"Past is prologue" here in our Featured Flashback section, and every week we feature a new selection from our archives that belongs in this very moment. This week we feature the short essay "Open," by Susan Kushner Resnick, a Runner-Up for the Editors Prize from Issue 11: Wonders of the World, published in 2014.
By Susan Kushner Resnick
There’s a new bird in town, I tell my husband, and he laughs.
No, really, I say. Listen. It quacks—I imitate—just like a mechanical duck, just like a blowy thing duck hunters use. Quack. Quack. Bold and secure in his duckness.
Did he just arrive, I wonder, with the July sun or is he an adolescent who’s just gained his big-boy voice? I don’t know, can’t know, because I’m new to this nature stuff. Suburban girl, completely unschooled.
My father tried. Instead of making me watch my brother’s baseball games, he led me by the hand into the woods beside the field. This is a jack-in-the-pulpit, he said, pointing to something magical. He surely showed me other things, but I mostly remember the smell—bright green—and the moments—Daddy—but none of those sensations lasted. Did the walks stop because I got older or because he got angrier?
The scent of cut grass. Wishes on dandelions. Raking dead leaves. Such was the extent of my relationship with nature. I was a mall child, a Disney adventurer, a reader by the heating vent in the kitchen.
The beach waited patiently. Tapped its foot after a while. Became quite pleased with itself when I finally began to come for the tan and the boys and the vodka cranberries at seaside bars after dark. It knew it had me.
There was a rock out in the ocean. God lived there, I thought. I could stare at that rock and send messages and feel less alone. But maybe it wasn’t God. Maybe the rock was covered with birds that were too far away for me to see. Maybe it was the birds that salved my loneliness.
All the dead come back as birds. That’s what I believe. Haven’t you noticed? Your mother dies and suddenly birds are everywhere. Standing in the road as you try to pedal out of the numbness on a bike, not even moving when they hear the tires. Balance-beamed on the leaf of a shrub outside the kitchen window. Chorus-lined on every wire, forcing you to look up and out of the grief. Why didn’t you ever look up before?
Further proof: my soul mate died and a flock of crows showed up at the burial to bring him home. His little sisters, killed by the Nazis, now tiptoeing on the snow while we humans prayed to each other. Two nights later a winter owl hooted me awake. I am okay, he told me.
And now these birds, these flying dead, are bringing me back to the elements. We think of seagulls—greedy, pushy, Donald Trumps of the sky—as the birds of the beach. But there are so many more, higher and a little farther off, especially if there’s a shore pond, like the one outside my door.
I stand on my deck, a block from the beach. I can hear waves, but I can see birds. Two mute swans and their baby. A conference of black birds and white birds, commingling as human New Englanders rarely do. The osprey that my husband follows more closely than his weather app. The geese that wake me, sounding like frantically barking dogs. The sea ducks, as we called the double-crested cormorants before we looked them up in Peterson’s. We wanted to know what to call the one wandering the causeway road, the one my new friend Rena wrapped in a blanket and drove to the bird rescuers, allowing us to identify both a bird and a friend worth keeping.
The birds call me out of the house, away from my synthetic world. They introduce me to the wildflowers, remind me to smell the air, take me back to jacks-in-the-pulpit. They tell me the storms are over with the return of their chatter. They keep me company while I learn, once again, about the comfort of open spaces.