MEM(An excerpt from my young-person's novel-in-progress)
|West 86th Street, Miranda Field, 2013|
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Following Trug down the stone steps into the garden’s lower level, moments before sunrise, It was almost impossible for Mem to keep an endless stream of questions from bubbling out. The bench stood on a patio littered with dry seed-pods that crunched under her sandals as she crossed the flagstones. It was the morning of the real summer equinox –a day earlier than the official turn of the season marked on the human calendar. Mem must appreciate the great honor the birds had extended her, Trug was saying. No human had ever before been invited to attend the opening ceremony of this most significant of mornings.
“Hush,” he whispered, before she could even open her mouth. A soft rush of wings, first in the apple trees behind the Greenhouse, then high in the poplars by the east wall, and in all the trees around the garden, indicated the birds were taking their places, preparing to begin. “You’ll hear the Robins of Tullis Valley first,” whispered Trug. “They’ll start with a short musical recitation.” Mem listened. Nothing happened for the longest time, but the morning was cool, the air golden with pollen, and the silence was spellbinding. Then, at last, one high, clear, flute-like note from the north side of the garden. A moment later, a flurry of trilling notes from a tall oak was answered with the same from another.
“Notice the complex arrangements of rhymes,” Trug said. Mem listened hard, tried to really listen, listen with her whole body, as Miss Reilly at St.Brigit’s always said. But she all she coud hear was somethign that— at least a few weeks ago— she’d have described as “Tweet-tweet.”“I can’t hear it,” she said. “Yes you can,” whispered Trug. “Listen. What is it your ears are picking up?” Mem quieted her blood, opened her ears, willed herself to hear. But what she heard sounded like eetaloo, ooti, ooti, eetaloo . . . “I hear, but I don’t understand,” she said. By now, other calls were joining the Robins’, from the crowns of the highest trees. From the old Callary pear, fip-fip-fip-fip-fip. . . and from the tall yew, fee-ee bee fee-ee bay . . . “I don’t understand,” Mem repeated, her throat tightening.
“Mem,” said Trug (no longer whispering – no need: the air was awash with sound), “there’s no creature on earth who doesn’t understand this.” Mem felt her cheeks burning. Then—“Oh, wait a minute,” she said. “I know that one! Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody . . . That’s the White-Throated Sparrow, we learned that one in school!” Trug hopped onto her lap, draped his warm, silken tail across her knee.“No need to translate,” he said, “just listen.” But what Mem heard when she listened said nothing, there was no message in all the babbling sound that made anything like sense to her. Hot tears welled up her eyes. She blinked them back, angrily. The whole garden, every treetop, was twittering and trilling. Pip-pip-pip-pip, and chip-chip seedle-seedle . . . And now and then Mem thought she heard a phrase she recognized from her Guide to Northeastern Birds– Madge-Madge-Madge, put-on-your-tea-kettle-ettle-ettle, and Sweet Sweet Canada Canada Canada, but immediately she felt embarrassed by the silliness of those human words. She tried to open her listening, ‘soften’ her eardrums (another of miss Reilly’s instructions) and pretty soon the songs of all the different birds seemed to lose distinction. It was— beautiful though. It made Mem think of fireworks – not the booms and cracks and loud fizzes and bangs that made you want to clap your hands over your ears, but the sound-equivalent of light. Geysers of light, fountains, trickles, bubbles, mists in every color.
“Mem.” Trug’s voice snapped her out of her revery. He was sitting upright in her lap, his body tensed, his tail wrapped around her wrist, claws scratchy on the bare skin of her knees. “Did you hear that?” he said. “Yes— It was magical,” Mem said, “it was amazing, it—”“Yes,” Trug said— a little impatiently— “they certainly know their prosody,” Trug said, “and harmony and syncopation, and counterpoint, and many of the devices of art,” he said, “ but the recitation’s over. Listen closer now. The Raven’s speaking.” Mem heard the Raven’s cries cut through the distance. “This is important. This is the Calling of News,” Trug whispered. A deep, hollow waark-waark-waark rang out from the eves “There’s been a robbery,” Trug said. “Some sparrow’s eggs are missing from a drainage gutter near . . .” Mem nodded automatically, to show she was following what he said, though she wasn’t.“An elderberry bush, seven miles north-north east of the bell tower is early in fruit . . . a bad weather front coming from the west . . . in Reims Field three elms lost to harsh winds . . .” Mem was in a deep, deep well of embarrassment and shame, she was in it alone, and Trug’s simultaneous interpretation of the Raven’s messages barely reached her.“A struggle among the hummingbirds…” he rambled on, “. . . Berry-time approaches fast, and weeks of rain have set a mildew spreading through the fields. . . poor nest-building, a number of barns burnt . . . the spraying of mosquitoes taxes swallows severely, forcing them to extend dusk feedings well past moonrise. . .” Then he stopped, sat silently, and completely still, while the Raven continued, waark-waark, harsh and croaking and monotonous, but it seemed to Mem the whole of the rest of the garden grew still, too. And there was something in the stillness that made her uneasy.“What’s he saying now?” she whispered. But the Raven stopped talking, and now the crows took up, with their Caw-caws spearing the air, criss-crossing from all directions.
