P—W  V° 03:06

Strange Bird

by Julia Shiota

It is summer and I sit on the edge of a dock within walking distance from a small red cabin. In the evening light, I watch the water ripple with the movement of the wind. Finally, I spot what I had come to see. A single loon makes its way across the lake towards me and I remain completely still. Its sleek black body bobs on the water’s surface, so low that I wonder how it manages to stay afloat. It is, in many ways, a ridiculous bird. Its head comically proportioned to the rest of its body. A band of white around its neck—white tie or clerical?—back speckled with bright points that mimic the way light dances on the lake. But its eyes are a deep red with a black dot pupil, the color jarring amid the dark blues and whites and greens of the landscape around us. Briefly, a thought crosses my mind: does it see the world through a blood-tinted haze? Later I discover that the color filters out light, allowing them to easily see beneath the water. Perhaps it sees me, a lone figure on the dock in the waning light and wonders, in return, what brings such a creature to its lake.

Does it see me as a strange bird?

It is still summer and I am still in the small red cabin, this time sitting by a window that overlooks the grassy walk to the dock. There is no loon today. Instead, there is a small brown bird that has decided the windowsill is where it desires to be for the morning. Consulting a bird book tells me it is a common bird that, charmingly, has a woman’s name: phoebe. I spend much of that morning reading, with Phoebe for company on the other side of the glass. Its back is to me the entire time, ashy wings tucked in as it tracks the movement of mosquitos. Periodically it reaches out and catches one in its tiny beak. I put down my book to watch and notice its stance is slightly akimbo, tail jutting out to the left and one leg bent at what looks like an unnatural angle. Worried, I try to look up other images of phoebes on my phone. I have no service. Convinced now that it must be injured—why else would it remain in one spot for so long?—I walk around the cabin, trying to find a patch of service. I find one in the corner of the shoebox bedroom I am sleeping in. My screen fills with other phoebes at different angles, most with that same odd posture, tail a bit crooked and leg awkwardly out to the side. I come back to the window and it is now on the old railing, little bird hips still jutted out to one side. I am relieved to know Phoebe is not injured, that this odd posture is just how they carry themselves through the world. What would it make of my panicked searches on its behalf, my immediate spiral into catastrophe?

Does it see me as a strange bird?

It is now autumn and I am far from the lake and the small red cabin, now back in the suburbs. Here there are no loons and no phoebes but there are other birds—an array of woodpeckers, chickadees, and finches that fill the air with their gossip. I am walking around a loon-less lake, peering into the trees to see if I can catch sight of my favorite bird. Soon I hear a familiar murmur in an old growth oak followed by the flash of black, gray and white. A white-breasted nuthatch peers down with black marble eyes, muttering again as it hop-shuffles above my head. I watch it go up the gnarled trunk and, to my delight, encounter another of its kind. The two greet each other briefly, one rightside-up and the other upside-down, slim black beaks touching for a moment before they continue in opposite directions up-down the oak. I love how it can so easily shift its orientation, in any direction it chooses. What must it be like to maintain one’s center of gravity, always firmly grounded, no matter rightside-up or upside-down? I wonder what it makes  of me walking these trails, always viewing the forest from the same angle, bound by how gravity dictates the position of my body.

Does it see me as a strange bird?

2023 © J.Shiota