Iara was startled from a dreamless sleep, her neck jerking off her shoulders and into the muggy night sky. A sizeable raccoon next to her managed to knock over a filthy trash bin, spewing its contents into the gutter and the nearby homeless shelters of U-Haul boxes and human odds and ends. Her lids began to shut involuntarily, but the raccoon’s noisy foraging kept her bright green eyes open.
She sighed. So far this new world was dreary and lonely. She preened constantly, disgusted by the thin air and its bizarre contents. She gasped for air some nights, coughed most days. The pigeons, her only living kin aside from the occasional hawk or swirl of finches in a bush, kept her company, cooing and feeding near her talons.
The humans, as she learned they preferred to call themselves, were even less welcoming than the environment. They reveled in their own packs, keeping to themselves and staring at square boxes with blue lights. They moved quickly, barely registering her presence. She wondered if she was an apparition, a ghost from a past too distant to ever hope to return to.
Home. That is what she needed to find. She remembered being in her nest of pine needles and cycad fronds, warm and cozy…and then she awoke in this strange place, where nothing was familiar and every turn held a horrible mechanical nightmare.
Every step she took made her legs ache. The air was stifling. Even the stars were different, and blocked by the cloudy haze she was sure was from some vast mechanical mountain, pumping its toxins into the sky.
She managed to flee down a few dingy alleyways by night—ones humans avoided, much to her relief—and often found herself in the company of funny fluffy creatures, not unlike larger versions of the burrowers she used to eat once in a while. The fluffy ones were mean, hissing as she approached, hunkering down and nibbling on some bit of plastic, desperate to get nutrients from the desolate world they inhabited. She pitied them, and then reflected on her own situation.
One day, she saw something through a human box. Her own kind, a dead one, but a friend, nevertheless. She stumbled across it while she took refuge in a green area—one of the few pieces of the world she knew. The trees were different but provided ample shade from the heat of the sun, and the bushes were comfortable enough to crouch in. She occasionally snacked on a hapless bird or rat, and if she got really lucky, some human tidbits, but her hunger ate at her, begged her to return home.
She snuck closer to the human box, keeping to the shrubs that surrounded it. It was midday, and the sun was too much for her. She was very thirsty, and very tired, but seeing the familiar outline of a lost soul like her made her skin prickle and plumage rise.
She dared to raise her head above the bushes.
Several lumps in the ground made a pathway toward the human box. Inside that box was her friend. She had to get inside, and not be seen. She didn’t know if humans hunted and ate creatures like her, but she thought it best she didn’t find out.
She took in several breaths, her chest shuddering quickly with the effort. She was glad she could get extra air into her body—she had no idea how the humans around her could survive in it.
She hunkered down to the ground, creeping slowly. She held her wings tight to her sides, kept her tail level, and bobbed her head slightly. Every muscle began to tense as she approached the edge of her refuge in the bushes. The shadows of the humans blocked the sun as they strode past, their voices loud and harsh.
She froze as a wet substance landed with a loud plop on the ground by the edge of the bushes. The fluid oozed toward her foot. Too paralyzed with fear to move, she then winced and jerked her head sharply as the shriek of a human infant rattled her bones. The humans stopped to comfort the wailing young one, and Iara saw her chance to run past them, up the edge of the lumpy path.
Iara tensed, focused on the outline of her kin. She then opened her wings to the sides, twisting her wrists to allow her primaries to flare out, catching the air. She lunged forward, her legs stretching as far as they could, her muscles tense and taut. Her tailfan acted as a rudder as she deftly dodged human legs, keeping within their shadows. She bounded up one lump at a time. The lumps seemed endless, and she opened her mouth, her thin tongue cooling her blood as she kept up her reckless rush.
Her wings brushed past the humans, but no response from them reassured her. She finally found respite from the cruel sun, hopping weakly up the last lump to the outermost edge of the box, where shadows were cast from the columns.
