The Birdwatcher’, Jocelyn Koehler

Illustrations © 2014 Cécile Matthey


 [ Hoopoe, © 2014 Cécile Matthey ]


He watched things go bad.

He watched things go from bad to worse.

He watched, from his seventh-floor window, all the changes on his street and in his city, years and years of change.

Some changes came suddenly, like the safety measures put in place after the first attacks. Cameras sprouted like flowers at the intersections and near the businesses and inside all the apartment buildings. Monitors scrolled through realtime notices of suspicious activity, arrests, and public disturbances. Soon, higher, uglier fences marked out every property line and every barrier. Knowing where everyone belonged helped the fight. Of course it did.

Other changes had nothing to do with violence. They were quieter, like the slow climb of mercury, rising every year until winter was mostly a memory. Or the aging of faces he knew, the loss of color on the painted fences, the softening of building edges as rain and time and rat teeth worked at them.

His own apartment was tidy as ever. Time-worn too, yes. He hadn’t made a lot of money when he worked, and his late wife had stayed at home. Retirement meant an even more limited budget, more careful spending. But he could keep the place neat. Maybe that didn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, but it was what he could offer. RIP Walter Dennis: he never made a mess or a fuss.

Wally was a birdwatcher. He’d been all his life, ever since he was given a cheap pair of binoculars at the age of eight. He knew all the species in the area, and watched out his window over the jagged, stepped landscape of rooftops: half the peaked roofs of houses, half flat-topped warehouses. Some were a single story, some were taller. But Wally’s building was the highest the neighborhood, so he saw down into the pockets of green, and he had the best view of the sky.

Despite his arthritis, he still tried to take a trip out to the nature preserve at least once a month or so to scout for migratory or vagrant species, though it was getting ever more annoying to travel. A few months ago, the snotty-faced checkpoint officer said he didn’t believe there were any birds left to watch. Wally started to tell him about the Herrera Shift, named for the ornithologist who first identified it a few decades ago. When the annual global temperature anomaly exceeded 3ºC, it triggered something. All the patterns changed. The tropics thinned out and the warmer, more sluggish ocean currents meant that species shifted as many as 2000 miles from their historical wintering grounds. In fact, the redtailed…

The guard waved Wally through before he could finish.

So Wally kept watching. His life list—all the birds he’d seen and hoped to see—was impressive, at least to other birdwatchers. The list resided in the leather pack that Wally took on all his birdwatching trips. The pack also held a very fine pair of antique Zeiss binoculars (a wedding gift from his Melinda), and a few well-thumbed guides… the paper kind. His handheld was useless in the wetlands, where the connection never quite reached. Take away that bag, and Wally was just another cranky senior citizen.

True, all the changes meant there were not as many birds left to watch, but Wally adapted by learning the markings and flight patterns of all the crow and gull subspecies. He identified certain individuals by name: Striker (Corvus corax, with a habit of beating up others to get at food), Big Gimpy (a Larus smithsonianus who had lost a foot), and Lady Anne (a particularly fastidious Falco sparverius). He’d die before he ran out of birds to watch.

Early one morning, Wally was leaning out his window to watch a bird fly down the canyon of the street, when a bright white splotch caught his eye. It hadn’t been there the previous night, when he closed the curtains before bed. But now one of the warped wooden fences dividing a front yard from the sidewalk bore a mark.

He squinted, assessing. It was Janice Branch’s fence. It was less than a foot across, but it wasn’t just a splash of paint. It had a definite outline. He did not know at first what the sign was. A ghost? A cloud? A flower? He grabbed the binocs. The leather casing was shiny with wear, but the steel underneath was as tough as ever. Wally never worried about the Zeiss getting broken.

But even these binocs couldn’t compete with early morning glare and a bad angle. The white splotch refused to resolve into a shape. Wally could have gone down to see it on the street, but his grocery day wasn’t till tomorrow.

