Essays


 

Dove, Cinnamon and Eyeshadow


 

Once upon a time, in the land of Uz, there was a man named Job.

He was a man of perfect integrity,

who feared God and avoided evil.

 

The Book of Job

Translation by Stephen Mitchell

 

 

There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job;

and that man was perfect and upright,

and one that feared God and eschewed evil.

 

The Book of Job

King James translation

 

 

 

Beneath us the world is fogbound. It looks like Bo and I could step out with little effort, with snowshoes and a pack lunch, and wander cautiously over the tops of the hills. Our rock juts out over the middle fork of the Red River and it is just after dawn in north Arkansas. I have never been to this particular outcropping of stone and so I have no idea of the depth of the valley, no image of the hidden treescape that slips off into echo or how the bend of the river is supposed to look beneath these earthbound clouds. I can put whatever I wish there. One dreams of landscapes that are outside the bounds of reality. We wish to be creative, beyond even what God has allowed. And then perhaps we wish to walk away and to never know who did better—our neediness or God.

 

The morning sounds are all innuendo in the fog. They lift to our ears: bird voices and the murmurs of fishermen. The air is very still or else all else would be revealed. Far and near, Pileated Woodpeckers cry. The Black-throated Green Warbler works a tree invisibly somewhere, its own voice a zig of “zoos and zees” like a bouncy question in baby language. It is insistent. It asks and asks and asks again. A Worm-eating Warbler sizzles off to the deep left. I have seen this bird sing before, if singing is what we must call the making of this noise. The whole bird body shakes with the sound. Its beak is thrown wide, its head is tilted back as the pale feet hang onto whatever hickory stem or oak sapling the bird has for a brace. And then it shivers its seizure of sizzling. I believe you could feel it through the trunk of a small tree. We should take notice of longing like this, if longing is what spring birdsong is. It is certainly more than just history and coded coils of chemistry banging around in this post-equinoctial fog.

 

On the pond inside the pines behind us the water is flat. Hilltop water, it is only forty eight degrees ambient above the surface. Who knows the cooler water temperature below? It looks damn cold. It wants for a finger or a burning hand. A frog calls on the edge and draws its voice out and out and out into absurdity, until I laugh with its seeming breathlessness. I’m so impressed I have to time the next call and I listen to this cold frog trill for thirty full ticks of my personal second hand. Where on this whole mountaintop will another frog rise up and come to this voice? On the other hand, what female wouldn’t drag herself up this mountain to such a songster? What froggy children they could make. I have a mind to grapple him out of there and take him someplace where normal frogs thrive. His virtuosity is wasted on our ears; it is wasted under this audience of stiff-backed pines like an opera star singing on the dark side of the moon.

 

At the far end of the same pond a heron stands with its feet in the water. It does not make a ripple or scan for fish. It leans strongly west. We approach until we get close enough to see finally that this is a decoy heron. Patient beyond blood, it is plastic and wire, smeared with gray and white paint. It suggests a Great Blue Heron, and this was no doubt the painter’s intent. We almost stalked it. What is frightened by a faux heron? What is lured? Certainly, not this frog. Why decorate an isolated mountain pond with fake birdlife? Ah, the world, the world.

 

There is a moment in the Book of Job where Job has finally grown tired of his friends. It is that moment we all understand. Job speaks to the friends who came to try and convince him of his sinfulness in the face of all the boiled skin, the sudden plague and loss of everything that Job has lived for. These are the friends who say “all men are maggots.” Surely, they tell Job, you must have done something ugly to deserve this, implying that Job must also be, well, another maggot. Job listens to all he can take and finally says “how kind you have all been to me! What would I do without you and all the good advice you have given.” Our Job is deeply sarcastic here. If it had not been the Bible the words would have been different. Acerbic and raunchy, I believe. It is strange to hear yourself laugh aloud in the midst of the bleakness of the Book of Job. But I did. Like finding the voice of a frog at the edge of a cold pond.

 

While I am writing this, a dog comes in my room to rest his chin on my leg. It is the sign, a subtle one, that we must go out for a moment. And there on the front lawn is a sky of half cloud, half starlight shifting rapidly eastward, reminding me of the vast speeds involved in just hiding away in my room. The moon shuns and glows in its own landscape of silver. It looks like a window to another world of white where I cannot go, where I am not allowed. The whole thing breaks up while I stand and watch. It turns into more stars. I forget. The night sky is always going on without me. Outside the house, miracles occur. The dog waits at the door with a look that suggests he has seen all he needs to see; he understands that we humans are not really in control after all.

