Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2018  Vol. 17 No. 1
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After Incus

May 23, 1914, I took a train from Sarajevo to Split. There I boarded a boat to Marseille, then another: a large steamer for the transatlantic voyage. The interminable journey was improved by second-class passage (courtesy of my receiving institution, the Cincinnati Zoological Society) and a thick volume on the birds of America, a parting gift from my colleagues at the Universität Wien. No, it was not Audubon’s selfsame tome, his elephant folio of life-size hawks and buzzards, their necks curved to fit within the four-foot page (I had seen the book once at the Royal Library in Berlin and been startled by its magnificence, its sheer scale), but a more portable octavo edition of avian species. Even in its diminutive form, a lovely book.

The most frequently visited page of my new volume was Plate 38: The Passenger Pigeon. By our third day of sailing I had memorized the illustration, the annotations written in tiny script below its feet. Not that the reproduction offered any new information; I had read every source available on the species. I knew that the Ectopistes migratorius was, at one point in its perilous history, the most populous bird on the planet. That they traveled in packs of a million, flocks that would spread a mile wide, trails stretching ten miles long. That when the birds flew overhead the noise of their wings, the flapping, drowned out all other sounds, and that it was said the sky would grow dark with their fluttering eclipse. I cannot imagine the excrement—a pelting of white, gooey rain—that they deposited on the poor souls below, anyone unfortunate enough to look up at the squawking commotion. Healthy male specimens could fly at speeds up to sixty miles per hour, but, while in a pack, they traveled at a much more reasonable pace. There was safety in numbers, or so the sad creatures believed.

I knew passenger pigeons, like so many species, have an intrinsic need to make a home—though in their case, to nest was near-certain death. Imagine it: a pair of birds in each nest, a hundred nests per tree, every tree across thirty miles of forest. The birds were stubborn on their eggs for two weeks. Sitting ducks, I believe to be the American phrase. It made them easy marks for every man with a shotgun within a day’s horse ride, and with telegraphs they became even more ready targets. Word of where they had roosted could be sent to the next town and the next town and the next, in just a few minutes. Moths to a flame, the hunters came and harvested. The birds were loaded onto boxcars heading east, trains longer than the eye could see. How could people possibly use so many creatures? Meat pies, feathered hats, pig feed . . . the list continued, broadened ad nauseam.

What could the poor birds do? Fly higher? Never stop their wings? That would accomplish nothing. They’d swirl their dark cloud over our heads until they dropped, one by one, out of exhaustion, until the sky was once again the speckless white of an overcast day. And so, the passenger pigeon nested every year, hunters came and harvested, and the billions shrunk to millions, to thousands, to hundreds, to one. Maybe two. The existence of a female specimen named Martha, who resided at the Cincinnati Zoo, was well documented. Now, her potential mate, a heretofore unknown male from New York, had been found, and was on his way to Ohio. It was the possibility of their coupling, that they might create a new nest, as it were, that beckoned me away from my own home, to America.


My ship docked in Wilmington on the first of June, though I barely saw the city before boarding a train to Philadelphia, where I toured the zoo and then took an overnight passage to Pittsburgh. There I called ahead to Ohio, telling Dr. Everton I would be arriving on the six o’clock train. Exhausted as I was, the thrill of new kept me on my feet. I took a quick tour of the Carnegie Institute, which was still humming with the arrival of new dinosaur bones unearthed in some far west corner of the country. I purchased a postcard in the museum gift shop, wrote on the back a brief note about my first impressions of America, and posted it to my mother.

