You first meet the ornithologist at the arboretum, in the shade of the hummingbird garden, on a warm desert spring day. The hummingbirds whir above your head. They are iridescent bullets; they chase each other, perch briefly on the red feeders only to be chased off again, then replaced. Thin, metallic whistles. The noise seems to rise away from them. The ornithologist sits on the bench beside you. He asks if you’re here for the hybrid and you shake your head, no, you don’t even know what that means. He points at one of the hummingbirds, follows it with his left index finger. There, he says. Broad-billed and Violet-crowned. You nod. It looks like all the others cutting through the air but you don’t admit this, that you can’t tell the hybrid apart.
He offers you the binoculars around his neck. You hold them up to your eyes and turn the wheel. On the feeder, he says. It’s a small greenish blur perched on a larger reddish blur; you can’t seem to bring it into focus. You turn the wheel some more and for a moment, the hummingbird is clear. It dips its bill into the plastic flower on the feeder and then it’s off, a floating tremor in the trees. The ornithologist shakes your hand. His palms are damp. He has a kind of roguish smile and you give him your number.
When you get home, you have a long conversation with your ex’s answering machine. The arboretum was lovely, you say. Trees from deserts all around the world with names like River Bushwillow and Boojum. It’s a shame he couldn’t make it. Even the drive out there — east and then south, then east again — was an event. The Superstition Mountains glow purple in the morning light. Weaver’s Needle, stabbing up into the dawn sky.
You tell him about the dead javelina, how on the way out it looked fresh, not quite dead. Asleep. On the way back its belly was taught with heat and you slowed down, saw black blood crusted on the asphalt.
Three days go by. Your ex doesn’t call, but the ornithologist does.
The ornithologist lends you an old pair of binoculars. He’s very clear on this — they are not a gift, they are to be returned. He’s already so sure of his impermanence. Or, rather, yours.
He does, however, give you a small waterproof notebook to record sightings. It’s yellow and waxy. He encourages specificity. Location, time, quantity. He shows you one of his own notebooks and you’re amazed at the detail: elevation, weather conditions, foliage. Little pencil sketches, each page filled.
When he takes you out in the field you don’t speak in anything above a whisper. He walks ahead of you and motions for you to stop. A sharp wave of his hand. He’ll gesture at a tree, a shrub. A telephone pole. He’ll describe to you with great precision the location of whatever bird he’s impossibly noticed. Tree on the far left, three feet above where the trunk forms a V — your other left — right where the leaves thin out. There. Do you see it?
He flushes a flock of birds — a host of sparrows, he specifies — from the tall grass of a meadow. You try to read the birds in the air. You are an augur, Asbolus, and for a moment the world is what you will it: his presence will be a good thing. You want to make it so.
You are aware of his body the way he’s aware of birds’. Out of the corner of your eye you catch his every movement: the slight hitch in his step; the way he uses his fingers to push the hair from his forehead, which shines with sweat; how he bites his bottom lip when looking through his binoculars. You want to pause and observe him through the glass and more than that, you want him to turn and do the same.
The ornithologist works at the university where you pursue a PhD in the classics. He spends his time in the Life Sciences building; you bury yourself in the basement of the library, translating Euripides. He never takes you up on your offer for lunch at the café on campus. He is too busy, his fingers dusted with chalk.
At a table in the corner, you draft letters in your head to your ex. I have fallen in love with an ornithologist, you imagine writing him. You will mention the particular beauty of the dawn chorus, how Curve-billed Thrashers’ sweet whistle reminds you of the way your grandfather used to call up the dogs. There are places in the desert you’ve never been to before and you catalogue them for your ex so he will admire your sense of adventure. You won’t have to be explicit: he’ll know you miss him by your attention to detail. Painstakingly, you convey it all to him.
The table wobbles. You split an overripe peach with your fingers. A sweet scent, out of season. How miraculous the world. You see it all the way you want to be seen.
He teaches you feather groups, illustrating with your body — here, the primaries, he says, running his fingers from your wrist to the inside of your elbow; the secondaries, your elbow to your inner arm; the leading and trailing edges, here and here — his fingers so light your skin burns. Your body is weightless, hollow; you could float away.
But, still. The ornithologist doesn’t kiss you anywhere but on your mouth, and there only rarely. You’ve fucked three times and each time lacked tenderness. You haven’t slept over at his house and he’s never been to yours.
