Birds of My Own / Robyn Yzelman
Content warning: descriptions of relationship abuse.
If I had left him when I should have, there would not have been any birds.
Not the Colima Warbler foraging in the juniper trees next to us, who came bounding back when we played its taped song—the first and only time we called a bird like this. It wasn’t an easy bird to see, small, almost entirely grey and nondescript, but Jeremy handed me his binoculars as it returned, and I glimpsed it fluttering on a branch above, the unmistakable orange-yellow feathers under its tail a revelation.
That a bird is rare or special is in some ways a human construct, in this case because its small range in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico barely extends past the man-made border of the United States into an even smaller patch of forest in Big Bend National Park, Texas. Our Colima Warbler had just arrived there to breed for the summer, innocent and unsuspecting. It did not know its status as one of the most prized birds in America. Neither did it know how close I came to not being there to see it. It was only a day ago that I had spent the night shaking in our rental car in a parking lot somewhere outside of Austin, too afraid to go back inside the borrowed house to Jeremy, who now stood next to me. Locking myself in the car, I desperately looked up flights back to Washington and tried to phone anyone who might be awake to try to make sense of the larger pattern of his abuse, although it would be several months before I called it as such. I could have ended it all then, just like how there had been nights before when I had paced his bedroom floor as he slept, thinking, I could easily leave him, down the stairs and out of the door, like this, but I could not. So there it was, because I stayed: the Colima Warbler, our prize, my prize.
There were more than a hundred other birds too, whose names he taught me, uttered with reverence. The Grey Catbird who came to my door every morning precisely as I kissed him goodbye; Pyrrhuloxia on top of the cactus, whose name I rolled on my tongue over and over; the Great Horned Owl I saw perched on a steeple; a Black Phoebe as we sat by the Rio Grande, sandy cliffs towering over us. When I see a beautiful bird I am filled with an inexplicable sense of wonder for these otherworldly creatures, like I am being held by the universe. Is it a God who loves me who has made these birds, or is it the birds themselves, beautiful and omniscient, which show themselves to me at exactly the right time? Is it Jeremy who loves me, who unfailingly names each one of them for me when I ask, the proof of his love for me there in the birds?
The yelling, the abuse—all too numerous to list—always came unprovoked, catching me off-guard and incapacitating me with shock. Like a magician he pulled the accusations out from under an invisible sleeve, mostly at night as a bedtime trick: that I was unhealthy for wanting to do yoga before bed, that there was something wrong with me for having many Asian friends, or for not being sufficiently in touch with my supposed ‘Indonesian heritage.’ As I considered going home to Singapore when my father’s health was in grave condition, he yelled at me from across the room about my ‘privilege’ to fly on an airplane. When I asked him to calm down, his face would rearrange into a steely mask. He would insist, You’re the one who needs to calm down, you started this. The mask fell at other moments, too, like when he would get angry at me for sneezing or shivering in the wind, and laughing when I asked him to apologise, as though it never happened.
The violence was always bookended by tenderness, thoughtful gifts or his insistence that he loved me, the birds a measure of his affection. The very first time we hiked together, on a section of the Appalachian Trail, I blushed as he exuberantly wrote in the logbook, “Hiking with a Robyn!” and drew a chirping American Robin next to it. When we unknowingly gifted each other identical collections of poetry, I wrote on his copy “To my bird of a feather.” One of the first gestures of his love for me was purchasing the Field Guide to the Birds of Southeast Asia, and as we thumbed through vivid illustrations of spectacular birds of paradise and forest kingfishers, I felt like I was truly being seen by a partner for the first time, for where I was from and my dreams of where I wanted to go. When he continued to verbally abuse me for those very same things, I was left confused and insecure about the love he claimed to feel.
