Sometimes you have to look deeply to see all the feathers...
Martin was fond of the desert. He went there every Saturday and Sunday. He’d fill his backpack with sandwiches, apples, and water and string binoculars around his neck. Then he'd jam on his Australian hat with the picture of a kangaroo on top, and with hiking boots, long blue jeans and a T-shirt on it that said “I love Arizona,” he’d set out to go bird watching.
Sometimes Martin went out into the desert with the high-school group from the YMCA. They hiked on the old Arizona trails, past the groupings of saguaro with their numerous heaven-reaching arms. These tree-like cacti were as spiny as old horned toads, and each of them was as tall as five men stacked foot to head.
Martin enjoyed hiking with the group. Juan Carlos had taught him when to gather the fruit of the saguaro. He'd shown Martin how to take dried pieces of the woody ribs and build fires to keep warm in the evening when the sun lowered and the air grew cold. The two leaders of the group, Susan and Pete, had shown Martin how to cut off the top quarter of another of the prickly Arizona cacti, the barrel cactus, so he could drink its sticky juice. One night the group had even shown Martin a night-blooming cereus, a cactus which opens up its buds only at midnight.
But Martin was not with the group on that lovely Sunday morning. He'd broken free from their companionship to wander through the desert on his own. It wasn’t a safe thing to do, not with the rattlers still about sunning by pieces of fallen saguaro or small boulders where the heat warmed their cold-blooded bodies. But that morning Martin didn’t want to be with the group again, not with Sarah Jane Parker always glued to his tail.
It had all started so innocently -- Sarah Jane, with her long, brownish-gold ropes of curl and those sulky, fluttering eyelashes being so friendly and all. Sure, he’d been entranced at first. She’d pointed out that first Vermilion Flycatcher, an immature adult male with the red-orange chest just starting to color. “Pit-a-see, pit-a-see,” it had called, and Martin, ecstatic in his enthusiasm at seeing the bird, had scarcely been aware how close Sarah Jane was, when she'd all at once thrown her arms about him and kissed him right in front of the others.
And that had only been the first of many such unpleasant encounters. On sighting the gray dorsal-winged Bewick’s Wren, (its warble an almost perfect replica of the Song Sparrow's song,) Martin had been appalled to find that she'd taken his hand. Steve and Bob, the two freshmen, had snickered at the sight.
Martin scrambled over some mesquite brush and almost fell over a saguaro arm lying on the ground. He froze, expecting to hear the ominous rustling of a rattler, but the air was still, only a soft double whistle, then a loud, trill, so sweet it sent shivers of glee up and down his spine...could it be? Was it possible -- a Cassin’s Sparrow?
Martin hunkered down, searching about for the sight of gray and brown plumage with a large bill and flat forehead...there. He saw the bird perched for the moment on a broken-off saguaro branch. Yes, oberve the small, white tips at the end of its feathers... it was truly a Cassin’s Sparrow.
Martin raised his binoculars and examined the bird. A trill of notes was sounding, “pit, pit, pit...pit, pit, pit...”
Dutifully, Martin recorded the chirps and the description of the bird in his log. He couldn’t wait to tell the group about his find. It was an amazing sighting for this time of year. Martin smiled and sighed, awed by the wonder of it.
A small, green lizard darted out and then halted. It looked about for a moment and then began a series of push-ups on the edge of a small rock. Martin was distracted a moment by the creature’s luminescent-looking scaly skin.
The Cassin’s Sparrow let out a whistle, and Martin tore his attention away from the lizard, but he inhaled sharply in disappointment as the bird took flight.
A second later, Martin knew why. Sarah Jane had followed him.
“What are you doing here?” Martin called out sharply.
Sarah Jane’s face instantly changed from smiles to frowns. “It’s a free desert, isn’t it?” she tossed at him nastily.
Martin stood up and tried not to feel like a jerk, but he wanted so desperately to be by himself, to be free of her. He said nothing but turned on his heel and began to walk away.
“Oh, my stars!” Sarah Jane cried out in a bird watcher’s whisper.
Martin froze and peered back over his shoulder. The Cassin’s Sparrow had returned, settling in a saguaro -- not five feet away. Martin gaped at the bird, memorizing every marking, every delightful speck of the fringed tertial.
“I don’t believe it,” Sarah Jane whispered. “A Cassin's Sparrow, and it’s so beautiful. It’s unbelievably lucky for us, you know.”
Martin wished she’d be quiet. He lifted his binoculars and savored the sight.
The bird sat for almost three minutes, resting from its flight. Martin sketched it and filled in the black-centers of the tertials, along with the white wing bars of its plumage. When the bird took off, Martin shifted his legs more comfortably in the soft sandy dirt and continued to work. He shut out the sound of Sarah Jane stepping closer and then seating herself beside him. Martin ignored her and sketched on.
She remained so quiet beside him that Martin almost forgot she was there. When his picture was done, however, she insisted on seeing it.
"You did a good job on the feather markings," she said.
Embarassed, Martin felt his face grow red.
Luckily Sarah Jane didn’t notice. She was busy digging inside her backpack. She pulled out her sketch pad and showed him her sketch of a Great Horned Owl.
"Wow!" Martin said, staring at it. Her owl with its batman ear tufts looked so real he could almost reach out and touch its softness.
"It's really good, you know," he managed to say without his voice cracking too badly.
"You see how I shaded the underside of the wing to give it dimension?" she asked, showing him how.
Martin enjoyed the lesson. It gave him a chance to study Sarah Jane's technique as well as the color of her eyes. For the first time, he noticed the slightly almond shape of them, the delicate fringes of her lashes, and the way they complemented the rest of her rather lovely face.
"Would you help me with my sketch of the Cassin's Sparrow?" he asked.
She smiled with perfectly even teeth. Martin wondered if she'd had to wear braces like he had in junior high. He watched her hand fill in a line here and a line there until his sketch began to show depth. Martin blinked with emotion.
He took another look at Sarah Jane -- a very long look. Her mousy brown hair was shimmering in the sunshine. Its highlights looked like streaks of gold. Her eyes held the very same luminescence as the lizard’s skin. Martin smiled at Mary Jane.
She blushed, and as she reached for her backpack to put her sketching pad away, her hair fell across her face.
Without thinking about it, Martin reached over and pushed it back. He suddenly realized how close they were. Their lips were almost touching. Martin looked into her eyes and leaned closer.
It is possible that several rare birds came down to alight in the saguaro cactus while they sat there, but neither Martin nor Mary Jane noticed. For the moment, they had given up bird watching.