“They’re talking about the sickness,” said Trug at last, “the bird sickness rising from Asia. It’s crossing the seas.”
“The birds are sick?”
“The birds are falling sick in droves, and the humans are keeping watch.”
“What do you mean?”
“The humans are starting to fear the birds, so the birds are watching the humans.”
“Wait—who’s watching who?” Mem said.
“Who’s watching Whom.” Trug corrected. Mem blushed as he continued.
“Nothing simple about the watching, Mem. Lines of watching run every which ways.” Mem felt a trembling begin in the backs of her knees, then spread all the way up and under her ribs.
“Something we’ve no experience of is coming—fast,” Trug said quietly, almost to himself, “approaching unseen, from all directions. Everyone’s jumpy. Hard to say which is worse—the keeping watch or the feeling of always being watched. Naturally, that’s ever the way in the animal world. The human, too. But this is different. This is something new in our life-times, Mem.”
“Why are we watching if what we’re watching for can’t even be seen?”
“That’s a clever question, Mem, and it’s all the clever questions human’s ask and spend their lives finding answers to that make humans so important—in the human realm. But so— how shall I put this— so completely oblivious in the animal. Mem, be careful when you go to the Wild Place. When you go to the Wild Place, it’s those clever questions that muffle instinct. Accidents happen that way. And not only accidents. . .” he stopped mid-thought. The trees and all the sky around them were silent now. Mem hadn’t noticed the flocks of birds lift and dissolve in the brightening morning, but they were gone. Trug slipped from her lap and scampered to where a few strands of chickweed pushed up between flagstones, then “There are those who’d trick you,” he said, sniffing the tips of the weeds. “They’d trip you up quite intentionally. Yes, there are those who enjoy nothing more than to make a sport of human weakness. And I can’t say I altogether blame them, though I don’t condone their methods. These are the creatures humans treat like—like chaff.”
“But I don’t—” Mem protested.
“Think about it Mem. You love animals. Most creatures you mother and shepherd and protect. You rescue, you feed, you observe. Of a human like you, other humans say: She wouldn’t hurt a fly . . .” (it stung Mem to hear Trug mimic the manner of human speech.) “But wouldn’t you, Mem? Wouldn’t you hurt a fly?”
“Gil says every time you— you wash your hands or brush your teeth you’re killing a million invisible microbes. . .,” Mem blurted.
“It’s true, Mem. Now and then you have to hurt a fly.” His voice had grown gentle again. “Creatures are living and dying all around us, Mem. Gil’s right. Didn’t Mr. Lockley cut down that broken Hawthorn limb hanging over Main Street last week?” he said. Mem nodded. For several months, ever since the storm that cracked the tree’s highest limb, she’d had to cross to the other side of the street on her walks to the library, to avoid passing under it. But Trug tensed again “Listen,” he said, “hear that?” Mem heard nothing at first, then in a moment the sound of cicadas in the trees filled her ears. She thought of the old hawthorn, the caterpillars making their soft gauzy tents in its limbs, the spiders setting their cathedral-window webs to glisten among the flowering branches. “Help ever, harm never” she murmured. This was written on the yellow rubber wristband she always wore. They were the opening words of the creed she’d had to memorize to earn her first camp badge that last summer before the accident. “Take a single step in any direction,” Trug said, “and you’ve crossed some creature’s territory. Lift up a log, and you’ve uprooted numberless settlements. But this fact . . .”
“Life’s most indelible conditions . . . ” Mem interrupted, quoting something she heard on the radio the other day, though she couldn’t remember what it was—
“Exactly, yes, very well put. Yes, but life’s conditions, as you say, never excuse cruelty or thoughtlessness or unjust dominion. They demand of all living beings a certain kind of conscience that’s fluid and supple and runs through the nerves— and it cannot be legislated.” Mem said nothing. She wasn’t sure she understood anything Trug had just said. She wasn’t sure what “legislated” meant, or “dominion,” or half the words he’d used. And she’d already embarrassed herself too many times to ask, failing to grasp things, misunderstanding. But Trug was done with talking anyway. He rose on his haunches and sniffed the air, whiskers twitching wildly. Then he turned tail and hopped off the edge of the patio, toward a tuft of clover sticking out from the grass. And there he happily settled down to nibbling again, as if they’d never had this conversation.
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