Pittsburgh to Cincinnati. It was a gray afternoon, humid with early summer heat. The fields that flanked the tracks for much of the route, once we pulled away from Pittsburgh’s industry, had recently been shorn, leaving the land scarred by the sharp edges of some giant machine; deep, muddy ruts stretched as far as the eye could see. In Sarajevo, we children were told America, so far away, was broad fields of green, that mountains edged every horizon, that you could always see water, some water—the ocean, the mighty Mississippi, Lake Erie floating as big as the Adriatic. I maintained that naïve view of the United States through adolescence, even as trills of skepticism slipped into the other scales of my life. Still, as I packed my trunk for this departure, and all the way through my goodbyes, I anticipated purple mountains and bright skies; through our windows a shimmering imagined landscape replaced the regular, drab view of our gray and quiet street. During those goodbyes, my brother would only nod farewell, standing on the far side of the room with his arms crossed; my mother compensated with a tearful, prolonged embrace. It was my father who walked me, his oldest son, to the train station, and wished me luck on what we both knew would be a fruitless mission. We had different understandings of futility, of course: my father, a saddler with a shop in the old city, had no interest in academia and thus little confidence in any of my undertakings, successful or not, while I knew, a tiny flutter against my breastbone, that Martha’s was a doomed fate.

“Winter wheat,” my compartment companion explained. He, in a tight-across-the-middle suit and fresh leather boots that creaked as he moved about the small cabin, introduced himself as Lawrence, a grain speculator. I had never heard of such a thing. “Spring wheat won’t come down till September. South of here, mostly. I reckon it’s going to be a good year.” I nodded to him, smiled briefly at his confidence, but then pressed my lips tightly closed in a gesture I hoped would convey that I did not wish to speak further. Against his continued prattle I turned my attention to the window, where I watched the sky for birds. If not mountains, not water, there would be birds, surely. The birds of America. I saw none, not until we passed the stone eagle that adorned the post office on the eastern edge of Cincinnati.

With a shrill pronouncement of the conductor’s whistle, the train station appeared, its smooth granite backside rising above sooty tracks and rusting railcars like an implacable matron above a brood of wet-nosed children. From the platform I retrieved my valise, and with a porter crossed the station’s wide hall. We exited to a colonnade. Across the way I saw a man, gray mustache and thick, round glasses, standing alongside a high, wood-paneled Ford.

Dr. Herbert Everton. I recognized him from his book jackets. He waved—I imagine I, too, was easy to identify, in my European-style suit and hat—and called to me as I approached: “Welcome, Dr. Hadžić.” He stepped forward and pumped my fist, a strong grip. “We are so glad you are here.”


Dr. Everton’s wife, a broad-shouldered woman named Lucille, was preparing a meal that I could smell before even stepping onto the Everton’s porch. It was only then, with the scents of rosemary and butter, the brothy promise of red meat, did I realize how lackluster the meals of my ten-day journey had been: the trains’ dry ham sandwiches, the boat’s poor excuse for roast beef. Onboard the ship we were given small cartons of orange juice, but I had tasted few other kind morsels through my long passage.

I could have charged into the kitchen that very minute, eaten the meat half-raw, but I followed Dr. Everton to the second floor, as he was eager to show me my accommodations: a bedroom that had been vacated some years earlier by his son, who was taking an advanced degree at a prestigious university on the East Coast. “Biology,” his father proudly announced. “A few years younger than you, I believe. My boy was born in 1890.”

I confirmed his suspicion; I was born in 1886. This seemed to please him, our relative sameness, and he slapped me on the back, a startlingly casual gesture from the famed ornithologist. After together heaving my trunk up the stairs, the doctor left me to get settled. I washed my face and changed into a fresh shirt and jacket for dinner. Everything would need ironing, and the smell of salt lay just under the lid of the trunk, but no matter: to be off that swaying, damp ship spelled relief.

The table was tastefully set with blue-edged china, embroidered cloth napkins, and well-aged silver. They had a domestic, I would learn, named Sally, who came three times a week, but Mrs. Everton was a very capable homemaker in her own right. “We don’t really eat chicken,” Mrs. Everton explained, as she set out a series of steaming casseroles: lamb stew, potatoes, blanched green beans, creamed corn. “Herbert gets distracted.” She gave a small smile to her husband and sat down across from him, spreading her napkin on her lap. Her face was soft in its age, but the lightening of her hair, to an almost platinum blonde, suited her, and her cheekbones remained two bright apples below pale blue eyes. “Everything’s a surgery.”

