When I was a fifteen, my family had a large unshaded backyard, a self-propelled gas lawnmower, and no men. The mower was an old LawnBoy: greasy and green, with a primer button to push and a cord you had to pull over and over again to make it start. Once it started, though, a lever on the handle could be squeezed into position and the mower would just move. I put on my bikini and sunglasses, positioned the mower and myself in the lower left corner of the yard, placed one finger of each hand lightly on the handle, and followed it. “Jesus, take the wheel!” as they said in Oklahoma back then, though not in my family. We were not religious, at least not the kind of religious that talked about Jesus like a brother you could boss around.
To my mom, I said that the patterns I left behind—stripes and trapezoids of bull nettle and cheat grass, sprangletop and foxtail—were augury, art dictated through a delicate compromise I’d brokered between domestication and wildness, nature and machine. Like a sculptor, I told her, I used the mower to tap into secrets the yard wanted to tell. Yes, I was lazy, but I also loved the idea of receiving dictation from forces beyond myself. I still do.
I am forty-three and I live in Idaho now. A few months ago, I moved into the house my boyfriend bought after his divorce. His name is Ben and we are engaged to be married. Quantitative measures show we are no longer young: ours will be his second wedding and my third. He has two children, a girl and a boy, both school age, and then there is my daughter, neither adult nor child, but grown anyway. The house we share was built in 1923, on a one-acre corner lot in a small town that is home to the university where we both work. We have his kids every other week. No one who sees us through the window can tell they are not mine.
Right after I moved in, the morning before the blood moon of October, Ben had an early meeting and I was going to take the kids to school for the first time. We already had our shoes and backpacks on when we heard a thunk sound in the dining room: a cedar waxwing flew into the glass door. Ben’s son heard it hit and recognized the lemon yellow tail and sealing wax red wing tips from studying birds in school. We saw it fall to the deck, its passerine feet unperched and its silver belly turned to the sky. The beak opened and closed three times. Ben’s daughter said, “I think it’s biting something,” but it wasn’t. Those last beakings were silent through the glass and then the bird was still. The translucent nictitating membrane unrolled over its tiny eye. Milo, the orange cat, watched the body of the bird through the glass.
If a bird flies into your window, into your house, into your car, etc. this behavior signifies an intense or urgent message. Watch what the bird does carefully. Observe its movements and sounds. Is it trying to escape? Is it comfortable in its environment? All of these behaviors could play into the message.
I wanted it to be a sign. It felt like a sign. I’ve read Nabokov. In Pale Fire, John Shade’s poem begins: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure of the window pane.” And there I was, for any imagined judge to see, a mother impersonating a mother, through the window of a house I didn’t buy, a dead waxwing on the deck.
My daughter was born while I was still in Oklahoma, still in college, not too many years after my backyard augury. I was young and unprepared, but when I got pregnant it felt like a sign, a wholly impractical wonder working through me, letting me know I could stop thinking about whether I should apply to graduate school or the Peace Corps. I was grateful to the baby’s multiplying cells and the wash of hormones that dictated what I ate and even the actual shape of my body. She was born and my adult life unfolded around the contours of keeping her alive, fed, and supplied with dental and vision benefits.
Before I moved into Ben’s house, I lived alone in an apartment for three years. I had no yard, no glass doors, no leaves to rake. I made pour-over coffee for one in the mornings and stood stork-footed in the light of the open refrigerator door at night, always finding the exact number of carrots, bottles of beer, and containers of yogurt I left inside. I slept with an open window, even in the snow, because there was no one except me to get cold. Every morning, I weighed myself and wrote the number down in my notebook and then drew a card from The Wild Unknown tarot deck, recording its message in my notebook too. Now, living here, I never know when someone else will have eaten the last banana. I have to wake up early or else wait in line for the shower. I don’t know what I weigh; my mornings’ fortunes go untold.
In ancient Rome, augurs divined the will of the gods by interpreting the flight of birds. Taking the auspices. The interpretation was complicated. Signs could be impetrative, requested or sought by the augur, or oblative, offered, appearing spontaneously like the waxwing’s windowsmack. The birds were consulted before any action was taken that might affect the city’s pax, fortuna, or salus. Moving in with Ben and out of my own feral circulations, I felt my peace, fortune, and well-being at a precipice. I request a sign, from the gods, myself, anywhere, that this is right, that it’s okay.
