Snowy egret overhead. First sighting of spring. A circular flight performed for a mate hidden deep in dead river reeds. He drops out of sight. Nothing except gray sky.
(My script walks across the page like sandpiper prints in wet sand.)
A fisherman floats by in his canoe, through the thin ice floes. (Floating mosaic of ice, geometry of winter’s disrepair.) He’s spectacled, black bearded. Mid-thirties? Despite the cool morning, he takes off his blue flannel overshirt. Strong arms. He casts a shining lure.
A northern pike! The fisherman holds it up. I wave.
We see a female mallard appear out of the muddy bank of reeds and dive into the river. Seven ducklings follow behind. Small, downy bodies. They swim rings around their mother. I count seven, six. So hard to count! Playfully they dodge each other, making slight chirping sounds. Then one disappears underwater. I think it’s learned to dive. But it comes up injured, flapping. My god. The mallard and her remaining babies disappear quickly back into the reeds.
I call out “Help!” The fisherman scoops the injured duck into his net, right before a pike surfaces, then he paddles to me.
“It’s going to die,” he says. But I pick it up off the floor of the canoe with his shirt and examine it. I hold it gently like I would another man’s hand. (I recall those nights that winter I held my husband’s hand.)
“I could bring it to the shelter” I say.
“Don’t bother. Let me take care of it.”
Then I push him away. He almost falls, grabs and pulls me towards him. We’re locked in a sort of embrace. I look down at the duck and it’s dead.
“You’ve killed it.”
He takes it from me and walks back to the riverbank. He places it on the icy waves.
It floats on fledgling feathers. It will never fly.
A red-winged black bird bounds off a cat-o’-nine tails. Show off.
Yet, it had taken my husband how many hours to die. I will never forget the anonymous hospital room: worn linoleum, walls a faded aquamarine. A cooing pigeon on the window ledge.
Today I saw death’s mouth rising out of the dark. Death’s mouth swallowing all. Weightless feathers the color of mud. The fisherman holding me close. In between us, a tiny bird heart.
The night of my husband’s overdose, he’d played the Van Dyke. His fans sent flowers to the hospital. I took the white calla lilies, the small fragrant saxophones, home, and spread them out over the bed.
Nightmare: a flock of ducks, their webbed feet encased in ice, frozen in flight, squawk like a section of saxes out of tune.
I go to The Pink Triangle. Sit at the bar and order A Crazy Lady. The glittered twinks pay me no mind. The mustachioed hipsters in rolled-up jeans and suspenders strut by.
I imagine the dance floor is a lake covered in lily pads and lotus flowers. Hummingbirds and dragonflies flash. There in the middle the fisherman floats in his canoe. His pole extends out over the side. I dive down. Creatures rare, common, foolhardy swim in the lake. We’re all darting for the bait.
Then the vision dissolves and the dance floor forms just a single shadow that breaks apart and rejoins itself.
(The music stops, the lights go up, and I’m drunk.)
Nightmare: I fly over the river at night – hunting ground of the screech owl. Bones of mice crack in my bill. Moonlight bandages the bay. Then I’m submerged and grow fins that carry me deep. I drop down into the weeds to escape the hanging hooks. I watch the bottom of a canoe loom overhead. Surfacing suddenly, I lose oxygen. My gills harden into razor blades. Every move cuts.
I go to a psychiatrist. She puts me on antidepressants. Now I’m happy and miss my one companion, my migratory sadness.
Black-crowned night heron. He danced for me. In his mouth, he carried fresh reeds, an offering. When we made love, we were covered in black feathers. Nested in mist, singing, our notes learned to fly.
I imagine it differently: we take the duckling to the wildlife shelter. They fix its wing. We go back to his house. I tell him he is a hero. He pecks me on the cheek, clutches me.
How do I molt grief? A soft falling of feathers. Birdcalls. Pain mimicking the call of love, love mimicking pain.
I return to the Van Dyke one last time. A bass soloist beats the rhythm. The piano fights a familiar melody. Where’s the sax, the victim’s cry? It sits in the corner of my bedroom, silent.
