The Wings I Saw

“There’s truth enough where there’s enough bread,

see to the bread and truth sees to itself.”

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, from the poem “Zima Junction” 1956

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Being seen off by the crows, during one of my last walks in NC.  Guardianship as sentinels seemed to be the feathers, the wings I saw with my heart and not my eyes.

It was the winter of 1993, and Harris Lake had curves of surface ice caressing the forms of its current.  The captured current stood still, and on the far side from the restaurant’s edge a tiny form was just barely discernible.  Two duck feet were sticking out of the thickest ice patch, like tiny trees absurd and miniscule.   The natural buoyancy of the bird led to a feeling that this sight fell outside of the natural order somehow.  It seemed both horrible and funny to watch the ducks prattle past the feet’s location on the lake, as they slipped and struggled and jostled with one another across the slick stillness of that most recent purgatory.

The bread pudding was baking slowly in the oven, and the sun was beginning to set.  The kitchen, as the whole town at that time, bore a claustrophobic air.  I needed only to look up to take in the gossamer strands that connected my wife’s lover, her family, the cooks and waitstaff, the local police and mayor.  In that singular evening, though, this was not their story.

The cook had been somewhere else and came in with the bustled air of popularity and drama amid chaotic intoxication, his little entourage spilling out behind him.  The little pan of bread pudding, a special and singular batch, sat on the steel prep table and slowly set up as it released steamy tendrils into the evening air.  It was for the cook’s mother.

J., the lunch cook, a burly Cherokee holding a hand-rolled cigarette and a bottle in a brown bag, nodded for me to follow him out back.  He lit his smoke and swigged and in the setting sun I showed him the strange trapped duck feet.  A cynical smile glimmered across his furrowed countenance and we laughed and wondered together about the mallard’s fate.  He told me I should come with him and the cook to deliver the bread pudding to the cook’s mother.  R., the cook, had left me in the dark about some things.  It was revealed to me in J.’s studded, halting sentences that R.’s mother lived at his house and was rapidly dying of AIDS.  She had been a sort of local gypsy over the years; a tented nomad living in the woods making flutes and jewelry by hand, her trading post a waterfall.  Years later I’d heard gossip about her notorious promiscuity but paid it no account; the gossip in that area had done me great disservice too.  The bread pudding was the only thing she could still keep down, and she was wasting away.  She weighed under 85 pounds, J. said.

We went as a caravan of several cars to R.’s house and spilled out into the home, everyone drinking and smoking and talking loudly over the blaring music.  I had the small dish of bread pudding in my hand and R’s girlfriend led me down the hall to his mother’s room.  We found her sitting upright, and her eyes were clear and piercingly aware.  She was bird-like, all sharp angles, and looked me straight in the eye.  She saw I did not flinch or bat an eye at all over her extreme form, but more than that- she saw into me somehow, as if to see my heartbeat, my bones.  I gave her the bread pudding and she took my hand, and I sat down on the bed.  She had known my wife and her lover both for years, and looked upon me with a curious, watchful air as a noblewoman may’ve watched a magician whose act she had never seen, who harkened from a land just far enough away to be considered as non-local.  She’d heard of me and was perhaps more well-versed in my situation than I was.  She munched lightly on tiny morsels of the pudding which I lifted up to her mouth.  She wanted to hear from me why I’d left my wife; it seemed such a strange choice to make given the social prominence of her family, the land and money and connections with the town’s administration.  She wanted me back, and I’d been so accustomed to adapting to her wishes.  But the secret affair my wife had been having was something I could’ve never done to her, not in a thousand years; and when she told me she didn’t love me anymore and wanted me to leave, it negated any effort on her behalf to later take it all back and try to return things the way they were.  I’d felt that the marriage, as that third ethereal being created by us over the years, had been slain and could not be resurrected by the hand of its murderer.  I still loved my wife dearly but had, as gracefully as I could, left her stage.  I couldn’t fathom this new love of hers, with a man older than her father, and as I was deceived of its blossoming could only naturally feel I’d be deceived of its continuance.

