Essays


 

The Summer Visitations       


 

Everyone around me looks small and

Insubstantial, like men adrift in a lifeboat.

I am the island they see in the distance.

 

From “Gluttony”

Stephen Dobyns

 

 

The heart of the Blue Whale beats ten times a minute.

 

There are some facts in nature that weave through my consciousness like smoke, like mischievous voodoo. They buzz in the back of my head sometimes for days like bees in the occiput. They make themselves present no matter what I am doing. And this is one: a heart the size of an automobile pushing itself through this lumbering cycle of squeeze and release like a great slow clock. Several grown men could curl up inside a whale heart and sleep. If it wasn’t for all that gush and break, that lumbering physiology that would push such stowaway humans right out the nearest artery into the whale head like some subliminal dream of humanity flashing briefly in the Cetacean mind. I was thinking, I suppose, of some room that was like a whaleheart where things would be quieter, where one man could just ponder things without all that thrumming business of blood.

 

You can hear the sustained bloodnoise inside a dog when you hold your ear to their chest. Bloodnoise being a more accurate term than heartbeat for what issues from a living, breathing dog. Hemoglobinocity, so to speak. Not as impressive as laying your earbones along a whale flank—but still. You don’t need stethoscopes or special equipment to appreciate the sounds inside a dog, you can just press your head right against the source. It is an immediate and exact evidence of life. And dogs seem to like the noise being heard. Though they have no idea, really, what is up. They just like it in general when heads are pressed against them.

 

Dog hearts, of course, do not beat at ten times a minute. (Perhaps a Newfoundland in Norway in deep slumber could achieve this. But I doubt it.) Normally canines rock along at seventy, eighty, ninety-five. Dogs have pulses all over. And they pant when they dream. They are full of these complicated pumpings and wheezings. When they pant they can breathe at three or four hundred times a minute—faster than I can count. And the Red Dog is very alive whether he is panting or not. He looks like a hairy fuel system on the mad move, even when he just stares back. I never think this kind of thing when I look at other people. I don’t stop to think, “hmm, well, this guy really does look alive.”

 

My own heart could hold what? A few close mice? A single small bird species? It would be an anxious home for what goes there: four rooms, all bath. I’ve seen my own cardiac shadow on a silvered plate, on an x-ray sheet. Captured in a false stillness, it looks inadequate for my own needs. The silhouette is traceable with a finger, shaped like a ladies coin purse held under a tap, it is a great strawberry sheltered by lung and lung. It certainly appears inadequate to the task of bearing other travelers. But yet it goes and goes.

 

That damn David Attenborough has infected our lives this early summer. His “Life of Mammals” pulls us in. We watch him as a Meerkat perches on his shoulder. And we want to laugh out loud while the Meerkat studies the world around him from the low height of such a man. The animal is balanced and vigilant. He is sitting on the world’s most dangerous animal and surveying the world for, well, real danger I guess. He does not know the human he sits upon has absolutely no inclination to harm small mammals. (What are the odds?) Or maybe that little weasel head is way smarter than we know: Attenborough as a throne, Attenborough as the island in the desert sea. But still, I doubt the animal understanding. One wants to be helpful, one wants to whisper inside one of those pointy Meerkat ears, “run, little guy, run.”

 

The Big Dog flops on the rug with no vigilance at all in any direction. He does not need to hunt or perk up his ears at predators or rivals. He is the largest local mammal we have to spy upon, to study. Inspired by Attenborough, we examine his habits. We take no film footage; we just remember. Inside our brick and rugscaped habitat, we still have a trio of dogs, a trio of cats to watch. They move about (well, occasionally anyway.) They interact with each other and sometimes other things come to visit us all. This morning there was a rattling and banging at the door. With all the dogs accounted for, I looked outside and saw no one, nothing, no postman, no prankster. Opening the door, I discovered a good foot long turtle, a Red-eared Slider fumbling against the door. I was amazed. She had to climb stairs to get there. She was in the midst of mowed Bermuda and Zoysia, a very non-turtle landscape. But here she was, an entirely new visitor. I’d slept solidly through the storms of the last evening. And now, for a brief flash, I pictured turtles scattered over the whole lawn, the aftermath of an uncommon storm indeed. But she was alone, the water that washed her here was already gone. I doubt she’d slept much herself.

