a photograph by Ethel Mortenson Davis
Bird by Ethel Mortenson Davis You were what was needed this morning, while the world was weeping, flying along the path, waiting for me to catchup, playing your game all the way to the edge of the Great Lake. You were what was needed this morning, while the world was weeping.
Ravens and Snow Geese, A Christmas Miracle by Tom Davis He felt half paralyzed, his legs and arms inside a spider’s sticky web that made each movement harder than it had to be. He’d been like this for months, the darkness stained Into his head so black he wondered why he couldn’t give up, float into the bay to find oblivion, a place bereft of loneliness and painful memories. The day before he’d forced himself to walk to Bailey Harbor’s streets a mile away, but when he saw the lights and decorations, he’d felt his blackness deepen, cold despair a rising tide compelling him to turn from human beings, bare boned trees, and move to where the freezing skies along the shore stretched gray above Lake Michigan’s dark waves. He knew he ought to shake away despair and find a life that he could live again. He’d lived through decades wrapped in happiness that seemed as natural as the breaths he’d breathed. Janelle, his wife, had kept him balanced, let him go to work each day and then come home to homemade bread, a house that shined, and love so common-seeming that there couldn’t be another way that life could ever be. “We’ve got it good, Elijah,” she would say. “Two poor kids who’ve escaped their roots and found out who they are inside the love they have.” And they had truly had it good, their days filled with the hours he spent at carving birds that danced and squawked and flew through every room inside their house, his wife, the way she moved, a light that chased away life’s shadows, brought alive the art and craft of living real-life dreams. But then the moment when reality had shifted, shattering apart the myth they’d built. He’d come home from the gallery and felt into a block of bird’s eye maple, thrilled to find a raven’s bright, brown eyes between a streak of color that was perfect for a raven’s beak. Caught in his carving, time became alive to what he’d seen out walking in the woods. The raven spirit in the wood seemed strong enough to guide his carving tools and hands into a masterpiece that seemed alive. He’d finished working on the curvature that smoothed into the raven’s knife-like beak when, suddenly, he’d heard Janelle cry out, her voice so soft he’d paused before he’d put the half-formed raven down and walked toward the kitchen, following the sound she’d made. How can life turn upon a moment? Change so thoroughly that what was sure was gone? Collapsed upon the kitchen floor, her eyes had been as lifeless as the wooden eyes he’d tried to make alive in wooden birds. He couldn’t quite remember what he’d done when he had seen her lying there so still, her death a presence in a place where life and love had been so constant through the years. He’d heard the siren of the rescue squad and saw Jim Harmon’s beefy face look up at him and tell him that there was no hope. He must have called the rescue squad and tried to see if he could find Janelle inside the eyes that hadn’t closed when she had cried and fell. He’d spent a year in mourning, living through parades of friends that came to comfort him — and then the eerie silence of a house alive with birds that weren’t alive at all. He couldn’t step inside the carving room where, on the chair he’d been on when he’d heard Janelle’s soft cry, the undone raven sat. He couldn’t stand to think about that day. At first he’d told himself that life went on, that time would heal the devastating hurt, but lifetime love, despite promises young lovers make to spark alive their love, is rare, and living life once such a love has ended through the knife twist of a stroke is more a burden than continuance. Now, though he’d gotten up at dawn convinced he’d try to start to climb depression’s walls and find some energy to face the day, the heaviness he felt was just too much. The reason for the life he’d lived was gone. He’d thought that Christmas might be spark enough To lift his spirit from depression’s grip. Janelle at Christmas had swirled both of them Into a pageant of activities. They’d baked and carved and sang at church and worked to give the poorer Bailey Harbor kids a feeling that the season’s joy was true. But now? He sat upon the bed and stared at what? The floor? The gray light filtering through windows that he hadn’t cleaned all year? He groaned. He’d get up, make his coffee, try to stumble through another dreary day. Beside the carving room he stopped and looked at where the raven from that fateful day stood halfway done, its wooden eyes alive. He’d not been in the room containing what reminded him of what had changed his life and sent it spiraling to emptiness. He took a step toward a kind of bird that wasn’t all that common in the fields and woods he’d lived in since he’d come back home from Viet Nam and left the hated war behind. Inside the room he froze. “It’s Christmastime,” Janelle’s voice said. “Thank God it’s Christmas time.” He wasn’t nuts, he told himself. The room was just a room. He couldn’t hear Janelle. Disturbed, he turned back to the hall, then stopped. “You need to find a raven. Walk outside.” He didn’t hesitate, but left the room so quickly that he stumbled down the stairs. Heart thumping, frightened by what couldn’t be, he put the coffee on to boil, then got the toaster out to make a piece of toast. He thought of how Charles Dickens’ Christmas ghosts had changed a flinty heart into a soul that celebrated Christmas every day. Then, calming down, he shrugged, “Okay,” he said. “A raven then.” He drank his coffee, ate the toast, then got his coat hung by the door. Outside huge clouds sailed gray above his head, the wind so sharp it magnified the cold. He hunkered down into his coat and walked around the house into the heavy woods he’d walked for fifty years as snow began to sting his face with flakes almost like hail. He wouldn’t find a raven. Ravens found the northwoods sometimes; crows were residents that cawed and rattled in their flocks through trees and openings that seldom heard a raven croak. He couldn’t really understand what geas had led him on the day Janelle had died to carve a raven’s eyes into a block of bird’s eye maple with the wood so rare. He hadn’t walked a mile, though, when he caught a glimpse of blackness startled through a stand of young white pine, their branches dressed with snow. A raven, slender, huge, its shaggy throat of feathers slanted down into its beak so black they shined, flared out its wedge-shaped tail and landed, eyes cocked at the place he stood. It couldn’t be. It really couldn’t be. Another raven flashed out from the woods and landed by its mate without a sound. He opened up his mouth. He thought he’d ask the ravens what they thought they were about. That made no sense. He’d heard Janelle tell him to find a raven where no ravens lived, and here were ravens in a blinding storm. The weirdness seemed to call for some expression. He hadn’t opened up his mouth when wings exploded just above his head, the sound so loud it sent the ravens leaping up into the air, avoiding snow-white geese whose wings were laboring inside a storm far north of where they should have ever been. Amazed, he turned to watch the rising geese, the raven-wonder driven from his mind. Snow geese near Christmas like a magic tale! He stood inside the storm and felt the clouds move through the sky, dispersing light into a wonderland of glittering snow. He turned and walked back to the woods behind his house, depression lost to the thoughts of all the years of love he’d known and loved. His memories of years of Christmases invaded him and made him feel alive. Inside the house he climbed the stairs and walked into the carving room and looked into the raven’s face. In every room the birds he’d carved through scores of years had shed their woodenness and sang, scratched, winged, moved, blinked and flew into the stillness that was theirs. Janelle was silent. Still, Ezekiel heard her voice inside his head; he felt her love, and sent his love to her at Christmastime. Note: This poem was inspired by a story told Robert Blei in "Albert Zahn: The Man Who Carved Birds," in Door Way: The People in the Landscape, Chicago: Ellis Press, 1981.