Bird Walks in New England

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I followed my boyfriend to the city because I was in love with him.  He had come to fetch me from across the country, like a knight riding in for his damsel.  He had dark and curly hair.  My family is fair, and there was something about his darkness, something sharp and sexy and wild, that told me I had to be with him.  Silently, I pledged that I would make this happen.  I would say yes to him.  I know how to say yes, just as I know how much people like to be pleased.  I have seen it my entire life, to the extent that I have become an expert in the art of pleasing and wanting to please.  Such an expert that long ago I managed to combine its two components, the art of pleasing others and the art of pleasing oneself, so that the two became one to me.  How odd to discover, many years later, that the two were not one.  That the two, in fact, were in conflict.  Or could be in conflict.  That in a world where there seemed no limit to pleasing and being pleased, in a world of plenty there still could be scarcity.  But I get ahead of myself.

I pledged that I would be with my knight.  I would ride side by side with him atop my horse, or if necessary, I would sit on his steed, hands clasped around his waist behind him.  Both positions suited me, and I sensed that both would suit him, and I also sensed that if I asked, he would agree to ride, hands clasped, behind me.  This (and so much else) intrigued me about him.  His looks, his cocksure attitude, his high and sometimes stormy spirit.  He was bold and armored, but unlike other knights, or potential knights, I had known, he was not afraid to shed his armor.  In fact, he loved to shed it — shed everything — and come to me.  He feasted on me, and I feasted on him.  In the early days before Melissa, we were gluttons for each other.  We ate greedily and often.  And we talked.  Oh, how we talked.  Such rhapsodies!  Such songs!  And we read together.  And took walks.  And when we were apart, we ached to be together, and we wrote each other of the minutiae of our aches and longings each and every day.

The dawn of love:  is there any day that dawns brighter?  Any sun more radiant, blinding and fine?  All men have their faults, Lord knows, and I marvel sometimes how it is that we go on loving them, and my knight had his.  He was brash, and a verbal bully; his sword was edged with sarcasm, and he liked to sneer.  He was smart, but I was smarter.  His intelligence was different from mine, native and quick and therefore interesting to me.  I liked to observe it, but I never mistook it for high intelligence.  Certain simple thoughts and ideas, such as how to change the world, were beyond him.  Fortunately, I had blinders on when we met, and his faults were hazy and even invisible to me.  The sun, as it were, was in my eyes.

Why fortunately?  Because had I seen clearly, I might never had said yes to him.  I might never have fallen in love.

I set three conditions on following him, simple ones that he could not help but agree to.  First, he must not take me to a certain city on the coast, a sprawling, factionated city of intellectual hysteria and petty sectarian politics, a city of political strife, where I could not possibly live.  Second, he must not take me to a certain city north of the first, equally unlivable.  Third and last was a third city; he must not take me there.  Those were my conditions:  three cities out of a thousand, out of ten thousand.  When he chose the third city, my three conditions shrunk in a puff of smoke to two.

It was not a bad city.  It had its beauty and its charm.  Its politics were as crass and doctrinaire as I feared, which in retrospect might have been the best thing that could have happened to me, because I turned my back on the political life sooner rather than later, before my hopes and dreams for a better world were completely gone.  I took a job caring for children (in whom hope always abides), then gave that up when I had a child of my own.  When Melissa turned five, I started working again, this time for a children’s museum.  The work suited me in every way, and before long I became program director.  I spearheaded a slate of new programs, but the one closest to my heart was the one for injured wild animals.  Being a city museum, most of these animals were birds.

We had a hawk that was missing an eye and a raven with a broken wing.  We had a duck with a mangled foot and an owl that had lost its feathers.  We rescued them and we cared for them.  It was the beginning of my interest and love for birds.

It was not, however, the beginning of my acquaintance with them.  My husband was a professional biologist, an amateur illustrator and an avid birder, and early in our marriage I accompanied him on his walks.  It was always nice to be out, though I would have liked it more if from time to time he had turned his eye from his birds to me.  He, I am certain, would have liked it more to be with other birders.  He never said as much, but you could tell.  It was a difference of orientation, you might say.  His outward gaze, I sometimes thought of it, stacked against my gaze at him.  With time this difference grew.  Our walks became less frequent.  We seemed to be drifting apart.  Then I got the job at the museum, and life changed overnight.  Suddenly, I had a reason to watch birds, too.