I unfolded my napkin and smiled. “I must confess, I do the same thing. It made the ship’s chicken dinners quite uncomfortable.”

How reassuring, their laughter! It felt so much different than the thin, strained conversation of my family’s meals, or the efficient, lonely meal-taking of my boarding house in Vienna. “I think you will get along quite rightly here, young man.” Dr. Everton raised his glass, modestly half-full of cabernet. “To your time in America.”

I raised mine. “Thank you. To my hosts. And to the birds.”

I thought I saw Dr. Everton’s eyes darken at my salutation, but it passed quickly, and a moment later he was standing, a large spoon pointed toward the lamb. “May I?”

I offered him my plate. Lucille rose and began serving the vegetables. “Speaking of birds,” I asked, “what news of the bird from New York? Has he arrived?”

Lucille’s gaze dropped quickly to the corn, and Dr. Everton stiffened. “Yes, well.” It was clear I had said something to displease him. “Have some lamb.”


When I woke the next morning, Lucille was already in the kitchen, preparing coffee. She watched me keenly. “Herbert says that you were the most promising ornithology student in Europe.” She offered me a steaming cup; I hoped the vapor would cover my blush.

“I cannot claim that.” In 1908 I successfully bred a pair of pied ravens in Sarajevo, some of the last specimens in captivity. The achievement made me something of a wunderkind, a great hope for veterinary ornithology. An invitation to Vienna, to study with Herr Doktor Hans Wittman, followed. “Though Herr Doktor has great faith in my abilities.”

Lucille nodded and poured a cup for herself. “The doctor visited us in 1906 and became fast friends with Herbert.” Wittman had been a great mind in the field; his reputation distinguished on both sides of the Atlantic. He had been a wonderful teacher as well, generous and kind. But what few knew was that he was quietly, steadily, losing his faculties. There were physical manifestations: his hand had gone shaky with a tremor, and he no longer allowed himself to handle specimens. But he suffered mental degradations, too. Names were lost, Latin and German words disappeared from his tongue.

Dr. Hadžić can save your bird, he had boasted in a letter to Dr. Everton, one which he dictated to me. Then, too, my cheeks burned with embarrassment. I had asked him not to send it, begged him to let them find some American to attempt the feat. I had none of the wanderlust that sent my countrymen across the Atlantic; I would have been fine to live out my days within the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But he was insistent, certain I should go.


An hour later, I stood at the gatekeeper’s booth, inquiring with a thick, stern-looking guard about the possibility of entry prior to the public opening time, when a bright, alto cry interrupted our conversation. “You there! Are you Dr. Hadžić?”

I wheeled around but spied no person. “This is he!” I said to no one.

Moments later a pair of slight hands emerged from within the iron bars of the front gate. With a glint of metal and a fast, determined effort at the rusted-looking padlock, the heavy gates swung open in a slow, aching arc.

“Come this way,” the voice said.

I stepped toward the gate and the shadows cast by a looming oak. Then, three steps inside the gate, I saw the source of the voice. The young woman before me was plainly beautiful, with no makeup beyond perhaps a touch of rouge. Her hair was pulled into a tight bundle against the back of her head. Dappled light danced across her face like stained glass at a cathedral. I also noticed, quite immediately, that she was in men’s—or perhaps even a boy’s—short trousers, belted tightly around her slim waist. She wore the boxy, monogrammed blouse of a zoo employee. She must have ordered the smallest sized uniform, but even that looked big on her slight frame, the short sleeves baggy down to her elbows.

“My uncle asked that I show you around.”

“Yes, he mentioned that he had a prior engagement at the university,” I replied, trying to hide my unease under a deliberate monotone. A woman in trousers would have been barked off the streets of Vienna, laughed at in Sarajevo. What of America? What was this creature doing?

