When the hawk came into view, I thought nothing much of it, except to find it strange since we live very near downtown and to remember the blind kitten I found one year and tried to nurse and how I left it outside one afternoon, briefly, wanting it to get some air, while I did something inside, only to find it gone when I returned, not more than a few minutes after I’d left him in the carport shade.
My boyfriend at the time pointed to the sky, pointed to a hawk deep-set against the blue, and said, “I think that hawk got him.”
But I hoped. I hoped someone had walked by. We hadn’t yet named the kitten, but we’d wanted it very badly to live. I don’t know what happened to the kitten’s mother, finding the tiny creature mewing meekly behind a clay pot, near a wad of leaves, near the shed. And so, I hoped someone had seen the blind kitten in my driveway, maybe, where I imagined the small thing had wandered from the carport behind our house, where I’d left it. Not that it was very fast. Not that the runt kitten could maneuver very well, being undersized and not very strong when we found him, even after a few days of food and milk and water and cariño. But I hoped. Perhaps some small girl or a gentle boy had seen the skinny orange furball and taken him home, made it her or his own.
But hawks near downtown San Antonio are not entirely rare. Every month I see a few near the San Pedro Springs Park, near the giant Montezuma Cypress trees, which tower over the natural pool, which drop their crowns of green needles into the blue water, onto the littered ground.
I imagine a hundred years ago this was their land, the hills near the Alazan Creek, near the San Antonio River, home to hawks and their hungers. I imagine the first hawks, perplexed over the sight of us, of our dogs and our machines and our guns, our antennas and plastic bags, might have felt curiously fearful or maybe defensive. Pecans once populated the spaces now inhabited by old houses and new ones, convenience stores, driveways, and long asphalt roads. A few times I have seen a hawk perched in a pecan limb.
Later, weeks after the fact, my boyfriend broke down over the kitten’s loss, sobbing that he missed that kitten, blamed me, even, for walking away from it, leaving it out there unattended, unprotected. “I thought we might save it,” he cried. “I thought we might do something right.” And soon after that, after enough vodka and ice, he decided he wanted to die again. It was almost routine, and I sat with him in the kitchen, on the floor, with the small light above the sink showing itself wiser than all of us. Patience, and I held his hand and listened to him weep, and somehow, through listening, through not leaving, I managed to talk him to his bed, and he stopped wanting, for that moment, a quick death on that night. We’d done this before.
ii. Cencontlatolly Means 400 Tongues
Mockingbirds are more common here. They nest in the Texas Lavender and the Live Oak in our front yard. Almost everyday, I see a mockingbird, or hear one. I can hear one right now, in fact, as I sit on my patio, surrounded by my three dogs. “Many-tongued mimic,” mockingbirds are scientifically named—Mimuspolyglottos. “400 tongues,” cencontlatolly—as natives in Texas knew them, still know them. The little grey songster such a staple in our daily routine that I believe the birds’ songs, so familiar to my dogs, help them sleep, help them know this is where we are now and this is home.
If only mockingbirds were so kind to us.
Last year, we struggled to follow the sidewalk to the front door of our house because a mother mockingbird had nested in the young oak by our driveway and dive-bombed us insistently, or anyone, including the dogs, when we walked in near proximity of her nestling. Now that I think of it, the dogs received the worst of it. Oblivious to the mama mockingbird’s guardianship, the dogs, excited by their trip down the street, excited by their leashes and the prospects of sky and air and grass and smells, quickly fell to the bird’s assaults. Relentless is a good word for that kind of mother’s love.
iii. My Mother
Though born in Nuevo Laredo, México, my mother is Tejana. Her name is Teresita. Everyone calls her Terry. When I was small, she listened to George Strait and Juan Gabriel. We grew up in a small town near the Texas coast, a town made between railroads and cotton fields. My fondest memories of my mother are of her sitting in a lawn chair sipping a beer, with a cigarette, listening to conjunto, laughing, and the smell of burnt mesquite ever-present. Mesquite and accordions go together in my mind. And my mother isn’t a fan of palms, not really. Nor of birds. I’m sure she thinks they’re pretty. Palms, birds. I’m sure on the hottest days she can appreciate their modest shade, a bird’s simple song.
When I was younger, much younger, we lived in a small house, which my mother had put together enough money to buy, on her own, which was and is an accomplishment, a small house where a Sago Palm grew. She wanted it gone, I remember. And though I was not yet strong, I spent an entire day digging, carving, prying the small tree out of the ground in the front yard. Years later, when I returned home to work after college, I took a temporary position with a landscaping company, and there, in the stock of trees, my mother pointed out a mesquite that she wanted. My mother and her love of mesquite. It’s a love I have inherited. A mesquite sits in my yard now as well. In place of the Sago, my brother and I dug a hole, the wind from the Gulf blew in, and my mother said: Here. This is where I want my mesquite.
