John Abbey glanced in the rearview mirror. Twelve palm cockatoos watched him like a jury from the backseat. The exotic birds were two feet tall, slate gray and indigo blue, with bright red cheeks and feathered crests. They perched in a long wire kennel, claws knuckled around a stripped branch. The birds turned their heads back and forth, staring at him with one marble eye (What are you doing?) then the other (Where are we going?).
“It’s OK,” he said, though he didn’t know who he was reassuring. He had been thinking of Nawal, the way her lips pressed together when she smiled, and so had missed the AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL turnout. Now he was wedged in a ten-lane pileup at the U.S.–Mexico border, sweating in spite of the A/C. He wore his Fish & Wildlife uniform, but at twenty-three, with short blond hair, slender build, and all-American face, he looked like a boy pretending to be a park ranger.
On the passenger seat, a stack of wildlife declaration forms authorized Special Agent John Abbey to transport twelve rare palm cockatoos across the border. The birds had been netted in New Guinea, smuggled on cargo ships to Australia and Columbia, driven through Sonora, Coahuila and Chihuahua, and left in Tijuana. “By the time I ran down the informant’s tip, only twelve of twenty-nine birds were still alive.” John had filled in the forms himself. “They were headed for a dealer in Arizona,” his handwriting claimed. “I’ll escort the birds to Carson Sanctuary in Big Bear for rehabilitation.”
That was all true, except the last line. Tonight he’d escort the birds to Tommy Friar, an animal trafficker in Los Angeles. Each bird fetched $15,000 on the black market. John’s cut would be $90,000 up-front. All he had to do now was get across the border.
John majored in wildlife ecology at Los Angeles City College. Every Friday he sat at a card table in the quad, a boy-faced activist loaded with handouts and petitions. “Animals are the third most trafficked commodity in the world,” he called, “behind only drugs and arms. Animals cooked as delicacies. Worn as clothing. Mounted as trophies. Ground into medicine and aphrodisiacs. You can stop the violence. All it takes is…”
But his fellow students found the trafficking photos too disturbing: parrots squeezed into water bottle tubes like plastic straight jackets, baby otters drugged and packed in ventilated suitcases like furry socks, adorable pangolins gagged and hidden behind car door panels, matchbook-sized songbirds slowly suffocating in perforated ice chests marked “Human Organ Transplant.” John spent most Fridays alone, holding petitions no one had ten-seconds to sign. He watched their earbud-faces pass, resenting their indifference.
He got placed right out of college with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The job didn’t start until late August, so John offered to help Chandi, an online friend and fellow activist, save birds on Malta. He emptied what was left out of his checking account, spent half of it expediting his passport, and flew to the Mediterranean. Everything he owned fit in one backpack.
Though only seventeen miles across, the island of Malta seemed to contain the whole world: modern cities and ancient towers, busy towns and family farms, hills and fields and woods and beaches. The people were a melting pot of Mediterranean cultures, though John was surprised by the number of British, German, French, and American expatriates. The ocean was visible from almost anywhere, water so blue he felt unfolded by its color and motion. He didn’t know how else to describe it. An epiphany? But of what? He had never been outside the U.S. Maybe that’s all it was. Not an unfolding, but an untethering.
He met Chandi in person for the first time, a short Indian man with Buddy Holly glasses. Chandi agreed to cover expenses in exchange for John’s help. “I budgeted for six weeks,” he said, drumming his belly. “But if we skip some meals, we can make our euros last all summer.”
They drove a white Peugeot into the countryside. “I used to go wherever the birds were,” Chandi said. “But a lot of poaching happens on private property, and those guys carry guns.” He stretched his t-shirt down over his shoulder, revealing a long scar puckering like a seam in his brown skin. “Now,” he laughed, “I stick to public land.”
They sped into the foothills and parked on the edge of a wild citrus field. Chandi showed him how poachers coated branches with tree sap so when migrating birds landed to rest, feathers stuck to the natural glue. They found dozens of collared flycatchers, small white birds with black hoods. A few, struggling to escape, had broken their hollow wings or snapped their toothpick backs, and dangled in front of John, trembling and contorted. Chandi offered only two options for the wounded: a quick twist of the neck or a finger-drop of narcotic touched to their tiny beaks. John always chose the latter.