She hunkered down in a dark corner of a column, glad of the shade. She saw the humans continue their walk down the lumps, chatting away as if she didn’t exist. She was glad none were hungry.
She then tilted her head to the side. The box was so bright! She wondered why—it wasn’t bright before, and now it was as if another sun was beating off its surface…as if…it was made of water? But how could it be made of water? Iara shook herself involuntarily. Humans loved their odd boxes, that much was certain.
She darted to and fro, wondering how she could reach her friend inside the box. The fact that her friend was dead was a macabre realization, and worse still considering it wasn’t on the ground but standing as if its flesh was stripped clean while alive. None of that mattered; Iara was determined to find a way home, and she felt this was it.
She waited. She watched the sun dip lower in the sky. She watched the shadows of the humans get longer, and less of them came out of the box. She then noticed a pattern she neglected to see before—each time a human went into the box, part of it made a hole. Each time a human went out, they went through the hole. Iara then realized—this was not just a box, it was a cave! A den for her dead friend! Perhaps they were grieving it, but Iara had no time for philosophy—she watched the box open and close…open and close…open….
Iara squawked and darted for the opening, past a human’s legs and into the cool den. The den closed behind her.
She found herself staring at not one, but two dead friends locked in mortal combat, as they would have done in life. She thought it bizarre, and called to them, despite knowing that bones never replied to one’s voice.
She ran in circles around the pair, dodging humans as she went, nearly slipping on the flat cold stone below her.
She then stopped, her head spinning. She glanced about, desperate to find a way home.
Another box blocked her path, and a human sat behind it, entranced by his tiny blue screened box as most were. He was chatting with another human, a female, and the way he puffed out his chest and preened told Iara some kind of courtship ritual was going on. She grunted, rolled her eyes. Now is not the time to mate! she felt like chiding the humans. Now is the time to send me home!
The box was black and had white symbols on it. The human had a silver thing on his chest, probably to show off its puffiness to any available female. Iara judged the distance between the floor and the top of the box and scrunched down as much as possible.
She leaped up, her wings spread wide for balance, her tailfan curled up as she landed on the black box.
In the meantime, the humans conversed.
“I’m a concierge,” the male explained to the female. His bright blue coloration reflected his status.
“Uh huh,” the female muttered, absorbed in her blue screened box. “What’s that?” Playing uninterested was an excellent tactic for vying for male attention. Iara tilted her head, watching the exchange between the humans, unable to understand their odd dialect, but amused by the ritual all the same.
“I can make sure you get where you need to go,” the male leaned in closer to the female. He lowered the volume of his voice, deepening it, “And I can hook you up with the hottest spots in town.”
Iara bobbed her head at the change in tone. She had never heard humans deliberately do so before. It must be some sort of mating call, she decided. She hopped closer to the pair.
“I’ve already got a date tonight,” the female demurred. The male seemed hurt but didn’t express his rejection by assuming a submissive posture. Instead, he became more aggressive, which surprised Iara.
“I can get you the MUSE tix for free, if you want,” the male went on. Iara was impressed by his persistence. Surely the female would be swayed by now, and then she could get on to the real business of getting home.
“I dunno…maybe…maybe some other time.” The female human turned away, lured by the rest of her bachelorette pack that lingered near yet another opening in the box.
The male sat behind the black box, clearly upset. Iara flapped her wings and chirruped, as if to get the human’s attention. But the human only stared glumly at his box with the blue screen.
I need to get home! she insisted, opening her jaws and trilling, beating her wings loudly. The human behind the black box paid her no mind, only yawned and moved his thumbs across the screen.
Iara slowly realized the human could not see her. He couldn’t see her! How could she ever get back to her nest now?
She turned around and bounded back onto the cold stone floor. She then spied more of her friends, all dead, from the corner of her eye.