Now I could be out with him and do what he was doing.  I wanted this very much.  We shared an interest, or at least we had.  For reasons I never understood, his interest in birds began to dwindle soon after I got my job.  The day I bought my first pair of binoculars, I discovered that he had put his away.  His passion had shifted from birds to mushrooms.  They were now his darlings.  He showed me a drawing of one, Amanita Phylloides, known as the Death Cap.  He had a good hand.  It was, no doubt, the perfect likeness.  Wonderful, I said.

I was left to learn about birds on my own, and I discovered that, for all its concrete and steel, our city was a rich habitat for them.  There were parks and lakes and backyards, as well as the harbor and beyond it, the ocean.  In our own little garden we had hummingbirds, chickadees, catbirds, finches and thrushes.  I began to keep a diary of the birds I saw, when and where and how many.  I bought a book, Bird Walks in New England.  I joined the Audubon Society and went on outings with them.  When the local chapter needed help, I volunteered.  Before long I became secretary of the chapter, then its president.

It was a whole new world for me.  When I think of myself back then, I think of a hatchling.  At forty I was more than twice as old as my teenage daughter, but emotionally I felt half woman, half child.  My marriage was not going well.  There was pressure, it seemed, from every direction.  I pushed back with pressure of my own, trying to preserve and nurture what we had.  But what we had was changing, my husband and I.  We did what we could to adapt.

The city was also changing, growing denser and more congested.  There was less open space and more concrete.  More and taller buildings.  The birds were under pressure too, but somehow they seemed quicker to adapt than we did.  Falcons took to highrises as though they were trees, feasted on pigeons, and flourished.  Crows and ravens changed their diet from carrion to household garbage.  Mourning doves began to nest in the eaves of houses, and their population soared.

At home our population declined, as our daughter left for college.  I had four years of an empty nest, and then for a while she moved back.

There are some pleasures for a woman that only other women seem able to supply.  One of these is a certain kind of conversation:  chatty, nuanced, sharply observed.  Sympathetic without being overly sympathetic.  Rational.  Exhaustive.  Every woman knows this, and at some point in her life seems determined to forget it.  I was at that point in mine, trying to get my husband to talk to me, banging my head in vain against the wall of his retreat.  (Aspirin, I’m sorry to report, does nothing for the headache.)  It was a decidedly masculine wall, stony, ancient and obtuse.

With my daughter’s return, I stopped banging in favor of singing.  She and I talked endlessly, long and richly satisfying melodies of conversation.  And I re-discovered a buried truth:  one person is a force, but two are a stronger force.  And two together are exponentially stronger than two apart.  Melissa took me under her wing just as I had done for her as a child.  She showed me things that I had never seen, or had forgotten.  The shell, for example, that I had created for myself.  A shell as pretty as a robin’s egg, as thick as an ostrich’s, pleasing to the eye and useful at times but confining as any shell is.  With her encouragement I began to peck at this shell.  Peck peck peck, until it cracked, and soft, feathery, innocent me emerged.  Fresh as a newborn chick.  Ready for a new day.  A new dawn.

Imagine my surprise when my knight didn’t like what he saw.  Imagine the pain in my heart.  Poor me.  Poor him, for not liking.

But there I was, a hatchling.  I couldn’t very well climb back into my shell.  Nor could I fail to see the disapproval in his eyes, nor keep his dark-haired beauty and shining armor from becoming tarnished in my eyes.

I never fell out of love with him.  He was my true love, and true love never dies.  I didn’t want another knight in his place.  An eagle mates for life, and I believe that I was born an eagle.  But I was taught and raised to be a rail.  A yellow rail, a shy, retiring and secretive bird of reeds and deep grasses.  When I came out of my shell, I was re-born an eagle, and an eagle is faithful to her companion.  An eagle loves her mate, but she lives to spread her wings and fly.  I hatched, I looked around, I filled my lungs with air, then I fledged.

