I was still pretty young the first time I heard an animal speak.
It was a lazy summer morning, and I was curled up on a lounge chair on the back porch with a book in my lap. I don’t remember which book — but I remember the lounge chair: its cheap plastic was grimy from years of weathering, flecked here and there by the dirt kicked up by the previous night’s rain, and its cushion, a faded hideous floral pattern, still slightly damp in places despite the warm, bright midmorning sun.
I must have been six or seven. Right around the age, they say, when a child begins to reason. That age after which it becomes just a little bit harder to slip in unseen and claim a small piece of their soul.
All around me in the yard, the birds were singing.
I’d been mostly ignoring them, engrossed in my book, my bony little ass slowly growing numb where the old cushion proved too thin for comfort. Something must have made me glance up from the page — a stray thought, a noise on the edge of hearing — and there I saw, only a few feet from me, a robin. He was hopping among the roots and dappled shadows of the maple tree, dipping his head now and then to rustle in the damp grass. Hunting for worms, I guessed, and sure enough, another dip and he came up with a thick, juicy crawler squirming in his beak. I remember the hypnotic, twitchy way it curled and flexed, pinned there helplessly, just before he swallowed it down. Then the robin was at it again, hopping and dipping, hopping and dipping, in a steady rhythm. Each hop brought him closer to where I sat.
Closer and closer. I held my breath. I tried to stay still so that I wouldn’t startle him. Closer and closer. I tried to still my whole body, hardly daring to breathe, trying not to move even a muscle. My heart beat faster with the excitement of this close encounter of the wild kind. I tried to still every part of me — heart, body and mind. Quieting even my thoughts lest they somehow intrude on this busy little bird.
Remembering it now, I might describe it as the world fading away, except that this would call your attention to the whole backyard scene itself as if it were a blurry photograph or a film slowly fading to black. Don’t think of it as the world fading, then. Think of it as the robin coming into sharper and sharper focus, expanding to claim my entire vision, expanding until the world of robin filled every crevice and contour of my awareness, until its physicality dominated all of my senses — the smell of dirt and wet grass, the musky scent and soft touch of feathers, the scritching noises of his claws and the subtle fluttering of his wings, the warm red of his breast among the cool shadows, his every hop and dip sending a sympathetic ripple of tension through me. I was utterly lost to myself in the world of robin. And then he perked up, tilted his head, and looked at me with one perfectly round, penetrating eye.
The words rose precise and articulate, nonchalant, almost amused. You know, I can see you.
The statement slammed me back into my body. My self-forgetfulness vanished in an instant as an intense, overwhelming sense of my own physicality swam over me, every detail rushing into my awareness — my hands, my arms, my young scrawny legs, the book in my lap, my numb butt on the damp ugly cushion, the grimy plastic lounge chair, the bated breath, the beating heart. My mind reeled and rebelled.
It must have all happened in less than a minute. When I looked at the robin again, he was back to his hunting. My reasoning mind, still so green and only just starting to find its feet, struggled to make sense of what I’d just experienced. But the words still echoed. Had it all been in my mind? No more than the stars are in the sky.
Now and then, the robin would stop and glance at me with what I now couldn’t help but think of as a knowing look. Could I do it again? I wondered. Hesitantly, clumsily, I tried to reach out with my thoughts, searching for contact like someone feeling their way along a cave wall in the dark. The robin hopped and fluttered with apparent indignation, then took off with a burst of wings for a tree in the neighbor’s yard.
That night at dinner, I did not tell my parents about what had happened. I did not tell my best friend the next day, or the kids at the summer day camp when my dad dropped me off the following Monday. It must have all been in your head, said my blossoming reason, reasonably. Everybody knows that animals can’t talk. Only little kids believe that. So I didn’t breathe a word.
But it was too late. You know I can see you… The knowledge had slipped in unseen in a moment. When the birds sang, I paused to listen. When the trees bent to the breeze, I felt their swaying in my bones. I was only six or seven, but they had slipped in and claimed a piece of my soul.
The world was full of presences and wild inhuman beings. And I knew they could see me.