 

Hurrying, always hurrying, with a map and the satellites that speak to the little box I keep on the seat, I go with distraction. Focus, I say. And suddenly there is something in the road—small and multi-colored. I am too close before I realize it is a snake. I aim my wheels on either side. I brake up red dust in a rumbling gravel screech and skid. I hope the snake has not panicked and rushed under a wheel anyway. Door flung open, engine still running, dust blowing by, I run back behind the truck, dramatically, and find the serpent unharmed. I thought it was a hognose in my overbearing rush. The hognose being that lovely and gentle snake I have seen many times, the harmless adder who puffs and spits, who falls over dramatically in a deadish curl (but is not truly dead). I get down on my knees to look this one over closely. But it is no hognose. This guy is masked and blotched in a new pattern. He is gray and rust in a whole new symbology of snakedom. As I peer closely, I realize it is a rattlesnake—a pygmy rattlesnake, in fact. He is just off my nose. My senses buzz up into another gear. The slit eye watches back. I move slowly. He could dispatch me with a fang in my nose. I would do my own death dance: the real kind, in the middle of a gravel road in the nowhere woods. Or I would drive like a madman with my face inflating and burning like, well, the face of Job, without all the questions of sinlessness and undeserved despair.

 

I scoop up the snake in a butterfly net because it is what I have at hand. This alarms both of us much less than grasping at him with my fingers. I drive fifty feet and hold the net safely over the empty passenger seat, moving all of us over to the roadside. It is a road that runs dead down the Oklahoma/Arkansas border. I park on the Oklahoma side. I walk the snake over the Arkansas line and set him out on the ground to watch him some more. Another truck rumbles by without slowing. They’ve apparently seen madmen with nets and serpents bending together mysteriously out here before. The snake never strikes, never looks very worried. It rattles its small strand of rattles once, soundlessly, and then uncoils and goes away from me—its savior and its near deathdealer—leaving the most complicated road crossing of its short life behind.

 

I don’t remember serpents appearing anywhere in Job. I think the word came up once, from the mouth of God, but in Job the snakes were not used for his torment. Satan, the Accuser, was more focused on mad dermatology. And, well, lightning and armed marauders, but not venom. I have wondered before if it is a sin to rescue a snake? I’m not sure; it is unclear. In this case I guess I should also ask if it is a sin to transport a venomous snake across state lines. Either way, they are long accursed from the events in the garden (the apple, the secrets, the woman and the man). But a sin? It seemed more sinful frankly when I watched a driver in front of me on another back road swerve purposely over to crush a kingsnake. I was immediately inflamed. I wanted to rush up and have a word with the driver. But love thy neighbor. Love even thy neighbor who needlessly and cruelly destroys serpents. It is a twisted map to follow, this Ghandian way, this word of Christ. Anger sometimes is so much easier.

 

Atop an observation tower that is safely in Oklahoma, I think this: no observation tower is ever high enough for me. The word “tower” suggests what it is supposed to be. These local builders have shirked on their altitude. Fire towers are closer to my own needs. Perhaps something between a fire tower and a low flying airplane would be better: a rickety scraper of wood and rust. One should be breathless on reaching the lofty place; there should be risk. The pulse should be thrumming in the ears. Terra firma should be down and damn down like a paint stained map. Because this is what I am looking for: the panorama that is explanatory, the landscape with answers.

 

In front of this tower, the sun is low and orange inside the western clouds. Birdsound moves my head in stops and starts over the marshes. Grebes and egrets yodel and grunt. Frogs click and quack. A breeze furrows the water now and then. Young dragonflies flit up, crinkle and fall back to try again in the grass below. A black spider comes out to gaze at his own blue heaven—it is one man, one spider and the rest of the world, jutting up at the eye in the sky. It is a sin in some worldviews to love this delicate machinery too much—miles and miles of burning marsh life. Apparently there are flavors of sin that I have some true knowledge of. There may be flavors of sin I am not willing to forego. When my body springs up in a coat of boils, I will not need to think long. I don’t look for excuses in the song of sparrows. But sometimes in such places we want to hear the world whisper a phrase we can follow, an instruction for the next hour or day. Consolation or solace—speak mystery speak.

