As signs go, it was an ambivalent one: A bald eagle, the chosen symbol of our country, hunched down in the middle of the road, feeding on roadkill, a dead squirrel — carrion. Is this the best we can do? Is this all we have left?
This morning two leaf grasshoppers, bright green, their bodies the perfect mimicry of spring leaves, of sunshine distilled into chlorophyll, adhered themselves to my driver’s side door. They didn’t let go when I got in, so I drove off, expecting them to leap to freedom at the first stop sign. They didn’t. One got blown off somewhere along the way, but the second made it the 30-minute drive to work, at speeds of 60 miles per hour. He was still there when I got back in my car to drive home for lunch. I didn’t see him until I was stopped at a stoplight, and he hauled his green body, on thread-thin legs like tiny pieces of green stitching, to the top of the side mirror. He hunkered down, face first into the wind, and I imagined him as if he were a dog, enjoying the air folding back his ears—erh, antennae. I became attached to him, somewhere on the drive home. He was cute, for an insect, and I could admire his perseverance. He made it home with me, somehow, improbably, and when I pulled into the drive I wished him well, expecting never to see him again.
A long lunch hour later, I got back in my car, headed back to the office. Again, I didn’t see him until it was too late, until I was on the highway, until he was climbing towards the top of the side mirror, but this time a gust of wind turned him, one thread-thin leg pulled up from the car, his wings ruffled, pushed back towards his face until I was sure they were broken, his illusion of a leaf stripped bare. I found myself slowing, watching the mirror instead of the cars around me. I didn’t want him to die. Finally, though it was stupid, and I was already late coming back from lunch, I pulled over, made a left into the entrance of a green, heavily landscaped subdivision, stopped, got out, shooed him off. He flew away. He could still fly.
It was going to be okay.
Yesterday, or the day before, or sometime recently, or sometime soon, a man walked into a bar—wait, there’s no joke! A man walked into a bar and killed 49 people. He didn’t know them. They had done nothing to him. Whatever rage, anger, hatred, burned him up, he had created it himself, out of thin air, out of malice and pain and conceit. He could have given life, but instead he gave death, and grieving, and loss. We let him do it. We gave his weakness weapons, and he turned them against innocent people.
That will never be okay.
What is life? A painting, blue mixed with red, slashes of brown, all come together, intertwining threads of color, made into her mantle, laid across her knees, and in her delicate, parchment and alabaster hands, a book.
The book of life? Not really. The book of death, one of several, a collector’s edition, the final copy, a heavy black ledger, and somewhere, written in gold, her name.
On her temple, above one eye, the gold feather: Crown of the eagle, crown of the chief, painted over satin brown skin, sun-creased, knit, worn, a patchwork quilt of her people and all their many days.
Over the water, ships in the water, the hull creaking and here we row together or we die, sun and the sun-warmed backs and this bark, over the wide ocean, like a prayer.
That is what I used to do—pray for you. That somewhere, behind the snow-capped mountains where you hid, you would hear me call, the cry, up in the sky, curled up in the wing of a shore bird, my voice, falling from the sky, unanswerable but heard—my voice.
In the beginning there was only time, first of the gods’ great gifts. All our shoulders huddled, curled together in the middle of the vast sea, strengthened by the touch of laughter, before the storm tossed us each out, into the water, this bark, rowing hard against the ocean, terrified, exhausted, brave.
I waited a long time, to hear your voice, back over the water, but the squall ate it, a greedy throat of foam ate it, and I could not surmount these monstrous tides to get to you. You over there, the other side of the moon, I thought—so far that even dreams can’t reach it, can’t imagine it.
The dark night curled above the house, shooting stars, and we three were all together, and I was strong, but only because you stood there with me.
Music becomes another language, one without vocabulary but with grammar and syntax. It becomes our language, though it has always been your language, will always be your language. The words were lost, dropped one by one like pearls into the water, but the song came back to me. The shorebirds gave it to the osprey who, quiet and circling, gave it to me.
Every journey is a prayer, every destination, hope. I can’t explain. Those who crossed the water, long ago, they prayed. Not for survival but for discovery, for the destination, the arrival. We pray for discovery.
I washed up, from my broken up bark, on terrifying sands, the desert of Amin, or Sahar, the desert of my ancestors, the nomads. Did they really once inhabit these God-forsaken places? The oasis nearly beaten in by drought, no place a refuge.
Refuge is what we seek, Good God Almighty: shelter. To know where we are is a greater gift than to know where we’re going.
The woman wears red satin, and pearls. In my mind she has been arrested, halted, the whirling of infinitesimal atoms only just contained.
Out of the water came mermaids, spitting jewels.
I watched the clouds in the sky, hurried by the wind, forming and reforming, no compulsion but compulsion itself, to end and start anew. I dreamt of harmony, the moon pressed white and full against the window.