On the first night of our cross-country road trip to Big Bend, he furiously yelled at me for not being able to fall asleep in the car with the music blasting. The next thing I remember, in the imperfections of my memory, is discovering a pair of nesting Mississippi Kites in the morning. Standing in front of a lake, we were transfixed in awe at the birds—these sleek, masked assassins with gleaming red eyes—tenderly building their home and raising their offspring, bringing back food and strands of grass, taking turns to guard their nest with care. I saw in them a hope of what we might have someday, playing into his insistence that he wanted a future with me. I was already burying the previous incident, preferring instead to liken ourselves to the birds, to lose myself in the metaphor.
So on the morning of his birthday when out of nowhere he slapped me on the face, I pretended it didn't happen. I was so worn down from confronting him in the days prior that my first thought was, I deserve this, looking up at the ceiling silently praying for someone else to also have witnessed it. The memory of the slap only unspooled later as I wrote a poem. I had broken up with him for the first time, lovesick at home ten thousand miles away as my father struggled to recover from a string of heart attacks. I managed birdwatching once or twice, seeing for the first time that my country was capable of beauty. In between listing the names of birds I saw without him, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Oriental Pied Hornbill, I wrote that the slap felt like a dove beat its wings against my face.
By the time I took him back in the midst of his promises that he had changed, it was Valentine's Day. As we lay nose to nose in the dark, his body on top of mine, he whispered, I know I've hurt you, I'm sorry. Yet there was something off about his apologies when we had talked in the preceding days: he didn’t say he wouldn’t do it again, and his face hardened into the same mask, demanding I apologise too. I turned my attention to the cardinal singing like a car alarm outside my window. I asked him what bird it was, as it continued to call, relentlessly piercing the pre-dawn silence. He knows exactly how he wounds me. He doesn’t stop.
Although it took me three tries, I eventually left Jeremy for good. And one year and two months after seeing the Colima Warbler, I called a bird for the second time, pressing play on a pre-recorded song I had downloaded. There, squatting next to a tangle of vines in the Bolivian Amazon, I was alone, save for the occasional motorcycle whizzing past and the few glue-sniffers who emerged blank-eyed from the rubbish-strewn side paths. Crime there is rare and I was not afraid, though I ran my fingers over the safety knife in my pocket anyway.
The Masked Antpitta, too, was special, its small population endemic to seasonally-flooded varzeas in that threatened section of Bolivian jungle. It came instantly when I played its song; like the Colima Warbler, the Masked Antpitta was duty-bound by instinct to defend its territory against the ghost song. It leapt up onto the thickest vine, coming face-to-face with me yet looking entirely past me, just like a photo I’d seen, a dark mask and two white stripes under its chin, a brown-streaked chest, except in real-chest-pounding-I’m-here-life. I continued to stare into its round, black eyes, completely entranced, astounded by my sheer luck. It called and called for more than a minute, piercing the thick air with its rattling song until at last it hopped away, satisfied that there was no such intruder. Thank you, I found myself whispering.
The Masked Antpitta was the 341st bird that I saw and identified in Latin America. It started out accidentally; I never intended to keep a list of birds or to take up birdwatching, so intertwined as it was with Jeremy in my mind. I had moved to Bolivia on a fellowship, pulled there by my fascination with its mountains and fabled social movements. By happenstance someone handed me the Field Guide to Birds of Bolivia the day after I arrived. Two weeks later as I breathlessly ascended a 5000m peak, I remembered how heart-wrenchingly difficult it was to leave him, and in that moment, assessing the thunder and lightning crackling threateningly behind me, I decided: this mountain is harder. As I turned around in time to see a pair of Andean Geese soaring next to me, I did not feel any of the pain I so feared. Instead, the birds were white as snow, going about their secret lives in highland streams, their beauty another thing altogether, separate from my pain.
I remembered him, of course, in many of the first birds I saw. Even my mannerisms were an inheritance from him, like the psh psh noises I instinctively made to lure them out and how I would point to my ear or to the canopy in the direction of a bird calling, exactly the same way he did. With every mountain I climbed and every bird I saw, the heartbreak and shame faded a little more. I started a list of birds as they trickled in, thinking I would be happy to record a hundred birds for my time there—but it only took five months for me to get to 200, and then thirty days later, 300.
