June 16, 2006

The Matuszek Bird

Mr. Matuszek did bird calls. He did them in his work as a park ranger, and he did them at social gatherings too. He was an uncanny mimic of a wide variety of calls, and people were duly amazed. His coworkers had lived with it for a long time, but greeted each newly acquired call with gushing envy for Matuszek’s intimacy with nature. At social gatherings with people who were not Forest Service types, people were amazed to see that Matuszek, who seemed so bland and insignificant, had a special skill, a gift they could never duplicate. No doubt every one of the guests, hearing him produce from his very soul exactly – but more profoundly, more hauntingly -- the inhuman, opaque notes of a nighthawk or a vireo, was given fresh hope about the hidden uniqueness of people whom they had previously disdained.

The way Matuszek learned a bird call was, he made up a phrase that mimicked the cadence of the call. For instance, in the mornings outside his window he heard, “ Who wants to know? Who wants to know?” And “Jerry, Jerry!” And, “Ratatatatatatatatat!”

One spring day Matuszek opened his window at dawn to hear the birds while he washed and dressed, and he heard a new call. The call was deep and not at all warbly, and it said, unmistakably, “Matuszek! Matusez! Matuszek!”

He threw open the door of his Forest Service bungalow and rushed outside in his undershorts. The bird call had been one he had never heard before. He waited till it came again – but it did not.

“Matuszek! Matuszek!” he whistled to himself all day. And day after day, he whistled it over and over during his leisure time, although, unlike when he was studying other calls, he never heard this one again to help him practice.

Sometimes he wondered: had he really heard the call, or was it a misperception, a fantasy, a wish? But no, he had been studying bird calls long enough to know when he heard one.

Morning after morning he stood on the lawn outside his bungalow, whistling, “Matuszek? Matuszek!”, and waiting for an answer in the silence that his voice created among the birds. Answers came from “ Who wants to know?” and “Jerry!” and “Ratatatatatatatatat!” But the Matuszek bird did not answer.

He whistled it under his breath when he led tour groups through the park, and he whistled it silently in his mind when he attended staff meetings. It never stopped. What bird was it? Where had it come from? Where had it gone? Was it a member of a species, or the only one of its kind? And how could it be one of a kind? And yet increasingly he thought that must be the answer: there was a single Matuszek-calling bird in this world, flying unknown in forest depths, an avian yeti, an invisible, wary creature, harassed by shadows, shrinking from all companionship, who only revealed himself to – himself.

(Or was there a colony of Matuszeks living somewhere in an undiscovered sanctuary on somehow unsurveyed land, a grotto with a waterfall, where Mtuszeks by the dozen swooped up under a domed roof and around a splashing cascade, calling, “Matuszek” to eat and “Matuszek” to fight and “Matuszek” to -- to -- he scarcely knew how to think of it -- to mate?)

In the dark of his bungalow at midnight he called sweetly and softly to his bird, knowing by now that it would never return. He called the cadence of his name hundreds, thousands of times, and he heard it echoing.