Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2018  Vol. 17 No. 1
 print preview

Winging It

I saw it first in my father’s eyes. Not anything I could picture, not islands set in seas of gold, not shining pheasants with tails like swords flushing in front of my bejeweled shotgun, not a flock of houris perspiring some sweet poisonous essence that no man, no boy with ideas like mine, could ever resist. All those I could think of with no trouble: I tried each in turn but saw they were not what fed the fire that lit up my father’s wintry irises.

We would meet him at the plane, my mother no longer needing to lift me above the low chain-link fence so I could see him when he stood for a moment on the top step, waving. In the evening wind his hair streamed like the emblazoned rudders rising theatrically behind him, the triple tail of the Constellation, my favorite of all the airplanes he flew on. The flowing curve of its fuselage seemed to have been dreamed into being, drawn on air: a magnified and grander version of the rakish fighter planes in the war whose end, a few years before, had brought about my father’s return and my beginning.

What my father did for a living in those days—that deceptive epoch when all of us, one nation under God, were headed upward forever and ever—I couldn’t have told my pals or printed on lined yellow paper for my inquisitive teacher. It had something to do with going places, with seeing things, then coming home and typing out reports. All I knew was the clack and bang behind the door of his office, a back bedroom next to mine, and then in a week or so he was off again, waving in reverse from the top step, the fire in his eyes reduced to a flicker in want of rekindling.

If I suspected he was a spy of some kind, even a counterspy, I kept the thought to myself, the steeliest of secrets, my own and maybe his. I really wasn’t sure what a counterspy was.

There was this: though he might stop off in London or Paris, Bombay or Khartoum, he was always en route to some wilder place—some nameless, wordless range of mountains, some desert boneyard with the fading hoofprints of strange, extinct bands of wild sheep with twisted horns. Or so I was told, mostly by my mother, casually enough. Khartoum. It boomed in my dreams like a drum made from the hide of an elephant or rhinoceros, beaten with a drumstick as broad as an oar.

In those days, flight for Everyman was finally coming of age. With the world’s railways worn out by war, air services were springing up everywhere. The far fastnesses of Earth sang a new siren song if you had the money or, like my father, could figure something out. And so we stood there in the prop wash, my mother and I, while I mapped out in my mind his flights to New York and Rangoon and Dar es Salaam, arc on arc, endless skies—endless because what lay at the far end of those arcs remained mostly a mystery. Beyond what little I was told I asked nothing, not wanting to loosen any lips. Yet this much I saw: the fire in my father’s eyes was tied up somehow with flight.

In the fantasy comic books I read back then, it was a constant theme, a drumbeat, a kind of catechism, a madness. Men in flight, carried away. Mystics.


How we loved to soar and bank and dive around the schoolyard, arms outspread like wings. We were Thunderbolts, Lightnings, Hellcats; we were pilot and plane at once. With pursed lips we hummed the mantric drum note of matched propellers. Imagining we had left the earth—maybe we had. The brand-new brick school building—a cliché from the ground up, the cupola, the crouching yews by the doorway—hung overhead like a cloud ready to burst and rain on us when the bell rang, but until then was a purpose-built heavenly object for us to loop and swoop around by the seat of our pants.

We loved all that only as long as they let us—two or three years. One fall we came back to find they had other plans for us, the boys anyway. They took us out and walked us away from the building, then divided us up like poker chips and made us play games.

Keep our eyes on the ball. Go for the goal. A few of us, not big on backslaps and attaboys, missed the old flights of fancy. We picked ourselves up from the yard line where we had fallen short, from the baseline where we had been tagged out, prisoners of organized sport, and peered across to the unmarked plot where the younger boys—whom we now were taught, subtly, to look upon as pariahs—weaved with jubilant arm-wings around and around the rope-jumping girls who served unwittingly as pylons.

They meant well, those progressive sorts who ran the school, and I think of them, looking back obliquely, as benign enough, and looking ahead, as preceding us into paradise. Their confidence lay in microscopes and telescopes, in shoe-store fluoroscopes for looking at their feet. There were limits to the harm their well-meaning could do, since we still were too young, in the lower grades, to be given homework assignments.

If school was a drag, aerodynamically, it was overcome at least one evening a week by the simple device of a television program. The year before I started school, my mother had bought a seventeen-inch DuMont for the two of us—my father gone so much—and that stippled little screen, with its jittery picture that rolled up and up like a skeptical eye, held primacy for me over the smudged black, later green, of the chalkboard. I went around to the back of the set and peeked through the pinholes to the glowing array of vacuum tubes, the layout of a lost city as seen by a flyer in the night sky above.

