Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Ian's Crossing

Ian walked with his brothers only as far as the open gate, teetering slightly behind them in his usual hesitant way, two steps forward one step back. He watched them go on their treks in the open fields from the safe side of the fence, lingering at the invisible, self-imposed barrier long after they disappeared from view, gazing into the distance, shifting his weight from foot to foot, taking two steps out in the open, three steps back in the safety of the yard, flapping his wings like a seal, pacing some more before gathering himself in a silent shrug, and walking back to the barn like someone with an ache in his heart. He was free to join them but he chose not to.

He had always been the odd bird out in the family, the one lingering slightly behind the others, the one standing at an odd angle to the flock and the world at large, the one who shied away from group activities and explorations, the one who fled from Walter's blustering invitations to romp, and froze in indecision at Clarence's assembly calls, the one who cowered in wide open spaces, but bloomed like a hothouse rose in the confines of a close embrace, inhabiting your lap as though it were his only nest in the world—fluffing his round, billowy self into a white feather ball, pushing his petal-soft forehead into the crook of your neck, blushing scarlet, whimpering contended coos, putt-putting endearments with every beat of his heart, shutting his one good eye to the world, and falling asleep in your arms with the softness and surrender of a small child, like his only defense in life was love. Yet, for all his yearning and gift for tenderness, Ian had never bonded with anyone. He was the loneliest soul of the flock. And, when Roscoe, the wild turkey, joined the family and brought his rapturous rhythms to Ian's cloistered world, and lead his brothers on daily outings into the prairie, Ian disengaged even more, and gradually abandoned even the one activity that had always had his full participation (at least as much as his reserve allowed): greeting visitors. He used to parade with his brothers in full celebration gear—the three of them moving in perfect physical, emotional and spiritual sync, connected as in a dance to an inner music, acting in perfect unity of purpose and desire—not just to get your attention, but to amaze you, for they knew being amazed, not just to impress you, but to bedazzle you, for they knew being bedazzled, not just to seduce you, but to enrapture you with their rhapsodic persuasion, for they knew being enraptured, and they were sure you would, will, must too. But now he lingered farther and farther back of the resplendent procession, and secluded himself even more than before.

He was a shy and serious bird, a grave and silent little person, craving the affection that his brothers either didn't need to the same extent, or didn't know how to give in terms that he perceived or experienced as affection. His calls for nurture were either misunderstood as fear or weakness, or simply ignored. You could see him on any given day waddling around in his plump pantaloons, ambling in a white halo of feathers, as round as a full moon, and just as solitary, doing his "indecision dance", a tap dance of sorts, before proceeding in any given direction, to any given destination. Two steps forward, one step back, several taps in place, oscillating on the brink of a decision that never came, freezing in place with one foot in the air, as if torn between opposing forces, mincing the ground with shy, small steps, advancing and retreating at the same time, not strutting with a fat waddle like Walter, not gliding confidently, fluidly, like Clarence, not charming the ground into weightlessness, like Roscoe.

Everything he did, he did with a hesitancy, a delay, an almost regret in his being that the balance gained in the previous step had to be left behind. He was not an adventurer like Roscoe, or a performer like Walter, or a leader, like Clarence. He was a nervous, brooding, melancholy fellow who peered at life, squinted at it, gazed at it sideways—looking and not looking at the same time—from under the hood of his furrowed brow. Even his snood was shaped differently, looser, wider, softer, extending well past his beak, and covering part of his face, his wattle blushed a deeper shade of red than anyone else—not a patch of blue left over on his face and neck, not a drop, not a bead—his face, throat, snood, cheeks, forehead and crown were utterly engulfed in the fire of his deep crimson blush. He stood in the hissing blaze of his blush, peeping at you from under the folds of his scarlet veil, smoldering alone in the flare of his internal combustion. That silent flame, that mute rhapsody of longing, was the only outer expression of his soulcall.

Then Simone came along, rescued from a backyard egg operation. A shy, pale, brittle-boned creature whose liquid blue eyes peeked from under the flop of her limp comb, and whose gait, made choppy and unsure by the beginnings of the neurological disorder that would later cripple her, gave her a hesitancy that resembled Ian's own, and communicated something—an ache, a yearning, a vulnerability—that he not only understood, but responded to in ways that seemed to speak her language more clearly than any utterance from anyone of her kind.

