I’m walking my dog in the park. It’s nearly dark already — slept away my weekend again, second verse same as the first — and the streetlamps have just come on. A pair of men pass on the sidewalk, going in the opposite direction, and I smile and nod absently; it sounds like they’re speaking Russian to each other, but I’m not really listening; in my earbuds, The Tragically Hip are singing, Twenty years for nothing, well that’s nothing new; besides, no one’s interested in something you didn’t do. The cold is getting sharper quickly as the last of the light leeches away. I shouldn’t have spent those ten minutes standing at the park’s north end, watching a murder of crows wheeling overhead, squabbling amongst themselves about who would be perching next to whom in the branches of the single bare tree that they’d all decided to cram themselves into. (It was like watching children fight over who sat where at the lunch table, but their wings were outstretched so beautifully against the gray sky and they tumbled so easily through the air, like leaves caught up together in a whirlwind.)
Behind me, one of the men says in English, “Oh, I should tell her. Excuse me, miss!”
I turn around. There’s no one else about that he might be addressing, and sure enough he’s walking back toward me, while his friend hangs back, looking a bit embarrassed.
“Excuse me, miss,” the fellow says. “Would you like to see a bald eagle?”
Beside me, my dog sits down, like he’s too puzzled by the question to remain standing and needs to sit and think on it awhile. I picture him smoking a pipe with a perplexed expression on his face, and make a mental note to Photoshop that later. My brain also conjures up a few helpful suggestions: Decline offer if said bald eagle is in his van. Decline offer if “bald eagle” is nickname for something in his pants. I imagine the side of a van with “free candy” crudely crossed out and “free bald eagles!!!” spraypainted over the top, and I have to admit that were this the case, I would at least have to applaud his originality.
Considering and subsequently discarding several witty rejoinders, I eventually settle for saying, “Um?” I’m fairly certain my mouth is hanging open, and my dog Trudeau and I are probably wearing matching expressions of eyebrow-raising confusion.
The man seems to pick up on this. “I’m telling everyone,” he says reassuringly, which isn’t actually reassuring at all. I still haven’t even the faintest of ideas what in the hell he’s talking about, and I’m not sure what “everyone” he could be talking about, unless he’s been chasing down joggers on the footpaths clear on the other side of the park’s loop road. I wouldn’t be any more surprised by that than I am by the whole conversation.
He points up into a cluster of bare trees that stand inside the aviary fence, and says, “Look up there, in the branches of the bare tree. Can you see it?”
I can’t help but think that this is like that part in a fight scene when somebody says, “Look, it’s bigfoot!” or “Wow, naked ladies!” and distracts their opponent long enough to knock them unconscious. I’m putting my back to the guy’s buddy by peering into the trees, but whatever; if this elaborate ruse is all in aid of a mugging, then I say they’ve earned the contents of my wallet ($7 in cash and a maxed out food stamp card; suck on that, muggers), and besides, I’m pretty certain that Trudeau will avenge me. I mean, unless these guys are prepared with dog cookies in which case Trudeau can probably be bought, the traitorous bastard.
The point being, I turn and look up at the tree — trees, because “the bare tree” isn’t very descriptive when there are like ten of them right there — and I squint and curse my eyes, and I don’t see a single damned thing. (My conservation biology teacher in college used to mournfully lament that people were only interested in the “charismatic megafauna”… animals like lions and elephants and pandas and whatever, the ones you see lots of nature documentaries about. I argued that I was rather restricted to a study of large animals because my eyes are so bad I’d never be taking up birdwatching.)
“You see it?” the guy says again, and he’s so earnest that I tell him yeah, I do, that’s so cool, even though it takes another ten seconds before I actually spot it, because I really don’t want this to turn into a truly awkward moment where he tries somehow even harder to share his birding discovery with me. I do see it now though, a hunch-shouldered shape huddled on the farthest branch, looking down into the aviary like it’s deigned to come and visit its stranger relations.
“That’s awesome,” I say, and Trudeau sighs because he hasn’t the slightest interest in birds (he has a much keener preference for squirrels).
“It’s visiting from the wild,” the guy tells me, proud and earnest, like the eagle is here on his personal invitation, just to give him the opportunity to interact with strangers. “It’s not part of the aviary.”
“Yeah,” I agree, because come on, obviously. Ticket sales would probably go down if their own birds were free to perch high above the aviary and fly away on a whim. “Thanks,” I tell him again, which is actually another way of saying, Yes I see, please go away now because you are making this awkward.
He seems to pick up on the unspoken social signal, and finally rejoins his friend, leaving Trudeau and I to continue on our way, though we don’t go far, just to where the view improves. I’m grateful to the gentleman, strange as the exchange was, for pointing the bird out, and grateful even moreso that he left us alone to enjoy the sight. The eagle is a splendid, large adult, and its perch is just high enough that I’m wishing for binoculars and just low enough that still, even with my poor eyesight, I can see that while I’m standing there looking up, the bird is looking back down. We’re both caught in the pool of light cast by a nearby lamp post, and it makes the white feathers on the bird’s head shine with a particular brilliance.
The eagle doesn’t do anything in particular, just sits and stares, but just its presence makes something stir in my chest, some weak thing fluttering inside my ribcage, the beating of phantom wings against my heart a reminder that even a little piece of the wilderness can make us feel just a little more alive.
After awhile, the eagle turns its head again, apparently bored with its view of us, and the deepening darkness gathers in against its brown body like the evening itself has also chosen to roost on that branch. We continue on — reluctantly, in my case, and quite eagerly in Trudeau’s, as I think he still had hope for a squirrel sighting — and though I keep my eyes peeled for other intrepid park-goers to share the discovery with, none are forthcoming. And while I wouldn’t mind sharing this sight with someone else — I’ve no doubt it would be just as wonderfully random and awkward as it was for me — I’m not quite mad enough to go running after the joggers.