On Route 17M, heading toward New Jersey for Aunt Mary’s wake, my father asks me to keep an eye on the pond at the Goshen exit. At 70 mph, I have mere seconds to search the water, the tall reeds, and spot it—but my father and I are practiced in the art of birding by now, and search and spot I do. At the edge of the islet, where sun-dappled water laps against high grass, the great blue heron stands with all the gravitas of a general receiving his wartime portrait. Legs thin as twigs, beak orange as dusk, feathers dusty as a violet night—it concentrates on the water until the precise moment our Jeep is equal to its ancient eye, and then, unfurling its wings like a king’s cloak, it joins the wind.
I lose my breath. I turn my head and watch, through the rear windshield, as it follows in our direction, wings patient and unhurried against the air. A heron does not fly with the fervor or focus of a sparrow, nor does it soar in the hungry circles of a red-tailed hawk. No. A heron does not rely on the air. Instead a heron arranges the air, as if arranging the many skirts of a debutante ballgown: with purpose, poise, and an elegance inherited by bloodline and birthright. The heron does not ask the sky for permission because the heron has belonged there since archaeopteryx first laid claim to the vast uncharted territory above land. To look at any bird is to look at the descendants of the earth’s first creatures—but to look at a heron is to come face to face with the primal, steaming jungles of the Late Jurassic.
When speed renders the heron inconsequential, I turn around in the passenger seat.
Looking forward, with nothing but New Jersey ahead, I remember that I am grieving.
* * *
On the front porch, my father asks me to sit beside him. All of five years old—maybe six, maybe seven, maybe eight—I plop down onto the poured concrete, put my feet on the topmost stone step, and look out across the slant of front yard. On the street, cars pass like lazy currents in a stream; ours is not a popular avenue, which spares our slice of the world from the constant rumble of engines. On the telephone wire, silhouetted against the fading day, a lone mourning dove coos.
My father cups his hands around his mouth and imitates her. He succeeds in the sloping pitch, but in the dove’s coo there is a purr my father can’t quite replicate.
In my hands: a small, transparent green figurine of a bird perched on a stick. Plastic emulating glass. Hollow, filled a little bit with water. I blow into the open end of the stick, and out through the bird’s beak comes the sound a dove’s evening trill, smooth as my father’s. No matter how hard we try to be birds, we never quite succeed.
But we do fool them sometimes, I think.
My mother cannot whistle. Of my father’s two students, only one of us figured out how. The first time I whistle, after I-don’t-know how many hours of practice, the air sliding through my lips stops puttering like a blown raspberry and transforms into a high-pitched note. Finally. The Japanese maple on the ridge, which we call Heather’s tree after my cousin who died, rustles as the wind blows through its maroon leaves—and now my breath is a part of that wind, and my whistling an attempt to join what lives in the trees.
The first thing I ask my father: teach me how to be a cardinal.
Two-oo, two-oo, to to to to to to to to to!
Two-oo, two-oo, to to to to to to to to to!
Two ascending notes, followed by several pulses. On the patio, facing the woods that stretch across the backyard, I sing like a cardinal and hear the cardinals singing back. I cannot fool the dove, whose contemplative and mournful cries elude the human voice, but the cardinals hold audience with me. I do not know what they say with their songs. I do not know what we say to each other when we exchange the same notes back and forth. But they keep speaking—searching for me in the trees, or, maybe, fully aware of who and what and where I am.
* * *
The next day, on our way to her second wake, the heron waits in the same spot, and flies into the air after us.
The day after that, the day of her funeral, it happens a third time.
* * *
On July 5, 2014, two years and fifty days before Aunt Mary dies, my father and I hop in his Jeep to take pictures around town.
I have just finished my sophomore year of college, which included a spring-semester introduction to digital photography. Canon poised in my lap, my father steers the car toward our favorite spot. Secluded on a thin backroad, at the bottom of a hill, sits a red house overlooking a lake and a waterfall, which spills into a shallow brook, which cuts through forest and disappears. I do not remember the first time my parents showed me this hidden gem, but I do remember deciding, at the age of thirteen, that one day I would buy this house and live in it and my life would be full of swans and geese and turtles and frogs and salamanders. Mosquitos be damned, I would sit in the gazebo at the edge of the lake and watch generations of waterbirds hatch and raise their young. I would learn to canoe so I could row myself out into the center of the lake and spend an afternoon pretending I, too, evolved to belong there.
