A FLOCK, A SIEGE, A MURMURATION
WHEN THEY SAID, TWO HUNDRED cases of bird flu confirmed, we kept to our houses and apartments. We avoided the outdoors and all its creatures. We wore masks to avoid breathing the air that could be polluted with just about anything. We looked askance at the chickens tied with rope to the front of tool shops, to the songbirds kept in cages in the trees. We thought to ourselves: we will live as though we are dying.
I was applying for med school in the States then, although living in China as an expat. I had an excuse to never leave my apartment but when the government asked for volunteers to cull the poultry from the wet markets, I went into their offices. They looked at me, masks over their faces like my mask over mine. I said, I want to help. And they said, why? For science, I replied. And they stamped the form and said, tomorrow. Six a.m. It was April 2013 in Shanghai and the sky was gray from morning to night.
We took a tally of the number of bird corpses we hauled out to the truck. White plastic bags of chickens and ducks, pigeons and geese. The geese were the worst with their long necks tangling with one another, those heavy feathered bodies. The pigeons looked so small and harmless and there were fewer of them—I, after all, had never seen them offered on menus around China although I’d heard of carrier pigeons still being raised by enthusiasts in tall apartment buildings. I’d even seen a coop myself, last year, dark and full of the cooing of birds, like a soft lullaby.
There was no blood shed: what unnerved us was the smell of cooking poultry when we put them through the incinerator, a smell that made our mouths water. To be hungry in the face of death. I saw this as practice. The same sensation one has with a human corpse, this odd feeling of hunger while dissecting, due to the formaldehyde. After all, I was interested in the processes of the body, of that tenuous boundary between being alive and not. The way certain chemicals, certain smells, can influence your thoughts and actions. All so rational and clear.
The culling of poultry was happening in all parts of the country, first these southeastern cities of Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing. Then spreading west and south. The cases kept climbing, three hundred then four hundred then seven hundred. People were afraid to eat chicken, even in restaurants, as though you could catch the disease from eating the flesh of these birds. It was no normal flu. It shut down the organs. It made the air feel like water so that your lungs collapsed. Your skin would sink into itself, your bones would ache, your heart would slowly stop beating.
After the sterilization of the first market, the largest in Shanghai, I went back to my apartment that I shared with two roommates, both Chinese and not expats like myself. The scent of the protection suits, the gloves, lingered on my body. I did not wash it away. The next day, I went to the Department of Health again. I said, Let me help. They stamped my form. Again and again.
No one called me from the States. My parents were long gone and any relatives I had didn’t care where I was or what I was doing. My roommates kept to themselves. Instead of writing essays or teaching Chinese students the Latin roots of difficult vocabulary, I looked at photos on the internet of all the different varieties of birds. Mandarin ducks and nightingales. Chickadees and red-tailed hawks. I memorized their details, their Latin names and coloring, the insects and grains they ate. I printed out photographs and highlighted the names in yellow, hand-wrote their details in dark blue ink that stained my fingers. I went out and I placed birds into sacks and pumped in highly concentrated carbon dioxide until they died. They fought it, they beat their wings and tried to rip through the bags but I’d put my hands on their bodies until they were still.
The death rate was 40 percent and it hit the young and old alike. The virus had yet to mutate so it wasn’t yet contagious between humans. It was found that the virus wasn’t only carried by farmed poultry but also wild sparrows and pigeons. Bird catchers were sent to the parks with nets every day. Afterwards, I held their bodies in my hands and released them into the fire.
I canceled my SAT classes. I traveled to other cities nearby to cull birds, on the high-speed bullet train with a commendation from the Health Department. This person has experience. This person is willing to do what is necessary to help halt a pandemic. This person wants to be a doctor. But that wasn’t why I did it. At night, I’d catalogue the birds and think: There are so many out there. How will we get them all.
Nine hundred cases in a month and climbing despite the killings. No chicken or duck or goose served in restaurants. Many of the larger restaurants were shut down. The songbird cages that used to hang in the trees were all empty, probably hidden away. The sky was perpetually gray with the smoke from incinerators and the city smelled like roasted chicken. There were few people on the streets. The virus had now mutated and could be spread person to person. In People’s Park, the only people around were the bird catchers—not even the marriage brokers were out. Life was at a standstill. On the subway, if a person coughed, you’d get out of the car at the next stop and go into another one. There were no tourists on Nanjing Road. I’d walk down it and see the salesgirls, bored, at the counters, masks over their noses and mouths, looking down at their smartphones and unwilling to speak to one another.