He shrugged and went about his daily routine. Breakfast, a little reading on the screen, vacuum the floors. A nap. A sandwich for afternoon, then a walk to the vacant lot (the other way from Janice’s house). There he could listen to the evening chatter of the birds in the overgrowth. By the time he walked back home, it was dark. After lengthy consideration, he took a detour to pass Janice’s fence.

She must have called the Commission, because the mark was gone. Well, not gone. It was still there, under the new coat of paint the workers rolled roughly over the offending image. Faintly annoyed by the wasted effort, Wally returned home.

The next day, Wally ran into Janice when he left for the corner store. “Janice, there’s got to be an easier way to get someone from the government to paint your fence for you.”

“Oh!” she huffed. “I didn’t have anything to do with that!”

“I was joking.”

“I know,” she said, her eyes still a little wild. “They asked me though, if I did it. Me! I told them I was too old to run around with a can of paint in the middle of the night.”

“You should leave a note for the vandal. Maybe he can space his graffiti out so the city will have to paint your whole fence.”

“And then be arrested for collusion! You know why they came out right away, don’t you? It was what he drew.”

“What was it?” Wally asked. “I never did see it proper.”

“How could you miss it? The white bird. That symbol those anarchists are using. It’s all over the ’casts. If some kid had just painted something obscene, the Commission wouldn’t have given a hoot.”

The day after, in defiance of the new paint, a second bird appeared, the same dissident symbol. This one had the words “fly free” stencilled under it. That mark got painted over too. But the vandal appeared to have settled in. Soon, white birds flocked down the walls and posts of the neighborhood.

Before the week was over, the artist got a picture on the side of the corner store, far more elaborate than the simple birds. This one was a life-size pinup girl, just like in the old, old wartime calendars. She wore a skimpy version of an army uniform. She delivered her salute with a wink, while the words “I love a man who fights for freedom!” appeared above her head. What made it a vicious crime was the slight alteration to the flag she stood in front of. The stripes were the same, but instead of stars, a white bird blazed on the blue.

Wally stood looking at it for a long time.

A neighbor shuffled up next to him. “Look at that! I never thought we’d see stuff like this around here. Things are getting worse.”

“I think it was all done ahead of time, and then just pasted on, like wallpaper,” Wally said, still studying the picture.

“Who cares how he did it? Cops will swarm the neighborhood until he’s caught.”

He was right. The Commission took reports of this graffiti seriously, and bumped up the number of local safety officers. Wally did not feel much safer, however, and the paste-ups continued to multiply. The artist was so elusive that some folks said it must be a gang at work. No one saw him (or her), but everyone saw the pieces left behind.

Some images started appearing in strange places, like high on building walls or tucked behind doorways. Like hidden treasure, they were meant to be discovered. Wally got curious.

He found that he had a new hobby. The birds were not going to mind, and who knew how long the artist would stay? Wally started napping in the late afternoon so he could get up after midnight and watch from the window of his dark apartment. Whenever he saw a flicker of movement, he grabbed his binocs, one finger on the dial, ready to make the most minute twitch to hone the focus. Usually, it was a rat, or a kid sneaking home past curfew. But one night, he saw the artist.

A young man dove down an alley. Wally trained the binocs on the building next to the alley, and was rewarded a moment later, when the same figure scrambled up a fire escape ladder. He waited out a slowly panning security camera, and then darted forward once more till he escaped the camera’s range.

On a landing, the man dropped a backpack to the grating, and went to work.

Wally watched as he glued up the paper figure and then stenciled some words next to it. A cap obscured the man’s face, and he only looked around once, maybe when he heard something. As soon as he finished painting the words, he packed up and vanished over the rooftop and down onto another street. The whole thing took less than three minutes. Wally spent longer than that focusing the binocs on the painting, a fresh redhead holding the white bird emblem in her upturned hand, inviting viewers to “Think free.”

If anyone else besides Wally saw the artist, they didn’t say anything. New pinups appeared day after day. There was the one with the girl dressed up as a magician, with a tight-fitting tuxedo coat, fishnet stockings, and not much else. She pulled the white bird out of her top hat, along with the words “Freedom is No Trick”. The fact that she performed her magic right in front of a security camera did not go unnoticed.