My mother seemed to care nothing for the program my friends and I loved most. She would sit through the first couple of minutes, then leave us discreetly alone. One friend in particular, Josh (not his real name, which now seems laughable, like old slang), watched it with me every Friday night, at my house or his. This wasn’t a show you just sat and gaped at, squirming in suspense, and then, the half hour gone, foggily got up and walked away from. The Adventures of Superman remade you for the moment, if not the long haul.

As, in the phone booth, the simpering news reporter Clark Kent would metamorphose into the Man of Steel—moving up from mere words to action—so Josh and I, grown restive under the psychic prodding of X-ray insights and nick-of-time rescues from the skies, would arise from the carpet when the Wagnerian closing theme began to play, all brass and kettledrums, and would mount the sofa and tear the cushions loose, then throw them overhead and pummel them on their way down with our fists as if they were so many kidnappers and safecrackers, until finally, with the coil springs laid bare, we jumped higher and higher and mightily launched ourselves, surrogate Supermen, onto the scattered sofa cushions where they now lay unconscious on the floor.

The show bestowed on us a sense of power, what kids lack even when lucky enough to be loved. With this came all the clumsy nudges toward using power for civic betterment. And we went along with that, as we went along on those occasional Sundays when required to go to Sunday school, but the thing we wanted, for which we would have signed, and meant it, a pledge never to fib or copy anyone’s schoolwork, was the power to fly.


One morning in summer, the two of us carried a ladder to the closet in my bedroom, loosened the little door in the ceiling, and pushed up into the half attic of the house. Never before had I gone there. The trusses slung low to the floor and the cramped space was dim and empty, hellishly hot. We moved to the louvered vent at one end and swung it out, prying together, then leaned in the opening and let the cool air from the maples with their lustrous crowns at eye level wash around us. By prior agreement I would go first. I stood gazing out and down, a scrap of bedsheet pinned to my shoulders. Our house, on one of the busier streets in the neighborhood, was two stories high, and then the half attic. That summer was the last of its species—joy, space—before Josh and I would return to school and be rounded up like veals for football. And we saw already how things were closing in. Veals know. We were there in the attic vent to test the proposition that we owned powers which we had never truly exercised, only parodied when bopping sofa pillows around the living room.

Not arrant simps, we knew that the escapades of Superman on television were staged, and yet we also had the sense, familiar to everyone of sensibility, that art reflected reality, often a hidden reality, and so it was easy to convince ourselves, the two of us tossing the idea back and forth, that in fact it would be possible to jump from a high place and fly, just commit to it and bail out of the attic and soar. It was not an occult thing, as we saw it, not a matter of fairy-tale magic long debunked, but simply of will.

Cars rolled by, sunlight arcing on their roofs. Their passage over the asphalt sent up the softest of sounds, feathery, one I had never before heard except when my mother’s stockings, dry after a washing, slipped from the rack in the bathroom. Height changed the shape of sound, the same as sight.

Halfway through the vent I hung on, dangling. My mind was made up but I waited a moment longer, making it up more. An Airedale chased a ball into the street and a red, four-hole Buick pitched nose down with a muted screech. The car held up while the dog ran back with the ball and disappeared under the cumulus treetops next door.

A breeze rose up—not the boiling swirl and gale that accompanied Superman, but enough. Far off I could see a tall building, the one he jumped in a single bound, a skyscraper with a mast on top, and down its side streamed a silver cascade like Victoria Falls, the faint distant rush of water seeming one and the same as the sudden breeze. New York, I thought, London and Nairobi. The Daily Planet building where Clark Kent worked.

My mind was urging me upward, pressing like a great, firm hand flattened on my back, but my heart had already leaped and flown ahead without me, sending back screens ripe with color and pattern like nothing ever seen on the fluttery DuMont, those ashen images.

I saw the Venus de Milo with rose-pink arms, lifting them to enfold me, a resculpting of the alarming statuette on the mantel in my grandmother’s house. I saw a clock with a marbled black case and a tiny Winged Victory on top, kneeling down. I saw an Indian elephant in a procession wearing tapestries woven with golden threads like frontals on an altar, people bowing as it went, then another elephant bathing in a bronzed river, nude, spraying crocodiles with its trunk like pesky mosquitoes. I saw a stream of cars all flowing the same direction like cutout ducks in a shooting gallery. Everything I saw was what it was and something else. Mutable, imaginable. This was power.

