“Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”
— Master Zhuang (Zhuangzi), third century BC
It has been almost a year since the bird saw its face in our window and wanted to come inside.
Back in the spring of last year, my wife and I decided the bird was a female cardinal. Since then, we have been startled out of sleep dozens of times by the same bird banging against our bedroom window just after dawn, or heard it thumping against the downstairs windows at odd times of the day.
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She has a nest in a tall bush near the back door. Some mornings when I go out to retrieve the newspaper from the end of the drive, she and her mate will burst out of the bush and swoop past my face, startling me with their cries.
A few minutes later she is once again sitting on a branch near one of the windows, flinging herself against the glass, over and over.
We have lived in this house for more than 20 years, and I don’t recall any bird ever deliberately striking the window, certainly not with such fanatical dedication.
I have been reading and thinking about reincarnation quite a bit recently, and though it takes a serious leap of credulity, this bird’s behavior stirs my imagination.
I picture some former resident of this more than a century-old house, reborn into the body of a bird, trying to return to a place he or she once loved.
Could it be the spirit of old Mr. Zerby, who grew the valley’s best sweet corn in a garden up behind the barn and died here at age 95? Or of his wife, who lived to an equally old age in this house?
The obsessive creature may want to return to see what changes we have made to the old-fashioned wallpaper, the light fixtures that looked as if they were put in shortly after electricity was invented.
Maybe she wants to sit on the arm of my chair, like Poe’s Raven, and tell me what she has seen, where she has traveled.
This reminds me of the dream I had many years ago when our daughters were still small. I was standing in the back yard, looking up at the lighted windows where my wife and daughters were preparing for bed when I felt a pain in my chest.
In the dream, my spirit hovered over my body, then flew up to each of the windows and looked in with this deep sense of loss and longing, only the dog sensing me and barking at my shadow at the window. I did not want to leave my home and loved ones to go off into the darkness. Maybe the lady cardinal feels the same.
Master Zhuang wrote, “Only on waking do we know it was a dream. Only after the great awakening will we realize that this is the great dream.”
Maybe I really did die in that dream and everything since has just been a continuation of the dream. And so the cardinal is me, trying to return.
These are the idle fantasies I spin out of a bird tapping at the window. We are here such a little while. Maybe we shall return as a bird or a butterfly. It would be nice to think so.