“It’s a numbers game,” Chandi said, demonstrating how to use a spray bottle of warm water to dissolve the sap and peel the birds from the branches. “Poachers don’t care if they lose forty, fifty percent. They just sap more branches. And for what? So some consumer somewhere can own a bird from somewhere else.”
John had read about this style of poaching, but to witness birds dangling by outstretched wings like tiny crucifixions—he didn’t understand people, the brutality of their endeavors. He himself hadn’t eaten, worn, or owned an animal of any kind since he was fifteen.
John eased on the brake and edged another car-length closer to the border. He tasted bile in the back of his throat. He hadn’t eaten since meeting Tommy Friar two days ago. But there was nothing to worry about. Cross the border, drive north to L.A., collect the money, return to Malta, start a new life with Nawal. Easy.
He glanced in the mirror. The birds shook their heads, skeptical.
“It’s OK,” he said. If the risk was any smaller it wouldn’t be a risk at all. Federal dollars went to immigration and drugs. Fish & Wildlife’s budget was a bailing bucket in the flood of animal trafficking. He had checked: only one overwhelmed agent was stationed at this border entry, and it was a rotating position. The agent varied by the day. He had even called the office to let them know he’d be passing through. “So?” the woman had said. “I’m drowning down here. Just flash your docs and get out of my way.” He had known she would say that. He had seen it himself, working skeleton crews at the L.A. Harbor. You only checked what you absolutely had to check. The agent would confirm John’s ID, flip through the forms while they commiserated about the plight of animals in a human world, then wave John through.
But if it was that easy, why had he called ahead?
“It’s OK,” he said again, and glanced in the rearview. The birds looked at him with one eye then the other, unconvinced.
Chandi had rented a corner apartment in Valletta, the capital of Malta. The building dated back to the 1600s, an old temple that had been renovated into living quarters. John stood in the corner of the bedroom: from the tall window on the left, he saw baroque palaces and churches; from the tall window on the right, modernist buildings of steel and glass.
Sleep eluded him that first night. He remembered each bird he couldn’t save, hearing their wings in his own dry breath. Wandering down to the port, he watched a huge freighter glide away in the darkness, lit up like a city abandoning civilization for a nomadic life on the sea. He found a small cove, stripped off shorts and t-shirt, and walked into the water. If only he could wash away the snakeskin of humanity as easily as the day’s sweat. He floated on his back, gazing at the stars. He had always been an outsider, separated from his own species. The power of that feeling scared him, the riptide of loneliness moving beneath it.
Leaving the city each morning, they passed a school and playground that had been converted into a refugee detention center. John watched the brown and black faces pass—men, women, children, staring through chain link.
“It’s a heartbreaker,” Chandi said. “Families from Libya and Somalia, Sudan and Syria, running from some evil at home. Whatever it is, it must be bad. Trying to get to Europe in rafts? Lots of them make it only as far as Malta.”
More refugees gathered at the crossroads, hopping out as cars passed, offering themselves as cheap labor, and even more nested in steel shipping containers near the airport.
“It’s a small island,” Chandi said. “There are over ten thousand refugees now. No one knows what to do.”
They hiked a coastal ridge above the ocean and found dozens of golden orioles hanging from sticky branches. As he released the birds, John kept glancing down to the sea, tracking the progress of a raft struggling toward shore. Tiny figures signaled for help, colorful robes and scarves vibrant in the sun. The raft tilted, then sank under choppy waves as a rescue boat arrived. From his view on the cliff, it looked like the people had to be pried out of the ocean, their bright clothing sticking to the syrupy water.
The next morning, John surprised himself by volunteering at the Jesuit Refugee Service. With Chandi’s blessing, he divided his hours between the detention center in the morning and the fields in the afternoon. He helped prepare food, inventory Red Cross shipments, stuff pledge envelopes, write letters to charitable foundations. He felt the unfolding continue. For the first time since—he couldn’t remember when—he felt like he belonged somewhere.