The second time, you fell asleep in his bed. He woke you with his hand on your shoulder, he had a lot of work to get done, he said. You rose and dressed, your cheeks warm. The freeway was empty. Quarter moon darkness punctuated by yellow streetlights. You found yourself taking the exit for your ex’s new house, turning down his street. You cut your lights. It was only his car there in the driveway and you felt foolish. You sped away.
It’s permissible to record birds you’re unable to identify — this is how you learn. If you can, you narrow it down to Family. Falcon, followed by (sp) for species. Duck (sp), dove (sp). You do this more often than not, even though you still struggle to distinguish a sparrow from a wren. When you’re able to ID successfully, you triumph. Your notebook looks like this:
Hassayampa River Preserve, April 16th:
small brown bird (sp)
bigger brown bird (sp)
The ornithologist doesn’t help you. He believes in learning the hard way. He has given you the tools, he says. You must use them.
A black bird calls from its perch on a Mesquite. Wurp, wurp. A male Phainopepla. His tail flicks with each note; his crest rises and falls, rises and falls. Phainopepla — this is something you can offer the ornithologist. Shining robe, you say. Greek. The male, how he shines: polished onyx in the sun. The ornithologist tells you the birds are known to imitate the call of a Red-tailed Hawk. Females are brown. Both sexes have red eyes but the females’ are redder. You find the female in your binoculars, in another tree. Her eyes pomegranate seeds.
He overwhelms you with facts. Hummingbirds can fly backwards because of their rotating wrist joint. Swifts mate on the wing. Baby falcons are called eyasses. Diving Peregrines can exceed 200 miles per hour. Flocks of raptors are referred to as kettles; flocks of grackles are called cackles. You giggle. A cackle of grackles. And ravens, he tells you, fly in what is called an unkindness. An unkindness of ravens. You imagine them darkening the sky.
When threatened, Turkey Vultures will vomit. This is called defensive vomiting. The smell’s enough to drive away most predators, but if it doesn’t, the vomit is acidic enough to burn through flesh. You tell the ornithologist about the Stymphalian birds — Hercules’ sixth labor — man-eating birds with steel feathers. You’re at a point in your relationship with the ornithologist where you don’t know if you should use the word shit or excrement. Euphemistically, what the Stymphalians pass is poisonous.
You try to ignore the fact that he can only have sex with the lights off. Even if you’re in a tangle on the couch and the light switch is all the way on the other side of the kitchen and even though you’ve already got both of your hands down the front of his pants he will still jump up and leave you stranded on the island of your bright, sunny desire.
He tells you that female birds of prey are larger and more powerful than males. You feel, briefly, greater than yourself: the universe, with its own quiet magic, has given you the upper hand.
Sexual dimorphism, he says. This sterilization by definition. You deflate.
There’s a word for everything in the ornithologist’s world but you know some things are indefinable, untranslatable, unsayable. The Greeks didn’t have a word to express the greatest form of grief so they used a sound, AI, a wail of mourning. You don’t have words to describe the way, each night, that the bottom of your stomach is lined with heavy molasses, how it gurgles like a lava lamp, or how you can’t sleep even though your eyes ache.
You can’t put into words why there’s still a picture of your ex on the fridge, the small painting he made of a Joshua Tree on your nightstand, the two worn out t-shirts you haven’t washed after four months, shirts that if you inhale deeply enough, in just the right places — armpits, collar — still smell like him.
You don’t have words for when the ornithologist doesn’t look at you. Those moments you’re out in the desert and you know the wind is whipping your hair around prettily, and maybe the light is just right and you think, now. Look now. And you’re so sure if he looks right at that moment, maybe he’ll fall in love with you, too.
You get a drink with your ex. You scheduled the meeting casually when he finally returned your calls; does next week work, you asked. The fact that he didn’t have plans on a Friday night has given you hope. You, in turn, give him the book you say you bought for him before you’d broken up, even though this isn’t true, you bought it two weeks ago. You are a terrible liar. He can see it on your face. You tell him you’re good. At least you know you look good: all of that hiking and wandering has slimmed your waist. Your skin is tan, your hair lighter. You tell yourself you are good.
He doesn’t have much to say. He stares over your shoulder, he rests his chin on his palm, he flips his pack of cigarettes over and over. You sip politely on one margarita, then another.
When he goes to pay the tab, you think of the soft flesh of his stomach, the only part of him that gives in. You want to tell him you are powerful. You have taken up meditation, more vegetables. You want to remind him how good the sex was.
