Of Sparrows; A Heron’s Age

Miriam Bird Greenberg

Of Sparrows

In the mountains with only the wild
        animals for company, ghosts

roam the roads, the story
        goes. They’re carrying jerrycans, and the wild

grasses wave dimly behind their dim
        forms as if snow-

• •

dusted, or dark where they pass
        through the wanderers—a bayonet,

a wolf’s tooth—and reemerge
        on the other side, the teeth

a wolf’s teeth; she stalks

 

 

the frozen river’s surface on nights
        when even the fish

whose shapes flicker up through dim shadow-
        lands of ice

are sleeping, and no one dares stop
        for a stalled vehicle. She—the wolf,

• •

I mean—was born
        before the men who’ve died in these hills

were young,
        when their fathers were young. Men say

if one is caught

 

 

on the mountain when night falls,
        they will die

of exposure, and in the hour
        that falls before death she will come

to them, to offer the lost
        her teat to suckle, and they—these men

• •

who whisper this story among one
        another, laughing as men do, as if the mountain isn’t

what they, too, avoid on winter nights—
        they are no mere villagers, raising pigeons

to dance for pageantry’s

 

 

sake, or to write their owners’ fates
        in the script their paths

through the air make mid-
        dive; they are city-dwellers like you

and I, with lunch-hour dental appointments
        and the telemarketers who call, call them

• •

by first name in an intimacy
        as feigned as they do with you

or I; with the palm of a hand each morning
        they wipe away the condensation

that fogs the mirror, as if to find a face

 

 

reflected back in full. So let’s say this story
        is a different one, of a woman

who lives alone, faraway,
        in a place we have all heard spoken of

but by no one who has ever been. One night
        a traveler comes to her door

• •

to ask for help. How can she know
        he has not come to kill

her, as happens
        often enough in those parts of the world,

as it does in these? Is it a relief

 

 

if the next morning she finds
        him frozen, the prints of wild animals making a lace-

work in the snow around him, coming
        closer where they have dipped their noses

to his form, knelt to inhale
        the scent like warm milk

• •

that rose off the body
        as it shed its steam there in the snow?

She, too, carried a gun
        as a girl,

which she once used

 

 

to kill, and raised a sparrow fallen
        from its nest to flit

to and fro from its perch in the palm
        of her hand. What,

then, is enough to make her
        understood? Must she carry not a rifle

• •

but the head of a man—like you
or I—severed and grasped

by his hair, as if an elegant handbag,

wherever she goes?

 

A Heron’s Age

The moon lies awake all night, peering down
through pecan canopy. The familiar is no longer: barred owl

that’s built a nest at the base of a tree in the yard,
around which a round wire fence meant to contain

not her, but a white dog who would do her harm, who inhabits
all out-of-doors his chain can orbit, parabola brief

as the breadth of his explorations, or
if shirked, he roves the countryside, losing

his own way home until my brother leaves off circling the fields
in a combine, or his fieldside mechanic’s truck,

to find this animal half as large as either of us, cowering
lost in a ditch where a great blue heron shot by a hunter

laid down the tasseled strands of its head to die
ten years before. Left behind, my world

has been remade: city of swept sidewalks, old men
buying scratch-offs at the donut shop and strangers

who avoid each other’s eyes, missed
connections and casual encounters. Even the owls

are unknown to me. Even the purple-lobed vetch
and the low place in the grass where, longer ago than a heron’s life-

span, a black kid goat lay newly buried under packed dirt,
and longer before that when I lived, every afternoon

for a summer, in a child’s hideout woven for me of branches
by a woman who today talks to demons from outer space, is dying

of breast cancer or curing it by meditating
to exorcism videos, she tells me. Everything I know

is hidden like a caul over the moon means rain, a gesture
at forgetting in service of something better. Put up

like a jar and forgotten until, dark as peaches
preserved by a great aunt three decades gone and even longer

from the house where she did her canning, I find and marvel
at it like a child in an abandoned cellar. We are decay-

ing second by second, and certainty, so within
reach a heron’s age ago, is a winged animal glimpsed

above in the unstitched dark. It knows nothing
of humanness; if it senses me, it is brief as its shadow

passing above through the night, but I name it
a benediction in the instant before it’s gone.

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