Exerpt from: Italy/the African man
I watched a boy on an island in the Adriatic poke a dead gull with a stick, moving it up the rocks towards another dead gull. After that I see a dead crow, beak open and tongue extended on the side of the Via Appia Antica as we pass by on bicycles. What killed these birds? I wonder: did the heat kill this crow? Where do birds drink during a drought? Did this crow die of thirst? Was there plastic in the stomachs of the gulls? Did they have avian flu?

Some time later, out of the corner of my eye, I see the African man at the roadside, pushing a bike in the sun. He moves forward slowly towards a patch of shade under a tree where there is a rock he can sit on. He sits down on it and sighs. He watches the passing traffic with that same wary eye as before.

I mention the dead birds to the African man, who says: “bad omens.” Another friend will say the same thing a few weeks later back home in Canada: “dead birds are bad omens.”

Do omens map to specific portents or do they propose a kind of mood, a general bad feeling? I think of the swallows and the swifts. They had slipped my mind.

“What do the omens mean,” I ask the African man.

He says: “those gulls by the seashore … that means death by sea. And you saw the crow on the roadside? Death by road,” he said.

“I didn’t see it that way,” I said.

“You wouldn’t,” he said.

We sit, he is looking out. I’m watching him. The tree above us is full of cicadas which you can hear over the traffic noise, and even more when there are breaks between the cars.

“I saw you by the sea,” I say, as a way to keep the conversation going. The African man is scanning the cars. “You were cooking your supper in the port in Naples,” I say. He keeps scanning.

“Now I see you by the road,” I continue. He glances at me, then looks back at the road.

“We are both here,” he says.

I follow his eyes out to the road and see a police car approaching. I turn back and the African man is gone.

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