 

In the Red River valley in Arkansas, the sun has burned through. It hangs behind Bo and I in the striking angle that only dawn can bring. Orioles gather in the treetops. They are flinging the orangest of the light spectrum back to us. The light that has, I like to recognize, traveled the eight minutes from our local solar furnace to bounce off these orange birds and go straight into my eye. As the birds move and feed, they strike varied constellations of residua on the retina: spacks of gray, temporary burn shadows. You close your eyes and the patterns change—cells here and there stunned by the oriole light. Is it a sin to see this and want it to stay?

 

Careful what you wish for is what I read in the final section of Job. Job cries out that he wishes God would come down and state his case. Essentially he says get down here so I can see you. He’s thought it all out. He is puzzled still. He never wonders if he has loved the world too much; never ponders if that is his sin. Or I missed it if he did. But, after he cries out for God, Job is suddenly faced with a talking whirlwind that Stephen Mitchell calls the Unnameable. (When I talk to the sky on my own towers, I try to keep my voice down to a respectful whisper. This may be why.)

 

The whirlwind:

 

“Where were you when I planned the earth?”

 

“Have you ever commanded morning or guided dawn to its place—

to hold the corners of the sky and shake off the last few stars?”

 

“If you shout commands at the thunderclouds, will they rush off to do your bidding?”

 

Serious ire. I’ve tried the cloud thing—doesn’t work. The whirlwind goes on for over a hundred verses—evidence in eagles and ravenous lions, the antelope, the ostrich and the ox. The choices are imbedded in the images of the living earth. The voice says in a hundred ways: take your place, you are a bug, you are my bug in a world of bugs. You did not curse me; I appreciate it. But I owe you no explanations.

 

As my friend and I stared down into the fog that morning, a car pulled up behind us. Doors slammed and two young ladies came around to the rock outcrop. The older of the two smiled at us as she told us this was private land. She told us it was fine to be here since it was not marked as such. She was glad to see our binoculars. She told us it is the ones who come to shoot at things illegally that are not welcome. We nod at this. And her father, she says, loved this place. She sweeps her hand. He liked it when others liked it. He liked to come and just listen to the grumbling of the world and its winds and sighs. And my friend Bo, it turns out, had spoken with the old man before. They may have stood together here. This young woman is the landowner’s daughter. She says he loved this place and wanted to keep it like this for good and for ever. It meant something to him.

 

I started to ask her about the plastic heron. (Oh, the things we need to know.) And I knew she could probably tell me what was down in the valley below the fog—if I truly wanted the answer. But before I could ask these things she explained that they’d come to drink a cup of coffee to her father, to smoke a cigarette to him even though she didn’t smoke. Her father had made her a lover of this place too. She had been with him just a few hours before. She’d watched him die that morning at 3:30 am. She’d come back here now to say goodbye. She knew this was where he would go.

 

Bird song still echoed as we walked off back down the road. We saw them move toward the valley to make their salutes. I did not catch her name—this daughter of Mister Jones.

 

“Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.”

 

Of course, it was all a sideshow for the Accuser and the Unnameable God. In the end, Job is given back his status and his possessions: fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, ten new children. I have never been sure these new children were the very same ones. Were they identical? Did they spring back up at exactly the same ages as those taken by the Accuser? The ones that were blown dead by a toppled house? It is not clear. Job certainly does not protest at the quality of the new ones, knowing what he did, having seen what he had seen. His seven sons remain anonymous in this story. His three new daughters are named for peace, abundance and female grace. They are said to have been the most beautiful daughters in the world. I have always been comforted that they were his most prized resurrections—girls from God.

 

Job, it also says, lived afterward to a very great age—one hundred and forty years or more. We do not get to hear any of what he said or did in this long respite afterward. “The Lord,” says the King James Version succinctly, “blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning…” I can hear him though, with his great grandchildren gathered a hundred years on: “Did I ever tell you about the time I was scolded by a whirlwind?”

 

And surely, I hope Job remembered to step out into the stars back then more often than I do now. The moon must be a striking thing gleaming above the low and shift of fourteen thousand sheep. How often would a shepherd gaze out at the night without his herd or his dogs to pull him there? (Oh Lord, how many sheepdogs are needed to watch over fourteen thousand sheep?) I wish I knew the name of just one of Job’s dogs.

 

And I should go outside now, sheep or no. This is what I suddenly think. I’ll make the big dog go with me whether he needs it or not. The sky is, no doubt, still busily hurrying on.

 

“Where is the road to light? Where does darkness live?”

 

What more must there be in the face of the stars after you’ve personally spoken to whirlwinds about the bloodlust of eagles, about teaching the vultures to soar?

 

And Oh, to have a child named Dove or Cinnamon salute you when you’re gone.

                       

        HR