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Eagle Eye

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It is morning at the zoo where I work.  It is already hot, typical of our Florida summer.  I am standing just off one of the public pathways on a patch of grass, shortly before the gates open and the public start to swarm through the gates.  I rest my arm in the crook of a thick wooden staff about 4’ tall.  My hand and arm dwarfed by the thick leather glove that runs to my elbow.  Stretched across the palm of the glove and held securely there by my fingers are two long soft leather straps called jesses, worn from years of use. The jesses are attached to the butter-colored legs of the golden eagle who rests on my arm, talons loosely gripping my wrist.  We both turn our heads toward the sounds of people slowly filtering in and toward our position near the back of the park.  The sun warms my shoulders and the smell of the tall bank of bougainvillea hedges behind us mix with the sour smell of steaming hops drifting from the Anheuser Busch brewery whose brick walls rise above all the other buildings at the center of the park.  Peacocks wander loose throughout the park and nearby I heard one call out to his peahens.  I am absentmindedly marveling at the idea that someone is actually paying me to do this when the eagle shifts and slowly spreads her massive wings out behind my head, the feathers passing against her chest with a sound like scissors cutting through silk.  She is also enjoying the sun, letting it play across the sable and tan feathers.  Her wing span is easily seven feet, nearly a foot and a half wider than I am tall. She arrived at the zoo years before, shot through her chest with a bow and arrow and barely alive.  The veterinary staff had saved her life but not her ability to fly and so she will live her remaining days in the park. I have developed a deep repoire with her on these morning excursions of ours. To earn the right to handle her, I have worked with Fish and Wildlife officers to learn about her care and management.  I have studied the species so that I can speak to groups about their lifespan, their habits, their territory and the challenges they face. I have spent hours in her exhibit with her to get her comfortable with my presence, offering her small gifts of pinky mice and raw meat  In the park, we are partly on display, partly there to educate parkgoers about the dangers eagles face in the wild of modern society and partly to give her some activity beyond the dead tree, kiddy pool and chainlink that are now the extent of her territory.  An unexpected breeze lifts her feathers and they brush my check as I look up at her.  Majestic, she is still the picture of freedom despite her shackles.  She points the black tip of her yellow aqualine beak down and views me sideways from one perfectly circular amber eye, a piercing gaze. When she blinks, her lids closed like shades and a thin nictitating membrane slides across the surface of her eye like a windshield wiper.  She locks my gaze and sits examining me. I stare back and my eyes take in every detail of the brown scalloped feathers around her neck, the breeze revealing the gray skin below and the few small gnats crawling on its surface.  The pimply skin around her eye looks like the skin of a chicken and the tiny feathers around the edge of her nostrils ruffle.  I resist a sudden and strong urge to raise my other hand and stroke the feathers over the keel bone of her chest, erect like the bow of a ship.  I know doing so would be asking to lose a finger or worse, the might of her beak capable of snapping it in two effortlessly.  But my fingers itch nonetheless.  The pull to know the feel of her breath as her muscles raise and lower her chest is magnetic.  She seems to bask in the adoration and continues to stare down at me in the fashion of a benevolent queen. The world contracts until I felt as if she and I and this hillock of grass are alone in space.  Long minutes pass and we are motionless.  Finally she turns again, facing me full on.  What I see in her eyes then, I also hear in my head as clear as a bell. “You look at me with my wings spread, knowing I cannot fly. I look at you and wonder, what is your excuse?” She folds her wings with a rattle and the spell is broken.

But a part of me was now awake and my quest began in earnest that day.

 

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Winter Words

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Though I wrote this nearly a year ago, today it simply appeared on my screen to my surprise.  I imagine it was something bidding me to pick it up again, and so I did..

Today, I walked again.  I took a long walk along country roads past farmland and woods.  I walked on hips and knees that complained with each step.  I walked with arms that hung rigidly at my side between bent shoulders.  I walked and as I walked, I listened to the crunching of the snow under each footstep.  I walked head down, placing my feet carefully in the snow and ice.  I walked uphill and down until my legs warmed and relaxed and finally lent themselves to the work.  I walked until my arms swung loosely at my sides.  I walked until I raised my head to take in the landscape around me, the rolling fields and the stands of birch and sugar maple .

Today, at last, I breathed again.  I took in cautious sips of cold air as I stepped out into the Vermont winter.  I drew the tight, shallow, weak breaths of my city existence.  I let more air out than I let in.  My lungs protested from behind the bars of their ribbed cage.  I followed my breath in and out, counting as I inhaled and counting again as I exhaled.  I harnessed my breath.  I pulled on its reins and begged it to slow down.  I tamed it with repetition and focus.  I looked out across the hollows covered in snow and attempted to breath the entire view in.  As I did, my breath fell into the deep rhythm of the tides and lent itself to my work.  I breathed until my chest rose and ribs followed.  I drank in long breaths until the effort of it escaped in a weak cough.  The cough startled me and I laughed.  It was a tenuous laugh, a gasp really. Not a purposeful laugh.  I tested my laugh against the silent day, not wanting to wake the hay fields and hillsides from their season’s slumber beneath their white blanket.  I watched my breath in the cold air until I was sure they had not stirred, and laughed again.  The laugh turned into a hum.  A nonsense tune, a made up ditty buzzing between the lips.  The humming made me think of my dad and that, of course, made me think of a song.  So I tried a song.  Quietly singing under my breath.  Then gaining strength.  Finally singing under, over and around my breath…singing with my breath until I was singing as a way of breathing. And I sang and hummed and breathed all the way back to this home away from home.