As we round the declining bend toward the bridge over the river, my father sees it first and hits the brakes.
He tells me to get my camera ready. I do. He rolls down his window. It’s on his side, so I’ll have to lean in and zoom.
I take my first picture of a great blue heron. Seeing us, the heron lifts into the air, and I snap a second, blurry picture of the bird in flight. The thrill comes to our faces in smiles that don’t leave, even as my father pulls out and we head back toward a local farm to photograph the swarm of geese that waddle by the willows. But common geese satisfy us only for so long: after a little while we go back to the hidden lake, where, unpracticed in the art of nature photography, we scare the heron into flying again toward a more distant shore. Before the day is done, I take several photos of it in flight, and several perched at the base of the waterfall, where it awaits the fish and frogs that stumble over in the current.
Our new obsession. Our new addiction.
The next day, we return several times. The heron is always there, although not always at the base of the waterfall. We learn that the heron has another favorite spot on a stony inlet, close to the quiet driveway, and a second on the opposite bank beside two fallen trees. 226 photos later, my father and I go home—but that entire summer we arrange our lives around the heron’s schedule. On weeknights, before dusk falls, I rush out to the driveway as soon as he’s home from work and we hurry. The heron does not stay out past sunset. To have a chance at seeing it, we have to get there before the golden hour. On weekends, we visit two or three times every afternoon, after the sun passes through its zenith. And always, as soon as we pull away, I yearn to go back, to live there for another glorious minute, and then another and another, until I am there for the rest of my life.
* * *
Hail Mary, full of grace.
The pastor—preacher—priest?—delivering her final address tells us how fitting it is to say the Hail Mary for a woman named Mary. I don’t know the Hail Mary. I don’t know the Lord’s Prayer. The Catholic church denied me on the basis that my mother was divorced, and so my parents did not raise me within any organized faith. I don’t try to mumble along. Instead I listen. I let myself be surrounded by the drone of words, my father one in a colony of bees. Everyone gathered here speaks a language deeper than prayer, a language I can’t learn.
Afterwards, he hands me the keys and asks me to get the car cooled down while he bears Mary’s casket into the hearse alongside her husband and her son.
At the cemetery, Mary rests under the shade of an oak tree that must be centuries old. I don’t think I have the right to cry as much as I do. I only have two memories of her. In the first I am ten, enjoying Damken Family Christmas for the final time before she and my mother stop speaking, and in the second I am twenty-two, holding her hands while she says, without any ability for inflection and long pauses between each word: it—is—so—nice—to—see—you.
* * *
In the dream I am tucked away in my room, waiting for my laptop to boot up, when I hear my father’s voice at the top of the stairs. Through the open door I see him on the portable telephone, one hand tucked into the pocket of his khakis and his eyes turned downward. Uh huh, he says. Uh huh. Uh huh. And then he says: All’s over now.
When I go into the hallway he isn’t there, so I descend the stairs, where my mother tells me to hurry outside with my camera. Above the garage’s floodlights, two robins have built their nest, and two chicks stretch their open beaks upwards for food. The camera won’t focus, no matter what I do.
When I wake up, and go downstairs, my mother freezes when she sees me in the hallway. And I know, before she even opens her mouth, what happened while I slept.
* * *
In June 2015, my dad’s youngest brother calls. He and my father haven’t spoken in years. When his name shows up on the caller ID, we anticipate bad news.
My father takes the phone out of the room. Seated on opposite ends of the couch, my mother and I turn to one another to share concern and curiosity. We can tell by the fragments of conversation our suspicions were correct. My father keeps saying that’s not good.
When he hangs up the phone, he tells us what’s not good.
Aunt Mary went for a run. When she came home, she couldn’t speak. Because she’s a nurse, she suspected she was having a stroke. She flagged down a neighbor, who called the paramedics. By the time the paramedics arrived, Mary could speak again and they thought she was fine. She insisted they take her to the hospital.
