Sometimes you don’t know when it’s going to show up, or that it was even on its way.
A couple of weeks ago I was standing in the wildlife shelter at nine AM, listening to our morning report. It’s the off season, and the regular crew has winnowed down some, and that morning I think there were four of us besides the clinic manager, Brandy.
We were in the kitchen, the nerve-center of the hospital, which hadn’t yet been disrupted by preparations of fish and fowl for the raptors, strange mixes of things for the injured opossums, piles of leftovers for the two turkey vultures. The census is low: no babies yet, and the only raccoons coming through this time of year have been old and beat up, and like the cormorant with wings torn by fishing line, euthanized pretty much on arrival. Besides the opossums our current patients are a couple of gulls, a pigeon waiting through a long, slow molt, and three red tailed hawks. Brandy explains changes in treatment or feeding, non patient-care tasks to get done if there’s time, then, just to catch everyone up, a list of the creatures that had come through during the week: a kinglet that was released, an adult squirrel, “Oh, and we had a goldeneye come through which we transferred, since our waterfowl enclosures are shut down right now.”
“What’s a goldeneye?” someone asks, and Brandy begins explaining, “It’s a small diving duck, they show up this time of year….”
and I sort of zone out over my coffee. I saw the goldeneye when it came in –a pretty little brown-headed female. And I know them because occasionally they’d show up on the river where I grew up in Indiana, on winter migrations; always a big deal when my mother spotted them in her field glasses.
Brandy is continuing, “They roost in trees. In fact, sometimes they can really surprise people, popping out and dropping onto the ground.”
Suddenly something in me resonates like an old bass string snapped against the fretboard.
“Wait,” I say to Brandy, interrupting. “What do you mean, they roost in trees? I thought only wood ducks roosted in trees.”
“Wood ducks do,” she says, nodding, “but a lot of other ducks will, too. Like goldeneye. And mergansers.”
I am 57 years old standing in the kitchen of the wildlife shelter in Washington State while at the same moment I am dropping down a chute in my soul to Indiana. I am fifteen (It’s been 42 years? How did that happen?) and I am laughing, uncharitably, at Tim. He and I have been experiencing difficulties, but in hindsight that’s not really surprising: all of our small tribe of friends have been experiencing difficulties as our seemingly innocent and racy drug experimentation has led us to become cranky.
One place where we all feel safe and secure together is a small stand of evergreen trees, just off the street where several of us live, where another street veers away and creates a peninsula of greenery: somebody’s civic landscaping keeps the grass mowed, the shrubbery lightly clipped, but seems to ignore these evergreens. They are planted in a cluster just apart from a set of tennis courts belonging to one of the big houses along the river; it’s likely that this is all their land, too.
These trees had grown to be twenty or thirty feet high, with boughs all the way to the ground like thick skirts, and closely blended together. Fir, spruce, maybe a cedar, I don’t know what they were, only that we referred to them as ‘the pines’ because one of us (Tim, probably) discovered that if we crawled up under them, in the circle of their trunks there was a clearing, an open space — a den of sorts, in the very center of these trees, screened completely from everything else by the evergreen branches.
It suited our teenaged senses of irony and recalcitrance to be hidden in plain view. So we congregated there in twos or threes, delighted to think of the cars rolling by so near to us but with no idea we were in there — possibly even our mothers, or someone else’s mothers in their station wagons. At one point someone brought in a candle, bedded it into the center of the needles, I remember its low flame and the scent mixing with that of the needles as we all passed around a bong in the shape of a sitting gnome. Overalls and oversized cardigan sweaters, young male faces with bushy full beards, girls with feathered earrings, the whole thing.
A slightly different take on wildlife.
The pines community didn’t last all that long. Adults may have gotten suspicious, seeing the patched and rumpled teenagers springing over to and disappearing into this stand of trees, or maybe we were just afraid they had –though now that I think of it, when I was visiting and drove by years later, amazingly the pines were still there, but they had been pruned about three feet up their trunks, creating clear visibility from across the grass. So maybe I didn’t imagine this.
Anyway, the time I’m remembering Tim was excitedly telling me, “You won’t believe it: I was at the pines, and I’m just smoking a cigarette, when something plops right down out of the trees—it just falls down at my feet. And it scuttles away.”
“What are you talking about? You saw a squirrel?”
“No,” he insisted, “I don’t know what it was, some kind of bird.” He gestured with his hands, airspace the size of a football. “It just plopped out of the tree,” he went on then, with a directional flourish, “and it sort of waddled off across the grass!”
He’s laughing with me, but I can see he’s frustrated, too. “I’m telling you, I saw it!”
I no longer remember which one of us or when we decided Tim had seen a penguin. Because considering our lives and our selves at that point, our recreations and his love of elaboration, it made more sense that Tim saw a penguin fall out of branches of the pines and scuttle away across the grass than it did that he’d seen anything at all.
Except that he brought it up again later: “I’ve been meaning to tell you, my sister knows what type of thing fell out of the trees that time when I was in the pines.”
“What are you talking about?”
“She said it was likely something from the river—I think a coot, maybe.”
“A coot? They don’t roost in trees.”
“I forget what it was, then, maybe she said guinea hen. But she believed me completely. These things really do fall out of trees!”
The story about the penguin was picked up by everyone; I think we all knew it, it’s own shorthand reference.
We have remained in touch all these years, an old, tribal love between many of us – sometimes closer than others, but never losing contact completely. Two years ago a couple of us flew in to see Tim marry his partner of nearly thirty years. (I offered to give him away, but he ignored me. But the happy couple did buy me breakfast before I left the next morning.)
Tim has always loved holidays, was a generous boyfriend at Valentine’s day, and through the years boxes have arrived, unannounced, full of amusing and delightful things. “Tell me,” his card said this year at Christmas, “which of these brings up a small, shared memory from our youth?”
Was it the coasters with pictures of Janis Joplin’s mug shot? The peel-and-stick computer key that said “Oh, shit”? Not the set of demitasse cups, though we did drink a lot of coffee together. The inflatable penguin, wearing a little holiday hat and scarf?
And here I am standing in the wildlife shelter, forty two years later, wanting to find you immediately and grab you by the bibs:
Tim, oh my god. I was a grouchy, irritable teenaged girl who was feeling spurned; I was tired of all of us being so high and unaccountable to each other, even as I was contributing to all of it myself.
I knew wood ducks roosted in trees, but I would also have been quick to tell you they hadn’t been seen on the river in ages.
And of course you really were capable of seeing anything in the pines.
But standing here in the kitchen of the wildlife shelter, a woman who hadn’t even been born at that point is telling me, forty-two years later, that you were right:
Tim, my dear old friend, I owe you an apology, a correction. I want to atone for my crotchety, irritable, dismissive teenaged self. It turns out that while you were standing there in the pines a duck-sized bird could very well have dropped out of the branches and scuttled away, just as you described. It could have been a goldeneye, like the one getting some play time in the shelter’s bath tub this past week. I realize now it also could have been a bufflehead, sometimes known to pass through Northern Indiana in the odd migratory year; it could have been either type of merganser, common or hooded.
Tim, I need to let you know that I got it—I was a grouchy little bitch—and you were right.
I am so grateful for our years of affection and the heart-clearing chance to send you this, my valentine to you this year.
Which life serves up sometimes even decades after the arrow’s been released from the bowstring.