And then, at the outer limits of imagination, I saw myself, felt myself, lying in the lap of Elizabeth, the young queen who had been crowned on television early that summer. Together we were flying on an elephant low over the jungle, searching for a golden tiger we had no intention of shooting even though the queen’s rifle rode gleaming on my knees. We could have flown on forever, time stymied, my head on her high-collared white blouse with her breasts cradling me, first one and then the other, when we banked. Then, below on a trace of dirt woven over with spidery vines, a car spun along, black with June-bug green reflections, and the queen felt for the rifle and took it up.

We hovered. The car stopped and a kind of clockwork man got out. The elephant breathed like a bellows. The clockwork man wore a billed hat and a gun on his hip.

“Up there, you two!” Never before had I been spoken to by a cop, let alone shouted at. I hardly knew cops spoke at all, except on television. My own voice, whatever power there was that issued as a voice, pulled back to a painful knot in my chest. “What’re you doing up there?” the cop yelled, his hand up to shade his eyes more, the hat not enough. He stood there, stupidly, just outside the angular shadow of the attic gable.

“Delinquents!” came another cry, female, across the street. The voice was familiar, as was the epithet, dependably yowled every time Josh and I had cut across a corner of her lawn. She stalked out on it now, in fat firecracker curlers, letting the officer know she was the one who had phoned, worried sick as she was about our safety and all.

“Aw right, ma’am,” he consoled. “Don’t worry yourself no more. We’ll get ’em down.”

Cars were stopping at the curb and then in the street, people getting out to gawk at us. My mother, back from the doctor’s office, had to park four houses down, horrified. When she burst through the door we were tripping down the stairs with the cop, nervously taking note of his gun butt.

The day before, we had pledged that if anything went wrong we would share the blame equally. The Superman idea would be neither mine nor Josh’s, but a scheme we had dreamed up together. Which handily was the truth. And so, arraigned in the kitchen but without first being asked, Josh spoke up brightly: “It was my idea, Mrs. Weston.” His face went red as cream soda. “Bob didn’t want to. He said it was dumb. I slugged him.”

If we’d been nabbed at his house, would I have done as much for Josh? I doubt it.


My father got home two days later, flame leaping in his eyes like a library fire. As always, I wondered where on God’s earth he had gone—but this time, hoping to steer discussion away from the attic before it went there, I got up the nerve to ask.

He gave an offhand answer, as if I’d asked a thousand times before. No country was named. He had flown by way of Amsterdam, which sounded colorfully profane. He had gone up a jungle river in a dugout canoe, surprising a jaguar eating a young tapir. Later I would figure out he must have been in Dutch Guiana—so why not just tell me? I had heard of the Iron Curtain, imagining a literal armored drapery, and was pretty sure Dutch Guiana was not behind it. I began to doubt he was really a spy. Was it simply that he wished me to come to my own conclusions? He wanted never to do anything for me that I could do myself. My mother would save me a few knocks, but to him that was only to deprive me. He never set this out in so many words, but its workings were obvious enough. If I wanted to know where he had gone, then I, in effect, would have to go there myself. I came to hear his cloudy replies as a kind of parable.

Then again, maybe he was a spy. A year or two before, when my phonics grew sufficient, I had riffled through papers in his desk and discovered that Edward A. Weston was in the parablendeum business, traveling the world in search of materials and new markets. What parablendeum was I had no idea, and couldn’t ask my mother without tipping her off to my snooping. When I found it in The World Book, the explanation was so dreary I couldn’t make it fit with my father, and I decided the job was just a cover.

But now, with the startled jaguar fleeing the dugout canoe, the dinner talk reached a dead end. I knew my mother would have felt she had to report on the cop and the rest, but still I hoped she might not. He asked what I’d been up to, and before I could get going about seeing the movie Alice in Wonderland, whose entire plot I was prepared to narrate, he spared me the trouble and asked about Josh, how he was doing, and then, before I could answer, gave me a pained look and got to the point:

“You weren’t really thinking, you monkeys, that you were going to jump off the house?”

