Why Birds Fly

For Sarah S.

Helen has not always been a bird.  And it would be a mistake to say she is always a bird.  She has always been Helen but not always the same Helen.  Helen is what she is called and what she calls herself, when she calls herself anything.  She does not call herself a bird; calling and being are different things. One might ask, How does she know she is a bird if she does not call herself one?  

To which she would answer, Birds are never confused about being birds.  And to which I have told her, Only humans seem to be confused about what they are.

This latter statement Helen accepts as fact.  She takes no offense when truth is uttered. She is not confused.  She is clear in the specificity of her multiple senses of being.

§

To be Helen is, to me, unthinkable.  Differences whisper from hidden corners at every turn.  It is of utmost importance to her that mourning dove not stand simply as a category but as a specific manifestation of that category.  No universals here. The dove with the longish neck and tiny appetite.  The nesting dove with one eye round and one slightly oval.  The dove with a hooked beak. Her powers of observation staggering, verging on obsessive.  What I am taxed to witness she cannot help but perceive.

Helen is a mourning dove.  She feeds on the ground, vulnerable to prey.  If I had cats, I would keep them inside. Her nest on the garage light is flimsy and unstable. Her durability continues to astonish me.  

Helen insists that I am infatuated with categories.  I can only see one Helen at a time. Right now, it’s Helen the mourning dove.  This is gross reduction, oversimplification, she says. I am so many other things that the category cannot capture.  This, she explains, is why birds fly.

My puzzled look prompts elaboration.  

We fly to stay ahead of such cages, she offers.  And then she pokes me. “Pecks” would be the appropriate word for a bird but no, this is a poke.  

I’m beginning to see what she means about flying, about differences, and about living for cages.  Too easy a metaphor, I chide her. The cage thing way overdone.

Not my fault, she says.  Then goes about her business of cracking seed.

§

Her Master’s degree is in English.  Since words give her no peace, she decided to take the upper hand.  The flight of the mourning dove is in a straight line, like a rocket, with speeds up to 55 miles per hour.  She is nothing if not determined.

Or lacking imagination, she laughs.  What else would I do? She is built for making nests, however flimsy.  Words are dangerous things, she is always reminding me. Words set her to flying.  Words have grounded her, too. Words are the injury and the healing. To heal, she must be injured.  She is attracted to the danger, mesmerized by the possibility of overcoming it. It’s always another injury.  Sometimes she flies very far, and I think she’s finally gone. I am human she says.  There is no way out of this pain. Except of course, to fly.  Temporary, but she can’t help it.  Helen is a bird.

§

Helen is a teacher.  I was hers. She taught me to say Helen is a bird.  I know she says mourning dove and that that is just the beginning, for her, but I cannot follow into that line of thinking without quickly becoming exhausted.  She is wounded by generalizations but has come to accept that some are inevitable; there is no way around all of them. Every time I guided her towards the general I was reopening the wound without knowing it.  She thought that was what was supposed to happen. How else to heal? Generalizations are inevitable; naming is a form of generalization that she came to embrace. The danger eventually too tempting to ignore. What she would lose less important than breaking into that other world where difference didn’t matter the same as similarity.  

What does it take for me to break into her world without losing myself in exhaustion?  

Helen is my teacher.  What do you have to lose? she asks.

My way, I tell her.  I’m afraid it’s all I know.

You have many ways, she says.  Now follow me.

§

My teacher is a bird.  How poetic of me to say so.  The truth of the matter is hardly so romantic.  Birds fly away. I cannot follow. Poor human. Poor me.

I have never confused myself with a bird.  

Not confusion, Helen corrects me.  Multiplicity. Simultaneity. What do you have against that?  

Nothing, I say.  I just can’t see it.  I believe you that you can.  I want to see it, too, I really do, but you have to teach me.  Who else can I turn to for this except you?

These are the moments when she flies away.  

But I keep asking.  

§

Helen is a survivor.  Of what, she has only just begun to know herself.  There is no narrative continuity between being bird and being human, she says.  With difference there are gaps as much as overlaps. Memory is something I’m always flying into.  Once I get there, if I get there, it’s seldom what I expect. It looks one way, then another. I don’t know where I come from or where I go.  I have no reason to think I am not multiple. But to be multiple, to experience it— no words for that. Thinking only takes you so far. I go far.  I know no other way.

