Originally published in North by Northeast: New Short Fiction by Writers from Maine and New England by Littoral Books.
The wife and I were ambling around Deering Oaks Park on a sodden gray January afternoon, slogging through the icy remnants of the recent sleet storm, sipping take-out coffees from The Holy Donut, idly watching the scurry of squirrels, chatting about our jobs and whether Sal would ever take the plunge and marry Martha, when we saw Her. Just like that, soaring through the trees, the most glorious breathtaking thing either of us had ever seen: reddish-golden spectacle of feather and light, elusive messenger from a lost mythology. And we were both struck at precisely the same moment, straight through the heart, as if by a dark wizard’s poisonous spell.
It wasn’t typical for us to be wandering around the park in winter. In fact, I remember referring to our impulsive outing that day as a “spatial anomaly,” launched by the mutual desire to procrastinate tasks and munch on donuts. We were a nerdy couple, valid congregants of Portland’s urban “hipster” sphere, though both of us despised the term “hipster.” Let’s put it this way. We’d had a potluck wedding in an old church that had been converted to an arts center and the wife wore a dress from Goodwill and black canvas lace-up boots. We often spoke about ourselves in the third person, as in, “The wife feeling cranky today?” or “The wife really doesn’t feel like watching soccer,” or “Perhaps it’s the husband’s turn to cook tonight.”
We liked our animals soft and furry. The wife was one of those people who spammed friends with wretchedly cute photographs of cats, a pastime she referred to as indulging in “kitty porn.” In terms of the bird world, we admired the romantic ululations of mourning doves, but we weren’t particularly fond of raucous birds such as blue jays or seagulls. Then, suddenly as a stealth bomber, She entered our lives. And we were smitten.
Up until then I would have said the wife and I were compassed by the same mixture of complacency and irritation as most of the other couples we knew. We were both “only children” who came from dysfunctional families (find me someone who didn’t). We were pescatarians. We worked at boring but decent-paying jobs. We were marginally into gaming and cult movies. The wife had majored in philosophy and liked to read existential fiction. I was into Sci-Fi. We were entranced by Game of Thrones. She taught me to knit and I taught her how to make yogurt. We were that kind of couple. I sometimes questioned whether I could do better and complained about her to my friends (as I’m sure she complained about me to hers), but I enjoyed the mild needles of guilt that accompanied these very minor infractions. I considered myself lucky there was so little drama in our lives.
The encounter with the hawk infiltrated us, as if we’d both been struck by lightning and had come through unscathed and yet different. Or perhaps we had just become unfathomably bored with ourselves. In any case, the descending darkness of late afternoon on that monochromatic slushy Saturday found us at the library checking out books called Hawks & Owls of Eastern North America, Hawks in Flight, and Pale Male, a documentary film about a hawk that lived in Central Park. We were up a good part of the night. She looked to be a Red-Tailed Hawk, like the one in Central Park, increasingly common in wooded urban areas such as ours, but oh so rare to us. It turned out that on our coastal peninsula we were surrounded by such creatures, had we ever bothered to really look.
I believe our obsession was propagated by an innocent enough intoxication, but it soon seemed to feed on something darker. A kind of masochism grew in us, a slow and steady longing to release the shocking flood of a subliminal lifetime’s worth of pain, which, like the hawk, was right under our noses, but which we’d never directly acknowledged. What had happened to us? We were the survivors, the ones who had escaped generations of dysfunction and thrived. The first time we caught Her feasting on a pigeon in a remote corner behind the tennis courts, I thought we would surely be repelled, that our weird fixation would be annihilated along with the prey. Instead we were riveted. We could not look away.
The wife and I developed a routine of going to the park as often as we could, especially in the very early morning and at dusk. The irony was not lost on us: two urbanites stalking a raptor. Up before dawn, Fyodor the cat fed and watered, our single-origin organic coffee poured into a thermos. We suited up in whatever gear we needed for the snow, ice, or rain, and headed out, just as the winter light was starting to lift the edges of the sky.
We became sky-watchers, scanning the heavens for the soaring telltale shape. We grew attuned to unusual flight patterns, the sudden flockings of pigeons, doves, or starlings, or a raucous clamor of crows that signaled they might be mobbing a predator. We sometimes heard Her telltale piercing cry before we saw Her. It was a soul-shredding sound. On weekdays we trudged back to the house with stiff necks, took a shower together to save time, dressed like automatons and disembarked to our respective offices, where we led our so-called productive lives. It was during this time that we drew pathologically close to each other, cloyed by our newly unrepressed pathologies of deprivation and need, bound by our obsession for the hunt.