 

Oddities have shown up several times in the past month. The world seems to be on the move past my house. Just this week the speckled dog refused to come to the back door. This is extremely odd behavior from our speckled dog who normally cherishes all her available time in the house. She’ll take any room or any chair. She would come in for a session of designated torture I think. But instead of coming quickstep as usual she was bouncing around down by the northwest corner of the lawn, zipping around the garden enclosure. There was no explanation for her refusal. And then I saw what looked like a green balloon loft up and fall into the grass out in front of her. This immediately sent the speckled dog into renewed spasms of leaping and fence running.

 

I was down the yard and in the gate and quickly over to the garden plot soon afterwards where I found a fully grown bullfrog in my grass. Somehow he’d made his way inside the back brick fence, which was a huge structure for a frog to overcome. And he’d been rewarded for this wondrous effort with the white teeth and paws of an enthusiastic dog. (The world is not fair.) A dog being an animal that probably registered in the frog mind just as many other animals did: “FROG KILLER, FROG KILLER.” Thin-skinned and unarmed—the whole world was alarming. The bullfrog had climbed the great wall to find there were demons on both sides. No matter. I took over and lifted the frog up into the safer air at the altitude of a human nose. The frog let out a groan of either relief or exasperation; I could not be sure which it was. It was like a deflation. He may have been attempting to blow himself up to a size that might scare a dog. And now he just finished with a sigh of resignation, shrinking down to just damn big. His inflation capacity had been nowhere near the level required to dampen Molly’s interest in him. The sudden truth was upon him: he knew that his froggy powers had limitations. Oh the hard lessons, the long days ahead.

 

His nose was bruised. His fingertips were reddened and raw. But nothing appeared broken. Those striking copper eyes looked at me with that usual mix of froggy defiance and acceptance. The monkish face of the worldly stalwart, “what, oh Lord, could possibly be next,” he seemed to say. I dearly love frog eyes for this and other reasons. I took him back over his wall. He lives on, with his new understandings and all.

 

The Big Dog also brought in a box turtle this week—from somewhere in the yard. They are the much more frequent land-based, tortoisoidal (oh, I like that one) visitors to our patch. The hinged terrapin chamber was closed tight. But still, the Big Dog was unimpressed, he was about to settle into some hard tooth work when my wife found him. The Big Dog has a mouth that can accommodate a whole turtle. He likes, also, to suck and teethe on polished rocks. This turtle may have seemed to him like just a very tasty and odoriferous rock. (The Big Dog is an odd oral animal.) Anyway, my wife gave a slight screech and then took the turtle back out to her deepest flowers, nestled his slobbery turtleness right down in the dark of the Rudbeckias. We seem to have several of these orange-speckled Boxies that just hang around the yard. They can hide amazingly well in the flower beds. (From human eyes anyway.) I should study their habits. I should slink through the cannas with my camera and my notebook.

 

On the stairs this past week another small item of zoology appeared. I was barely awake. The sun comes in the eastern windows and strikes the stairs there. It is where the cats head when they are released from their own beds. But this was not a cat. It was smaller than a cat’s eye. And I walked over and peered closely at the insect sitting on my carpeted stairway. It was a robber fly. These are one of the predatory fly species. No buzzing around piles of stinking offal and dog stool for these guys. They take their food out of the air like falcons—bees and wasps and dragonflies and butterflies. They are like falcons with six legs and a piercing siphon for a mouth. I have been studying these impressive insects this summer. And never had I found one in my house. Nor in any of my past houses. It seemed an odd circumstance. But here was a proud and long-legged female perched on the fourth stair from the top and pointed toward the morning light. A falcon would have been no more amazing. I took a net and let her walk over onto the edge and then set her on my wife’s front porch flowers. When I checked back in a few minutes she was gone.

 

I looked into the back of a man’s eye at his retina this week and thought of whales again. There was nothing about this eye that should have triggered this tangent. (Sad, this distractibility.) But I suddenly wondered about the whale eye. Thought about Attenborough standing inside the computer generated whale interior and pointing out the massive whale organs— that thrumming heart like a muscular Volkswagen, that spine like a pipe. And their eyes the size of what? Beach balls? We still don’t know where they breed, these Blue Whales. Big things, you know, biggest animals ever with the biggest eyeballs and we still don’t know where they go to breed. I want to go look. Sometimes in the middle of an ordinary day I want to walk away and just go search the world for the secret breeding hole of the Blue Whale.

