Say, Bird: A Consideration of Interspecies Romance

This story has been told before. It’s largely an urban romance, for a number of reasons. In one telling gold coins are involved and this implies structures: government treasuries, the minting and acknowledgement of money as the measure of exchange. It also involves a city girl and a country guy in the usual way. (Or if not a country guy, someone from out of town, a slick dresser, a quick changer, maybe.)

In one version of the told story a beautiful girl sits temptingly but unmindful, in a large chair by a window. Here comes sharp-eyed Zeus, who looks down from above and finds himself quickly in love. A subtle and resourceful deity, he disguises himself as a tumble of gold coins, which cascade to the lovely girl’s lap, everywhere. She, in delight, surprise and confusion, gathers them in her slender young fingers, at once enriched, and diminished. Zeus has both given and taken, and there the story ends.

In another version of the told story a beautiful girl sits temptingly but unmindful in a large chair by a window. Sharp-eyed Zeus looks down from above and finds himself again in love. Now he transforms himself into a good-sized swan, all feathers and wings and beak, and he falls from the sky into the lap of the young girl, who finds herself pressed against the back of the solid chair by the window, overwhelmed and struggling for breath, her head and lungs heavy with the scent of warm and silky, weighted, damp feathers.

Both attractive young women are changed beyond recovery. Both had been seated, clear-browed and as complete as they’d been born and raised to be. Not to suggest that their heads had been empty of ideas and desires. It’s just that their wishes, however grand or extravagant, had been earthly. Longing, it’s recognized, is an awareness of absence, and for each, to this point, nothing had been missing; they would have been unable to name what it was they wanted. Then, each experienced a startling and inexplicable event, an odd and singular visit, and thereafter most things that filled their heads could not be uttered.

Imagine how infrequently a god descends. What would the vernacular form of the telling be? What patterns of speech would apply? How, in their respective neighbourhoods, would they speak of such things? Hard to begin, at lunch with friends: “Listen,” one of the young women would say. “Yesterday afternoon I was sitting by the window, at home, thinking about not much, when out of the blue my lap is covered by this pile of money. Coins, warm and heavy, and I couldn’t have budged if I’d wanted to, which, for some reason, and as shocked as I was by the whole thing, I didn’t want to, just then.” And her friends would turn to her, their forks midway from plate to mouth. Or the other young woman might ask, in a casual and offhand manner one day as she sat with friends, “So have any of you ever had a big white swan come in through a window and thrash about in your lap, his beak in your ear, and then fly off?”

So these now-altered young women each kept pressed to her breast a secret, unspoken knowledge, and one, when she sat by the window, with the sun a beam of light warming her lap, would think of spooning fresh honey, and the other, when seated by the window, would lift her head and press it to the chair back and show her arced white neck to the empty room, and both would look skyward, often.

So this young woman lives in the city, works there at an interesting job, likes what she does and moves smartly through her days, busy, happy and no more anxious or restless than any other smart, sensitive, informed young woman. She recycles, doesn’t have an air conditioner, doesn’t own a microwave, buys organic where she can and has virtually eliminated meat from her diet. All of this represents decisions she’s made, choices, and with them came an awareness of the natural and the unnatural—that is, the natural and the made world. Knowledge of this distinction, she’s come to recognize, has removed her from the environment, her environment, so that nature, even the much-mediated urban nature she lives in, is now separate from her, and she notes that when she engages with it she does so self-consciously, aware of the very air, the soft wind, the new green or drying copper leaves on the trees in her small garden, forced to pay them mind as though she were stepping from the controlled space of a bathysphere to the alien underwater world of the sea.

Maybe that’s what it means to live in a city, she tells herself. Or maybe I’m growing remote from nature, moving away, somehow distancing myself. And she worries that perhaps she is no longer grounded, she who had always flagged roots as a key to understanding who she was, never moving from the city of her birth because she felt a certain essential tie to her natal geography.

Of late, when she’d picture the area familiar to her or when she would describe it to friends or colleagues, what she’d be seeing and relating was a distant image, the kind of view you’d get from the window of an airplane on takeoff or descent. Not too far or too small but incorporating a certain sense of lift, a bird’s-eye view. That was it. She’d been imagining flight, her own, and she knew how it would be done. Every year of her life, as early as her gestation, she’d spent the summer at her family’s cottage on the sandy shore of a very large grey lake not more than an hour’s drive from the city. A lake as big as a whole world to a child, wild and treacherous or, equally—quiet and welcoming. Its abundance, what it variously fed up on the shore each morning, the range of pebbles and rubbed glass, fish, shells, driftwood and lake debris defined nature for her: unmeasurable, productive, endlessly variable and so large and present that it went unspoken.

