the bird

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Summary

An ornithologist encounters a strange animal in the park: a non-native bird, which appears to have a human eye. He attempts to rationalize the sighting... until the bird follows him home.

Genre:
Thriller / Horror
Author:
Tariq Aamir Malik
Status:
Excerpt
Chapters:
13
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
16+

I

At 4 am, I wake up. This is enough time to brush my teeth, eat a little food, drink some coffee, pack my bag -notebook, binoculars, a few snacks- and be out the front door by first light.

Sunrise brings out the early joggers, but before then, during that half hour of twilight before the sun breaches the horizon, there is virtually no one to speak of. The birds are also quite active at this hour. As an ornithologist, this is what I like to refer to as the golden hour: lots of birds, no humans.

This early routine of mine is maintained regularly. My wife, whom I love dearly, she understands this simple religion, and I am grateful for that. She doesn’t understand enough that she wants to join me at this hour, but that’s for the better anyways. The early hours and their sacred quietude are best appreciated on a solo venture.

At 4 am I awake, and I follow through with my normal routine. It is an easy habit at this point, muscle memory. Before I know it, I’m walking out the door, taking that first breath of fresh morning air. The first breath never ceases to awaken the senses and bring an invigorating rush of joy.

Five thirty AM. I have been out in my favorite corner of the park for an hour. It is in a corner of the park hidden by twisting paths. A narrow labyrinthine curve of trees leads you to a small clearing, secluded enough that it is relatively easy to block out the existence of any urban humanity nearby.

Five thirty AM. I go through my mental list of sightings so far:

2 Northern Parula

1 Black-throated green warbler

1 Yellow Warbler (male, very vocal, trying to attract mate? *late in season*)

Baltimore Oriole (heard, not seen)

2 Blue-headed Vireo

2 Chipping Sparrow

4 Scarlet Tanager (1 orange variant, very striking)

I am this far in my list, trying to visualize how many Blackpoll Warblers there might have been at the top of an oak tree a few moments ago, when it suddenly goes quiet. Even the robins stop their incessant singing, and the house sparrows their constant chirping. I rub my eyes for a moment, taking in the soft breeze cutting through the branches, wondering what could have caused such a stillness in the morning air. As I look around, wondering at the abnormality, I notice a bird directly across the clearing from me, sitting on a branch about fifteen feet off the ground. The first thing I notice is that it is roughly the size and color of a Steller’s Jay, which strikes me as odd, given that they are not native here. I slowly approach and lift up my binoculars to get a closer look.

Sometimes you see something, and you have two responses, internally. The rational part of your brain says one thing, and the irrational, another. This is one of those moments, as I look at this bird for the first time. The bird with the human eye.

It is exactly the right size, color, and shape as to suggest that it is a Steller’s Jay. This alone would be confusing, given location, but to make it worse, there is something horribly deformed with its head. It appears to have one large human eye directly above its beak. I blink and squint compulsively, certain it is a trick of the light, but the image doesn’t change. Its large eye simply squints between black feathers, as the head looks around, behaving in a fashion that is holistically bird-like. If it wasn’t for the one horribly glaring issue with its anatomy, nothing would seem off about its behavior thus far. But the one eye is, I hate to put it this way, repulsively human.

I set the binoculars down for a moment to think, while I observe it at a distance. Surely, more insane things have happened. Mutations and deformities in the animal kingdom produce all sorts of strange and inexplicably bizarre results. My mind wanders to the example of the pacu fish in South America, a fish that naturally has human-like teeth, and is rightfully frightening to human sensibilities because of it. And what of the blobfish? The animal kingdom is full of extreme looks, and this is even before taking mutations into account. Not to mention mutations in the human species, which can produce an endless array of the strange and unexpected. Is it so hard to imagine that a rare and unlikely mutation could cause this bird to have a human-like eye?

This is the conversation my rational brain presents me. The irrational brain on the other hand says, “that isn’t a human-like eye, it is a human eye.” I don’t even know what this means, and, being a scientist first and foremost, I choose to ignore that voice.

Our world is full of poisons and hazards that present incalculable risks to both human and animal health. The more we fill our world with these things, the more mutations are sure to be exacerbated, I continue thinking to myself, still watching the bird as it hops around casually. I lift up my binoculars again to get another look. It occurs to me that, putting aside the issue with the eye, even if it was a normal Steller’s Jay, it would still be a strange and perplexing spotting.

My brain is spinning with questions, wishing I had a camera on me so that I could retain proof, wondering how I’m going to try and explain this to colleagues, when it turns, and looks at me. It’s human eye fixes its gaze upon me, uncannily, as if it is looking straight down the barrels of my binoculars and into my own eyes. I feel my breath stop, waiting for something to happen. Waiting for what to happen? I don’t know. I can’t rightly say. The bird stares at me. What color is its iris? I’m trying to tell, when it opens its beak and croaks:

richard

I pause. Not sure I heard it correctly.

richarrd, It says again.

This is strange, but not unexplainable. Jays are fully capable of mimicry, they must only be trained to do so. Ravens, crows, jays, some studies suggest that maybe even other species have the ability to, if trained probably. So, it is likely that this bird has been trained in some way. Curious indeed! I feel like now I am getting answers. It might seem strange that it uttered the name “Richard,” but my name is not Richard, so that doesn’t really bother me. I am left to assume that it was trained by a man named Richard.

rricharrd it says again, still looking at me. I am surprised at its focus on me. I have had birds of prey lock eyes with me before. I got too close to a red-shouldered hawk once, while it was trying to hunt, and it glared at me quite effectively. It’s predator’s gaze told me not to get between it and its prey, so I backed away. This moment now is inherently different and yet the effect is nonetheless the same. I am compelled to go home.

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