Birdilia

My sister Bird is hard to understand. She has always been like someone I see through tall grass or peering back from pieces of a broken mirror.  There are impressions, singular and distinct, without a strong sense of knowing.

Likely I am the same to her.

We are only two years apart in age. She is the older one. We were close only sometimes as children. Bird always wanted to get away, spending her free time with neighbor kids. I liked to find safe and quiet spaces on our farm, away from others, where I could drift in and out of fantasies inspired by the books I read.

She has not always had it easy.  Or, more accurately, she is often in a maelstrom towards which she guided herself with many guileless little choices.  That isn’t the same as doing it the hard way.  She finds the will and strength to kick out, to break from the whirlpool, looking for land, safe and solid and dry.

Her husbands have each been like this; some have seemed like the harbor only to become the swap.  Others have always been sinkholes, although she skirted round them, making the most of it, never quite staring it in the face long enough to draw a breath and decide to leave.

Eventually she ends it.  Three husbands, a life in three acts.

Now the third one she has just left, so newly she probably still finds his hair or scent in the laundry.  At the same time, she is staring down her second run in with cancer.  I want to say, ‘Be strong.’ Yet this seems presumptuous. How do I know this person of fragments, this woman glimpsed through wild grass, unknowable to me for so many years, isn’t already fully sure she is strong enough?

I think she is.

I pray for her. Prayer has been a hard thing to define for a man who no longer believes in a sentient father god. It has been a discovery to think of prayer as a wish extended into the void of the universe.

In some ways I see this void as my eyes see it. It is black, yet sparkles with light.  It is deep and merciless and wild.  Still, I see it as my heart sees it, too.  It is where all energy begins and ends, some anchored here on this rock, some gathered to brood on the moon and vibrate on the sun.  In this mass of energy there is the makeup of what we call love. Hope. Kindness.

It isn’t necessary to know every mystery. Neither of the universe or of your own flesh and blood.  But quietly you can close your eyes, let your heart peer out through the stars, and send up a fervent wish.

I hope the universe helps to knit your body, woman of the whirlpool and wild grasses, sister for this life.  Keep kicking out, pulling yourself to safe harbor.

Wilderness

When I was a kid, I became enchanted with Cinderella stories, but my versions never had princesses.  They had houses and they had witches.  It was the house and the witch who would be transformed and made beautiful.  Homes should always be sweet; women should always be gorgeous. I must have thought this as a kid and clearly popular society is still largely convinced its true.

My favorite place to draw was the dining room because there was no place else to spread out the typing paper I took from my mother’s desk and the assortment of random colored pencils that hadn’t gone missing yet.  There were corner windows in that room, looking out over a pasture and a scrap of back yard.  When the chickens were out, they littered the grass like folds of white towels – the crowns each a smear of blood.  Sometimes when I looked up through the smudged glass I saw my mother coming back from the barn.  Her plaid jacket was frayed at the cuffs and her hair was ruffled messily by the work.  She always seemed tired.

The first iteration.

I would draw a house and a woman softly, the pencil whispering on the page and leaving only the vaguest impression.  The woman would have worried bags under her eyes and a ragged gown.  The house would have loose shudders and a shaggy lawn.  It had to be drawn lightly so that I could cover it over with the magical transformation.  I thought it was cheating to erase the lines, so instead I would add more pigment on top, burying the first and deliciously tragic version under the adorable cheer to follow.

The change.

With bold strokes of my pencil the house would be reimagined with pristine woodwork and flowering shrubbery.  Birds would appear in the formerly barren skies, a few limp letters ‘m’ that are somehow sparrows or larks in flight. Even to grownups one never need explain that these are birds.

A sun with lines of radiant warmth appeared over the trees.

With greater care still the burdened witch became a mighty queen, her eyes ringed with such lashes that the dimly drawn wrinkles were all but undetectable. With my pencil I sketched over her dismal schmatta, layering on top a diaphanous skirt with hundreds of folds. Messy hair vanished under a mantle of exuberant curls; the bitter mouth fold budded  into a hopeful rose.  If I could find the crayon called peach, I’d bring the blood to her cheeks.

I made the messy and neglected into something ordered, manicured, and styled.  If it failed to convince me, I added flowers and more eyelashes.  I might have flourished in marketing.

In truth I was playing at something adults rarely learn to examine, whether or not the picturesque is superior to the authentic.  There is a reason that we have apps to place crowns of flowers on our Snapchat photos; a glow to our Instagram selfie to blur away the pores; the framework of Facebook to describe the perfect weekend, leaving out the parts where we quarreled over which credit cards to use.  We are terrified of loose ends, of things and people gone ragged.  Perhaps the animal in us knows how quickly we can be toppled, the way a rabbit knows that once the fox has them in its jaws, there are only seconds before the end.

The blood widens a pink circle in the snow as the black eyes of the rabbit reflect a cloudless blue sky.  Burying its nose in the warmth of the rabbits breast, the fox eats quickly amid the smell of iron and meat and frosty grasses.  His breath rises up around them, a fog veil to soften the truth that this is how the circle goes unbroken.

If we are to survive on the terms that make us human, cooperation within the growing village of humanity, without losing our grip on the one power that helps us maintain our place, a self-convincing sense of contentment, we must embroider reality, making over everything that we find dim with bright colors.  If our grip on the story loosens and we are forced to see how quickly our shutters rot, perhaps the entire fabric of our narrative will spill out of control.  Grass that needs our hands to chase away the chicory and pokeberry might return to wilderness.

We may go wild ourselves.

Ash

Bury me in the deep snow.  Lay my ashes where the sun and the wind will uncover me.  The same breeze that carries the yellow dust of the goldenrod will unwind my grey remains and send them whirling into eternity.  All cares will be long gone as I drift to rest on tomato leaves and bicycle wheels, clinging to the pores of bricks, then sailing far out over green rivers.  As ash, I will never grow weary on my travels.  Some fine particles of me will be swallowed by mud, never to take to air again until the earth is turned by hands not yet formed.

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When they come to the base of the tree, my friends will remove their gloves and use their fingers to make a hole in the snow.  The cold will needle their knuckles. They’ll pause now and again to make fists and kindergarten turkeys of their fingers, opening and closing their hands to bring blood to the tips.  Finally they will pour in the ash and cover it over, quickly, lest the flirtatious gale of a winter morning should send me off sooner than I would like.

Their boots will make a soft crunch as they wend their way back through the field, to the small line of cars parked along the fence.  Black coats and white snow.  If we are lucky, there will be scarves of color to remind us that life is for the living: turquoise and yellow.  A breathtaking flash of carmine, flying like a rampart against the sky, would be a joyful sight.

In the weeks before the melt, I would hear the ice loosen at noon and tighten at dusk.  The tree above me, holding out her long, lovely bones to the sky, would say nothing.  Yet we would be friends for all those days and long after the spring breeze came to lead me on my next adventure.