One day he noticed a young Syrian woman tending the sick. She wore a white t-shirt, blue jeans and sandals, with a purple hijab over her black hair. He loved how easily she smiled, lips pressing closed the way most people would frown but turning up just slightly at the corners. He assumed she was a physician from Doctors Without Borders or another service organization, working directly with the refugees, touching, talking, listening. John found himself drawn into more direct contact with the people as well, teaching a class in English and improvising games to distract worried children. The kids loved to touch his blond hair and laugh at his green eyes.
After a week of glances and nods and smiles, he asked if he could assist on her rounds. Her name was Nawal Zaitouneh, and she wasn’t a doctor. She was a refugee.
An old station wagon pulled up on his left. Two brown-faced boys in the backseat waved at the birds. As John powered the windows, heat pushed into the car and the birds responded, clucking and chirping. The boys leaned out their window, faces lit like kids at a zoo.
“Are those parrots?” the older boy asked.
“Palm cockatoos,” John said. “They’re called Goliath cockatoos because they’re so big.”
The smaller boy tapped his lips. “Do they talk?”
John nodded. “They could, but they haven’t been around people long enough.”
Their mother watched from the front passenger seat. John had never seen such black skin. “They’re beautiful,” she said, the word echoing back in her sons’ voices, “Beautiful, beautiful.”
The smaller boy touched the corners of his eyes. “Why are they sad?”
“They’re orphans,” John said. “They were stolen from their home in New Guinea.”
“Are you saving them?” the older boy asked.
John tapped his badge. “That’s my job.”
Compassion tightened the mother’s face. “Did you save them all?”
“No,” John said, not meeting her eyes. “You never save them all.”
The mother nodded. “Then these are the lucky birds,” she said to her sons.
“Lucky birds,” they echoed, “lucky birds.”
“God bless you,” the woman called as the station wagon moved up to an inspection booth. The blessing stuck like the heat to John’s skin. He had grown up in a house saturated with religion. He never connected with any of it, but now that Old Testament view of human nature gave him the word for what he was doing. For him, animal trafficking wasn’t just a crime. He had betrayed his own faith. He was committing a sin.
The car in front pulled away. A border patrol officer waved John forward.
When they first met, Nawal had already been in detention two months. Educated as a teacher, she spoke Arabic and English and carried a valid passport. Yet she had been fingerprinted like a criminal, could not get a visa, could not work. Having used all her money to travel this far, there was nothing to do but apply for asylum and wait.
“What’ll happen if they send you back?” John asked.
Nawal bowed her head over a plate of rice and beans. All around them, refugees knelt on the tile floor and hunched over elementary school desks, giving thanks. John waited.
Nawal looked up from her prayers and breathed. “I organized many student protests, so they might arrest me. But who can see tomorrow? And you? Are you a student?”
John talked about the poachers. Nawal’s brows bent in pain but her full lips pressed into a smile, as if pulling on one emotion moved the other an equal amount.
“Migrating birds are like refugees,” she said. “You are helping them find their way home. That is an act of prayer.”
“It’s not prayer,” John said. “It’s work.”
Nawal gave him an impatient smile, like she was both charmed and annoyed. “You Americans always separate the two. But Allah created this world as a place of worship, so the earth itself is a mosque. All good work done in a mosque is an act of prayer.”
A week later, Nawal was released from the detention center into a government-run hostel. She was free to come and go as she waited for her asylum request to be reviewed.
Sometimes they packed a lunch and Chandi drove them around Malta. John’s favorite place was the Grand Harbour where the city wall hid all modern buildings from view. The ageless sea on one side, an empire of stone, spires, and cathedrals on the other: he felt he had found a gap in history, an alternate timeline where anything could happen.
To his surprise, Nawal’s favorite place was the Church of Saint Paul’s Shipwreck, a domed building dating from the 1500s. According to legend, the apostle had been stranded on Malta in AD 60, and to honor that event Pope Pius VII had donated the stone block on which the saint had been beheaded in Rome, along with a fragment of Paul’s wrist bone. Both were on display in a chapel where Nawal knelt to pray for refugees.
“You’re a Muslim,” John said. “You can’t pray to Paul. He was a Christian.”
Nawal closed her eyes. “I talk to all the saints.”
Watching her pray, John felt that unfolding again, an opening not to God but to knees on stone, to hands clasped and heads bowed; an opening not to saints but to flesh and blood; not to heaven, but here and now, to his own brief journey in this body, across these lands and these oceans. He closed his eyes and tried to touch that familiar ache, that marrow of loneliness he had lived with his entire life. He could barely feel it; those sharp edges were like braille now.
