Behind their house was a sprawling wetland. In the winter its green water came up to Alexis’s knees, but in the summer she walked through it in shorts and rubber boots and only got her ankles wet. Sometimes in her head she called it The Swamp Barrens, but that was only because her freshman roommate had made her read Tom Brown Jr., and he was always talking about the Pine Barrens in his books. That was Tom Brown Jr.’s childhood wilderness, and Alexis’s childhood wilderness was completely different. A rural New Jersey forest versus a freshwater marsh in Washington State. Hers was an open wetland without trees; just grasses, cattails, and slimy, dainty sheets of growing things that she used to slop through when she was a kid. There was no good reason to call it the Swamp Barrens. It wasn’t even barren; fish glinted below the water in curled lines of silver. Nina used to call them swamp-fish.
When Alexis’s father came home, the three of them sat together at the long dining table. Her father untucked his white button-up before sitting down. “Alexis, how was your day?” he asked, still chewing a bite of pasta. “Did you apply for any jobs?”
Alexis swallowed her own bite. “Not today.” She wished she could somehow be transported to Nina’s apartment in California. She was probably still making dinner; something fancy and homemade, like quiche or spring-vegetable-salad-with-lime-vinaigrette.
“Mary-Ann said the bank is hiring,” her mother said.
Alexis stabbed a shiny, olive-oil glazed pasta bowtie. Her mother had told her about that bank job twice already. “I didn’t get my philosophy degree so I could work at the bank, Mom.”
“Philosophy is a transferrable skill. Everyone wants to hire a thinker,” her father said.
“And you’d be hard-pressed to find someone whose job goes with their major. That degree is to get you a good-paying job. Like this.”
“Exactly,” her father said. He pointed his fork at Alexis. “It doesn’t matter that much what you majored in as long as you have the degree.”
“But I want to do something with philosophy. I want to work somewhere—somewhere good.”
“Somewhere good,” her mother repeated.
What she really wanted was to write books about philosophy. Really accessible books that would make people wonder and question. She once told her mother about this dream, and her response had been: “That’s not a job, Alexis.”
Alexis crossed then un-crossed her legs. “I want to work somewhere that’s—I don’t know. Good for the world. Good for me.”
Her parents said nothing, but she could tell that they were thinking, Working’s not always going to be fun, Alexis. You need to start making money, Alexis. Suck it up and get a job like everyone else, Alexis. Like everyone else. Like her parents, receptionist for an insurance company and real-estate agent. Maybe she’d chosen philosophy because it was the major most unlike their lifeless professions.
“The bank’s good for the world,” her mother said. “They help people get loans. Get their affairs in order.” A pause. “Mary-Anne can probably get you an interview.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Her mother glanced across the table at her father. We’re getting through to her, they were probably thinking.
She’d only been out of school for a month. They were only being pushy because she didn’t have a name for what she wanted to do. She didn’t have a clear goal. If she couldn’t be a writer, what did she want to do?
Alexis retreated to her room. This had always been her room, right on the top floor, where the windows overlooked the Swamp Barrens in their glistening entirety. She hadn’t gone out on the balcony for a while, so she opened the door. In the open air she saw the diffused blues and purples of watery early-evening; the silhouette of a blue heron, its legs like stilts; a fluttering herd of white songbirds that reminded her of butterflies, mirroring fish as their wingtips painted streaks upon the water. Air like crisp grass and rotten logs. It was usually pretty quiet on the balcony, but today she heard some sort of tapping sound. She crossed her arms against the wind. There it was again. Tap-tap. Kind of hollow. Alexis glanced straight down over the rail. There, on the flat part of the roof, just under her feet, was a nest. Two little birds, nestled in an enormous circle of branches. Those sticks looked too sharp and rough for them, with their wobbly necks and fuzzy white throats and stripes of black along their eyes. Then she noticed the nest was lined with soft fibers of frayed bark. She sank to her knees and peeked out underneath the balcony rail so she could see better. It was all delicate strips of dried grasses and floating cotton from trees or dandelions, everything yellowing, browning, not rotting but crisping and melding into the inner walls of the nest. The chicks looked out toward the water. They moved constantly in a quavering, vibrating dance. Like they were unable to keep still.
Then there were wings. Great, giant, amazing wings. White and curved, a W shape bent at the elbows. Those wings fell from white to black to gray in ombre feathers. Speckled. Not flapping, just out. The bird landed on the edge of the nest. A delicate, pointed beak, and a small head. Alexis thought first of an eagle. The bird glanced at her. There was that same stripe along the eye. For some reason she imagined it lunging at her, claws outspread into daggers as it attacked her eyes. She felt a distant sort of fear, an edginess. Don’t get too close to my babies, she knew the bird must be thinking. If birds could think.
But Alexis didn’t want to leave. The babies screeched in ugly, raspy, pleading voices. Maybe they were hungry. What did eagles eat?
The bird took off. Down, she swooped; like a kite over the Swamp Barrens. Water splashed up as the bird sliced the surface with her talons. She hovered over the nest—her wings blowing the lightest whisper of air against Alexis’s face—dropped a lithe, brown fish in the nest, grasped it with one foot, and tore off pieces with her beak. The chicks gurgled, still quivering. Their mother eased red fish chunks down their throats.
Alexis settled more closely onto the dusty balcony, down on her stomach. She watched the babies’ orange eyes blink sleepily as they swallowed. She watched the mother strip apart the fish until there was just one long spinal bone left on the bottom of the nest. Part of her felt like she shouldn’t be watching them. This was an ancient, intimate ritual. It was for carnivores. It was for birds. It was for those who were non-human. Surely the bird should’ve chased her away by now. Instead she’d simply been forgotten. The mother settled in to the nest, and all three birds faced the dying sun. It had been years, it seemed, since Alexis had been so completely absorbed in something that she’d lost track of time. Sure, sometimes she forced herself not to look at her watch every five minutes, but she couldn’t even remember the last time she’d really, truly not cared what time it was.
Red and pink robbed the water of its blueness. The clouds soaked up all that color, condensing it into pale light. A breeze—just one short gust—clipped the wind chimes downstairs. It smelled inexplicably like summer; some blend of tree and warmth and just the right amount of distant ocean sadness.
Alexis felt like one of the ancient people she’d studied—phenomenologists without even knowing it—trapped in a world of light and darkness beyond human control. They probably watched the sunset every night, and let the sun guide their days. But evidently they didn’t like this deference to the elements, because they’d created religion to give them control. And as religion was dying out, technology was taking its place. Why was everyone so afraid to just—go along with it? Why, when these birds looked so content, all three still blinking and ruffling into tight balls of sleep in the last, gray moments of dusk?
Check back next week for the finale, Part 3!