I grabbed the out he was offering. No, never thought that. We were acting, was all. The sheet was a costume. “Maybe,” I blurted out—a notion sent down from those attic realms—“maybe we would be on television someday.” Yet I couldn’t feel quite blameless. This improvising, if it was getting me off the hook, was making me a traitor somehow. I supposed it must feel that way sometimes, being a spy.

And then, unlike him, my father was betrayed, I thought, by a sliver of smile crossing his face. Sliding right across, and then drifting off to a dim corner of the dining room where it seemed to hang on its own: the Cheshire cat. No sooner had the smile gone to roost than he gazed deep into his bourbon and shook his head.

Months passed. He came and went. I was back in class. One Saturday my mother took me downtown on the bus to shop, and when we passed the state penitentiary I saw how much it looked like our school, which lacked only the bars on the windows. The prisoners, someone had told me, played football all day in the prison yard. It was late winter, Christmas long gone, and I pictured the thawed-out mud yard as a pigsty.

Then spring came on with gusts of perfume. On our street the first thing to bloom, aside from forsythia, was an apple tree in our own backyard, the lone survivor of an orchard cut down for development. One morning I climbed it, a swaying pink-white cloud that swallowed me like a drop, and lost all sense of time, missing the school bus. That evening after detention for tardiness, I went with my mother to the airport, where my father stepped off a DC-7 and asked, incredibly, if I’d like to fly up to the lake and go fishing.

Fishing, though I loved it, was beside the point. Hardly anyone my age had ever flown in an airplane, nor had most of their parents. Years would pass before the Russians shot down the U-2 spy pilot Gary Powers. Yet now, all at once, I was one of the chosen.


My father’s best friend owned a Cessna 195, and a week later we stowed our tackle and climbed aboard. Warming up, the plane hunkered on its tail wheel and shook lustily behind its big radial engine, a magnification of my own quaking. Josh squirmed and threw up in a White Castle sack before we even got off the ground. My father, I hoped, was not having second thoughts about bringing him, especially since his parents had not been informed we were flying. We sprang along the runway and the wings pried us up, my eye darting from the instrument panel, with its dozens of cryptic gauges, to the ruddy sun dropping below us.

We rocked north in fading light, looking down on blocky farms and towns, splotches of woodlot. The power of the engine streamed through my body—a vibrant force that wanted to connect me to the bluish lights winking on below, the lines of street lamps and the stanchions in farmyards. An hour on, the lake slid underneath us, its shoreline aglow, and then nothing but blackness.

The Great Lakes felt as grand and mysterious a destination as any on earth. I was flying, with my father. The Kashmir could have been no better.

A string of islands appeared, ringed with lights, and from one of these soared a huge, white-fluted column, as high in the darkness as we were, lit up by spotlights. Frank—my father’s friend—flew us closer and circled around it, standing the plane on the wing on my side. I saw the snarling lion heads, bronze gone green, around the lantern on top. I lay against the dark window, aware of my own weight. Like a flame, the column lured us. The terrace at its base spun around and around. Josh gurgled and got the sack.

We bumped down on the island’s stubby airstrip and rode in a rattletrap taxi to a rooming house. At my pleading we walked to the column, a monument to Perry’s victory in the War of 1812. From a plaque my father read the silver-tongued seaman’s words: We have met the enemy and they are ours—two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.

The plaque and the lighted column piercing the night kept us at first from noticing another spectacle: an exhibition of the capricious freedoms Perry had fought for. Alone on the terrace, under the bug-dense beams of the spotlights, was a stork-like man dancing around with a muslin sack. At intervals he would bend over to grab something and squint at it, then drop it in the sack or toss it back on the terrace. Scarcely looking up, he handed me a tiny yellow bird with stripes like a tiger. “Magnolia warbler,” he said, in a chirping voice suited to his pursuit. “Don’t say you got it from me.”

My benefactor, it turned out, was an ornithologist out on this spring night to collect migrating songbirds who flew into the blinding light of the monument and then, stunned, fell to the ground and died. We all began scooping up birds so he only had to do the identification, twenty-one species in all. Birds showered down by the dozen when a big flock went by. With a knife and cotton balls, he made museum skins and gave several to me.

In the rooming house I lay in bed marveling at the skins, which, with the cotton in them, could have passed for living birds, their hearts winding down beneath the press of my fingers as they had done when we gathered them up. Flying up from the mountains of Mexico, from the coffee plantations of Guatemala, they were on their way, even at night, over this island and on to Canada. So the ornithologist had said. If we thought that was something, he warbled on, then think about this: a robin once crossed the Atlantic like Lindbergh, landing not in Paris but, of all places, a bird sanctuary in Britain.

