It came out of the bushes, a brown blur in the lower right-hand corner of my vision. As it crossed in front of my car I stomped on the brake pedal, sending my precious Nook, my glasses, and my sweatshirt off the passenger seat and into the air. I heard them slam into the glove box and drop to the floor as I watched the giant bird strike my front end dead center. The resulting thump passed through the frame of the car and into my seat. A bursting pillow's worth of feathers rolled up onto the hood and towards my windshield. Panic wrapped her cold fingers around my spine. I imagined the wounded bird falling through my open moon roof and into my lap. My face would be scratched and bleeding, torn by the frantic beating of terrified wings and vengeful cutting of the hawk's beak.
My foot remained jammed on the brake pedal. At last the car came to a halt, causing the bird to flop across the windshield and into the road on the left side of the car. I saw the hawk beating its wings in desperation. It could only manage to hop in little steps across the road and into the woods. The thunder of drums from the stereo speakers matched the meter of my heart. I sat in my car, stopped in the middle of the road, thinking of the lousy start to a first date twenty-five years ago.
Her name was Tamara. I had not known her long, but for some reason I wanted to know her more. It may have had something to do with the fact that she had developed far faster (and far more, in certain areas) than any other girl that I had ever known. After dancing with her for a single slow song at a church dance, I was sure that the devil had a special torture room under construction just for me. Oh, the thoughts and sensations that traveled my circulatory system for the next several days!
I had finally had the courage to ask her out and she had said yes. Since I was only fifteen, my sister drove us to the movies. Tamara's older sister Sherry came along too, riding shotgun up front. At least they had let us sit together in the back seat.
We turned left out of Tamara's driveway, then right around the curve that would take us out to the main road. As we approached the corner, the windshield turned red with the sudden burst of brake lights as the car in front of us swerved and braked. Our own car stopped with a jerk. The four of us squealed in helpless surprise as a raccoon ran beneath the rear tires of the swerving car. The scene played out in the dual spotlights of our low beams, like a center-stage murder in a Shakespeare tragedy.
"Is it dead?" Tamara asked, her face now protected from the horror by her hands.
"No, it's limping off into the woods." I answered, a fresh piece of Big Red gum burning my tongue.
"The poor thing, he's suffering." This from one of the girls as the car in front of us fled the scene.
"Jerk." I said to the driver who couldn't hear me. I opened my door and stepped out into the road.
A light rain had started to fall. I stood on the side of the road and listened through the sound of water dripping on leaves.
"I can hear him, he's crawling through the ferns. His back must be broken if he can't walk on all fours." I stood at the edge of the road, wondering what I could possibly do to remedy the situation.
"We can't just leave him out there like that, he's suffering." Tamara said, applying a pleading tone to her voice.
"Ok, I'll take care of it; you stay here." I said with an authority born of female distress mated with several thousand years of male ego-lution.
I spent a minute or so fumbling around in the dark for something I could use to "take care of it." I settled on a fallen branch that nearly sent me sprawling when my foot tripped over it. It was about five feet long, and just a bit thicker than a baseball bat on one end. As I hefted it in one hand, I thought that it would have made an excellent magic walking staff for an aging wizard.
The rustling had continued up to this point, making it easy to follow the broken creature into the wet underbrush. As I approached, however, the rustling stopped. This gave me pause, and I too halted my forward progress, even to the point of retreat. I had no desire to corner a wounded animal in the dark, wet, forest, no matter how ample the bosom of the girl waiting for me back in the car.
After a moment of silence, the raccoon continued on his dreadful way. I gave cautious chase, still not certain what I was about to do. I assumed that I was about to swing down on the creature's head with one, solid, crushing blow, ending his life and misery in an instant. I had never killed anything up close other than bugs and slugs, and while the thought of killing the raccoon bothered me, it would be an act of mercy.
Or so I thought. At last I found the crippled critter, in a little clearing with enough light to see that he was done for. His rear legs were dragging behind him like wet strips of paper mache clinging to a pull toy. I watched him crawling, an overwhelming sadness overtaking me so that I could not move. He had sensed my approach, and tried to look over his shoulder at me as he crawled. He began to hiss and wail, his angry warning passing through teeth that I could not see clearly through the dark, but could imagine as being sharp enough to draw my blood.