He prepares to leave. He either forgets or neglects to pick up the book from the table. It’s a collection of poems too archaic now to matter. The cover is garish. Never, in a million years, would the book have changed his mind and it’s too late now for you to take back the gesture. He doesn’t offer to walk you to your car. He doesn’t move to hug you, to brush his thumb across your cheek.
You follow, instead, to his car; you are an inch from pulling out your hair, wailing like Hecuba. You are a dog, eyes of red fire. You wear a shining robe, you cry out in a voice that does not belong to you.
He doesn’t stop, doesn’t even hesitate unlocking his car or stepping in. You say his name. You say please. AI, AI, he starts the car, he pulls away.
It takes awhile to become accustomed to using the binoculars. The birds move so fast, you say. Birdwatching, to the beginner, is frustrating.
You learn that the first bird you see of a species is referred to as a life bird, as in, there’s a Yellow Warbler, that’s a life bird for me. You also learn that if you want to sound like you know what the fuck you’re talking about, you’ll say lifer. There’s a Summer Tanager, that’s a lifer for me. This all feels like initiation. A secret club. You learn to steady the binoculars with your elbows against your body. To hold your breath.
You have a habit of collecting. Latin phrases about dogs, thank you cards, pennies minted in your birth year. You hold onto used birthday candles crusted with frosting and losing lottery tickets, as if you can learn from your mistakes. It’s only natural that you begin collecting birds.
The tiny Inca Dove with edged feathers — a bird who, from the distance, looks like it’s wrapped in a map, feathertips like contour lines — its song described as a repeated no hope. No hope. Abert’s Towhee, endemic to a small portion of the Sonoran desert, your home. A plump brown bird with a black mask. Long-tailed and plain, unassuming. Then, the Canyon Wren, with its call of cascade notes. When you hear one sing, you think of water over rocks. It has a brown body, a rufous tinge. A delicate, white throat. All of your favorites are drab. You learn something about yourself in this fact.
The ornithologist takes you up north, to the Mogollon Rim. You’ve been sledding up here before. But it’s spring; he’s counting Painted Redstarts. You wander away from him in the forest, drawn by eerie birdsong. It comes from every direction, birds calling to each other. You think of wind chimes made of bone and shell, of Orpheus in the Underworld. The sound echoes in on itself. You press your hand against your collarbone; you close your eyes.
Later, at home, you find the Hermit Thrush in your new field guide. Its song is described as haunting — oh, holy holy ah, purity purity eeh, sweetly sweetly — you are haunted.
You don’t know what it’s like to be him, you only know what it’s like to be in love with him. You tell him about the time a sparrow collided with your bedroom window, the noise a crack so loud you spilled coffee on the carpet. Through the window you watched the sparrow open and close its mouth. How strange, its tongue. You don’t tell the ornithologist how you sat for several minutes while it struggled. How you didn’t have the courage to go outside, scoop it up. Snap its neck. From this experience you take away the knowledge of your own cowardice. You’re ashamed to admit the feather you plucked from its limp body. A souvenir, a small token of return.
You don’t tell him, either, about the meeting with your advisor. You’re on academic probation, you’ve missed too many seminars, you’re falling behind. The truth is, the world is what’s falling, quickly, away from your feet. Everything’s at a great distance, or veiled; it’s as if you are ten miles from your life and you can just barely see it shimmering in the distance, through heat waves in the air.
You tell the ornithologist only that the bird died, that you buried it. No, you don’t know what kind of sparrow it was, that poor bird. It was brown and streaky, you say, and he’s disappointed with your memory.
The neighborhood cats dug up the grave, anyway. But you still have that feather.
Certain birds mate for life. Others entertain multiple partners. This is called extra-pair-copulation. You make an adultery joke. He doesn’t laugh along. He tells you both sexes of Red-faced Warblers — a rare bird found at high elevations in Arizona forests — solicit mates. Meaning the females are promiscuous, you ask, slyly, cocking your hip. If that’s how you want to interpret it, he says, humorless. You blush.
The ornithologist is turned from you, the light’s low and his nose casts a shadow across his cheek. His arm is within your reach but he’s a hundred thousand miles away. You know the slope of his shoulders, the cowlick on the back of his head better than you know his face. Which part of your body does he think of when he hears your name?
You imagine a woman’s head on a sparrow’s body. Look at me, you want to say. You are a Siren, you are a piney warbler — look at me — you want to flash your feathers, you want to sing him in from the sea.
