by Jessica Bryant Klagmann
Jackson traced it back to a specific moment. All of it—the disturbance of migratory patterns, the quietness of death, nature’s persistence from the inside out. He traced it back to a bonfire, Fairbanks, Alaska. To twelve drunk men and women that he hardly knew, huddled in a circle. It had warmed to ten beautiful degrees but they were standing shoulder to shoulder, as if remembering a colder time. Confusedly swathed in wool, yet tossing logs into the pit with glove-free hands.
He’d been married then—had gone out alone because of an argument—but when he followed the trail back, he knew it wasn’t the argument that pushed him. Someone said something about the cold, dark Alaskan nights that all but last forever. That eventually, after enough of them, it’s like warmth and light aren’t welcome anymore. When they return they just leave people nervous about emerging from their comfortable, frozen worlds. The brightness is too revealing. Every action foreign and movement awkward.
Heads nodded in affirmation. All but Jackson’s.
Perhaps it was simple disagreement with the stance against movement. Perhaps it was claustrophobia. Jackson’s chest thumped and argued back: flight is necessary. He moved his toes inside his boots. He tapped his heels on the ground. When he backed away from the circle and disappeared into the cabin, no one noticed. He groped around in the dark, trying one pair of sneakers and then another, until he found some that fit well enough. He didn’t know whom they belonged to.
Jackson laced the shoes up, blindly, and stepped out the front door. He took off into the night. He’d never run more than a mile in his life, back when it was required in high school. After what he guessed was about five miles, he stopped and called his wife from a payphone, dialing with shaky hands, dizzy from the thin air circulating through his chest. She thought he was calling to apologize. He just breathed heavily into the receiver and told her not to wait up. He’d be home in a few hours and they’d talk about things in the morning.
But once the running began, they didn’t talk much anymore, about anything. He looked forward only. He moved continuously. And all the pieces of stagnant life around him fell away like chiseled-off stone.
Last spring, when the birds hatched, two dedicated and curious ornithologists captured one from the nest. They took this bird, this alder flycatcher, to another nest—the nest of a captive willow flycatcher they were also studying. There was nothing in appearance to distinguish them. The alder spent two months learning the call and songs and ways of the willow. They became, from the outside, identical.
But the following spring, like a clock that insists on being just a little ahead or a little behind no matter how many times it is adjusted, the alder reverted back to the call that was meant for it. Colors and markings perfectly alike, the only thing that differentiated the two birds persisted naturally—it couldn’t be anything other than what it was.
The sound is like a zipper being pulled back and forth. The pitch goes up quickly, then slides back down. Every few seconds there is a hurried “pip” from her throat. The flycatcher glances around hastily and then settles back into her loose, messy nest.
Olive back. Three white stripes across her wings that look like military achievement. Agnes watches from the long bench of a fallen tree. The bird dips urgently through the air and opens her beak to snap up an insect, then circles and returns to her perch.
It is part of the tyrant flycatcher family, a name that feels unjust. She consumes to survive, like all living things. She is irritable and nervy and critical of birds much larger than herself, like many other creatures. She pushes her way through the world and takes what she needs. This does not make her a bully. It just makes her more courageous and respectable than some humans Agnes has met.
Agnes watches and waits. It was sitting here, almost three years ago, that she first saw Jackson. He ran by, his sneakers sinking into the muddy trail, breath evenly paced, and she—hidden within the trees—let him pass without moving or making a sound. They met more formally that evening at a bar on the edge of Goldstream Valley, but the moment was never mentioned, and so it remains that she has known him a few hours longer than he has known her.
Jackson runs to be alone. He has never needed anyone. He’s also happy. He believes in taking the road to the very end, but doesn’t believe in backtracking. He believes in traveling light, but also in courageously carrying the weight of every day piled on top of the one before. He believes in third chances. In fourth and fifth chances. In knowing one’s place in the world. He believes all broken things can be fixed. Most importantly, he believes that the brain can be tricked into anything.
Which is why he runs, and isn’t lonely, and is endlessly happy.
It is also why he has forgiven everyone, whether they asked for it or not. Since the night of the bonfire years ago, he has run twenty-five miles a day, six days a week. This has made him something of a local legend in Fairbanks, and for this bit of unwanted attention, he forgives all those who made him so. It is part of his daily ritual while frying eggs in butter—clutching the spatula in his fist, he steps back from the stove and says out loud, “I forgive you for the thousandth time.”
