That night, like every night that year, long after dark had fallen, I climbed the tree at the top of the hill behind town hall. That night was different, though. When I’d almost made it to the top, instead of the bird with whom I’d been having an affair, I met a fellow border guard. The bird with whom I’d been having an affair kept her nest at the top of that tree. It was an old copper beech, good for climbing. But the convenience of it wasn’t why I loved her.
“I know what you’ve been up to,” said the guard, perched in the crook of two branches, legs dangling. We were four stories off the ground, so the branches were thinner at that height, but still sturdy enough to hold a man. “It’s not exactly legal.”
“Those are recent laws,” I said. The wind was blowing in such a way that his branches and mine were swaying to slightly different rhythms. The moon was out―waxing gibbous―so the officer, in that light, drifted lazily, erratically above me. Was my bird at home? I couldn’t see; my colleague blocked my view. “The morals of this,” I said, “are more complicated.”
We were both in uniform―I visited my bird that year when I was done with my shift, a night shift. I was never able to hold off any later than the first moment I was free to see her. The guard was older than I, with heavy eyebrows, going gray. His smile hinted at a personal vendetta. I didn’t recognize him, but then there were hundreds of us in this branch of the department―it was a busy section of the border that we worked from this town. Which meant there were always plenty of jobs. So I couldn’t imagine why someone would be out to get me. Especially when this went against the code of conduct of our fraternal organization.
“Complicated morals are not my job,” he said. “The law is my job. New laws, old laws, the law is what I’m paid to enforce.” Keeping foreigners out of the country was our job, strictly speaking, but some of my coworkers were passionate and severe. “And you and this bird,” he said, nodding his head back and up in the direction of her nest, “and what you’ve been doing with this bird―that gets deeply into the business of my job.”
I had thought that no one knew my secret. How this man could have known, I couldn’t guess. I didn’t ask. Instead, I launched into the tirade―my off-duty tirade―which had become all too well-rehearsed under the new political regime of that terrible and beautiful year. It was not a tirade I ran through at our local fraternal home. There was an accommodating bar on a highway a half hour beyond the border―freedom of movement was a perk―and I saved my rant for dawn binges there. I launched into it: Why was this country so cruel? I remembered the country of my youth, and how love, there, was tolerated. I missed that cosmopolitan spirit so much. If a grown man and a small bird, of their own free will, had feelings for each other―loved each other’s company; loved feathers and hair; loved the exquisite pain of a small, hard beak against a man’s most sensitive skin―who had the right to stand in the way of love? At least, that’s what I remembered of it. My home country had been tiny, almost a city-state, a crossroads of the region; years previous, under a different set of hard-liners, it had been absorbed into this one, its people dissipated, its culture killed and stuffed and put on display in museums. That was how this country―this empire, though no one dared call it that―tolerated difference, by propping it up in a diorama. I kept ranting, yelling, not caring about the consequences, not caring what this man might do: The new government is run by a gang of thugs hell-bent on crackdown, but they’re only the current face of crackdown; the underlying cruel spirit of this country is sometimes dormant, sometimes awake, but always ready to root out love and crush it.
I’d worked myself into a frenzy. It was only when I paused to catch my breath that I realized that the border guard was gone. There, in his place, was the bird I loved, perched in the same crook, drifting in the same wind, the same half-moon light. She smiled, too, but this smile meant mischief.
It is not fair, I thought, climbing those last few branches as fast as I could, for anyone, male or female, human or bird, to wait so long in a relationship to reveal a power to shapeshift.
“Never do that to me again,” I said, carefully curling my body around hers, stroking her feathers, squeezing her in an embrace so tight that I could feel her lithe, light, fragile bones start to strain under the force of it.
Here’s what’s so terrible: After all these years, this is the memory that remains. The specifics of the good nights are gone; those nights all blur together. Instead, the night I remember so well, in such detail, is the night she tested me. And the memories I’ve lost are unreconstructable. My diary from that year―like almost all written records from that time― has been burned.