What Happened to the Bird People
Dec 29, 2014
21 Min read time
Photograph: Richard C. Anderson
At first officials call it a sinkhole, the hole that Roy Rodgers disappears into while asleep in his bed one May night in a quiet neighborhood of Lubbock, Texas. But it isn’t a sinkhole. It’s an opening just bigger than Roy’s entire property with its edges nudging into the neighbors’ yards, and what’s inside isn’t water or rubble or the familiar yellow clay of Lubbock or anything anyone’s seen before.
It’s Lupina Lopez who discovers the hole, awake as she often is at 3 a.m. sipping a small plastic glass of port and thumbing through an old copy of People, letting her eyes skim the glossy pages while she thinks about her son in Afghanistan, worries about her son in Afghanistan. He phones once a week when he can and still calls her mama, and Lupina knows he is too apathetic to counter an army that fights with a higher purpose and too narrow across the chest to represent the enormous military power of the U.S.A. No one should have allowed him to enlist in the first place. It makes her angry as well as worried, and in her anger she cannot sleep and so finds herself at the kitchen table when she hears a crack and a groan that remind her of trains on the border, but it is amplified well beyond that low-grade noise and there are no trains around, so she sets down her cup of port and lifts the curtain at the kitchen window in the direction of Roy’s house. Lupina, who stopped going to mass when Carlos died, now crosses herself as she absorbs the fact that there is no roofline against the sky and no shape of a house where a house should be. Her breath feels pinned in her chest. She finds the blue Maglite in a drawer in the kitchen, turns the smooth doorknob with a shaking hand. She curses Carlos because he is not there for her to send out into the night to see what has happened. Lupina swings the beam of light out across her small backyard and the light disappears into the ground where she once shared a simple wood fence with their neighbor, the quiet, polite man Roy. A deafening rush like water spilling over an enormous falls seems to be coming from that black spot in the earth, and she curses first America, then God, before slamming and locking the door and dialing 9-1-1.
The policeman who shows up ahead of the other responders finds Lupina huddled in a corner of her bedroom clutching a string of rosary beads. He hears the roar, like air in an empty elevator shaft, and calls it in: “not sure what’s going on here,” he says, as he helps Lupina into the front of his police car. The first to approach the hole is one of the young EMT guys who jumps off the back of the fire truck as soon as it pulls up. No one can tell, though they debate it fiercely, whether he falls over the edge or jumps, but in the cones of light from their emergency vehicles ten men and Lupina see his legs flip over backwards as he goes in. None of the firefighters is willing to approach the edge to see what the hell happened. All ten men, men who have been trained to act calmly in the face of broken bodies, are pale and silent. The cop radios the sheriff who calls in all available law enforcement to help evacuate the houses and erect barriers. Someone brings one of the floodlights from the Roosevelt High track field and just as the sky begins to lighten to blue-gray, the floodlight clicks on and illuminates the edge of the hole, a ragged dirt crust like you might find along an eroded stream bank. But inside the hole the light simply disappears, as though no light had been on at all, as though the human eye could finally see emptiness if only it had the right receptors. It is a warm morning, has been a warm week in West Texas with predictions for an early and severe fire season, but the small crowd that gathers just outside the barrier wrap themselves in emergency blankets and fleece jackets. The hole continues to roar and rush with a sound that could be coming from inside their own heads, while the men and Lupina huddle like ants on the sidewalk.
“I got woken up by this rumbling sound,” says another neighbor to a local TV anchorwoman during an interview outside a Lubbock community center, now an emergency shelter. The anchorwoman smiles quickly and nervously. The neighbor does not smile. “I thought it was thunder first because there was this rumbling kind of sound. The dogs started up, and they haven’t shut up since.” This neighbor chews her gum rapidly and glances repeatedly to her left. She keeps calling it an accident and the newscaster follows her lead, telling viewers that “so far there is no explanation for this accident, but it has neighbors here pretty worried.” For a while the media stalls by analyzing Roy Rodgers’s life, but, apart from his name, he is unremarkable: forty-three-year-old divorcée, manager of a local auto parts store, fisherman, taxpayer. No children and no enemies. Certainly nothing to warrant being sucked into the belly of the earth in the middle of the night. The media shortly drops that particular tack and Roy Rodgers and his fate become subsumed by the mystery of the hole itself. After a few days, no one cares whose house stood there, or that there was ever a house at all.
