There Is the Urge to Find Meaning
There was the dream about the raven. I climbed alone into a box canyon to find it there sitting on a boulder amid several small, mossy pools. Behind it, stones piled up to create a wall blocking off the back of the canyon. Geometric sandstone cliffs rose above us, vertical and marked with innumerable cracks and crevices. We were in our own room, still and quiet and separate.
The bird sat askew, one wing lopsided, falling forward slightly and hanging low. Broken. It looked at me and did not move.
I worked my way toward it and still it didn’t move, only cawed at intervals. So I stepped through a stream to the far side of the boulder and climbed up. It hopped lightly as I sat beside it, but stayed. We looked at each other, two feet apart. I was so close I could see the bright yellow skin that rimmed its eyes.
There was the fact that it was not a dream. Only seemed like one.
A pale bone was visible at the joint of the wing, and a touch of red that once had been blood. How did you break your wing? I asked it, thinking. The bird’s head cocked one way then the other. It cawed. Its eyes, as it peered at me, were a bluish slate gray, and examined me as if I were a mystery.
Then I saw that its bill curved sharply at the tip, to the left. It was misshapen, a soft bend, not unlovely. Oh, I said aloud, deformed. It cocked its head again. I felt alarmed. What was happening here? A bird so terribly unlucky. It was then that I saw its gape: At the rear corners of its bill were two small, bright yellow flaps of skin. But you’re a baby! I said. Barely a fledgling.
The bird cawed. I gazed at it a long moment. The broken wing, the gape, the fearlessness, the inquisitive eyes. The misshapen bill. I added it up. You fell out of your nest, I said. And the water just fell out of me. I let it flow down my cheeks without wiping it away.
My brother was in jail that day and I was glad. It meant he was warm, and fed, and likely taking antipsychotic medication, which, when not mandated, he usually refused. He had been arrested a week before for aggressively reacting to a woman who, seeing him walking in traffic, tried to pull him out of the way of a car. I was grateful to her. It must have been apparent, from his unkempt hair and dirty clothes, that he was homeless. I had almost cried when I learned she wasn’t hurt. And then I wondered what she thought of him. She couldn’t know that he had once been charming, generous, sweet.
The day before, at the campground, I had watched four young men in the site beside ours. I happened to glance over as one skillfully walked a slack line strung between two trees. I took in the shaggy brown hair, the lean bare torso, the long shorts. My face crumpled just as my husband walked up, saw my face, saw the boy, looked back at me, and said, “Your brother?”
“He looks so much like him from behind.”
I wandered back into a box canyon, alone, and found a raven, beautiful and dying. This bird was born, had a mother, lived briefly in a red rock enclave, deep in Arizona’s Havasupai Reservation, and met me before meeting its end.
We sat there for long minutes as I talked my way through the clues, putting the pieces together. The bird cawed occasionally, cocked its head, its eyes so open, so wide—wide on the inside, absorbing everything.
You’re going to die, aren’t you? I said. I looked up into the high cliffs, searching for the ledge with the nest from which he must have fallen, wondering how many days this bird had had on this earth. How many more there would be. I couldn’t save him, I knew. We had hiked a long way in.
A life only a few weeks long—an intelligent, emotional life—spent entirely within this canyon room. The few boulders on which his droppings hung, signs that he could hop about. The crystal stream trickling through crystal pools. The brilliant green moss, the water ferns. The shape of the sandstone. A decent life, it seemed, however short.
I tried to feed the bird some salami. He darted for it and I watched him fumble with it in his malformed bill, awkwardly trying to toss it back down his throat before accidentally dropping it into a crystal pool—we peered down over the edge of the rock, together, at the sunken salami—we stared at each other as I registered the depth of his ignorance and he peered back at me as if abashed. I felt the word oops hanging between us, and he seemed to ask, in a child’s way, But can you give me some more?
I gave him some more. He couldn’t even eat without messing it up.
My brother was smaller than me until high school. Three years younger, the baby of the family. I still conjure images of watching our mother change his diapers.
It was nearly a year since I had seen him last, one of only a handful of times in a long decade. On a visit home I went and found him at a local soup kitchen, hoping he would accept the new boots I brought, or the cash in my purse. I was humiliated to have been reduced to this—such pathetically small things to give. But I had long since learned that larger gifts would not be accepted.
That day I never got the chance to offer even small things. My brother reluctantly sat with me for nearly an hour, talking in schizophrenic half-gibberish I could only intermittently follow. Then he refused to see me again. When I asked why, he said he couldn’t forgive me. I waited. “For your crimes,” he added.
I thought of the day he asked me if I remembered the time I tried to kill him. No, I had said, I don’t remember that.
He refused to say more, only turned away, rigid, implacable. I left.
There is the urge to find meaning. Dreams always mean something. They are fictions. In them every image is a symbol, and in their strange stories hides the useful metaphor, the one that rings true, reveals the problem that has secretly preoccupied you, the reason you remembered the dream at all. But in life, things are just what they are. First and foremost, perhaps only and entirely. This bird was not a metaphor. It was alive. And yet it is strange, how perfect the setting, the series of events. I felt that the bird had a message for me, but although I tried I could not read it.
What did I appear to be, in the mind of this bird? Ravens, I knew, are ingenious problem solvers. They have language, too—some forty calls with which they speak to one another. They form attachments, strong bonds, just as we do. Perhaps they share the same symbolic consciousness—the capacity for thought, inseparable from language—that we feel to be so human. Perhaps they too can find meaning in things.
I, a being that appeared out of nowhere, sat beside him, spoke to him, gave him food, and then departed, returning to the unreachable place from which I had come. Was I an emissary from another world? Did I seem to have a message for the bird?
We were one another’s envoy?
After I left our boulder to explore the canyon, I saw the mother. She flew over and I turned back to see the bird hopping from stone to stone, attempting to follow her as she passed overhead and cawing a loud, scratchy crack. She returned the call from high above, the same harsh note from her sleek silhouette, but she did not stop.
The next day my husband climbed up into the canyon and found the raven dead. I had refused to join him, not wanting to see. He took a long tail feather and gave it to me for remembrance.
I once heard Leslie Silko say that sometimes, ceremony is the only resolution we can have.
Later I plunged from the top of a waterfall. There was a moment when I hung in the air, having jumped but not yet falling. The world was all blue and the water so very far beneath me. This jump, I told myself, is for my baby bird. I shut down my fear.
Down in the deep pool the world was again all blue and I was descending slowly, my body a vee. I hung in the water.