It seemed then, under the bedside bulb, that I held in my hand the whole iridescent romance of flight—the mystery of whatever it was, in my imagining, that flight stood for. I cherished illusions, no end of them, but illusions can as easily embrace essence as error. Mine in those days were all of beauty, fugitive and inseparable from truth. I was conditioned by school to fill in the blanks, and doing so, anyway, was a boy’s natural bent. I had no reasonable idea what a Guatemalan coffee plantation might look like, but still I could see one from high above, a vastness of cultivation that turned and tilted with every swerve of my body in flight. From the birds arranged on my bedsheet I knew enough to conceive an ecology. Their beauty was the beauty of a certain teacher to whom, achingly, I had not been assigned—whose shimmering blondness I glimpsed only in the hallways, passing by, and yet I could see, though I never would go there, the refuge to which she flew every night and truly belonged: her charmed apartment, the exotic terrain of her bedroom, the closet hiding her misty blouses and skirts, her pastel pumps with their airy heels set in a row like flowering lindens along a lane, her dressing table with its little mirror-meadow of perfumes and lipsticks and powders. All of that came to me now at night, in bed with the birds.

At sunrise I sat in the bow of our rented boat watching the monument turn different shades of pink. The mail plane from the mainland, a Tin Goose, dozed past the monument and drifted down behind the trees to the airstrip. On the end of a rickety, long-legged pier the man who had sold us minnows sat with his bucket, smoking a pipe.

We caught perch all day, a bass now and then, but to me it was just motion, abstract. Josh hooked himself in the forearm and my father had to work the hook out, Josh wincing and jerking, but the whole ordeal seemed a kind of hygiene movie on a screen. My attention was on the gulls and terns who loitered in the distance but swarmed in, wheeling and shrieking, whenever so much as a single minnow came loose from a hook. I wondered at the way they flew, not in sync like a flock of blackbirds but weaving and dipping at close quarters, each on its own wobbly course without bumping a wing tip.

I tossed them a handful of ten-cent minnows. My father spotted this extravagance but said nothing.


My mother fried perch and I moped around for most of a week. School seemed more like the penitentiary than ever before. When not deployed on the diamond, whacking mitts and waiting for the pitch, everybody was trading baseball cards, quoting the statistics on the back as if they held the key to the scriptures.

One afternoon, after striking out as usual, I trudged home and got the bird skins out of a drawer. I had forgotten the name of one species, so I checked our bargain reprint copy of Audubon’s Birds of America. The colors were muddied but the contours were magic. In a strange, musical way they fleshed out what had been so long in my imagination: flight, alive. The birds were caught in air, topsy-turvy, elegant or grotesque, every feather scrabbling at the sky. I found the vireo I was looking for, then flipped the pages. I was only a boy, no art aficionado, but the Wilson’s Storm-Petrel took my breath.

The picture showed a pair of petrels above a storm-wracked sea. Everything was gray, sky and waves and petrels, in order of darkening grayness. A wooden cask was adrift, witness to a sinking. One bird dove at an angle across the spread pages, its eye on some morsel outside the composition, some gobbet, its probable grimness left to the imagination. The other bird, with upraised tail, aimed its cloaca directly at the camera, so to speak.

Here, then, was everything a boy could want: drama, morbidity, danger, black humor. I stood looking at the two birds, my hand on the page, and the storm blew harder and swept me along. I caromed through my father’s open door as he was packing for a trip.

“Can I use your colored pencils? Please.”

“Sure,” he said, giving me the once-over. In his palm was a metal oblong about to go into the suitcase. A miniature camera, maybe. “What for?”

“Stuff I want to draw.”

“So I figured.”

“Sorry. Just some birds, maybe.”

Without inquiring how I knew he had colored pencils, he fished them out of his desk. Never had I seen him draw anything, but one day while poking around in the drawer with the pencils I had spotted a sheaf of precise little sketches, sharp in outline with tender shading: a creek winding to a wavy horizon, a strange horned skull, and, most striking, several portraits of Indians, some wearing headdresses like fearsome eagles. My father had drawn these long ago, I surmised, then given up drawing for some reason, which I imagined—don’t ask me why—might have something to do with me.

“Keep them,” he said, when I promised to bring the pencils back. “Make something for me.”