From the moment they met, they acted as though they'd known each other all of their lives, as though  they remembered each other, and as though, by some immensely lucky strike, they had found each other again. They seemed to recognize something deeply familiar in each other: a small, steady inner weather whose gentle currents predisposed them to brooding and nurture, a misty, mellow soul-climate whose streams of thought and feeling had a subtle motion—not the sublime, heroic upsurges of Roscoe's spirit, or the giddy rushes of Walter's soul, or the sharp sunshine of Clarence's mind. They were not moved to explore, challenge, change, or engage the world, but to feel it, to be in it, to accept its grace, and its mood, patiently and radiantly, and to illuminate it with their own lives.

They gravitated towards each other. Where Ian went, Simone followed, when Simone stopped, Ian rested. They kept each other company, soaking each other's tranquil presence, moving together from sun spot to sun spot, basking together in the quiet of the morning and the afternoon. Their bond was not sealed by shared projects and activities, but by something else, a resonance, a lambent correspondence. They moved to similar rhythms—some, imposed by their physical limitations, some driving them from within—their needs, fears, pleasures and yearnings that predisposed them to similar experiences, perceptions, triumphs, and losses. And, in the daily exchange of those like perceptions, experiences, triumphs, and losses, you could almost make out the beginnings of a melody, a music, a steady, silent drumbeat arising from the dialogue of their minds, from the call and response of similarly blessed and burdened hearts—the thoughts, feelings, and images of kindred souls passing effortlessly from one being to another. It was not an alliance, a partnership, or a love affair. It was a communion. For the first time in his life, Ian was no longer at an odd angle to the universe, but in a perfect, snug fit. He belonged.

Simone collapsed late one afternoon. We found her floundering on the ground, unable to stand, hold her head up, eat or drink on her own, struggling, and failing, to inch closer to Ian who was standing guard nearby. We cradled her in a soft blanket and held her for what seemed like hours, stroking her back, talking sweet, reassuring nothings, helping her nestle next to Ian one last time, before moving her into the house for care and hospice and, in the process, inevitably tearing her from everything she loved, knew, and trusted. When we finally got up and carried her away, Ian followed. He walked with us as far as the open gate. There, he stopped in his usual hesitant way, pacing in place, flapping his wings, shuffling his feet, dithering between opposing desires—to be loved, to be safe—taking a few steps out in the open, turning back. Only, this time, after taking his first strained, faltering steps forward, he kept going. The fear of losing sight of Simone was greater than his fear of leaving the safety of his yard, so he pressed on, trailing behind us stiffly, haltingly, hemming, hawing, squirming and stuttering all the way to the front door.

He showed up again the next morning, and the next, and the following, and every day after that for the rest of the summer, walking the distance with steps that got steadier and steadier with each new crossing, as though pulled by an invisible chord, as though answering a stronger and stronger call only he could hear. Once he got to the house, he waited patiently, marching up and down the garden fence, pausing at the open gate, but refusing to enter until Simone was finally brought out for sun and fresh air—a gray lump of limp, oily feathers resting on a deep cushion. Only then did he cross the invisible border and nestled himself next to her, positioning his seeing eye towards her, and "opening" his blind eye to the rest of the world, or to whatever was left of the world that was not Simone. He came to see her every day, brimming over with what had happened to him. It was always the same thing, at least to our eyes—morning rush, breakfast, Walter's rowdy romps, Clarence's confusing commands, Roscoe's bewildering signals—but it created a new response in him, left a fresh impression on his living soul, it surprised and informed him with a new feeling, a new thought-image. And, in scent, sight, sound, motion, and mood, he brought the bounty of that novelty, that freshness, that discovery, to her. And she drew the essence of his "story" into her being, and savored it. Her eyes glistened, glittered and quickened with life when she saw him. He was the reed through which she breathed in the world that she could no longer participate in. Confined in her crippled body, she felt and did through him. And Ian not only brought her back the world—in presence, tone, cadence, sweetness and briskness— but he brought her a tumbling, fluttering, gurgling, gleaming world that produced more joy and more shining in her being than the one she had known herself.