At noon that first day, after law enforcement decides that the problem isn’t exactly within their purview, the state geologist arrives. A helicopter circles and whirs and sees the same spot of black nothing situated incongruously among the planes of rooftops and tidy square yards. It’s the same gaping black mouth the growing crowd outside the yellow caution tape barrier sees, but the men in the helicopter realize it has no discernible bottom.
Later that evening the hole grows, swallowing Lupina’s house and several others. Witnesses say the structures tumble into the hole soundlessly and in slow motion. “This is not an ordinary sinkhole,” the sheriff tells a reporter, after expanding the perimeter well beyond its original few blocks and erecting a makeshift barrier to replace the caution tape. He calls in the Texas Department of Public Safety, and when emergency management officials arrive late that night with a small army of state troopers, the sheriff finally goes off duty, drives home to his wife, and breaks the news about the affair he’s been having with their dentist. Her control over him for the last thirty-five years amounts to a kind of abuse, he says, and he’s finished.
• • •
Media vans from Dallas and El Paso show up and angle for the best spot to shoot for the six o’clock news. Then the national anchors arrive. Eager to instigate some dramatic footage and dutifully followed by their cameramen, they attempt to crawl under the barrier as state troopers step in to block their way. Everyone checks into nearby motels. The Quality Inn fills up first and the owner debates with his wife whether it’s ethical to raise rates at this point. His wife does not think it is ethical.
In Redway, California, a student of the Heart Matters massage school gets stoned for the first time in two years. He used to smoke every day until he became a committed student of Chinese medicine and went on a live-foods diet. But with the volume off and the image on the screen flickering back and forth between a worried blond anchorwoman and an aerial view of the hole, he calls a friend, who is really more of an acquaintance, and asks if he can buy some weed. The acquaintance hasn’t heard of what’s happening in Texas, and content to have someone to smoke with that night and happy to make the sale, he mounts his bike in good spirits to ride through the shady, early evening streets of the town to deliver the baggie of weed, his brown pit bull mix on a leash panting at his side. The massage student, forgetting about his cleanse, inhales deeply and holds the thick smoke in his lungs for impossibly long seconds. He keeps his eyes fixed on the screen while his friend says oh shit, holy shit and the dog whines at their feet. The student of massage and Chinese medicine smokes more than he meant to because the hole, that black gaping mouth somewhere in Texas, just won’t come into focus on the screen, and he knows he needs something, he just needs something to help his vision. He might have to see this hole for himself, he thinks, after his friend has gone and he’s flat out on his couch.
The geologists call in reinforcements. This is not an area of Texas that generally sees sinkholes, they say. And a sinkhole has sides made of dirt, has something visible at the bottom. An unhappy German physicist from Texas Tech, determined to collect data and be the first in her field to explain the sinkhole that does not act like a sinkhole, is the third to go in. After that, a scientist from Sandia Labs in Albuquerque delivers a mechanical arm that reaches into the hole to harvest samples, but the samples never make it to the lab because the arm is wrenched off from the helicopter wielding it. The chopper barely makes it away, choking and lopsided.
After three days, the media changes its tone. It stops calling the hole an accident. Now it’s the widest, deepest sinkhole ever discovered in North America—a fun fact, a curiosity, a crazy Texas problem. But still there are conversations and conjecture. Some people cannot forget those images of the darkest thing they’d ever seen. They question what’s down there just under the visible crust of the earth. On street corners in Belize, subways in New York, rusty fishing boats in Greece, people wonder about the Texas hole, shake their heads, grateful the thing did not appear in their own backyard but not deeply comforted by the thought, either. On Sunday, Pentecostal ministers deliver sermons about the hole—evidence of God’s wrath and so on—while others swear that Jesus is coming. In Pennsylvania, homeowners increase their insurance coverage. In China, officials declare the whole thing a fine example of American propaganda.
