Cold morning, November, taking a walk, when suddenly, up ahead, the trees unleave, and thousands of starlings lift off, an immense river of noise; they braid and unbraid themselves over my head, the gray silk sky embroidered with black kisses, the whoosh of their wings, their chattering clatter, patterns broken/formed/ reformed, a scarf of ragged ribbons. Dumb- struck, mouth open, I say holy and I say moly. And then, they’re gone.
November 1st, the veil thinner, and we remember those who’ve gone to the other side. Don’t worry, I say, I’ll be there soon. But for now, I mark the presence of their absence, an ache in the throat, a finger on memory’s pulse. Light candles to keep out the dark, to mark a path, should they wish to return. The floating world shimmers and ebbs. I’d like to cross over, just for one hour, see my mother, hold my baby, talk to Clare. Perched on our shoulders, the dead ride with us, teetering like pyramids of water skiers, forming enormous wings. Their words, though, remain inaudible. Cold syllables. They scratch maps in frost on dark windows, but no one can read them.
Cross the threshold. This night is ancient and long. Whisper in my ear, tell me what the new year will bring. Look at how the candle uses up its wax. See how the smoke rises in the hearth.
I never learned to tell one from another— swamp, field, song, vesper—they’re all scraps of drab: rust, dun, buff, tan. Some streaky-breasted, some not. We hear the flutter of their wings, look up, then yawn, ho hum, a sparrow. No rush for the binoculars. Like the poor, they are always with us. Look at them flick and flit in this dry meadow of foxtail, switchgrass, goldenrod; every leaf, stem, and seed head burnished in the dying light. Maybe they are the only angels we get in this life. But the very hairs on our head are numbered, and the father knows them all by name. Each sparrow, too, has a song—no flashy cardinal selling cheer, no sky-blue jay’s ironic squawk, no eponymous chicka-dee-dee-dee. Just us, the unnoticed, gleaning what others have left behind, and singing for all we’re worth, teetering on a bit of bracken at the edge of a wild field.
But the store is closed, so we don’t know what it sells. And we can’t imagine where it is the angels go at night; do they settle in trees? Or do they really make nests, and if so, what kind of bedclothes would they use, gossamer or tulle? Thin wisps, mysteries and sighs? Or this mist, the brouillard, rising from the green Garonne? Perhaps something tangible and insubstantial at the same time, like the host that melts on the tongue while remaining body and blood, bread and wine. Vive les mystères. Meanwhile, the angels are amusing themselves with games like whisper down the alley and ghost in the graveyard, as they sip just the bubbles from their flutes of champagne, and nibble delicate kisses made of meringue in the faint ethereal light of the stars.
It’d been a long winter, rags of snow hanging on; then, at the end of April, an icy nor’easter, powerful as a hurricane. But now I’ve landed on the coast of Maine, visiting a friend who lives two blocks from the ocean, and I can’t believe my luck, out this mild morning, race-walking along the strand. Every dog within fifty miles is off-leash, running for the sheer dopey joy of it. No one’s in the water, but walkers and shellers leave their tracks on the hardpack. The flat sand shines as if varnished in a painting. Underfoot, strewn, are broken bits and pieces, deep indigo mussels, whorls of whelk, chips of purple and white wampum, hinges of quahog, fragments of flat gray sand dollars. Nothing whole, everything broken, washed up here, stranded. Light pours down, a rinse of lemon on a cold plate of oysters. All of us, broken, some way or other. All of us dazzling in the brilliant slanting light.
Outside my window, the bushes have turned, redder than any fire, and the sky is the same blue Giotto used for Mary’s robes. My mother says, if she still had a house, she’d plant one or two of these bushes, and I love how she’s still thinking about gardening, as if she were in the middle of the story, even though we both know, she’s at the end, the last few pages. Down in the meadow, the goldenrod’s gone from cadmium yellow to a feathery beige, the ghost of itself. Mother, too, fades away, skin thin as the tissue stuffed up her sleeve. The scars on her stomach itch and burn, but inside, she’s still the girl who loved to turn cartwheels, the woman whose best days were on fairways and putting greens. On television, we watch California go up in smoke, flames leapfrogging ridge to ridge. Here, these leaves release a shower of scarlet feathers, as everything starts to let go. Oh, how this world burns and burns us, yet we are not consumed.
This morning’s miracle: dawn turned up its dimmer, set the net of frost on the lawn to shining. The sky, lightly iced with clouds, stretched from horizon to horizon, not an inch to spare, and later, the sun splashed its bucket of light on the ground. But it’s never enough. The hungry heart wants more: another ten years with the man you love, even though you’ve had thirty; one more night rinsed in moonlight, bodies twisted in sheets, one more afternoon under the plane trees by the fountain, with a jug of red wine and bits of bread scattered around. More, even though the dried grasses are glowing in the dying light, and the hills are turning all the syllables of lavender, as evening draws the curtains, turns on the lamps. One more book, one more story, as if all the words weren’t already written, as if all the plots haven’t been used, as if we didn’t know the ending already, as if this time, we thought it could turn out differently.
Place a stone in the palm of your hand; it lies there, inert, nothing but itself. It revels in its stoniness, its solidity. It gathers light, rises from the plains, a mountain in miniature, notches and ridges carved by weather, strata and stria, the pressure of time, the rough places, planed. A climber might try for the pinnacle, looking for toeholds in cracks and crevasses. The way up is never easy. The air thins. From the peak, the horizon falls away. Borders are meaningless. The stone rests in your hand. It sings its one long song. Something about eternity. Something about the sea.
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