Before, I didn’t really see pigeons, and I certainly didn’t pay attention to them. Ubiquitous in cities and never too far away from people, I let myself write them off as flying rats, as more part of the built environment than the natural one, as ugly, filthy, common, boring, unimportant. I, effusive in my love for almost everything that grows, that crawls, that runs, that flies, spared no affection for them.
I didn’t like how beady their eyes are, or the ungraceful way they move on the ground, that little strutting walk, head bobbing forward and back.
And if I had occasionally stopped to follow that arrowflight across the horizon with my eyes, be assured that I looked away when I realized that it was just a pigeon, not wild enough to be worth watching.
Before, when I third-personed myself, self-consciously watching my own actions as if from someone else’s eyes, I used the words “she” and “her,” but the other word I used to describe myself, “girl,” was always modified by the word “tough.” I wasn’t some girly-girl, I wasn’t just a girl, I was a tough-girl, a breed apart. It was an identity, a shield, an explanation for all the ways I didn’t fit in.
I knew I was different, I knew I felt different, but I didn’t have the language for it. I didn’t know about spectrums. I didn’t know there were more options than man or woman. I didn’t know about in-between spaces. I didn’t know about the vibrancy and the possibility that can be found in shades of gray.
Crouched in the last of the afternoon light by the corner of a yellowish-tan brick building, watching a small bird of prey tear apart a pigeon, piece by piece, I am just a human, no more categories needed.
I have never seen anything like this and I didn’t expect to see it here at the corner of Ryman and Pine, downtown, Missoula, MT. The pigeon is on its back, head ripped off, only the bloody backbone still connecting it to the body. The raptor is a bit smaller than the pigeon, with glossy brown feathers down its back and wings, white and brown flecking on its breast, and a striped tail, one tail feather askew. It is perched atop the still breast of the pigeon like a child on a small dirt mound, claiming to be King of the Hill.
It surveys the gray expanse of sidewalk with dark eyes, rimmed in yellow. Odd shadows play across the cement, light reflecting off windows and even the stop sign rising only a few feet away from both the bird and the corner of the building where I am crouching. Across the street, maple trees march in a line along the side of the courthouse, the bark of their bare branches dark against the white walls. Buses huff in and out of the bus terminal. People walk by every few minutes, many stopping to pull out phones and take pictures. Most give the raptor a wide berth, but some maintain their path, and at least one, absorbed by the papers in her hand, almost steps on it before another onlooker warns her of what is below her feet.
The bird seems fearless, occasionally flapping its wings in indignation at someone walking too close, but never leaving its perch on the pigeon. With its sharply hooked beak, it clears the pigeon’s breast of feathers and then rips away small chunks of flesh and swallows them.
This meal is worth watching, a wild drama, even though I missed the chase, the midair collision of bodies, the smaller bird bringing the larger one down to the sidewalk, the struggle and the death.
My feet have just landed back on the thick grass, the bright white disc secure in my hand, even though we both anticipated that it would fly over my outstretched fingers at the top of my highest jump and fullest extension skyward. I’m smiling, pleased with myself.
Across the field, my friend opens his mouth. “GUUURL!” he shouts.
I throw the disc back, because I can’t think of anything else to do. It’s that word, “girl”, no modifiers, no qualifiers, no “tough” to almost change its meaning. I don’t know how to respond.
Anything would be better than that word, “girl,” naked without “tough” there to try to warp it into something it’s not, outside my head in the air like a flashing neon arrow, reminding me and everyone else of the way I am perceived.
It is the excitement of the utterly unexpected that brings me to unfold from my crouch against the wall and lend my thoughts to the conversations that spring up among other observers of the raptor. None of us know quite what it is.
Standing on the sidewalk, discussing its identity and sharing the moment and the awe, the bird itself occupies most of my attention, but a corner of my mind wonders who, what, these people—these strangers—think I am. I don’t pass consistently as male or female. Blunt features, face bare of makeup, hair loose and to my shoulders, bulky coat broadening my figure. I never pass the way I want to, as in-between, both feminine and masculine or else neither, genderqueer. I know most people don’t realize there are other options, don’t realize they don’t have to try to squeeze me into one of two boxes I don’t particularly fit in. I hope they struggle to make a decision about what I am. I hope neither choice is obvious.
I pause for a moment in the employee bathroom/janitor’s closet, my hands sudsy, my reflection staring back at me from the mirror. In this job I am surrounded by words, used politely, used descriptively, that take some visible things about me and paint them into my whole self. She, her, woman, ladies, Ms., ma’am. I haven’t said anything to change that picture because I am scared that I have no legal protections here, of the rumored intolerance of the people who live in this valley, that this community won’t be willing to learn more about the in between places that take up so much unacknowledged space in this world.
I have trouble saying why the word “woman” doesn’t fit me, except that it never has. I’m not a man either, but that statement I don’t feel like I need to defend or explain. I have supporting evidence: my body.
My body tells stories about me that don’t fit with the way I live inside my head. But my body is so much more than the pieces that would put me in one gendered box or the other. I am legs and arms, torso, shoulders, hips, heart beating, brain and nerves firing, fingers touching and creating, eyes watching, ears hearing, tongue tasting, a tangled mess of logic and emotion that rises from the specific arrangement of all of these. I am human.
My hair hangs past my shoulders, mostly straight. My chin is square. My nose is kind of big, but mostly just nose-like. My brows are thick and there is a permanent line coming down between them. My eyes and mouth are neutral as I examine the reflection of my face. It is just a collection of features and two years of not cutting my hair.
I want to be seen: as in-between, as genderqueer, as merely human. And it occurs to me, looking back at myself, for there to even be a hope of that happening, I need to be able to see myself.
Today, I think I can.
A few days later, biking over the Higgins Street Bridge, a handful of pigeons swoops over the red marquee of the Wilma Theater. I still the slow churn of my legs pushing on my pedals and watch them wheeling against the gray sky. And I feel something unexpected, a corresponding swirl of awe.
I have looked down into the plucked carcass of one of those birds, met the fierce light in the eyes of its killer as it peered down from the bare branches of a Norway maple. That is what merlins are made of.
I have done some research about pigeons and about merlins. Maybe the pigeon is not so tame as I thought it was, maybe the merlin is not as wild as it seemed to be. Merlins are one of the few species of raptors whose populations are growing rather than declining. They have followed pigeons and house sparrows to cities and learned to make their homes there, the way pigeons have, the way raccoons have, the way deer have, the way, even, humans have.
There are no clear lines between what pertains to the human world and what pertains to the natural world. There are no clear lines between male and female, feminine and masculine. Maybe there are no clear lines anywhere. Merlin, pigeon, me, we are life. We use what is in us and what is outside of us to make our place in the world, trying, and sometimes failing, to survive in this messy and dangerous and beautiful world.