In Austin, a graduate student named Maria is supposed to be working on a dissertation about illuminated manuscripts, but the project went stale last summer when she discovered a text about the bubonic plague, which she reads instead. The night the hole opens, she dreams herself into a city of complicated narrow streets, rats and piles of bloated bodies. A draft of her first three chapters is due to Professor Sauter next week, and she is having trouble making the connections. But she knows they are there, so when she hears about the black hole, she packs her laptop, food, and a change of clothes and drives the six and a half hours to Lubbock. As she heads down into the flat country, she thinks about how at first no one got that the plague was a bacterial infection spread by flea bites, attributing it instead to the devil, to witches, to humor imbalance. It was an inscrutable problem only because no one had found the right way to look at it.
After a week, the hole has not expanded, at least not according to any of the crude measuring devices. Scientists have no answers and are frustrated by the lack of government response. The Texas Department of Public Safety, under the direction of the governor, erects a portable chainlink fence and brings in Texas Rangers to patrol the periphery. Still, people come in droves. Groups of evangelicals pray with their arms brushing the air. Photographers snap pictures. Amateur scientists wander around, peering through the fence. A woman sets up a tarot reading table under a patio umbrella, not far from a group of spiritual seekers who carpool from Sedona. Taco trucks abandon Amarillo and El Paso and do a steady business feeding the curious and the faithful. The New Agers talk about the powerful energy of the hole, as do the physicists from Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore who apply for emergency funding to erect three towers in order to take triangulated measurements.
There are the barriers, yes, and the Rangers install checkpoints going into the neighborhood, but still people find ways. A depressed pedophile from Connecticut drives thirty-two hours straight, uses a car jack to lift the flimsy fence just far enough off the ground to slide under, and swan dives into the hole without looking back. Others jump too: teenagers, the elderly. More groups arrive, praying for the suicide victims. Abortion protesters abandon clinics and converge to form a human chain to keep more people from throwing themselves in. The state troopers are reinforced by police in riot gear. The towers go up quickly and crudely, but at last the scientists are able to get their data, though their findings aren’t made public. Camps spring up—tent camps, car camps. The snowbirds drive their RVs into town and watch the fun from the shade of roll-down awnings. There are traffic jams heading into Lubbock, and grocery stores run low on basic supplies. The student of Chinese medicine, exhausted and hungry from his long drive, wanders through the wide aisles of an Albertson’s and drops four bags of Corn Nuts into his basket.
When the military takes over they do so quietly, efficiently, and in the middle of the night. They disband the camps, send the RVs back to Arizona, cite eminent domain, enact martial law. They expand the safety zone yet again. Trucks arrive with building supplies as the hippies and sightseers and evangelicals and RVs pass them in the opposite direction. Behind the truckloads of building supplies are the truckloads of personnel, most of them National Guard units from Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, most of them recently returned from Afghanistan or Iraq and not thrilled to be called so suddenly back to duty. They survey the dusty horizon from the windows of the lurching military vehicles with resigned, set eyes. This is not what they expected to be assigned to here at home, but it is everything they’ve been trained to expect. The walls go up quickly: pre-cast cement slabs twelve feet tall, then the new chainlink fence, this time sunk into poured concrete, this time with razor wire at the top.
For a while everything settles. The city begins to adjust to its new shape. The media moves on to fresh stories while bloggers assume the burden of reporting, and most of the spectators return home, take up their old lives, though perhaps with less focus than they had before. Maybe their sense of urgency has shifted from the mundane to something just out of reach. They have not forgotten the dark hole somewhere in Texas, but they are willing to accept it.