For all I know he could still be alive, even now. My mother died two years ago, ninety-one years old, never knowing what had happened, whether the facts of his disappearance could better be framed in the passive or the active voice. Her mind was good to the end and she never gave up hope that he might still come back, alighting from the sky.

It was lucky, at least, that I never put the colored pencils back in his desk. Probably they would have been stolen, with everything else, on that Sunday when my mother, tearful, walked me to church to pray for his return and somebody broke into the house. Nothing was touched but his workroom. All the contents of the desk were spirited away—as vanished now as he was, save for a few paper clips and erasers, things like that. The sketches were missing but I said nothing about them. I pocketed the erasers, worn nubs hollowed out where his fingers had fit them, rubbing, undoing things done.

Again the police were called to our house. First I had been the culprit, and now, in some sinuous way, my father had conjured them up. They filled out a form, they snapped a photo.

By that Sunday, with its drowsy sermon on the Ascension, he had already been missing for a week. We had driven to the airport to pick him up; he had been, I reckoned, to Indochina and I hoped to pry out of him Kiplingesque tales of kraits and tigers and cobras. When he did not file off with the last few passengers, my mother began to shake, then weep. I bawled along with her, my fingers hooked in the chain-link fence.

A missed flight was not her first thought.

She was changed then, and never, as long as she lived, changed back. Not knowing one way or the other was the hardest part. She drifted through the house like a carcass rolling over and over in a lightless surf. We lived on the peanut butter sandwiches I made when she forgot to cook dinner. She thanked me but grew thinner by the day.

It tormented me that I would not get to impress my father with birds I had drawn. Not that they amounted to much. I had no idea what I was doing: the art of the artless. But they showed my enthusiasm, and he would have seen that. I had drawn them for him. Most of my feverish attempts were copies of the color plates in the Audubon book, but I stalked birds in the yard and sketched those too. I struggled with the primary feathers, trying to work out how they harrowed the air, so my song sparrows, my titmice, wound up with rigid-looking airplane wings, as weird (looking back now, dispassionately) as Duchamp’s urinal or descending nude. Knowing nothing, picking up a pencil, I flew out of my wits with whatever bird I was working on. My subjects, like Audubon’s, had faces and feelings: hawks rose up fierce, buntings shrank back.

Without my father I had no prospect of flying in a plane again. Until the day when he might come back in glory or disgrace, drawing would be my means of flight. My mother never took me to the airport, never again went near it. People would go there to stand for hours and watch through the sky-high plate glass as planes came and went in sunny, cinematic succession. I knew not to ask her, and wasn’t even sure I wanted to go. I was out in front of Lindbergh, who some years later would announce: “If I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes.” For me the choice was made.

I drew and drew. Sometimes the same bird—the same house wren or bumbling robin—in a dozen different attitudes of flight, most of which reflected my own turbulence far more than the actual physics of flying. I worked against gravity, against my endless aloneness with my mother, my loss of the lodestar my father had always been. The outward world had let me down, left me on a doorstep. No longer in my flights of fancy did I look to queens or elephants or clock-top figurines. All I sought was simple lift.


Summer wore on and I withdrew to the coolness of the basement to work, seldom going outside to look for a bird, depending more and more on recollection, on imagination, with results on paper that seemed to repel my mother on the occasions when she came down to see me. Some days Josh would arrive and drag me to the public swimming pool but I would stay only an hour or so, dangling my pale legs in the water while I worried about leaving my mother and my pencils, which might be stolen. I began to spend nights underground on a swaybacked old sofa instead of the bed in my sweltering room.

One morning very early, pitch dark, I wakened suddenly and lay there listening, sensing the darkness, which somehow seemed a state, a stony vacancy waiting for something to fill it. From deadness I felt I was waking into a dream. Not falling as into sleep, but floating up.

From above came a footfall on the wooden stairs. Just the one, and then the brush of my mother’s hand on my temple—a touch I try to feel once more, to relive even today.

“Get up,” she spoke softly. “Please, quick.”

“What for?”

“Outside. Something’s out there.”

I got up, heart knocking, not feeling like Superman, wishing I knew how to flourish and fire my father’s shotgun, still in his closet. He was going to take me hunting in a couple more years. That was before.

Yet as soon as I stood, a calm fell over me. In the utter dark my mother was only her essence—her voice, her touch like a feather. She moved invisibly away and I followed her eddy to the stairs. We started up and I was buoyed along with no climbing, no effort.

