There are days when I look out the window
without meaning to, as if my glance had been commanded by a consciousness beyond that typically called my own. And I catch, not the sight but the sense of a bird. The briefest of blurs, a velocity of being, accompanied by a communication whose unmistakable imperative is simply: look.
I have an unaccountable conviction in these moments, unlikely as it seems to my rational mind, that I am being summoned to witness something. Someone. But I cannot will my way into such witnessing. I can only intend, and then forget. So that the surface of my mind moves unselfconsciously, while the depths have been readied.
Sometimes it takes a couple of days. I feel a quiet, almost imperceptible surge, but my gaze is belated, catches its breath not on bird but on space freshly emptied of bird. Even these misses have their magic. And then comes the barefoot discovery–always barefoot for there is never time for mind to pull on shoes, slip into slippers.
The first time I felt more than saw the somersaulting shadow of wings, and was pulled to the window by the gravitational field of an invisible presence. Three perhaps four times this happened, over one afternoon and into the next. Then there he was. A young hawk perched on the wire closest to our home and lowest. An unusual bird placed in unusually close range. Those colors, those curves and angles enclosed in and enclosing such wild grace. A sense of young majesty, a presence aware of being within the radius of another’s awareness.
A little over a year earlier, a turkey vulture had alighted on the wire opposite our living room window. A hulking black-shouldered, red-headed bird gazing deliberately into the heart of our home, while my mother served hot dosas to a guest. No this had not happened before, and has never happened since. And yes there is a story, but for another time perhaps.
And then last week, while making breakfast (oatmeal), I turned (or was turned,) abruptly from hot stove toward kitchen window and caught a fluttering handkerchief. Small, black and flying, falling, dancing. I recognize, without knowing how, the movements of familiar birds. I do not dissect the invisible warp and weft of their intricate weaving. I could not describe it to you even if I cared to, but am glad for the quiet backdrop of their daily and dynamic craft. This pattern, even peripherally caught, was unfamiliar. Less subtle, more demanding of audience. Snared I walked to the window searching for the bird behind the show. At first nothing but empty driveway and branches and sky. And then he materialized.
An immediately likable bird of an immediately likable size. Charcoal-smudged body with a roguish, tousled head and such an unafraid, arrested quickness in his being. A purposeful sense of pause. “You’ve been seen,” I told him silently. Perhaps he was unconvinced, or perhaps he was simply being sociable. Either way, when I stepped outside several minutes later, he flew past me and, perching on a nearby branch, proceeded to sing a single note. So sweetly, single-mindedly, so persistently that I could not help but think he was telling me something. I noted then, his white breast, how it peaked crisply between his dark lapel feathers. How oddly formal he appeared, how like a bird in a tuxedo. A dapper bird who had remembered to dress for the occasion–but had forgotten to comb his hair. And all the while he sang his tail pumped, keeping time. He watched and sang as I watered the plants unfazed by my size, my species, my lack of song. I watched him watching me and wondered where he had come from, where he was going. Wondered who and what he was.
[watercolor sketch by Pavithra Mehta]
A search for “mettlesome black bird with white breast” brought him up immediately on my screen. A flycatcher. A Black Phoebe. A songbird, I am informed, that does well around humans and is known to sit on low perches in backyards and keep up a running series of chirps while scanning the horizon for edible insects. The most wonderful thing I learned about this bird is that the male of the species will show his mate possible nest sites by hovering in front of them for approximately ten seconds awaiting her “aye” or “nay.” She will make the final decision on where they nest, an arrangement that strikes me as eminently sensible on all fronts.
All morning I cannot shake the sense of his presence. Finally I take out my brushes, a paint set and begin. In London and New York passersby can get their portraits painted in a matter of minutes by gifted street artists. In the backyard of our little home, certain feathered individuals, unconcerned with quality or self-image, can get theirs painted by a rapturous amateur, for a song.
It does not have a name, and I do not know nearly enough give it one. The birds are privy to it, though. This impulse that leaps my gaze to the window, this force that draws being forth and tangles my fibers with the pulsating beauty of this world, destabilizing strictly human concerns, re-centering perception.
“Hope is the thing with feathers," said Dickinson, and perched it in the soul where it “sings the tune without the words–and never stops at all.” If I had to wager a guess I’d say she was privy to it, too.