Once, I saw myself on the television. It was earlier on. A reporter had asked me, her lipstick perfect, her hair a shiny wavy dyed brown, “Do you think this culling is necessary?” I’d said yes, but my eyes betrayed me.
The wet markets had all been shut down and there was no poultry to be found in the city. I ate vegetables and noodles that I’d cook in a wok, the gas flaming hot so that I'd often burn it. I’d open the window and watch my contribution of smoke waft out into the air. My roommates still ate fish and beef and pork. They only bought it from the large supermarkets. They never offered it to me and I would think: if only you knew what I'd done.
During the days, I would watch the bird catchers who stalked around People’s Park. There were very few birds to catch, and some days, none at all. They'd smile at me and I'd smile back, but we never spoke, for fear of the virus. I'd watch the clear skies and the trees blooming with flowers, but their color was faded by soot. A layer of dust coated my windowsill every morning if I left my window open. I thought about medical school. I thought about the feel of a fluttering bird's heart, the way their tiny eyes looked at you, the sharpness of their beaks. I thought about the corpses I would feel under my scalpel, the skin falling away to reveal fat and muscle. I thought about what disease can do to a body, how blood can pool under the skin, how the cells can implode, how the things inside of you can be transferred to outside the body.
When my roommate complained of cold in the apartment, of how her muscles ached so she couldn't get comfortable, the other roommate packed her bags and left the city. I was the one to call the hospital. They took her away in their white protection suits, on a gurney as though she couldn't walk, as though she were already dead. There was fear in her eyes, but also resignation. As though she had known all along it was coming. But didn't we all? I was only surprised I wasn't the first.
I went to Hangzhou, to Xixi wetlands, a national wetland park. There, swans still swam gracefully by the Misty River Fishing Village. They'd been tested and spared, one of the few concessions the government had given. I was alone and, for hours, I watched them drift by, and my mind was blank and white as the feathers on their backs.
Back in Shanghai, my walls were covered with lists of the names and details of birds. Color-coded and sorted according to species and families. In this city, the birds had been mostly eradicated, but not so in other cities. There were people that were pushing back, saying that they should focus on a cure, especially now that it could be transferred between humans. These were cities that were proud of their birds, their herons and long-necked cranes. The summer was in full swing by then, the trees a shade of green that looked unnatural against the sky. We had almost forgotten what the air should look like, smell like. But few people left their apartments, still. The hospitals were full. We were told to stay put. Don't travel. There wasn't anyone around to witness the trees and the flowers, but only to notice how the mosquitoes bit us at night, flying through those too-large holes in the screens.
Over a thousand cases reached, and the epidemiologists all remarked on how strange it was for this flu to keep on spreading, through the spring and into the summer. There was a ban on international travel and businesses were hurting. The parents of the roommate who had gone to the hospital showed up one day and cleared all her belongings out, their eyes intent and their mouths and noses hidden by a mask. I was unsure what it meant, whether she had recovered and was going home or still in the hospital or had died. They did not speak to me and all her belongings could be put into one large suitcase and a bag made of that plastic material used for rice bags and decorated with the cartoon sheep Yang Yang being menaced by wolves. The apartment felt terribly empty after they left and I wondered what I’d do about rent. I needn’t have worried—the landlord never asked.
There is a feeling that you get in an empty city that should be teeming with millions of lives, like the day after a blizzard. But you get that a lot in China, in those ghost cities that jut out of the landscape, beautifully manicured but lifeless. Shanghai, though, wasn't coming out of her coma. Instead of birds, there were insects everywhere so that many of us didn't even want to leave our buildings anyway. What would we see, after all, but the way the insects had eaten the greenery of the trees with the dead heads of flowers rotting on the sidewalks. Rare to see a street sweeper or pruner of trees. Everyone ate from stocks of food canned years ago and made to last. I ate ramen from a package, not even bothering to cook it, as I added to the bird collection on my walls. Three thousand cases, thirteen hundred dead. I stopped watching television or tracking the news. Did it matter what others were saying or what was happening in other cities? I thought about the connections with the body and how it resists disease, the functions of red and white blood cells. I looked at the photographs of birds I couldn't imagine but for their pictures upon my wall and thought, if not for me, would they exist? To name is to own.