“Close that behind you? The zoo doesn’t open until ten.” I followed my orders and swung the gate shut, glad to have some resistance to push against. I turned back to the young woman, who was shaking her head and quickly pivoted on her heel. “Where are my manners? I’m June Delaney.”

“Armin,” I offered with a handshake. I had been told young Americans preferred first names. “A pleasure.” I quickly diverted my glance from her neck—thin and birdlike in its rise from the too-big collar of her blouse—to the ground, but the light of morning made even the stained concrete sparkle. She was wearing small leather boots that wrapped up past the ankle. I cannot say what I thought of her legs; the thought of their bareness still makes me blush.

June started her narration at once, describing the zoo’s foundation and growth. The coolness of morning had dampened the peaty animal smells, and someone had recently cut the grass, which gave a green, cool scent to the air. Ahead of us, two buildings loomed as behemoths in the otherwise leafy skyline. She pointed to the smooth domes on our right.

“That’s the Herbivore House. Elephants.” I nodded for her to continue, though I suspected she would have in any case. “It’s the largest and most complete concrete animal building in the world. Here.” From somewhere on her person she withdrew a postcard. It stated the same declaration, along with the building’s impressive dimensions. She pressed it into my palm. “You can send it to someone. Now, let’s go see my little guys.”

The primates—her “little guys,” though some were female, some were by no means small—were housed in the other domed structure, though that morning most of the creatures had exited the building for the sun-warmed rocks of their outdoor enclosures. The animals appeared to recognize June, as a number of chimpanzees and a gorilla rose to happy, hooting attention as we walked by. They were not saluting me, of that much I was sure. June slowed to put her fingers through the bars of one cage, and an old orangutan approached. The creature took June’s fingers in his large hand, and brought his mouth to their tips.

“Thank you, Addison.” To me, she said, “He’s fifty-five.” Then, to the ape, she whispered, “I’ll be back later,” and blew a kiss through the bars. The animal parted his slick, black lips and flashed a toothy grin.

June looped us up through a series of grottos, man-made caves and bathing holes, past the grizzlies and black bears and mountain lions. Coming from Vienna—the first and premiere zoo in Europe, situated within the Schönbrunn Palace grounds—my expectations for Cincinnati’s zoological society were modest. Still, their efforts were commendable: in forty-some years the society had grown to host over two hundred specimens from six continents. They had seen the first birth of a giraffe in captivity, and they were home to, in addition to Martha, a rare white tiger, and the only Carolina parakeet in captivity.

I cannot say my heart had fully calmed since our first moments at the entranceway, but as I followed June through the quiet paths of the large mammal cages I began to feel more reasonable, neither so upset by her dress nor so flustered by her beauty. I decided to try at conversation. “Have you heard anything of the bird from New York? As you may know, your uncle requested I come as soon as they found a match.” We continued past another cage, this one holding a stony rhinoceros. The creature blinked at us, and slowly lowered its head to a shallow pool of water.

She glanced quickly over her shoulder, a sudden anxiousness in her eyes. “Uncle didn’t tell you?”

I shook my head, no. “Tell me what?”

“Cat’s out of the bag, I guess.”

“What? A cat got it?”

“Oh, it’s just a silly American saying. What it means, I—the male fell through. Nearly a week ago.”

“He’s not coming?”

“No”—she let out a delicate snort—“he came. Turns out the bird was just a normal pigeon, fattened up on fried potato, his feathers dyed with soot and fruit juice. Uncle was livid, and I think embarrassed by the hoax, but you were already at sea.”

“What of the reward?” The zoo had offered $1,000, a tremendous sum.

“Long gone. But the society can raise the money again.” These poor people, I thought. As if wishing for something hard enough might yet make it come true.

June marched on. “Come, she’s just up ahead.”

The aviary, as compared with the zoo’s other architecture, was modest. But it was impressive still: a series of seven low-slung pavilions, designed after the Japanese pagoda. Each building was capped by a curved tile roof, with a larger netted enclosure that created the bird’s outdoor space. The seven roofs were punctuated with brass figurines: an eagle, a flamingo, a swan.

