Breaking It

 

From boredom, a way to keep me alert on a daily walk on a path I have traveled for years, I set quests. This day I noted things blue. Nothing man-made. I saw at first nothing that qualified. Blue is my hardest color. On these familiar hills, keeping up my pace, making my eyes work, too—surveying, hoping for large, then beginning to narrow and study, not sure I could collect ten blue and natural things in a three-mile path: sky could only count once and nothing I was wearing counted, even though my shirt was organic cotton chambray. Quest as a game taken seriously strips irrelevancy just as a real pilgrimage does—nothing I cherish and winnow with my eyes is mine, nothing I claim with a conqueror’s glance is real estate; I was just passing time on the surface, with a little shallow seeking for what would get me through.

 

The game of color quest is a habit, and I mentally “play” it even though today I was walking with others, not alone, meandering a bit with young mamas pushing babies in strollers, and pausing from time to time to whistle back Willie the dachshund from someone’s garden, or to call greetings to lakeside neighbors working on their docks. The air was stinging warm, and filled with pollen from the pines. Large-grained, this pollen crusted the drying edges of puddles. Too large-grained to make us sneeze, it ground in the eyes, gilded the young leaves on the trees and the toes of our trainers.

 

Blue is hardest for organic. Ten might happen in high spring, if you allow into the acceptable range all lavenders, purples, and whatever blend that tiny iris was under the lichens on the red clay cutbank where winter had sheared the edge sharp again and left the huckleberry roots dangling. Summer blue can be counted all in hydrangeas—every cottage at the lake seems to have them—but anti-hydrangists would argue such blue is not organic, but rather only a litmus blue—even though it is a response of the plant to acidic soil conditions. Still, why blame the plants, which can’t help it? But they are cultivars, like petunias and window-box plantings—which don’t count, I’ve decided. I make the rules and amend them toward difficulty, so the game is not a cakewalk but a challenge.

 

When I first moved to the woods, I learned a new wildflower each week for as long as I could find them. I backslid in winter; the next year, I had the pleasure of many of them to learn again. 

 

In fall, in wilder years, I got lucky and found half the list with fleabane, asters, monkshood, skullcap, and gentian—but not lately. Not since the developers widened the lanes and installed the new landscapes.

 

Spring blues are difficult but not impossible: already I had seen bird-foot violets, confederate violets, henbit, Quaker ladies, blue-eyed grass, periwinkle—escaped from old cabin sites, does this last one count? Never mind, there was the throat of a sunning lizard, electric blue and dazzling, and the last little drying-up iris cristata, Asiatic dayflower, spiderwort, and . . . there! . . . that eyespot on the butterfly’s wing, the tenth blue of my walk, and I still had half a mile to go. I won! The dog barked as the butterfly lifted and glided and was gone. 

 

Our cavalcade paused for a wailing baby, offered adjustments and consolations, then moved on again. Our party was in different order now on the old road, which had rain-narrowed between vast tadpole-twitching ditches. I was in the rear, having paused to listen to the laughter of a pileated woodpecker somewhere down toward the lake where the dead pines stand.

 

I was no longer seeking blue as we rounded the curve, and that was when I saw it—the others didn’t, instead looking through and beyond the new home’s yard toward old, real trouble: those dead pines. A slow and capricious beetle horde had bored, bored, bored them to death, and the Corps of Engineers had decreed that we must clear-cut that whole section, and soon, or they would do so and bill us. Some trees were on community land, some on the right of way, some on lots whose homeowners lived in town. Weekenders. Those who got a letter from the Corps were talking about it. My land was not lakefront. My one huge old pine with beetles had outlasted the siege, outlived the blight. For a time I had been able to lay my ear against the bark and hear them creaking, chewing, drilling. There had been some resin spires—like turkey timers—but the massive old tree had inner resources, and survived. It did not have to be cut.

 

“The Corps always says soon, or else, or never,” one of them grumbled, and that was what they were talking about, exactly there and then, when I saw the eleventh blue of my walk, almost eye-level, like a joke, a taunt, a toy, or a scrap of bright blue tarp. A bird? A blue bird? A bluebird. Wings spatchcocked flat, the whole thing was mounted like art in a square of new hog wire. I’ve seen birds fly through wire fences. I used to love watching them. They always flew through. Perfect timing. Some birds can even fly through chicken wire—little sparrows diving through, shooting through, making a game of it, bulleting and sifting back and forth, cleaning up crumbs the chickens overlooked, sweating the small stuff.  

 

I did not tell the others what I had seen. I prayed they wouldn’t see it. A bluebird dead in full flight was suddenly a larger tragedy than that whole grove of beetle-blasted pines, even though the Corps of Engineers would issue no edicts. The other walkers waved and went on around the curve, while I turned toward home, up the hill. But I slowed. I couldn’t go on. I went back. I wanted to see that blue again.

 

I just stared for a moment. There is a law—I believe it is a good law—against messing with songbirds. But there is no law against looking. This was the real thing. Freshly plumed for mating, not one bad feather. Ultramarine. Beyond the sea. Something Montezuma would have worn to prove he was straight from the sun.

 

The law forbids even touching one feather. That’s the law, and I broke it. The fence broke the bird. The owner of the new cottage had paid for this new fence with its greenish medicinal-smelling posts, setting new limits, seining out trespassers from its dog lot—but no dogs yet, just plain air, where the bird had flown all spring unfolded, untrespassing, untrammeled. The homeowner, the absent landlord, was not home, would never need to forgive this trespasser. He’ d never see it. The natural world would resorb this bird before the homeowner’s next visit, probably before the first payment on the new fence. This is not about blame, or some would fall on the bird, who in the first sweet surge of urge focused his eyes and wit past the edge of light and shadow into some dark hollow where his life-bonded mate counted down until he returned to free her from nesting work for her turn in the sky. Not to touch him, to leave him there, because of law? To hang like a doll jacket drying? Lolling like crucified Christ? Spread-eagled . . . or spread-bluebirded? Law or mercy in those ruined woods—my choice. And what choice, what mercy, to bury the dead in such a case? The female on the nest would never know what happened.

 

My hand to the fence, a slight pull as though picking ripe fruit, and then . . . the perfect wings shut, and then . . . into my pocket. Wings folded right back close, unbroken. Only the neck, quirked, lolling. I walked home. It was uphill. After consideration, I laid him away in the dark. I kept nothing. I offered prayer. 

 

Did she wait long in her nesting cavity? Patient but harking? When would she have gone to seek, risking what they had begun, but not forsaking it, simply driven by hunger and thirst? Would she have found him, had I left him hanging? Might she have perished too?

 

Since then, the number eleven is blue. In my mind, the number eleven is blue.

 

I can’t unknow it, what I saw that day. I can’t unknow what we have learned about the cell tower millions—migrating songbirds similarly stopped cold, midflight. Imagine counting that high. Every one of them with a right by law to be unhindered, untouched by human hands, and no law—but every bird—broken.

 

Mary Hood, 2014 inductee to the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, is the author of the novel Familiar Heat (1995) and the short-story collections And Venus Is Blue (1986) and How Far She Went (1984). A new collection of stories, A Clear View of the Southern Sky, is forthcoming from the University of South Carolina Press in 2015.