For a year we lived in separate houses.  It was painful but necessary.  Leaving my husband was like losing a limb, and I would wake at night, reaching for something that wasn’t there, grasping at a phantom.  I took a leave of absence from work and used the time to think.  I saw friends, took walks, grew feathers.  My husband used his time to further his career.  He wrote papers, gave speeches and sponsored wildlife legislation.  He no longer had time for walks of any kind, and the only birds he saw were from an office or an airplane window.  I, on the other hand, saw birds galore.  On outings with the Audubon Society, on jaunts up and down the coast, on cruises to the North Atlantic.  I saw the black-browed albatross, the northern fulmar and the parasitic jaeger, and it was I who first observed the walking bird.

I was alone when I saw it.  It was early morning.  Ironically, not somewhere faraway or exotic, but at Swan’s Neck Park, a little spit of land that juts into the Atlantic not three miles from my house, named for its long and curving shape.  For years it had been a dumping ground for anything and everything, but recently it had been cleaned up and restored.  Restored to what?  A stinky, soggy marsh of slimy rocks, tidal mudflats and reeds, bullrushes and grasses.  Not a human shangri-la by any means.  No paradise for man.  But the birds adored it.

The sun had just risen, and it was in my eyes as I walked the scrubby path to the end of the park, where I paused, as I do, to watch the waves and the water.  There was a light breeze, and after a while I turned and headed back.  With the sun behind me everything was as clear as if it had been rinsed that very morning.  I saw a spotted sandpiper, a ruddy turnstone and a flock of dunlins scampering along the rocks.  When I reached the marsh, there was a willet, two short-billed dowitchers and a killdeer.  Some chipping sparrows with their rusty caps scrabbled in the dirt.  Beyond them on the path was a crow, and beyond the crow was a bird I’d never seen.  I’m no world expert when it comes to birds, far from it, but I’m no rank amateur either.  Many of the species I know like the back of my hand, and my friends in the Audubon Society say I’ve got the eyes of a hawk.  And I’m telling you, this bird was different.  This bird, I swear, was not a bird at all.

And yet it clearly was, or part of it was.  It had a beak and feathers and wings.  It had a bird’s head and a bird’s body.  It looked like a rock dove, your run-of-the-mill pigeon, all except its legs.  They were unlike any bird legs I’d ever seen.  Way too long for a bird that size, long and weirdly jointed.  The knees, which in a bird are usually tucked into the body and out of sight, were where my knees are, halfway down the leg and plainly visible.  So that the legs bent forward, not back, which is the opposite of how birds’ legs do.  Below the knees were ankles and then feet, which were also strange.  They were broad, high-arched and fleshy, with shiny purple skin, tufts of bristly hair (and what bird has hair?), and four fat, splayed-out toes.  Not talons, not claws, not webs, not lobes, but toes, two in front and two in back, like exclamation marks.  This was something else I’d never seen.

The bird stood there in the dust with one knee cocked, then it shifted its weight and cocked the other.  It lifted a foot and took a few short steps, very casual, as if it had nothing better to do and nowhere better to be in the world.  And who knows, maybe it didn’t.  Maybe its purpose, if it had one, was merely to attract attention.  To be noticed, to be seen.  If  this were true, it was probably a male.

I wondered where this bird had come from.  How had it come to be?  Was it the product of some bizarre experiment?  A mutation born of pollution and filth?  An adaptation?  An evolutionary leap?  A joke?

I wanted a closer look, but when I moved, it got scared.  In this it was no different from other birds.  It ducked its head and went into a crouch, back toes up, front toes flexed, like a sprinter at the blocks.  All at once it shot off down the path, legs churning.  Ostriches run, and emus run, and penguins try to run, but no bird runs like that one did.  I wouldn’t even call it a run.  It was more an ultra-fast, Charlie Chaplinesque walk.  After ten yards or so it stopped, then turned and eyed me.  When I reached for my binoculars, it went into its crouch again, only this time it sprang into the air, spread its wings and took off.  Its flight was labored at first, as though it were a bigger and heavier bird.  Its unbirdlike feet dragged it down, until it caught some air, and then it sailed away, its long legs trailing behind it like ribbons.