The one where she was uniformed like a cop was particularly sly, since the artist stuck it to the side of the cops’ favorite bakery, right on street level. This time the pinup showed blond curls beneath the tilted police cap. She perched on top of a pile of donuts, asking, “What do you fight for?” The bird graced her coffee cup, held aloft in one hand.

Wally saw more than just the artist, who moved through the streets as confidently as a black cat. More patrol cars covered the neighborhood, more safety officers roamed the streets by day, asking more insistent questions.

Life went on. A protest downtown turned violent. The dissidents were involved. No one knew for sure who started it, but at the end, dozens of people—no, not people, protesters—were tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets, and arrested. The Commission apologized to the city’s commuters for the delays caused by the police action.

Wally knew the artist would react to that news. Unless he’d been among the arrested! The old man waited in an agony until midnight, wondering where the artist was, or if he was gone forever.

But then, he appeared. A bag sat like a hunch on the artist’s back, full of all the things this enemy of the people fought with: glue and paper and paint. There was a camera perched on a pole on one corner of the roof. He took the precaution of approaching that camera from the blind side so he could wrangle a knit hat over the lens.

Wally almost laughed out loud. That was the big trick? The way he eluded the state? Dark clothes, well-timed travel, and a hack any bum could manage.

Finding a spot he liked, the young man went to work. Wally watched diligently, his elbows propped on the sill so he could hold the binocs more easily. He soon saw what the young man couldn’t: a police car purring slowly up the street. The cops usually drove fast down this street. But not now.

Wally didn’t dare yell out the window. But he hated to think of the artist getting arrested. How could he signal him? Looking around the apartment, his eyes fell on the overhead light, switched off now, so he could watch the night. Crossing quickly to the other wall, he closed his eyes tightly in anticipation. He reached for the light switch and toggled it several times, and then turned it off again. He worried that the cops might notice the flicker. You’re seven floors up, Wally. The cops aren’t going to look up from their donuts for that. But more than that, he worried the artist wouldn’t notice.

He walked back to the window and peeped out. All quiet. Whether the artist saw Wally’s light and understood the warning, or if he just sensed the hunters, he managed to get gone.

Wally drew the curtains and headed to bed. Sleepless, he stared at the hairline cracks in the ceiling. Am I an accomplice now? Am I part of the resistance, just for turning a light on? What could they do to me?

As it happened, no one noticed Wally’s small rebellion. He managed to wander past the new image before they destroyed it, looking up from the street to where it had been pasted. The pinup girl, dressed in a tease of a nightgown, tucked an anonymous citizen into bed, telling him to “breathe easy.” Both figures wore gas masks, and the white bird covered the bed’s blanket.

It got torn down by the end of the day.

“There’s a reward out now,” Janice said. She was sitting on her sagging porch, and had waved to Wally as he came down the street.

“For who?” he asked, his heart beating faster.

“That tagger! Do you notice anything going on around you?”

“I notice plenty,” he said. “How much is it for?”

“Three grand.”

Wally whistled. That was a lot of money to report some graffiti writer. “Why so much?”

“Because he’s different, isn’t he? No one knows how he’s doing it. The cops have been scanning the camera footage. The vandal isn’t there.”

“Or they just didn’t see him, so they say he can do magic.” He snorted. Knowing how the artist pulled of his invisibility gave Wally an odd feeling of pride. He knew more than the cops.

“It’s more than that. His stuff is… clever.” Janice spoke the word unwillingly, glancing at the pair of cops across the street, as if they could hear her from that distance. “Those girls are—” she paused.

“Sexy?”

“Inviting. They make the resistance seem cute. Fun.”

“Maybe it is. Have you ever gone to one of their meetings? I bet they serve cake and beer. Hell, I’d go just for the beer.”

 [ White bird, © 2014 Cécile Matthey ] “Don’t even joke about that! Do have any idea what the Commission would do to you if they even thought you were connected to the dissidents?”

