The Emissary of 10,000 Things

Rebecca Young

 

“The named is the mother of ten thousand things.”

TAO TE CHING, 1

 

A Stellar’s Jay visits my birdfeeder several times a day. I often see him perched in the branches of the lodgepole pines around my house, or on my backyard fence line. He’s there most mornings when I wake and look out my bedroom window, the oceanic blue of his feathers drenched in sunlight, his oil-slick eyes seeming to meet mine. I have watched him make the rounds to the other houses in the neighborhood, scattering chickadees and sparrows from other feeders and perching on windowsills. It has become a game of mine to imagine what the Jay sees, to picture in my mind’s eye all that has passed through his birdbrain like a speed-reeling foreign film.

The Jay knows when my partner and I are making love, and when our neighbors are fighting. I imagine he sees the fox that nightly comes to hunt the mice that make their nests under my birdfeeder; the brothers and sisters in their bedrooms making secret sibling pacts; the widower who leaves the TV on so long he no longer registers the sound of it as sound, the house cat who wants to hunt the mice, but doesn’t feel safe outside; the husband home alone, thrilled to make his own dinner because, fuck kale! The bachelor who swipes right swipes right swipes right swipes right in the hope of someone to talk to; the dog who wants to eat the Jay but never will; the couple teaching themselves to swing dance in their living room; the woman writing about birds, gazing at the Jay gazing at her.

Lives flying and roosting, carried in a Stellar’s Jay. The world is outlandish, to think some memory of me is buried in the Jay’s mind. I extend my game farther, play out possible scenarios to begin to account all that he’s seen, to classify myself within the taxonomy of his memory: does he have a mate? Has he migrated? How many territories has he known? How many animals, avian, sapien, or otherwise, has he encountered? What predators keep him weary and wise? By these calculations, this single Stellar’s Jay hitches me to lives and places innumerable. He is an emissary between me and 10,000 other things.

And of my bird-ness? If my Stellar’s Jay holds some human-ness in him, surely I might have some stellar’s Jay-ness in me. Of course, I have fantasized, not about that tired dinner party conversation starter—if you could fly anywhere—but about my bird-ness.

My mind sometimes feels like it is full of feathered things, flighty and spry, but fleeting. I try to count and order my ideas like banded songbirds, to hold one at a time in my cupped palm to admire the familiar songs I’ve composed by my living, but they keep fluttering out. Slowly, their curved bones fill with sky, pearly feathers loft on snatches of song from the wild world, and inevitably my ideas always set out for open air beyond my reach. Sure, I’ll catch glimpses of them blinking like epiphany between the shade of trees, and gaze at their silhouettes cutting up the canopy of blue and think them marvelous, as all ideas seem from a distance, but rarely do they stay still enough for me to run a gentle finger down their backs. Only when I feel the downy under feathers settle like a sigh do I know to listen for song. When they sing to me, their songs sound like chiming water, and ring with the strangeness of 10,000 things.

Beauty and joinery, strangeness and song: I would like to stop there. But there is more bird-ness to tell. There are days when the weight of my convictions frightens me, when I suffer in pursuit of the satisfaction of my obsessions, which can never be satisfied. There is only one way I know how to explain it.

Years ago, I was woken up at dawn by throaty thumps at my bedroom window. Pulling back the curtain, I saw a cardinal ramming himself against the glass over and over. He believed his reflection to be an adversary in his territory, a threat to his continued survival. I waved my arms and banged my hands on the glass, but he didn’t seem to see me. With each assault he circled back to gain speed, then dove at his opponent, wings stretched taut to exaggerate his size, talons flared out to rip at his phantom rival. My face pressed close to the glass, he more resembled a dragon than a songbird. After several offensives, he alighted briefly on the low, furred branch of Blue Spruce, which crowded into the corner of the house. Without the ferocity of flight, he looked birdlike and fragile again; his carrot-orange beak slit open with exertion, and his wings sagged and lifted like a bellows as he panted. I thought that might be the end of it, until he lifted into the air again as if pulled up on invisible wire. I ran for the door. In the few moments it had taken me to round the house and arrive at the back-bedroom window, he lay spread eagle on his back in the grass. When I gathered him in both hands his head dangled unnaturally, eyes open and unseeing.

Watching him hurl himself against the glass like an idea gone mad, I thought this is what obsession looks like. I have seen birds attack windows many times since then, and each time I am disturbed at the familiarity of their conviction, the depth of violence they can summon to protect their way of life. It is hard to watch their ancient dinosaur’s eyes believe the slight of a glossy screen, and see an enemy in their own image. But I can’t say that I haven’t been tricked, that I wouldn’t kill to protect my way of life. If my Jay is an emissary, then my Cardinal is a harbinger, showing me with each strike against the glass that desire becomes the one thing that names the other 10,000.

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Rebecca Young’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Alpinist Magazine, Animal Literary Magazine, Maine Review, and others, and her work has been generously supported by the Jentel Foundation Artist Residency. She earned her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2019. She lives in the tiny mountain town of Leadville, Colorado, where she enjoys hiking, skiing, rock climbing, and mountaineering. To learn more about Rebecca’s work, please visit rebeccayoungwriter.com.