I have a book of collected surrealist games that includes instructions for automatic writing and the practice seems right—archaic and modern, intuitive and inexact—for unearthing impetrative wisdom. Automatic writers fall into two camps: the surrealists and the psychic mediums, but the process is the same whether you are making art or contacting the beyond. Try to lose control. Or give control away. Relinquish the choice of words to your spirit guide, your guardian angel, a ghost, your own unconscious mind, or universal energy. Your fingers write but you don’t use the part of yourself that chooses things, the part that does or does not feed the pets, go to the gym, have a drink.
Andre Breton’s First Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) contains instructions for “written surrealist composition, or first and last draft.” He writes,
Put yourself in the most passive, or receptive state you can. Forget about your genius, your talents, and those of others. Tell yourself repeatedly that literature is one of the saddest roads leading to everything. Write swiftly with no preconceived subject, swiftly enough that you cannot retain it, and are not tempted to reread. Continue for as long as you wish. Trust in the inexhaustible nature of that murmuring. If silence threatens to establish itself, if you have committed an error: an error, let us say, of inattention, break off without hesitation with a more than obvious blank line.
The first time I try it, Ben is vacuuming the bedroom carpet. I sit on the soft couch in my gym clothes, the thin winter light filtering through the living room windows. The couch is too soft and my spine accommodates it—rickrack curve, teacup handle, letter s—my laptop balanced on my folded legs. I close my eyes and try to position my fingers, arched and loose, but ready. I start with a blank document. I breathe deeply and uncurl my chest, imagining I can inhale little currents of energy that I send to animate my fingers. The hairs of my arms start to prickle and stand like antennae, like when I get too hungry and finally eat, which I take as a good sign.
I write in four shorts bursts. When I stray, I stop, breathe, hit the space bar, and start again. When I finish, I put the laptop away without reading what I’ve written, like the instructions say. My fingers are wired, invisibly electric, like that trick where you press your hands into a doorframe and then step out to a magic rising in your arms. I feel hot and cold, shivery, a somatization of pressing hard on closed eyelids until stars come. I’m surprised by how physical it is.
pubble, stratified vacation cow, box of choy, purn. breathe it in and then breathe it out frog or rock with it like a soup bowl baby rock with it like the last days of your mom rock and sway and you can get into it if you breathe and you can get under her and into her and you can get through it all we’ll find it that way.
The day the waxwing flew into the door, I left work early and found it was still where it landed. Milo lost interest, but the black dogs stood whining by the door. I took two layered grocery bags and picked up the bird body, shaking it a little to make sure it was really dead, though I don’t know what I would have done if it wasn’t. Hey, little guy, I’m sorry about your accident. The claws rasped the plastic; each foot had three stiff toes and a contracted hallux, curled around no branch. I didn’t want the dogs to get it, but I wasn’t sure—hygienically or morally—about putting a dead animal in the trash, so I put the bird and the makeshift shroud in the center of the deck table where we eat grilled corn in other seasons.
I read an article in The Atlantic about existential therapy, which contends that all human problems can be “reduced to the same four essential issues: death, meaninglessness, isolation, and freedom.” Freedom is the only one that’s not inevitable, I think, and somehow that makes it the worst.
The surrealists practiced automatic writing with pen and paper, so I try it that way, forming each letter with my fingers. I sit at the kitchen table with white printer paper and a black ballpoint BIC pen. I tell Alexa to set the timer for fifteen minutes. To my right is the end of a glass of merlot and another glass of water, both left from dinner. To my left is the burning end of a blue candle in a jar. Today is practice and experiment. Ben is playing the piano in the living room: Bach, Chopin, Glass. I want to know if the pen, the music, the wine will make a difference on the page. I do the breathing and then start, covering the front and back of a blank sheet of paper.