Wally had no idea. No one did. It was true that people disappeared. Arrests for collusion, for incitement, for suspicion were fairly common. But those didn’t happen to real people. Wally didn’t know anyone personally who might be part of the resistance… though he was beginning to wish he did. He’d like to find out that kid’s name.

His few, carefully worded questions led nowhere. People either didn’t know, or didn’t trust him enough to tell. He read more news on the screen (actual newsprint was a relic), and read more diligently, but fear kept him from searching for more information on the few leaders mentioned in the articles. He knew—everyone knew, without knowing if it was true—that the Commission could surveil anything you did online. Where you went, what you searched, what you bought. Everything was tracked, stored, mined. The whole ’net had turned into a sticky web, where people were the flies and the Commission was the spider. So Wally just kept doing what he had always done: he watched.

One day, a loud knock startled him out of his afternoon nap. He rolled off the couch, his muscles protesting, and hurried to the door. He flung it open, dreaming that the artist had come to him for help, having recognized his apartment by the flashing light.

Instead, two uniformed safety officers and a commissioner, plain-clothed and mild-faced, stood in the hallway.

“Mr. Walter Dennis?” the commissioner asked. “Might I have a word?”

Wally’s heart thumped painfully. But what could he do? “Come in,” he said, stepping aside.

The commissioner did, leaving the officers in the hall. Guarding the way out, Wally knew. “What’s up?” he asked.

The commissioner took his time answering. He looked around the apartment, his casual expression at odds with his sharp eyes. He saw the old, muted monitor; the single place setting at the table; the framed picture of Wally and Melinda, their hair still dark; the lines in the carpet from the steady pattern of Wally’s footpaths. “No need to be alarmed, Mr. Dennis.”

Wally remained alarmed.

“The Commission has received several minor notifications regarding you.”

“Me?” Wally asked, putting wonder in his voice. “What have I done?”

“Well, is there anything you want to tell me about?” The commissioner’s smile was almost kind.

He wasn’t fooled. “My life’s not that interesting.”

“It’s not,” the man agreed, with the confidence of one who knew. “But here’s the problem, Mr. Dennis. According to some reports, you expressed admiration for the recent disfigurements and vandalism in the area.”

Wally frowned. “Admiration? If you’re talking about those pinups, I ain’t gonna lie.”

“Oh, no?” The man’s interest sharpened.

“I may be more than twice your age, Commissioner, but I still like to look at a pretty girl. And those girls sure are pretty.”

The commissioner looked startled, then grinned. “I see. A different sort of admiration.”

“What did your report say?”

The commissioner, of course, didn’t really answer. “That’s why I check everything out. Sometimes information is garbled.” He looked at his handheld. “One other thing. I’m told you own surveillance equipment.”

Wally goggled at him, now truly confused. “What?”

“A camera? Or a telescope, binoculars? Correct?”

“You mean my birdwatching binocs?” Wally asked.

“Is that what they’re for? May I see them?”

Wally reached for his leather pack.

Before he could open it, the commissioner put a hand out. “I’ll do it, if you don’t mind.” He opened the flap and drew out the case that held the binocs. Was he expecting a gun?

Wally warned, “Please be careful with those. They’re older than I am.”

The commissioner took the binocs out of the case and turned them over in his hands, gazing at the fine, unscratched lenses, pristine after all these years. “Beautiful,” he said, softly. Wally felt a sudden sharp pain in his gut. What if the commissioner wouldn’t give them back? “And you say you use these for birdwatching.”

“Oh, yes,” Wally said. “I could show you my life list.”

“Life list?”

“All the birds I’ve seen. Ever. And the ones I still hope to see.” The enthusiastic senior card wasn’t one Wally needed to play often, but it had its uses. He reached into the pack again, without waiting for permission, and pulled out the notebook along with the first bird book in the stack.

The commissioner recoiled. “Uh, no time,” he said hurriedly, putting the binocs back onto the table. “Just needed to check up on the reports. Didn’t think it was anything… a man your age. But vigilance…” he trailed off as he headed toward the door. “Remember to report any problems to the Commission or the Safety Office. Good afternoon, Mr. Dennis.”