A red-winged black bird bounds off a cat-o’-nine tails.
He comes back and says, “Take my hand.”
I hold the hand, the hand that held the bird that died, the bird that died in my hand, the hand that held the hand of him who died holding my hand.
I do not want to hold anymore hands that hold the dead.
So I let go.
Lake, river, ocean, inlet, estuary, bay. I am searching for the fisherman. I have my binoculars. I ask around. He’s spectacled with handsome black beard. Mid-thirties? Despite the cool morning, he takes off his blue flannel overshirt. Strong arms. He casts a shining lure.
My psychiatrist tells me to attend a grief group. I am too distracted to listen to the stories. Instead a middle-aged woman looks like an ostrich; a young man with mohawk, a red breasted merganser; a petite young girl, a zebra finch; a quiet elderly woman, a mute swan; the loud moderator, a Canada goose; me, a mockingbird.
Jazz composition for a dying husband: monitors beep, nurses buzz, bass of sobs.
Husband in the afterlife. First sighting of eternal winter. A broken flight performed for souls hovering like mist in these dead river reeds. He drops out of sight. Nothing except souls frozen in state.
(My script walks across the page like carvings on gravestone.)
A ferryman rows across a single flowing river. The river runs between walls built from a static mosaic of bones, a geometry of winter’s despair.
The ferryman’s angelic. Ageless. Despite the cold, his bare skin steams.
He holds a pike for stabbing at the souls.
Appearing out of the reeds, angels dive into the river. Small, downy bodies. They swim rings around each other. Then one disappears underwater and doesn’t resurface. God!
I call out. The ferryman stabs at the water with his pike.
“It’s going to die,” I say. But it rises from the water impaled on the tip of the ferryman’s pike. I want to hold it gently like I would another man. (I recall those nights I held my husband.)
“I could bring it to shelter,” I say.
He pushes me away. I almost fall but grab him and pull him towards me. We’re locked in a sort of embrace. I look down at the angel.
My husband floats on fledgling feathers. He never could fly.
A red-winged devil bounds off a cat-o’-nine tails.
Birds that haven’t flown. Fish that haven’t swam. I am writing to you. Nameless when you are born, your hollow wings may not carry weight, your bony scales not give you speed, however, when we, your divine predators, are extinct (as our element carries the judgment of unnatural laws), you may still be free.
(A story can retrace itself like the flightpath of a barn swallow.)
A fisherman paddles his canoe. He watches his line with iridescent green eyes framed by square, stainless steel glasses. He’s turned forty-four this summer, shaved his greying beard, but despite his age, some think he is still in his mid-thirties. (The paddling keeps him young!)
I sit in the stern with my binoculars and journal. I forget to watch for rare birds. Deep in my memory, a snowy egret flies overhead. He performs a circular flight in gray spring skies for a mate hidden deep in river reeds.
But I choose to remember, not that first day I saw the fisherman, but the second day, in grief group, a year later, when I saw him again.
He looked smaller, as if the moment his son died, that moment when a life story is shortened to a singular event, compressed his body down as well. And although I was glad to see him, I knew that his grief would become mine, as all our griefs in the group had been shared and our burdens divided.
“My son died in a boating accident,” he disclosed that first meeting. (I later learned that seventeen-year-old Slate Jr. had been drunk on the river with his friends that Memorial Day when it collided into another boat.)
After the meeting, Slate Sr. came up and said he recognized me from the spring incident the previous year.
“Birdie, I’m sorry for what happened…”
I laughed at the nickname.
“…Well, you know, I didn’t mean to crush the poor duck. It was an accident. And I want to make it up to you…”
So, while driving to dinner, we tried to agree on a restaurant, but because I don’t eat meat (I am a vegetarian) we decided to stop at Whole Foods, and, on the way, I showed him the animal shelter where I had wanted to bring the injured duck, and he laughed and said that I needed to forget that duck, or bring it up in grief group, which I thought was funny, so I kissed him, and he had to stop so we could make out, even though were both starving, and afterwards, we skipped Whole Foods, and ended up eating cereal in bed.