They used to ask him questions, and he never answered a single one, just dodged them like an agile boxer. The mailman, the woman behind the desk at the laundromat, the gas station attendants. They wanted to know why he did it. They wanted to know how he did it. If it made him happy or if it was some kind of self-torture. Maybe he’s a masochist, they’d whisper to one another when they thought he was out of earshot. Maybe he hates it, but sees it as some kind of penance. Maybe he’s done something terrible.
Jackson learned to ignore, and then redirect the questions.
“Look,” he would say, waving a hand at the wildfires burning in the hills. “Those fires are something else, aren’t they?” He would point to a distant place where there was no distinct plume of smoke, only a haze-like screen over the pointed spruce. He would breathe in deeply, then, exaggerating the thick air filling his chest, say, “God, I love that. Don’t you love that?”
His audience would look at the horizon and shrug and say, “Sure, I guess.” Then, recognizing the tactic, “But wait. Just tell me one thing. Just tell me one reason why. You don’t have to go into detail. And I swear I won’t ask again.”
“It’s Monday. I take Mondays off,” Jackson would say. “Ask me tomorrow.”
“But—” the poor man or woman would protest, knowing perfectly well that the only reason they were having the conversation at all was because it was Monday and because Jackson doesn’t run on Mondays, and during the six other days of the week, well, just try and pin him down and get him to talk.
But the truth is he is not a masochist and he doesn’t feel he owes anyone anything. He doesn’t hate it. The only thing he does hate is the feeling of standing still. The feeling of not feeling the pounding in his chest. He moves to keep up with his own frantic heart.
This morning, like all mornings, Jackson is stretching on the floor of his cabin. This is the most important act of every day. It defines everything that takes place after. If he doesn’t do it slowly and if he doesn’t push exactly half an inch farther than he thinks he can, it could mean terrible things in the hours to come.
He reaches past his laces and wraps his fingers around the soles. His shoulder muscles pull and wake. He lies back and stares at the ceiling, lifts one leg, twists and lets it fall to the carpet. He does the same with the other leg, the other side. No small piece of him goes unattended.
When he steps outside, the air is already beginning to warm. Usually he would be an hour into it already, but this morning, as he was making breakfast, he found it nearly impossible to force those pardoning words from his lips. This morning, he wanted to be left alone. This morning, he wished to be anonymous and invisible and it took all he had to sit down with the plate of eggs in front of him and say, “World, I forgive you.”
The flycatcher takes another dip into the air and then returns to the tree. Her low nest is a small cup of loosely strung twigs and string. Agnes writes a few notes in her book, then jumps at a sound coming from her left, down the trail. It is a familiar sound—the hard-hitting fall of a runner’s feet. She straightens her back and brushes leaves from her lap, knowing that if it’s him, he will likely not see her anyway.
It is a game. How many times could she catch him, unseen? But then the sound multiplies and a group of runners passes, never once breaking concentration from the path in front of them.
She tells herself that if she hears another sound, one just like that or otherwise, she will not even turn to look. But she knows she can’t keep such a silly promise. The snap of a twig, the thump of something falling—whether foot or hoof—or the sudden chirrup of a bird, even a familiar one. All of these send her eyes searching.
Agnes sometimes doesn’t see the difference between humans and animals. She is insensitive to the fact that each time she returns to Fairbanks, she says hello to the birds before the people she knows. This might not have occurred to her at all if it wasn’t for someone pointing it out. She arrives, greets, stays. Then she says her goodbyes and goes. The coming and going part is always the same and there’s no question about either of the two taking place. But the in between—the greetings, the time spent in each place, the farewells—they are always based on how she is feeling on any given day. Sometimes she comes to her favorite places, building up the energy to interact with her own species. Other times she wanders downtown or sits in a coffee shop, waving and nodding at strangers. Still, other times, though less often, she drives directly to Jackson Healy’s place and knocks on his cabin door as if he isn’t expecting springtime to bring a migration of more than just birds.
When she leaves, as she inevitably does, she sometimes forgets to say goodbye.
For fifteen minutes every morning, Jackson is angry. Angry, yet persistently happy. Breathing momentarily becomes short and slightly painful. His knees ache with tightness despite the methodical stretching. The earth below him becomes his enemy, briefly, before transforming into his greatest ally for the next four hours. He feels his lungs trying to expand.
