Featured flashback

"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. 

 
 
Open
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.

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