Unchanging

She sat with her back to a cypress tree,
Her front to the river and to the six children,
fanned in front like a peacock’s tail.
They stood and watched her blankly, not speaking.
Her knees were drawn to her chest, her
Shoulders jerking up and down, her
Hands covering her face, her
Palms pressing the images of the six
Into her memory,
Her present,
The future.

The river frothed behind the six, the whitewater relentlessly and mercilessly crashing against rocks smoothed by destruction over thousands of years and leading inexorably to the waterfall fifty yards downstream.

She said something through her hands to a girl of 14 and a boy of 12,
Who both turned
Away and walked back along the water’s edge down the
Brown dirt path from which they’d come.
Their pencil-like bodies grew smaller and
Smaller as a girl of 3 watched them instead of watching
Her mother. Their slender figures disappeared around a bend where

The whitewater frothed, moving toward the four children and

The woman. The children were silent
Before her.

The roiling water gurgled and hissed, its bubbles’ bursts and popping drowned by the roar downstream, its uninhibited dance on the rocks calling for attention, like a pot of milk overflowing on a stovetop and fizzing on the gas burners.

The woman took her hands away from
Her face, which was red and
Shiny.
Across the river was a cliff, and there was a squirrel
Scrambling down the crumbling rock face, looking for food or perhaps
trying to escape a predator.
She looked over the heads of the four children and
Noticed
The leaves of a madrone tree, its fiery bark like dried
Blood against the ancient gray of the cliff.
A raven sat on a branch and watched.

The water behind the four young children boiled and hissed and cascaded over rocks, their surfaces pounded mercilessly for hundreds and maybe thousands of years in unchanging agreement between tormentor and slave. The waterfall groaned and howled, its receiving maw at the bottom swallowing and regurgitating all that flowed over its lips. Never satisfied.

She looked at her 3-year-old daughter.
The woman’s eyes were bloodshot.
She heard the raven CAW!—a loud, wounded plea for its mate and for
Food.
The whitewater beyond the girl hissed.
The waterfall groaned and howled.
The squirrel stumbled and somersaulted into
the pitch of a hollow.
The cliff was like a wave,
A wall trembling and
Poised to crash on all five of them
On the riverbank.

The woman heard a small voice.

She ignored it.

She stared at her 3-year-old.
The whitewater hissed behind the toddler, only ten feet behind
Her.
The waterfall howled, its mouth still open,
Waiting.
The cliff trembled,
Waiting.

Again she heard the voice.

The woman listened to the raven—CAW! CAW!—and the
Water—its bubbling and its dance, now silver with
Light shining off the spray as the
Waves splashed on the smooth, round rocks. A male
Cicada above her sang his mating song to an unknown lover.

The 3-year-old now yelled, “Mommy!”

The mother, her face wet and shiny and red, as if slapped, saw her toddler, dressed in an aquamarine one-piece swimsuit. She exhaled hard, as if trying to touch her daughter with her breath.

“What.”

“I’m hungry.”

The mother looked at her and at the faces of the three other children. Their cheeks were sunburned, their hair dried haphazardly. Derek was scratching the mosquito bite on his right shin. Mary was staring down at her barrette, snapping and unsnapping it. Casey had her hands on her knees and was bent over, looking at an ant making its way around an apple core browned and shriveling in the August heat. Laney repeated her plea, “Mommy, I’m hungry.”

The mother stood up and, taking her under her armpits, hiked the little girl to her hip. The water was an iron gray, crashing and roiling against rocks that had been smoothed over thousands of years in an unchanging agreement of tormentor and captive. The mother walked closer to the water, and Laney wiped some hair that had blown over her right eye from the rushing wind coming down the river. She looked at her mother, her cheeks red from the sun, her hair dried haphazardly.

“Laney, have I ever told you that I was a camper here when I was Derek’s age?”

The toddler was watching the silver water dance along smooth rocks and a big black bird fly down toward them from a reddish-brown tree across the river.

“No, Mommy.”

