One afternoon, walking far uptown on 116th street near a small neighborhood park, she came across a new arrival on the sidewalk, its wings spread as though still in flight. That was before she began to carry Ziploc bags with her everywhere, like the dog walkers; that would come later. She spotted a bodega across Second Avenue and the man inside kindly gave her a sandwich bag even though she didn't buy anything. She found a stick to push the bird inside the bag and unintentionally flipped it onto its back. Its underbelly was roiling with maggots. She recoiled. She felt a special revulsion for shiny invertebrate things; earthworms emerging from the ground, glistening wet after a hard rain, or slugs leaving a phlegm-like trail on the ground as they passed by.
A friend had given her a copy of a magazine article on forensic science. He thought it would tickle her morbid fancy. The article explained the way in which the close study of maggots could be used to determine the time of a subject's death. It was full of facts. The height and weight of the maggots would divulge how long they had been feeding. The type of maggot found could reveal that a body had been moved from one location to another. In the study, the researchers had left a set of bodies strewn around a remote property to enable ongoing observation.
The maggots on the underbelly of the bird were small, shimmering. Day-old larvae are only 2mm in length and are almost transparent. This bird had been lying on the sidewalk undisturbed by passersby for an entire day. She didn't know what would happen if she sealed the bird, along with the maggots into the plastic bag. Could the maggots still breathe in there? Would they live long enough to gestate into flies? Would the bag, suddenly vibrating from within, filled with a swarm of flies desperate to escape into the open air, slowly inch its way off the mantel and come crashing to the floor? For the first time since she'd begun, she abandoned a find and walked away.
Her apartment was a five-floor walk-up. Uncharacteristically, the stairs wound their way up the exterior of the building, creating walkways in front of each apartment. She liked to think of this walkway, barely wide enough for two people to stand side by side, as her balcony. On warm days she occasionally put a chair out and watched the ebb and flow of the expressway; the industrial river five floors below. She could hear the expressway in every room of the apartment, it had its own special cadence, loud but slow in the morning, lighter and brisker in mid-day, rising again in late afternoon.
It was a skin-prickling, humid day. She sat in her bedroom listening to the expressway, when she became conscious of a quiet but distinct humming, a sound that laid itself softly on top of the highway sound. Her window was covered with a cheap wooden shade; a set of tiny rounded wooden slats strung together with a crude piece of string. It let in a lot of light and, at night when the courtyard lights were on, it created delicate line drawings on her ceiling. The window was closed. The shade was swaying gently in and out, as if to the count of her own breath. The air was thick and still, there was no breeze, no movement except by the window. She got up and took a few steps toward it. The hum became more audible. Sometimes in summer a bee or a wasp would make its way inside and get caught between the pane and the shade searching for the way out. She leaned forward and grabbed the thick string that raised the shade; then pulled. A black mass of frenzy: hundreds, thousands maybe, of the smallest flies she had ever seen. She didn't think she had seen baby flies before. Like pigeons, they always seemed to have matured elsewhere.