The double-beaked profile of a ground hornbill capped one pavilion. June pointed to the figure. “That was Jack. He died a few years ago, but no one has had the heart to take him down. Egrets now.” And indeed, there were a half dozen snowy egrets inside, splashing one another in a small pool. We continued toward the central pavilion, which was slightly bigger than the others, and topped by a small, round dome. At the dome’s peak sat a glinting creature, its features familiar but more prominent—rounder head, more barreled chest—than the collared doves I knew from Europe.

“Here she is.” The building itself consisted of a single room, windows on all sides, their panes removed. June’s keys opened a padlocked door in the netting; a second door opened onto the pavilion itself. Inside was a dim gray, save for the patch of morning light that streamed in from a window on the eastern facade.

Martha sat in that patch of sunlight, her talons curved around a leafless branch. Her gray head and back, the feathers approaching slate blue as they moved toward the tail, were perfectly still, but her red eyes shifted to watch us. She lifted then resettled her wings alongside her body, giving me the briefest view of their white tips. My stomach somersaulted for the second time that morning. The bird’s chest, cinnamon red and rising with each slight breath, was as wide as my outstretched palm, her length that of my forearm and fist. The dimpled skin of her feet was ashy with age; her feathers thin around the crown. But somehow she still appeared regal, calm with her fate.

“Martha is the last of her kind, Dr. Hadžić.”


“When she goes—” June’s lip quivered and her eyes welled over with fat teardrops.

I was startled by her emotion. Could I embrace such a creature? Certainly not. Even in her drab boy’s clothes, she seemed too exquisite to touch. Both of them did.

“There, there.” I reached a hand to her shoulder, and gave June a stiff pat. I don’t know if it helped, but she seemed to recover herself quickly enough, sniffling and straightening. I turned my attention back to the quivering bird and began taking notes. I could plainly see that even if a suitable mate was found, it was unlikely such an old specimen as Martha could produce a viable egg. But such negative thinking was not productive; I shook the thought from my mind. One step, I told myself, one step at a time.

I do not recall June’s departure, though she must have gone, for I was jolted back into the morning’s progress when a group of shrieking school children tumbled into the pavilion, in utter disregard for the “Quiet, please” sign at the entrance. With a snap of her head and a quick flap, Martha lifted, leaving the commotion for a higher perch, up near the eaves.

What I remember, still today, is that brief first glimpse of her wide, blue-gray wings. When I watched how they lifted the sag of her tired, aged carriage—that was devastation itself.


On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Duchess Sophie of Hohenberg. It was front-page news in the Cincinnati Enquirer. I cannot say I was surprised, at the murder or the culprit. I was not in Mlada Bosna, but many of my classmates, and my brother, Nedeljko, were part of the group who called themselves the Young Bosnians. When they first appeared in Sarajevo, maybe five years before, I considered myself too mature for such groups, their rash agendas. I was beginning into a real career. And as if to prove the point, soon after I left for Vienna and my doctoral work at the Schönbrunn.

But I had met Gavrilo only a few weeks prior to coming to America, and to now see his face on the front page of the American newspaper was a shock. I had been back in Sarajevo, preparing for my journey, and he was attending a Mlada Bosna meeting at our house. He was a dour-faced young man, and we bristled at each other almost immediately. Without more than a look, I could see my brother had told him about me. Like Nedeljko, Gavrilo must have scorned me for staying abroad during the First Balkan War, hated me for leaving Sarajevo in the first place—and for Vienna, no less. The seat of empire. He had practically hissed as I crossed the room. Shortly after our introduction, I made some excuse at errands, left the house, and stayed away until their meeting had adjourned.

After the assassination Gavrilo had tried to shoot himself, I read, and had taken an ineffective poison. I wondered if my brother, too, had been there, had taken these bad pills. I imagined him staggering around our city with a sickness swelling within him, death pounding at his chest with a dull mallet. Hard, but not hard enough.