After the basement the murk upstairs was almost bright, though no lights were on. The wingback chairs loomed like swollen vases of flowers. When my mother crossed to the door and stepped outside, the fright surged back and my stomach turned sour.

Why was she exposing herself to danger? I held back, shaking. There must have been a moon; on this summer’s night her nightgown, a garment whose history now seemed so tragic, glistened like snow. She stood there on the lawn, stiff as a statue, chin lifted as if to listen. Then she waved, calling me out there with her. I went no farther than the doorway, thinking she had gone crazy and wondering what would happen if the police drove by.

Again she waved. My bare feet stuck to the doormat. “What is it, Eddie?” Her words came in sobs—loud enough, I worried, to wake the hag across the way in her firecracker curlers. But Eddie wasn’t me. I was Bob. Or Robert, in times of trial. Eddie was my father.

I thought the unthinkable, that I should call the cops myself. Then the mat let go of my feet.

I picked my way onto the lawn in pools of milky light, a pallor like my own basement complexion, and there we were, together. My mother glimmering beside me seemed to radiate pain. In the nightgown her breasts hung like lapsed moons, something I did not want to see: a comedown from the queen’s headrests when we had flown the jungle.

With my coming she calmed a little—listening, it seemed, to something far down the street. I stood and listened and heard it too: a song, haunting, half-human, like nothing I had ever heard, though I knew immediately who was singing it. The mockingbird has more disguises than the devil. The music, at night’s end, was melodic and coldly ascending—not quite beautiful since it seemed to come as a scolding, sung out.

That, at least, is how it sounded to me. To my mother it may have spoken otherwise. She pulled my wrist, imploring. A mockingbird, I told her—true as far as it went.

I know now it was the mocker’s cover of the hermit thrush. In scores of springtimes since, I have heard the song of that thrush in deep, wet woods, a string of notes like water welling up out of the earth, ringing on rock. It seems the soul of lostness, and yet the bird is at home, inseparable from the forest. How many times have I sought to trace the song to its source, stealing along the mossy floor, stepping over logs, only to find the singer long flown?

My mother, I am sure, felt what I felt—that the song, whatever its meaning, was of my father, or in some way the song was my father himself. In the woodlands of Concord it was the lorn music of the hermit thrush, I have long suspected, that accounts for the loonier formulations of Emerson. Hearing it he was changed, before phone booths, into the all-seeing eyeball loose on the lawn. But my mother and I knew what we knew. Together that night we went barefoot over cool, wet grass and driveways yielding up yesterday’s heat, advancing toward the song on the true ground of my mother’s courage until it wrapped us both in, lifting us as it rose in the light of the moon, that lesser sun.


Abiding in the basement with centipedes, I was going nowhere.

And so, by sunrise that same morning, I had dragged all my stuff back up the stairs. Pencils, paper, the pens and colored inks my mother had bought me, the forgotten binoculars—my father’s—that I had dropped and knocked out of alignment so they saw double and gave me headaches whenever I tried to use them more than a few moments.

My mother made us breakfast: starch, protein, sugar, the works. Better than peanut butter but more than I could handle. She meant well and so did I, burping like a baby elephant.

Studying my drawings in the light of day, I saw what was wrong. The colors were yellow and sick looking, the hues of some waxy, eyeless grub that lived and died underground. I took them to the trash burner and watched them fly away in wafers of ash.

With a sketch pad I climbed our apple tree, its summer leaves pooling the morning sunlight. On a high limb I perched, moving nothing but my eyes. An oriole landed on a bough at eye level, black and solar orange, far more bird than I could have hoped for in my own backyard. All my being and that of the bird shot through my finger to the pad. I dared not look at my work, only at the oriole. When it flew I shifted my weight on the limb and it snapped. I flailed on the ground with a broken wrist, the one I drew with.

School began and the plaster cast kept me out of football: at least there was that. I could no more write than draw, so in class, when time was given for work on assignments, I would sit without a single thought, listening to the others scratching away on goldenrod tablets. A warmth came over me, a sense of elevation, blood coursing in my body; then the woodsy scent and the chirping, far below, of someone at a desk sharpening a pencil.