Then, finally accepting the packed dirt and wind and gravity as his friends, his breathing eases and levels. His body is beginning to catch on to the rhythm. He is aware of everything moving through him, blood and air and water. Energy and other forces he can’t name or even describe. A power radiating from his core, propelling his body forward.
His vision narrows. There are, suddenly, no spruce trees lining the edge of the road. No clouds in the sky. No birds in either trees or sky. The distraction that is the world disappears for him and all he sees is a tiny pinpoint on the horizon ahead. A target.
Something rises to the surface. It is a familiar feeling that is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Strangely, it feels like falling, though he is ascending the gravelly Murphy Dome Road. The last element—the heartbeat battering against him from the inside—will not begin to satisfy him for over an hour. It will come when he forgets he is waiting and carry him to the end.
She is bent and heaving over a toilet when Agnes remembers a professor quoting Kierkegaard to her once on an occasion much like this one: “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” The thought of this makes her even more nauseous, her stomach even tighter. She stands up and leans against the door of the stall.
Nothing about this seems even remotely liberating.
Winter days are short. Nights are long. The black-capped chickadees survive the long nights on the seeds and insects they’ve eaten throughout the day.
Agnes repeats the phrases to herself like a mantra: Short days. Long nights.
She is presenting some of her research, locating chickadees and observing their behavior during the winter months in Fairbanks. The miraculous way they survive. The audience is mostly students, many of them required to come for class credit. But students, colleagues, or experts in the field, it doesn’t matter. They are all people and she has forgotten her first words, how she intended to begin.
She washes her face in the sink and drinks some water.
Only half the seats are filled when Agnes gets to the podium and spreads her papers out in front of her. There isn’t much written down that will help her. She knows the information inside and out, and trying to look at notes while speaking only distracts her and leads to more nervousness. The scribbles and drawings are there to remind her that this is about two things: birds and survival.
More people begin shuffling in.
Finding a roost is the most important task. Without it, they won’t last ten minutes at forty below. Without it, all their hard work will be for nothing.
Agnes rests her hand on the rough sketch of an aspen leaf and looks up and waits for everyone to sit before beginning to speak. She forgets to introduce herself and starts by asking what anyone knows about these tiny, fragile creatures. One man raises his hand and begins speaking before she calls on him: “They stay here year-round.”
“Great. What else?” She is looking for a connection. A comment that will give her a path into the subject. It’s a trick she has learned, a way to lose herself.
“They warn each other of danger.”
“Okay,” she says. “Yeah. Their alarm calls are so distinct that even other species of birds will respond to them.” She pauses. Her trick did not work and she’s strayed off track, so she jumps in. “Well, this brings me to what I’m here to talk about. Winter. Short days and long nights for Alaska’s black-capped chickadee.”
Standing against the wall in the back row, one of the environmental science faculty members crosses his arms over his chest doubtfully. Agnes wonders if she will fit under the podium.
She says, “In winter, chickadees put on an extra eight percent of their body fat every day, then burn through it in the night. That’s like a one-hundred-fifty-pound person putting on twelve pounds during the day and then losing it all in his sleep. This works, assuming they find shelter.”
True winter—forty or fifty below winter—is still three months off. But the birds are already collecting and storing away everything they will need to get them through the long months of cold and darkness.
Jackson rounds a curve in the road and then stops. He unzips the nylon pouch he keeps strapped to his bicep and pulls out his cell phone. The number for the pizzeria is on speed dial. He waits for it to ring once, twice, and then a woman is on the other end in a rushed voice.
“Hi,” Jackson says between long breaths. He does not like to sound like he’s panting. “I’d like to order a medium pizza. Pepperoni and sausage.”
“That all?” the woman says.
“And bacon. That’s all, thanks. Be there in twelve minutes.”
“Twelve—oh, sorry. I didn’t recognize your voice. It’ll be ready. It’s been crazy here, can hardly keep up with all this—”
“I’ll see you in twelve,” he says.
Jackson hangs up and continues jogging. His heart rate is slowing more than he’d like. People always talk just a little too long, say a few too many words. It makes it hard for him to move around in the world at his own pace. If he could keep circling and know that he could disengage at any time, if he could be certain people would only say the most important things, then he’d have an easier time entering conversations in the first place.
In twelve minutes he is in the plaza across from the university.
He has heard Agnes is back and wonders if he should continue with his routine—which means completing the twenty-five-mile loop at the front door of his cabin—or if he should end early, bring a pizza to where she is probably sitting on the trail with her binoculars and notebooks, scribbling madly and forgetting to eat.