Sleep eluded him again. Each night he thought of Nawal, the line of her shoulder, scoop of her neck, tidal motion of her breasts, and that inward curve he imagined just beneath her t-shirt moving down into the well below.
John stood in an asphalt lot where several cars waited in the dusky heat. He counted nineteen border patrol officers. The lone Wildlife agent, a gray man with watery bags under his eyes, flipped through the forms.
Nearby, half a dozen men sat cross-legged, wrists bound with plastic ties, hands cupped in their laps like cracked bowls. The kennel of birds sat on the hood of John’s car.
“These birds are sick,” the agent said. “Look at the eyes. The crusting around the nostrils.”
John hadn’t examined the birds since picking them up. If he had, he realized, he would have noticed their condition. But even now he couldn’t look at them too closely. It was as if their eyes held an opposing magnetic force, pushing his gaze away.
“I’ll take good care of them,” John said. “Big Bear’s only a couple hours away.”
“Can the sanctuary handle twelve new patients?” the agent asked.
“I called them yesterday. They’re waiting for us.”
The agent hesitated. “I better call again. We may need to split these birds up. Give me a few minutes.”
John pushed down the panic in his chest. The sanctuary in Big Bear knew nothing about the birds. A few calls would light a fuse to the forged signatures, arraignment, fines, and prison. He felt Nawal turn a corner in his mind.
As the agent stepped into the office, John looked around, for what he didn’t know. His eyes caught on the men sitting on the hot asphalt. He gave the first man his water bottle. The old man drank with both hands then passed the bottle down the line.
“Problemas?” he said. He could be Nawal’s father: his eyes were the same brown and held a comparable weight of the world.
John nodded and glanced at the tinted office windows. “Big problems.”
The old man shrugged. “Volar.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t—”
The man raised his bound hands, flapping his fingers. “Volar.”
John stood and backed away. Turning, he faced himself in the office windows. He had always been embarrassed by the boyish softness of his face, but now in that dark pane of glass he didn’t see a boy. He saw a refugee.
He pushed the caged birds into the backseat and eased through the immigration inspections, showing his badge. As he drove away, he watched the mirror. Accepting the birds, he had betrayed his faith. Now, running from a Fish & Wildlife agent, he was running from himself.
The birds chirped in the backseat, turning their heads. “It’s OK,” he said.
Ten minutes later, he saw the flashing lights.
John and Nawal spent the morning volunteering at the refugee center, then drove out to a russet field. They found five blue-and-orange rock thrushes caught on a limed branch. John used a spray bottle to free two small birds. He placed one in the cup of Nawal’s hands.
“I feel its heart,” she said. “It moves so fast.”
“The spray gets them off the branch,” John said. “But sometimes that’s not enough. We need to remove the sap between the feathers too. Their wings are so delicate, you can’t rub the sap off, even with a sponge. It might seem strange, but this works best...”
He gently stretched a wing and put the sap-covered tip in his mouth. Nawal’s startled eyes, bronze in the sun, watched as John held the wing until the sap melted, then repeated the tender action on the other wing. He blew on the feathers and tossed the thrush into the air. He loved how Nawal gave a small gasp as if the bird, in flying away, had plucked a string.
“If you’re scared about parasites or germs,” he said, “it’s OK. Chandi’s been doing this every summer for years.”
“I am not scared,” she said.
He watched her lay the tip of a bird’s wing between her soft lips, gazed into her widening eyes as the sap dissolved in her mouth like honey. She did the same for the other wing, then blew on the feathers and opened her hands. As the thrush fluttered across the sea, John felt the unfolding continue, as if his heart was a map with territories he had never seen before.
“Have you read the Gospel of Thomas?” Nawal said.
John thought back to his Sunday School days. “There’s no Gospel of Thomas.”
Nawal sighed. “You Americans are too exclusive. There are many gospels not in your Bible, but they are still gospel. Thomas says when Jesus was a child, he played by the river and made a bird out of mud. The priests scolded him. He was breaking the law by working on the Sabbath. But Jesus held the mud bird and breathed on it. It became real and flew away.” She touched his hand. “Thank you for this miracle. Today I have broken the law and brought a bird to life.”
