Birth of the Blue Heron

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.   

My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,   

Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?

A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.   

The mind enters itself, and God the mind,   

And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

“In a Dark Time” 

By Theodore Roethke

The glass is cool. My head shakes against the pane with the bumps in the road, eyes gazing out, heavy, yearning. The scene darts out blurrily between the many passing trees, but the shaking and the constant hum of the car rock me gently towards a road trip sleep. And as I approach release, we approach the place. And there it is, at last, as if it’d fallen from space. 

Grandma’s house. 116 years old. Tall rich Black Walnuts, green grass, cool morning mist, a wetness on the grass, a black asphalt driveway, blemishless and familiar, the creek running, bubbling, birds chirping, singing, melodic, and no drone heard from the highway. That’s all tomorrow. We approach sleep, our minds entering themselves. Grandpa snores. It’s soothing despite its volume, and our dreams match the sound of his rising and falling chest to imagined images of sputtering motorcycles and huffing cows. 

Grandma’s house has many exits, like a castle. The basement holds wine year round and plants in the winter. Grandma’s father dug it with his hands. He is there, in its concrete walls, his work living on. Upstairs is a secret door in a closet that leads to the attic, the door mystifying even the thick dust that stays there. The stairs have no banister. Don’t fall follows us all the way down, bouncing about our heads like a yellow Warble’s sound.

We eat breakfast at the table—eggs, grapefruit, and toast, coffee for the adults. A hummingbird hovers outside the window, sits, sips, and sits some more. We sip some more, sit some more as the sun begins to shine on everything but the shade beneath the sycamore. The shade where Grandpa takes his reclining-chair naps, all wrapped in warmed wind, a cat in his lap. Is there any other place? Anywhere to be? I don’t suppose so, none that I can see.

My little brother darts, bounces onto the front porch and across the blacktop to the car door, where he stops. He tugs the handle, and the minivan’s scraped silver side slowly pushes out and glides, creaking. He’s in his seat, strapped in, buckled, albeit ultimately uncontainable as he bounces his legs in eager, curious wait. We drive to the Amish store through a corridor of lush corn husks, my family’s old minivan a tiny, steely ant amidst the towering tassels and silks. The van–at once our perfect vessel to soccer practice or matches, to distant familial driveways crept up in the black of night, and to home–has over 300,000 miles on it now. Still ours, in a sense; I know it well, its many stains, dents, imperfections, too. But it’s aged. The chassis seems to groan with each revolution of the wheels: Couldn’t it rest? Stop a while and heal? Poor thing. 

They’re quiet people, the Amish, nice, and genuine in their facial expressions, not over smiling like newscasters. The store itself is lit only by sunlight. Its foundations are of sturdy, lived-in hardwoods, and the windows are caked in working, living earth. The buzzing we hear is of flies alone: a soft little place calm and free of drone. Outside the shop chickens run and peck at ticks or mosquitos, and a turkey accepts my little brother’s giddy embrace. And the haul is good: two pies (coconut cream and lemon meringue), cookies (oatmeal raisin grains), and honeycomb (ambrosial golden sweet!). A little girl waves us away, slowly, as we begin to leave–not a shoe on her feet. We smile and we back away, little brother grieved to go, as he dives across the van’s middle aisle, waving, yearning, stepping on my toes. 

With the milk-soaked crumbs of cookies in the bottoms of our mugs, a living room film unfolds with windows unlatched, screen doors slid open to let the summer cool amass. A grand old television heavy as wood and sturdy, technicolor static fuzzing, buzzing filling its grand glass screen before the DVD’s scenes–before we’re caught, warped into and wrapped up in the world of the screen. We sit here in our cushioned leather chairs, unmoved, passive audiences for practiced words; we are Elsewhere. Just as the DVD menu appears, a grayish bird with puffing white chest draws near, perches atop the TV to catch its breath, to sing a tune. It sings as we watch, unmoving—songs of the Carolina Wren, eastern towhee, northern flicker, jeers of the blue jay, chirrs of the robin. We hold our breaths before its next bout of mimicry…Cotton-ball silence, the carpet absorbing most everything. And then: metallic, buzzing static emanates from little bird’s mouth: one long, biting drone of sound. Shaking its beak. Puffing its chest. Mechanically it repeats what it’s heard. It fills the room. And then he is gone. I shiver. Grandma says it’s an omen, a sign, and so we skip the film, brush our teeth, and resign. 

Every window is open. Wind cleanses the house. But it’s getting hot now, so we close them, shut it out. Beyond the glass are flowers, hundreds of them: Blue, pink, symmetrical, feminine, fertile, plentiful, and pleasantly odorous. I sneeze. The cats have gotten in my nose. Or maybe the flowers. Ah. Those two never sneeze. That grand, staid ma and pa. They must have, once, I suppose.