I was scared, sad, and sorry as I raised the makeshift club over my head. The first strike glanced off his back, and he made a crying sound that I knew in an instant was one I never wanted to hear again. The hollow thunk of the club's impact against his little body horrified me as it passed through my arms and into my chest. Adrenaline widened my eyes, blood swelled the veins in my head, and tears coated my cheeks as I swung at the poor animal a second time, once again missing his head. Soon all I could hear over the white noise of blood rushing through the veins in my head and past my eardrums were his screams. They mixed with mine as I brought the branch down several more times onto his back and eventually, his head.
At last his wailing ceased. I slammed the branch down onto his head a few more times, telling myself that the extra blows were to make sure he was actually dead and his suffering at an end. I stood over his little broken body, the instrument of death hanging from my right hand. My chest heaved with the deep breath of exertion and anguish. The rain was falling harder, but it felt like a cool relief dripping onto my shoulders from the dark leaves. Once I had regained my composure, I dropped the club and walked back to the car, wondering what the girls had heard. It must have sounded terrible and frightening, the sounds of the dying creature, the thud of the branch against his body, and me, his killer, weeping throughout the whole dreadful, merciful delivery of death.
I said nothing much, just climbed into the car and shut the door. The ride was a quiet one for several minutes, each of us lost in our own analysis of the experience. Tamara and I sat still and silent in the back seat, more than a center seat dividing us. I felt unloveable, and considered asking to be taken home, but was too much of a coward to Soon our two sisters began to chat quietly in the front seat, and before long the four of us were laughing as we made our way into the theater. The movie was some silly and forgettable farce. Afterwords, Tamara and I climbed into the very back of the station wagon, as far away from our sisters as we could. The evening took a better turn from that point on.
Sitting in my car, parked in the middle of a New Hampshire back road twenty-five years later, I watched the hawk as it hopped into the woods, wings flapping in a futile attempt to leave the ground. I got out of my car, wishing that Elizabeth and I had already bought the pistol she had been wishing for all summer. I followed the great big bird into the woods. It was a huge and beautiful bird, but looked rather pitiful hopping along on the ground, wings smacking into the dead leaves and twigs on the ground. It stopped at a fallen tree that lay across its path. Wings flapped and talons ripped at the side of the fallen tree, but the poor beast could not even hop high enough to get on top of it, let alone over it. As I watched, the hawk turned its head and looked at me. His eyes were skittish and desperate, the black and gold of them both wide with warning. The hooked beak below them looked too sharp to even think about, let alone get close to.
What was I going to do? I muttered a dammit, then walked back out onto the road for a moment's thought. No cars passed by, so there was no one to consult with. A house sat quiet across the road. I wondered what the occupants would think of a stranger knocking to ask them if they had a gun he could borrow for just a moment in order to kill a hawk? I walked back into the woods, once again cornering a wounded wild animal with the thought of beating it to death with a stick.
At my approach, the hawk the hawk warned me away with a weird sort of sound. I thought of my daughter's husky, scratchy, Kathleen Turner voice when she is truly sick.
"Well, whatinthehelldoyouwantmetodo?" I yelled at the bird.
As the sound of my voice died away, the hawk stretched its wings, and with a sudden bursting whoosh, took flight. My heart leapt inside my chest at the sight of his full wingspan. I laughed away the tension, watching the bird disappear into the woods.
I walked back to the road and checked the back seat of my car.
It was empty. My ample bosomed date had abandoned me.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
I turned the car off the interstate to enter the Petrified Forest National Park from the North end. We parked and headed over to the visitor’s center, paying a nominal fee to drive the twenty-eight miles through the park. Walking back to the car we passed through a tiny courtyard. Without a word of warning, Michael took off running like a bloodhound back on the scent. I followed close behind, pulling the camera from my pocket. I had no idea what my brother was about to do, but I knew that it was sure to be worthy of a photograph.
And it was. Michael dropped down to the ground in front of a simple sculpture of what appeared to be a cougar. The big cat had been cut from a flat piece of iron measuring one inch thick. The rusted animal was at least seven feet long, with a long metal tail curving up over its body. Michael rolled onto his back beneath the animal and made like he was fending off the cat’s attack. I snapped several shots while laughing at yet another silly moment on the side of the road.