Wally waited a full five minutes after the door closed. Then he sat down at the table. Relief at avoiding the Commission soon gave way to frustration. He didn’t even know how to contact a street artist, let alone the resistance. Besides, who would want him… a man his age? Am I so old that no one cares what I do anymore? Wally thought. Then, surprising himself, he laughed. “Do I care about what I do anymore?”

That night, the artist appeared on the roof of the building opposite Wally’s, tantalizingly close. Wally could probably catch his attention without raising his voice. He frowned. What if he was working for the Commission? What if this was just a way to root out people who had inconvenient notions about government?

The kid reached the edge, slid down a ladder and landed in a wide alley that was really more of a driveway for the warehouse next to it. After looking around, he must have decided that he was safe enough. He pulled out a roll of paper and some glue. Wally watched, torn between going down and asking the kid who he was, and fearing the kid was in fact the mild-mannered commissioner. Frozen, he waited.

He waited too long. A car parked in the street. Two cops got out, and moved silently toward the alley. Wally saw them, and said nothing. He could have shouted, he could have signaled. But instead he just watched.

From how the kid swiveled around, and how he jumped too late for the ladder he used to get down in that hole, Wally knew that the kid was not a plant. He was real. And Wally did nothing.

The cops barreled into him, sending him sprawling onto the ground. Cans and tools scattered over the alleyway, rolling into corners and under dumpsters. The kid tried to get up, but one cop straddled him and jammed his gun in the young man’s face. Wally watched him go still.

They handcuffed him and then hauled him roughly to his feet. They were jovial, these cops. The artist was a great catch. The cops could smell a bonus, a commendation, maybe even a promotion, depending on who this kid was.

They marched him to the car, and shoved him into the caged back seat. Wally watched, his heart pounding. What was your name, kid? Is anyone going to see you again? Who can I tell about you?

He waited until the cops drove off. No hero came to save the artist. Wally had been too afraid to even come out and stand on the sidewalk to watch the show, though a few others did. He just sat and stared, his hands shaking, while the cops took the young man away. They left most of his paint and materials lying in the alleyway’s shadows.

When the street was clear again, Wally put his shoes on. He shuffled down the stairs. He walked to the alley and looked around to see that no one else was watching.

A luscious brunette lay across the top of a garage door, as if she were tied to train tracks. But she was mute. The artist didn’t have time to write any words.

Wally cast about, looking at the trash. He found the white bird stencil, and then a sheet with the stamped-out message “Somebody free me!”

He held the sheet up to the image of the girl, looking at her through the gaps. Somebody should, he thought.

Then he stooped and hunted down the artist’s lost things: stencils, brushes, rolled-up papers, cans of paint. He gathered them all as quickly as he could, and then hurried back into his building by the side entrance. I’ll say I was cleaning up, Wally told himself. If anyone asks, I was just being a good citizen.

But as he looked over the things he dumped on his apartment floor, he doubted the Commission would buy that. He hefted a spray can, considering his idea. He couldn’t make a pretty pinup girl, but he could use the bird stencil. He could use it everywhere. He could test it out in the alley below. And then he could range further, find new places, and ask bolder questions of bolder people.

He could do it, if he was careful. Who looks at an old man, especially one who’s never made a mess or a fuss?

Wally put his birdwatching bag on the table. He emptied out the guides, the binocular case, and the little notebook holding his life list. He held the empty leather bag for a moment, then refilled it. But this time, he nested the spray cans and the bird stencils inside. He’d have to get a different notebook in the morning. He was going to make a new life list. Not for the birds he’d seen, but for all the ones he managed to make.

He walked to the window and looked out. All quiet.

He walked to the door, and put his drab khaki jacket on, then slung the pack over his shoulder.

He walked out of the apartment, down the stairs, and out the heavy, windowless side door. Tonight was the time to start, before he lost his nerve. He was invisible for now, but Wally knew that eventually he’d be found. He hoped the resistance found him first.

In the meantime, it was just him and the birds.


© 2014, Jocelyn Koehler

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