Mourning doves are ground feeders, I remind her.  They do not often migrate, one of the most common species in North America.  Common, I repeat, thinking somehow this will comfort her. Specificity is not the same as standing out.  She does not want to stand out. These doves are survivors for withstanding the onslaught of human populations taking over their habitats.  

Who says taken over? Helen asks.  It’s not like we’ve signed a lease for our own lands.  No dove reservations or preserves. Who has allowed whom the space?  

I think this is Helen’s human coming into play.  You’re far too kind, I reply. You think doves just moved over a little to make room for them?  You don’t think there was any violence or aggression on humans’ part to claim bird space for themselves, exclusively?  At this point I am not asking but telling her, back to my old teacher ways. As if she, a bird, would not know. This is my human coming into play.  What can birds possibly know about history? See how hard it is to see multiplicity? She is either bird or human to me. She cannot be both at the same time.

I get angry all of a sudden.  Is she going to lay out that peaceable kingdom crap, that birds don’t know aggression and so there can be no take over if birds don’t fight?  Is she going to idealize birds as wiser, more generous and patient? Or birds as innocent victims? In my heat I burn through all the narratives I can imagine.  All partial or even false. But all with some piece that reflects Helen. I’m angry that I expect Helen, as my teacher, to give me the definitive statement about Birdness even though I know she can’t.  There is no such thing. All she can tell me is the one that nests on top of  the light above the garage door, just below the peaked roof. The nest leaching stray bits of grass, straw, and string.  The one with the pale pink crest on left side of its head.  Generalizations are meaningless to those who fly.  That’s a generalization I can live with, even if it isn’t true.

She doesn’t seem to notice how hot my face has gotten.  Or maybe she has; that’s why she’s flying now. Birds exist; humans exist, she says.  I know she is saying that because she knows I expect her to represent bird-dom. As if she could.  It’s humans who need to generalize about birds, their behavior, their ways of coping with human invasions into their habitats.  Who is victim and who is perpetrator? She makes me wonder. Aren’t we all, bird and human, survivors?

Now she’s the one who’s angry.  You and your generalizations, she says, disgusted.  I’ve crossed a line, one I should know better but I did it any way.  Caught up in the romance of sameness, once again. It’s an old habit.  I don’t know when it started, but it seems like I’ve never been without it.

Girl, she says.  Not as a girl.

I have only known Helen since she was a bird, long after Girl.  

She fluffs herself as if to startle me with her suddenly enlarged self.  Girl is still here. Girl knows bird.

Can we get any more elementary? I think.  But she’s right. There are survivors, and then there are survivors.  What is the difference between victim and survivor? I wonder.

Victims don’t exist, she replies.  And I know exactly what she means, for a change.  There is existence, and then there is existence. As a victim, you don’t exist.

Helen flies away.  As if to say, these are all your inventions.  

§

Helen was once a victim.  I don’t know how she made the passage from victim to survivor any more than I know how she makes the passage from bird to human.  We are capable of things beyond comprehension. Existence does not depend upon understanding. As a victim, Helen did not exist, even to herself.  At times, I’ve begged her, Please, please tell me about that. But what is to tell of not existing? I fed her words— names, concepts, theories. She fed me secrets.  Her words did not add up, only pointed to what was not said. Teach me, teach us what you know. What does a bird know of birdness?

She is back, openly scornful.  Did you flunk PHIL 101? Actually she is not back; this is me imagining her back.  But for a moment there was no difference between us. How I wish.

§

How I wish that I could say I know what it is to be bird, to be human and bird, to be human.  What is it about the saying that matters so much? I can’t know unless I can say it? That’s not entirely true but as a teacher what else do I have but words to feed?  Helen is always flying. This is a beautiful thing to watch until I want to know what it is to be a bird, and to be human.