Fewer people dying now, and the hospitals were emptier as people recovered. The climbing numbers of cases slowed to a crawl, but people were still afraid to go out. When I wandered down the streets, they were often empty, with only the occasional hole-in-the-wall restaurant open. What was there to lose, though? The worst was already here. On Nanjing Road East, I met a Uighur man grilling lamb on skewers. Only three skewers on the makeshift portable charcoal grill, but the smell wafting from it was irresistible. That was the intention. His dark eyes peered at me from below his thick hair, his white cap perched on top. He smiled under his mustache. I was the only one around. Who are you cooking those for? I asked. He didn't miss a beat. For you, he said. How much? He slid a couple more skewers from a bag onto the grill. The first one, free, he said, after that, five kuai. It was more expensive than it had been, but he was the first one to come back and sell them in months, out in the open. A natural entrepreneur. All right, I said, give me four. They were mostly fat and cumin, smoky in a way that burned just a little bit in the back of your throat. The man watched me as he grilled a few more, maybe for himself, and, as I ate them one by one, the sweat dripped down my forehead from the summer sun and the spice. The street empty but for the two of us. Aren't you afraid of the virus? I asked. Aren't you? he shot back. I shook my head. He shook his. It's over, he said. It doesn't matter anymore. I thought about that the entire walk back. The subway lines had long since shut down.
It was over, yet it wasn't. There was a fatigue to the city, to the residents who were more wary, more paranoid than they had been before. There were cicadas that chirped endlessly and mosquitoes that grew fat on our blood no matter how many we swatted. Shanghai had been a city under siege and the siege was mostly lifted, but the weight of it was not. We didn't know what to do with ourselves, what we'd done before the virus. There were countless drawers of ashes in the cemeteries. There were no birds. I wondered whether my students still wanted to study for the SATs, whether there'd always be waves of children to cram for academic tests that would be their key to leaving the country. I couldn't bear to take down my walls of birds: the white-throated needletail or Hirundapus caudacutus, subspecies nudipes, native to southwestern China; the great crested grebe or Podiceps cristatus; the Steller's sea eagle or Haliaeetus pelagicus, the heaviest eagle in the world. What would it have been like to feel the weight of these birds on my shoulders, on my arms? Or to have held them in my hands and feel the weak fluttering of their hearts.
The city emerged slowly from its invalid state. The airports opened up again and the odd tourist could be found on Nanjing Road, a new Rolex on one wrist and a Louis Vuitton bag on the other. Disease was not the status quo, although for five months, it had been. Who had been at a standstill during that time? Was it Shanghai or was it the world? There was a peace to the new equilibrium and things were shifting now to the old. Middle-aged ladies started dancing in the parks again, but the matchmakers took longer to return. I heard the sound of pipes in People's Park that I almost mistook for a bird before remembering. One roommate returned, the one who had abandoned the other, but she wouldn't look at me, wouldn't say a word. Perhaps she was ashamed of what she'd done during that time, but she needn't have been. People are who they are; her actions under times of stress cannot be fully blamed. I began tutoring a fourteen-year-old boy whose parents wanted him to get a head start, so that he could eventually leave for a country without China's problems, they'd said, and take them with him.
It was November when I saw the first bird. A common sparrow, streaks of black and brown on his head. I enticed him over to me with crumbs of the thousand-layer sesame-and-scallion bread you can find all over the city and he came to my bench in the park, completely trusting. He hopped into my gloved palm. I laid my other hand over his head. I felt the rapid beating of his heart but he did nothing but flutter his wings. How easy it is to crush a life. How hard it is to save one.
SU-YEE LIN'S writing can be found in Day One, Strange Horizons, Okey-Panky, The Offing, NANO Fiction, and elsewhere. A 2012 Fulbright fellow to China, she was also a 2014 fellow at The Center for Fiction. She lives in New York and is working on a collection of magical-realist short stories.