The world belonged to the birds today. Late November, west coast, the air incubating warmth under a thick fleece of grey cloud, light rain in leisurely bursts, the earth soft and cellular—subtle. Chocolate mousse. Not pudding, not mud. By the busy, feathery look of things, it yielded up its seeds and grubs.
Outside of town, my friend and I passed a field thick with Canada geese, among them trotting a single fawn, more rectangular, but not much bigger. We were on our way to swim in the ocean. Maybe putting it off, we stopped at a farm stand that sold eggs, only—organic, free range, cartons in a cooler. A sign listed the prices and indicated the cash box, and alternatively offered an email address for e-transfers. You could pay an extra dollar for washed eggs. They were beautiful either way, each egg uniquely obedient in its row. As my friend sent off an e-transfer, I stared at the leafless hawthorn nearby, filled with juncos, an unmistakeable bird both made beautiful and cursed—gentle monks or executioners—by their dark hoods. I counted a dozen.
We drove on, past a marsh strung with webs so thick that we first assumed it was snow. Finally, we parked and walked through a forest, the trees furred with lichen, a stream cascading beside us, toward the bight.
It did bite. We were quicker than we’ve ever been. Like baptisms, our dips in saltwater. Our skin, the sac that holds us, our shell, renewed to alertness. Usually I swim until the cold seeps into my heart, but we were too far from home--my friend’s electric car offers heat at the expense of mileage.
On the walk back to the road where we’d parked, we passed beneath a bald eagle, whistling in its nest. It was the closest I’ve ever been to a bald eagle, which delighted my friend--who doesn’t want to witness our friends’ firsts? Especially at this age? We saw a Northern Flicker moments later, and watched it in silence, each of us sighing once, “I love Northern Flickers.” There’s not more to say than that—a Northern Flicker is so exacting in its oddness, anyone who loves it loves it in the same way.
The Canada geese had flown on. The fawn was gone too. I imagined it sprouting wings, but my friend pictured the geese carrying it, sharing the flightless load. This explanation was rational, and even plausible; depending on my mood, which shifts moment to moment, I prefer it.
When I got home, my young son was at the stove, abashed—one of the three eggs he was boiling for his breakfast had cracked, white inelegantly burbling through the ragged seam—as if it was his fault. “Eggs crack all the time,” I said. “You’ve done nothing wrong.”
Moments later, there was a big bang. I’d swear the collision shook the house. A bird had struck the window. A dear towhee, curled up in the grass below, glazed black eyes open. I picked her up in one hand as I dialed my friend with the other. It had been ten minutes since we’d said goodbye, so we were still attached, plus her reasonableness. “Make sure the cat isn’t around,” she said. “No. Don’t bring it into the house. If it hasn’t broken its neck, it’s just shocked. It will stay still for while. It’s its way of mending, of healing. Then it will just leap back to life, and if it’s in the house, you’ll really have a problem.” “It’s so soft,” I said. "it's sooo soft." The breeze ruffled its feathers, parting them, revealing smaller feathers, then fine down, like snow, spiders’ webs, smoke.
I wanted to put it on a blanket, but we decided to lay her in the vegetable bed. Her eyes lost their lustre, and as I laid her in the dirt, her head fell, incurably. “She’s gone,” I said. Then: “My windows are dirty.” I keep them dirty on purpose. But it obviously wasn't enough. Maybe she was being chased, or lost in thought. How to make room for that?
I carried her to the backyard, stopped in my tracks at the gate: a Northern Flicker was in the mushrooms, its bill deep in the wet soil, in heaven. It didn’t even notice me, though I’d approached with some noise, using the shovel as a kind of walking cane. I stood very still, watching the flicker love the earth for a long time, while the bird grew cold in my hand, despite its million feathers.
--for Amanda and Kelsey, with love
Today I saw a woman that I’d known a little when our children were young. She was a serious woman, even though she rode a bicycle. But that was a European thing, embedded in her upbringing. She was the kind of person you slowly realize won’t break through whatever shell they’re in, and that maybe there was nothing on the other side anyway, nothing to be patient for—so you edge away until, over a few years, you can even let the hellos-in-passing fade away.
But maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe you don’t know the strange equation of pettiness, meanness, anger--why did we even meet, it’s not MY fault she’s a bore, she never asks about me, etc.—and liberation that complicates what should be simple chemistry, those elements that don’t form bonds, the noble gases.
Anyway, I hadn’t seen her in a number of years, and there she was, on her bike, paused at a Stop sign at an empty intersection, thinner than she’d ever been. Ten years had passed, and she was thinner.
I can’t remember much about her child, a girl with bangs and short, straight hair—who I genuinely hope is happy somewhere, across the country maybe, a lightness in her, the yeast of generosity. If so, I imagine she’d struggle with one of those—rare--the reports are exaggerated, an act of sexism—complicated mother-daughter relationships. It would be worth it.
There was a seriousness in all our exchanges that never lifted, and even felt dangerous, like quicksand. She was the type of person who would have been on top of her compost—whose turnips, if she grew them, would have been in perfectly straight rows. Though honestly, I don’t think she would have had the imagination to grow turnips. Certainly not in Canada.
Ultimately, I decided she was impenetrable. That her spirit lacked the desire to breach. Though of course no one is truly impenetrable. Still, you can only spend so long offering flowers--maybe she’s a rose person not a cosmos person--or throwing pebbles, waiting for something to crack.
This is the blessing and the curse of living in a city for so long, that you witness, right on the sidewalk, or in grocery store aisles, people move through life, marriage(s), work, fashion—and also learn that some friendships have a limited number of seasons.
She was thinner, yes, but also aged beyond her years—into another generation, even. I felt equal parts sorry and vindicated.
I have chosen vindicated.