Red Bird, Red Bird

When she asked me what brought me to this little point of nowhere, I told her that it would be difficult to explain.

“I got time,” she said, so I asked the bartender for another beer and told her the story of the red bird that changed my life.

I saw it almost two years ago, I said—this red bird, perched on a branch outside my window. It was a Friday, and I had just returned from an average day at the office, clocking out at five. I was preparing baked salmon with some risotto, because my sister and her husband were driving down from San Francisco to visit. While washing my hands at the kitchen sink, I looked up out the window, and there it was.

I couldn’t tell you what sort of bird it was. It didn’t look like any bird I’d seen before. But what I could tell you was that it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Not the most beautiful bird—the most beautiful anything I had ever seen in my entire life. I had that feeling you get when you see a beautiful sunset or fall in love, all those things people write songs and make movies about, except multiplied by a thousand. My heart raced. I wanted to dance. What did it look like? Honestly, I didn’t exactly know. I stared at it for a long time, but the moment it fluttered off, I couldn’t remember. As if immediately after I saw it, an eraser swiped over all the particularities in my mind, the details blurred out of my memory. It was small. It was beautiful. It was red. It was a bird. All facts, but miles away from the truth.

Big deal, one might say, a pretty bird, a nice story. So what? I might’ve said the same.

I put the salmon in the oven, boiled the rice, chilled the wine. I set the table and waited for my sister to arrive. The whole time, I couldn’t get it out of my head. Even when my sister and her husband were over, and my sister told me how much she loved my salmon, my thoughts were completely on the bird. It was like having a word at the tip of my tongue, or trying to remember the title of a song.

“You seem distracted,” my sister said. I told her it was nothing.

That night, I had trouble sleeping, and by three in the morning, I got out of bed and flipped open my computer to look up all the types of red birds in California. Not one of the pictures or descriptions matched what I’d seen. It’s true that I didn’t know how to describe the bird, but I would know it if I saw it. And I didn’t see it. So I searched for all the red birds in North America—birds with any hint of red at all. Northern cardinal. Scarlet tanager. Vermillion flycatcher. It was none of these. And then I did a search for all red birds everywhere. Literally, the whole world. I clicked and scrolled and typed until well past sunrise. It never turned up, as if the thing didn’t exist.

At nine, I finally went to bed, hoping that when I woke up, I’d forget all about it.

I didn’t. Everything became a reminder of the bird, because everything looked so dull in comparison. And the more I thought about the bird, the duller everything else became. A coworker treated a bunch of us to a top-notch sushi place that week, for her birthday. Everyone raved about it—I swear, our supervisor almost wept at how delicious the unagi was. I enjoyed it all right, but I asked myself, how can I enjoy unagi while knowing that bird was out there somewhere?

I did some more digging, and my web searches came to the same frustrating results, until I came across a single thread on a birdwatchers’ forum. These people were the real deal, avid bird enthusiasts—some, real professionals. And here was this thread about a mysterious red bird that someone had seen in Chattanooga eight years back. Incredible. Never seen anything like it. Could not identify. There were never any images, although there were many apologies for that. If you’d seen it you’d understand, I couldn’t bat an eye to lift my camera. I had to keep looking.

The thread terminated last year, but somebody—Junko67—had linked to a string of other sites. Some weren’t even in English. But the sightings of the mystery bird were everywhere. Some reports were in the States, but others reported from China, Colombia, Egypt. A red bird, so beautiful that I cannot describe it. The bird and the effect it had on people were real. It was out there and on the move. I was relieved. It’s always a relief to be affirmed that you haven’t lost your mind.

After another week of this, I made a decision. I quit my job and decided to sell everything I had, except for a few things that I would need to take with me. I’d go wherever it took for me to see the bird again. I didn’t need all my possessions weighing me down, and besides, all of it had lost its luster. Like the unagi, I didn’t think any of it really mattered anymore.

