I caged a bird once when I was a kid. I used a small box to build a makeshift trap equipped with string, a branch, and bread crumbs for bait. Then I crouched down in my shadowy perch and counted off the seconds as I lay in wait, imagining the thrill of victory. Before long a small bird soared into view, landed near the hidden dungeon, and ventured inside. Unable to contain my excitement and anticipation, I yanked the string, and the box slammed shut.
I was so elated to see that the trap had actually worked. I sprang towards the prize with little consideration for anything but my own sense of accomplishment. I had outsmarted the opposition and conquered it. I had won.
Initially, the commotion from within the box confirmed that the prey was inside, but then everything went silent. I contemplated my next move. Where to keep the bird? What to feed it? It struck me that, more importantly, the bird needed air. So while firmly holding the box with both hands, I lifted it just slightly enough for a crack of sunlight and air to creep through. Nothing happened. I started to doubt if I’d even captured the formidable adversary or if its innate elusiveness had something to do with magic. The curiosity was killing me. I had to know.
I eased the box higher, just enough to peep inside. That’s when the bird saw its chance and made a break for it. It shimmied out the slit, hopped several times building momentum, then took flight. I stood there motionless, disappointed, as I watched my victim escape. I felt duped and deprived, as though the bird was at fault for defying me and not conforming to an outcome that I had set. It had stolen that feeling of invincibility from me and it just didn’t seem fair. I was the greater force at work. My happiness was the only thing relevant.
Today, I was caged by a bird. It sat perched atop the windowsill outside my cell here on death row. At first, I tried paying it no mind, but its looming presence was impossible to ignore. Then I tried shooing it away. Unfazed by my frivolous antics, it refused to budge, instead peering at me here in the box with seemingly no consideration or regard for the victim trapped within. Its eye stoic, holding no empathy or remorse for the horrible conditions I suffered. I suddenly remembered a time when the roles were reversed.
The day I watched that bird escape and fly away, not once did I consider what an ordeal it must’ve been like for it. How afraid it must’ve been, being swallowed up in the darkness. The loneliness it must’ve felt. Confusion. The hurt and anger of being violated and victimized. And what of the consequences had it never returned to the nest. Would its family miss it? Would there be songs to mourn its absence? Were there young that depended on its safe return for survival?
I have known what it’s like to be the bird outside my window but not the one that I trapped in the box, until now. Today I am that bird, trapped beyond the cruel dark thresholds of North Carolina’s death row. Except here there are no cracks to breath, no slits from which to escape, and the only air to breath holds the aroma of death.
Sometimes I think it’s karma. The encounter with the bird was certainly not the only stain on my moral canvas. I would go on to do many things I regret. Other times I think maybe it was a test. That the bird was sent to metaphorically provide an escape from a gateway of terrible decisions and a path from which there was no return. Maybe the bird was never really trapped at all. Maybe it was me all along. If so, then here I wait – afraid, lonely, and confused, feeling violated and victimized, and desperately hoping for the day when a crack of sunlight will come creeping through.