Before she took one step toward the new opening, a larger human strode toward the human behind the black box. This was a male, very showy. Iara decided he was an alpha, given his advanced age and colorful plumage. She scrunched down behind the leg of the herbivore, curiously watching their exchange.
“Hey, hey you!” the alpha male barked at the male behind the black box.
“Yeah—“ the other male absentmindedly blurted.
“I need to arrange a ride tonight to the gala, and I need it now.” The alpha was serious. Iara saw a muscle in his jaw twitch. She wondered if humans snapped their jaws in agitation like she did.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m on it,” the other male mumbled, too absorbed in his tiny box. The alpha suddenly grabbed the other male’s box. Iara’s eyes widened. Definitely a challenge in territory! She decided this exchange was more interesting than the mating ritual.
“Listen up, idiot,” the alpha snarled at the stunned male, who finally and reluctantly made eye contact with the alpha. “Don’t fool around with me. Don’t you realize who you’re talking to?”
“Oh, crap! Sir, I’m so sorry, I—“ The male realized his error and scrambled to get his paperwork in order.
The alpha thrust the box back toward the male. The alpha then turned on his heel, heading toward the opening Iara wanted to see.
Iara chirruped, tilting her head at the alpha. She was startled when the alpha paused mid stride.
The alpha male human turned back, looked around as if he had heard something. To him, it sounded like a bird.
“Hey,” he gently stopped another human in blue, this time a female. Iara found it interesting that males and females, once they had reached a certain status in this pack, were the same color. “Is there a finch in here?”
“No, sir…one did get in earlier downstairs, but we had the janitorial staff shoo it out.”
“Huh,” he mused. He smiled at the female and she took her leave. He then resumed his walk toward the opening.
Iara blinked. Did this human hear me? Am I invisible to all but this one? Perhaps I can be seen after all!
Iara followed the alpha male human, careful to keep her distance. Her dead kindred were all around her, and she paused. She flapped her wings and chattered a mourning dirge. If my kind are gone…how can I get home? Is this my new home? Am I to die here too?
The alpha male human definitely heard the familiar snap of wings, the fluted call of a bird. He stopped dead in his tracks and turned toward Iara.
“I swear, if there is a bird in here, someone’s head is gonna roll…this is the last thing I need to deal with…”
He stopped in front of her. His polished shoes reflected the odd light in the box. Iara skittered backward, hunkering under a bench’s shadows.
She breathed roughly, hoping the alpha male would not get a hunger pang and try to grab her. To her dismay, the human bent down, staring under the bench carefully.
Iara shut her eyes so that her eyeshine would not betray her presence. She scrunched her body as small as she could, sweeping her tailfan against her body and folding her wings as tightly as she could. Please don’t see me, please…I just want to go home…
The alpha male human’s large hand moved toward her…Iara held her breath, terrified….and snagged a dust bunny under the bench.
“Gah,” the human grunted in disgust at his prize. “This place needs to be cleaned a lot more often…”
To Iara’s great relief, he walked away, in a hurry to whatever destination was deeper in this box. She noted the sky outside was dark once more.
I need out of here, she thought. She ran toward the opening she went into earlier that day to get inside the box…and the opening was gone!
Iara wilted on the cold stone floor. She felt the tears spring to her eyes. Perhaps I am dead, like them…perhaps I am but a ghost, seeking a home I will never see again…
…and then the concierge made an opening in the box.
Iara gathered the last of her strength, and ran for the opening, half bounding, half flying. She rushed past the humans walking toward the door. One, a female human, paused. She could have sworn she felt the brush of feathers on her legs…
Iara was relieved to have escaped the box. She wearily bounded down the lumpy path and headed toward the green space. She found a dead rat and tore it to pieces. She swallowed some dingy water from a puddle in the gutter along with the pigeons. They cooed at her, their melodies far away and yet familiar. Iara curled up under the bushes, and fell into a restless sleep, hoping she would one day wake up in her own nest, in her own time once again.