The Literal Landscape
My Neighbor's Bird
“The object of art is to give life a shape.”
There is a likeness my neighbor Michael and I cannot quite name as we admire the hand-crafted bird in the amber light of his front porch. Glossy bands of metal weave, feather over feather, into streamlined tail. The crested head is of a single conclusion—a sharp yet elegantly curved beak, slightly open as if it could breathe, as if the composition could just now spring to the wall and take flight. Unsatisfied with our first guesses, we have gathered this afternoon to identify the species it represents—the avian inspiration, at least, for its artist-creator deep in the mountains of northcentral Mexico.
Perhaps, I suggest, it is a piñon jay, the raucous bird found not in Old but rather New Mexico, in the north, in the intoxicating juniper scrublands near Santa Fe; or in the thirsty flatlands of central Utah. Here, blueblack jays drink from the briny edge of the Great Salt Lake—a curse, Cochiti legend tells, placed on the children of the Santo Domingo by Old Salt Woman when the people refused to feed her. But Old Salt Woman was soon tricked by her neighbors who, offering to feed her, instead ate her flesh. They called upon Rainmaker, and he poured forth from the sky until she became the Great Salt Lake itself.
But we agree that his bird is not a jay. With its heavy frame and wide stance, it is larger, less flighty.
An iced tea in one hand and an open grapefruit in the other, Michael shares the story of his recent find: “‘Papagayo,’ the Mexican shopkeepers said when I bought the artwork they claimed was a parrot,” he explains. “I knew right away they were wrong, but didn’t quarrel. The bird remained on its shelf, solitary, even as I haggled the price from half to a quarter its original asking.” Tucked awkwardly under his arm, propped tentatively in the back of his car, Michael delivered it from the dusty commercial stall of Nogales, Sonora, to his Tucson, Arizona, home—the plumage an immediate contrast against quartz-white tile.
Its trip, we imagine, had been much farther from the start.
Prior to delivery at the shopkeeper’s stall, the bird is loaded with other sculptures, cages, and wooden benches onto a flatbed pickup that drives slowly, carefully, along the shoulderless highway tracking the Río Sonora. The truck pauses to load additional merchandise in dust-rinsed towns like Sinoquepe, Arizpe, and Cananea. At each stop the driver who could be named Eduardo, his brother Cesar, and the brother’s young wife Gabriela pry the lid off cold cervezas and tip the bottles back to sweep the acrid road away. And at each stop they check their cargo—the furniture and stamped-tin mirrors and stoic birds. The goods are rattled but otherwise unharmed.
By early evening the flatbed arrives in the border town of Nogales, finding its way onto the cobbled lane lined with small shops, painted carts. The local disco plays a noxious song with earth-deep bass and treble far too high. Gabriela, whose long black hair offsets dark and passionate eyes, cannot stand the noise and walks past the stall, through an alley thin with open doors, brightly colored Mexican blankets, the heavy aroma of fried corn—to a place she knows well. Eduardo and Cesar shake hands with the shopkeeper and his son, smile knowing the long day is nearly done, and together unload the truck.
They haul furniture and wrought iron-patio sets to an adjacent courtyard, dimly lit with candled lamps that flicker and flare along the walls. Together, the shopkeeper and his son pull the rolling metal shade that fronts their stall’s window, set the locks. The four men then return to the truck to find Gabriela offering cervezas wedged with limes. They grin again as they unload the remaining goods. The birds, their most delicate cargo, are unloaded last. With a fledgling balanced on each hand, they make more than a dozen short trips from truck to stall and back.
A few days later, Michael walks the crowded lane of shop fronts, past rows of hand-painted puppets and parrot-colored sombreros, until he sees his bird.
The sun dips beneath the roofline as Michael refills my tea. We speculate that the bird is a roadrunner, that lizard-catching linear racer native to our more local haunts. With its raised crest, black skin beneath streaked feathers, and long, rudderlike tail, there is a chance. Cowboy folklore has it that these brave birds seek out fights with rattlesnakes, darting past their striking heads, the trigger-quick fangs. Or, sing the campfire songs, roadrunners wait until morning’s first light, after the rattler has coiled itself into daytime sleep, corralling the snake with ridiculously sharp cholla stems.
In small, angular homes overlooking the humble village of Soyopa, dark-skinned women preen the stately birds, polish their beaks, and press smooth feathers. The birds are motionless, cold in an otherwise hot world not many kilometers from their mountainous origin. The women with names like Erendira and Pitina help their husbands and brothers load the figures onto another flatbed truck that scrapes its way over a crumbling dirt road out of the terraced hills. Alone, the driver steers through the night to arrive at the sprawling Sonoran capital of Hermosillo as speckled roosters throw their calls against the sun. The groaning truck answers with a quick honk of its own to move them along, and to wake an old man from his bed and distant dreams.
The truck coughs to a stop at a small warehouse, where propped windows and large fanblades stick beneath a sloping roof. Inside, the white-haired man who may go by the name of Sandro pushes himself up and into the morning light. He works completely, rarely pausing, so that by noon row upon row of gleaming bird is placed on the warped but stable shelves fitted into the coolest corner of the building. He then collapses into a frayed lawnchair and pulls a warm Coca-Cola to his grimacing lips.
The birds share quarters with clay chimineas and mesquite armchairs, ironwood figurines and leather saddles. Together, they wait unknowingly for their passage north.