Then he remembers seeing a flyer for her talk and knows that she must have finished watching the birds hours ago and walked, tensely hesitant, to the science building. She is fine when it comes to the thing she does best—birds—but then to slip into the world of other people. He knows she is just like him in this way. It’s too much to ask.
Inside, the woman behind the pizza counter apologizes again and he feels slightly guilty surveying the full tables and busy wait staff. There is no reason for him to get any special treatment. But he does. Two or three times a week. She asks, “How far will you go today?” and Jackson accepts the pizza, nods, and brings it outside to a plastic table.
Next to him, a man glides up on a bicycle and pauses with one foot on the ground, the other still on a pedal. He drops two quarters into the newspaper vending machine and nothing happens. The man bangs on the top of the metal box with a closed fist, making a spectacle. People stop their conversations and glance sidelong. They stifle giggles, but don’t offer help or advice.
Jackson devours all eight slices of pizza standing there, watching the man pound the machine. Watching others watch him. The man drops his bicycle and shakes the box, then storms into the shop. Jackson crushes the cardboard best he can and shoves it into the trash bin and—thankful for the man’s conspicuousness—jogs away in silence.
He heads up the quiet road to the university and sticks to his route. Not because he knows Agnes is busy, but because he can sense that, though she has only arrived days ago, she is getting ready to leave again already. She may or may not tell him, though even when she doesn’t, he knows.
And when she leaves, he doesn’t give her the satisfaction of pursuit.
Instead, Jackson turns right, crosses the train tracks, and cuts straight through the center of campus. Then he plunges down the hill to the road and feels the gravity and silence of his cabin pulling him.
Agnes turns to a photo on the projector screen behind her and says, “The chickadees store their food in multiple caches. They can remember thousands of hiding places.”
It has happened. She has lost herself and the anxiety evaporates and she is hungry. Her mind wanders as she rambles on about the types of seeds and insects the chickadee will forage. Their frantic preparations for what is to come.
She remembers being in the bar the night before, carelessly blurting out to a friend, Griffin, that she’d be leaving again soon, probably temporarily. Agnes had wrapped her fingers around a mug of coffee and peered down into it. When Griffin raised his eyebrows, prying for more detail, she had said, “I don’t know. It’s this bird-watching thing in Adak. Just some thing I’m obligated to do. It’s the only place, well it’s the best place to see the—” she had let her voice trail off, conscious of her enthusiasm. “Never mind,” she’d said.
Griffin had urged her on. “Best place to see the…,” he had said.
The birds used to be a game to her. A simple game. It was about seeing them where they were, when they were there, on their terms. Now, she has become so hungry for the experience that she no longer lives any experience, only a continuous quest for it. Multiple continuous quests. She follows the birds now. She seeks them out, refuses to be anywhere but where they are, whichever ones she is interested in at the time. The terms have changed and she can’t tell anymore if they are her terms or theirs.
Agnes’s gaze had bounced from table to table, then she’d pushed her chair back. “I need a beer,” she had said, standing up. “So many damn people here tonight.” When she had returned, she’d said, “Don’t tell anyone about the Adak thing. I don’t want to have to explain myself.”
“Who’s going to make you explain yourself?”
Agnes had felt like a child caught lying, forced to come up with a sensible answer. She’d spoken hastily, but she didn’t want to admit it. And who was she anyway—Queen Agnes?—that more than one troubled and patient admirer should be anxiously concerned with her plans?
“I don’t know.”
“Jackson doesn’t know you’re leaving, does he?”
“See? You’re making me do it right now,” she’d said. “He doesn’t understand the impulse to see new things and be in a new place. But at least I know how to sit still and look around once I’m there. He runs and runs, but goes absolutely nowhere.”
Saying it out loud, it had suddenly seemed cruel.
Griffin had a way of smiling that made people wish they had been the smile-instigator. It had a kind of reverse effect and it worked most of the time. He smiled and it usually made people do something smile-worthy.
Agnes had taken the first sip of her beer and said, “Mmm. Hoppy.”
Just then, Griffin’s wide lips, hidden mostly by beard, had parted and revealed his charmingly crooked teeth. Agnes wasn’t sure if it was because of what she’d just said or because of what she was about to say.
“It’s the whiskered auklet,” she’d told him. “The best place to see the whiskered auklet.”
“Sounds like a weird looking bird,” he had said. “Does it have whiskers?”
“It is,” she’d said. “It does.”
