I pick up my manuscript again on Friday after three months. I cradle it to my chest. I love it without opening it. Then I spend the day reading it. I mark changes in my purple Pilot. It surprises me how few things I find compared to all the other passes I have made. There is magic in this, the way I don’t push, the way I read it all the way through, the way I treasure it. Not big, intense moments, but deep ones and quiet ones, knowing I am happy with this book of mine. The next morning when the sky begins to lighten I see the waning crescent moon. I go back to bed and dream I am on a boat beside an island. There are five carved wooden birds near the top deck, painted in blues and reds and blacks. I get my camera because I am hunting for a new photograph for my coming year of blogging. When I look through the lens in the dream, I see the intelligence in the birds’ eyes, a keen knowing, and the moon hangs below them in the morning light. When I wake up and go out to feed the birds, a hummingbird lands on the top arc of the bougainvillea, and in the curving of my head to watch her, I see the moon again in our daylight sky, echo of the dream. In the last of the late afternoon, I walk to Ralph’s. When I leave the store it’s almost dark. The palm fronds are moving in a warm wind, and the light of late dusk feels again like magic, like I am coming back out into a different world. Sometimes, I think, the years I might have left to me seem too short.
I fall asleep when the afternoon is yellow with daylight and wake in the gray world of early dusk. I let the thin salmon blanket fall away to the couch, the one my yoga teacher brought back from Mexico more than 20 years ago for those of us who ordered one, real cotton, beloved, perfect for a nap in the early desert spring with the swamp cooler on low. I check the thermostat and my sleep-muted mind decides the 69 degrees means it is almost seven o’clock. It is the end of my first day home again after being gone. So the sound of the traffic is familiar but strange, the trailer more silent than I remember, the courtyard still quiet and magic in the almost-dark while I type, the solar lights coming on one at a time. Here with me, too, are the great horned owls from yesterday at the preserve, the three young ones beside the adult high in the fan palm, alert and still, almost ghost-like in their big tree cavern. I savor the memory of them, savor the ending of the day. I’ll eat Jerusalem artichokes tonight with flax seed oil and salt, finish the Annie Dillard book I’ve been reading, maybe go to sleep early. Tomorrow, Tuesday, is my Monday this week, and grading waits. I relish my solitude, and I miss the camaraderie. I can still hear Barney’s voice reading science questions from the little box of worn cards, still feel the easy warmth of the cabin, Corina beside me on the couch, Lila’s soft furry head against my leg, Angelika puttering in the kitchen. I can still feel my pleasure in being a part of the whole, in knowing I still remember how to join in, laughing.
I hesitate to plunge into the rushing gutters on my way to the creek path. I am not in my usual kid-in-the-rain mode. It’s cold, and I am all reluctant adult. I remind myself I have wool socks on to keep my feet warm even when they’re wet. For a second I waver, think of turning back, but I step into the water instead, surprised by the strength of the current. I’m stunned when I see the creekbed. The water fills it, half a short city block wide. It is moving fast. I’m exhilarated. And I worry about the rabbits, the squirrels, the insects. I hope they were able to escape. I watch a black phoebe flitting about near the water’s edge, the only sign of life. I am afraid he is too close to the rushing water. At the footbridge, a handful of people take videos with their phones. I lean over to watch the water where it drops under the bridge. It makes me dizzy. I don’t expect this quantity of water, the swiftness of it. It scares me. Thrills me. I face the river as it comes from the mountain. I know my hope is nothing in the face of this. There is no way everyone was safe, and I grieve for the wildlife. I walk home beside this huge foreign beast moving beside me. I dream of cottontails hidden in the brush, safe, several feet above the water. Hours later I can still feel it, the magnitude of moving water, the weight of it, the power, like the memory of the rocking boat when you’re back on solid land again. I wonder how long it will stay with me, the water’s presence layered like this over everything.
At night 120 miles away my solar Christmas lights
glow and arc in the bougainvillea
silent and dear without me.