She did not have a stroke. She had a seizure. Because she had a brain tumor.
More specifically, glioblastoma.
Because my father is a doctor, he knows what that means.
Fourteen months to live.
* * *
The first time I see her in thirteen years is the last time I see her alive.
On June 18, 2016, sixty-seven days before Aunt Mary dies, my father and I go to her son’s high school graduation party. When I walk through the door after him, the faces of my aunts and uncles and cousins light up with surprise. Those closest to the door hug me first, enthusiastic and confused, and then Mary—walking slowly, walking carefully—finds me and takes my hands.
Her face is round from prednisone. Her hair is thin from chemo. A small piece of her skull is missing where doctors removed as much of the tumor as possible. This isn’t a graduation party, but no one acknowledges what it really is. All of the siblings together in one room. One last time.
I take pictures. Pictures are taken of me.
My father and I stay for as long as we can, and then we leave.
By the time we are two exits from home, it is dark. The sky settles into a bruising violet. The pillowy clouds of sunset are gone, and the moon sits high and round. The Wallkill River runs beneath the highway, flanked on each bank by woods. To the left, high trees and wide water; to the right, high trees and swampy grass. I turn my head to look out the window and see, out of the corner of my eye, a black silhouette against the deepening sky. Flying just beneath the moon, feathers clipping its milky light, the great blue heron follows us into the dark.
* * *
“So when your mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer,” my mother says to my father, “it was you and Mary who knew?”
“We knew she had three months. That’s how pancreatic cancer is.”
“Did you tell your siblings?”
“Of course not.”
* * *
The day after Aunt Mary dies, my mother goes out to the clothesline and a white feather lazes through the air in front of her. It floats with the ease of a dandelion seed, weightless and unhurried. It hangs in the air in front of her as if the air has no power. It demands to be noticed.
After she comes inside, birds fill the yard.
It starts with the robins. Parents with their fledglings, whose red-breasts have not yet grown in over the spotted feathers of immaturity. At least four of them—and then five, at most eight, zooming from the fence to the worm-rich earth. A tufted titmouse lands on the fence, then darts off. A pair of wrens. Goldfinches, house finches, a downy woodpecker, a gray-blue gnatcatcher, a nuthatch—they appear from beyond the edges of the house, plummet from the air. They swarm the backyard, flitting from gate to grill to branch to branch to branch to branch to branch, one tree to the next, disappearing into the leaves for a mere moment before they swoop back into sight.
Despite the abundance of trees and the overgrown lot to the side of the house, birds don’t frequent our yard. We took the feeders down years ago. Mice would gather to eat the fallen seeds, then burrow into our garage and basement, where they bit through boxes and left their pellet droppings, or fell into our pool, saddling us with the removal of their bloated, gray bodies. Even before that, our yard has never been this alive with color and song.
Then, a flash of bright orange: a scarlet tanager slices through our yard like a flaming arrow. A scarlet tanager, on our property for the first time in two decades.
From the ash tree, three fat, tawny birds with spotted wings climb down the bark with their feet. Northern flickers. We have never had them before. And then, on the ground together, they rummage behind the boulders for bugs, while the four robins worm the grass beside them.
A bluejay lands by the spirea, long enough to lock eyes with me, then takes to the air.
I catch the tufted titmouse hanging upside down from a flimsy maple sprig toward the edge of the yard. Then, as if playing some game of gymnastics, it leaps to another flimsy twig. Unworried of consequences. Defiant of our solemnity.
“Get your father on the phone,” says my mother. I do as she says and dial.
* * *
For an entire year: herons.
On our way to New Jersey, a heron in the lake.
On our way to New York City, a heron overhead.
A heron in Wallkill. A heron in Goshen. Chester, Monroe, Montgomery. Driving to dad’s office—a heron. Driving to a museum—a heron.
* * *
For an entire year: feathers.
White feathers, in the house.
On the couch. On the floor. On the coffee table. At the bottom of the lamp, or near the base of the television.
* * *
For an entire year: shadows.
