Impetus

As I’m driving, I’m telling her about saving the goldfinch — the one that flew into the front window of the house earlier in the day and fell, stunned, into the junipers below. How I went out to make sure it wasn’t dead, worried one of the cats might find it so close to the ground and fill the garden with its feathers. How I picked it up in my hand, and how it sat there in that post-collision stupor that birds go into: fully-conscious, looking around itself, but unable to break free and fly away. It just sat there in my hand, clinging with its tiny talons to the flesh of my open palm, inert and dazed. I took it around back to the deck, sat down at the table with this little female goldfinch still in my palm, watched its little black-pearl eyes blink, watched the pulse beneath its dully-plumed throat flutter with steady life.

I checked it for broken bones, stroked its head, sat there in the sun for awhile, studying it, enjoying being so close to such a tiny bird. I imagined I could almost hear the quick and subtle flux of its breathing. I could tell part of its mind was occupied by the fear it would naturally feel for me, yet it stood unmoving, locked into its strange inertia, unable to follow through on the impulse that must have felt so tremendous within it, the survival command to flee this captivity and uncertain fate and return to the wind, the branch and seed, rough bark and green shade, and the soaring, exhilarant freedom that awaited in the endless blue beyond that.

I understood. Or believed I did.

But I followed it around after its first tentative escape attempts, plucking it up and letting it try again, not wanting to leave it on the ground where any number of perils awaited it. It fluttered clumsily from my palm and landed upside down on a stem of the tomato plant. Flew down from the deck onto the lawn a few times, unable to achieve enough lift to become truly airborne. And then, caught a little updraft, perched on the lower branches of an oak, trembled with either the rejuvenation finally pulsing through its system, or the thrill of having actually escaped me. It chirped at me, studied me from its low branch with those mysterious bead-eyes. Thanking me or cursing me, I’d no idea. I left it to fate then and when I checked back an hour later, it was gone.

I’m telling her all this as I’m driving and just as I’m finishing my eyes catch against the blur of the passing landscape a quick glimpse of a swooping bird, a tiny finch, in wide, flailing arc of flight directly into the path of our velocity. I feel my heart drop into my stomach with the weight of inevitability and ludicrous irony and there is a sickening thump, an ashen smudge upon the windshield, four tiny feathers stuck fast, and the afterimage in the rear-view mirror of something delicate and broken tumbling into our slipstream and disappearing into the weeds at the side of the road.

All that time spent examining the little bird in closeup, and I look now at the feathers on the windshield — each in turn rapidly losing its oily contact with the glass and being swept away by the speed of our passage — and I know they’re goldfinch feathers. Brown and grey, a yellow-white stripe near the tip. Female.

At the crest of the next hill, there’s a car accident. A rear-end collision, crumpled vehicles, and humans standing around in shock. A police car passes us a little further on, heading back toward the accident, roof lights kaleidoscoping wildly. The rest of our journey is spent in silence.

That same night, returning home in the darkness and fog, wiper blades flicking drizzle from the dirty windshield — something ahead, on the side of the road. Dim lights shimmering vaguely in the moisture. Three vehicles parked. Many shadowy figures standing around, indistinct in the gloom. But more evident as we draw near: someone is sitting on the gravel shoulder, slumped, legs splayed wide and they are holding another person in their arms — that one limp, prone. In the thick fog, they are both but the mere suggestion of humanity, tangled and obscure, an unfinished sculpture in dull clay, from which only the barest outline has so far been carved.

The vehicles don’t appear damaged, though it’s hard to tell in the dark, swirling haze. We have no idea what’s happening, what personal tragedy is unfolding upon the damp shale of the road’s shoulder. One person waves us past and we roll by slowly, continuing upon our way, headlights searching the fog, free hands searching for each other and clasping. We move past it all in silence. Bodies in motion. Bodies at rest. Bodies trapped somewhere between.

A black and white photograph of a female goldfinch partially obscured by the leaves of the tree in which she is perched.


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