If Ian's visits retrieved, or invoked, a luckier version of the world she had lost, Simone's presence opened an entirely new world for Ian. A realm he had never known before—a space where he felt and acted like a different person, a space he engaged, responded to, and inhabited so differently as to feel like a different world—a world that was shut and inaccessible to him in Simone's absence, as though it didn't exist except under the stars of her eyes. You could see this change, this crossing of the threshold, happen every morning. As he approached Simone's garden, his steps gathered speed, purpose and confidence, his being shimmered, his eyes sparkled, his throat gurgled sweeter and sweeter sounds. If, to everyone else, she was a pitiful, broken thing, lumping along with the burden of a shattered life upon her, to him, she was a shining destination.

And you could see that transformation again, at the end of each day, when it was time for him to return to his barn for the night. He left Simone's nest drunk on the substance exchanged in the close space of their connection, strengthened by it, temporarily immune to life's challenges and obstacles and blows. And, for a few steps, he almost strutted, chest puffed out, wattle reddened scarlet, wings drumming the ground as if in celebration, every step, hollering and bragging and taking possession of the world with glorious confidence and command. But then, the farther away he walked from Simone's garden, the more that substance drained from him, and the more he diminished—you could see him almost getting smaller, receding, caving into himself— and he returned to his shy, grave, rueful self. The tumbling exuberance that had sustained him for a few minutes drained away. By the time he reached his coop, he was no longer airborn, he was grounded in uncertain life again, anchored in the ever uncomfortable present again, mincing his steps again, back to his small, frail frame that predisposed him to brooding, melancholy, and reserve. Simone left his life as suddenly and quietly as she had entered it. She went to sleep one morning, with Ian by her side, and never woke up. He sat there all day, as before, a silent, loving witness to her life. We didn't disturb him. He went to his coop in the evening and came back the next morning, as he had done all summer long. We brought out her empty cushion and laid it in the same spot on the ground, and he nestled in the grass next to it quietly, gently, lovingly, as if it still contained her.

If, at first, he returned expecting, and later merely hoping, to find her there, after a while he trailed in—dull eyed, tattered coated, leaden footed—clearly knowing he wouldn't. But there had been no other Home in the world for him outside the space created in the dailiness of his communion with Simone, and there had been no other world where his soulcall was heard and answered.

As spectacularly as he had bloomed in her presence, so he slowly withered in her absence. His light dimmed, his body shrunk. What inhabited his heart now was an absence, the absence of all that Simone had been, and had called him to be—her thoughts, her memories, her hopes, her fears, her desires, her unique expressions of those thoughts, memories, hopes, fears, and desires, and his peculiar responses to all that. For the next few weeks, he mostly sat patiently by her empty bed but, once in a while, he got up as if to stretch, lifting his burdened body on the tips of his amputated toes, and flapping the stubs of his wings in what looked like a clumsy attempt to fly. Then he returned to his place of vigil as though keeping the nest safe for Simone's return. He never tried roosting in it himself, nor did anyone else claim it while he was there.

One day we found him lying prone on the ground, his wings outstretched as in big, bold, ecstatic flight, his soft soles turned skyward, his head tucked under his left wing, as though to sleep. The summer was immense. His heart was full. It was time. He opened his wings, turned his soles to the sky, closed his eyes, and trusted.

Joanna Lucas
© 2010 Joanna Lucas
If living ethically is important to you, please remember that there is nothing humane about “humane” animal farming, just as there is nothing ethical or defensible about consuming its products. When confronted with the fundamental injustice inherent in all animal agriculture—a system that is predicated on inflicting massive, intentional and unnecessary suffering and death on billions of sentient individuals—the only ethical response is to strive to end it, by becoming vegan, not to regulate it by supporting “improved” methods of producing dairy, eggs, meat, wool, leather, silk, honey, and other animal products. For more information, please read The Humane Farming Myth. Live vegan and educate others to do the same.