Essays


 

In the Woods that Whisper


 

The shooting stars in your black hair

in bright formation

are flocking where,

so straight, so soon?

—Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,

battered and shiny like the moon.

 

Elizabeth Bishop

“The Shampoo”

 

I suppose that all great musicians are thieves in one form or another. Even Bach stole from those mathematical chimes the universe kept making in his head. Copyrights do not extend to gists and fragments. We are, indeed, the sum of our influences creatively reorganized. Mockingbirds are no exception. They bridge and edit like the rest of us. Perhaps they even lie about it. I haven’t listened closely enough yet for that fine distinction. But I know they seem to reconstitute a new aural map and then babble their creations incessantly, jazzing things up on the fly. I regret not getting to sit and listen to some Mockingbird in California or on the Galapagos Islands. I want to hear what all these Mockingbirds have in common. Supposedly they can do perfect cell phones and car alarms. Frankly, I don’t need such evidence. Here, in the most northern rank of counties in Arkansas, my local Mocker works out his symphony of possessiveness, he sings his boundaries out with passion. I sit on the patio of our rented cabin and try to piece together the sources of his bird tapestry. I’ve come north with my wife for peace and quiet and this Mockingbird seems to know little of either.

 

My oak-top mocker sings frequently, all day in fact, with the voicings of titmice and Carolina Wrens. These calls seem to form some sort of foundation to his sonic string, all those “peter, peter, peters” and “whichitoo, whichitoo, whichitoos.” Rat-a-tat and sigh, they are abbreviated with pauses—wrens and tits, so to speak, tits and wrens. Breath stops, time to think—the Mocker can always cruise with a little wren chatter for punctuation, lost in other thoughts. At least it allows the listener to catch up. But then interspersed in the mockersong, with varying degrees of accuracy, are all the other birds that sing in these low mountains: phoebe and flicker, the hiccough of the jay, the perfect double whistle of the Bobwhite. I watch the Mockingbird dance up and resettle on the exaggerated notes, the emphasis of motion thrown in by those white flags on his wings.

 

Morning, it is mid-May, the next day the road at dawn is full of turtles bent on reaching the other side of the road. Well, I admit, that cannot be their only goal, it is just one haul on the mysterious turtle journey, but still. Left or right, they cannot seem to settle on a compass point. Turtle pheromones must be on the morning air, swirling unpredictably. I swerve for all the turtles, though I cannot actually stop for them all. I do come to a stop beyond the smallest round roadster and lift him up. They are all Three-toed Box Turtles. The only Box Turtle we have here. This one’s shell is not even fully hardened. He is a newborn or something close to it. He does not even know the basic rules yet: to pull his head inside from this giant that lifts him. This may be his very first spring. I hope I am the last giant he ever sees. I release him and move on to other roadside sights: a Roadrunner atop a rusted hulk of a car, a coyote fleeing down a path, a Question Mark fluttering over the broken and bloodied puzzle piece of another, less fortunate turtle. And there are all the summer flowers coming. Along every open stretch of roadside, I am back in the land of the Purple Penstemon, the blue, blue spires of the larkspur and the giant Missouri Primrose. Golden things, the primroses shine like melting butter.

 

The summer birds surround me out on my jutting patio. The world falls off to the north. Centrally, aurally speaking, the Mockingbird goes through renditions of flicker and killdeer, bluebird, robin and catbird. He sings a song of oriole and then an actual Orchard Oriole answers. It seems to be the only bird he will tolerate in his otherwise private oak tree. The female oriole weaves her nest off my left shoulder in the top of a crepe myrtle. She is silent in her work but for the approaches of the local dogs and then she stops to scold and flutter.  Mister Mocker ignores the dogs and moves on to sing some White-eyed Vireo (some tripping confused phrases, a vireo in apoplexy, or worse, apostasy), kingbird (the alarm and warning call), phoebe (the incessant feee-bee, feee-bee—after a while, even I can do this one) and back to titmice and wrens. It is a whole vocabulary of birdsound, a lesson to the ear. I raise my glass toward the maestro. To the left and right, the real Chats sing, with House Finches and Mourning Doves. Across the road a Roadrunner does his weeping coo, the downward stairstep that sounds like loneliness. I always pause to let a Roadrunner slowly make me maudlin with his voice.

 

Dogs come repeatedly. They are always welcome here. The owners of the cabin currently have three. A new one showed up just the day before we arrived. She is long-nosed and undernourished. It is a red collie nose on a mixed animal. Lanky, she appears to be part coyote. She has kind eyes and they carry an intelligence that one wants to see in all dogs. Kate is her new name. It is my daughter’s middle name, the one she never uses. Kate gives me her belly. I work the hair backwards as she lolls into pacification. If she'd shown up at my home I'd have kept her too. The mockingbird, ever present, sings over us.

