scrambled eggs toward the bacon. She found a seat alone. Pain didn’t make her any more talkative than she usually was. She looked down at the food. Desmond’s hands all over it. Breakfast was Desmond’s domain, and half of lunch. He’d be in bed again by the time she’d finished her shift. Didn’t matter. She’d have this with her all day, wouldn’t she? The eggs, the bacon, the sausage in the cream gravy. The way the biscuit yielded to her knife. And the thousand things he how knew to do with oranges.

A cup of coffee knocked into her plate. Petra, young as Alice was when she’d started in the business, stared at her from across the table. “You gotta teach me to eat,” she said. Petra pointed to her plate. Half orange slices, half bacon. “So I can get through the morning.”

“Don’t think I know more than anyone else here does, Petra.” Alice shoved a biscuit into her mouth.

“I see you out running.” Petra wiped bacon grease on the sleeve of her coveralls, spotted with motor oil and other meals. “You gotta teach me to run.”

Alice swallowed hard, the biscuit half unchewed. “Ain’t nothing more than one foot, then the other. Besides, you should have learned all about that years ago. What’ve you been doing? Taking chances?” Can’t be a starver and work here. Can’t be a mother and work here.

“Look, I know I’ve been stupid, but I’ve been lucky so far.” Petra smiled. Orange pulp hung between her teeth. “But Angel, he doesn’t want nothing out of us until I start running, like you do.”

Had Desmond been eying the younger ones? Petra had Angel, or the hope of him anyway. “If I tell you anything, you keep it to yourself, understand?” Petra nodded. Half these girls came out of what got called school now with no understanding and a lot of experience. If she taught Petra, and if Desmond and Petra did, well, no kid, no harm. Alice’s thinking on that for a long time, anyway. Across the cafeteria, Genesis and Little Mike skittered into line. Their mother, Dani, followed. They’d get their food and eat at their own table with Big Mike. Happy family. Alice slumped. Yesterday, Genesis had asked her how the eggs get into the bird’s’ nests on their balcony. Alice told her to ask her momma. Eleven and not knowing that. What Big Mike and Dani did was their own business. But still. Petra was lucky. “You come out with me in the morning tomorrow, 5am, all ready. We’ll talk then.”

Petra flitted off with her empty plate and cup. Alice trudged through the rest of her breakfast, too much, more than her stomach could handle. Tomorrow, she’d run again. She’d find that middle ground. Tomorrow, she’d feel like herself again.


7:45 a.m.: Blue Jay―Blue jays can imitate a number of sounds, including other birds, sirens, and even the emergency action whistles you’ll hear in older buildings.

“Message for you upstairs.” Angel leaned against the garage door. “Make it fast. We gotta go in ten.”

Upstairs, Big Mike’s office. Alice nodded. The stairs loomed behind the heavy door. Just once, she’d take the passenger elevator if she could, but that’d be broken. And everyone would see if she took the freight elevator. Five flights. The food pressed against her stomach; the pain pressed out against her leg.

A row of windows, darkened, ran along one wall of Big Mike’s office. No light from them, or no natural light that filtered through those almost invisible blue dots on every window in the building. Almost invisible. Against each wall leaned racks that supported the odd old tech Big Mike collected: a near-dead router and a server blinked to the dim room, all sorts of gears and shafts and half-working tools, decades old. Not that Alice could see clearly enough to know for sure what they were. Big Mike liked the old tech as much as he liked the old machines. Nostalgia, trust, something. Alice didn’t ask. “Message for you,” he said. He pointed to the flickering PC screen.

“Knew they’d ask for more to find him. Don’t they always?”

“You ain’t going to be a little pissed off about this?”

Alice shrugged. Big Mike leaned onto his desk. Everyone knew the real work, the numbers work, happened in their flat at a new machine. Dani made the numbers turn. “Don’t get me wrong,” Alice said. “I ain’t happy about it. But Evan deserves to know about our momma dying, I guess.”

“Can’t send you on any special runs to cover this. Not much to be had.”

“I got enough, I think. I’ll just take it out of my budget for pretty work dresses.”

Alice closed the door behind her. Her eyes took a moment to readjust to the bright light of the hallway. “Miss Alice, I need to show you something.” Genesis held out feathers. One of them had skin and blood trailing off.

“Not now, Genesis.” Alice stepped toward the stairs. They’d need her soon, Petra and Angel, the third on the Indweller run. She put her weight on her bad leg and nearly collapsed. That noise, that choking feeling.

Genesis took Alice’s hand. “Are you sad?” Alice nodded. “Me, too. I wish the hawks wouldn’t eat the little ones. They don’t stand a chance.”