 

“Hey, where do you think you are going?”

“A search, listen, I’ve got whales to locate.”

 

I could phone up Attenborough afterwards with the good news. “Northern Siberian waters, David. Really, how could you have missed them? You should have seen it.”

 

In the meantime, I can watch the dogs. I tell myself. There they are. I wonder how many dogs Attenborough has? Dogs have secrets. The Red Dog stares me down. I know he has secrets. He is thinking I have secrets. But I don’t. I am just the watchful eye.

 

A banging in the front rooms—I am trying to read. I am alone in the house. I ignore it for a bit and then I have to go see. It is not a dog, I check, I have them all in sight. At first, I have no good guesses. But a shadow slips by me with the next thunk. And I climb the stairs backwards to the landing that faces the second story window. Outside on the railing of the porch, the porch that is not an accessible porch, a crow sits. I watch him. And the bird throws himself akimbo (if one can be akimbo with just wings) against the window. Then he sits on the rail again and ponders the view toward where I am standing. I’m not sure he can see me. But he throws himself against the window once more. He does it again and again. I flail my arms and wave them to try and put him off. But, alas, I don’t appear to be the reason he finally stops. He just tires of the effort. What he dreamed of in the house vanishes from his Corvid mind I guess. I don’t know. It is another secret. But it seems a far more acute sign than any necromancer’s bones thrown in the sand, than some palmist gazing closely at the lines of my hand and looking sadly up at my face. “Young man,” my sad woman says, “get yourself a fast car and go for a long ride.” Then a pause. “That will be forty dollars.”

 

Attenborough wades into Manatees. My daughter and I shake our heads. This man must really hate his own home. It must be all he can do to sit in his own garden, we think. But then we see one sequence that is actually filmed in his yard. He has hedgehogs there. He lures them up with food. He knows just what to give them. Among the manatees though, he laughs. Who wouldn’t? They stubble him with their whiskered, hippopotamoid faces. He knows what to feed them too. He comments on their manateean halitosis. “David, David, David,” we say.

 

The dogs circle me. I move among them with my elaborate illusions of wisdom. They pant and cock their heads. It is a pretense at godhood, being among dogs. It is a form of zoological power. I begin to understand Attenborough. I’m playing on the majesty of my species. I’m reminded that I can go pull down John Berryman’s “The Dreamsongs” and read it at my leisure. I can open cans of food for myself. These are powers I don’t usually appreciate. I’m not sure reading Berryman to the dogs would impress them. I believe they would all just cock their heads even farther than usual and raise their ears. They would wonder at my droning poetic voice. They would exchange the looks among themselves that would say “what in the hell is he on about? Are we all going to eat after this?”

 

The stairway is what I sit upon when things are quiet. Sometimes with scotch; sometimes without. I look out at the same vista that the robber fly did: other walls and windows, the pecan tree where the Mockingbird sings, the rooflines and the farther rooflines. When things bang up against us, the house is a shell against the world. The world is passing over and we are a speedbump. I live in an obstacle for turtles, a territorial marker for birds. I am in the rooms where the crows cannot go. To the Robins nesting in the maple tree out front, we are the big square stone that mysteriously vomits bipeds at inopportune moments. It is a box preserved by gravity from a fling into space. I have flown over the box in a small plane and it does not look like much from a thousand feet. It looks oppressed by all the neighboring boxes. It does not look like the haven of space I can only imagine inside a whale heart.  

 

I had no idea. It is only a house.

 

The dogs gather. I read from The Dreamsongs:

“Dapples my floor the eastern sun, my house faces north,

I have nothing to say except that it dapples my floor

and it would dapple me

if I lay on that floor, as-well-forthwith

I have done, trying well to mount a thought

not carelessly…”

 

I whisper to the staring canine faces:

“The heart of the Blue Whale beats ten times a minute.”

They pant in unmitigated denial of this miracle, of all the miracles. Like dogs always do. Surrounded by summer and silence, the dogs and I wait for the next knock at the door.

 

When it comes, all of our heads will turn as one.

 

 

        HR