In South Texas, sometimes you wait until the evening begins to set before you take out a shovel and gloves, the clippers which will help prune the palms. For a week and a half we have suffered 100+ degree temperatures, and a few days ago, determined to prevent my palms’ fronds from drooping anymore, I devoted a few hours to cutting them down. It’s a monthly ritual, the cutting, the piling of fronds into the truck bed, the short drive across San Antonio, toward the airport, across 281, to the Bitters Brush Recycling Center where the fronds will be shredded, turned to mulch, taken, then, in all their slivers and bits to other yards, other tasks. Of course, I waited to do the work until a less furious sun occupied the sky, which was pink and fiery orange, full of red flares. Sunsets in South Texas are exquisite. Even far from a lake or a strong river, or the hill country with its majestic oaks and its deer, near the center of our city, even a few blocks from the habitual noise of the I-10 freeway and overgrown lots, doing yard work under a painted sky in insufferable heat can be pleasurable for a man like me.
In South Texas, numerous palms fill our yards. From Sagos with their squat bodies and hard deep-green fronds, which are poisonous if ingested by dogs, to Windmill and Palmetto and Needle Palms, South Texas is home to any good number of shapes and sizes of palms due to their adaptability to soil types, their hardiness under a variety of growing conditions. Our yard is home to mostly Mexican Fan Palms, five of them, whose tallness and silhouettes border our yard.
Palm fronds are difficult to cut if the tree is tall, and I am not a tall man, not at all, so I use an extendible saw and shears, so I balance the tool very well against my core and pull the drawstring, which causes the shears to snap its metal teeth, snap off the dying stem of each frond. Sometimes I’ll rely solely on the blade, permitting the sawteeth to do their work.
The first gift I ever gave my second boyfriend was a palm. A Mexican Fan Palm, which I purchased for twenty dollars from a truck bed along Military Highway on San Antonio’s Southside. This palm stands about twenty-five feet tall today in the front yard of this house I live in now, where he once lived, with our four dogs, with the mockingbirds and the Inca Doves, with the skunks who occupy the crawl space underneath the house, and the tlaquache who lives somewhere I never see, before he took his life.
v. Whisper Songs
But the Mockingbird is not all mimicry. But the mockingbird also sings its own song, a great majority of its musicality a pure mockingbird song. Even the smallest, or youngest birds, carry this song. “Soft whisper songs,” they are called, what the young sing, but to sing, the bird first must survive, must outlive the hawks, must fly. 87 times in seven or so minutes, the mockingbird can change its tune.
vi. Mexican Fans
These palms are drought tolerant and in full sun will grow rapidly, above other tree tops. Once I cut a palm frond to find a yellow jackets’ nest, throbbing with wing noise, with the wetness of eggs, and I quickly dropped the green fan in the dirt, opting to drag it to the truck bed another day rather than risk stings. Other times I have noted spiders’ webs, orbweavers, in particular, who are common in this part of Texas and routinely make their homes among the milkweed and bamboo, the sages and lantana and palms we grow.
Last week I took myself into the heat, and I cut the palms whose fronds drooped sadly into their unshaved trunks. One day I will need to shave their trunks. This is not the week. Perhaps in the fall, perhaps next year. I am forever putting things off. I think there will always be time. I have yet to learn. In July, the season is one that tells us it will never end.
There were still fronds left to cut even as my truck bed filled with the unwanted parts of these palms. Pruning a palm is not mindless is not grunt work is not genius, either. We may wear gloves, but still we will cut our flesh. Sure, we want the end product to look firme. We aim for neatness, for efficiency, for cleaned-up effect. And these take time to enact. And so, I wasn’t yet done pruning the palms when I heard from across the yard in the great heritage pecan the cries of birds.
They were mockingbirds. I knew this because when the hawk emerged from the pecan limbs, its wide strong wings infallible in the sun, its beak held meat, which was a bird baby— one of the mockingbirds, taken from its nest. In pursuit, four grey mockingbirds flapped furiously, but I knew the truth of it. From across the asphalt, I could tell you their journey was small and brave and full of something like Love, maybe all of it, the purest form of Love, wanting your kind to survive, your blood. I raise my arm now, for I am often guilty of anthropomorphizing animals, attributing to them the most human of traits, and I don’t know at all what fueled the four mockingbirds’ chase. Maybe it is nothing like love. Nothing at all. Maybe it is animalistic, all parts of it, tribe-lust and blood bond. What I know is that the mockingbirds never stood a chance.
I watched them vanish into the tops of other trees that line our street.
I looked for them, walking into the grey road, staring at the hot skyline for evidence that the mockingbirds had undone Fate, had told God, No. Not today.
When they returned to the old pecan, I was loading palm fronds into my red Ford or cutting them. Or I could have been drinking water or thinking of my own mother’s Love, how two years ago, she asked me to sit with her one afternoon, driving the two and a half hours from the coast so that she could hold my hand and tell me, I am sorry, mijo. I was bad to you. Occupied with my own tasks, I didn’t note the birds’ return. What I noticed, as the sun gave up its place in the sky, as the palm fronds became small under my feet, was that the four birds sat on a limb in the great pecan, and they sat there, and they sat there, and they were quiet, and they were still, and I figured this was their way of showing exhaust. I don’t know if they were mourning. I don’t know if they were shocked or if they acknowledged loss. I do know they were tired. And I suppose there is no mockingbird song for events such as this. I do know there was one less of them, that the nest was emptier, the hawk fed.