Today, I drank.  I drank water with lemon and hot jasmine tea.  I drank coffee with breakfast laced with maple syrup and softened with cream.  I drank a second cup black.  I drank more water, iced and then lukewarm.  I drank red wine in long languid sips and let it pool in my mouth before swallowing.  The drinking lent itself to the work without practice or effort .

Today, I slept again.  A sleep unlike the sleep of the last decade.  I fell asleep like the old bent alders in our woods fall under the weight of rain and snow.  I slept without stirring.  I did not wrestle with the blankets or pummel the pillows.  I did not find my arms wrapped crookedly under me.  I did not stir to the sounds of whatever critters pitter-pattered past my window, evidenced only by their tracks the next morning.  In my sleep, I did not dream or at least, I did not recall.  I slept with abandon and without care, the sleep of an infant.  I slept and my ears opened before my eyes, as it should be.  And when I woke, I did not care to retreat to sleep again.

Today, I slept and drank and sang again. Today, I breathed and walked again.  Today, I wrote again. And this is what I wrote…

Like many stories do, this one begins at its end.  I am walking.  Everything is sleeping under a blanket of snow.  There are farmhouses that dot the fields around me and stands of sugar maple and birch.  Birch trees remind me of my family home. Three grow straight skyward outside our front door in Michigan.  As kids, my sister and I would peel the papery bark and write secret messages in lemon juice with our fingers, holding them above the toaster later to watch the letters emerge.  The birches are fitting, as I have come here to write.  I have traveled back in time in a way, to a place of my past to begin the telling of my story.  Or rather, my story wrapped in the stories I really wish to tell, the animal’s stories.  My life seems to be edging toward another one of its peaks.  I arrived in Boston early in the morning and started the drive to Vermont.  Boston is an old stomping ground, a familiar face if I look long enough behind the paintbrush of age.  I head north on 93 and a slow smile emerges when I see the Welcome to New Hampshire road sign and the familiar granite face on the outline of the state; the Old Man in the Mountain.  Live Free or Die the sign proclaims, about the best motto I can imagine.  The highway narrows to a four-lane road and I pull into one of the many small towns that dot the New England countryside.  There is gas in Goffstown and then the one-lane meandering road that follows alongside one of the best fly-fishing rivers in the east. Today I have the road and the river to myself it seems. There is one stop I must make between towns, on this river at the site of an old fairgrounds.  The grandstand is still standing in good shape, the fences around the show rings have been replaced recently and I recognize the path that leads down into the woods and out onto the cross-country riding course.  I park and walk down to the river edge and look up at the hill across the way.  I can just make out another path, wider than a trail but too narrow for a car.  We used to ride our horses up and down that path to get from the barn to the fairgrounds.  I can’t see the barn from here and I can no longer remember which tree I swore to remember in case I ever needed to find my way back again.  They all look the same.  But I know he is there, buried deep down beneath the snow and earth and the roots. Barnstormer, my horse from another lifetime.  I can picture his long red face the first time I met him, his ears pinned flat against his head and nose wrinkled.  What an angry little man he was then, the equine equivalent of Napolean.  How affectionate he became over time. All he needed was space and a job and one person.  My riding trainer knew that when she brought him home those many years ago, against protests from myself and others.  She provided the space and I provided the job and he chose the person.  Thankfully, it was me.  I turn back while the memories are still sweet and in my mind’s eye we are still riding the trails and jumping everything in sight and I haven’t time yet to think about the end when your little legs could no longer carry you and we walked you to this hill on a sun filled day and a belly full of carrots and laid you to rest.  I have more stops to make.  When I arrive into the little center of New Boston, I find it practically unchanged.  Twenty-five years have only worn the wood floors of the local grocery down a bit more.  Coffee still waits in a pot on the counter and three older men sit in the window seat looking out at the grey day.  For all I know, they are the same old men.  The bank is still on the corner across from the white church with its steeple and clerestory window.  I used to ride my horse down the hill and hand my paycheck to the teller through the drive through window.  Just up the hill, I see the porch of the farmhouse where we lived, only now it is a sprawling dental office with a fresh coat of paint.  But the barns are still there and I park and walk across the crust of snow to peer inside the windows.  The stalls are empty but still standing, filled now with lumber and other equipment I suppose.  Farther up the road is my friend’s new barn.  When her father sold the farmhouse and land, she and her husband Mark purchased 40 acres of land covered in apples trees, hayfields and an enormous horse barn.  I head there next.  We have not seen one another in over two decades, Gretchen and I.  She is a soul sister.  She was my riding teacher, my employer, my roommate, my friend all at once.  She walks out of her aisleway on the way to teach a lesson in the arena and sees me beside the car, pulling a scarf around my neck against the chill, they are high on a hill and the wind is up.  Time slips away and it is as if 25 years were 25 minutes.  We hug and fall into conversation as if we had never parted.  She teaches while I watch the two young girls adeptly pilot their horses over the course of jumps.  She tells them, “Remember when we went to Deerfield Fair last year and I showed you the picture on the wall of Barnstormer winning the Vanbuskirk Classic? This is the rider I was telling you about” and she thrusts a thumb in my direction. I am transported in my mind to that September day when my little red horse and I galloped to victory in the jumper class, beating Gretchen and her massive grey gelding Oberon by a tenth of a second.