 

We meet our friends (the entire Lavers gang) near the Strawberry River. It is a nearly sacred place of clear water and stones. The density of rye grass makes me sneeze. The sycamores distinguish themselves in the wind. We leave my wife in the shade of one sycamore on a rocky beach with a recliner and a book. I fear she may never want for our return. The rest of us wade up the stream watching for everything that we can see. Dragonflies abound. Gawain finds a raccoon feeling for crayfish and crunching each discovered one. Schools of fish move in colored ranks inside the glassy water. They appear to levitate. Water snakes seem overly abundant. A huge Yellow-bellied Watersnake suns on a log. Its eyes are glossed with the old skin which will soon need scraping off. I doubt it can see much beyond the simple motions I make nearby. Like a stump on the move, I have no detail; I loom. The snake does not look too worried.

 

On a different trail near the true river course, my wife and Cheryl walk ahead until they bring up a hen turkey from the brush. Both girls leap up in fright and Cheryl spots a youngster in the leaf litter. I hop over and lift the turkey chick up. It is less than a day or so old—as small as turkey chicks can get. It is made softly of yellows and creams, a patchwork of faint camouflage as though it must spend its first days hidden in some land of butter and dust. How that helps in these woods, I’m not sure. Mostly beak and legs otherwise, it cheeps impressively and the mother clucks back and moves closer in the trees. She is coming for her baby, by God, and damn the herd of humans she will need to whip to get her back. The thought of a marauding hen flicks in my mind—savage pecking, tearing claw. I quickly hand the chick to my wife. She does not find this amusing, makes some comment about the “protector and his failure.” We release the lovely bird to run back to its mother.

 

Wheeling back across the north counties to the cabin, I am struck by all the turtles that aren’t quite making the short highway crossing alive. Safe in the morning, dead in the afternoon—it is pulling me down because I suspect some of these turtles could certainly have lived as long as I have. And then from the truck in front of us I see a flair of feathers and a white object like a penalty flag that plops to the roadside. I swerve and stop. I turn and come back to find what I suspected. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo has fallen on its back in the road. It has not been further flattened after the initial blow with the windshield but it is down hard. The offending vehicle did not even slow down—it is gone. It was a high speed blow. There is blood. But there is breathing as well. I carry the cuckoo to the truck and my wife insists on holding the bird in her lap. In case it comes back from just a momentary stun.

 

She has honestly never seen a cuckoo up close. And she holds it on her lap while she cups her hand over its head to shade its eyes from the bright sun. These are sleek animals. Words will fail. But it has a curved beak of bright yellow and polished black—this to glean caterpillars. The belly is the pure white of layered snowcrust—this to warm the cuckoo eggs and hide against the bright sky. The back is an olive tone that is softened by the detailed feathering—this to slide beneath the watching hawks. Within the flight primaries there is a hidden blush of reddish orange that one can see only when these birds make their direct flights through our summer trees. Raincrow, my grandmother called them, from their habit of singing in the darkness and the shadows before and after a storm. It does not sound like a crow.

 

I drive on and glance over at the bird and at my wife looking down at the bird. She talks to it; she strokes its back. I think I see it blink. My wife can feel it breathing. I’ve never felt the pant of a cuckoo. Eventually its tail comes up in a slow rise and then it falls and its head droops down to touch the top of my wife’s leg. She is quiet for awhile and then she softly sets the bird at her feet. At the cabin, I walk it back and set the bird beneath a young mimosa beyond the hill.

 

Sitting in a small restaurant exactly twenty years to the day from our marriage, I hear the sounds of the Bach song that my brother played as my wife and I walked up the steps to say the words: some Thoreau, some promises to keep. Astonished, I pause and point at the small speaker in the ceiling. My wife listens and raises her eyebrows. I could not have been more amazed if the local Mockingbird had produced a few phrases of Bach over my head in the sun.