Later, when I texted my brother the story of the mockingbirds, he asked me if the hawk was a Harper Lee. I told him I didn’t know and quickly googled Harper Lee hawks. Finding nothing, I thought I might ask a friend from the gym who builds airports and has taught me a good many things about birds. I’d missed the joke.
vii. Red Birds and Love
“Love makes us into a tiny red bird,” a poet I adore told us.
That night I lay with my love, he tells me his mother is old and her health has failed, she is slow, and alone is a fearsome habit to quit, and will this happen to us? I listen to the man I love speak woe. My throat rests against his skull. In his own soft whisper he speaks fear, and I do not want either one of us to die alone. His back feels softer this night, our bones hollow. And I do not want us ever to molt. In this bed, my hands are my hands, rubbing his red plumes, loving his whole life.
viii. Babies’ Burden
A young Mexican poet read a poem today in front of a room of us about a baby who wanted too much, who learned to stop wanting, to stop getting in the way, to stop crying too loudly, to eat less so there would be more for others, to not play because the house had just been cleaned. It was a poem of how we unlearn ourselves as burden.
The whole time she read I held my head upright, and the muscles in my back, those fibers that brace up my spine, the ones that pad the scapula and clavicle, tensed with a tautness so resolute that my head began to ache, because I was holding myself against weeping, and holding myself against my own body has never really worked out. Often, the body will not do as we tell it to do. But I made it until I arrived in my house, and with my partner’s children in the other room, with my blind dog, the one with three good legs, and the red pit bull who’d been tied to a fence and starved, staring at me, I slid against the wall. I forgave myself.
Perhaps our mothers do not love us like we wanted. Perhaps they yell cruelties that sit on our shoulders like heavy-boned crows. Perhaps they denied us food or struck us in our faces with phone cords and filthy shoes, leather straps and angry, open fists. Perhaps they locked away parts of us that were powerful, taught us only to embrace a weakness that no one else would ever love. Perhaps our mothers told us to die. Perhaps they tried to help us or stood silently, holding their own hands, as others harmed us, detested us, destroyed tiny parts and whole sections of our lives.
Too often my mother told us she was tired. Tired of us, she said. But I know now she meant tired of duty, tired of few options, tired of brownness and womanness and poverty, of being in charge of three mouths and numerous heaping bills and not having her own parents or sisters or an ex who gave enough of a shit to help. I will never know that tiredness. No.
I would like to believe my mother did the best she could. What mother wakes in the morning, thinking, Today, I will fuck up my children’s lives?
No, I don’t believe a mother has to be loving. I don’t believe a mother is obliged to sacrifice it all for her children or put aside her own pain, make herself small so that others can be fine. I don’t think I believe anyone should have to do this. I don’t believe my mother owed me anything just as my father owed me nothing. I could grow angry at not having, could fill my body with a rage steeped in the hard belief that I was not given what others were, that others started life with better options, betters skills, more Love, more confidence, better health, because they received support and guidance and, yes, Love in their youth. Such thinking would only burden me. And at times, though I hate to admit it, it has.
Every time my second love tried to end his own life, I did my best to make him stop, appeasing him with assurances that he was valued, had worth, forgiveness, assuaging his woundedness, holding his big body in my small one and whispering anything he wanted to hear, needed, and I could do this, I could aguantar, endure it all, and I stayed beside him for those years, because I already knew how to do it, to stand by someone who wanted to die, having stood by my mother each time she wept deeply from a pain I will never know, each time she proclaimed loudly or with dim muffled sobs that she was tired of us and tired of it all and just wanted death.
Behind our house, from an old tree, a blackbird once threw one of its young out of the nest. On the ground the bird squawked, the dogs came to it, scratching at the door feverishly asking to be let out. For a whole afternoon, I tried to put the bird baby back in its nest. Each time, it fell back to the ground from the perch in the tree in which I’d placed it. And each time, another bird came for it, pecking its little body, smashing it with all its bigger-bird weight hard into the ground. By this time, the dogs helped me chase away the bird that was trying to quiet the baby. By this time, the baby had nothing left to do but die.
It isn’t at all that I wanted to be perfect or saintly—I don’t think—martyrdom never has seemed shiny or full of any girth I wanted to hold. I simply did not want her to die. Or him. I simply wanted to be good. I simply wanted my life to keep going, steadier, less volatile, not alone.
Joe Jiménez is the author of The Possibilities of Mud (Korima 2014) and Bloodline (Arte Público 2016). Jiménez is the recipient of the 2016 Letras Latinas/ Red Hen Press Poetry Prize. The short film “El Abuelo,” based on Jiménez’s poem, has been screened in Belgium, the Netherlands, Mexico, France, Argentina, Ireland, England, and the US. He lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is a member of the Macondo Writing Workshops. For more information, visit joejimenez.net.