I had a fairly successful career as a software developer in Silicon Valley. I didn’t have a hand in any of those popular apps that everyone used nowadays, but I created my fair share of four-star smartphone games. I wasn’t incredibly wealthy or anything, but after ten years in the industry, I had what most would call a pretty comfortable life. I owned my house, drove a hybrid car, had season tickets to see the San Jose Sharks—no complaints. I never married either. I wasn’t against it in any way, and it wasn’t like I never got over some college sweetheart or anything. Marriage just didn’t happen to some people, and I happened to be one of them. In any case, the single life made for a good amount of savings, too. With a careful budget, I could go anywhere I wanted for a long time.

I sold my house, my car, and everything with decent value. I donated most of my clothes. Gave my odds and ends to family and friends. The last thing to go was my cat-shaped alarm clock, which my sister had gotten for me on a vacation somewhere. When everything was gone, I bought the first of many plane tickets.

I flew to Hokkaido. According to my searches, the bird had most recently been seen there. An old fisherman had reportedly spotted an amazing red bird on a telephone pole. When it fluttered off the pole, he apparently dropped his catch for the day and went running after it, until he found himself at the end of a field and reached a river that he couldn’t cross.

When I found him, he happily told me the story. He made me tea, and his grandson translated. They taught me how to say red bird in Japanese—I’ve learned to say the phrase in a hundred languages by now—so that I could follow the trail it left along Japan. I asked the old guy to come with me, but he said he couldn’t leave his family, and that the one sighting may have been enough for his lifetime.

Another enthusiast from the bird forums met me in Hokkaido, and the two of us travelled down the country to follow the leads we could find. We met with a local ice-cream saleslady in Osaka who had spotted the bird five years before. She hadn’t seen it since, but said that not a day went by without thinking about it. We took notes. We talked to locals. We were online for hours every night. Red bird red bird red bird—our search engines knew the drill after a while. When a report sprung up of the bird in Thailand, my friend—he was Japanese—said he wouldn’t go that far, wasn’t willing to leave the country. So I moved on alone.

Different places, same story. I met a few who had tried chasing after the bird like I did. A woman from India had gone on a two-week search across South Asia. A man from Uzbekistan spent an entire year until he ran out of money in Addis Ababa—sometime in between, his wife left him. They’d all given up, lost the scent.

Over two years, I went from the United States to every corner of the world. New Zealand, Russia, Kenya, Finland, Chile, you name it.

I always wrote to my sister, and I’d give her calls sometimes. She begged me to come back. Our parents were worried. I told her I was fine. I’d send them gifts once in a while, local knick-knacks from places I visited. She’d send me pictures, and, if I stayed somewhere long enough, letters.

The world is full of wonders. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to stay put in one place, to veer off course, to give up and settle down. In Hong Kong, I stayed for a month and even met a nice girl there. I played hockey on a frozen pond with some Swedish teenagers, and that was the most fun I’d ever had in my adult life. I fell in love over and over—with the food in Brazil, the architecture in Turkey, the people in the Uganda. That dull feeling I’d had at home didn’t set in when I was chasing the bird. As long as I was on the move, everything was fleeting and temporary, and somehow luminous because of it. But whenever I stopped, whenever I thought that any of these things might leave me better off than seeing the bird again, the beauty all but faded. I somehow only loved those things in the bird’s wake.

And it’s funny, because after two years, I ended up here, right back in California. There was a reported sighting, right off the Pacific Coast Highway, just south of Oregon. The bird’s been coming to the same tree at the same time everyday for the past week. Right before sunset. I was eating breakfast in Cairo when I read the news. I was on a plane by the evening. And now here I am.

“And you’re sure it wasn’t a cardinal?” she said, when I’d finished telling my story.

She was pretty, I might have used the word beautiful if we’d met before I’d seen the bird. She must have been in her late twenties. Was the kind of young woman who didn’t wash her hair often but made it look stylish. It was dark brown and knotted at the top of her head. A tattoo of a vine swirled behind her ear. The way she spoke, she reminded me of a girl I once dated.

“I’m sure,” I said. “It was something else. Something special.”

We were the only ones in this little dive bar, leaned up against our motel, at a point between towns. We were a couple miles from where the bird had last been sighted. I was trying to relax and pass the time until the bird would show.

“But if you can’t even remember what it looked like,” she said. “Then do you ever think it could have been a bad dream? Or a hallucination? Maybe you were drunk or high or something?”