father felt fortune penny will take us all. Out we’ll have it and then verdict range inside of stagecoach fringe
Down-sloping loops and nests of ink. Ben turns on the metronome and I switch back to my laptop. My hands feel light again, but I don’t shiver like yesterday. Is it the wine? Or the metronome? I write until the timer sounds.
and the babies come out and they keep crawling back. there are so many and I’m never done with them. I’m always pushing them out, pulling them back in, rocking their hunger, trying to show them the art on the walls. where it stands and there is not standing without art. I try to tell them their tiny toes and noses and their nasal passages so delicate and barely haired not full of the spikes and horns of adulthood. they are all soft, the smells of them and they are like turkish delights, like little rosewater skins and I devour them and you’ll push past this and that isn’t the point.
Breton describes surrealists as artists, “…who are free from any attempt to filter, who in our works have made ourselves silent receptacles filled with echoes, modest recording instruments who are not hypnotized by the designs we trace, perhaps we serve a yet nobler cause.” What a relief to be a silent receptacle. Free of the unbearable freedom of the blank page, the unrolling life full of choices to be made well or badly. I want to be a radio, intercepting waves and converting them into tiny alternating currents, participating in an electromagnetic almost-magic: the ability to silence the heart while it still beats, to minimize internal interference with incoming signals.
When Ben came home the afternoon of the October blood moon, I told him where I put the body. He took the little package and put it in the back of the truck with the raked oak leaves and dead branches. Before it snows, he will take the bird and all the branches and leaves away. Yard waste. I am still learning this house, getting used to having a yard, a basement, an upstairs, a kitchen with a full-size oven. My movements are trained to the economy of a smaller space, but I adjust out in concentric circles from where I sleep, colonizing surfaces with books and hair ties, learning play the piano and yell at Alexa to turn on the lights.
Cedar waxwing pairs look for nest sites together, though the females make the final decision about which fork or vine tangle of pine, cedar, apple, pear, or bur oak to call home. She weaves a twig cup to line with fine roots, grasses, and pine needles. She decorates the outside with fruiting grasses or oak and hickory catkins. I burn incense and hang pictures. Ben uses a yardstick and level and marks where nails should go with a pencil. Centered. I move my hands over the walls, dowsing, hanging erratic clouds of framed postcards, a tin winged heart mirror from Mexico, and a grim and jowly oil painting of my German fourth great grandmother.
It is hard to type with your eyes closed and most of what I write is indecipherable. But certain words stand out, crop circles: babies, mothers, eating, rocking, walls, and skin. Reading them together feels like receiving a communique from the inexhaustible murmuring, news to me from myself.
they are all soft, the smells of them and they are like Turkish delights, like little rosewater skins and I devour them.
A few weeks ago, I sent a vial of my spit to Ancestry.com to have my DNA analyzed and I got on their website to make a family tree. I discover I am the 11th great-granddaughter of Leah Sara Levy of Moselle, France, who died in 1632. I find more than one woman with the given name Kunigunda well as a Walpurga, a Tryphena, a Diadema, and two Apollonias. There are Weisgerbers, Birkelbachs, Birds, Clicks, Reussers, Stuckis, Steins, Werths, Paynes, Olmsteads, and Fullers, winding back from the small places in Indiana and Ohio where my parents’ families lived for generations to Bern and Baden Baden, Devon and Basel and Strasbourg. If I pay the monthly fee, I’ll be able to look at the supporting evidence, the ship manifests, the church records, the birth certificates, but even without the records or the DNA results, the names and places answer me. What am I like? Why am I like this? New names appear every time the browser refreshes, all the way back to the Reformation. The crooked toe on my right foot, my melancholy, all started elsewhere else and ended up here, in the confluence of my body. A vestigial and useless palmaris longus muscle ropes up the translucent skin of my inner wrist every time I turn my hand.
When I looked up cedar waxwings, I found that the literature on the lives of birds is overwhelming. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service offers an atlas for unraveling the synecdoche of a found feather. There are encyclopedias of bird songs and maps to document the persistence of specific wild species in the face of the melting world. “Judy’s Angels and Ancestors” tells what it means if the cedar waxwing is your spirit animal (lessons about sociability, cooperation). I learn that they love berries: juniper, mountain ash, cedar, dogwood, serviceberry, wild cherry. Animals that feed on fruit are frugivorous (rhymes with “deliver us”) and cedar waxwings are among the most frugivorous species in North America.