At the Quality Inn, which now lies at the edge of the safety zone and which the military has appropriated and transformed into a temporary barracks, Specialist Trevor Ditmore lies face up on the slippery polyester bedspread, staring at the thick spackle on the ceiling, trying to remember where he is. Twelve days back from Afghanistan, not yet accustomed to the cooking and detergent smells of his mother’s house in Houston, he is sent here, to the flat desert country of West Texas, to some sinkhole in the ground. There was something else he was supposed to do, some important thing, but he can’t remember it. He reads the ceiling like a topo map. He remembers the village. Not the bad part, not what happened, but just before that, when they pulled up in the Humvees, how after the dust cleared that bird flew right overhead. He learned later that it was a black stork, nothing like the pale, gawky cranes that strut around the marshlands of Texas in the spring on their way north. No, this bird was black with a bright red beak and legs, roosting on a rooftop. At the time he thought it must be a good sign. Only it wasn’t a good sign because of the way things turned out. Not good at all. Now he tries to stay in the moment. Now he listens to the pipes squeal as the water goes on in the bathroom and that hollow sound as water falls off someone’s chest—Johnson’s or Brockmeyer’s—and hits the floor of the plastic molded shower.
• • •
It’s later that evening, as Ditmore climbs the rickety orchard ladder into the towers erected for the scientists, but which now serve more frequently as surveillance towers, that he is the first to notice the birds. The distant haze that’s hovered at the periphery of the sunbaked earth all day is now on fire with trails of orange and pink, so that when the first cloud of starlings wheels and swoops in contorting patterns against that candescent backdrop, he pauses, again forgetting where he is. The birds dip and dive straight into the center of the black hole and disappear. Ditmore takes up his post and watches, motionless, as the next cloud of birds, swallows or sparrows, does the same—shifting and twisting, appearing out of nowhere, then plunging into the middle of the hole. Other birds arrive—raucous crows, tiny chirping things, round-faced owls, until the sky is raked with lines of flying bodies and cacophonous with their calls. Eventually Ditmore is aware of the slimy white bird shit on his head and shoulders, which rouses him to some extent, and then the commanding officer comes on the radio asking what the fuck is going on up there, and no one from any of the three observation towers answers because no one has any clue. Finally someone says, “Looks like a whole lot of birds, sir.”
All night the sky is loud with the thump and thrum of millions of wings beating the air. Ditmore uses a tarp to rig up a makeshift tent and takes shelter under it, wondering not for the first time how he got himself into this mess and wondering, too, whether the sound of all those birds annihilating themselves, plummeting into some hole in the ground blacker than hell, is worse than the sound of gunfire all night. By dawn the next morning, he’s decided that the sound of the birds is worse.
More scientists are called in, every official who could be of help, and dozens sit in cars just inside the safety zone with their windshield wipers swinging so they can keep some little window on the dire situation. No biologist has ever witnessed a migration on this scale, and none can think of how to stem this tide of life flowing into the ground. They shake their heads or cover their ears. An ornithologist, counting species as best she can, wipes silent runnels of tears from her cheeks but does not stop counting. In another car, a nuclear physicist curses the birds, not counting anything, just listening to the deafening sound. No one can think of what to do. After a while, it is clear that flying insects have joined the birds. Shimmering swarms of flies and soft clouds of butterflies and storms of ladybugs and fevers of bees and humming pools of cicadas disappear into the hole. A FEMA official wonders whether he can call this a natural disaster.
In a village in Afghanistan, a mother of four stirs her morning cook fire with a growing sense of alarm. The storks, recently arrived for the season, yesterday nesting happily on village roofs, are gone, as are the flycatchers and finches and warblers whose chorus usually keeps her company this early in the morning. A village elder in Canada watches a flock of barking snow geese land, finally, shaking their tails, bringing summer to Cambridge Bay, then moments later take off again, flying south.