Walking home from school, I would pass a shopping center where the owners—though I never saw how a shopping center was owned, exactly—had fenced in a courtyard and filled it, to my wonderment, with pheasants of various species. The silver, the golden, the Lady Amherst’s—all brought here, I knew, from China, where even my father had never flown, where even the alphabet was a kind of drawing. Shoppers gave them barely a glance, but to me these were mystical beings, gold, scarlet, aqua, indigo, their tails like tangled sabers. They strutted on their side of the wire, inches away, freezing momentarily to pierce me with their side-mounted eyes. The cocks swooshed their tails and drew intricate figures around the dowdy hens. For a long time I could not see why they did not rise up together and fly over the fence, away in the winter dusk. Then came the evening when their keeper with his sack of feed told me the secret: their wings were clipped.

Never had I heard of such a thing. It flew up and hit me like a fall on ice. I had never heard of a capon either, but the revelation of that could not have been more alarming. To rob a bird of its power of flight was to steal whatever it owned in the way of a soul.

I held onto the fence wire with my one good hand, gazing at nothing, forgetting to go home.


Airplanes again. We are on one now, a new 787, though no one seems to notice—not the 787, or the fact we are flying.

The woman beside me, whom I don’t know from Eve, has yanked down the window shade and gone to sleep on my shoulder. The shade blocks out the banks of white-hot thunderheads massing below us. If J.M.W. Turner could have peered down on those nacreous formations from forty thousand feet, he would have gone into raptures. On my other flank a grown man thumbs a video game in which a shadowy bomber—a plane, not a person—pulverizes targets on a flashing conveyor belt of factories and rail lines, bridges and crossroads. No imagination needed, just opposable thumbs.

We are on our way to an airport, and a city, identical to the ones we have just now left. From there, older planes will carry me on to a mostly wild island in the western Pacific. I am going there because now, in this new and hostile century, I have found the time, and because the years have not killed my curiosity but only, in a quirk of my nature, increased it.

In my carry-on is packed an item I have saved and safeguarded all these years. An icon, in the purest sense: a thing to be seen into, not seen. Some months after my father’s erasure from our midst, in that muddled phase when, for the first time, a day might have come and gone without my thinking about him, the mail brought a pasteboard box wrapped in a kind of waxy brown paper I had never seen before. The stamps, from British North Borneo, pictured sunny coves and feathered chieftains, each with an inset of a lovely young woman as benign as a Buddha: Elizabeth II Regina. There was no return address, and the postmark was no more legible than a smudged thumbprint. The label bore my name in block letters, with the title then in use for boys: MASTER.

It was a Saturday and I had brought in the mail myself. Whatever the package held, I knew I would never show it to my mother. If he was still alive, better that she not find out.

She had sought endlessly, was still seeking, any scrap of news. A cable, answering hers, said management had no report on him. The parablendeum arm of the company was closing down, competitors having introduced substitutes, inferior but cheaper. Nonetheless, the message went on, the company would continue to send a check monthly in respect of his service. Which it did for a while, then wired her it was going out of business entirely. She made inquiries in Washington via our congressman, hoping for some intelligence there, the last place one would look for it. That also drew a blank.

Now, in the sky—aloft and a-wing—I would get out the box and consult the contents, but doing so would disturb the person in repose whose explosion of hair grazes my cheek. Maybe I worry too much. The grown gamer makes rumbling mouth noises every time he bombs another target. Across the aisle, a twerp in his twenties buys drinks for everyone in nearby rows while loudly proclaiming his angst at not getting a seat in first class. “Here’s the trouble with economy,” he whines, pointing to the trousered ass, looming large, of a male flight attendant bent to fetch a can of mixer from a cart.

The cabin, like Whitman, contains multitudes. Concluding after all that I am a cipher in this melee and what I do hardly matters, I shrug off the woman, who then slumps against the shade still fast asleep; from the carry-on, and then the box, I take out the feather.

My eyes begin to burn, maybe from the moth crystals in the box, though nobody else seems bothered. The feather is as bright as ever but broken in two sections, together as long as my forearm. It was taken from the wing of a species I have never seen alive, an inconceivable creature which survives even today in the waterlogged forests of Borneo. The argus pheasant, a fugitive from Revelation, is covered with eyes. Tail eyes, body eyes, but especially wing eyes: the whole bird is ornamented with eyespots, boldest on the wings, which the cock, displaying for his harem, fans around his half-bald death’s head like a sunburst of eyes that saw you before you were born.

So you go where your father went before. If you never see the argus or his display, still you have this relic. You hold it in your cupped hand. Seen, you see seeing itself.  

return to top