It was only for an instant, a second, a microsecond- a flash. I was driving north on Rt. 28, leaving Woods Hole and headed back to Provincetown, hurtling down the highway at perhaps 45 miles per hour.
Up ahead, on the shoulder, an orange smudge: was it trash? Getting closer: no, a bird, a robin; getting closer- still at 45: was it dead? No, standing, leaning into the stiff wind, stunned, perhaps from a brush with a car. Now I am abreast of it. Its pure black eye locked with mine. And now I am past it. Could I stop? Now I am way past it. Can I stop? How? Can I pull over? Too far back, especially on this frigid day. I am still further along. Can I turn around? Where? Where is the nearest exit? Still further along. How would I exit and get back on and find that orange smudge? Still driving. Oh, too late now. Too far back. I have so many things to do back in Provincetown, so many important things to do. I cannot afford to get lost, lose a half an hour…it is too far back.
I leave the bird behind.
But it is still with me, these many days later, with me enough to wake me in the middle of the night- 2:30 am. I thrash about. I cannot avoid its little black eye.
Oh, the Devil on my shoulder tells me it was only a robin…there are plenty of robins out there (but who am I to judge the worth of a species? And there is only that one by the side of the road). Oh, the Devil says, it is inevitable that some will collide with cars, some will succumb to other winter dangers…that bird was probably already a goner (but who knows for sure?). Oh, probably some other passerby will stop for it, someone with more time on his or her hands (doubtful, and why rely on others to do what needs to be done?) Yes, the Devil is correct: I had a long journey ahead of me, on a day full of errands and meetings, and, on a stunningly cold day in January I left that suffering robin behind.
What the Devil does not address is the fact that that robin locked eyes with me for that micro-second, and that robin knew me- knew me for who I am: someone who cares (but I did not care enough), someone who ignores the practicalities of modern life enough to want to reach out to a fallen fellow creature (but I did not want to enough). I left that robin behind, but it steadfastly refuses to be left behind. Its bold black eye is still with me: its strong gaze is not in judgement, not in censure, just in silent witness to the gulf between who I am and whom I want to be.