Mother thought birding was a waste of time. She'd be busy sewing a sweater while I ran out the house, my dad's binoculars around my neck, the guide in my left hand, and a pen gripped tightly in my right. She'd yell in my wake, "Don't spend all day outside! You'll get sick with a cold." She, of course, didn't get sick staying indoors, a single weak light bulb above her and her work. My dad, who was a doctor and was always well no matter what, even if everyone else felt bad, didn't care what I did. I wandered far out, past the brown tourist cottages, around the thick blackberry bushes, so deep inside the fir trees that I could pretend only I existed. I collected the birds; when I checked them off in the guidebook I owned them. Normally, mother never let me have anything. My cousins took over my room when they came over and I was relegated to the basement and the musty newspapers. And the TV was on to only her shows, never my favorites, her PBS concerts and opera instead of programs about hillbilly millionaires and stranded castaways. Uncle would visit, also, and I would hide in the attic and he would find me there, too. A hummingbird's heart must be very strong to survive how fast it goes. A robin is a beautiful bird, brick red chest and a pretty song, but hunters may even shoot it. And eat it. You see, I crept up on them slowly and was patient about their capture in my lenses. The pen was only uncapped if I was sure. Because black ink is permanent, I only marked what was certain, what didn't just appear to be a particular species but truly was. One can be fooled. Mother sometimes sent someone to look for me. Dad brought his paper with him, the sports page flickering helmets between the leaves. Sometimes he wore a stethoscope; maybe he thought he could hear me through its silver. Mother had her diabetes. She couldn't stop baking raspberry tortes. She just couldn't. Uncle trashed around the trails with a heavy black stick in his red hands, his beard flecked with bits of food. They said Bigfoot sometimes walked in those woods, shambling along, looking for victims. While I concentrated on a whippoorwill standing motionlessly on a mossy log, the others would be trying to pinpoint my location, yelling as if that could be sonar. Over a number of hours, I would follow a bird through the thorny underbrush, tearing at my clothes and making my mother upset, for no reason, because with brother dead there were plenty of clothes. I imagined a net in my eyes that could slip quickly over its beak and those pitiless eyes. They say that the southern migration environments for birds in South and Latin America are disappearing, because of over-farming and ecological destruction. The northeast no longer has the birds it used to. The closer I came to the bird the more likely it would move. At one point, I, the observer, would match the observed with my binoculars, and the perfect beauty of the unpredictable would blossom out. The dad, the uncle, a family member, would try to see me but I would be gone. I had learned to blend in with the giant rock where I skinned my knee, the deep gulley where I splashed in my bathing suit, the giant pine where my brother fell. Birds have hollow bones so they can soar, and human beings bones are dense and strong, but they can crack. One can only climb so far up before you lose your grip. In that instant of capture I ceased to exist and became the bird. The worms inside me gurgled in an attempt to escape. The nest juggled my blue night eggs in the fall wind. In the treetop, down came baby, cradle and all. My vision was so strong I could see the uncle smashing his pole against the tree in frustration; I could see father absentmindedly rubbing his nose and adjusting his glasses, half-asleep; I could see mother sucking down fruit jelly into her warm gullet. I could see flowers on a grave. They're all gone now. Mother died just last year, because she could be seen in God's binoculars and he collected her in his book. I don't know when uncle died. May he rot in hell. I am always escaping, though, somewhere people can't find me. They just can't observe me. I am not skin but feathers. I can fly away.
About the author:
Donald Illich is a writer-editor who lives in Rockville, Maryland. He has been published in the online editions of Pindeldyboz and McSweeney's.