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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

For Luck by Carlea Holl-Jensen

OBJECT: Birdcage

BODY OF WATER: Gowanus Canal

 

Drown the bird for luck, she tells me. It will keep him alive.

All right, I say.

The bird is small and yellow and white and grey, a songbird. When she puts it in my hands, I can feel its pulse shuddering against my palm. Tiny thing, I could crush it just as easily.

She holds the door to the birdcage open for me and I put the bird inside. Trapped, it beats its wings, quivering from one side to the other and twisting midair, crashing against the sides of the cage. Under the susurration and snap of its wings, a sound like breath leaving the lungs.

We walk down to the creek together, past the last houses, past the tide mill. The path is dark, the sky mired in thin, colorless clouds. Long grasses catch on our stockings and twine around our ankles. Our shoes stick in the brackish mud.

The water is slow-moving and sure. In the dark, it looks like glass.

Do I just throw it in?

Her eyes are wide and still, impassive. Hold it under, she says.

I kneel on the bank, the cage between my hands. Inside, the bird is a heartbeat. Its whole body is shivering to be free.

The water is ice sharp around my wrists when I lower the cage into the creek. I can feel every strike of the bird’s wings against the wire rungs. It cuts me, some sharp part of it drawing blood.

I make myself think of low afternoon sunlight over the bay, of his raw thumb bracing an oyster knife, of him swinging me up with his hands under my arms, of feeling so weightless I might break with the ground forever.

That’s good, she says at last. Good. Now let the current take it, let it go.

I do what she says, and the water pulls the birdcage from my hands. It weaves in the current, growing less and less distinct. In time, the water will dissolve the bird’s body and all its little bones will drift away, finding their home beside stones and old shards of glass. And the cage, empty now, will float for a long time until, one day, it fetches up on some marshy bank, someplace where the creek has grown wide, somewhere nearer to the sea.


Carlea Holl-Jensen's fiction has appeared in Pindeldyboz, Shimmer, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. She holds an MA in Folklore from Indiana University, Bloomington, and an MFA in Fiction from the University of Maryland, College Park. She is also one of the co-editors of The Golden Key, an online journal of speculative writing.