Essays


 

Another August Among the Mortals (Pondhawk Down)


 

 

…a careful man tries to dodge the bullets.

While a happy man takes a walk.

 

The Eels

From “Electro-shock Blues”

 

 

There are three tiny death’s heads carved out of mammoth tusk

On the ledge of my bathroom.

They grin at me in the morning when I’m taking a leak,

But they don’t say much.

 

Bruce Cockburn

From “Postcards from Cambodia”

 

 

 

 

The green eyes stare or don’t stare. Or they are mainly green with those impressionistic blues, those varied complex darknesses surrounding the bright and unnatural mote of my reflected flash. I can’t tell if they are dead or not, these eyes, these eyes of the doomed. They are cocked to the treetops by the bend of the body. They could be resolving the throes of some last ditch mirage, some throttled dream of escape into altitude, into the safe haven of the clouds—just there, so close, the multi-faceted escape, the ten-thousand octagonal heavens. I don’t know. But I’m sure the color leaches out of the eyes of dragonflies when they die. I just don’t know the time course. In humans there is an instantaneous change, though it is not strictly in the color. It seems to be in the gloss, the focus, the corneal sheen. The senescent bulb goes out and takes its glow with it. I’ve watched this moment happen before in the dying. Watched the watcher go away—too many times. These insect eyes are not human or anything close. Mine to see by chance, at the moment this particular picture was taken I had seen only a blue crackle and a crash on the stones in the heat. It did not seem extraordinary. I took the picture. Nearby: a child whirled with a butterfly net at the edge of a lake, unknowing.

 

A past summer funeral came back to me this week. Like those things do. Came vividly, in fact, when I read the words I’d written afterwards. It was an outdoor service for the parent of a friend who has now drifted out of my life some, but who occasionally reemerges in a passing car, a distant wave, in a face that could be truly hers or could be someone else entirely. The funeral was in a small and dusty town in southwest Arkansas. It was at a graveyard among Red Oaks and burnished grass, beneath a sky of slowmo white clouds. There was a nearby water tower. My mind was drifting; my attention was poor. The ceremonies seemed outside my own world. Irreverently, I remember noting that if the water tower fell it would thoroughly crush the small church nearby—starting a whole spreading rash of rural funerals, no doubt. I recall a Mockingbird singing distantly above the voice of the speaker: that endless bird of whistles, wheezes and borrowings, the loquacious one, his words not sounding like prayer. I could find neither the speaker nor the bird at the time—one was hidden in faces, the other in oak leaves. What bird will sing over my own proceedings? Likely the very same variety. Or perhaps I will be graced by a cardinal, a Carolina Wren or those buntings colored with the indigo brush.

 

On a creek this past week with my daughter, I noted that the local birdsong had fallen off into the August lull. (I always notice birdsong, though we were not after birds.) Stuttering and listless, the birds no doubt were exhausted by all the recent territorial work. The fledglings out and away, some were trying their first songs. The parents were contemplating, finally, their own foodstuffs again; the Broad-winged Hawks whistling for the whistle’s sake. They were all on their own in this month, profoundly it seemed. The young hawks with a journey to make in one month’s time, one they have never made before. The sumac will redden for this event, among other signs. Right now the leaves are hit and miss, scarlet and green, indecisive in their tones. The cardinals who hide inside them look poorly painted. They pant with sharp tongues and look unprepared.

 

My daughter immerses herself up to her neck in the cool water and paddles in place. Higher and drier, I watch dragonflies flit nearby. And I see one she-hunter of the Dragonhunter variety come up out of nowhere to splash water in my daughter’s face. It appears to be a conscious thing on the dragon’s part. She is simply egglaying, of course, but with each of her tail splashes she seems to be willing my daughter away. And it is a standoff to remember. If we count only the winged life of this dragoness, it is equivalent to you or I encountering a being that lives 25 thousand years—a veritable immortal—and then throwing water in its face. This is not to mention the fact that even the refractively severed head of this water beast is hundreds of times the size of this bold little egglayer. I take the dragon with my net and, when we release her in a bit, we are respectful. We who live through winter and past—her patience, her poise gives us pause.

 

The photo of the blue dragon death has kept me many hours in looking at its details. I am dwelling in it. Not healthy perhaps, but still. The body of the victim, the pondhawk, is a chalky blue—an adult. Its abdomen trails in the stones beneath the body of the killer, folded slightly underneath. An unexplainable fragment of orange glass contrasts in the stones. The four dragonwings are wrapped conveniently or purposefully by the arms of the killing insect as it drains the dragon through a tube inserted violently into its back. These deathdealing flies inject paralyzing saliva into their victims like one-fanged spiders. So, I don’t know if the pondhawk is dead or merely frozen in its last bent embrace. Either way I’ve caught myself rubbing at the back of my neck right at the point where it joins the shoulders. I do this repeatedly while staring at the image.