Michael picked himself up, and we started across the courtyard once again. We stopped at the edge of an empty fountain. Recessed into the ground, the cement square was only a foot deep. It was bordered by three feet of round river stones on all sides, and the inside bottom and walls were painted a light blue. A metal sprinkler pipe stood silent and dry in the center.
“I’m going in.” I handed Michael the camera before pretending to wade into deep water. I lay down on my stomach and began to swim over the blue, pushing my hands and kicking my feet through imaginary water. I stretched my arms out long and straight, turning my head to take a breath after each stroke.
I heard the camera clicking away in Michael’s hand. I swam out to nowhere and back before relaxing my body and letting my head drop. The yellow sun was comfortable and warm on my back, the hard sea of blue beneath me calming and cool against my cheek. I could have fallen headlong into a nap, but the temptation disappeared with the sound of Michael’s laughter.
“Matthew, look over there, at those windows, is that a restaurant?”
I twisted around to take a look at a long string of windows in the visitor’s center building no more than forty feet away from my swimming hole. I squinted through the sunlight and focused my eyes on one window after another.
“Yep, it is. There are people in there, and they are probably watching us!” I laughed, then rolled onto my back and swam a few more imaginary yards before leaping to my feet. I took a bow for anyone that might have been watching.
“Dinner and a show, folks! Try the veal, we’re here all week!” I said it with a smile before walking back to the car, not really knowing or caring if anyone could hear me.
As we began our drive through what is known as the Painted Desert, it was made clear to me that Jared had at least one thing in common with God. They shared the ability to take hold of a drab, empty canvas and work a beautiful blend of colors and imagination into something capable of making me cry. I couldn’t help but think that we were weaving our way through God’s personal studio.
I pulled into a parking space at a well-marked overlook. Michael was out of the car and running into the red yonder before I could even release my seatbelt. I opened my car door and stepped out. I watched as Michael ran through a gap in the rock wall marking the edge of the parking lot.
A crow was perched on the corner of the wall. The big black bird didn’t so much as flinch when Michael sped past, despite the fact that he could have reached out and swiped the bird across the beak as he did. I stared in wonder at the confident creature.
He seemed to be looking right at me, his head cocked to one side as if he were scrutinizing me.
“What do you want?” I asked the bird. At the sound of my voice he jumped down from his rock wall perch and waddled a couple of steps in front of the car.
“This is incredible!” I heard Michael shout. The happiness in his voiced pulled my attention away from the fearless black bird. I had not expected to hear such joy in my brother’s voice for a long time, if ever again. I skirted around the crow and followed the path that Michael had taken.
I held my breath at the sight of a red landscape that could not have been anything other than a rough draft of the otherworldly landscape of the red planet nearest our own.
“Matthew, it’s like running around on Mars!” Michael’s unwitting agreement with my own thoughts made me feel good inside. I smiled as I watched him run down into a little valley below me. His shoepers left odd-looking tracks in the red dust.
I snapped a few pictures as Michael bent down, grabbed handfuls of red earth, and flung them into the air above him. Even from my position far above him, I could see the smile on my brother’s face. I laughed, his absolute joy opening a pressure relief valve somewhere within me.
Like a puppy off his leash in a park full of fir hydrants and buried bones, Michael ran around inspecting the terrain for several minutes. I watched from my vantage point and marveled at the beauty all around me. Tears wandered their way down my cheeks.
Michael ran up a trail on the other side of the little valley, stopping at the top of a hill matching mine in height. He turned to face me, both arms hanging at his sides. Warm winds tousled his hair and lifted the bottom corner of his pearl-buttoned western style shirt. His dark blue jeans and black bracelet-wristwatch stood out against the indigo sky behind him. In my mind’s eye we were acting out a living metaphor of our own past, standing atop two distinct hills, a deep chasm separating us.
I took a few pictures of my little brother and wondered if I looked half as cool, dressed as I was in brown shorts and a light blue tee shirt with a red dinosaur printed on the front.
“He’s right; I feel like I’m on Mars.” I whispered to myself, feeling self-conscious as the words left my lips and blew away into the Painted Desert.