You begin to resent most avian metaphors. Dickinson is a nuisance. Homer, you decide, is okay.
Dickinson attached abstractions to birds. Hope, as you understand it, is a flightless thing. It can’t lift itself from the pit of your stomach.
What you love about Homeric similes is the thin line between reality and metaphor — a god can be like a bird, or can be a bird. That hazy quality of comparison. Without any godly intervention, mortals can only ever be like birds — they are concretely human, they can’t change their own form, they are bound to the earth.
You wonder about the birds Homer had seen. When you reread the Iliad, you’re struck by the all the birds. Hector charges a Greek ship like an eagle swooping down on prey. You’ve never seen an eagle before, but you have seen a Peregrine burst from its perch in a Sycamore. A sharp clap — you looked over — a flash of gray.
It’s easy for you to imagine, now, the ferocity of Hector: a falcon falling from the sky, talon and wing.
You see the ornithologist twice a week; it’s as if he has you penciled in Thursdays and Saturdays and the rest of the days on his calendar are marked with big, slanted Xs. He communicates with you solely through email. One Wednesday you wander the Life Sciences building. You know he has a classroom and an office, students who only know him by his last name. All along the walls are built-in terrariums filled with native reptile species. There is an entire hallway of snakes, a lone Gila Monster, Chuckwallas and Horny Toads. In the center of the building is an open room with taxidermied specimens: a Gambel’s Quail, boxes and boxes of butterflies, jars of fish.
You have never been in the building before; you’ve avoided coming here without his invitation. You turn a corner and see a door with his name on a plastic brass plaque. You approach the door. You are quiet. The building is also quiet. You hover your hand just above the handle. What would it be like to push open the door and turn off the lights? Kneel in front of the ornithologist and hold out your hands, palms up — what would it be like to say, here is what I can give you, here is what I want in return?
Somewhere down the hall a door slams, students’ voices carry, someone laughs. You jump back into yourself. You don’t realize until you’ve burst out into the afternoon heat that you’d been holding your breath.
Near the end of the semester, the ornithologist invites you to the Grand Canyon. Two nights of camping. A pair of California Condors has successfully nested on the South Rim; one chick has been confirmed. This is, he tells you, an historic event. What is historic to you is this invitation: an overnight trip, the prospect of falling asleep together two nights in a row.
The California Condor is the largest bird in North America, it was saved from the brink of extinction by a breeding program. Zoologists and ornithologists were able to turn twenty-two birds into over four-hundred. Condors can travel over a hundred miles a day — carrion birds — searching for dead and bloated bodies. Do they have acid vomit, you ask, and the ornithologist thinks you’re being cheeky.
You go to REI and blow hundreds of dollars on gear: a new sleeping bag; a shiny, self-inflating bed roll; one titanium mess kit; a pair of plastic collapsible wine glasses and two flashlights — one mini, one as long as your forearm.
The morning of the trip, the ornithologist has you meet him at a coffee shop near campus. He asks that you arrive with a full tank of gas. The sun is newly risen and your heart thrums. You are buoyant, smiling.
When you pull into the parking lot, you see the ornithologist standing with a group of students.
He introduces you to the group as a hobby birder, a volunteer driver for the field trip. The students look you over, briefly, before turning back to the ornithologist. He’s splitting them into two groups — pausing to ask you how many seats you have in your four-door sedan — and before you can register what’s happening, three strangers are loading bags into your trunk.
The ornithologist helps a brunette lift her duffel into his Jeep. You take a step back towards your car. The girl smiles at the ornithologist; her teeth are straight. Pearly. She climbs into the front seat. Two more students load into the backseat. The ornithologist waves you over and you think maybe he was just trying to be professional in front of his students, maybe now he’ll pull you into his arms.
You walk to the middle of the parking lot. He stops short, a foot away from you, and you reach across to touch his arm. He looks down at your hand, steps back. Your hand falls. It’s a four-hour drive, he says. We’ll stop in Flagstaff for gas.
You don’t even have time to nod before he turns back and heads for his car.
On the drive North, you learn the students are mostly PhD candidates, the exception the brunette, who is an undergrad. One of the boys in the back says something about the girl and the others laugh; you don’t catch it exactly but you get the gist. You can’t get their names straight, you can’t get much straight aside from the Jeep in front of you. The 17 winds through all the Arizona ecosystems, starting in low desert, South Phoenix. By the time you reach the soft, grassy mesas north of Black Canyon City, you — hobby birder, volunteer driver — consider running the car off the road, or maybe, nudging the Jeep through the guardrail. And when you hit the first line of pine trees outside Munds Park, you oscillate between wanting to make a scene and wanting to curl up in a ball, but you know, somewhere deep down, that you want to punish him.
