When I was a child I knew a wonderful truth: there was only one red-breasted robin in the world, his name was Jack, and we shared a quiet friendship. When I woke up in the morning and looked out the window, Jack peered back from a tree branch outside. When I walked to school with my mother, Jack was there plucking edible treasures from the neighborhood lawns. When my mind wandered away from memorizing multiplication tables, Jack swooped across the classroom window and grabbed my imagination in his delicate, hooked talons. When, after school, I let that imagination lead me through the woods behind my home, Jack followed me through the trees chirping and whistling his soft song.
“There’s more than one robin,” my brother said with the erudite exasperation of an older sibling. He swept his arm across the yard. “There’s a ton of robins right here! There’s—” he counted, “eight!!”
A fool. He saw only the obvious: that there existed in the world other birds that looked like Jack— the one true robin. But it was mere resemblance. They were like paintings that might show an object’s shape, color, and dimensions but fail to capture whatever makes the thing what it is.
So I answered him with the confidence of a middle child whose birthright is a rich inner world. I told him, “No, those aren’t robins,” and let him huff off to the basketball hoop in the driveway.
When summer break began, my family piled into our minivan and left Iowa City to tour the great sights of Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming. Jack awaited me at each rest stop. He hopped along the grass between the highway and a cornfield outside of Lincoln. He soared overhead and perched on a branch right over our picnic table in Bighorn National Forest.
“How do you know it’s Jack?” my mother asked with the patient curiosity of a person who has brought life into the world and nurtured it from a wailing pink blob into a strange, articulate child.
Jack was in the near distance hunting for seeds or insects. I studied him carefully in response to my mother’s question. How did I know it was Jack? There was his rusty red belly, of course, but the imposters had those too. Was there something about his eyes perhaps, those black marbles fixed within a ring of white feathers? But looking at the false robins to Jack’s left and right I saw they had those as well; physically, in fact, they were indistinguishable from the true robin, the one I knew, the creature who appeared whenever I thought to look for him.
Maybe it was something in his movements. The particular swing of his swoop. With a beetle in his beak, Jack made eye contact with me before soaring off to enjoy his dinner. Maybe it was like one of those Magic Eye books everyone passed around at school where the image remained elusive if you focused too hard on finding it.
“I just know when it’s him,” I told my mother with more assurance than I felt.
Truth be told, however, this was when I stopped seeing Jack. It was as if he knew I was trying to discern his magic, trying to make him explicable. As if he knew that, had I been able to put my finger on how I knew it was him, I would have let my mother— and then, who next? The whole world?— into the quiet secret companionship we’d known since before I could remember. So he stopped appearing to me. When I looked for him, I saw only the lookalikes pecking and swooping and perching.
Robins, perhaps, but not mine.
One evening in early adulthood I was walking home in the wee hours pleasantly drunk after an evening with friends. The city was as silent as it ever gets. Honks and wailing sirens in the distance, a couple arguing on the next block, but my immediate world felt still and warm as if I were already wrapped in my blankets. Waiting to cross the street, two feathers fluttered onto my sweater. Several more and a white downy tuft followed seconds later.
Above me, a hawk tore great bites out of a city pigeon flopped against the tree’s trunk. I watched the hawk’s beak disappear into the pigeon’s belly. Watched his head move as he found some tasty bit and wriggled it free of the pigeon’s inert body, the hawk’s beady eyes glistening as he gulped the pigeon’s bits down his pearly throat. More feathers descending like snow.
“Are we neighbors?” I asked the hawk with the curiosity of a drunk 21-year-old. “Do you live here? Or is this weird?” Of course he didn’t answer, him being, firstly, a hawk and, secondly, preoccupied by his supper. He took another mighty bite of fresh pigeon as I stood transfixed beneath the yellow streetlight. Two other women my age walked past me, braying about the unmysterious minds of the men who bought them drinks. They paid no attention to me within my personal snowglobe of pigeon feathers. They paid no attention to the hawk mere feet away from them, this scene of primal nature. I wanted to ask them, “do you know if hawks live here? Or if this is weird?” But more, I wanted the hawk to remain my own.
I didn’t see him again. I looked. On the ledges of buildings, in the open sky, nestled in the neighborhood trees. Months later I again walked beneath the tree where I first saw the hawk. In the emptiness of the city night, a dull sadness gnawed behind my breastbone. A robin landed in the grass beside me, and I was overcome by a crushing, if perceptibly absurd, feeling of abandonment. Birds flew away from my love. They sensed my desire and took it as their cue to flutter away to browner branches, leafier trees.
The next day, my younger sister answered her phone while walking through the desert outside of Tucson.
“Do I know where to find birds?” She said, repeating my words back into the phone.
“Yes,” I confirmed, re-packing my backpack on the terminal side of airport security. “When I get there, could we go find birds? That’s something you do, right?”
I imagined her face lit golden by the Arizona sun as her eyes fluttered shut in annoyance. She knew that I knew perfectly well the depths of her hobby. Had I not bought her the binoculars off her Christmas wish list, after all? Had I not watched her sling them over her neck and slip out the door after the holiday meal was done? Had I not seen her beyond the treeline standing so still I could practically feel the perk of her ears myself?
“Of course we can go find some birds,” she said before wishing me a safe flight.
In the Catalina Mountains with my sister, I learned a wonderful truth: there are birds everywhere, seen and heard, and their mystery is bottomless. A family of them burst through the prickly pear cacti on the trail in front of us, plumes of feathers flopping in front of their eyes and the babies as small as ping-pong balls. I laughed and clutched my heart as my sister told me they were quails.
We ate lunch beneath a saguaro so tall that another saguaro grew out from its side. We listened to chirps and songs that, like a second language, my sister recognized. In the desert we contemplated the distinctions between a whistle and a whine, a buzz and a trill, we considered the meaning of song.
“How do they know what song to sing?” I asked her as we listened to some unseen bird my sister felt certain was a white-crowned sparrow. She handed me a half-melted granola bar.
“I don’t know. They learn them somehow.”
“Does someone know?”
“Probably. People love birds for all sorts of reasons so, yes, there’s definitely some nerd who can tell you how a white-crowned sparrow learns how to sound like a white-crowned sparrow. Not me though.”
“Why do you love them?”
“Birds? I like the puzzle of them. Using their features to figure out who they are. I can listen to them or see a little plumage and it lets me organize the world a bit.”
The morning after I return home, there is a conference of robins outside my apartment window. They were, perhaps, always there. I perch at the window and take note of the things that had become so common as to be invisible: the sounds they make in my yard as the day is beginning, the rusty red of their barrelled belly, the white circle around their marble eyes, the gray-white wings which angle backward to join their perky tail. What a special thing it is to be a watcher, I think. To imperfectly grasp a thing in lightning-quick moments, swooping movements, flashing colors, and chittering chats.
Robins come to my yard, robins in the trees as I walk to work, robins overhead, robins pecking for food in the park. When they fly away, though, back to their nest I will not see, to their cheeping babies I’ll never hear, to sleep and dream about a robin’s world: there they become Jack, the one true robin whose gift to me is the things I’ll never know.