Little shapes in the dark, darting into periphery and then darting away. They mimic human movement: a lifting foot, a bending knee, a waving hand, a turning head. Always shifting, never stationary—the shadows require us to look up, look around, and question our senses.
On a summer night in 2017, coming home from a long day, my parents and I walk in the door around 11 P.M. Exhausted, we plop into our standard seats, and melt into the cushions. The shadow, as wide and thin as a blanket, drifts in a diagonal from the ceiling to the fireplace, where it sinks into the floorboards and disappears.
My mother and I turn to look at each other at the exact same moment, answering the question before either of us can ask.
* * *
On July 30, 2017, twenty-five days before Aunt Mary has been gone a year, I dream of her again.
I am on a beach surrounded by gray sky, gray water, and gray seagulls. A faceless figure, lightless and black, hands me a telephone. Before she even talks, my throat swells up and my eyes sting with tears. She doesn’t pause between words, and each word has its own inflection. I struggle to tell her how much we miss her—and when she replies I have to press the phone harder to my ear, because her voice sounds farther away.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she says. “I miss it there. But if I left where I am, I’d miss it here.”
And I get the sense that, wherever here is, it’s exactly everything she had wanted it to be.
The tenebrous figure beside me, standing just outside my periphery, takes the phone away and I watch the ocean. The desaturated waves roll up onto the dim sand. White froth clings to the earth. Then, as dreams are wont to do, the scene transitions to nonsense.
* * *
At the traffic light outside Woodbury Commons, a heron flies above our car. Black against the sunset, sky popsicle-orange and soft as cotton candy fluff, the heron lazes toward the mountains that stand tall behind the Harriman Toll Plaza. The light turns green, and as we turn into the road that leads to the parking lot, my father and I both stoop to look low through the windshield. It passes over the clocktower’s spire, over the entire shopping center—miles of pavement and fluorescent lights crossed in a few easy beats of wing.
Over the mountain, it disappears.
* * *
Summer 2017, my father and I try over and over and over again, but the heron has moved on from the tiny red house. I blame the new owners, who dammed the waterfall with stones and mesh. The froth used to roar over the ledge. Now it trickles. The geese and their goslings, planted at the heart of the lake, may settle for algae and flies—the swans may resign themselves to tadpoles and roe—but the heron needed more. For the entire summer, I complain about the mismanagement to anyone who will listen. My brother, a lifelong outdoorsman who now works for the DEC, suggests that whatever they’re doing now may help the lake’s health in the long run.
I want to scream. They’ve cut down trees to install a windmill. They’ve built themselves a second little cabin. What they had was pristine and perfect the way it was, but now it is tainted and the heron will not come back.
* * *
On August 24, 2017, my father and I drive to New Jersey to visit her grave because it has been one year. No heron at the Goshen lake, no heron at the pond in Chester. Green algae coats the surface of each body, thick and gelatinous.
We pull into the cemetery through a lesser used side-entrance, where we don’t have to struggle against traffic. We park the car and walk across the burnt grass, which crunches underneath our shoes as we trek toward the ancient oak. My throat swells up and burns, and I sniffle, the mucous hot on the back of my tongue.
Laying in the grass beside the flat headstone plate is a small, white feather, a puff of down.
We stand there for a few long, silent moments. My dad, I think, is praying. I don’t do anything but ache.
After we fail to find his parents and grandparents, buried also in this cemetery, we surrender and return to the car. With the air conditioning blasting, he drives through the labyrinth of roads toward the main gate. The sunlight stretches across the wide lawns, golden and lazy. All the headstones here are flat, which makes the cemetery resemble a park more than a final resting place. A willow weeps on the left, while on the right a new group of flowering cherry trees stand up and grin.
At the gate, my father swirls around the fountain. I turn my head to look at him, and through his window, I see the green patina of the statues standing in the center. A spout spits water into the air, and on an island of risen marble, planted full with tall ferns and stretching wildflowers, two copper herons stand beside each other, one tending to its breast, the other with its neck lifted, beak pointed toward the sky, and its sculpted eye—as it always has been—on us.
Maggie Damken’s work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, Baffling Magazine, Redivider, and other venues. You can follow Damken on Twitter @shelleyisms for more content.
featured photo by Maggie Damken