When you finally arrive at the campground. The ornithologist asks everyone to leave their gear in the cars; first, there will be a picnic. Then, because this is a university sponsored field trip, a lecture and field excursion. Tents will be pitched later, before dinner.
You barely pick at the food the ornithologist brought. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, potato chips, apple slices. After lunch, the ornithologist talks about sampling and measurement error. He’s brought with him a giant pad of blank paper and an easel, on which he writes math equations you will never understand. The students copy down notes. They nod their heads; they chew on the pink erasers of their pencils.
The field excursion will function as a count: the students are to tally each species they see. They all have little yellow notebooks like the one the ornithologist gave to you.
The ornithologist packs up his easel, sets the students free. He doesn’t look back at you when he follows them down the trail. You are suddenly tired. Exhausted to your bones. You lie on the picnic table bench and fall asleep to the sound of the wind.
You came tentless. This was supposed to be a romantic weekend; you brought a sleeping bag and lace panties. The ornithologist has a one-person tent. Before dinner, in the last light of the day when everyone is setting up camp, you watch from the distance as he unfurls his tent like a flag. You leave your gear in the car, you try to disappear into the trees.
After dinner, everyone heads to bed. Tomorrow will be an early start, an exciting day, says the ornithologist. You finally retrieve your sleeping bag from the car. You approach the ornithologist, who is brushing his teeth just outside his tent. You say, I thought — and he interrupts you; he holds up his hand, he spits toothpaste froth onto the dirt. He says, you can sleep in the girls’ tent.
You do not move.
My email was very clear, the ornithologist says.
You shake your head.
From someone whose career revolves around the meaning of words, he says, I’d expect a better reading comprehension.
In the girls’ tent, the brunette watches you distrustfully. The other girl moves over cheerfully. You unroll your sleeping bag; you forget the self-inflating mat in the car. The ground is hard. You don’t bother brushing your teeth or changing. You pull out your phone, open your email. The light illuminates the tent. The brunette coughs, says, Can you do that somewhere else? and you slide all the way down in your sleeping bag, a little flannel cave. The email — titled Condor Chick — says, Would you be interested in driving to the South Rim for a university field excursion? Camping permit and food will be provided.
You read it over and over and the words start to take on their own shape; they climb from your screen, they point and laugh.
You wake to the sound of a zipper and peek out from the sleeping bag in time to see the brunette disappear. You check your phone; it’s past two. Then, the sound of her voice, soft, and another zipper.
You follow. She is nowhere. You look towards the ornithologist’s tent. You want to be surprised, you want to be outraged but you are just small. You remember the pack of zip ties in the glove box of your car. It would be so easy to lock them in there until the morning so all of the ornithologist’s students could see. The sides of the tent move slightly in the breeze. You sit there and you sit there. The keys are back with your sleeping bag and shoes and phone. You aren’t sure if you are that person, or if you want to be that person. A Great Horned Owl calls out. The sound echoes; you’re not sure from which direction it came.
You move quickly, quietly. You slide in and out of the girls’ tent, fishing your keys from beneath your pillow. You go shoeless to the car. The light in the glove box is burnt out. The zip ties are loose, scattered behind a box of tampons and two years worth of expired insurance cards. You tuck a handful into your back pocket.
The air is still. Out here — near the canyon, closer to the bowels of the earth than the sky — the stars overwhelm. Even without the moon, you can see clearly enough to navigate your way to the tent. You crouch at its closed mouth, thread one tie through the eye of the zipper pull. There’s nothing close enough to tether the zipper to so you make a chain of zip ties, a foot long, and close the last around a tent pole. You tighten them. You take a step back. It looks like the work of a four-year-old, a garland for a Christmas tree. It’ll hold.
The ornithologist coughs and you fall back; you scurry your way to the girls’ tent. You’ve just worked your way down into your sleeping bag when the tent zips back open beside you. The brunette stoops through.
How did she get out? You let her settle before you casually roll over, try to make out the smile on her face. You count to one-hundred and wiggle out of the tent. At the last second you grab the roll of toilet paper as a pretext.
