LAST NIGHT I DREAMED I was a child. Mother on the front porch, watering flowers. Daddy on the couch, book fallen to the floor. Too young for words, I know nothing of their worlds. Ornithology. Site fidelity. Geraniums. Faith. I know nothing yet of the split between science and God, between men and women, between want and need. Home is a set of sensory perceptions: the rough-smooth texture of my father’s wool socks; bright red tomatoes on the windowsill; my mother humming “Abide With Me” as flowers outside remain abundant, carrying full green leaves.
“You should go,” my mother says. “If you want to go—go now.”
My father blinks, then nods, running a hand through greasy black hair. My mother slips a sweater over my head, puts me in boots, and kisses my head.
Every day my mother kisses my head. Every day she says to my father, “You have to eat.” This she says as she stands at the stove, as she scrambles eggs, as she butters toast, as she opens stewed tomatoes, as she fries liver, as she browns scalloped potatoes. This as my father pours drink after drink. He sleeps in the small, wood-paneled room adjacent to the kitchen. Each morning when he wakes, his hands shake. In the evening he looks at my mother, his eyes a mix of humiliation and gratitude.
THEY MET OUTSIDE A church near the university. He had just come from teaching a class, she from choir practice. She would learn the language he knew best. Blackpoll warblers and the feeding patterns of finches and crossbills. She would learn how the four major routes in North America are called flyways and how so few songbirds, once branded—less than one percent—are recovered. She would spend years editing his papers, cooking his meals, preparing his thermos, recording the test scores of his students, numbers circled in red in a plain blue book: 92, 87, 46, 52.
He did not, so far as I know, ever learn to sing.
MY MOTHER’S VOICE IS calm and clear. Like a lake. “Not too long,” she tells my father. “It’s going to rain.”
She kneels to pull the hood of my quilted green jacket up over my head, ties it under my chin. I’m dressed in an orange sweater and soft brown corduroy pants. She hands my father a red plaid thermos, then another, tall and silver.
One, two, three, four. Ten steps on the wooden floor. If worms live beneath, I’ve never heard them.
Outside, my father lifts me.
Looking back, I see our house, still yellow. The mailbox, red. The white-black bark of aspen trees, shivering.
STUDIES SAY SONGBIRDS MIGRATE at night, sometimes alone, sometimes in loose flocks. Studies say enteral and parenteral nutrition improve liver function. Studies say the Arctic tern migrates from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again each year, 22,000 miles, a round trip.
At the mouth of Emigration Canyon is a monument to Mormon pioneers and a statue of Parley Pratt. These are facts. Before Pratt, other ventures. To read the history is to linger over a particular year: 1846. The Donner Party. Those unfortunates who attempted the Utah canyon on their way to California, the Promised Land.
I LIVE IN CALIFORNIA now. On my small patio grows a solitary lemon tree. Here such trees grow easily. Tomatoes, by contrast, languish for lack of constant heat.
MY FATHER CARRIES ME against his chest. He wears a rucksack on his back. When he sets me down, we continue on, walking a hundred miles or a hundred years. When he lifts me again, I go limp, a sack of sleepy potatoes. A thousand miles away a flock of pigeons sleep under artificial light. When they wake, they fly overhead, their biological clocks now six hours ahead. Inside each is a compass as small as the sun, a wristwatch strapped to arteries of fluttering hearts, new time running in old blood.
My father smells of bourbon, clay, and sweat. He puts a finger to his mouth to quiet me, then points to the trees. Whatever it is or was, I will never see. Air turns to mist. The pigeons are almost home. He lifts me again. I suck on the collar of his worn flannel shirt.
“Stay here,” he whispers, placing me back on firm ground, underneath a an umbrella of needles, a quiet blue spruce. He looks through binoculars, pulls out a small spiral notebook, writes something down. He drinks from his thermos. One, two, three, four. Then he pulls out the small plaid thermos for me, pouring juice into a small silver cup. Relief. An offering.
AT DAYBREAK TODAY, A finch arrives on my patio to sniff out a possible home. When jade plants are deemed unsuitable, she flys away, carrying her eggs for elsewhere.
At night I drink red wine and read by the blue laptop screen. One glass, two, three, four. Almost home. The adult male finch is rosy around its face and upper breast, streaked down the belly and on the flanks. The female, unfussy, has a plain brown face.
WHEN THE SKY CRACKS, my father stands still, frozen in a light that drenches us both. He looks gaunt. Worried. If he is, he says nothing. When he walks away, I know to stay put, counting his steps. I can count to ten. “There are more,” my mother has said, she who smells of freshly cut lemons, she who knows of a world beyond ten. I know that. I just don’t know what the numbers are named.
Help of the helpless. Fast falls the eventide.
I count to ten. Begin again. Ten times a hundred strides. Ten times a hundred years. Ten times a hundred times a father swallows, a hundred times he disappears. Turn the page, the story’s simple. A father drinks. A child watches. A mother scrambles eggs, each scramble keeping the dream of family alive. “Eggs have protein,” the mother says. “Your father needs protein. Your father needs to eat.”
How Long O Lord Most Holy and True?
The song is a question, the question a note, the note a small, unspeaking and thirsty child.
MY MOTHER SANG TO me every night. She wore a flannel robe with small blue flowers. She was a soprano. She married him immediately. She told me once faith came to her easily, naturally.
WHO CAN SAY WHY someone stays and someone goes? Whosoever goeth? Whosever, over time—gradually, in the fashion of a minor key—leaves?
PARTIAL MIGRANTS ARE THOSE species in which some will leave and others stay. American robins, say. Songbirds, say. Songbirds migrate primarily at night. Some have two distinct migratory destinations. They can’t help themselves. It’s in their genes.
WHEN MY MOTHER DIED—nine months after him—I held her wedding band up to the light, put glasses on to read the inscription inside.
BEYOND THE CIRCLE I create for myself is dirt. Beyond dirt, a blue spruce roof. Beyond the blue spruce roof, the kingdom of language. Beyond language, the purity of sound. What the child remembers.
A screeching. A flapping of wings.
I must have fallen asleep. Now my father is back, carrying a brown paper bag. Inside the bag is a small bird. Inside the bird, darkness. Inside darkness, more darkness and a broken watch.
One, two, three, four. I count his steps, waiting for the sun compass of late afternoon to lead us home.
He places the noise inside his rucksack, turns, then registers me.
Here I am, I want to say. I’ve been here now for twelve-thousand years. So has our yellow house. So has our bright red mailbox. So has our story, the story of a family lacking its sense of home. So have the roads near here that passed through sedimentary rock. Red siltstone, shale, shattered limestone. The remnants of ancient soil.
Here the sky splits in half again.
Data on survival rates conflict.
For fifty million years, data on survival rates conflict.
My father lifts me. I bury my face into the sweat of his face. One hand circles his neck, the other rests on the desperate bird. Inside his wild rucksack, the creature cries. One, two, three, four. I count carefully. Its heartbeat races, then accelerates, then slows, then stops.
I count again, just to be sure.
When all goes quiet, I hear my father breathing. An ancient code. Not a question: a code.
Why pretend it’s a dream?
Now the counting is done. Whatever is done is done.
WITHER THOU GOEST, THE inscription said. A small gold band. Wither thou goest, I will go.