Up in the sky rose the osprey, curled around the note, tucked beneath its wings, diving fiercely into the groundswell of the music, being lifted, thrown, joy in the exertion. That was my voice, a lone brown in the long blue, up and away to you—where you might hear it, and know it, and sing, too.
His office is terrifying. The first deer’s head is positioned to look out the door, its head turned as if startled, its blank black eyes staring into you. A turkey fans its tail feathers by the end table. The boar with its six-inch tusks seems to peer around the desk, half-hidden by the blue recycle bin. Behind him, a bobcat plays with a bird. Another deer’s head, this trophy waiting to be hung, rests sideways on the couch, as if awaiting the shrink. “My whole world is gone,” he might say. “Also, my body.”
There’s probably more but I can’t take it all in, the incongruity of this dead menagerie in his office. I almost expect to see Snow White, waxen and stiff, posed in a corner, a bird on each finger. What sort of man does this? What is he trying to tell his employees, decorating his office with the animals he’s killed? Is he trying to flaunt his masculinity, his cunning, his wealth? God knows this freak show wasn’t cheap. I don’t linger outside that door, won’t let those dead eyes keep watching me. I even hold my breath when I pass, expecting the smell of decay and formaldehyde to curl out the door in a swirling green vapor, as if it were the laboratory of a mad scientist. The whole thing seems mad to me, creepy, disturbing, the product of an unstable mind. Of course, he is the boss.
Yesterday at lunch I spotted a dolphin, and then, this morning, heard and saw a bald eagle. Is this bragging? Is that what you thought you’d read about, when I started, “Yesterday at lunch …”? Am I still confined to a cafeteria, or a McDonald’s, and the confounding dolphin is stuck there too, waiting on line for Fillet-O-Fish?
It was a hard day, yesterday, and when I spotted the fin, I thought, It would mean something if I saw a dolphin. I had just thought that, had just finished thinking it, and not a heartbeat after my overly emphatic mean, the dolphin resurfaced in profile—nose, fin, tail, no mistaking. And I thought, well, this is awkward. Do I make it mean something, or do I accept the coincidence? I’ve eaten at that park several times over the course of the past year, and this is my first dolphin sighting. When I told my husband about the dolphin, he said, “Dolphins are good luck,” but I knew he was kidding. He’s an atheist.
Then, this morning, first thing as I sit down at my desk, before I even sort out why my computer won’t turn on, I hear a bald eagle. They have this most incongruous, cheerful little chirp, quite out of place for such an imposing bird, and it’s unmistakable once you know it. “That’s a bald eagle!” I said, even though no one was around to congratulate me. I looked out the window and saw two flying away from me, and again I thought, I don’t know, maybe those aren’t eagles, when one cut straight across my field of vision, left to right, no mistaking. Later I told a coworker. She said she’d seen them, too, but I didn’t believe her.
I’ve seen bald eagles at work once or twice, over the past year, as they fly over our building towards the bay, so it wasn’t singular. All the same, I thought about that “lucky” dolphin, about seeing not one but three bald eagles out my window this morning, and I thought, maybe I’m just looking for a sign, because sometimes I do. And then I decided, maybe that means something.
Sometimes I don’t like walking the dog. It can be a very repetitive activity, walking the same circle around our little subdivision, seeing the same bit of scenery. And our neighborhood doesn’t have sidewalks, so we trot down the middle of the street, like drunkards. But then there are days, like yesterday, where we get some excitement—for suburbia. As soon as we step outside I realize (belatedly) that the neighbors’ pug is in our yard. It’s an ugly little turd of a dog, and I don’t even think its owners like it anymore. They let it wander outside, as if hoping for a car strike, or a ravenous bald eagle. The pug crosses back to its own turf before commencing to bark at us. It’s so small, so brachycephalic, its face so tortured into flatness, that you can’t really hear it from far away. Ruby (my dog) mostly ignores it, and while she is hardly a bloodthirsty killer, she is, as the trainer put it, blessed with “self-assurance.” So I try to keep her away from this evidence of doggy sass.
The pug avoided, I now realize the neighbors—the nice ones, the ones we talk to, from two houses down—are out walking their three dogs—two Dobermans and a toy poodle. Ruby doesn’t know what to make of that toy poodle, who weighs all of eight pounds, but she’s fine with the Dobermans. One is a beautiful dog, the most beautiful dog I’ve ever seen. Mine is the cutest, of course, but this is the super-model of dogs, the Cindy Crawford, twenty years ago. She’s a gorgeous purple-brown, deep chest, well-formed head. The other, a recent rescue, is a neglected seven-month old, ungainly, unsocialized, underfed, a big boney head and ears that would look better pinsched. He, Loki, the puppy, won’t let Ruby sniff his bum. She circles, relentless, while he turns, scared, until finally hiding behind Dad.