“But what do you have left?” she asked.  “Nothing,” I said, and my eyes lit up with a half-smile.  I was living in a tiny efficiency apartment, was barely getting by on a cook’s wages, and had only recently gotten a new car to replace the van which had busted on me months earlier.  And I was so obviously living in the wrong town.  I stood out like those duck feet.  But the ancient mountains and oak groves, the curvy roads and vast gorges, had all become a part of me.  It seemed the soil itself, the tousled pastures and rhododendron, was keeping me there.  I would only leave years later, when asked to help my brother in Boone.

“You’re crazy, and I don’t understand.  And I am old friends with the guy your wife was seeing.”  Her sharp gaze enveloped me as I stared back.  The veined talon of her hand lay over mine.  “Your wife wants you to come home.”  I looked down.  “My home’s gone, and no road leads there.  She chose your friend.  I have no choice.”  It was a strange moment for both of us.  The local memory of my wife and I together as a young couple who seemed they’d always be together, who walked with the peace and comfort of those married much longer, circled slowly and invisibly through the room.  How notoriously well I’d treated her; how we lived together in Asheville and returned to her hometown so she could be closer to the family she cherished so deeply.  My distance, too, to all but her.  This lady knew all of that and more.  “You’re doing this the hardest way possible.  You know that, right?” Her tone was almost scolding, but inquisitive.  I fed her more of the bread pudding, and sighed. “It’s time for me to be myself again.  The me that was before it was hers. I haven’t met him yet, but we know each other.”  She squinted slightly and let me know she was done with the pudding.  The thin bones of her arms seemed like they should frame wings.  “They’re out west, Daniel.  Together.  They’ll come back together.  Let go now and there’s no going back.”

I stood up from the bed slowly.  So they’re together again already, I thought; despite all her notes, flowers and entreaties for me to come back to her.  Standing my ground was the most important choice I’d made I could remember, and for the first time in my life it felt like the right one.

“She let go.  I just listened.”

R.’s mother and I sat in silence for a moment, the muffled booms and rattles of the party down the hall feeling distant to both of us.  “I told her I’d try,”  she said.  Her furrowed brow smoothed out a bit and she took a deep breath, relieved of her secret chore.

She turned facing the window, her protruding bones seeming again to me to be missing feathers, wings.  “Go out into the woods, Daniel.  Meet your solitude and take its hand.  But treat some lady someday as well as you used to treat her.  It’s a gift.  So give it.”

I went down the hall, where R. was snorting crank and the beer cans & bottles had multiplied.  The buzzes everyone sought were the only social currency, and I was growing tired of that.  A pile of books waited for me in the tiny apartment, and music of my own that no one else wanted to hear.

I never saw R.’s mother again.  She was dead soon after that night. I did what she said, though it didn’t do any good.  Like her flutes, jewelry and waterfall meetings, it seemed just to be my nature.  None of that did her any good either, but maybe that’s not the point.   Like the duck feet on the frozen lake or the missing wings on that lady’s skeletal frame, it’s the mystery of things I keep coming back to.  Treating others the way I treated my wife during the good years of the marriage, though with no guarantee of recognition or fate.  It doesn’t have to be advantageous, strategic or the like.  Just a hand-carved flute by a waterfall somewhere.  The world can pick it up, or not.  The things that happen beyond the realm of comfort, social validation or self-gratification are precisely those feathers I thought I saw on R.’s mother.  The useless wings only a handful will ever see, only unfurling when broken.  Stubborn and lost and woven into soil, nothing can be conveyed about them except by who, or what, they had enfolded.  To sit with that lady and feed her bread pudding, and know that we were both embarking on lone journeys neither one of us could fathom, was like sharing a secret danger with her.  And if this long meditation of solitude and labor only produces a simple nourishment that even those close to death can be nourished by, instead of the family I’d been on the verge of creating, I must live with that.  In my mind’s eye I see the drugs, alcohol, casual impersonal hookups and the like spiral and drift into a deep, dark abyss, until the drama and cruelty souls perpetrate upon themselves crystallize into one soul greeting another at a dimly lit crossroad: one way, death; the other, confused solitude.  Both travelers silently asking for wings.

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