Appeared in Vol 3 Issue 2 (Summer 2014)

Header Image © Jamie K. Reaser



The Altar Of Birds by Heloise Jones


I looked to the dawn sky over the bay,
saw the coral sheets I knew colored
the sand, the water, the homefronts.
When I finally stood at the pink tinted shore,
trails of fire-edged clouds above,

I stood at the Altar of Birds.
Hundreds in flight, set for flats and shallows,
gathering by tribe. Heron, ibis, pelican,
seagull, darter, duck. A roseate spoonbill,
a rose on stilts. An osprey, a tiny fish
in its talons. Far from shore,
black shadows of longnecked bodies
sprinkled like crooked flowers. Then, water
lightens to the color of sky. The slap of
big wings, throaty murmurs, aaahhs,
soft clicks and loud squawks.

Of all, the gulls scream for the sun. Rip the air.
Only quiet when the glowing orb frees
the horizon, sprays a rippled copper path
across the bay, assures of another day.
Later, they’ll forget morning’s promise.
Their voices will rise, wail as the fireball drops,
the sky flares, warning of a sun
nearly gone, lost below the tree line.

Marvel the mullet, I say. How they throw
themselves where gills don’t work. Leap
where air means death. And yet, they fly.
Airborne, again and again and again.

I’m reminded of a time we
walked a great distance into the Gulf.
The tide at our hips. A sea warm as bathwater.
People shrunk to mere dots, specks on shore.
At our knees, fish as long as my thigh
chased fish as big as my hand. Then, fish
large as a lifeboat cruised a prairie of
seaweed, stalking, maybe me.

I live where birds cover marsh trees like blossoms.
Palms rustle like mountain streams.
The stillness of egrets and herons hold space.
Where pelicans glide in formation, wingtips on water,
baby dolphins flip, and spindly legs
reach shyly from a shell in my hand.
Where rainbowed butterflies of miniature mussels
join conch, all peachy and buttery cream,
buried in crude on the ocean floor, in waters
Corexit swirls with blood
like plastics taint the Pacific.


I hold a tiny, dried corpse of a horseshoe crab.
The shell paper-thin, the legs perfectly curled,
its blue blood long gone. I think
of the time 22 miles out to sea,
at the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic.
The singular, giant dolphin. The singular bird
as I stood at the stern of a boat, tipped
my dad’s ashes into deepest water,
watched tiny pieces of bones & ash
bloom as tall and big as he was
when I was a little girl.

I celebrate the horseshoe’s slip
past human dominion, its march through
the rise and demise of epochs and species,
carrying copper-laced blood as expensive
as gold. I know I’ll search for them in
lifetimes hence when I return, walk the shores
once more, pray at the Altar of Birds.


Heloise Jones lives in St. Petersburg, Florida after decades in the mountains of New Mexico and North Carolina. Though she’s a town dweller, she finds the sacred in the wonder and rhythms of nature. She’s always loved birds. A Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize finalist, her publications include a contributing essay in the bestselling book, ‘What I Wish for You’ by Patti Digh.

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