I had thought all of these things before, of course. Two years of chasing an elusive one- of-a-kind creature doesn’t come without its fits of doubts. In fact, one could say that doubt had been my only constant companion throughout my travels. I’ve had family and friends and even strangers offer me every kind of perfectly logical explanation, telling me to go home. A trick of the light, they’d say, or an exceptional finch. Sometimes I even wanted to believe them, so that I could go home and have a normal life again. But I knew that I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself for giving up—for not chasing down even the faintest possibility of encountering the bird again.

I had a swig of my drink. I’d been all over the world, but nothing compared to a well- brewed IPA on the California coast. It was the perfect drink for this life-changing afternoon. She drank a gin and tonic, which she sipped through a dainty red straw. I recalled that fateful afternoon for a thousandth time, and I knew I hadn’t had a drop of alcohol that day. I saw what I saw. I told her so.

“Here’s a thought,” she said. “What if the bird has been hiding behind you this entire time?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“What if this whole time that we’ve been talking, your red bird has been perched on a tree branch behind us, right outside that window? Or what if it’s been silently fluttering behind your back? Or having a stiff drink at the table over at the corner?”

“That’s a silly thought.”

“And what if I was looking at it right now,” she said, looking right past me, “and I wouldn’t even tell you so until it flew away?”

“That’d just be cruel,” I said. I had to stop myself from spinning around on my barstool. I’d turn so fast, I’d drop my beer and shatter the glass all over the floor if that was what it would take to see it. I didn’t.

“Surely,” I said, “somebody would have told me by now if there’d been a bird right behind me this entire time. Over two years, someone would have said something.”

“What if everyone is in on this mean joke? What if the bird is holding up a sign that says Shh! Don’t tell him I’m here?”

For a moment, I was afraid that what she was saying was true. That the red bird—the most beautiful thing the universe had ever seen—was sitting right behind me, laughing, holding up a sign. A terrible thought.

“No,” I said. “No, that wouldn’t be possible. Because this bird—if you saw it, if you actually saw it with your own two eyes—there’s just no way you’d be able to keep it in. No way you wouldn’t be moved to tears or keep from shouting out look at that beautiful bird! Even if it did have a sign. I couldn’t believe that anyone could see the same bird I saw and keep quiet about it. And if you say you could, then you and I are not talking about the same bird.”

She studied me for a few good seconds, like she was deciding what to do next, whether to tell me that she was joking or to admit that there was in fact a red bird having a drink behind me.

“That must’ve been a damn fine bird that you saw two years ago,” she said. I raised my drink to hers, and our glasses clinked.

When it was time to go, she asked if she could come with me, to “see what all the fuss was about.”

I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

“Because everyone should see this bird,” I said. “But only if you’re ready to have your life turned completely upside down.”

She shrugged and said that she wasn’t very happy with her life right now anyway. She downed her drink, and before we walked to my car, she made sure to show me a canister of pepper spray she had and told me not to try anything funny.

“You do sound pretty crazy, I hope you know,” she said.

I only laughed. I’d lost count of all the times people have told me that.

The trail wasn’t far, though it took a while to find. We had to walk through some brush to get to the grove that was specified on the website. I was impressed that anyone had come across the bird here at all. We weren’t the first to arrive. An older woman in an orange fleece and hiking boots had her camera ready on its tripod, pointing up to one of the trees. I recognized her from her photo online—she was the one who had posted the tip. A couple of middle-aged men were also waiting, one rubbing his hands in anticipation, and the other pacing around, like those soon- to-be fathers on TV.

I wanted to speak to the woman in the fleece jacket, to ask her how she’d known to come here and what she had seen. But I couldn’t bring myself to say a word. There was a serious air about the woods, and none of us could think to break it. We waited there, all of us in our own way, but all of us quiet.

Some minutes passed, and when the time came, the air changed around us. It became warm, and it moved, like a breeze, except that it went in no direction in particular, like the air was being stirred instead of blown. Then I became aware of a gentle humming, and I had the thought that what I had mistaken for silence was actually a very quiet voice this entire time.