We play with the dogs for a bit, a beagle with a long face and two hounds.  She shows me one horse after another down the long aisleway. I help her clean stalls and take horses out the fields that surround her little kingdom and we go to lunch.  When I have to leave, we hug long and hard and of course, as people do, we promise not to wait another 25 years to do it again.  I invite her to Seattle to visit the farm knowing she will probably never make it and we grin.  I wander the remaining miles in a warmth that only a shared love can bring and when I arrive at the white farmhouse, it is getting dark.  But inside it is warm and there is dinner waiting.  I am the only guest tonight and when I lay down in the bed in my room, I feel the old house settle down around me in my dreams.

The beauty of arriving in the dark is the discovery that awaits you in the morning. Through the night, the snow has fallen. It lies spread across the farmland fields like an unmarked page on the platen, silently awaiting the first letters to strike on its smooth face. In a few hours, its surface will be pocked with footsteps, long scars trenching across it from the blades of shovels, wrinkles appearing from the tread of tires. In this moment, however, it is unspent, its own, unused. Mine alone the awesome task of initiation. Do I initiate its demise with a single step? Or stoop to gently usher it out of its repose with a sweep of my mittened hand? Or do I protect its virginity to the last possible moment? Shall I stand guard from my perch at the window, praying for its purity to remain, wishing fervently in the midst of the morning calm for all things to remain unchanged? Or succumb to a desirous ruination? I do the only sensible thing, wisdom passed from sisters.  I dress and step out into the cold.  I turn my back on its whiteness, fall backward onto its downy expanse, flail arms and legs in ecstasy and give birth to the day’s first snow angel.

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Poor Crippled Flesh

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Too often my hands have come to rest on a rapid beating heart, a fading pulse, a trembling wing or unweighted limb.  In their distress, an animal will yield the offending paw or hoove, rest a heavy muzzle on your shoulder or chest and surrender.

The knotted cold fabric of scar tissue is all too familiar to my fingers now.  They have spent years, like a potter at her wheel, throwing and shaping it.  I love the process of untangling its wires and easing its tension into smooth cable.  At first it feels vacant and unyielding, seemingly without energy or animation.  But as the heat of contact pries it from its anchored grip, electricity and fluid rush into the space created and pulls it onto its feet like a puppet, akimbo as it rises and stretches itself.

The old horse, neck and back sunken, grey hairs framing amber eyes has legs like gnarled tree trunks, crooked and thick with clotted veins running their length.  The black dog on its back, tongue lolling, chest rising and falling in time with the respirator.  The masked veterinarian leaning over its open belly, knitting together what the grill of a passing car has set asunder.  The tug of the stitches over time will leave a trail on the skin like a passing caterpillar.  My friends tabby, victor of a long ago night fight has a crease of bubbled tissue where the upper half of his ear was.  He loves to have it rubbed between my fingers until it changes from pale white to salmon pink.

A hundred, a thousand such creatures have walked through my life.  Their scars tell the story of falls, fights, surgeries and untended wounds.  Joints click, tendons sing like violin strings stretched across the bone, raised scars like topographic maps trace mountain ranges across haunches and hocks.  Each one of them seems even more precious to me for their scars.  My hands feel and my eyes see them as greater than whole, somehow more than their unimpaired, unmarked brethren.  They never accept pity, they move unfazed, perhaps slower but with conviction.  To me, they are warriors and heroes of their own stories.  They wear their scars like crowns and jewels.  The weight of them does exact a toll but head high, eyes soft, they carry them like a rich tapestry cloak.  It elevates them somehow.  The one eyed horse seems to see more deeply, the three-legged cat seems light on its feet, the arthritic old dog unmoveable like a great oak rooted into the earth.

Funny then, as I gaze down at the thin thread of crinkled skin and run a finger over a tangle of sinew beneath my pulse that I feel none of that power and mystique.  Resolve and resilience are replaced with frailty and numbness.  My steps now are tenuous, my movements more slowed and deliberate from caution.  My bone is not my own, it now lives within a house of metal. My tendons scrape against its door, the skin closes around it like a drape.

It helps now to look into their eyes, to draw on their power.  And when the muzzle rests on my shoulder now, it is to give comfort rather than take it.  And I surrender.

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