Out the back and through soft grass beneath the swaying trees, little brother chuckles first and I laugh as we reach the river stream. The stream where once our mother played, an adult now, yet but a grown child, in a way. The creek’s sloping sides—slides—dark, cold, and sucking. I fearfully note the leeches, the possibility of them, but little brother slips into the moving, cool mass: flowing, fluxed and muddy. I recall the old dance of play and its self-sustaining song of light-headed laughter as I watch him. It infects, and so I join. Little brother throws mud and I throw mud. He paints with mud and so I paint with mud. He falls in mud and I fall in mud. He is dressed in mud and I dress in mud. We are mud. A toad snaps its tongue out for flies and sets us to giggling—bubbly as the creek’s many miniature waterfalls. Upstream lands and stands a slender bird, two thin poles supporting a chest of red-brown feathers. It suns its wings, grand blue things, and we are two frozen stones in our stillness. Staring at the Heron. 

There was a treehouse here, down by the stream, where saplings grow from the dead Cherry tree. The house collapsed and took the tree with it. After, Grandpa chopped the wood. As the axe fell, it felt as if he were cutting flesh. The wood was red as beets, blood-red, and smelled just like cherries. So lively, so sweet even in death. I’d sleep in reclining chairs on the treehouse. Though I didn’t sleep as much as I felt powerful and tall and flying. Wing’d, floating youth. Recalling it all, I smile. 

It’s all alive here, tearing in the wind, aging with the wine.

We go out to get lost, to search, to find. To the right of the house is a cornfield, semi-divine. The husks are seven feet tall, the stalks Earth hairs, the field a dense dancing and delicious lair. I finish my count to 60 and dive into the green skyscraper’d city, its distant skyline a wall of approaching gray clouds. Now we’re in it, this amazing maize maze, this hiding and seeking game. The dirt is crisp and dark, allows my foot to sink in a little with every step. My shoulders brush the corn leaves, and sound is calm. Ushh shhhh pfffff, lightly. What is constant is the sky. Its blues bright and dis-orienting. It’s all a half-dome; we see it all from down on the floor, down low. The stars wrap about the sphere and look flat all at once, guiding most in twilight. Kaleidoscopic horizons of night, spinning, spinning, turning so bright. But the field. Left. Green. Right. Green. Cicadas fill my ears along with the gentle wind. I stalk on through the stalks. 

Rain first taps my right shoulder, my left, and then taps the shoulders of a thousand drooping leaves, heavy now with crystalline drops. The game is still afoot, so I quicken my steps through the rows and rows. The field feels infinite, dirt thickening to mud as I go. Without the sun and without the stars, I’m left with gray purgatory and directionless searching. I jump to peak above the stalks, but I cannot reach their tops. And then I hear it. Clear as before. The chirping…It cuts through the now heavy wave-wash of rain slosh like the knifing hertz hum of electric light. The first of them lands on a stalk just above me, its feathers bedraggled and its head oddly cocked. Another lands beside the first, its hues dissimilar but its song just the same. I change rows and run, joylessly, desperately playing the game. Hundreds more birds fill my row, forcing the stalks to bend down low. All of the voices stampeding atop one another, all of them singing the same buzzing static flutter. The wind, strong now, sways the whole field in roaring, nauseous jaunts and jabs. The birds sway with it, brushing against my head, face and arms, and as they sway they peck at my flesh in this corridor of singing nightmares. I squawk out his name praying God he’s near. Amidst the rain and the clouds of birds, though, they’re words he’ll never hear. My skin is flushed red hot, a medley of mud and blood. I close my eyes–to see–as the birds peck, the wind howls, and the day’s gray numbing damp moistens the sponge of my soul through my soles. Blind, I sense him just there, his shoulders brushing on the corn husks that brush my knees, and I bleed: crimson drops among green crops. In my stomach I feel his amazement, his wander, his polychromed and perfect perception. I step nearer, nearly reunited with this kept image, this serene hope. As I step, my foot sinks waist-deep into the earth. My eyes snap open. There he is. Sat atop an emerald chair, dry, easy, and smiling, his eyes like spheres filled with flames of fire resting beneath a nest of golden hair. A choir of bird song fills the air around him–tenors, altos, sopranos–the many voices weaving in and out with one another. Stuck in the mud, staring up at him, I know not how to name what I feel. It is love, and yet it is more. It is the comfort of one who knows. I can only think to hug him. Tears mingling with raindrops, I reach my arms towards him, and he moves to rest his right hand upon my shoulder. As he begins to speak, a sharpness shoots into my upper neck. Then an ax-en crack rings out as the TV bird pecks the back of my skull. My body sinks fully and quickly into the rain-filled hole. 

I’m sprawled on my dormroom’s floor, hazy, suspended between worlds. Waking slowly from my personal apocalypse, I see that my head has hit the plywood bedpost behind my desk, not soft soil, worms, or even beetles at best. A warm flow slowly covers my scalp. I taste and feel the same familiar, cherry-less yet red iron of blood running out. A fallen man, I stare–blank–at my ceiling–blank. Ears rung and ringing still. Head cracked and throbbing shrill. A college collage of pixelated, square-boxed screen spectators raises its eyebrows in unison or laughs on mute, as if on queue, and I am a thousand miles away from him. I must fly to Ohio. 

Ian Curriden is a first year HAST student from Bentonville, Arkansas. He studies literature and rhetoric and ethics and politics. He’s currently on a leave of absence, living out in the mountains of Virginia, where he makes music and raises birds. 

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