Office Suite (Four Windows, Temple University
by Rachel Toliver
A bedlam of birds flares all around me, sudden. Just as quickly, they pull together and away, a corporate shiver on sky. A flock all a-flight: shrapnel; smokestorm.
Every type of bird marks its own dark arrow on the sky.
Sometimes I see falcons here, their wings flashing in the sun like scimitars. I've never seen them kill anything, but on the pavement, nine floors below, I once walked past a pigeon claw. Just a claw, wire-twined, not gripping or scraping, hanging from a bulbous flesh-lump.
There are also geese, their V-ranks a long unraveling, a ragged seam. V, remember, is for victory. Sparrows stay closer to the ground; their flights explode in small skirmishes.
Small or far-off birds can be mistaken for the black motes that float in the eye. Specks drifting through trained line of sight.
Once a tiny bird tried to get in; its scraggly feet extended for a landing, and its wings did something that reminded me of what a person's arms would do, if the person had jumped out of a helicopter and realized that their parachute hadn't opened. That particular bird, to me, was a grief in flight.
When the light's a certain way, in the afternoons, bird-shadows flit like bullets on the building opposite. Their quick-skimming seems to be a flinch of wars, and rumors of. No, actually, no rumors. Just the wars themselves, dashing the placid wall of Paley library.
It surges sky—slowly—but not as slow as you'd expect, this building building. It complicates itself, teaches each structure new structure. It iterates; reiterates.
At first, it was just a few re-bar spears striking up from the ground. The cranes reared above them. The way those cranes swayed steel, though, was a thing most shiverfying. They made me think of someone like John Henry—proud and powerful and handsome, toiling in ignominy with dignity, in dignity with ignominy. They seemed to strain against themselves. Now, the cranes aren't needed; those beams are riveted, all furrow-locked in iron bind. They cubicle the open space, grid clouds.
On the ground level, someone scrawled on the sidewalk: "We need green, not ugly gray buildings"; an untidy upward arrow flipped that building the bird. But the building's girded and plated, already armadilloed with aluminum.
I'm preoccupied with the bristling bars, the cells of air, the way this thing can occupy a foreign element. They say it's for the business school, these ribbed quadrants, this massive grate crosshatching the landscape. This interstice imposed between me and the far-off lacery of trees, my strangely pastoral (from thus aloft) North Philly.
Two flags tongue against the wind—red white and blue in the Southeast, cherry and white in the Northwest. Every day, I watch and wonder at this torque of power and awe, this grapple of metal with air.
III. Bell tower
The sun grinds around, gear-sprung and timed, to my window's side. Below, the bell tower straddles its shadow. A set of giant's crutches, leaning together. Concrete and commanding, yet pocked with some sort of loss.
A few years back, the bells still rang. Upon the hour, the air would roil with their toll. Peace on earth, good will to men. Now they're silent, mouths like the barrels of guns, clappers round and hard as bullets.
On the ground, the bell tower's where students meet for protests. I've never seen any of my business writing students there, though. Last semester, one girl in my class—a sweet girl, well adept with professional communication—asked me if "leftist" meant "Democrat" or "Republican."
The bell tower could be a device once rolled to more ancient wars, pulled by horses, on awkward wheels. Its sickle shadows slinks across the square. It locks in its column of silence.
No one keeps watch atop this edifice. And even if they did, they wouldn't see the slow crack that's been splitting stoops in this North Philly, and further out, and further. That quake wouldn't even sway the bells, which hang like palsied hands. God is not dead, nor does he sleep. But he might be furious, and—any day now—a bronze and clangorous anger could resound from East to West, from North to South.
I've got more sky than one person can handle; the sky, it seems, is squandered on me. I read the clouds' divinations—wars and rumors of. It's especially evening that augurs. No need for split bird-belly, no need for the liver of pigeon or falcon. Nightfall can have ribs and gallbladder, can diagram digestions and half-digestions.
Puddles on rooftops grow skins of mercury. Shadow's trenches score between the buildings. Dark coats North Philly like a slog of oil. The lights afar are orange flares, spiking the night.
I know there's been a death or two right down there, somewhere in my range of vision. The ground has its own violence. I am—after all—a citizen of a violent city, a violent city owned by a violent country. I know these crimes of earth.
But the sky, too, shows me a smitten city; it foretells a long burning. The upper clouds billow like smoke, scribbled whorls spinning into space. Shading charcoals, edging blue into gray. The lower clouds writhe red with pink. After the sun's gone, it all goes molten, seething. These aren't sunsets; they're explosions, bombs of color, vivid woundings. A clot of blood, a clot of cloud. Scarlet and irreparable.
The sky eventually embers down, quelling in sunset. My eye's still full of fire. Flames embroider on my retina. Fire follows my curve of sight, and farther out, and farther, till the equator is a girding of burning. I watch as all North Philly—all the world—incandesces in these four windows.
Rachel Toliver has work published or forthcoming in Cutthroat, Philly Fiction II, Alligator Juniper, Indelible Kitchen and Geez. Primarily employed as the Managing Editor of the Journal of Modern Literature, she moonlights as an adjunct professor in Temple University's English Department. She lives in bucolic West Philadelphia, and disagrees with all the nasty things people say about Philly.