Should one narrate the actions of one’s dogs? I always do, and feel ridiculous, but can’t seem to stop myself. “She just wants to sniff your butt!” I announce to the Doberman, as if that will make him feel better about it. “She sniffed the poodle’s, and the poodle only weighs eight pounds!” And yes, I talk in just these exclamatory sentences, incapable of actually holding a conversation with the nice neighbors, as I’m so preoccupied with narrating our dogs’ interactions. This is a shame, because I think the wife just told me a story about our neighbor, a woman we jointly dislike because she’s maligned both our dogs while remaining steadfastly oblivious to the destructiveness of her own. Hers, a goofy golden retriever-lab mix, has twenty pounds on my mutt, but they can no longer play together, because Ruby might “hurt” him. You can imagine how she feels about the Dobermans. I think the punch line of the story was that the lab was so frightened by the sight of two Dobermans that he wouldn’t do anything, just sat and drooled and eyed the pair of them. Somehow, I know her take on this story is that this is further proof of our neighbor’s abject stupidity. Look, she tells me, Loki is scared of the poodle.
I walk with them back to their house and Ruby and I continue along. A bit later on I see that one of our neighbors is moving out—not so exciting, maybe. I don’t know them very well, but it’s a small neighborhood and everyone knows they’re the only black family. I wonder why—too many Romney signs in the last election?—but there’s no one around to ask, just the movers and three moving trucks. As I cross the street to go around the trucks, Ruby freezes. Amazing how oblivious I am, how attuned she is. It’s a turkey vulture, hunkered down in someone’s green, TruGreen, weed-free, St. Augustine grass, eating a bunny. I assume it’s a rabbit—we have a plethora of them here, running around, breeding like, well, you know. I see a tuft of white fur that seems as though it could be—could have been—Peter’s cottontail. I suppose it could be a cat, but if so, a small one.
I’m surprised there’s only one vulture. Usually good carrion will attract four or five, at least. I once saw a dead gator surrounded by—I’m not kidding—probably thirty of them. It was a big gator. The vulture hisses at us, steps away from the dead rabbit, shrugs its shoulders the way vultures do, the way you might shake rain off an umbrella. Ruby wants to investigate, but I pull her away. Vultures vomit when frightened, as a defense—ghastly, super-acidic, bacteria-laden vomit that consists of half-digested carrion. This vulture, solo, may back off, rather than vomit, but I don’t fancy taking the risk. I love the dog, but she’s about as smart as most canines—i.e., not Lassie. And Lassie had all her lines written for her, so.
The walk ends with a near run-in with one of Ruby’s doggie enemies. She doesn’t have any people enemies, thankfully, but there are two dogs in our neighborhood that must have somehow insulted her—peed on the wrong weed, so to speak. This one is walked by a teenage girl, the dog on a retractable leash and her ear glued to her cell phone. She was blissfully unaware of the dog war going on until my husband announced to her one day: “My dog hates that dog! Every time you let it pee in my yard, the feud escalates!” That’s what we dog-owners do—narrate the obvious for the oblivious.
In the depths of the ocean, miles down, in water so cold it dreams of ice, where light is only an intimation, a quality of deep and even deeper shadow, in this place, whales descend after they have died.
No whale could live here, these mammalian beasts, warm-blooded, air-breathing, some light enough to breach themselves out into the sunny air, and marvel at the space.
But some whales, whey they die—not even most, but some, a few—bloat, rise, dip, decay, and then, twisting over, bodies turning to follow diving heads, they begin to fall. Through, and through, and through the gray and crystalline sea, out of the reach of the light, out of the reach of the colors blue and green. They fall, would-be angels, tumbling towards the very bottom of the earth, the very bottom of the sea. This journey cannot be made in hours, but over days, inexorably, they fall.
The bottom greets them, so cold and so forbidding almost nothing lives at such great depths, under the crushing weight of the world. Almost nothing. But something does. Something lives at these great depths in these great seas for one reason only—to live off of dead whales.
Whales, when they reach the bottom, are almost completely stripped of flesh. They are no longer carcasses but skeletons, skeletons of these great whales, bones, and what is left of living bone—marrow.
Deep in the dark, crushing, formidable depths of the ocean, there are worms that live off of the marrow of whale bones. They live one end down in the bone, the other waving in the water. They are red, and green, and have no mouths, no stomachs, no digestive systems at all, just sacks of bacteria which they carry with them, in exchange for absorbing a molecule or two of food.
These are animals which live—and being so specialized, having had the time to become so specialized, one must consider that they are thriving—at the bottom, the very bottom of the ocean, the bottom of gullies and valleys which mark the bottom of the ocean’s depths, in dark, cold canyons devoid of light and nutrients. Here in these most inhospitable of places, thrives a worm, which cannot eat, but still manages to live, off the marrow of a whale’s bone.
Did you ever stop to consider what happens to a whale bone? Is your care and attention, your understanding and imagination, as exacting as this? I don’t suppose it is. I don’t suppose it could be. You may think you know what’s possible, but really: You have no idea.