No one moved. Out of somewhere in the woods, I heard a fluttering, and there it was, the red bird, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

Even now, my memory of it is fading, and I can only do my best to describe it, even though every word falls short. We all stared at the red bird, perched innocently on that tree. Maybe its feathers were red like flames, kicking and wild, like a campfire on a cold night. Maybe its wings were red like blood, deep and pulsing, alive. Either could have been true, or neither, or both. What was certainly true was that it was not only the most beautiful thing I’d ever set my eyes on, but that it was even more beautiful than the first time. Even after seeing all that I’d seen in my trek around the world, not a thing compared to it.

This I do remember clearly: around the bird, everything shone golden, like the bird itself was emitting a light fresher and livelier and gentler than the sun itself. The tree bark around us glistened like it was dotted with jewels, and all the leaves sparkled, like they were made of precious foil. It felt as if the bird was saying look, look and see. And after a minute or an eternity, it sang a song that I can only remember as being the sweetest music in the history of all creation.

And when it finished, it flew away.

The air around us cooled, and the gold light vanished. No one said a word. The woman with the camera hadn’t clicked it once. We went back to our cars quietly. Only back at the motel did the young woman and I finally dare to look each other in the eye, and I saw that tears were flowing down her face. Her cheeks were glazed with them and I wondered if mine were too. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but in the end, neither of us could. She touched me on the shoulder instead, and we went to our rooms. I didn’t get a wink of sleep that night.

The next morning, there was a knock at my door. I was at my computer, trying to write up a report of my sighting to tell my fellow searchers—everyone who’d seen this bird at some point or another—that it was actually here. I was hitting snags however with every sentence. The way the light changed around it, the way it sang—every word I wrote missed the mark. The knock came again, and I shut my laptop.

The young woman from before was standing at my door. “Are you going to go see that bird again?” she said.

I told her that I was, and she asked if she could come along. I saw no reason why not.

We went later that day, at the same appointed time. But the red bird didn’t show.

“I guess it was too good to be true,” the older woman in the fleece jacket said. She stared at the branch until her face went from a look of yearning to one of painful disappointment. She kept shaking her head, not only like she realized that the bird was never coming back, but as if she questioned whether she had ever seen it at all.

After she and the two men left, my companion and I stood in silence for a few minutes. We didn’t think the bird would show up late or anything. We just didn’t feel ready to leave. Eventually, she spoke up.

“Well,” she said. “You found your bird. You’re free now. What are you going to do with yourself?”

“Honestly,” I said. “I never gave much thought to what would happen after. Everything in me has been so set on one thing, seeing it again. There hasn’t been room for a second thing.” I kicked at the ground, because I was a little surprised and unsure about the words I felt I was going to say next. “And now that I’ve seen it, all I can think about is the next time. I don’t know how I can live my life without seeing that bird again, without hearing its song. I feel like I was put on this universe to follow that bird, and I can’t be happy unless I do.”

She picked up a rock and tossed it up and down in her hand, before throwing it harmlessly into the grass.

“I saw the same bird,” she said. “And I felt all those amazing things too. I really did. But once was enough for me, I think.”

I wanted to ask her to reconsider, to come with me. Following a bird around the world was lonely work, and I would have been grateful for good company. But I didn’t ask. Because if a person can resist the desire to throw everything away for such a cause, she or he was probably better off.

The sun was nearly down when we got back. Some gulls were squawking overhead and the smell of the ocean came in on the breeze from the coast.

“Thanks for letting me come along,” she said. “Good luck with everything.”

She gave the top of my rental car a pat and then began going towards her room.

“Hey,” I said. “You never told me what brought you up to this spot of nowhere. What are you looking for?”

“Oh, me? Searching for myself.” And then her face cracked into a smile and she laughed, so that I knew that she was joking.

“Some of us aren’t looking,” she said.

She waved before turning away. Her shadow walked alongside her. It stretched out across the parking lot like an arrow or the tip of a compass, as if pointing me towards where I should go next, to where the red bird had gone. I watched as it went on pointing, until it and she were swallowed up by the shadow of the motel itself. And when she stepped into her room, that was the last I saw of her.  

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