He watched Nawal free the last bird, watched as she followed it into the blue sky, turning with the thrush as it banked to the west, turning until they stood face-to-face. When she eased up and kissed him, he tasted tree sap on her tongue.
By July, he knew he was in love but kept the words to himself. They worked in the refugee center each morning and rescued birds each afternoon. They talked about their lives: how poor their parents were, in money and love; how similar their countries were in spite of the outward differences; how she adored God, and how he didn’t think about God at all. The unfolding in his heart accelerated. He felt a peace he never thought possible in the brutal world. The idea of a family now felt like a benefit to the planet rather than a burden.
One evening, sitting on the beach, John asked Nawal to accept his love, to pull off her t-shirt, slip out of her jeans, unfurl her hijab. He offered his body with his heart. Nawal smiled her frowning smile.
“In most ways,” she said, “I am as modern as your American women. But some traditions I keep for myself. We are not married. Therefore I can only give you my heart.”
“I’ll take it,” John said. Nawal laughed.
John kept pace with the late afternoon traffic. A few miles back, the flashing lights wove steadily closer. He knew they had his car and plates from the border video, but he didn’t think they had spotted him yet. He merged into a lane flowing from the main artery of the 5 to the 805 bypass.
He checked the rearview. No lights followed.
The birds cooed and chirped as if calling his name. “It’s OK,” he said, and tightened his jaw to hold the tears. How could he have done this to them? They were like children. But the plan had been so simple! No paper trail, no phone call to the sanctuary, no documents left behind, no signatures other than the ones he had forged. It should have been automatic.
But now Fish & Wildlife had the false documents. They had John’s name, driver’s license, bank account, social security number. Dedicated men and women were going through his case files, checking each link and connection, tracking him with the same sense of betrayal he himself would have felt. There was nowhere to go in this connected world.
Except to Tommy Friar. Tommy wasn’t in any of John’s files. John had come across the trafficker’s name while confiscating birds in Malibu. Afterwards, he never recorded their meeting. Tommy had John’s money, connections to get him out of the country, maybe even access to fake IDs. Once in Malta, he’d explain everything to Nawal. He had always known she wouldn’t approve, but seeing how much he had sacrificed, she’d love him in spite of his sin.
Freeway lights came on. A few stars appeared. He drove north into the widening dark.
A week before the money ran out, John spoke to a lawyer at the Jesuit Refugee Service. She warned him that marriage was impossible: first, John and Nawal had only known each other nine weeks; second, Nawal’s situation was the textbook definition of a sanctuary marriage; third, Nawal had registered for asylum in the E.U.
John applied for a work visa but was denied. He asked her to marry him anyway. She said no, citing a fourth reason: John could get into serious legal trouble.
“I love you,” she said. “But sometimes love does not win.”
“What does that mean?” he asked. “How can you—?”
She touched his lips. “We had a summer on an island. Days of love and fear and joy and birds and God. Now our summer is over. We cannot change that. This is the world sometimes. We move on.”
He tried to match her smile. “Is that how a refugee sees her life?”
“Maybe everyone,” she said. “Maybe birds too.”
On his last day, Nawal held out a notebook the size of a deck of cards.
“An account of your good works,” she said.
John opened the book with his thumbs. Each two-page spread documented, in Nawal’s careful handwriting, every species of bird saved on that date. As he turned the pages, the small bedroom filled with Egyptian nightjars and Siberian rubythroats, Calandra larks and Isabelline wheatears, river warblers and black redstarts. Beside each name, Nawal recorded the number saved on that day, and in the bottom right corner she circled the day’s total. On July 5 they had only saved eight birds, but on July 31 they had rescued 291.
“I took the data from Chandi’s notebooks,” Nawal said. “Look at the total on the last page. You saved 3,403 birds this summer. You see? There are three thousand more songs in the world because of you. What more can you ask from God?”
That night, Chandi drove him to the airport. They sat in the parking lot, watching the taillights of planes vanish like starships moving out of orbit. Even now, John’s thoughts ran in tightening circles, like a dog tied to a stake, trying to find a last loophole, until there was nothing left to do but get on the plane.
