My college roommate hated birds. Or more accurately, she had a bird phobia. Every time the group of us would walk along the sidewalk and a bird would flutter by, she’d scream. Or squeal. Or gasp. We made fun of her relentlessly, singing and pointing, “Kristine, look! There’s a bird over there!” She’d let out a startled cry, throw her arms up in the air and swivel sharply in whatever direction was farthest away from the bird. The rest of us would continue as we always did, laughing uproariously, making terrible jokes, the light bouncing off our faces as if they were prisms.
Was it cruel that we made fun of her? She seemed genuinely afraid. She’d recover quickly, though, we’d decided. But what about the birds? Why was she so terrified of them?
I couldn’t even begin to comprehend her fear until one day, during a week when parts of San Diego were burning, wildfires raging through the chaparrals near my mother’s house, I lay on my parents’ bed in the room with the good TV and watched Hitchcock’s The Birds. The air outside the house was thick and orange, and the birds in the film were simply horrifying. What caused them to attack so relentlessly? What was with all this horrible, gruesome pecking? The birds are watching us, I realized. They’re watching us until we let down our guard. Had Kristine ever seen this film? I wondered. Perhaps I’d mention it to her when I got back to campus.
The fire died down and our house remained standing, unaffected. My opinion of birds had changed, however. For many years I’d continue to look at birds with vague disgust. “I don’t like birds,” I’d proclaim to anyone who would listen. “They’re just so…ugly,” I’d assert. “Those spindly legs, beady eyes…staring…ugh.”
Eventually, I moved to Iowa for graduate school and found myself on new terrain. I had a new roommate—a woman who liked to spin tracks and ride her bike and kept the apartment clock-work clean. A close friend of hers, Seth, also hated birds. He revealed this to me as the three of us walked toward downtown on an Iowa spring day, the air clean and the wind mild—a phenomenon to cherish, because it didn’t come around often, I’d soon learn.
“Ew, birds? I HATE birds,” Seth said, his voice exaggerated. I forget now what initiated our discussion of birds, or whether or not we had had anything to drink that day. I felt intoxicated, though, high from the trials of building an Ikea bed-frame in my tiny new bedroom. The greenery around us was remarkable. No longer the dry, ragged brush of the chaparral; Iowa was lush this time of year, and I was making a new friend.
I loved the energy with which he proclaimed his disdain, spitting out the words like venom. He commented on the stature of birds, their eyes, their feet, their bodies. He told stories of friends’ birds whom he thought despicable. I couldn’t contain myself. I could barely walk; we were laughing so hard. My roommate looked at us curiously.
Several years later, my opinion of birds changed yet again.
It was an average day, a class taught, a sentence of my dissertation written here or there. A lot of time had passed, and a lot of things had changed. Too many to count. I pulled the car into the space beside our house—the house I had lived in now for years with my boyfriend. I had returned from the grocery store, and got out of the car, grabbing this and that from the seats, a million new objects in my possession or just within reach. Immediately, I heard this sound, unimaginably loud, coming from somewhere above me. It was the sound of too many cries melded together, high-pitched and knowing. I looked up at the sky.
I saw the birds, too many to count, perched on the uppermost branches of two commanding trees. Winter was ending, and spring was once again being ushered in. We waited for it with open arms, all of us in Iowa somewhat dead and tired and depressed. The birds were there to welcome the new season, though it was still grey outside, and lightly misting. Their black bodies so solid like little warriors. They knew. The birds, I realized; they are watching us.