In birding there’s no such thing as a secret.  An unusual sighting is not something you keep to yourself.  You text a friend.  You make a post.  You call the birding hotline.  I did all these things, and by day’s end the word was out.

People flocked to see the walking bird.  Birders first and foremost, but close on their heels biologists, and close on theirs, reporters and curiosity-seekers, some of whom naturally brought ice chests, barbecues, folding chairs and radios.  I was interviewed no less than seven times.  The story not only made the front page of the newspaper, it was picked up online in countless blogs and tweets.  The walking bird was sighted once atop a piling at the end of a broken-down pier just north of Swan’s Neck, and one other time, when a man claimed that he saw it with a fish under its wing, striding across the water.  Both sightings were unconfirmed, but both made it into the news, the second one accompanied by an artist’s rendering of the bird that resembled a commuter with a briefcase tucked under his arm, hurrying for his train.  It was not the only drawing of the bird.  There were serious attempts as well as caricatures, and what all had in common was that none captured what I had seen.  Most weren’t even close.  A week passed, and there were no more sightings.  Two weeks, and the furor and excitement died down.

People started calling it a false alarm and deserted the park in the inverse order of how they had overrun it, the casually curious followed by the professionally curious followed by the fanatics.  The nail in the coffin was an article in the local paper, the final one as it turned out, citing me by name and suggesting the whole thing was either a joke, a hoax or a mistake.  It quoted an ornithologist saying I needed glasses.  The quote, needless to say, was echoed a hundred-fold on-line.

And maybe I did need glasses, but that didn’t change what I saw.  I was furious at the implication I couldn’t be trusted.  I’d worked hard to be honest, both with myself and with others.  I didn’t make things up.  At one time yes, but those days were gone.

I waited for the crowds to leave before returning to the park.  I was on my guard, and I did get some looks from hangers-on, who apparently recognized my face, and I did my best to ignore them.  In addition to my binoculars and spotting scope, I brought a camera this time.  An eagle is nothing without her eyes, and I trusted mine.  I had seen the bird, and I would see it again, and this time I’d prove it.

But I didn’t see it, not at Swan’s Neck or any of the other dozens of places I visited.  That day or any other day, or any time of day:  not at daybreak, not at noon, not at nightfall.  My Audubon friends were understanding.  No one believed me, but everyone was very nice.  They didn’t laugh at me.  If they whispered behind my back, they did it discreetly.  I got scolded by one of them for making birders look ridiculous, which for some, I know, is tautological.  Mostly, I had to sit through story after story of mistaken sightings.  The eye sees what the mind wants to see and all that.

It was during that time I discovered another thing about being an eagle.  She doesn’t like being doubted or dismissed.  She’s a proud bird, and unlike the little rail, who takes pride in her ability to hide, an eagle’s pride resides in being peerless and admired.  She flies high not simply to hunt but so that people can see how fine she is.  How fleet of wing, keen of sight and clear of mind.

I continued as president of the Audubon chapter, despite sentiment that I should step down.  When the time came for re-election, I ran again, against the advice of my friends.  I was defeated and offered a lesser position, which I declined.  I took a final trip with the group to the Arctic, where we saw the snowy owl and the rock ptarmigan, and once home, I participated in the Fall migratory count.  With winter there was less birding activity, and when Spring arrived, and the first thrush appeared out my window, announcing itself in sweet song, I found that I had lost my interest in birds.

This was painful (though not, I must say, as painful as losing a husband.  Not as sharply painful, at any rate.  It was a duller pain, a self-inflicted pain, which in its way is worse, doing something to yourself you don’t mean to but can’t stop.)  I wanted to enjoy birds.  I certainly knew they could be enjoyed, but sadly, no longer by the likes of me.  I still took walks.  And I had started to work again at the museum.  Our injured animal exhibit was as popular as ever, though less popular with me.  Wounded creatures, you could say, were of less interest.  I was more interested in our new dinosaur exhibit with its lessons about survival, extinction and the ability to adapt.