I folded the newspaper, flustered at the thought. “He is dead,” I said under my breath.

“What?” Lucille stepped into the dining room, her arms loaded with the accoutrement of breakfast. She nodded to the pair of pictures that ran under the banner headline. “Oh, the archduke.” I looked from Gavrilo to the other face, a trim mustache and tired, sagging eyes. “Isn’t it sad?” Lucille set down a steaming dish of eggs, bacon, and toast before me, and disappeared back into the kitchen before I could figure a reply.


The zoo planned a daylong celebration and evening fireworks for the Fourth of July, which promised to frighten the animals but would draw large numbers; projected attendance and revenue prevailed over animal well-being. Curious at the ritual, I went to the zoo early and watched the crowds arrive for their holiday visit. Loose clusters of little girls in red dresses and boys in short, navy trousers streamed into the zoo, clutching at their fathers’ hands. With them were white-wrapped babes carried by their mothers, solid-looking women in gauzy white dresses, red sashes in their hair. Cars with small, flapping flags tucked behind their rearview mirrors drove slowly down the streets, looking for parking.

I ran into June near the giraffes. She was wearing a dress, at last, a summer shift that capped her shoulders with small red and blue flowers. A thin, gold cord hung round her neck, and around her shoulders was a young man she introduced as Randy. He was, she explained, a medical student at the hospital where her mother was a nurse. He did not, apparently, have the capacity to pronounce my given name, but thought it clever to make a joke about its similarly to the word varmint. I disliked him immediately, and as soon as it was socially acceptable to take my leave, I did so.

The parade began at noon, running along one edge of the grounds. The local high school marching band had assembled what students they could, and their dinged-up brass stuttered down the street, followed by a row of tanned, comely cheerleaders. Then the Women’s Rotary, in their navy-blue skirt suits, perfect coifs, and white gloves. The city’s mayor, an older, rotund man, rode in a new American roadster. He had stripped to his shirtsleeves, which he had properly soaked in the summer heat, and sat alongside his wife, a plump woman in red-check gingham. The head of the Cincinnati Traction Company, a trim, gray-mustachioed man who owned half the city, followed in an even nicer convertible, a tiny blond grandchild on his knee.

It was the difference between a foal and an elephant, Cincinnati’s idea of country and my own. If America was a swaying young deer, happy and knock-kneed, that made my conception of patriotism the plodding, wrinkled pachyderm. But this imagined creature was not of Bosnia, I understood with a start. It was Viennese: the smart, gray uniforms and the slow march of the Austrian military lock-stepping down the city’s regal boulevards. That was my concept of nation.

But it was true, I only realized then: I did not hate the empire, Vienna, and the resources it provided. In fact, the opposite: I liked the more normal existence that came with oversight and order, even if that order came from an external force, rather than generated from within. Bosnia was chaos, young and disorganized, unsteady in its progress. And the Austrians were not oppressive in their leadership, not really.

If my brother heard me say as much, he would have spit. He, three years my junior, two stones heavier, and possessing an anger I never did, could not stand such a concession, bowing to another. His patriotism was not a foal and not an elephant; it was a snake, sliding between the legs of power. I did not hate myself for walking away from that slithering uncertainty, its threat of violence, but my brother could not forgive me my abandonment. When I announced I would be leaving for Vienna, he, still a pimpled teenager, called me a traitor, a backstabbing lout. We’d argued about it terribly, made our mother cry with our fierce shouting. It had come to blows, his first but mine more effective, and I bloodied his nose. My father asked me to leave then. Not because Nedeljko was right, he never admitted as much, but because, he said, everyone needed something. I had opportunities in Vienna; my brother’s only hope was with the movement. I told my father Nedeljko’s aim was not independence but to tear our world apart. He looked from one son to the other, my brother doubled over in the corner, dripping blood onto the worn floor, and said nothing. I left, returning only briefly the next morning to retrieve my trunk. I did not return to Bosnia and Herzegovina for almost five years, until it was time to come to America and another round of goodbyes.