Helen is a poet.  In poetry, she found bird, she found human, she found found. I still don’t understand how she survived.  She was always a bird. Not always at the same time, and not always the same mourning dove, but being a bird— she never forgot.  I don’t remember being any kind of bird, but if I was, it was robin cocking its head in green grass with worm dangling in late spring.  What she has suffered, unimaginable.  The split permanent. She lives in a way I will never understand.  Teach me, I beg her. Teach me all you know about specificity, about gaps between bird and human, and the flights you make as if there was some continuity between categories.  Teach me about as if.  Its power to hurt and to heal.  When to imagine and when to just be, and when there is a choice and how and what to protect when there is none.  I am a freak of nature, she says, despite the fact that so many freaks exist, that being a freak is the norm, being a survivor is the norm, but no one wants to talk about that because then norm would be freak and then what would be norm?  The mourning dove is known for its distinctive coo-oo-oo-oo and its whistling wings.  The human freak is known for its nonsensical utterances and eerie bodily movements. Poor freak with no words to explain itself, only nonsense and hysteria.  In our bird cells lie memories out of reach of human comprehension. These are not human memories.

Helen flies to remember.  Flying is memory. With every flight she relives what she has known before.  Flying hurts and heals her. Depending upon the flight, she may hurt more or heal more.  When she is not flying she is still. She does everything she can to stay on the ground. She is a ground feeder.  But the least threat scares her into flight. She does not choose when to fly. She is pursued by cat-like memories that she has learned very well to avoid.  

I am no longer Helen’s teacher.  I am always her teacher, but not all the time.  In the gaps between human and bird, teaching does not exist.  I want her to be human. I love her as bird.  Come back, come back, I silently call to her.  Please teach me bird but be human so you can teach me.  

What makes you human is you know what a freak you are.  You know once you are freak there is no going back. I have clung to normal for so long I feel like a freak.  

Exactly, she says.  I didn’t know she was back until she spoke.  I’m glad you’re back. I wish you could save me from myself.  I have these freakish wishes. I want so much to be saved.

She wants so much to save.  She wants to save the freaks.  She tells me how they are happy to let her do the saving so they can get on with being freaks.  She can be the victim and not exist. Their existence depends upon her victim. That is an equation they have learned that keeps memory at bay.  She saves them from memory, from pain and healing. As if she can do that for them. Freaks. They are more than happy to turn over all that pain, all that struggle, to someone who does not exist.

§

I love Helen.  I love that I have taught her human and generalization and the possibility of theorizing birdness.  I love dove with the longish neck and tiny appetite.  The nesting dove with one eye round and one slightly oval.  The dove with a hooked beak.  I love as if and how it has brought me close to Helen.  As if I could be close. Helen is a bird. A mourning dove, to be specific.  Every time I start to tell her about herself, she flies away.

Helen teaches me how to say I am a bird.  I agree with her that no qualifiers are necessary.  Just because I am a bird does not mean I am Helen.  Helen teaches me about specificity, robin cocking its head in green grass with worm dangling in late spring.  I will never be able to enter Helen’s way of seeing through differences.  I depend upon her to see them. I’m not sure she depends on me for anything like that.  Mourning doves are abundant and can live almost anywhere except in deep forest. I do not live in deep forest.  Wherever I live are mourning doves. Humans are no particular threat to their species. They are a game bird that is readily hunted, bountiful as prey.  

What kind of world would it be if mourning doves were not hunted by humans?  I ask her.

More food for hawks, she responds quickly. More hawks, more birds, just more.  

Less humans?  I wonder out loud.  Who hunts mourning doves?  

No answer.  Wings whistle as she flies away.

I do. But is that me or her answering?  

§

Helen reminds me of when I was Girl.  I’m not sure this is my memory or simply Helen, but when I am with Helen, I remember a time when I am a bird was not about being the same as a bird but about being.  I don’t remember being a bird, only thinking that bird and I could share something and somehow be different even in the sameness.  To be Girl, to try to go back requires more effort that I can manage as I approach being Old Woman, not that close but close enough to start to imagine the ways I will look, feel, and sense.  Girl is mostly lost to me. Terrors of Girl are lost as well as differences. Helen is still startled by the Girl she has not forgotten. She flies to be Girl. Flying is memory. She remembers sharp pieces that pierce and burn.  I remember blunt edges and silence. Nothing much calls me back. She cannot help be called back. This is why she flies. When she is called back, and she flies, she can remember, she can feel the sharp edges, but because she is flying, she can also be more that Girl, more than human.  Flying sends her through pain without being pain, sends her into Girl without being Girl. She is more than pain. She is more than Girl. It is not that she is not either of these things.

