One Night in 1888, as the French steamboat Abd-el-Kader powered from Marseilles to Algiers, news reports proclaim the sky became quite black with swallows

                                         The channel between
one life and another has always been subject
to sudden explosions. Those swallows
must have been exhausted. The birds alighted
in the thousands on the sails, ropes, and yards
of the Abd-el-Kader. I began with birds, thousands.
Some wandered into cabins, ate from passengers’
delighted hands. I will return to the birds, but you
should know the Abd-el-Kader was named for a man
who died five years before they blacked the sky
around the boat that bore his name. If you don’t
know how many died, how many more he saved,
in the decades of conflict between France and Algiers
while Abd-el-Kader was emir, maybe you won’t know
what a wonder this was to report. I read about it
in The New York Times. This must have sounded,
in those days, like the stories we hear now of cranes —
white-napped, red-capped — who nest nowhere securely
but along Korea’s demilitarized zone. Those winged strangers
remained all night on the vessel, the article claims.
In the morning, fed and rested, they flew off
for coastal islands still controlled by Spain —
which, as you know, once kept as its own our neighbors,
Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico. I’ve been trying to write
about the Abd-el-Kader swallows for more years
than I am able to count. Yesterday, you apologized
for arriving late for dinner. You’d seen a small, bent
woman walking with heavy bags near the grocery store
and you stopped to ask if she would let you drive her
home. You are the size of black man people here
consider frightening. The woman must have been exhausted.
She settled her body in the cabin and you carried her safely
home. Somedays, especially as I’m reminded of how
we fight the animals we are — who need to migrate
as much as we need to settle, to stay— how we’ll tear
apart and strand and starve and slaughter that part of us
who takes flight from one place to some other —
I try to recreate this. A rather curious episode
in natural history occurred the other day, the story
I love so much begins.

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