Cold slowly numbs my forehead as I lean against the glass of the window. I don’t know what they’re looking for, scratching and preening at the bark, pecking at the wood. I seem to have been here a long time, looking and staring, my eyes following the darting shapes in the nearby tree. Their lithe and black little bodies falling down the slope of the tree and jump-hopping back up again, their wings flitting out and in to keep balance. Stretching long feathered necks to search with bright yellow beaks for what I do not know. As they move the soft sun cascades coldly over their lean feathers, seeming to disappear in the black, making it greener, deeper, darker. At the end of each individual feather is a small bright spot, jumping from the oily black, its whiteness anchoring the bird’s body to the air.
Their numbers seems to shift and escalate, shrink and explode from moment to moment, and as they move from patches of sun to swathes of dark I suddenly only see a few, small claws tightly gripping the blue-grey bark of the tree, still scrutinizing branch after branch. I notice I’ve been holding my breath and as I slowly breath out, the window fogs before my eyes, turning opaque, turning the birds’ choreography – movement with intent – into a play of shadows. I must remember to blink. The anthropologist Eduardo Kohn tells tale of having to sleep face up in the far-away jungle of Ecuador, not face down, as that is how the jaguar will get you. Not-seeing your face, the jaguar thinks of you as aicha, literally “meat” in the local Quichua – seeing your face, however, the jaguar interprets you as a person, as a self like himself. I think of this just as the fog clears before my head and I notice the birds are once again becoming more, gathering all across the tree, still pecking at and peaking in.
Fragments of their sounds filter through the glass, the rushing of white-tipped feathers, flicking of wings, and it feels like I can hear moments of scratching, dozens of thin, precise beaks nipping at the tree’s granular hide. Flakes of woody skin drift through the sun-filled air, falling, moving slowly with the shapes of the quick darting birds. The tree now shakes and groans, shudders under its avian investigation, the few dry leaves it still had fall loose and join the swarm of birds as if they were one and the same. As I continue looking from my window, the glass seeming more thin with each passing wing, I notice their small, black eyes, set directly behind their bill. I once read that starlings look for worms in the ground by plunging their beaks into the soft soil and opening them, allowing the birds to look past their bills and into the dark. In a similar way, my birds look upon the tree, first with beak and then with eye, the splitting of wood increasing ever more in volume.
Feathers now seem to cover the whole tree, with only the occasional branch visible, as if growing from a roiling black and oily earth. The birds themselves are barely visible in this moving mass, becoming a fragmented whole consisting of winged beaks, clawed eyes and feathery scales. I never considered how a bird’s outer physique mainly consists of feathers but looking outside I can think of nothing else. Where before their feathers were used to keep them aloft and moving nimbly from twig to branch, this plumage now keeps them grounded as their wings overlap like scales. My mouth is dry and I taste wet earth as I see small beaked heads holding strips of bark, strong feet gripping leafy patches of lichen and my breath seems stuck again, while my vision, no the feathered tree shudders, groans, again, a gyrating motion of bird and tree. A violation of my sense of perspective sucks me through the glass and turns their outside into my outside, until suddenly, with a great woosh and flutter, the whole multitude cascades of the tree and I am back behind the window. The sky darkens. Brightens again, as the birds move away. Over rooftops and behind chimneys. As I peel my cold forehead from the glass, an imprint still visible, a smooth, white trunk rises in front of me. The tree as it was before but without skin, pristine in the last light of the day.