I’ve seen them do it before, but not for as long as today. I’m referring to a killdeer, the triangularly framed, small bird with the sizable white torque around its neck. For a finely sustained time, it raced me.
Flushed out of the thistle and sprawling clumps of bluestem, coreopsis, and Johnson grass in the bar-ditch, it flew ahead of me. Periodically I saw it hitch its body, as if it were glancing at me to make sure I was still a part of the race. Biking on an asphalted country road, I sped up, and so did the bird. Then he tipped his right wing and, taking the wind beneath him, swept upward and out toward the right, away from the straight path of the road. At first I thought he was flaring away, not so much to leave me but to go—who knew where? Maybe the nearby pumpjacks and holding tanks. But that wasn’t what he was doing. He was teasing me.
Immediately he came back and, resuming his place in the invisible lane some four feet above the paved road, he sped ahead. Now and then he seemed to hold back—or was I speeding up and closing in on him? His flight was clearly faster than before. The race was still on.
Maybe it’s because of their bandy legs topped by an erectness of carriage in their bodies, but killdeers have a cocky air about them, a zany focus that’s similar to the roadrunner’s. The cuts of their wings and tail feathers are sharply defined. There’s a cleanly angular shape to their bodies. They don’t have the full, soft-breasted qualities of dove and quail, nor the greasy unruliness of grackles or the swift-tailed helmet-like headdress of loud-mouthed blue jays. Killdeers are birds with no fluff about them.
Suddenly he was on the ground and running. He hadn’t stopped. I wasn’t even sure there had been a moment of transition. He was racing me now in a new way. Wing or foot, he seemed to say, I can beat you. I laughed, then he swept back into flight. He was following the same invisible, earth-free path he had flown on before. The air was right for play. The day was going to be hot, but the muggy scorch of afternoon had not yet hit.
We’re often tempted to anthropomorphize nature, to project ourselves on it, to claim connections where there are none or, at best, few. Conscious of it or not, we often credit the weather with having emotional sense. But what I’m most aware of is how interesting otherness seems. At the same time, creatures have patterns of response that are similar to our own. Heat will slow us all down. So will severe cold. And all of us turn nicely antic when we’re stirred to mate. In fact, just yesterday I saw mockingbirds fluttering and bumping chests and scrambling airward and earthward the way they and other birds do when they’re treading. But this time there were three of them. Was I seeing an orgy or a bird’s version of a good alley fight? I’ve seen the same with squirrels, and we’ve all heard the same about humans: Are they fighting or loving? Maybe at a certain point of chaos the birds—and we—don’t know the difference between mating and fighting. Caterwauling, yowling, screeching cats often look and sound as if they don’t have any idea if there’s a difference between the two. And many of us have likely learned—even without the help of D.H. Lawrence—that the same can be true of humans and others driven by electro-chemical surges.
To put this another way, the lyrical often evolves from what first appears to be belligerence, stupidity, or simple confusion. So does hostility—outrage and disgust as possible as the endearing, linen-like quality of moonlight on a fine evening.
A bump in the road jolted my attention. My playful idyll was over. The killdeer was gone. Tilting into a current, it had swept itself upward, rightward again. We were passing two more pumpjacks. Only one of them, I noticed, was working, and even that one was silent, possibly because of a stiff south wind driving the vibrations out of earshot.
This time the killdeer did not come back. Nothing had taken after him. So why had he quit? There were several possibilities, including a sudden loss of interest, and I identified with all of them. Maybe he just got tired. Speed is never enough. It’s not the same as having a great capacity for endurance, I thought, recalling a fantasy I used to have (it began soon after I started running marathons and had beaten my previous time by half an hour).
Deer, I had read, could only run for a mile. I started thinking about running one of them down. I knew, of course, they were a lot faster than me, but I knew now I could sustain a run a lot longer than they could. I didn’t see why, after maybe 20 miles or so, I couldn’t catch up to the exhausted, beautifully graceful beast.
“How do you plan on killing it?” asked a friend I’d told the notion to.
“Oh, I don’t plan on killing it at all. I just want to tap it on the head and keep running.”
“You mean just to tell it you won?”
Part of me, of course, believed in the fantasy as a real possibility, if I ignored the vagaries of landscape and limited possibilities of sight in the environment where the chase would have to occur. Another part of me saw the notion simply as whimsy, and I had no need to reconcile the two. But I did miss my friend the killdeer.
For a while the two of us had had what seemed like a race, and the killdeer had clearly won. In its own way it had tapped me on the head and gone on. The quick little creature was faster than me, even on a bicycle; and there for a moment it had also shown that it was fleeter of foot than I.
I liked its cocky air. Its skinny legs were long and nearly weightless. Its wings and tail were trimmed perfectly for swift flight. Had it been made better than me? The question itself brought me up short. Not because I was afraid of the answer but because on my morning rides matters of comparative quality rarely surface—or they surface often, even obsessively. Speed, like daydreaming, is a pleasure in itself. I’ve even experienced joy when an angry-looking, nasty-talking dog took out after me. In particular, I have in mind a pit bull that charged after me one afternoon just one road over from where I was now.
He saw me long before I got perpendicular to where he was. He was coming at me from a sizable angle, say 40 degrees. The road was too narrow for a quick turnaround (by me), and if I did turn around I’d be slowed considerably by the wind in my face. The only thing to do was keep pedaling straight ahead as fast as I could and hope I got to the meeting point of our lines of trajectory first.
Pumping harder, I shouted out happily, “All right, you —.” Here I joyously yelled a profane oath then added, with a new sense of thrill in my legs, “The race is on!” That time I won. Glancing into the quarter-sized rearview mirror on my helmet, I saw the once-angry beast stop in the middle of the road. Fatigue had bitten him before it had nailed me.
That day I came back home by the same set of roads and streets I’d return by today. In fact, I had lived on one of those streets for several years during childhood. Through memory and placement the past remained with me, and on that street—several years back—I’d had another conflict with a dog.
I’d returned to town after a long ride in the country when a big German shepherd tore off his porch for me. Tired, I was poking along and alert enough to realize the dog was already too close for me to outrun him. I knew its capabilities. I’d had a dog just like him when I was in high school, and from my perspective the breed was full of good goofy bluff—especially if the two of you were friends; but in this case we weren’t.
I still don’t know why I did what I did that day, but impulse, I admit, has often seemed as sensible an option as reason. I reminded myself that there was no way I could speed up enough to escape the beast. I didn’t even try. Instead, accepting fate but planning to tweak it, too, I braked to a stop near the gutter, got off, and, pointing an accusing finger at the dog, started yelling at him, telling him he was acting like trash and needed to learn to act right instead of being such an ugly, nasty embarrassment to whoever had tried to raise him: “Now settle down and shut up! You’re a damn disgrace to your breed!”
The dog swallowed what sounded like a growl.
“I mean it!” I yelled down at it, and the dog started crying. This was truly a happy day.
For a short time I listened to his grief then hopped back on my bike and rode away. Of course, I knew I’d had an advantage. The big dog looked a lot like Fritzy, the one I’d had years ago. Or maybe I just lucked out. But running or biking, I’ve had a lot of dogs come after me, and so far they’ve always responded pretty well to my barking, “Oh shut up, puppy! Go on back home and quit being such a loud-mouth pest.” But what I really want to do is see the killdeer again. I think this time I might be able to take him.
James Hoggard, the author of 16 books, was named Poet Laureate of Texas for 2000. His most recent books are Medea In Taos & Other Poems and Patterns of Illusion: Stories & A Novella.