Box of Birds
We catch birds that nest in the clotheslines,
collect them in a cardboard box we’ve poked
with holes. The older boys orchestrate the hunt,
assign jobs to neighborhood kids on summer days
when our mothers send us out to play no matter
the temperature. I like to be in charge of the box
of birds, to feel the shake of it, press my cheek
to its side and feel the closeness of feathers,
the scratch of claws. The more we catch,
the more frantic and powerful the flapping,
the electric energy. In my hands, a darkness
of themselves, a darkness of wind and rush,
caw and screech. I watch them run through
the yards, lean muscles, clean skin of the shirtless
boys, still too young for tattoos of La Virgen
and last names that will soon cover their backs.
These boys our mothers warn us away from
scatter when sirens come too near. Once,
my beautiful cousins visited and the boys flocked
at my bedroom window with their dangerous smiles
and shy flirting. When one catches a bird, he struts
back toward me, toward the box and I lift the flaps
just enough for him to slide his hands inside that pulsing
without letting any of the others escape. I never find
how many birds will tip the box, how many wings
lift it off the ground. Can a bird fly in a box?
Would one kill all the others to get out? Do they plot
their escape? Or just pound sky! sky! sky! in the dark?
Was it an omen, which boy caught the bird?
Did that wild desperation mark him? When he broke
into a house and the owner woke, did Angel feel
feathers in his hands as he was shot? Those dark eyes
seemed to be on all of us. They sat on power lines
when the train hit Juan’s car and when the cops came
to school and took Joey away in handcuffs,
the birds watched. Even though we let them go.
What did we know about what can be caught and held
so long? We never meant to keep them. When the game
was done, we stood in a circle and opened the box,
watched the birds fly blindly toward any patch of light.
I hear that he is in prison for life, that he broke into the wrong house
to steal drugs and tied up a family when they came home. I do not know
this man, but I knew a boy who could run up a tree and back flip, land
on his feet. His mother, a childhood friend of my mother, had a glass eye
and a loud, sharp laugh.
He was so quick, he could catch baby lizards, and one day we had four
or five quick curls of wild electric life squirming in our cupped hands.
When our mothers called us to the car, we dug a hole deep with steep sides,
made a lid of sticks and grass—a cage where they would be safe until
we could return to play with their small tails, small feet.
When we pulled the grass and sticks away a few hours later, the ants
had beat us there and feasted. Pale bellies still. Mouths hives of black
writhing. We buried them, filled the grave with dirt and packed it down,
thumbing any ants that broke through the surface.
I know that boy is gone. And I am not saying he is like those lizards,
trapped. I am not saying he is one of the ants, doing what ants must do.
I just remember that he was there, a child standing next to me, and all of us
were crying for what we had done.
This map of your hometown is missing a star over your house, the friendly You Are Here.
It’s all the same to the map, but no other house shines like yours, even as we drive away not
knowing when we will ever come back.
Follow me to the place where fire buys light, to Phoenix under a double moon.
Follow me away from the story about the lizards, we’ll skirt the point, avoid the center,
leave our mothers out of this one.
Follow me to my dad’s house for a weekend in 1989. We’ll watch Some Kind of Wonderful and eat cold pizza. We’ll sleep on the pull-out couch and steal Coors Lights from the fridge after everyone else is asleep.
This might be our last great morning together. Tomorrow might find us eating
crickets for breakfast, tomorrow there might not be anywhere left to go.
Someone is missing from the world this morning and we never knew their name.
Someone new is walking around and I don’t know if we will get along
or if we will have some petty argument that ends with us fist fighting
under a streetlight in Bisbee.
The woman face down at the light rail stop has found a new way to belong to this world.
The police are trying to move her, but she knows where she needs to be.
You are here is our new religion.
Whatever you have up your sleeve, I want some.
Michelle Salcido is from Tolleson, Arizona. She teaches English and Creative Writing at La Joya Community High School. She earned an MFA in poetry from Pacific University.