Each time John checked the rearview mirror, he expected cruiser lights. It was 8 p.m., and the silhouettes of the birds hunched like children in the backseat, pressed shoulder to shoulder. He exited the freeway in San Clemente and took streets the rest of the way. He wasn’t sure, but he thought his car and plates would be easier to spot on the highway.
Tommy Friar lived in the hills above Los Angeles. John followed the narrow curves, breathing harder as if the air thinned with each turn. He parked half a block down and watched Tommy’s Spanish-style mansion.
The birds chirped in the backseat. “It’s OK,” he said.
John locked the car and went around the back of the house. The pool glowed in the center, surrounded by grape trellises. Tommy slept in a recliner, dressed in the same robe, shorts, and gold sandals. At night, the short, bald man looked even more like a drunken monk. John sat down, shook Tommy awake, and explained the situation.
“Why Malta?” Tommy said.
“It’s on the other side of the world.”
“Jail might be easier.”
“It has to be Malta.”
“So,” Tommy said, “you’re not just running from, yeah? You’re running to.” When John didn’t answer, Tommy shrugged. “Sure, I can get you there. I piggy-back on a few cargo ships. That’s my supply line. Those freighters are floating cities. Filled with the trade of the world, legal and illegal. I rent half a storage unit, eight by ten. Air controlled. But I don’t know about a fake ID. I’m not CIA. And the ride will cost your share.”
John looked up. “My share?”
Tommy’s expression didn’t change. “I got to pay people on the ship, they got to pay the captain, he’s got to pay inspection agents. People have morals, yeah? And it’d be wrong not to take advantage of the situation, make a little extra for myself.” Tommy looked steadily at John as if trying to guess his weight. “Or you can turn us in. Way I see it, we both go to jail or you go to Malta as is.”
The yard overlooked Hollywood and downtown L.A., and farther west, Century City and Santa Monica. The cities glowed like space stations, isolated from each other by starry darkness. John thought of how some birds, when caught by a predator, shut down their nervous systems so they wouldn’t feel the pain. He wondered if that’s what was happening now. He couldn’t feel anything except Nawal. She was all he had left.
He drove the car into Tommy’s secluded backyard. As he opened the door, the large birds turned as one, bobbing to see around each other. John reached a finger through the cage. The nearest bird rubbed its beak against his knuckle. He knew it was just instinct, a gesture of self-comfort, but it felt like more.
“It’s OK,” the bird said in John’s own voice. Startled, John stared into its brown eyes.
Behind him, Tommy clapped and said, “Let’s go. You have a boat to catch, yeah?”
The flight from Malta to Los Angeles took fifteen hours and crossed ten time zones. John felt like he was in a foreign country, but only had a week to acclimate before starting his new job with Fish & Wildlife. He was stationed at the port in San Pedro, checking freight ships and ocean liners. As the months passed, he witnessed the kinds of bizarre trafficking stunts he had only read about: a big woman nervously scratching her chest because she had hidden forty-two baby snakes in her padded bra; a tall man with a white splat on his black shoes because he had tied four drugged parrots to his calves; a mother with a teenage daughter who looked a little too pregnant because she hugged a baby rhesus monkey under her clothes. Whenever fellow Wildlife agents arrived with rescued animals, John casually checked IDs and docs then waved them through.
He bought a used car and rented a studio apartment in MacArthur Park. Even when he was working, he felt adrift. He expected to miss Nawal less each day, but the ache compounded. He felt that unfolding continue, painful now, as if a hand ran across his chest, ironing his heart flat. On Sundays, he walked to Grand Central Market. On the way home, he passed a church with a refugee shelter but didn’t volunteer.
In December, a letter found him at the office. It was from Nawal. She had smuggled herself into Italy, but had been stopped in Milan and sent back to her “country of origin,” the country that had documented her as a refugee: Malta. She was again living in the detention center. “They say,” she wrote, “I will be deported to Syria unless I can find a sponsor on the island. Forgive me for sending sad news. But when I despair, I think of God and birds, and that makes me think of you, and I am happy again.”
John barely managed rent, but sent $742, everything he had, to the Jesuit Refugee Service. The funds would be used to hire legal support and build a case against deportation. He pulled extra shifts to earn time-and-a-half. He felt Nawal’s life lay in his hands.