“Aguila?” Michael suggests. Eagle? The bird’s stone manner and sharp eye suggest a raptor. And its ancestry may trace to the Mexica, who around 1300 A.D. were forced from the settlement of Chapultepec, two dozen miles north of current-day Mexico City, to an island in the middle of the region’s deepest lake. Tenochtitlan was founded twenty-five years later, on the large island where the Mexica spied an eagle perched atop a towering cactus, consuming a snake. The eagle—embodying spiritual and physical strength, devouring the evil serpent—became a fitting symbol for the powerful and disciplined eagle-warriors and the persevering people themselves.
Centuries ago exploradores traced the overgrown trails of the Sierra Madre Occidental not for the elusive gold of El Dorado, but for a richly ferrous ore that was gathered, separated, and heated—then hammered into tools and weapons. In the filtered light of Copper Canyon, southwest of the Chihuahuan village of Cuauhtémoc, dark men chased the darker shadows of birds, spiritual guides to the heavy rocks they mined by hand and carried back to the local herrero, who ran his large, calloused hands over the rock to find its weakest point. Like a jaguar—its terrible force and beautiful grace—he worked the raw material into shape and reshape.
The herrero’s memory and myth, from childhood stories and tapestry tales, run through a young, muscular man as he caresses his newest bird. Tereso is proud of his work, of the slow and deliberate method of bending the metal by hand. He slides a shield over his face, ignites the torch, and watches the brilliant flame as it cuts shoulder, wing. The artisan lifts his mask and twists the metal slightly, pushing his full weight upon the ironwork and the wooden slab beneath. He steps back to let the bird cool, the sharp fumes quickly subsiding, then removes his gloves so he can feel the smooth, black feathers and sharp, open beak. Yes, this craft pleases him.
A quick knock at the doorframe brings him back. Lucía, a short woman in a once-white dress, smiles at his face— solidly lined like the sculptures he creates—then comments on the elegance of the birds without removing her eyes from his. He blushes, looks to the floor, and walks to an adjacent room. She follows, stroking the unfinished bird on the workbench as she passes.
The room they enter is full of birds perched side by side on a pair of deeply stained plywood shelves. Those on the top will be picked up in a few days, making their way south to Torreon, Aguascalientes, and eventually Mexico City. He points to the lower shelf, finds a cart, and together they load twenty birds. She pulls the cart from the room, smiles quickly, then leaves him. Stepping outside, he looks beyond her to a dark bird in a far pine.
Aided by a half-dozen excited children who have gathered for the chance of gum or other sweets, Lucía maneuvers the birds into a yellow Volkswagen van, then slips a small pack of Chiclets into each eager hand. With a steep rev of the engine, the van lurches forward and she heads north on the only road, a gravel-mud road, through a brief afternoon thunderstorm. She drives west over a quiet pass where the sun burns like torchlight through the clouds, then down the western side of the mountain toward a small shack in Yepachic, where the metalwork flock remains that night. The next day they make the uneven trek through Santa Rosa and, by night again, Soyopa. Michael’s bird, though he doesn’t yet know it, is halfway to its new home.
We study the bird, lifting it from its roost on the wall as we set down our glasses. Its shape is familiar yet peculiar—not parrot, jay, roadrunner, eagle. “Raven?” we ask in unison. Could it be the darkly iridescent bird that ranges from North to South America and beyond? What, we wonder aloud, is the borderlands myth of that venerable bird?
In the thornscrub highlands of the Sierra Madre, Coyote is trying to capture Raven. Both are tricksters, both clever, which makes Coyote nervous. He cannot fly like Raven, cannot blend into the shadows as easily, complains to the empty audiences of the night that he is disadvantaged. The problem, as he sees it, is getting food, keeping his caches for himself.
One warm spring evening, Coyote’s ears spike at the familiar yawp of Raven. She has just landed on the closest branch of an oak, nearly within leaping distance. “How may I help you,” asks Coyote, an air of annoyance in his canine voice.
“The question,” croaks Raven, “is how may I help you?”
“Fly a bit lower so I can tell you,” suggests Coyote, his sharp teeth shining. Raven doesn’t move.
“I have a proposition,” says Raven. “I am hungry, like you. It is true that I have berries and beetles and a lizard now and then, but I need more.”
“It is a trap, my friend,” says Raven. “But not for you. How would it be if I called to you when there was prey—prey you otherwise wouldn’t know about? If in fact I help guide that antelope or javelina to you?”
“What’s in it for you?”
“Share the meal, of course. Don’t run me off.”
The deal was struck, and from that day on Coyote and Raven shared their meals. Today, ravens call out when prey is nearby, helping to direct animals toward the coyote. In return, the coyote lets the ravens dine on the meal, the resulting carrion, as well.
This is, I tell Michael as we admire the silk black raven we now agree the sculpture must be, no myth. Though the original conversation may have differed, coyotes and ravens often work together for food in the desert Southwest. It is a symbiotic relationship that evolved, perhaps, before myth itself.
It is fitting, says Michael, to settle on the raven—to imagine the artist drawing inspiration from the raven’s call, the coyote’s answer. Neither of us can think of another raven myth. And neither of us can turn away from the long voyage of this storied bird as we contemplate our own paths on the ancient seabed where my neighbor’s bird perches outside the open window.
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