A row of tall pines separated her cottage from the lake. Planted as landscaping by her father, they served now as giant map pins holding the land in place. Beyond the trees a sand beach and the water. And to the bittergreen of those pines, drawn to the feeders she hung, came all the birds in succession as the seasons changed. Chickadees, orioles, red-winged blackbirds, mourning doves, wrens, nuthatches and blue jays. She loved them all, their purposeful movements, their feathered busyness, their quick- beating hearts and hot black eyes—obsidian beads polished like buttons on a funeral dress. But of them all she loved the jays. She watched at her bank of windows, took her meals there, read by the daylight, worked at the table, watching, always watching with her own hot eyes. She read from the pocket guide and knew the jays were raiders, egg stealers, guilty even of infanticide. But they were that blue, all that blue. The blue and the plummet, how they came out of the sky or off the eaves of her house, or out of a tree, dropping as if thrown, falling as though they were unable to intervene on their own airborne behalf, and then lighting on a branch or on the ground or at the edge of the terracotta birdbath she’d set under the windows, a flat saucer with its bowl glazed in corn flower blue so that when the jays bathed there or drank, they were dipping into their own coloured selves.

Carrie Walker, They Won’t Say No, 2006, watercolour and pencil on found sketch, 9 x 12 inches.

She looked so long she came to recognize certain of the birds. The biggest jay came to eat most often, jamming one peanut lengthwise up to his craw, carrying off another in his varnished black beak. Or he’d pick the peanut from the ground and lift it to a nearby branch, where he’d secure it under one long-toed foot. With his staccato beak he’d hammer it open, never wasting a single gesture, hitting the shell with ice-pick focus.

She’d make a contract with this bird. He’d be the one. With him she would gain flight.

Mornings he’d call her out of her sleep. Earlier and earlier, taking her out of her bed, reaching into her own nested room, touching her so near to sleep—barely conscious—closer, probably, to the dark silence of the sleep she slept only by this lake than to waking, and like an almost somnambulist she’d rise and, barefoot, walk to the cupboard, to the string bag that held the peanuts, to the screened porch and onto the cold boards of the deck, and carrying the warmth of sleep with her still, so that a barely visible vapour shadowed her movements, she’d throw handfuls of peanuts to the ground. He, three branches up or sometimes as close as the eaves at the corner of the deck, would take that feathered fall, landing before her cast gifts, and she, still more with sleep than awake, would return to her bed.

It came to her that they were already threading a song of nuts, playing verse to each other, each with their own gestures. It would be easy to come to some agreement; they’d speak nutsong and lakewinds until they could speak freely.

How is it in the trees, she wondered, and still bound to the earth she’d wind her way on the ground through the very tight weave of branches, threading and bending to make her progress. The sound inside the space of the trees, and sometimes the absence of sound, seemed to her another world. How different still it would be to fly to the top and beyond. Two or three times in a day she’d work her way through the trees on the perimeter of her cottage lot and, coming back out to sit on the steps of the deck facing the pines, she’d reach up to her hair, finding there bits of dry branches, having let the lower ones comb her hair in hopes they’d have left a scent of resin where they’d touched her.

What would happen, as she planned it, was that at first she’d hold to the underside of the bird. That’s how she would begin. He’d lift off and she’d dangle below him but only as little as she could manage. As she thought about it her lungs and head filled with the dusty grey smell of his intimate fine underfeathers and, filling her lungs, she became more buoyant, more bird. The lift was as good as she’d expected, and when he’d taught her well enough to be on her own, what she’d achieve was that plummet, that cocky, dangerous, virtuoso plummet.

The underfeathers. Watching at the window, even while he bathed, she caught the occasional disarray, the tufts of soft grey that crept down his leg when he separated his feathers for a bath. How lovely he was then. She recognized she loved this bird. She loved him for how he looked and what he could do and didn’t care a fig for what he thought. It was that blue and dapper dress, the plummet, swoop and swagger, those tender underfeathers. So soft and pale. Like a flannelette nightshirt they were, much washed and personal, having taken on the mould and cast of its wearer. Oh, the unguardedness of flannelette.

She’d gather this aerial matter and stuff her pillow with what he moulted or tossed off. She’d lay her head against this grey and tangled down, and nights, coming home, her head light from the heights she’d travelled and her heart quickened from the plummet and swoop she’d mastered, she’d remember with fondness some bird she once knew. ❚

Volume 36, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #143, published September 2017.

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