Terrain.org 11th Annual Contest in Poetry Finalist
Resident Heron: After One More Loss
Familiar, ragged, bonely, the bird so often dead-still in the heat, in the same-ole, same-ole, canvas of the worn, the common. Her neck, fragile enough to snap, eyes ringed with the sag of sorrow, reminders of porch-sitting, tired-lady sweat.
I tamp the urge to damage the crooked bird, turn it inward as the world taught, the world I don’t forgive but am made of.
See what happens when fear robs the spirit. That heron’s stuckness, my own, her graveled bark, a reminder of my dread. Our ruin comes from the same lack, so I may as well slip through the trees, stalk the ancient awkwardness that comes with living in a body. She startles,
seems to take a breath before she lifts, but this time clatters into branches, fails to navigate proud trees, the bungling of bone and wood rattling down to a hush, then a breathing outside the body, then a taste for grass, sun, harm, land, salt.
And still, she leaves visions of wings waving through the clouds like spirits, all that light unburdening the face with an even hand, a welcome trick
before I lapse back to the muck of ribcage, wrist bone, the scribbling of veins.
Curtainless for years, walls bare, this emptiness is brutal. It’s the child I’m hanging on for, the good man I’m too tired to touch, all other hungers given to the land, the winged and plants with flavor.
I’ve learned the cattail is the swamp’s super market, and how to pour water over garnet at night and drink it dry at dawn. So much of health is belief. My family is a trinity. Strength a blood-song, but my learning came from a summer planted in a hard chair outside.
I’ll say this as clearly as I can. There’s a cardinal who’s come to our feeder three years now. She’s marked with a bright white feather that lines the lower edge of one wing. Pert and elegant, she’s devoted to familiarity. I’ve never known a bird for quite so long,
although there’s no sign she knows me; I’ve never heard her sing, but she slips in to feed quickly, quietly alive. I don’t think of her when I watch my husband sleep, or cut strawberries for my daughter’s lunch, but I count her in with simple things and finery,
that bright white line of her wing, now less of a shock, more a groove of memory, mercy, medicine, and faith.
Yellow-Billed Cuckoo: Years Post-Trauma
Told I’d never see one, but I did, in spite of his noted shyness, awed by his sunny bill, its downturned tip made perhaps to add a look of wisdom, a bit bigger than a mockingbird, similar gray, though a different spirit, one I quite admired. He moved intentionally, head cocking side to side, soothing,
and I caught the eye gleam, clocked a long time standing still enough to see him preen, the spread of tail feathers, their bold dots catching light, just hours after talking to the woman who’d saved me when I was young and cornered, frightened as I’ve ever been.
The next day I saw the pawpaws scattered on the trail. Oh yes, as I child, I’d sang of picking them up, “puttin’ ‘em in a basket,” and for the first time, I touched them, bruised on the ground, then glanced up to see their light green perfection nearly hidden in the leaves Later, I ate one with my child, a shock of candy sweet, and we wanted to go back and basket them,
and yes, for so long I didn’t understand all the ways I was being carried, listened to and believed, and on this very day the cuckoo let me draw near, ruined enough now to realize my luck, the goodness here a kind of love unseen, to live the understory, and blend and feed and be.
Tara Bray is the author of Small Mothers of Fright (LSU Press, 2015) and Mistaken For Song (Persea Books, 2009). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Crazyhorse, Agni, The Southern Review, Shenandoah,New England Review, and The Hudson Review.