 

Creatures keep coming to our celebratory cabin. Besides dogs, I mean. Several jumping spiders make their way across the ceiling. And I always allow jumpers to stay in close proximity. They are like cats with extra eyes and a web launcher under their tail; they are special case spiders. One takes up residence over the back door. It dangles by a short safety line and seems content there most of our stay, right up until I remove it and place it on a bush outside. My fear was that it had given up on life, on food, on the possibility of a wife. I'm meddling, I know. The other jumper is a huge Phidippus audax who strolls around the kitchen ceiling like there is no gravity. It is a male who looks healthy and knows what he is doing. Kitchen lights are sometimes wonderful lures for spiders but I don’t see many other bugs in the cabin. At one point, this jumper wanders directly over the flower arrangement atop the fridge that celebrates the current longevity of our marriage. I believe for a moment this spider is going to try his hand at living inside rose blooms and baby’s breath but he backs off and heads for another corner. I mention to my wife she almost had a resident predator in her roses. It is evidence of her quality that she seems to think this is a good thing.

 

Outside, I hear the Gray Treefrog before I see him. Another visitor, he sings in the day like a ventriloquist bird that is first here—no, wait—there. Makes a noise like a woodpecker mated with a door hinge—a drawn and ratchety squeak. He slips out onto the window frame and gives the world a good goggle-eyed look. I know no gentler face than a frog face. I find him later sleeping beneath the edge of the siding, his legs pulled up. Even treefrogs nap in the heat of the day.

 

I awaken on the morning of my birthday, my 46th birthday, at three o’clock. I seem to recall I was born at one o’clock in the morning but I do not know this for sure. On my back, watching the starlight make leafy motions on the window shade, it is just a hazy possibility. The early hours feel like a good time of day to be born. I take a momentary pause of respect for my mother and the work involved in getting me out into the air almost a half a century ago. Then I slip out of the left side of the bed and cautiously open the screen door. The oscillating fan flags the night air back and forth across my wife’s feet, making the sheets flutter. She sleeps soundly. I try not to let the door slam as I exit but still it makes a bump. And this sets off my local Mockingbird. He sings one brief phrase and either returns to his bird-dreaming or else he silently watches me. “Shhh,” I say. And I couldn’t quite catch what bird he imitated in his outburst. Perhaps half asleep and startled he finally spoke some true phrase that is purely Mockingbird—if there is such a thing.

 

The Post Oak off the patio is a cutout monster against the white crust of stars. Shaped like, well, a big damn tree. In this light, it is an edifice to treelife, a monument that shimmers and scintillates, hiding the silent birds. The lake blackens everything to the north of me, ink in the valley of lesser darkness, dipped with the mirrored pinpoints of Ursa Major turned on its head. The North Star hides slightly higher behind the oak, unreflected. A Whip-poor-will obsessively renders his name to the constellations over the hills to the west. He is alone against the other night birds but does not let this deter him from his proclamations. I’m tempted to call out my own name into the night. I shape my lips but then I hesitate.

 

I sit and listen to the wind instead. It is the appropriate action for a birthday—looking to wind and stars, straining to hear, straining to see. I am not sleepy. I do not feel older. I want for a drink but I am not sure of the etiquette of drinking suddenly at three a.m. Perhaps on birthdays it is allowed. But I don’t do it. I could drift off out here in the night but I just take it in. Several Chuck-will’s-widows echo off each other. The great tree shadow seems to shift slightly—time playing tricks. Stars make birthdays inconsequential; stars make most things inconsequential. Sometimes I suffer in this knowing; sometimes I rejoice. It is the indecisiveness of youth. I’m thankful, turning back through the door, eventually, to my sleeping wife, that I still have some things of my youth.

 

Rain comes the morning we have to leave for home—a brief and blustery event with much lightning. The Gray Treefrog talks inside the downpour. A cuckoo calls. We load up the roses. My wife will watch them droop until they give up their last petals at home atop our glass table. It is part of the ceremony. Sometimes she saves them to dry and, even years later, if brushed under the nose, they give off the smell of roses. I’m still not sure the big jumping spider hasn’t taken up a home in the darkness at the heart of the arrangement when I wasn’t watching. If he is, he is. He will no doubt find some new corner inside our home when this shelter of flowers gives out. We will welcome him.

 

And days later, wondering about the constitution of relationships, about the longevity of pairings, I’ll remember my wife cupping her hand around a dying bird and whispering. I’ll reach for some papers on the carpet of my truck, I’ll be daydreaming and I will see a dark patch on the foot rug. I’ll touch at it and it will take some time to come to me: mistaken for chocolate or motor oil or the rich ink from a rose petal, it will be cuckoo blood. Marriage, I will think, birthdays, here is the blood of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I almost did yell my name into the darkness over the lake on the night I remembered my birth.

 

I’ll leave the stain to wear away on its own. Jesu, I think, Joy of Man’s Desiring. I will whistle some Bach to the next Mockingbird I see. Who knows what signs will come in the affirmation of longheld things?

 

        HR

(For VS)