When my daughter Chloe was five, I got pregnant in Oklahoma, under inauspicious circumstances. The specifics are not important, just that I was, or was not, I don’t know which, acting of my own free will when it happened. I took the morning after pill and then one too-early pregnancy test, which came back negative. While I was waiting to take the test again, I read a swollen library paperback copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe to Chloe, chapter by chapter at bedtime.
If you remember, the White Witch uses enchanted Turkish delight to lure and capture Edmund, who is so intoxicated by the exotic sweet he’ll do anything to get more. I found a recipe online, borrowed my mom’s candy thermometer, and we made it in our kitchen. Rosewater, lemon juice, cream of tartar, cornstarch, sugar. The candies turned out misshapen and pockmarked by congealed lumps of cornstarch. I added too much rosewater and the powdered sugar topping was too thick. They were bitter with perfume, chewy little sugared grandmas. Chloe wouldn’t eat them, but the rosewater was expensive so, over the course of the afternoon and evening, I ate the whole recipe myself. All night, while this fertilized egg was implanting in the perversely welcoming lining of my uterus, I was throwing up bits of pink and green Turkish delight. Rosewater and shards of gelatin and stomach acid.
Cedar waxwings are known to gorge themselves in late summer, gulping fermented berries down whole until they are drunk. Vernacular backyard wine. They get reckless, or maybe just hopeful, too trusting of their own eyes. Sometimes they think they see berries reflected in a window and swoop into the glass, getting knocked out cold with the expectation of sweetness still in their beaks. Other times they fly toward the glass in friendship, seeing possible mates in their own reflections.
After the two weeks the clinic made me wait, after I dropped my daughter at kindergarten, and before I drove to the abortionist, I had a last talk with the rosewater mass of cells, still smaller than one of the cornstarch lumps in the candies, to say goodbye. Zygote, morula, blastocyst, sailing along my uterine horn. I’d already politely asked her to leave, told her I loved her and I knew it wasn’t her fault. Maybe later, I suggested. But she stayed, rooting into me, turning me heaving out of bed in the morning, making my breasts swell.
The abortionist counseled me alone in his office before the procedure. The walls were decorated with those 1970s paintings of women with huge flat eyes and new country radio played softly. A nurse weighed me and gave me a pregnancy confirmation test before leaving me there with him. “The doctor just needs to talk with you first.” He asked me questions about “the father” and sighed and shook his head. Finally, he told me he hoped I’d get married and keep myself out of trouble.
In the operating room, a different nurse held my hand and they put a mask over my mouth and nose and told me to breathe in deeply. Twilight sleep. I couldn’t feel anything but I could hear the doctor humming along to the radio. When I woke up, it was over. The nurse led me to a cot in a small dark room and handed me a paper cup of Sprite. I cried. The nurse said, “Now is not the time for crying.” I left and got some coffee and went to pick up Chloe.
A group of cedar waxwings is called an “ear-full” or a “museum.” In Germany, they are called Seidenschwänze, which means silky tails. The species displays only modest sexual dimorphism, though males have a darker chin-patch and in breeding season, the female is slightly heavier than the male. In courtship, the male brings a berry to the female. If she is interested, she takes it, hops away, and then hops back, returning it to the male’s beak. No, really, you eat it. He passes it back to her and they repeat this up to a dozen times before the female eats the berry, like Persephone and the pomegranate, and after that, they are a pair, at least for the season. It’s called courtship hopping.
I want to know more about the baby I did not have, who came slyly back to me on blank pages as Turkish delight, noses, tongues, a sign both requested and offered. I don’t want to channel her directly. I don’t really believe in that, and even if I did, it seems rude, making her leave and then calling her back sixteen years later just because I’m curious. I’m also scared. I don’t believe she is some discrete vengeful wisp that could take me over, but still, what if she’s mad?