“You’re a good girl, you know that? Go show your daddy what you found.”

Genesis squeezed Alice’s hand and ran into Big Mike’s office, slamming the door behind her. Alice wiped her face with her hand, then, seeing the smear of bird’s blood on her palm, she wiped her face again on the oil-stained sleeve of her coveralls.


8:00 a.m.: European Starling―Great flocks of European starlings swarm buildings seeking foraging ground or roosts, and their whistles, squeaks, and rasps echo down the walkways for blocks.

Alice could have taken something for the pain. She should have, but the pills that worked wrecked her stomach, and the ones that didn’t wreck her stomach didn’t work. She needed to eat to run, and she needed to run, plain as that. She let Angel and Petra walk ahead of her. They wouldn’t touch in public, like couples from higher up in the building. Or from better buildings. Angel wouldn’t even look at Petra like she was a girl. So young, not knowing things. Big Mike and Dani understood, even if they didn’t raise their kids that way. Alice, Lou, Petra, the half-dozen other women on the crew—they were all “hands,” and needed ones at that. All living that middle ground they had to live in. Middle ground that had started to shut off when her momma was young.

Her dying momma.

Didn’t matter woman or man, Big Mike had said, he’d hire the best. Alice was one of the best of the best, or had been. She still had her brain, even if her hands were stiff. Had to be something in passing along what she knew about old machinery that ran the farms on top of the buildings. Ran the farms, fed the residents, made a lot of people rich, somehow. Pondering that took her mind off the pain, or made it worse. Alice couldn’t decide which.

They turned a corner and crossed the transport tracks. “You ever think about what else there could be?” Alice asked.

Petra looked up.

“Like what?” Angel asked.

They went into the lobby of one of the large buildings. Glass elevators. Alice could look at Angel and Petra, or she could look at the lobby hurtling away from her. Not outside. Not today.

The doors opened. Alice’s ears rang from the speed at which they’d gone up to this height, however high it was. Too high, but here the windows were all covered with images of blue skies above grass. Like she could walk out the window into a field.

One of the Indwellers approached them. “Angel, Al, Pete.”

“Sir,” Angel said. Alice let Angel speak for her. Not that any of them had much to say. The Indwellers stayed willfully ignorant of the inner workings of the old farm machines. They revered the old technology, and they wouldn’t allow anything new in their fields. Alice knew that reverence, that love. Beautiful old things. The Indweller led them over to a cherry picker stuck partway up. The frame of the bucket had been repaired twice, though the rust had taken out more, and she’d have to bring her welding gear with her next time to fix it again. If she were on the next trip out here. In the meantime, she’d patch it up it as best as she could. She needed to patch it up, make it right.

“I’ll go up,” Petra said.

Alice shook her head. Too much to be done on the engine, the arm. “Get Angel to show you ‘round the hydraulics. I’ll fix this.” Angel just shrugged. Alice could lean against the ladder, put all her weight against her good leg as she went about her work. Slowly, she climbed up to meet the basket. Her wrench struck her bad leg with each step. She shifted it over to the other side of her tool belt, which was already overloaded. No matter—she’d be careful.

Below, Angel and Petra leaned over the open hood of the cherry picker’s truck. Like they were looking at something secret, something the Indwellers didn’t want to see. Lots the Indwellers didn’t want to see. Kept to themselves. Even covered over the windows, so it wasn’t like they were up however many thousands of feet. The windows showed loops of days, wind through tall grass, birds flying, even rain when the irrigation valves were open. Must show stars at night, though Alice wondered if anyone was ever out to see them. Children played in the field opposite. The older girls and women would be inside the rooms to the side of the fields, cooking, cleaning, doing whatever it was they did. Only once in all the years she’d worked for Big Mike, going out to the Indwellers, did she see one of them. Alice had expected her to be startled by the men—Alice and the two other men working—but the woman only paused a moment and walked on. No matter how small your world is, you can be world weary soon enough.

“Al,” Angel called up. Angel, not yet thirty, world weary as any of them.

He and Petra stood just beneath her. Petra motioned for her to come down. She leaned against the truck, resting one arm on the hood, half-smiling, the cat that caught the bird. Angel cranked the engine, which belched the smell of fried pies. The lift shuddered once, then moved with as much ease as a hundred-year-old piece of machinery could move. Alice started down, but her bad leg wouldn’t take her weight. She caught herself on the next rung down. Her tools slipped from her belt. The wrench clanged hard against the hood of the truck after nailing Petra’s forearm square.

Petra grabbed her arm but didn’t call out. Alice climbed down. “Let me see,” she said. Petra shook her head. “You’re bleeding.”


