You are not enjoying your lunch. Granted, you didn’t really come out here to eat; you sat on the bench at the edge of the park to get a moment of freedom, to breathe in a few gulps of fresh air. ‘Fresh’ being a relative term. It stinks of bus exhaust and carries the clamor of people. Not that you mind crowd sounds – usually you just ignore it. Sometimes you even find the drone of the hive soothing. Peaceful, even. And the smell of city is the smell of everyone and everything you’ve ever known.

But this lackluster sandwich thing has frayed your nerves. It feels like yet another rock in your shoe. You close your eyes for a fraction of an escape, but it’s never that easy to get away. Taking away one sense only amplifies the others.

Resigned, you lean back on your bench, feeling puddles of water – you hope it’s water – seep into your clothes. 

How much further must you walk in these shoes? 

When you open your eyes, you find they’re aimed straight up the graffiti-scarred trunk of a fenced-in tree. And there, between the tired branches against the backdrop of a graying sky – a glint of gold.

Round as a dumpling and cheerful as a soap bubble: a single bird.

Most of the bird is as drab grayscale as the rest of the day, here and there splashed with black and white. But that’s not what caught your eye. The bird wears a gaudy yellow cap on its head and sports yellow bands on its wings. To you, it looks like a common chickadee with a bad dye job.

You’re not sure what it is (besides a bird, of course) so you turn to the internet for an answer. Rare and getting rarer every day, this is a golden-winged warbler. And this is not its home. It has no home. 

Apparently, the golden-winged warbler spends half its life breeding up north. There, it’s deadly cold in the winter, but gives way to rich leafy forests in the summer. It’s the kind of place where sometimes your footsteps can’t echo because of all the life; other times, it’s as desolate as the moon.

The other half of the warbler’s life is spent wintering in the narrowest part of the Americas, where it’s warm and lush every day of the year. You’re pretty sure you were there once. The wintering place. Your memory is blurred from the passage of time, but from what you remember, you always meant to return. Someday.

This bird is only passing through where you are. 

You hear someone hawking a loogie somewhere down the pathway, and you – like everyone else on the benches lining the park – pretend you don’t hear it. 

The bird is fluffed up, even rounder than before and you notice that its shiny black eyes are half-closed. It doesn’t seem to hear the loogie guy either, and it’s indifferent to the stench of car exhaust. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s paying strict attention to its surroundings, consciously deciding what poses a threat, and what’s just another nuisance polluting its midday siesta.

Or maybe none of that. Maybe it’s just a bird. 

You watch the warbler with your head tipped back as far as it will go. From underneath, you can see its bony feet, holding on so lightly. Its grip tightens and loosens on the twig as the bird fights sleep, eyes fluttering. With one last shake of its head, the warbler tucks its golden crown under a golden wing.

What a journey it must’ve taken, flying hundreds of miles from its temporary home, just to land in this tired tree. What an exhausting flight. What a feat of instinct. It deserves that nap and more, you know. 

Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it’s a caged thing that’s darted out an open window, lost just a few feet away from its home. Or maybe a transplant that’s settled somewhere in the middle, giving up on the endless commute from warmth to warmth.

Or maybe a bird is just a bird. Not everything has to have some cosmic reason for being the way it is.

But even so, you wonder why it’s passing through here. Through you. 

You’re not sure how long you sit there, contemplating things big and small. Time has loosened its grip.

What brought you to this place in the middle? Was there some instinctual pull, or did you make a conscious choice? How conscious are you, after all? 

You’re sound asleep, but your tiny fragile feet cling to the branch, refusing to let you fall. Your wings can carry you anywhere, so you choose not to call any place your home.

You wear a streak of gold across your shoulders.

You don’t look, but you hear feet slow as they walk past you, then re-quicken as they pass. Are they wondering why you’re there in the middle of the day, neck twisted backward? Do their eyes dart up the tree? Or do they ignore you, too?

You feel smaller in the universe.

Feeling a sense of – something – an awareness – your golden head darts up.

There’s somewhere you’re supposed to be. You don’t need to know what time it is to know you need to keep moving.

You wipe your beak on the branch between your feet. With a shake of your feathers, you reach behind yourself to scratch under your wing. You smooth your tail with your sharp black beak. You’ll need to get yourself organized for the next leg of your flight. 

How much longer must you fly? 

You unkink your neck, blinking hard against the sparkles that have appeared in your vision. You’ve been cramped backward for too long. 

You launch yourself from your perch and wait for your wings to catch you.

As if it knew all along, the tree waves you goodbye.

Image: National Audubon Society, Bettina Arrigoni

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