A quetzal perched in a mango tree alongside a dozen white chickens roosting contently in the pre-dawn. The air was stagnant and muggy; waiting for the sun to bake the terracotta rooftops and single-track dirt roads that weaved through the pueblito. The pungent barnyard aroma permeated the quiet and acted as a reminder that a hard day’s work lay ahead. I stood a long time, a witness to this extraordinary moment that would vanish when daylight woke the chickens. The quetzal groomed itself, unfazed by my presence. Mating season, his twin tail feathers appeared to flow like emerald ribbons between two sleeping hens.
This was in central Honduras outside a small room I had rented from a farmer. Two fat pigs grunted in their sleep. The farmer’s dog lay sprawled on its side outside my door. A goose slept on a wooden folding chair in the yard, its head tucked deep between folded wings. A normal morning by all accounts, except for the majestic quetzal that seemed to wait, like I was, for something to signal daybreak.
The farmer’s wife startled me when she stepped outside the main house and made her way to the kitchen next to my room. I looked over my shoulder and waved. Turning back, I caught a glimpse of the quetzal fly off before it disappeared into the jungle. The moment vanishing like the fog against the rising sun.
I finished packing for a trip I had planned and went to the kitchen where I whisked eggs alongside the farmer’s wife as she fanned the cooking fire and worked masa into round tortillas. I didn’t mention the quetzal. It was gift I kept to myself.
The quetzal was the only thing among us that morning with the freedom to live life aligned with its God given place in the world. It’s shocking colors reminding me how mundane my circumstances had become. I was headed down the mountain for a supply run and would be gone a week. The barnyard animals and dog would fulfill their obedient roles while I was gone. Envious of the bird, I made a mental note to do something exciting on my trip. Maybe hike the cloud forest above El Progreso or head out to the islands to indulge in the exotic.
It’s been twenty-five years since I stood under that mango tree, yet my mind delivers the image of the quetzal amid the white chickens like a postcard from a faraway place, reminding me that even in extraordinary times, it is the ordinary that keeps us afloat. With the uncertainty and isolation all of us are faced with right now, routines help us keep track of time and give us a reason to get out of bed and toss open the curtains. Moments of laughter and joy throw light on our dark moods. Phone calls act as lifeboats in troubled times marked by loneliness.
Resplendent quetzals, members of the Trogon family, live in the mountainous, tropical forests of Central America. None have ever been spotted this far north at our ranch along the Mexican border. But occasionally, I look up while weeding the garden or watering the trees in the orchard hoping to catch a glimpse of that dazzling bird, a beacon among the house finches, sent down from the heavens to remind me there are still wonders and surprises even now, in a world that oftentimes feels heavy and gray.