Nor could I watch this cheery procession without imagining that other parade, last week’s catastrophe in Sarajevo. The bright, warm afternoon that was suddenly upside down with death, a march of soldiers split by darting men, their grenades and pistols, tear gas. The chaos of the city as its life hissed away, its hope disappearing into the abruptly rancid summer air.


July crept forward, slowed by the summer’s heavy heat. Every day I hoped to hear word of a partner for Martha. But I was, every day, disappointed.

Instead, I looked forward to the small joys of seeing June. She was studying to be a primatologist—the university’s first woman to pursue graduate work in veterinary sciences, Dr. Everton was proud to boast—and as I passed the primate hall, she was often sitting cross-legged in a pile of straw, some baby chimp or another across her lap, a small bottle in hand. Sometimes I continued on my way with little more than a nod and quick hello. Sometimes I stopped. And sometimes, June saw me first, and would call me over; we chatted over a pointless thing as she rocked her primate and played with its toes. I felt a small tug of disappointment on days when she was absent, even though I knew she was likely in class. I tried not to think of Randy, whom she mentioned not infrequently, but never, I noted, with real passion.

News, when it did come, was of another kind: three weeks after Independence Day the Austrians invaded Sarajevo. We heard about it on the Everton’s living-room radio, the evening news bulletin bleating the thin headline before turning to the Red’s most recent home stand. I slept poorly, waiting for the morning paper, which held a front-page banner about the invasion.

“This is very serious,” Dr. Everton announced over breakfast, closing his paper with a determined fuss. “Do you have brothers?”

“One. He is younger, twenty-five.”

“Will he fight?”

“He is already fighting.”

Dr. Everton nodded, and asked nothing further. A smart man, he could deduce what that meant. He returned to his paper, scanning the sports scores for a moment, and then said, “If you ask me, you are lucky to be out of there.”

“Out of where?” Lucille stepped into the room, set out a plate of hot buns on a trivet. She turned to me. “What’s the matter, Armin? You don’t look well.”

Dr. Everton looked up from the paper, a frown for his wife. “It’s all this mess in Sarajevo, Lucille. Leave him be.”

A hissing sound, higher than the humming frequency of the kettle on the stove, filled my ears. I tried to ignore it, taking a knife to the casserole of Lucille’s pastries, slicing along one edge, then another.


Martha flapped her wings unsteadily, unconvinced of their strength. I tapped the window frame, hoping the noise would get her attention, encourage her out. It had been three days since she’d left the indoors.

“It’s lovely outside,” I lied. She blinked a red eye at me. “The sun is shining, the sky is blue, and everything is beautiful.”

“Have you tried speaking to her in your tongue?” June was leaning against the pavilion’s doorframe. I no longer started at June’s arrivals, though each was a pleasant surprise. Her clothes, as well, no longer disarmed me.

I shook my head no. “She is an American bird. No need.”

June shrugged her shoulders. “She might like the variety. Herr Doktor Wittman spoke German with all the animals, and they really seemed to listen! It was a riot.”

“She doesn’t seem to like very much these days.” I clucked my tongue at the bird again. “Ti si prilično ptica.”

“That’s not German.” She scrunched up her face. “Bosnian?”

“Yes.” I only used Bosnian now for correspondence with my mother and father, which I sent dutifully each Saturday. All my letters, ten weeks’ worth, had gone unanswered. I tried not to worry, but I was concerned.

“What else do you speak?”

“German. French. A little Serbian, Russian. You?”

“Schoolgirl French. That’s it.”

“Très bon.” June smiled. Just then, Martha lifted from her perch with three resounding flaps. The creature circled her enclosure.

For a moment, we watched this bird, gray and white where she had once been a deep navy blue, move through the air. “She’s beautiful.” June’s voice was barely above a whisper.

Martha was dead within the week.