11:55 a.m.: Mourning Dove―If you want to attract these cooing birds to nest, scatter seeds on your balcony and offer hanging baskets as potential nesting sites.

They all stood outside in the shaft of noon sun that forced itself between the buildings. Petra had hidden her pain from the Indwellers, but in the open, she whimpered.

“I’m sorry.”

“I saw you move your tools around.” Petra unzipped her coveralls and poked at the bloody rising welt on her arm. “Could have been a lot worse. I’m lucky. You’re lucky.”

“Okay, we’re both lucky. And I’m sorry.”

Angel spat.

“You want me gone?”

“You’re old, Alice. An old lady.” He and Petra walked on, too fast for her to follow.

Alice sat on the sidewalk. Of course. Family. What Big Mike must have told Angel, the faithful little brother. Something she almost knew. The almostness of it hurt most, more than her throbbing leg. An almost life. Almost finding Evan. Almost knowing how to live here when her body was falling apart on her.

Maybe it was better if she had broken Petra’s arm. No middle ground. Angel would do right by the girl. Petra couldn’t stay on at the shop, but Angel would do right by her. And she’d have kids. No way to stop that, unless they were more careful that most folks could be. Big Mike would do right by Angel. Alice would have to go, though. No middle ground.

Alice walked back to the shop, the city reflecting herself back to herself. The call of birds whose names she’d never bothered to learn, the call of the trams along the transport tracks. All she’d ever wanted to learn was the old machines and how they’d worked. So she did. And now she didn’t know anything else. She’d have to learn something new, something else, wouldn’t she? A croak escaped her throat, the call of a hunted bird, the call of a joint on a machine nearly worn through.


“Upstairs,” Angel said when Alice got back to the garage.

Petra sat on Angel’s tool chest, her coveralls half unzipped and her hand covering her wound. “If you can get there.” She banged her heels against the metal walls of the chest, one after the other, her legs swinging wildly.

Alice would face Big Mike. She’d tell him. She’d tell him something, that she knew she’d been careless, but everyone gets careless now and again. “The office.”

“Naw,” Angel said. He spat onto the sidewalk. A bird landed near the spittle and investigated. “Dani needs you.”

“In the kitchen,” Petra said. The bulge in her cheek was more of whatever Angel had been chewing, but Petra looked like a little girl with a wad of bubblegum in her mouth.

Petra, who’d followed Alice around like a lost dog, her momma would have said. Alice watched Petra, Angel, and the others filter up the stairs on their way to lunch. After they were gone, she grabbed the key to the freight elevator and rode it up.

Dani met Alice in the kitchen with a lunch plate made up. “Eat fast,” she said. “Drain’s clogged, and I need you to fix it.”

“Genesis making suet in the sink again?”

Dani nodded. She sat next to Alice at the small table. The kids’ empty plates were stacked by the sink. Alice could hear them playing in the hall.

Something cozy about this, Dani and Alice, the short distance between them. “Sorry about your brother.”

“They’ll find him.” Alice tried to be more polite up here, on the occasions when she’d shared a lunch or coffee with Dani, but Dani wasn’t too far from Alice, really, was she?

“You thought about what you’re going to do if they find him?”

Alice shook her head. “You got a plan for me?”

“Go,” Dani said. She stood up and took something from one of the cabinets. “Look, it’s not much, but you’ll need some setup. He’s outside. Leave the Republic.” Alice could tell Dani had more to say, but she wasn’t going to say it. “You can open it later. There’s more if you like those, ones that haven’t fit me in ages. And they won’t again anytime soon.”

Alice left the package untouched. Dani picked at her food.

After she ate, Alice grabbed the drain tools from the pantry. The light shining into the drain was blocked by the disposal’s baffle, but she could see enough to know someone had tried to destroy something that wasn’t just lard for the birds in the disposal’s blades. “Not sure I want them to find him, you know?”

“Sorry to hear you think that,” Dani said. “And you should be too.” She scraped her plate in the trash. “And if they don’t, you do know that Desmond always has a good job here, don’t you?”

Alice fixed the disposal and took the package up to her room. Desmond must have been in his own bed. Didn’t matter. She unfolded the brown paper, which had covered three chambray dresses, each with flowers embroidered on the hems. Not cheap. Alice rewrapped the dresses as best as she could and slid them under her bed. If Desmond stayed away, if he’d moved on to someone else’s room, then she’d let herself try on one, just one, and look at herself, hard, in the warped glass of the full-length mirror.


5:15 p.m.: Killdeer―Killdeers will drag one wing to feign injury as a means of drawing predators away from their nests.

Big Mike didn’t talk to Alice about the accident, though she’d caught him once staring at her the way he did when he was deciding whether or not to buy a scrap car for parts. She knew that look. She’d been out with him dozens of times looking at scrap.

