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Nighthawks

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The poverty-stricken urban malcontent Marcovaldo, in Italo Calvino’s suite of stories, Marcovaldo, or The Seasons in the City, “possessed an eye ill-suited to city life: billboards, traffic-lights, shop-windows, neon signs, posters, no matter how carefully devised to catch the attention, never arrested his gaze…Instead, he would never miss a leaf yellowing on a branch, a feather trapped by a roof-tile; there was no horsefly on a horse’s back, no worm-home in a plank, or fig-peel squashed on the sidewalk that Marcovaldo didn’t remark and ponder over, discovering the changes of season, the yearnings of his heart, and the woes of his existence.”  Though I myself love illuminated signs and the urban energy behind them, I have a certain sympathy for that Italian dreamer, even though Calvino’s descriptions of him are tinged with mockery.  I often find my gaze drifting below the clubs and shops of the city, to whatever can be discovered buzzing or scampering in the scraps of un-mowed green between the buildings, and above, to the sky that streams all day and night above us like an unpopular movie with muttered dialogue and a mystifying plot that no one is bothering to watch.  But the other night, I heard and saw something up there on that immense screen, above the rusting railroad trestles and impassive brick buildings, that brought me instantaneously back to my own story’s beginning.     

It was one of those warm and windy early evenings after a rain, when an occasional gust tosses a few already-fallen raindrops sideways at your face.  I’d had a late-afternoon meeting in the city and was standing on a platform waiting for a train back to the suburbs when I happened to look up at the still-disgruntled clouds and the sky that was brightening even as it was darkening.  A few nighthawks were wheeling around the sky in that peculiar flittering flight they have, where they float around aimlessly in the air for a moment, then veer off with stunning speed.  As they flickered through the dusk, they emitted their distinctive sweet and sharp cries — a kind of “pweet,” like the sound you can make by sucking air in hard through barely opened lips and tightly clenched jaws. 

But that’s not quite it; the sound is so clean and sharp that it sounds almost electronic — like a digitally recorded version of itself. 

They make another sound that’s even weirder.  During courtship displays, the males dive headfirst toward the pavement and, when only a second or two away from smashing into the cement, extend their wings to stop instantaneously, whereupon they soar back up into the sky.  This sudden stop makes the air vibrate against their wingtips, producing a loud thrumming sound vastly out of proportion to their size. 

When I was a little boy, lying awake at night in the summer on my sweaty sheetless bed, I would hear this sound ten or fifteen times every night, and not know what it was.  In fact, for those who have never heard it, the easiest way to describe it is to say that, for much of my childhood, I surmised that what I was hearing was the telephone lines and power lines in the alley outside my window being plucked, like the strings of an immense cello, by some mysterious force.  Of course, these wires were far too slack and heavy to be plucked at all, but I was too young to understand this, or to develop a better hypothesis. 

Once in a while, after one of the booming thrums, I’d overcome my drowsiness and dash to the window to investigate, but it was hopeless:  the mysterious sound marked the end of the event, not the beginning.  There would have been no way to associate it with these little birds that, at rest, had the size and coloration of a tossed-away glove.    

It wasn’t until I was much older that I figured out the source of this mysterious sound, but by then, air conditioning had closed all my windows at the very time of year the birds were most active, and so the thrumming went unheard.  As the years passed and I moved to the suburbs and began driving everywhere, I no longer even saw the nighthawks — in the part of the country where I live, they apparently prefer the flat roofs of city apartments.

So the other night, standing on a train platform on a rare early evening in the city when I wasn’t hermetically sealed in an office or car or restaurant, was the first time I had seen nighthawks in many years.  And it struck me at that moment that, because I was born in April, and because nighthawks begin putting on their courtship displays in the spring, that some of my very earliest memories as a newborn must have been of their twin strange sounds. 

And I suddenly wondered if in my early infancy, and at some primitive and pre-verbal level, I had associated this warm thrumming sound with the booming and blooming of blood in the womb. 

The “pweets” were another matter, because they were too alien to associate, at any level, with anything.  By the time I was old enough to understand that they issued from the sky, I was like a little Marcovaldo myself, looking for fleeting natural consolations in an ugly actual world.  Hearing those alien cries cutting through the muffled sounds of television and adult argument in our crumbling railroad apartment, I think that I must have thought of them as signals from a more-advanced race. 

 

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One Response to “Nighthawks”

  1. This is a lovely piece of writing. Unfortunately, the nighthawks appear to have abandoned our Fort Wayne neighborhood in the last few years. I didn’t notice their absence until Michael’s piece reminded me of them. (We did see an American Redstart in our yew tree yesterday, first time ever.) Now I’ll be watching for them all summer long.

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