We were cold, we were tired, we were angry. We trudged off to the park through deep ponds of icy slush when only the hard-core dog-walkers were out, except we had no dog. We acquired rubber boots and Mad Bomber hats insulated with rabbit fur and layered up in old frayed sweaters as we inched across pathways of ice, crunching through acres of sand and salt and snow and muck. But the planet stood still the times we found Her and we stayed and watched as long as we could or until She slid away across the sky, lost to us again. Our lives pared into a sharp focus: we worked, shopped, slept, ate, had sex, and stalked. We pled illness or prior engagement to practically every social invitation, until most of our friends and family gave up on us, assuming we were attempting to breed.
I began to beg off from the communal office lunches in favor of daily walks, saying I needed to lose a few pounds and had neither the time nor the patience for gyms. I wandered the downtown streets near the tech company, studying the skies and the rooftops of the old Victorian buildings, or lurked along the waterfront. I occasionally saw other hawks, a surprising number actually, but none of them held any serious interest for me. Once I even saw an owl. But these other creatures were like droplets of snow that blurred instantly on the tongue. They only whetted my desire for Her.
One night when I got home I found our dining room table had been transformed by a vintage lace tablecloth and a kitschy old brass candelabra. The wife had found them in one of the innumerable antique stores that dotted the peninsula. The wife was not an impulsive person. I had always admired her thorough and methodical nature, her commitment to forethought and planning. I had used the words predictable and anal to describe her, and though I may have rolled my eyes, they were qualities I always found deeply reassuring.
A few weeks later I was presented with an elaborate hooded mask, sewn from old fabric, felt, and feathers. The wife was already wearing hers, as she poured the wine and revealed a steaming pan of sizzling steak and onions. I didn’t say a word. What do you say to something like that? I just put my mask on and sat down at our lace-covered table with our flaming candelabra. From golden-beet pesto and gluten-free pasta, our diets had transitioned to more carnivorous tastes.
When we split up during the day and went to our offices, we entered our shadow lives, simulacrums that moved through time but held no true substance. The veil was only lifted when we were stalking, or talking about stalking, the hawk. I think we each thought that this spell, this crisis, would wane. But it did not. The dog walkers eyed us more warily. Our new Nikon Aculon binoculars were at the ready.
Our obsession with Her married us in a way nothing and no one could ever sunder. At the same time, as our relationship grew more cloying, we grew more volatile. We began treating each other rudely and enjoyed it. Like the toxic depravity experienced by drug addicts, our love became beautifully distilled in a newfound depth of mutual hatred for each other, evidenced by blurted epithets and harsh, unapologetic shoves. Our bedroom antics reflected this new, desperate, exciting antipathy.
Other people remained oblivious to the dramaturgy of death that surrounded us under those happy blue skies. We learned the language of warlike whoops and caws that filled the evening when the murder of crows came to roost in the tall trees at dusk. We entered this invisible world of tooth and claw with fascination, but these other beings were just wonders; they hadn’t captured us as She had. She was the closed portal to a terrible truth we were unable to verbalize, but every now and then the door would open a crack, revealing an unexpected shiver of thrill.
As the days grew warmer and spring burgeoned, She became harder to spot through the sudden explosion of verdancy and foliage. We half-heartedly kept up our pilgrimage as the dreary frozen slabs of mud gave way to brighter meadows dotted with dandelions and caches of homeless people stretched out on sheets of cardboard. We watched the rose garden revive and bloom. We walked past the wading pool with the shrieking, splashing kids. The squirrels were the omnipresent living threads that tied the chaotic tapestry together. On Saturdays the park came to life with a farmers market intermingled by jugglers, a harp player, a bongo drummer, people selling hand-carved wooden canes, bright glittering jewelry, fragile pottery, postcards made from photographs of flowers and animals.