By now four months had passed and he was working the “receiver” end, finding the dealers who resold the animals. The maximum sentence for trafficking was ten years, though the most he had seen involved a husband and wife who were convicted of smuggling rare reptiles. The wife had been a Fish & Wildlife agent. The judge took her badge and three years of her life.
John tracked down dealers, recommended fines, assigned court dates. While confiscating three Saudi Arabian Asir Magpies, the owner gave up Tommy Friar’s name in exchange for a lighter fine. In John’s experience, most dealers had day jobs and only traded exotics on the side. But Tommy Friar lived in a Spanish-style mansion above the city. The backyard looked like a movie set, pool shimmering in the winter sun as if someone had just leapt in. Tommy himself, short and bald, wearing an open robe, silk shorts and gold sandals, looked like a Buddha gone to seed. Nothing John said made a dent in Tommy’s sleepy-eyed serenity.
“I’m telling you,” Tommy said. “if I engaged in such activities, it’d be cash-only. You don’t have receipts, yeah? Just a witness. So it’s word against word.”
“That’s enough to subpoena your financial statements,” John said.
Tommy yawned or sighed, John couldn’t tell which.
“Here’s a hypothetical,” Tommy said. “I got information about a shipment of palm cockatoos. I’m just talking out loud now. These birds are from New Guinea. 15k per, swear to God. Ten, twenty should make it to Tijuana. Now I’m not bribing you, right? I’m offering you the opportunity to save these innocents and get paid for your troubles. I’m not saying I’m the dealer. But if you pick them up in TJ, walk them across the border, then the dealer, whoever he is, will go fifty-fifty. That’s 80-90k to you, maybe more.”
John opened his ticket book. “Is Tommy Friar your legal name?”
“Hold on, slow down,” Tommy said. “These birds will have bad lives. You want that? Small cages. A little sacrifice of your morals, that’s all it costs to save them. Morals grow back, yeah? And 90k won’t do you any harm.”
“Is Tommy Friar your legal name?” John repeated.
Tommy eased the pen from John’s hand. “Your face is tight. Relax. Don’t be afraid. What can go wrong? With animals, almost everything gets through. And you’re legal! You got the badge. You’ll stroll across the border. Everybody gets what they want. Easy.”
The sky rustled. John looked up and saw tall palm trees bending in the wind. Blood seeped into his mouth, tasting sweet as tree sap. He realized he had been biting down on his cheek since Tommy made the offer, trying to staunch the possibilities bleeding into his mind. With $90,000 he could quit his job, return to Malta, set up a grant through the Jesuits to sponsor Nawal, and secure her release from detention. They’d establish a history, work at the refugee center in the morning, rescue birds in the afternoon. The cockatoos would be a sacrifice, but he imagined the thousands of orioles and swallows and shearwaters they could save. It would be a good life, and after a few years they could marry and move anywhere, maybe to California. He could even get his job back at Fish & Wildlife.
“No one will know,” Tommy said. “Swear to God.”
The sky shone blue, the pool sparkled like the Mediterranean. One crime in the name of love and a lifetime to make it right. Nawal would be angry at first but she’d understand. He could almost see her smiling, lips pressed together in a happy frown.
John sat on a cot in the storage unit. He tried to think, to remember, to find the hope that had driven him here, but all he could do was listen to the hum of the air compressor, count the corrugated ridges in the walls, try to guess what birds had been here by the matted feathers on the steel floor.
When he was released the next morning, the freighter was in open sea. An old man handed him an oil-stained coat. “Forty-two days to Genoa,” the old man said, hair white as paper. “Then a quick boat to Malta.”
The ship was as big as an aircraft carrier, stacked with metal containers the size of semi-trucks. John carried the coat around the ship to the square prow. He stood at the rail, surrounded by blue above and below, split only by a faint horizon line. Wind filled the sleeves of his Fish & Wildlife uniform.
He knelt on the coat, closed his eyes, and prayed to his knees on the deck, to the cold on his skin; prayed to the faces behind the detention wire, to the birds caught on the branches; prayed to the palm cockatoos and to Nawal, and through her to all the saints.
He tried to feel that familiar unfolding, but it was gone.
There was nothing left to unfold.