 

The television glares at me, or, actually, several of them do, while I pedal a bike that goes nowhere. I do it for my health. A tested heart buys more time. Though I can’t help thinking that, if all the life I gain is spent peddling and peddling on this bike, I have made better bargains. The screens are silent, subtitled for the deaf whose ranks I am temporarily among, I suppose, as far as these televisions are concerned. Toothy faces speak; images shift and change. A siding salesman appears who is so smooth-mannered and calm that I think I may want to go help the siding men with their work. I may dial the number now. Go from house to house applying the new outer garments that will fight against the wear and tear of aging—wrap the world in armor one home at a time. It seems the better job. On the other screen there are whales on a beach and men cheering—some sort of release. Beached whales treated and rehabbed and now sent out to sea again—makes television seem worthwhile for a brief instant. But saving whales or putting up siding—my aspirations are in turmoil. Could be the hyperventilation. The whale images are followed by carnage and smoking chaos, (ah, that’s more like it) men who look buckled by the luck of it all. They appear to need their own assistance from a different kind of beaching. Their armor plating must have worn through. On another screen someone spins a big wheel. Numbers turn and everyone watches. The ticker stops and a silent audience crackles its approval. The television flashes the word “applause” in brackets. I would give a great deal to see the television flash, just once, the message [uncomfortable silence] for the entire world to see.

 

As I look at the photo of the insects once more, my wife peers over my shoulder. I can see her face scrunch up next to me. She looks at the screen and at me.

 

“What is that?”

 

I open my mouth. What to say? A life, a death? The world is rife with subliminal murder. This is the fuel that burns in the furnace of the ordinary hour? The beautiful aftermath of sunlight? The daily bloodletting? Pawn takes knight; knight takes rook? Or was it nothing? Is it nothing?

 

“Bugs,” I say. And I think I will elaborate further but she shakes her head.

 

“That is just sad.”

 

I don’t know if she means the pictured event or my fascination with it. Could be both. This is a woman of few words when making pronouncements on my habits. I point out the perfect wing veins of the dragonfly, the bulge of the fly’s abdomen as it fills with, well, high octane dragonfuel—the syrup de odonata. Injected with some paralytic acid emulsion from hell, I guess we are all cream filled. I etch out the winglines that make ghosts of the stones on the other side. “See how the killer looks bearded and daydreamy,” I whisper. But she is gone. And she’s right to go.

 

My daughter leaps from a great stone in another creek, defying death. Or, more likely, defying her fear of high places, of falling. I am melodramatic about mortality it seems, possessed with one theme. She lofts out into the deep green water and vanishes for a moment in a colossal splash; comes up giggling. Beneath the water her lanky form wobbles bonelessly like a jellyfish. She swims a circlet and climbs back atop the rock. She surveys the kingdom and flies again. In the air she carts and cranks the long limbs, she makes a face of astonishment, as if she’d been thrown off. And then she crashes into another brief disappearance that stops my breath.

 

Myself, I feared water at her age. Heights I’m not sure about. But a public pool could send me into catatonia. Hiding in the brush, I would beg for the camp water activities to be over, over. I’m not sure I was ever taken to a creek back then. Or if it would have had some improved effect, would have mellowed my shaky soul more smoothly into water. I don’t remember what got me there. Emotional erosion or some such. The realization that water, for God’s sake, was the least of my worries.

 

Mysteriously, near the tip of one of the dragonfly wings in the picture that is, for good or bad, my continued fixation, there appear to be two drops of red blood. It has been days and I had not noticed them. Dragonfly blood is not red; robber fly blood is not red. I don’t know where it came from. But they are rich red drops like fresh venous blood. They cling to the clear net of wing in odd shapes. Punctuation; they glisten below the perfect black stigma, a blood tattoo that won’t give up its message. I squint at them. I touch the screen. Whose blood is this? Whose blood is this?

 

My words from the day of the funeral:

 

“A fish crow speaks a nasal string of vowels

And scrapes a shadow across a crowd to my right.

They do not know the bird has interposed his gravity, the stirring of his air.

‘This is the best ground, you know, these are not small places.’

Yes, I think, they are.

Traffic sounds sift in from the west, or what passes for traffic here at least:

A single car and dust.

There should be music but only the insects speak their monotonies of heat.

The crowd dispatches,

Disgruntled and homebound

Through the afternoon of another day,

Through the insufficiencies that take us back.

It is a loss more unconscious than palpable.

I touch the closest tree where it has been scarred by a spiral of lighting

And following its healing line upward I find the first stealths of the wind

Slipping inside the simpler motions of the hardening summer.

The breeze rattles above the last rhythms of abandonment:

These shuffled, dusty steps,

Punctuating what feels more like a brief awakening, really, than a ritual of loss

Or some final reckoning of tired bone or blood.”

 

I’ll change the picture that stares me down to something else soon. It is like a habit I must break—one mortal watching as the rules are recapitulated. Maybe on to the picture of my daughter in flight: dancing limbs and hair captured in that flash of time, the flash that looks like only one instant but which we know, truly, is its own little smear of infinite brevities. One five hundredth of a second’s worth of falling, flailing happy girl-life made into a different backlit fascination, a room light for my dark evenings. (As if all she was was the light she gives off.) A picture sans the bloodletting and tangled hooks of summer bugs—a different hypnosis. And in three years time I will see this girlchild’s picture and run back over these summers once again. Workdays, schooldays, sleep and seasons, streamlife ahead or behind, one thousand days is not immortality. But staring at the pane of mirrored water beneath my daughter in this picture which is just the one after the last picture and before the next, I can imagine it, holding the moment longer and longer, putting off the shot I didn’t take, the one where the water is shattering, where the girl is going-going-gone, the one where we are both soaking wet, where she is swimming and laughing and I am so tall on my stony shoreline.

 

Look at this, I’ll say, look how thoroughly alive we were. And I will be glad I knew it once, recognized it. Alive. Far more alive, evidently, than all that light we gave off.

 

 

        HR