It felt exhilarating to identify each of them, all new to me. I never thought I would become a person with the gift to name herons, swallows, hummingbirds, tanagers, out of what was once merely thin air to me. In Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson writes that naming ‘is a difficult and time consuming process; it concerns essence, and it means power.’ She asks, ‘But on the wild nights who can call you home? Only the one who knows your name.’ Naming is an act of control—after all, the founding of modern ornithology was deeply rooted in colonial projects. Think of the colonialists and conquerors who staked their claims by proceeding to rename everything: Denali became Mt McKinley, Borikén Puerto Rico, and Uluru Ayer’s Rock. But as I stood blissfully alone in many wildernesses, straining my neck into the canopy above me, spending hours consuming field guides and memorising birds, I was neither interested in marking something for myself or empire, nor getting into taxonomic debates about how to name a bird or separating different species.
As I whispered a bird’s name after it, it became a small thing known in a world filled with many unknowns; and with each bird I was calling myself home.
Jeremy’s first email to me came in March as I was in Peru, preparing to return to Bolivia. Very impressed you saw all three flamingo species! it said, delivering the praise I once so craved. He had found the geotagged birding observations I had posted online under a nickname, hinting he was coming to Bolivia to retrace my steps. He innocuously wished me well, as though he had forgotten that the very last thing he said to me, as I confronted him about his abuse, was that karma would get me. I ignored it but a second missive camea couple of months later, another bait cast into the waters of my inbox, titled Rupicola Peruvianus. The Andean Cock-of-the-rock, I knew right away, one of the better-known birds of the region, though I had not yet seen it. He had come to my faraway country, he announced, telling me where he went in the Yungas region, and that he was thinking of me, wherever your wings may have landed. As I read it I collapsed onto my bed in disbelief: did I have to give up the birds? His message was brazen,reminding me he was watching me no matter how much distance I put between us, inserting himself into the things I did to heal. Later I stumbled upon the name of his employer's network listed as a regular visitor on an old website of mine—there was no doubt it was him. The analytics showed that he had been googling me and visiting the site every other day from his work computer for several months even though it lay defunct. Discovering the extent of his online surveillance made me want to vomit. I spent hours scrubbing my online presence; when a conservation group I volunteered with published an essay I wrote, I made them take down my name for fear that he would find out my location. Although it weighed on me, especially as my time in Bolivia was coming to a close, I was determined to continue birding.
On my last day in Bolivia, a soft rain blanketed the Yungas, where I had gone to try to see a few more birds. I realised that my chances for seeing any were slim as I trudged down the muddy, infamously winding roads of the South Yungas, constantly scanning the thick fog ahead. Then, hearing what I thought was the low, hooting call of an Andean Motmot, I turned my binoculars into the ravine by my left, hoping to spot its blue spade-like feathers, instead unexpectedly catching an unfocused flash of red in the background. I was up the mountain on the other side of the switchback, but I saw it nonetheless, flitting about the edge of the forest, its bright red pom pom-shaped head standing out against the leaves. The Andean Cock-of-the-rock. The Rupicola Peruvianus of the emails. Alone on the deserted road, enchanted and enraptured, I felt a lightness ascending so fully in me that there was no room for any association with him. The bird was there, all of it, but there was also nothing more to it.
Once upon a time, the birds were a metaphor and placeholder for love, or its variant turned into something else. But standing there, I only felt whole and strong, my feet rooted to the ground underneath, my entire body humming softly with the power that comes from being completely connected with one’s surroundings—birdsong, the smell of the clearing rain, the way the wet mist shimmered on my skin. I had seen 435 birds in total, about a quarter of all of them there. A better birder would undoubtedly have seen more, but I was happy. It was just the beginning. To know the whole forest, from the intelligent networks of fungi beneath our feet, to armies of ants sweeping the ground like an undulating carpet, from the monkeys raiding the canopy, to the birds above, and the birds below, alive like I am. To see them all. To be all, yet none of it. Imagine that.