I choose the path on the left. It cuts through dense growth as tall as I am, berries, poison oak. There are pink flowers that scent the air with their wild rose fragrance, violet thistles, bright yellow fennel blossoms three feet above my head. If you look below, you can see pockets of open space, a honeycomb of dens and pathways for larger animals. I peek into them, hoping to spy someone. I’ve decided the animal I saw on the hillside trail was not a coyote but a red fox. That explains the way he felt so different to me, more shy, sweeter somehow, non-threatening. I would like to see him again. The sun is surprising, warm on my shoulders, but the bramble caves are empty. Once in a while the brush dips below my head, and I get to see the lagoon. I stop again and again to just stand there and take it all in. I already love this lagoon, first glimpse, how the water is always moving, talking to the sea, but in a way that speaks to stillness, to safe harbor. The pelicans enchant me, wake up in me the time I fell in love with them in Todos Santos. I watch them glide in to land on the water or take to the air in groups. The sound of them batting the surface of the lagoon with their wings follows me as I walk. I am the only human here. Halfway to the beach I am overcome by how deep the need in me was for this solitude after three full days without being alone except for that first short walk up the hill. It reminds me of living in Ajijic and wandering onto a dirt road that ran west of the town, finding myself beside a big field with horses near the lake, no one else in sight, the peace of the countryside easing a part of me I didn’t even know had been disturbed by all the concrete and bricks, my neighbors packed in tight around me. Funny, I think, to have Mexico conjured twice for me on such a short walk in this northern land. I stand alone on the path for a long time watching the pelicans, breathing in the scent of the wild roses and the darker smell of the wetlands. When I feel something loosen in my chest, I keep walking to the sea.
Mammals need three things when we’re young: warmth, touch, soothing vocalizations. I think of lullabies I can’t remember. (Were there lullabies?) I think of the funny nonsense sounds I used to make to my cat Boo, lots of made-up words with muted m and u sounds, my way of loving him out loud. I make those same sounds without thinking to the hummingbird when she alights in the guayaba tree ten inches from my face. I think she decides I’m safe because after listening to my noises she moves to her soft little nest I didn’t even know was there, three branches over. I string fuchsia ribbons to keep her safe with notes attached that read “Temporary closure—hummingbird.” Later, back inside my trailer, I hear odd little sounds coming through the bathroom window. I step into the bathtub, creep close. A female goldfinch is perched high in the guayaba making quiet scrijjery sounds I’ve never heard before. I think of the mammalian need for vocalizations. Maybe birds need them, too. Maybe the goldfinch is making these soft noises for the hummingbird eggs. I remember the pretend German songs I used to sing to myself for hours while I crouched on the walkway in front of our Tujunga house dreaming up little make-believe worlds amid the succulents. I feel a dearness for my young self and a rush of grateful pride that at age four she knew just how to soothe herself. (When did she forget?) A whir of wings brings me back. The hummingbird settles on the branch beside the goldfinch, facing her. They sit together like old friends, and then the hummingbird flies back to her nest. I am tired and tender, all opened up. I stand in the bathtub for a long time listening to the goldfinch song. I feel like I belong, all of us woven together by this lullaby: the goldfinch, the hummingbird, the two beings in her tiny eggs, and me.
I try to be quiet when I leave my courtyard, but the gate screeches, wood against wood. I walk toward the creek path in the early morning. There’s a mockingbird every half block marking my passage. Today I see three cottontails in the creek bed, no coyotes. A squirrel races across my path. I stop to watch a mockingbird displaying from the top of an old, wide fan palm near the footbridge. On the bridge, I watch the swifts. There are more of them than I have ever seen, flying in a big circling cloud, then pausing on a stretch of nearby wires, as if they, too, are taking in the show. Or maybe I am their show, the lone human so strangely fascinated by their ordinary acts. I don’t know if they’re really swifts. I’m making that up because until today I never saw them sit still, and they are always quick in flight. Today, when they sit on the wires, I see their tails are forked. I stand there for a long time looking up, my mouth open, watching them swoop and circle, their small noises a communal sound, as if this ever-changing shape of small bodies is one beast, all those wings and hearts beating together. Then the extraordinary happens, flashes of yellow gold on their bellies, beneath their wings. At first I’m confused, but then I understand. The sun has risen, and it’s lighting up their undersides because it’s so low in the sky. I watch until the light changes, until the cloud shrinks to just four handfuls of birds. This reminds me of when I lived in Sebastopol and discovered that three-week window when you meet dark furry caterpillars everywhere on country roads. I remember dodging each one, so surprised I’d never noticed them before. And now at sixty this first glimpse of small birds lit from below, dazzling, the waning half moon behind them, suspended and silent in the blue sky.