I breathe and close my eyes. I feel caught in the space between thoughts of the things and their names. I see or feel things in the back left corner of my head. Parts of a girl, or maybe a woman. Narrow bare feet in red dirt and long dark hair. I think of the color of bricks but I don’t see buildings. I think of the words cistern and topaz and then I stop.
brown and red. clay dirt maybe. did you come back? cistern there and bricks. a tangle of darkness from which we’ve both emerged and where it will always still be. blue quartz or topaz center and pink and feet that are long and narrow.
I start googling what happens to the spirit of a fetus after an abortion, carefully choosing keywords, adding “new age.” There are almost as many websites about spirit babies as there are about birds. Spirit babies lost to miscarriage, stillbirth, abortion all have free will. They choose their parents before conception. If they choose parents who can’t have them, they have likely done this on purpose. Their lessons are learned quickly, before birth, so they don’t need to incarnate, slipping away sometimes before they have spines and hearts. There are claims of spirits returning to parents in new bodies, as new children with memories of the time when they were “only four inches long” or “went away because they were born with misshapen hands.” What if you have an abortion and you never have another baby, like me? The spirit baby, revenant cyst, hovers near your spirit until you die. This explanation seems too conveniently reverse-engineered, unsupportable, but it makes a kind of sense. Every pregnancy, no matter how it ends, alters the mother’s DNA. Why should the spirit be different? No essence is impermeable.
Two clutches of four or five waxwings eggs are born to a mated pair each season. They hatch weak, naked, and blind. Their parents watch over them, feeding them insects and cleaning their fecal sacs until they grow strong and feathered enough to fly, though they don’t reach full maturity for a year. About two days before fledging, the nestlings start exercising their wings by perching on the edge of the nest and flapping. The female eats the empty eggshells her babies leave behind.
When Chloe was in preschool, we went to a Waldorf-inspired playgroup where the children made grubby bread and pastel drawings on paper with rounded corners and used small terrifying versions of real saws and hammers to build fairy houses out of sticks and scraps of wood. There was “fairy dust” made out of flour, glitter, and rainbow sprinkles, which the children were supposed to sprinkle around to attract fairies. Chloe was enchanted. For months, when she saw a runny white splatter of bird shit she would gasp, “MOM! Fairy dust!” “Do you think this could be bird poop, though?” But she did not and we found fairies in driveways and ditches until she forgot.
I did not name the rosewater embryo, when I was pregnant or after. My survival paradigm was too wolfish then to conjure a name. But that was sixteen years ago and I have more space now, more safety. I can afford to taunt my edges, contacting spirits in the dining room, imagining the narrow feet of a person who never walked. She was with me for 5 weeks old in late winter 2003, long enough to eat a batch of Turkish delight and grow to about the size of an apple seed.
In the backyard of the house where I live with Ben and two dogs and three cats and two part-time children, there is a prune tree that started to bear late summer fruit just as I was moving in. Growing up in Oklahoma, fruit was not something you could expect to just appear and this feral bounty entrances me. The peels are a little astringent but the yellow green flesh is heavy and sweet and falls easily off the stone. I strip them off the low branches and eat them standing in the garden. For the ones I can’t reach, I send the children up ladders with grocery bags. They are enthusiastic climbers but when I eat the fruit unwashed off the tree, they get nervous, as if I might eat the fat bruise-purple heads off the poppies too.
After we pick as many plums as we can, we sort out the worm eaten ones and rotten ones and the ones that are too hard to eat. I put aside the good fruit to take inside. One of the discards has a wormhole, centered like a nose in its ovoid face. The children take twigs and give it arms and legs, gouges for eyes, and an acorn hat. They name it Bob. They make another one and named her Bob-arina. They keep going and soon there are plum-bodied Bobs and Bob-arinas lodged in all the low forks of the tree and balanced on the bird feeder. We left them there, in the back corner of the yard, and went inside. Now, in January, they are still there, wizened brown-black and juiceless, but standing on their twig legs, held by the arms of the tree.
Sarah VanGundy is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho. Her work has appeared in Harvard Review, [PANK], and The Offing. Her essay “Memento Mori” was named a “Notable” in The Best American Essays 2019 and she was a 2018 Pushcart nominee.