In summer She disappeared entirely. Out of habit, we still often haunted the park in the very early or very late hours, when few people were about. The park workers – the grass cutters, the Port-a-Potty crew, the trash collectors, the tree mulchers, the wading pool cleaners – saw the way we circled the park, but at any one time there were so many other weird things going on that a couple of crazy birders seemed the least of it. These months of heat and sun that people filled with vacations, picnics, biking, strolls by the ocean – blah blah blah – were the worst. She, the center of our lives, was gone. We could hardly bear it. We went to the beaches with everyone else, in search of relief from the heat and the humidity, stopping for dishes of artisanal hibiscus ice cream at Scoops, but most of it seemed foreign to us, as if we were tourists from far away. We started having the same dream at night – that we were soaring over the trees and buildings, our hearts plummeting, our eyes trained on every movement in the intricate maze below us. What we wouldn’t have given for some cold weather and frozen pathways.
At the rich spectacle of the farmers market, we bought honey, goat cheese, spinach, strawberries, and sausages. The wife said there was too much pageantry, that it seemed a lie. At the heart of it all lay the deep absence of Her. Still, we were hypnotized by the orchid-shaped blooms of the horse chestnut trees; the intricate pine cones; the sweet parade of baby ducklings (what nice prey they would make); and the rich blossoming of black-eyed Susan and lamb’s ear in the little garden in front of the Castle-in-the-Park, the Victorian building originally built as a warming hut for skaters. What we’d found that winter had changed the way we saw things. But our interest remained small, local, and Zen. The idea of camping, for example, of driving a car into the so-called wilderness, was horrifying to us. Instead we marveled over the tiny scarlet mushrooms growing at the foot of a tall oak tree in the park. After all, this was our territory.
We spent a lot of our free time that summer lying on the bed side by side in the dim bedroom, imagining the park as it would have been in Victorian times, me in a top hat, the wife in a long white summer dress. There would have been swan boats then, and swans. Or we reveled in a time even before that – before the Europeans arrived, when the world was pure.
While the city was busy developing every inch of available acreage into luxury hotels, the homeless shelter in our neighborhood experienced overflow capacity. In the hot weather the alcoholics, addicts, and mentally ill sprawled throughout the park, leaving cascades of trash strewn behind them. I didn’t blame them; in their shoes I would have done the same thing. Still, it felt like a defilement. One late evening I watched a junkie shooting up in the shadows under an umbrella tree ringed by empty cans of Hurricane High Gravity lager. Unexpectedly I felt a slight frisson, a milder but similar sensation to our first sighting of the hawk.
We owned a cramped but charming top-floor condo with a sliver view of Back Cove. It was hot up there but neither of us liked air conditioning. One deathly humid Sunday night at the end of August it was too hot to sleep and we were both moody and out of sorts, fussy as children. We started bickering and then lacked the energy to fight. The wife went to take one of her cedar-sage-lemon-verbena-Dead-Sea-salt baths and I went outside to look at the moon. It was about 2 am, and we both had to work the next day, but I didn’t feel tired. I was standing there watching the waving shadows of the apple tree, when I spotted a movement up the street. At first I thought cat, then dog, then realized what was slipping across the street was a fox. And there it was again, that adrenaline rush and the tingle up the spine.
The fall brought earlier dusks, chilly nights, and mountains of potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, onions, apples, Brussels sprouts, and sunflowers. People in fleece vests and long-sleeved T-shirts spoke with dread of the encroaching winter. But for us, it was the season of hope. We were almost giddy with the thrill of it. We were vanquished by the sheer enormity of the trance-inducing majesty of light and color. We felt like drunks tasting the first sip of liquid fire after a long dry-out. Particularly around dusk, the park, in its array of lime, honey, scarlet, russet, tangerine, and scarlet burned, flickered, and drowned by turns, coalescing into a divine living scrim.
And in what seemed like a miracle to us, on a golden Saturday in late September, She returned. We heard the cry that had reverberated through our dreams for months, and then we spotted Her. I felt the power of Her flow through my veins as we watched Her circle and swoop over Her domain, Her flight ending with the quick but blood-curdling scream of a squirrel. Our sharpened eyes watched Her take the rodent down to the strip between the Interstate and the battered chain-link fence that bordered the exempt railroad line. Quiet as pilgrims we followed through a gap in the fence into the brush. We stayed there as a rainy fog seeped in, and eventually fell asleep in the cold leaves, wrapped in our coats just like homeless people, a ways from where She feasted, the three of us surrounded by people and traffic, yet completely unseen.
We had used our iPhones to take photos of Her, which we printed out and taped to the kitchen wall. You’d have thought that would have been enough for people like us. But we wanted to be Her. Failing that, we wanted to possess Her, utterly appropriate Her. We knew we couldn’t endure another summer. Surely you’ve felt that way before, about something. If you haven’t, well, then you haven’t lived. As we hadn’t lived before. We were enthralled.