Her little pagoda was transformed into something of a shrine: many brought flowers, birdseed, photos, newspaper clippings. I tried to avoid it, as much as I could—I did not like to be reminded of my failure. There was a bidding war among museums, to see who would permanently house her taxidermied body. Carnegie—that same museum I had visited on my way to Cincinnati—won the day and began to make preparations.

Dr. Everton insisted that I turn my attention to Incus, the thirty-five-year-old Carolina parakeet residing in another of the zoo’s pagodas. Incus, a grouchy male, was the last Carolina in captivity, and no mates had presented themselves since the search began, in 1908. In fact, no documented specimens of Conuropsis carolinensis had been seen in the wild since 1905. The reward for providing a mate was raised from $1,000 to $2,000, Martha’s coffers having been poured into Incus’s pot.

Slowly, I began to know the small, green bird, his yellow head and suspicious black eyes. He was a disagreeable creature: arthritic, fussy, shedding bright feathers at an alarming rate. He was only too willing to peck, and his squawk could be heard three blocks down Northern Avenue. But he was my charge, and together we waited for our situation to improve.


June and I sat at the dining room table, a sea of spread forms across the table. My visa was set to expire; she’d offered to help with the paperwork for renewal. “Hmm. Should you apply for political amnesty or an academic extension?” She shuffled through a stack of papers, then held my passport close to her nose, squinting at its fine print. She was at that moment painfully beautiful, her blonde hair pinned loosely back, her pale skin, those lips. “Your last was academic, of course. Do you know if the society will sponsor you again?”

I began to answer my doubt—doubt that Incus would live through the end of the month, much less survive long enough to merit a six-month renewal at the zoological society’s expense—but heard a rustle of newsprint from the adjacent room. “Uncle?” June called. “Will there be another project for Armin after Incus?” I felt a pang to be so close to her, to smell that familiar spring scent I recognized from my first day at the zoo.

“The boy should go for amnesty,” he bellowed. “No one in their right mind would return to Sarajevo.”

June scowled into the passport, leaned toward me, and whispered, “He doesn’t mean it, Armin. Everything will be fine.”

But by all accounts, Sarajevo was in a horrible state: occupation, the rebel resistance, street fighting, shelling, scant rations. Of course, “all accounts” were limited to those of the Associated Press. Despite my regular letters, I had yet to receive a post from my family since my arrival in America. Was this my punishment? Watching the slow creep of death befall one bird, then another, while my family vanished? “No, he is right.”

June did not like this answer—a furrow creased the smooth surface of her forehead as she lifted a fresh sheet from the swirl. The amnesty form. She began, with the determination of a child conquering arithmetic, to fill it out. “Did I get the accent right?” She showed me the sheet.

I examined my last name, written in her tight, precise letters. If only she could write my name forever. “Yes.”

“Where were you born?”


“S, E,—”


“Z, E, N, I?”


“K, A . . .”


“Zenica.” She observed her work, the name of the place I was from.

“It’s northwest of Sarajevo. We moved to the city when I was a young boy. ”

“Sure.” She nodded as if she could visualize it, my little speck on the map, the curving cobblestone streets, the half-timber houses, the fields and forests I could recall still, vivid as if they were standing before me.

Dr. Everton walked into the room. “Maybe there’s something to do with the penguins, but right now . . .” He disappeared through the kitchen doorway, still shaking his head. He did not need to finish his sentence: the news from Europe was bad, getting worse. The whole continent was gripped with fear.

June turned to me, pointing to the space marked for a birth date. “And when?”

I tried not to think of my mother as I told her the date, though of course I did. Where were they? Were they all right? And what of my brother? Surely he could not have survived such a savage summer, not when he was on front lines, the lunging beast.

June dutifully transcribed the date. In the quiet of the house, I could hear Dr. Everton shuffling in the kitchen, the icebox opening and closing, then the clang of the doctor digging for an opener in the drawer. There was a hiss—gas escaping the bottle—and then I heard the smack of his lips to the bottle’s mouth. And then there was nothing.  

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