Going to Adak means she will miss the Fairbanks Crane Festival for the first time in seven years, but if there is one thing she knows, it is that the cranes will be back again the following spring. Their rattling calls announcing themselves to one another.
Look. I’m here.
Jackson is almost home when he finds it, the loon dying in the grass. He is passing the marsh before his cabin’s turnoff when he hears a faint wailing and stops, parting the low bushes to search. He sees its twisted neck and bloody wings. The barbed wire encircles its body and when Jackson approaches, it begins to flail but gives up when it only becomes more trapped and distressed. It breathes heavily. Its red eye narrows and focuses directly on Jackson’s calculating brow.
Sweat trickles into his eyes as he leans over it to remove the wire, tearing the skin on his own fingers in the process. The bird doesn’t struggle. Its wings have been punctured multiple times and there are gashes across its chest. Downy feathers are scattered across the ground.
He doesn’t know how it happened. He can’t tell, by looking around, who is to blame.
Jackson carefully lifts the soft gray bird from the tangles of wire. A tiny call, almost a growl, escapes from its rust-colored throat. He takes his shirt off and wraps the bird in it, then starts running again with the loon under his arm like a football.
He has run twenty-two miles already, but he knows the bird won’t survive on its own. He runs and doesn’t think about his body or the rhythm of things working inside it. He doesn’t think about his breath or even where he is headed or what his plan is once he gets there. He just goes with a confused sense of urgency and discomfort he hasn’t felt since the night of the bonfire.
When he reaches the science building at the university, Jackson shoves the door open with his shoulder and scans the bulletin boards for the flyer advertising Agnes’s presentation. He finds her room, uses his shoulder again to open this door, too.
He hasn’t checked to see if the bird is alive since he left the pond.
The lights are off and there is a slide of an empty nest on a projector screen. Jackson flips on the lights and Agnes stops in the middle of a sentence. Every head turns to the back of the room. Jackson ignores their interrogating faces and walks directly to the podium with the loon. He unwraps the bloody t-shirt and takes the bird in his hands.
Agnes glances quickly around the room from one thing to another. Jackson, the audience, the bird. “What the hell are you doing?” she whispers.
He holds the loon out to her like an offering, its neck limp. “I need you to fix this,” he says, pushing it further toward her.
“That’s not what I do,” Agnes says, lifting the bird gently. “It doesn’t work that—”
“Just fix the goddamn bird, Agnes. Just please do something.”
He can tell this makes her angry, that the bird is like some fragile vase in danger of being shattered against the wall during an argument. But she lays it on a table and bends over it, its gray feathers sticky and matted. She puts her hand on its chest, listening through her fingers. Its eye is closed now, but Jackson remembers the way it had frantically locked on him and followed his movements, and he wants to tell this to Agnes—tell her how much it had needed him—but she bites her lip like she might start crying.
“It’s dead already,” she says, shaking her head. “I can’t do anything.”
Agnes reaches out to touch Jackson’s shoulder and leaves four red streaks on his skin when he backs away. “It was still worth trying,” she says.
Then, suddenly remembering the people in the room, Agnes jerks around to face the students still sitting at their desks, watching her. Watching them. Like coming out of a trance all at once, given the okay by her frightened gesture they begin pushing back chairs and standing up. Some of them leave—chatting and shrugging on their way out—and some walk down to the podium to look at the dead bird.
“What is it?” someone asks. Suddenly, no one cares about chickadees.
“It’s a red-throated loon,” Agnes says, winding the t-shirt around the bird’s body again like it belongs to her and she’s done sharing. “I haven’t seen one here in a long time. They’re different from other loons. Special. They can take flight from anywhere, land or water, without space for a running start.”
She pulls on a corduroy jacket and zips it up halfway, tucking the loon inside. She looks around the room like she’s calculating a getaway and says, “It gives them options.”
As he senses her preparing to leave—the room, the town, their sliver of the world—Jackson feels a familiar question rising in his throat. It’s the same question he has been asked by others hundreds of times. The question he refuses to answer himself. Why? Why do you do what you do?
Instead, he leans against the wall and wipes his bleeding hands on his shorts, noting the loon’s peacefulness. His calf muscles twitch at having traveled farther than they ever have before. His chest burns. He knows now, what it feels like to go too far. To push too much.
Jackson stands there, tracing it all back. The question is still there, like a blister, but he knows that, like him, she couldn’t answer it, even if she wanted to.