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.

J. Woods Price

J. Woods Price was a Second Lieutenant in the 19th Virginia Cavalry during the Civil War. I recently came across his picture, or rather, two pictures, of him in a book. One is taken in 1861, his hair a little long, a mustache, a pistol in his right hand, poised across his chest; the other in 1907, that same face, those same dark eyes, but with an old man’s thinness, and a bushy white beard. I couldn’t believe how much the one looked like the other—I would have known it was he, the same soldier, even without the caption, even with the long white beard and the sudden—to me, at least—appearance of old age. The two pictures, side by side, seemed like proof of the most elusive element in our lives: time. This man, I thought, he really fought in the Civil War, and survived, and grew old. Time did that. Time passed, and he died, and much later on, I came to fill out this space.

It’s the same sort of shock I get from old pictures of my grandfather, a dashing young soldier in his khaki uniform, a charming smile and his arm around a good-looking, dark-haired woman, that I realize, with a shock, an unexpected blowing of a fuse in my brain, is my grandmother. There was a time, long before I myself ever appeared, when they were both young and good-looking, with that ineffable vitality of youth, that charm of being, say, twenty-two. A war was going on, his war, over in Europe, out in the Pacific, and there he is, before his service, a Marine, his future uncertain. It’s strange to see the photograph and to feel that uncertainty in his gaze, in the way they’re standing, in the arm he holds, so casually, around my grandmother’s waist. I know what it was like, the door opens for me, and what lies before me is so real I can’t believe it isn’t happening now, right now, that the past could ever have given way to be filled with the present and its people and events. I know what my grandfather was like; I can see it in his pose, in the proud, assured stance he takes. He’s vibrant with expectation, but also resolute. I know him, and how he lived.

But that knowledge is probably filled in with bits of what I’ve been told, stories I’ve heard, the man I remember. This photograph of a soldier of the Confederate Army has taken me completely by surprise. I’m not sure what it is I read in his face, maybe a serenity that only posing in front of a camera could have given him, a depth to his eyes and an added intensity to his gaze. The two pictures beside each other give me a sequence for him, the in between, the enigma of one man’s life. Not improbable to encounter such a feeling looking at pictures of one’s own grandparents, whose set around the eyes, is, after all, not unlike your own, but strange and somewhat marvelous in a photograph of a man you never met, whose life, family, and occupation you cannot hope to know. The entire fact of his life for me is fighting in the Civil War, owning a pistol, surviving until 1907. My grandfather wasn’t born until 1917, and as far as I’m concerned, he died old. I can barely fathom my grandfather’s early life, the improbable three-year-old in a long white dress, but this Second Lieutenant, this J. Woods Price, is entirely beyond my ken. Yet I know him, a little. There’s something of that youth in him, that vigor, a sort of charm in his unlined forehead and resolute gaze. For whom was the picture taken? A mother, a sweetheart, himself? “This is what I was: young and alive.” And the other photo, where you see the young man, suddenly grown old, and you know that a life has gone on in between, a life that he lived, this man, whose youth turned so cruelly into hard old age. Yet the old man’s stance is not unfamiliar—he no longer has that vigor, or that charm, because those are the prerogatives of youth, but I read in his face the same certainty, and a life well-loved. Nostalgia, maybe, but I can’t find in the picture any lingering regret, the regret I feel, for this present, past.

There will be no going back. J. Woods Price had a grandfather, maybe, who started his own farm in the wilderness of Virginia, who told tales of the country “when it was young.” His descendants—if he had any—fought in World War II, unaware of these two pictures of their forbearer, holding a pistol. But these photographs are like a still pond, and resting at its bottom, beneath translucent water, is a past that was real. These events did happen; this man was not frozen in time. Time passed through him, changed him, altered his face and the lean, weary muscles of his arms; shook him, kicked him, from youth to old age, and each present moment was as alive to him as this breath is to me now. Time is a fabric into which we are all sown, and he and I inhabit this same cloth. His breath stirred this same air; he walked on this earth with my ancestors, and the only evidence of his existence now are these two photographs, with their still, unruffled surfaces, and somewhere, beneath the ground, the fragments of his bones.