“Well, I was. I came here as a camper for eight years and then was a counselor. I wanted all of you to see this place. It’s very special to me.” She paused to listen. “If you’d like, when you’re a few years older, perhaps you could come to the kids camp.” She paused. “They have horseback riding and archery and many more things than we’ve had this week. Would you like that?”

The little girl nodded, as if dreaming about silver water and big birds and horses and being a princess. “I’m hungry, Mommy.” And she put her head against the mother’s sunburned shoulder.

“C’mon y’all,” she said, turning her eyes to the others. “I think the dining hall’s still serving lunch.”

The mother of six carried Laney on her hip with the twins and the 5-year-old trailing her. The older two would have reached the cabin by now and would be picking up their clothes. The whitewater hissed, the waterfall groaned, and the cliff trembled, forever poised to crash on the riverbank. The raven flew overhead and passed them, its silent flight an empty shadow of the chatter now beginning below. The family walked together along the dirt path, their slim figures disappearing around a bend.

photo: psd

Wings pulled tight

In my leather armchair looking north, through the doorway to the terrace off our 4th floor Upper West Side apartment.

The door is propped open by a blue and white Coleman cooler and even though my neighbors could, technically, see me in my pajama bottoms from across the courtyard through the diminishing leaves on the Chinese elm, I sit satisfied, for I get a nice view of the table and chairs, the zinnias, the umbrella—folded as though it’s a gull with its wings pulled tight to its body facing the stiff ocean breeze. Beyond them, the top of the elm sways from the wind brought by the front moving through New York. The early morning light is newborn from sunrise and getting used to itself.

The doorway is an invitation—a beckoning…a bridge between what is settled, predictable, agreed on (that which is inside and controlled) and that which is part of the occasional maelstrom, the uncontrollable and constantly negotiated world external to our small home.

photo: macropoulos

The Cardinals

Granddaddy pointed out correctly yesterday that one of the morning doves may have figured out how to get birdseed from the feeder.

By design, the feeder is supposed to limit these larger and more aggressive birds from perching on the 1.5-inch side pegs and extracting all the food from two cylindrical tubes. There are actually two feeders. One, hung in a crape myrtle, enjoys the regular dining company of three or four finches. The other one, larger and erected on an aluminum pole painted green, with a round, hollow guard dangling below two separate tubes to protect them from squirrels or raccoons who might try to scale the pole, entertains the doves (officially unwelcome), finches, sparrows and a cardinal couple. Memaw says that the cardinal male has only recently ceased pecking at the dining room window, where he saw his reflection and thought it a challenger. Memaw would be inside, banging pans and waving at him and making all kinds of gestures and noises, to no avail.

“It’s been three seasons now, I think,” she says. “He would get worried I guess that this other male bird was going to steal his sweetie-pie. Then after a time, he figured he wasn’t going to lose her.” She thought for a moment. “He just doesn’t stand up as much.”

The female is at the smaller of the two feeders, on the crape myrtle. Her red-brown tail feathers are fanned out like a hoop skirt. Memaw tells me more. “She’ll come over to the feeder, and he’ll follow her over. He’ll help her with the nesting. They mate for life, you know.” In fact, during courtship, he will sing to her, and feed her seed beak-to-beak.

This summer Granddaddy says is one of the greenest he can recall. Sure enough, the lawn out back is succulent, the grass this morning still enjoying its dew, the sun’s rays catching the tip of each blade’s moisture and transforming the lawn into an emerald tablecloth covered with tiny diamonds. The crickets are still singing though it’s already eight o’clock. The colors are vibrant and stark—sky blue, cardinal red, grass green, crape myrtle fuscia. Patches of light and dark boast distinct borders and, for the moment, they remain unmoved, as if the sun decided to pause for this very moment, for this observation, and allow these diurnal nomads to settle. The rays—invisible, not the yellow crayon approximation of a child’s drawing—are what brings out these colors and patches. The sun is a both a creator and a reflector. It is both that which empowers and teaches color to the student, and also that which serves those same colors, as attendants do with a queen, announcing her arrival.

As the crickets sing on, one dove—not the one who figured out how to get food—makes a plaintive moan as it flies between the live oak and the top of the green feeder. It flies now to the roof, over my head, unable to satisfy its craving.

photo: mosippy