Bird Song

A little downtrodden, into the dust, the finest sort of specimen, darkened by an accumulation of age and dirt, hardened and made brittle. A then worthless, now priceless, bit of bone, small and light and hollowed out, even from the time of its being formed, when it was living and porous and useful. Now just a shard, the telling fragment of one life. Small and slight, so perfectly formed I might have cut holes into it and piped a tune. But here, and now, and lost, a thin paring of a bird, like one flash of opening wings, or a feather. This bird was once the fulfillment of creation, the perfection of a code we cannot understand, much less replicate, or respond to in kind. Flash: the carved down paring of a bird, to represent it all it once, everything it was, leaving out the other bits, preserving only this. What is a bird like? And we can only offer the fragment we have left: a hollow, darkened, bit of bone.

* * * * *

I remember the blue herons, sitting in our back yard, their long necks hunched down between their shoulders, like old men, or widows with dowager’s humps. Or their coming out of the water, their wings held out from their bodies, drying themselves, or just warming up. Or sometimes, their standing on the dock, a rapid brush stroke of blue and gray, tossing a fresh-caught fish expertly, in order to swallow it headfirst. Or sometimes not so expertly, but working at it, again and again, until, in two swallows and a shivering in the neck, the fish was gone. I remember their calls in the morning, outside my window, making a racket, calls like the hoarse diatribe of a surly old man. I would bang against the wall, scared out of sleep by their noise, and tell them: silly, stupid birds, go away.

* * * * *

In retrospect, the great blue herons have been distilled into a clear, bright liquid, with a strong, fermented smell and a taste to knock the present out of you. They have become a work of art: a photograph where everything is positioned well; the choice description; the flutter of their wings as they soar above the estuary, away from my window, and into a frightened dawn. Are these things I have within my mind, to share with others as appetizers, filling hors d’oeuvres, are these things blue herons? And if they aren’t—what would they be?

* * * * *

Across the ocean, far, far away, is a large white house. Shadows sleep in its courtyard, amidst the fountain and the genteelly potted plants. Up above, on the rooftop, is a large, flat expanse of tiled sunlight. From this rooftop you see many church bell towers, which were once mosque bell towers, during the time of the Moors. But now, here, in this time, in this house, along the wide corridors, behind the brown-shuttered windows, the view from this rooftop reveals church bell towers, at least half a dozen. Inside this house, back down in it, is a jeweler’s shop, where a man, smoking a cigarette, examines a fine gold chain and listens to the radio. Inside one of its two kitchens, there is a girl, or perhaps, better said, a young woman, leaning out the door, peering up onto the rooftop and also down into the jeweler’s shop. Above, up there on the roof with its view of bell towers, another young woman hangs out clean sheets and towels to dry. She isn’t looking at the view; she’s humming a little, scuffing about in her worn slippers, hanging out the clean linen.

Already being carefully knit into this contented, sunlight- and spring-filled moment, is a bit of retrospect. Such a beautiful day, it was inevitable. The thought has been entered, and the scene duly recorded, and duly changed. Forced into the day, the scene, this morning in a white house, far, far away, is a bit of the funerary drug: a bit of embalming fluid, to better preserve it, help it to stay looking fresh and alive, although all too soon it isn’t. It’s been injected into the scene, into the celluloid colors of the blue, blue sky; the light falling on the orange tiles of the rooftop; the shadows around the jeweler and his gold-linked chain. A fooling of the senses, to make it seem as though it might have happened just this way, when in fact living it was nothing at all like this, nothing at all, what with the present moment eating away at it, all around the edges, like a caterpillar nibbling at its leaf, and all the uncertainty of past and future hemming it in on both sides. But uncertainty and chaos are things one cannot preserve, much like life itself. It’s life that’s missing from the picture as you recall it, later on—life and its underside, the fact that harmony is temporary, and has only a temporary accord with the living.

* * * * *

Down in a cage, in a dark part of the courtyard where the fountain founts and the potted plants grow, are parakeets. Their voices, pulling up through the house, have become so familiar that although all three hear them, none is listening. Their trills seem woven into the sky itself, or perhaps are part of the mortar holding the white-painted bricks together. The young woman closes the door to the kitchen, and the songs of the parakeets fall back from the door.

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