The military trucks in noise cannons full speed from Dallas and Fort Worth and Los Cruses and El Paso on interstates slick with bird shit and exoskeletons. It is dark enough to need headlights at noon. An officer on the scene, an amateur ornithologist, proposes they try to confuse the birds—throw them off course and buy some time—using high-frequency sound generators, so these begin to arrive too, from Corpus Christi and Fort Worth, from aquariums in Dallas and Houston. He paces the conference room of the Holiday Inn, the only room he can find without windows, and tears at his fingernails. He tries to call his wife, then his son, but gets no cell reception.
And Specialist Ditmore, who is still on duty, who has been on duty for what feels like days and may have indeed been days because there is not enough light filtering through the bodies and wings to tell the difference between day and night, mans one of the noise cannons. No one remembered ear protection for the troops, so that after many hours, each pounding feels like a spear thrust directly into his own eardrum, and by way of his eardrum, into his chest. The cannons have no effect on the birds, but over and over he deploys the cannon. “It’s just noise” he repeats to himself as he glimpses a stream of black and red amongst the brown and white and black and he knows that it is the stork that has found him and he drops the cannon’s remote control. And when his roommate, Specialist Johnson, finds Ditmore’s body in their appropriated room in the Quality Inn, Johnson closes and locks the door and decides to tell no one for the time being because there is already an overload, and one more broken-open body has taken on the distant, polished quality of the absurd.
Meanwhile, species that have been counted, measured, and taxonomized for posterity, along with a few that have escaped notice and will never bear a name, continue to funnel into the hole with a final swoop and dive that looks like pure joy. Occasionally there are breaks when the sky reappears. Residents of Lubbock emerge to hose down their cars, and rumors about a citywide evacuation circulate like the acrid smell of the droppings.
New camps form around the safety zone. Some people walk the periphery, circling without understanding why, or simply staring up. The spectators want to see the birds going in, want some final confirmation, so they hire a crane, bring in cherry pickers and attach cameras to long poles. It dawns on them that the birds and insects are not committing mass extinction. They are simply leaving.
• • •
Inside safety zone headquarters, a military aide to the president with a former career in the Navy is the first to think of covering the mouth of the hole. “If we can’t turn them around, we’ll cap it,” he says in another meeting in the windowless room of the Holiday Inn. No one within the safety zone has remembered to eat, and now they pillage the continental breakfast bar, crunch five-day-old pastries, peel green bananas, and tear open tiny boxes of cereal. One aide thinks of the huge natural gas storage tanks in Fort Worth, which may be big enough to cover the hole. “Don’t have to go far to find one of those in Texas,” says another aide, and everyone chuckles, feeling better with some food and the promise of the new plan.
An empty tank is transported in pieces, welded back together and maneuvered into place. It stops the birds from disappearing into the hole, but it does not stop them from arriving. Carcasses pile up around the sides of the tank. Loaded trucks leave the safety zone all night long and still can’t keep up. The smell for miles around is of burning rubber and rotten eggs. And no one accounts for the people, either, who also won’t stop coming. They show up as if the hole were a national park being paved over, some fundamental right. They wail over the bodies, enough bone and broken wings to fill ten stadiums. They protest, demand that the hole be reopened, as if the military were responsible for the catastrophe, as if the hole were life saving, necessary. After days with no change, a Pentagon official calmly suggests that they let this thing run its course. After a long pause, his colleagues, exhausted and overwhelmed, agree.
The crowd waits restlessly while the cap is dismantled, cut apart with oxyacetylene welding torches. Huge chunks of it fall soundlessly into the hole. The birds, fewer of them than before, disappear once again into the dark sink in the ground. It looks almost natural this time. The crowd climbs over barriers, a few people at first, and then in great numbers against a flurry of batons and clouds of tear gas. The wall, built of concrete slabs bolted together and reinforced with steel trusses, still stands, but when the military finally withdraws, the wall, too, gives way under sledgehammers and concrete saws, pulled down in pieces using ropes and grappling hooks and bare hands. The people surge forward, each deciding whether to jump into that dimensionless space, to know what the birds know, or to turn back to the world.
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December 29, 2014
21 Min read time