J. W. Barlament
Up Wandering the Upper West Side
I was walking with a girl at night in the wind in the winter. We were friends, but far from more, and though we'd had our fun doing some sterilized and since-forgotten social thing in Midtown, it was over, and I think we were both just waiting for the moment we could be alone in bed again.
“It was nice of you to take me home,” she said, a little ahead and far on the other side of the sidewalk. It was late, and hardly anyone else was out. It must’ve been the coldest night of the year, too; we kept hands stuffed in pockets, eyes glued to the ground, and feet shuffling fast as we spoke.
“Wouldn’t have it any other way!” I exclaimed, loud enough for a faint glaring figure on the other side of the street to hear. I didn’t pay him any heed. My senses had stayed scrammed by the mix of blood and honey I’d had to drink. “It was a little loud in there to get to say much of anything, right?”
“No, really, wasn’t it? Oh my god,” she laughed. I looked to her; her smile had already fled but she made sure to restore it for a second more. “I enjoyed getting to talk to you on the way back.”
“I did too.”
“And that’s my place!” She skipped to the door. I stood and made a show of a hearty laugh.
“So I’ll be seeing you around?” I cried after her.
“Yes, obviously, stupid! Goodnight!” she cried back, already turning around to open the door.
“Have a nice walk back!”
“Goodnight!” I shouted, and saluted, for some reason, as the door swung shut.
When I nodded in acceptance and turned around myself to face the way back, I realized I had no idea where I was. We’d gotten off the subway a lot closer to her apartment than my dorm. And yet, since I wasn’t about to pay another fare late at night just to get accosted and get my country bumpkin ass lost worse than I would on foot, I was walking it. Whatever. The cold in this city couldn’t hold a candle to my hometown, and the drink had me feeling warmer anyway.
I consulted my phone and put my music on and proceeded through yellow-lit city streets occupied at that hour mostly only by rats. The residential buildings lined up in impossibly long rows on either side of me were luxurious, for sure, with all their ornamentation and well-worn stone symbolism. They would've been pretty, too, if it were earlier in the day and the carved gargoyles weren't basked in so much shadow that my drink made me see light flicker in their black eyes.
The city, at least this side of it, or at least to me, was a lot less nocturnal than advertised. I knew I shouldn't have expected too much out of a place peopled by seldom-seen retirees who furnished their rooms with more money than the GDP of some small metropolitans. The rats and the occasional raccoon paid me no more heed than the established residents would've had it been Sunday brunch hour. I appreciated their disregard, and a part of me felt a pang of sympathy for their having to be here with us.
A general sense of continuous calamity arose in the air as I descended a hill and entered a new neighborhood that only the larger rats and the rabid raccoons chose to make home. Here there was none of the forced order that ruled the night just over the hill. People, mostly loners, were everywhere, shuffling, scuffling, shoving and shouting, crawling out of corner stores and smoke shops and drifting into the fray entirely unconcerned. Some of them were stumbling around so much I couldn’t tell how they were staying on their feet. All of them were staring straight through me, no matter whether I returned their gaze or glued my eyes to the ground.
I tried my best to be brisk. Stenches of things vaguely familiar but twisted outside all possibility of identification assaulted my senses. A combination of every color, found in nature and not, hodge-podged together in a stomach-turning corporate stew, drowned out that depressing yellowy hue that'd ruled the ritzy residentials from before. Sober, it would’ve been unsettling. As things were, my insides were screaming at me to get out.
In order not to stick around, however, I had to ascend a second hill opposite this hallowed valley of the one I’d just descended. A gargantuan gothic church loomed over on the far side. I knew it well; I wished I didn’t. A park, once an oasis of dark at night until a college girl was murdered there a couple years ago, ran the length of the street just over a stone wall and a steep drop-off from the sidewalk.
My legs left the madness long behind me and allowed my mind to wander more. I was entering what could only be described as a striking but sterile environment, not unlike, or simply rather exactly like, an ivy-overrun ivory tower. I lived the student’s life here, rarely recognized as animate or real by those other, more acclimated, admits. Ascending the hill, step by step, I felt even more unwelcomed than I had been in the jungle just below. Other people my age pranced around in pretty groups of five or six all stretched out across the length of the sidewalk; anybody trying to get past be damned. I was far-off, small, and easy to miss slipping into a shadowy grove.
A morning bird sounded a rasping call from its nest in a tree just on the other side of the street. I caught its eye. A peregrine falcon cocked its head to the side as it stopped and met my gaze for a moment before taking flight.
I'd heard from someone earlier that the birds here would wake up in the middle of the night and think it's morning from all of the artificial light, so that when it got dark again, they slept for just a few hours before waking up, going about their lives in a sleep-deprived fog before they someday dropped. I couldn’t help but think about it now every time I heard a bird’s call at night.