The zip ties are still there. Impossible. A light noise, the lightest noise, comes from behind you. You turn and it’s one of the boys from your car; he’s smoking a cigarette at the picnic table. He watches you, exhales. You wave the toilet paper in the air and slink into the bushes.
Worst and best case scenario: you were wrong. The girl was with someone else. The ornithologist is alone in his one-person tent. You zip tied the ornithologist alone in his tent. And now you don’t have a knife — you have nothing sharp enough the cut through plastic.
You wait maybe five minutes for the boy to return to his tent, then you circle back around. The ornithologist’s breath is steady, deep; it should calm you. It doesn’t. You retreat — you are always retreating. Hopefully the ornithologist will interpret it as a prank. In the morning he’ll try to leave his tent, and lo! He can’t. His playful students. Someone will have a knife and they’ll free him and you’ll all laugh over coffee.
In your makeshift bed, you lie on your back and stare at the roof of the tent. You don’t sleep. As dawn progresses, the thin tent panels change color — dark blue to teal, a pale turquoise. The sun, working its way through the nylon, warms your face.
The ornithologist hollers. Students spill sleepily outside. You follow. Someone points, others cover their mouths to hide grins, laughter. Hello, the ornithologist calls. One of the boys approaches the tent, draws a folding knife from his back pocket. It takes a minute of sawing before he frees the ornithologist. The boy from last night finds your eyes and you blush.
Ha, the ornithologist says, stepping out. He is not smiling; he’s staring at you. No one speaks; people scatter. The other girl, the not-brunette, is already boiling water over the portable stove. The ornithologist shakes his head at you and heads off with his toothbrush and a towel.
The nest will be visible from Yavapai Point. After a hurried breakfast of instant oatmeal, you follow the ornithologist’s car to through the ranger checkpoint, all the way to the overlook parking lot. You pull into the spot next to him and he doesn’t even glance your way. The students are all whispers. They tumble out of the car and shuffle to the rail. You take your time joining them; the Rim’s something to approach slowly. There’s no rushing it. You need time to breathe it in. It’s not even 7 a.m. and there’s a breeze.
The ornithologist has set up his scope — an instrument worth more than your car — facing east, toward Cedar Ridge. He hovers in front of it for a few minutes. He’s wearing a pair of black jeans you have never seen before. How little you know him. He clucks his tongue, adjusts a nob. The students crowd the rail, pass binoculars between them. The ornithologist breaks the almost-silence — yes!, he says — and backs away from the scope. He and the students take turns waiting for the baby condor to pop up its tiny bald head. You take your turn, hover and squint, follow with your eyes the fine lines of colored rock but see no bird. A student clears his throat behind you. You retreat to the back of the line.
The pretty brunette stands off to the side with the boy from your car. Of course. You watch him brush his fingers along the girl’s lower back. Her shirt’s bunched up and her skin’s exposed. The ornithologist has never touched you like that. He never will. It’s easiest to fall in love with someone who doesn’t fall back. Or, maybe, it’s easier to fall in love than to look yourself in the mirror. Maybe it’s not even love, maybe it’s a wordless thing, the need for another’s fingers on your skin in order to feel whole.
You turn from the group, move to the other side of the observation deck. To the north, the Palisades of the Desert. From palus — stake — a fence made of stakes. Great colorful cliffs of sedimentary rock. Gateway to the Painted Desert and the Navajo Nation beyond. You want a fence, a guard; you want someone to love you the way you need to be loved. But you’re not even sure anymore if what you need is reasonable.
You lean on the rail. Somewhere below a Canyon Wren sings. You’re beginning to understand that impulse, the need to name the world. A handful of Juniper Titmice flit in and out of a stand of trees. From the corner of your eye you see something big moving; you turn, slowly, and there, twenty feet from you, perched on a big red boulder — it’s the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen and then it unfolds itself, great black and white wings, a ten-foot span. The condor is still for a second and you take it in: the numbered tags, 27, on each shoulder; the crinkled skin of its neck; wingtips spread out like fingers, an offering.
When it drops from the ledge, the world catches in your throat. It’s impossible something that large can fly. But the bird beats its wings, each flap deep and heavy, its wingtips almost touching beneath it. You let the binoculars fall away from your face. This is something you must see with your own eyes; that’s the only way to make it real. Wind whistles through the condor’s feathers. There’s something otherworldly about the bird, like a creature burst from Hades, but you are at a loss for words. The condor is beyond simile. You’re the only one watching as the condor catches a thermal and soars away from the rim, out into open air. You grip the railing and remind yourself to breathe.