He put her on small machinery work the rest of the afternoon. Alice kept quiet.

And anyway, wasn’t she itching to try on the dresses? And at the same time, wasn’t she itching harder to ball them up and throw them back at Dani? Better off leaving, sure. Or if she couldn’t, there was Desmond. No middle ground. Alice took a bent metal strip and straightened it. No one alive’d know what it had been originally cut for, but straightened out, it would make a good enough patch. Take it out for that cherry picker next week, maybe. Or give it to Angel and Petra to take.

“You going to break that, trying to get the crease out.” Les tapped her tool chest with a socket wrench.

“Needs straightening.”

“I got use for it as it is.” Les held out her hand. Alice handed over the strip, which Les tossed on her tool chest. Les kept the wrench in her hand, turning the head. Its click echoed through the near-empty garage.

Alice slid off the stool. Her bad leg had fallen asleep, and the pins and needles were covering the pain at least. “Payback?” She pointed at the socket wrench. Not the open-jawed adjustable sort of wrench that Alice had dropped on Petra, but close enough.

Les shook her head. “An offer of help, more like.” She set the socket wrench back in her tool chest. “You need to walk that off before anyone else sees.”

Alice turned and left the garage through the open bay doors. Early evening, late enough to knock off since she wasn’t out on a job, too early for dinner. Too early to go see if Desmond had made his way back to her room thinking she’d be there. Les pointed to the steps beneath Genesis’s bird feeders.

“You need to figure this out, don’t you?”

Alice wanted to tell Les about the dresses. Which meant she’d leave. Which meant she didn’t have to live one way or another like she did here. She was too much for this place. Alice was everything, and she wanted to live that way. “Saddest thing today, you know? Not hearing about my brother, or dropping the wrench on that girl. And maybe Desmond’s gone, who knows. Saw all those coming. Million miles away.” Alice closed her eyes and saw it again. Made herself see it. “You ever have to pull a chick out of a garbage disposal?”

Les lowered herself on the step. “Chick?”

“I don’t know. Might have been a hawk?” Alice kept standing. She leaned against the cool watching metal of the building. Feeling came back to her leg. “They nest around here?”

“Seen a raccoon taking off with a little one once,” Les said. “Back when they were just starting to put up the buildings in this part of the city.” She stretched her arms and legs out, as if reaching for something, some part of her body that had gone off without her. Then she folded up her arms and legs. So easy, Les made it seem, just moving, just relaxing like that. “You tell Dani?”

“What would there be to tell?”

“Dani makes an effort at least.” Genesis and Little Mike careened through the garage. Big sister, little brother. How she and Evan used to play. Used to move effortlessly like that. Their voices everywhere, like birds calling through the alleyways. “She doesn’t pretend.”

“She doesn’t have to pretend.”

“You don’t have to pretend, Alice.”

“I don’t.” The crew started to come back to the garage, lugging tools or parts, heavy rusting things. The sameness of them, if you didn’t look up close. If you didn’t let yourself look up close. She’d be the one walking a little slower, arms a little weaker. Carrying less. But carrying so much more. So much.


9:57 p.m.: Northern Mockingbird―If you hear a familiar bird song in the middle of the night, it’s probably a mockingbird singing near its nest.

The room was dark. Her room. Alice stumbled over her running shoe, pushed herself up, and felt the bed. Empty. She turned on the bedside lamp. Empty. Could be any of them, couldn’t it? One of the new ones, one of the ones who’d been there longer than she had. Could be Les, for all she knew. Or Dani. No, not that. Dani wouldn’t stray like that. Most women didn’t, not the married ones. Not the ones who lived in the system.

Alice turned on the overhead light. She switched the window to let in the light from the streets. She opened her closet, pulled the chain. The closet light shuddered on. Her closet, filled with running shirts and shorts and shoes, filled with oily t-shirts and coveralls. Work boots. Her boots, her work. A few rusted hangers. Alice pulled one from the rail and took it to her bed. From beneath, she pulled Dani’s package and unwrapped it. Who did Dani think she needed to be? Out there, the states, outside the Republic, her skills would be a bad joke. But she had them.

A knock on her door shook her from the thought. “Alice,” Desmond called to her from the hallway. “I lost my key. You home, baby?”

Alice shoved the dresses under the bed. She’d find Desmond tomorrow and give him another key. She’d find him tomorrow and tell him. She’d give the dresses back to Dani. She’d spend more money to find her brother. And tell him?

And tell him she was going to keep doing the work she knew she needed to do.

First, though, she would teach Petra how to run. How to find that middle ground.

Then Alice would run, too.