The falcon circled back around. It made a swoop over my head so close that the wind it caused ruffled up my hair. It darted to the stone ledge separating the sidewalk from the park that everyone said never to enter. I watched; it knew. It flapped its gorgeous grey and white wings a few times and took flight again to dive into the park next to a descending stairwell entryway. Confused, like a lost tour guide who knew they should know better, it returned to swing around me once and again dove back into the park. Cautious, like someone who knew exactly what he was getting himself into and just couldn't be bothered to care, I followed.
I jogged down a long and winding row of old stone steps into a park lit to the point of noxiousness. It was no secret that someone was trying to stop anyone from going unseen here. The falcon perched upon a shorter tree. A tracking tag was wrapped around its leg. Its glass eyes reflected something standing beside me that I didn't think was there.
The falcon flapped away and flew so fast I figured it'd decided to stop playing around with me and go about its business. The world was wobbling and turning, like it was teasing an imminent flip on its head, so I stood still and hoped my mind's antics would tire before I fainted. They didn't tire. Neither did I faint. But the falcon swooped back and cried in my ear so sharply that it snapped me back to my senses. It flew away again, slower, and lower to the ground. So I could see it better? Maybe. Regardless, I followed it into the trees, illuminated by the most part by the civilizing light but left to the devices of the night in harder-toreach corners where shadows my size or taller wandered and darted.
Paved paths turned to dirt trails as the falcon flew patiently ahead to lead me deeper into the park. I looked around. A disembodied hand, made of the thick black air of a rain cloud, threw a large rock at a beehive high up in a tree. The hive came crashing down. A swarm of bees rose in vengeance just to scatter in bewilderment. The hand picked through the nest and swooped up gobs of honey with its fingers. I watched intently but refused to believe. Another hand tapped a closer tree to me and held a bucket under as if expecting maple syrup. Instead, a different, darker, freer-flowing liquid came trickling out. Then, it poured, and then, it burst. Blood splattered everywhere. My face was blanketed. My eyes burned. The falcon soared out of harm's way with ease and circled above me to edge me onwards. My feet followed before I could deliberate. The lights in the park flickered. The moon and stars were stealthily snuffed out fastmoving and strangely shaped clouds.
A low murmur turned to the incessant sea of chatter that only crowds of especially terrible people could produce. The path I was on led down to a pond, fenced off and lit up by a blinding number of lampposts. The falcon, a shimmering see-through silver and gold under the lamps around the water's outer rim, led me closer. The commotion came into focus. Several dozen people crowded around the fence and pointed to something moving in the water. I really didn’t want to see what it was, but the falcon nonetheless impelled my feet to force me toward the jeering swarm. Resigned to my fate, I pushed my way through the crowd. At least the terror of what I’d see would be better than the anxiety of not knowing what it'd be.
It was a small family of swimming ducks. I only had a second to dumbfoundedly stare before a phone camera flashed in my eyes. Jittery tourists idled in the way of passively amused but permanently annoyed locals. I couldn’t for the life of me decide if any of these people were real. I wasn’t about to touch one to find out.
The ducks were real, at least, if unworthy of the fuss. So was the falcon sitting on a far tree unseen by the eager crowd. I was made sure of that when the raptor took flight, swooped down, crashed into the pond, took the mother duck in its talons and swiftly killed her. Water sprayed everywhere. The baptism washed away the caking blood from my passive face. The crowd went berserk. Her ducklings, not yet wise enough to fight or flee, chose to float, as if their mother’s sudden death were just another facet of life and the thought of their own demise left them indifferent. Her head had but an instant to fall limp before being lifted into the air and carried away into the night.
Baboonish screams erupted as the crowd sought revenge before they’d even declared a crime. They launched food, phones, rocks and wrappers and whatever else they had, at the falcon carrying the mother duck’s weight close to the water. The raptor meandered for a while, every bit of paper and plastic falling far behind its tail, until it settled in an old and tall tree to eat its statement midnight snack. The ducklings just floated, if shaken, then unseen, slipping away with ease under the shadow of a willow tree bent over the pond.
The falcon paid me no more heed. The people hung around and talked amongst themselves, shocked but not at all saddened, none of them tapering off to head home at the most ungodly hour of the night. I wandered off back into the woods, undefended and untethered to reality. I couldn’t help but think of the ducklings and wonder when children’s indifference had outpaced their parents’.
Something in me told me I was atoning for my sins. Something else retorted that the sins weren't mine to atone for. The first told me I could wander until I didn't have to deal with such things anymore. The second told me to run somewhere I had always heard of and never known. I listened. Overhead, higher than the tops of the trees planted there by people not too long ago, my falcon soared and cried aloud again.