I am the one who taught her about narrative gaps, the lack of continuity between one category and another.  She is the one who taught me how hard words work to fill in those gaps, as if there was no need to fly. To the point where being human means unable to fly.  Without mechanical assistance.  Without words. Where being human means unable to be without words.  

Unless, I tell her, you are a Tibetan monk who flies across Himalayan crevices to go to prayer.  

I like your specificity, she says.  

Or Don Juan in the Yucatan. Freaks of nature— I don’t think this, the words just find me.  Sometimes I wonder if there is a difference. But then I remember Helen and realize there is always a difference.  Words fly, she says, birds fly, but they are not the same, birds and words, and they do not fly the same.

Helen and I are birds but we do not fly the same.  I do not fly. Words fly. I fly through words. I have forgotten what it is to fly without them.  

Helen has not forgotten.  She reminds me how impossible it is for me to remember.  I am not the kind of bird she is. Some things can never be remembered.  I will never fly like Helen, no matter how much she teaches me. She can fly with the assistance of words, as I taught her, but she flies through memory just as well.  

I am a freak, I tell her.  You are the one who is common.  Not ordinary, I am quick to say, as if to remind myself.  Helen needs no such reminder. She is common but never ordinary, even to herself.  Her difference is not something she can ever forget, or that ever forgets her. That is why she flies.  

§

For Helen, there are no limits.  That is and will be her struggle.  There are no limits to where memory will take her, or what she will be.  Whatever she is, it is always specific. There are no limits to her specificity.  It is, like Borges’ Aleph, endless. This is the particular kind of terror that Helen lives.  It is the worst cage imaginable, worse that categories or generalizations, although those can be awful in their own, specific ways.  But because she has learned no limits, she has not forgotten Girl, she still remembers how to fly without words. Helen is a bird, a mourning dove, to be specific.  She has survived, and even thrived, through human encroachment into her natural habitat. She is so common as to be almost unremarkable. But she knows she is anything but unremarkable.  Having no limits is far from that.

The effort of shaping words, of feeling their limits, is almost too much for her sometimes.  When I was Helen’s teacher, I did not always know when the shaping was too much or not enough.  I did not always notice when she would fly away until she told me upon her return. For a while I thought I had a similar problem with limits— generalizations overtake me and I succumb willingly, easily— but the truth of the matter was that my limits could not comprehend anyone else’s lack.  My limits were that I could not comprehend limitlessness. My words were her words. My thoughts were her thoughts. My words launched an assault on her natural habitat of wordlessness.

I have limits, she tells me now.  They are not the same as yours, but they are limits.  When memories come, and I fly, I call it flying.  When I call it a name, it becomes something besides what it is.  I am still taken by memories, and I still fly without knowing that’s what I’m doing but I also can shape that memory and that flying.  Words come and go. I come and go. I can tell you about the lack of narrative continuity in what it means to be a bird. You don’t have to fly like me.  You can’t and won’t. I would not wish that on anyone. I would not give it up, even if I could. It’s all I have. It’s everything.

I tell her how devastated I am that I will never be without limits.  How I long to be the same as what surrounds me, to be what I love. Nothing between us.  Why I want to be her. Without limits. I want to love her until all limits disappear and there is no difference between us. Mourning Doves make sharp, quick ascents, descents, and dodges, their pointed tails stretching behind them.  

Follow me, she says.  Even though we both know I cannot fly.

Note: “Why Birds Fly” was previously published in print in The Denver Quarterly.

Mary Ann Cain (Doctor of Arts, UAlbany, 1990) is Professor of English at Purdue University Fort Wayne where she teaches fiction, creative nonfiction, rhetoric, and women’s studies. She has published four books, including her latest publication, South Side Venus: The Legacy of Margaret Burroughs (Northwestern University Press, 2018), a novel, Down from Moonshine (Thirteenth Moon Press, 2009), Composing Public Space (with Lil Brannon and Michelle Comstock, Heinemann 2010), and Revisioning Writers’ Talk: Gender and Culture in Acts of Composing (SUNY Press, 1995). In addition, she has published dozens of articles, book chapters, short stories, poems, and essays in journals such as College English, College Composition and Communication, and literary magazines such as The Sun, The North American Review, and Bitter Oleander.

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