Feathers

     Mother's Day, second Sunday in May. The last-quarter moon rises in somebody else's sky, but not this one; though stars illuminate the sky and one another, the path I'm walking on is moonlightless. It doesn't matter, though. I know this path in memory and in expectation. I know already how to get to where I need to go in this night. It is not far (it is never far), I need no moon to illuminate or to witness what will be done. All this is happening already, has already seen nine moons' waxings and wanings; a tenth would make nothing clearer, or any less clear.

     As I move I'm vaguely aware that the one who moves with me probably expects this moment of my life to take longer than it is taking. Perhaps a slower pace seems called for. But I am in no hurry to be slow anymore. She would do this differently, I imagine, but this night, this path, this part of the story is now mine to make happen, and it moves now to my rhythms. The motion is not about haste, but only about doing in the World what has already taken shape somewhere else. In my mind the ceremony has already taken shape. There it has already been happening. Let it happen in the World, now, too. Let it be finished all around, all over.

     That thought gets me through the space of foresty shadows separating the gravelled parking lot from the edge of the river, where the place I have been moving towards awaits our coming. It is brighter here by the water; moon or no moon, the rainswollen river gathers silver starlight to show me the pair of smooth-topped stones I have been waiting to see, one beyond the other leading out from land into the water. Because I am here now, here with what I have brought now, the night breeze flattens and gentles, the water slows to a whisper, the starsilver gathers around in witness: it is time.

* * * * *

     I had been told the package containing them was coming. That was back in, what, late September or early October. Four of them came, mailed in a big flat shirt box; inside, pale silver-blue wrapping paper, heavily scotch-taped, bulky-looking; inside that, four feathers, two long blue heron and, beneath them, two eagle feathers, a big and a little one, all on a bed of little blue and yellow flowers and pungent bluegray sage and some other herb I didn't recognize. I remember sitting there in my office that morning, the room redolent of sage and the feathers there in front of me on my desk, feeling something like fear, something like wonder, hesitant to touch any of them, uncertain what to do with them. Finally, though, I did move the heron feathers softly aside and picked up the larger eagle feather, gently and carefully: purplish brown, darker at the tip and whitetufted at the shaft, surprisingly soft to the touch.

They use them to gentle snakes, you know. They carry them when they go out to catch the snakes, and they brush them through the air over a snake, and the snake thinks eagle is nearby and so he is afraid and becomes docile.

     Not knowing yet what to do with them, I left them there on the corner of my desk in the office in their box for a day or two. Then I took them home with me. The north wall of my room was covered by a large Mexican blanket. Up in its lefthand corner I attached the two heron feathers to hang in an ell shape; up in the right hand corner, the two eagle feathers, dusted with blue pollen, the larger one hung horizontally, the smaller one vertically.

     Later, after I'd moved from that place, the one who moves with me beaded the two heron feathers in sea colors; later than that, I beaded the larger eagle feather and set it where it belonged, hanging at the southwest corner of healing Tawa. The small one, beadless, nested for awhile in a hatband, and then among stones, while I waited for it to tell me what it would become to me, how it would fit into everything else in this world.

     A long time ago, love, you told me that feather stories were always about pain. I remember how I didn't understand you at all. The feather you showed to me when you first said that, perhaps the length of your hand and all over white, was a gift, I thought. Just a gift. But you told me it was about pain, the kind of pain that only love or a bullet relieves. Yet knowing what you knew, still you added that feather to your cedar box.

     I think you were always my doppel. And though I'd known you as such for over a year, at the time I was only beginning to understand what that implied. I remember thinking, Ah, how different our versions of this thing are. Something about complementation, something about completion-in-antithesis. Because, you see, the notion was so completely unexpected. But you said it, looking not at me now but at the small feather lying there in your cedar box, with finality and certainty: "Feathers are about pain. At least that's what they mean to me."

     That last time I sent the large feather back, she was distraught. But don't you see? That's how I knew how to find you. I needed it there to get to you. I reminded her that the small one was still here. Yes, she said distantly then, yes, I forgot about that. So I guess I'd been right all along: it was the large one she wanted me to own, to hold for her, to keep on her behalf and so be kept by it. It was the large one, always the large one, that mattered most, mattered too much perhaps, to her. But the story was always about this small eagle feather too. Where this small eagle feather came from, they say that nothing really dies. Things go to the Other Side, and live there. Sometimes I believe that. What I know is that I lived, on this side, with the feather constantly in my life, for nine months. What I know is that we all did. Astonishing, how something so light, so soft, so weightlessly gentle to the touch could anchor so much, and so many strong people, to itself. Just astonishing.

     Now, the blue heron feathers remain. The larger eagle feather, offered gift of a life never mine, a gift too large to be held by me, has been returned to its source, adorned in beadwork from my hand. I do not know what she does with all that now. But it is up to me now, I think, to take care of this smaller feather, the one she forgot, the only one of the four I ever felt was mine, or could be mine, to take care of.

* * * * *


     Squatting on the last rock out, I prepare a little bed of dried sage for the feather. In the darkness the purplebrown feather, laid so that its tip lies pointing to the northwest and its shank southeast, becomes indistinguishable from the color of the surrounding rock, becomes invisible in the night, but I have been seeing this moment for some time now and so the darkness doesn't matter, makes no difference. I am doing this right. I sprinkle the invisible bedded feather with some of the blue pollen that has waited nine months to be part of this. No words get said; none are needed; the feeling is whole and complete already and lies now at home with the feather and the sage and the blue pollen, with the stone still warm from this day's sunshine, with the motion of the water, with the night sky flashing silver at the edges of vision.

     I light the feather. The flame shows the purplebrown feather disappearing again, its smoke mixing with that of the pale bluegreen sage burning more regularly below the sputtering flames along the feather's shaft. In no time at all it is over: a second flick of the lighter reveals a small mound of gray ash glowing orange within and topped by a few inches of slowly melting feather shaft. I apply the lighter's flame to the remaining stub of shaft and watch it burning away, curling into itself like cellophane. The scent of sage lies gentle in the air.

     I wait perhaps a minute, for the little nightwind to fan the ash from invisible gray to invisible white, for the smell of smoky sage to finish its work. Again without words, I lean down to pick out the last remaining inch of feathershaft from its bed of barely glowing ash. I hold it, seeing it backlit by the silvered river, a moment, then open my fingers to let it drop lightly into the river's current. Holding the little clay pot in my right hand, I once more sprinkle pinches of blue pollen over the barely smoking ashes, then, standing finally, take the little pot into my other hand and gently sift the remaining blue corn meal onto the surface of the water, over the place where a moment ago the river received what it received. And I walk back to the land.

     It is not quite finished. Silhouetted by the starsilver of the moving waters beyond her, she stands now staring down at where I was, perhaps also beyond that spot out to where all this came from. I think she has not seen this happening as certainly as I have; it will take her some time, then, to add to the ceremony what she has brought to add to it. To give her the time she needs, I smoke a cigarette, standing off in the night shadows while what has now happened in the World becomes part of what is happening elsewhere for her. I watch her watching that rock until the last small embers wink out; I flick my finished cigarette out from where I stand into the river, and the orange arc it describes curves like a shooting star over the rock into the water beyond, the last ember on the rock winking out just as the glow of the cigarette disappears in the water. She turns, then, from the river. We walk back through the shadows to the car.