Outside of work I spent most of my time alone.  My daughter had followed in my footsteps by leaving her family of birth to be with her boyfriend, who lived in Tallahassee.  I visited her come autumn, and some months later she reciprocated by visiting me.  I was sad, as always, when her visit came to an end.  I was lonely.  In truth, I ached for companionship.  As the weeks and months wore on, it became harder and harder to keep self-pity at bay.

There was one antidote I had for these low, depressive feelings, and that was walks.  Moving my arms and legs helped stir my blood and raise, if only a little, my spirits.  I hadn’t been in Swan’s Neck Park in over a year, not since the debacle, and one day, for no good reason I took myself there.  It was deserted, save for one other person way off near the point.  His tripod and spotting scope marked him unmistakably a birder.

As I started walking out, he folded his tripod, slung it over his shoulder and started walking in.  When he was about twenty yards away from me, he stopped.  Our eyes met, and I felt the shock of recognition.  I could see his chest rise and fall, just as he, I am sure, could see mine.  Other than that, each of us was as still as a bird.  Then he came closer.

He wore his hair longer than he had, and he had grown a short beard, which highlighted his lips and softened his face.  He seemed happy, and he said hello, and for a minute we made awkward conversation.  Then we fell silent and looked away from each other, at a loss for words.  Then he raised his eyes and said it was good to see me.  He was wondering when he would.

I didn’t know quite how to take this, and he explained that he’d been coming to Swan’s Neck every day, sometimes early, sometimes late, for close to a year.  I replied, slightly baffled, that I hadn’t.  Yes, he said, he knew.  And I said, yes, I guess you do.  I guess it’s obvious.

He asked if he could show me something, and without waiting, he unzipped his knapsack.  Inside was a fancy birding camera with a telephoto lens, which is how we birders document our sightings.  Anything less is mere heresay.  The days of Audubon, who shot his birds in order to draw them, are long past.

It was strange to see the camera in his pack, not because he didn’t demand proof of things – he was a scientist, after all – but because he’d given up birding years before.  Under the camera was a notebook, which was what he was after.  He pulled it out and flipped through the pages until he found the one he wanted.  Then he handed the book to me, and the breath caught in my throat.

It was a colored drawing of the walking bird, exactly as I remembered it, pigeon body, long strange legs, as if he’d seen it with his own eyes, or with mine.  My heart skipped a beat.  I heard hoof beats.  I swear to God, hoof beats.  As though the knight’s steed was on its way.

“You’ve seen it,” I cried.

He shook his head.

“You have.  That’s how it looks.  Exactly.”

“It’s how you described it in the paper.”

I had described it, but not like that.  Not in such detail.  Everything perfect, from the coloring, to the proportions, to the way it held its body, to its feet and legs.  The bird seemed ready to walk right off the page.

***

He asked if he had it right.

Dumb-founded, I nodded.

“You’re sure?”

“It looks alive,” I said.

He had a theory about the legs, which had to do with adaptation to the paving of the planet.  Humans aren’t the only ones, he said, who can and must adapt.

He was speaking for the wild things he loved but also, I sensed, for himself.  He slipped the notebook from my hands, gave the drawing one last appraising look, then closed it and returned it to his pack.  It was then I realized another thing that was strange about the camera:  my husband had never owned a camera in his life.  He was not a picture-taker.  For as long as I had known him, he had never shot a single frame.  Yet here he was, drawn by word alone – my word — ready to capture my bird with the camera’s lens.

I was moved, almost to tears.  He shouldered his knapsack, then paused, as though waiting for me to say something.  Thank you, I think, would have sufficed.  But before I could utter a word, there was a stirring in the grass, and a meadowlark appeared.  It’s a common bird, with a black and yellow chest, but something about it seemed special.  My knight, I think, agreed.  He and I, we were in agreement on this:  that at that hour, in that light, on that morning, this common bird was the most beautiful thing in the world.

Michael Blumlein is a speculative fiction writer. Most of his fiction borders on science ficiton, fantasy, or horror. He’s also a physician. He’s been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award and the World Fantasy Award. His fiction has appeared in a number of publications including Interzone and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.