Was it the wife’s idea or mine? I think it was hers. In this world, if you want to do something badly enough, and if you’re willing to pay, there is always a way. And Robinson, the backwoods hunter, was right there on Craigslist. He specialized in thinning out deer populations . . . and other things. We told him we were artists, as if that could explain away anything. If he found our request unspeakably strange, he didn’t let on. “You see these red-tails all along the coast these days,” is what he said. “They’re protected, like crows, but there’s enough. What’s one less?” After a few gut-wrenching, aborted attempts, when we were starting to feel secretly relieved that it wouldn’t happen, and that we might be saved after all, it took place on a dark October morning around 4 a.m. The weapon was a bow and arrow, and it was quick and quiet, the way the wife and I had wanted. There were no other witnesses. And then She became our deity, preserved in a glass museum case, our joined heart tufted together with wire, feathers and glue, hidden in a dark cabinet, the secret that would forever bind us and set us apart from all others.
We no longer go to the park of course. Why would we? The wife was recently promoted and I was made team leader on a major telecom project. Wisely, our friends and family don’t bring up that “difficult time.” Just the other day I was getting something from the bedroom closet and I had that feeling you get of being watched. I unlocked the cabinet and looked at Her. But there was no racing pulse, no emotion between us, just the void that lies between artifice and disillusionment. I was most shocked, however, by my lack of regret.
Standing there, looking at Her, I recalled a vivid memory from that original malevolent winter. A Nor’easter had dumped a foot of snow, ending in a tirade of lashing sleet and freezing rain. The next day the sky was a turmoil of gray, under-lit by an eerie celestial light. The wind had risen, but it had warmed up to the mid-30s. The ice was crackling and crashing with fallen branches while a volley of crystalline shards hurtled to the glittering diamond ground. The sound of shattering was mixed with barking crows and a distant train whistle, the smells of distant smoke and iron. Then the hawk sailed through the canopy of trees, Her huge wings outstretched, like a heartfelt piece of music played on a perfectly tuned instrument, and I knew in those few eye blinks of time that the world was as perfect as it would ever be.
Lingering in the room, I noticed a coat of dust on the lacquered wood that we had dutifully kept polished for so long. But I locked the cabinet and left it there. We were having friends over and the wife would be home soon. I had to get busy uncorking the wine and assembling plates of crackers, hummus, and fruit.
Last Christmas I received a beautiful Bindewerk journal/sketchbook, handmade in Germany. The 2019 goal/challenge is to fill it up by this December. It’s about 150 pages but luckily it’s April and I’m about halfway through. This personal challenge has motivated me to draw more frequently.
“Art is like a border of flowers along the course of civilization.” — Lincoln Steffens
Paper artist Sarah Yakawonis is a genius. She wasn’t satisifed with the papers many paper artists use to make flowers, so she invented her own. Through painstaking research (deconstructing real flowers) she also developed her own methods of recreating wildflower bouquets and creating amazingly detailed creations inspired by various artists and artistic periods. She has her own Folded Petal shops on Etsy and Amazon to enable others to enjoy making their own reproductions from her designs. Each kit provides all the materials — wire, floral tape, her own custom-made papers, and individual guide booklets. All you need are scissors, needle-nosed pliers/wire cutters, and a wee bit of glue.
She also offers regional workshops, one of which I was lucky enough to attend recently through Maine College of Art’s Continuing Studies Program. It was great fun to spend the day with other folks, learning firsthand how to create long-lasting paper wildflowers. They are a bit labor-intensive to make, but that’s part of the point — it’s relaxing to use your hands to make botanically accurate creations. The results are stunning and inspiring, and the sky’s the limit as to how you could adapt these designs (though if you get the kits, a lot of the work is done for you!)
Especially if you live in Maine, having such wonderful flowers year-round is a real treat!
Above: Paper Flowers from MECA’s CS Paper Sculpture Wildflower Class
Although not truly abstract, these landscapes are studies of pattern, form, color, and motion.
“An abstract painting is exactly what it purports to be, whether it be paint splatters or stripes, while a representational painting has to give the illusion of the paint being air, or flesh, or flowers… therefore abstract paintings are rather concrete while representational paintings are rather abstract.” – David Leffel
“I understand abstract art as an attempt to feed imagination with a world built through the basic sensations of the eyes.” – Jean Helion