The Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar


TONIGHT, FIVE YEARS TO the day since I lost you, forty-eight white-throated sparrows fall from the sky. Tomorrow, the papers will count and photograph them, arrange them on black garbage bags and speculate on the causes of the blight. But for now, here on the roof of Teta’s apartment building, the sheen of evening rain on the tar paper slicks the soles of my sneakers, and velvet arrows drop one by one from the autumn migration sweeping over Boerum Hill.

The sparrows thud onto the houses around me, old three- and four-story brownstones, generation homes with sculpted stoops, a handful recently bought from the families who have owned them for decades and gutted for resale. Nothing has stayed the way it was since you died, not even the way we grieve you. Downstairs in Teta’s apartment, I’ve drawn the curtains, tucked Teta’s glasses back into their drawer so that even if she wakes, she won’t look down on this street dashed with dying birds. Five years ago, when your absence stitched her mouth shut for weeks, I hid your collection of feathers, hid the preserved shells of robin’s eggs, hid the specimens of bone. Each egg was its own shade of blue; I slipped them into a shoebox under my bed. When you were alive, the warmth of each shell held the thrill of possibility. I first learned to mix paint by matching the smooth turquoise of a heron’s egg: first aqua, then celadon, then cooling the warmth of cadmium yellow with phthalo blue. When you died, Teta quoted Attar: The self has passed away in the beloved. Tonight, the sparrows’ feathers are brushstrokes on the dark. This evening is its own witness, the birds’ throats stars on the canvas of the night. They clap into cars and crash through skylights, thunk into steel trash cans with the lids off, slice through the branches of boxed-in gingkoes. Gravity snaps shut their wings. The evening’s fog smears the city to blinding. Migrating birds, you used to say, the city’s light can kill.

A sparrow’s beak strikes my hand and gashes my palm. I clutch the wound, the meat of my thumb dark with my own blood. You taught me a long time ago to identify the species by the yellow patches around their eyes, their black whiskers, their white throats, and their ivory crowns. You were the one who taught me to imitate their calls—Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody. In your career as an ornithologist, you taught me two dozen East Coast birdcalls, things I thought you’d always be here to teach me. I reach down to scoop the sparrow from the rooftop with my bloodied hands. He weighs almost nothing. There is so much of you—and, therefore, of myself—that I will never know.

Tomorrow, when the ghost of you enters my window with the smell of rain, I will tell you how, since you died, the birds have never left me. The sparrows are the most recent of a long chain of moments into which the birds, like you, have intruded: the red-tailed hawks perched on the fire escape above Sahadi’s awning, or the female barred owl that alights on Borough Hall when I emerge from the subway. For all my prayers the night you died, the divine was nowhere to be found. The forty-eight white-throated sparrows that plummet from the sky are my only companions in grief tonight, the omen that keeps me from leaning out into the air.

* * *

My gynecologist is using purple gloves again. They are the only color in this all-white examination room. I set my feet in the stirrups with my knees together, only separating my thighs when he taps my foot. The paper gown crinkles. The white noise of my blood thrums in my ears. There is no rainbow-colored ceiling tile with dolphins here like the one at Teta’s dentist. Last spring, I got my teeth cleaned while she had a root canal just so I could hold her hand.

I clench and unclench my sweaty fingers. The speculum is a rude column of ice. I focus on a pinprick of iodine staining the ceiling tile and force myself to imagine how it got there. I will myself out of my body the way I used to do when I was bleeding. The summer after you died, my periods were the heaviest they’d ever been. I spent the rainless evenings standing in fields at sunset, waiting to be raptured into the green flash of twilight, wishing there were another way to exist in the world than to be bodied. It had been less than a year since I’d closed my hand around those eggs in the nest, and still I wanted nothing more than to disappear into the weightless womb waiting inside each round, perfect eggshell, that place of possibility where a soul could hum unburdened and unbound. The man between my legs checks for the string of my IUD, and I am flooded with the urge to return my body and slip myself into a different softness: the stems of orchids, maybe; the line of sap running up the trunk of a maple; the fist of a fox’s heart.