Only a Sparrow

 

    In Mulberry, Texas, I was the Princess Minerva. My story began on a dark and stormy night, when all the ghosts that walk, and those that walk not, hold fast to their seamless shrouds, provoked. For what reason is disputed. Tree cutters came the next morning and the foreman said in greeting, “Mr. Hall, you’re outliving your trees,” to which my daddy replied, “...the saddest thing I ever heard.”

    They found me in tall grass beside a trail through the woods. My daddy said I was “nothing but a ball of pin feathers.” When he approached I made a loud clicking with my beak, a warning, but he wasn’t afraid and soon wrapped me inside his jacket. My mother was watching from our tree. The hollow was higher than any ladder my daddy could have brought and he thought my mother wouldn’t take me back if she could smell his touch. Wrong! The first thing he said was, “My! What big feet you have.”

    A black man said he had five children and a flock of chickens; they’d love to have me live with them. But my daddy knew they wouldn’t call me princess and he wanted me to live in the woods again. So he went to town and bought some baby chick feed which I treated like dust. Next he fed me salmon, then mackerel, pinto beans and cornbread. Finally, scrambled eggs. I tried to make him feed me like my mother did, with a spoon, but eventually had to peck from a shallow pan; he scolded me for wolfing down the morsels whole. Then he thought I needed a drink, pushing down my beak. We struggled, but he was trying.

    My home was a wire pen without a top about three feet square with fresh hay. At night a blanket was spread over. Most of the time I sat in a corner crooking my neck round when anybody approached. The black lab, “Miss” Echo, sniffed about; she always goes with my daddy. And Marcel, the long-eared donkey, brought his nose close like he wanted to smell. After two weeks I started to climb out of my pen, pulling up with my beak. Each time my daddy found me perched on lumber in the tractor shed and warned, “Echo will get you.”

    We took a walk every day. Sometime my daddy would let me perch on his White Mule glove like a falcon, or on his shoulder. I never fell or tried to fly, but once on the trail where my mother lives I tumbled down to the ground. My daddy said he wondered if I was ready to fly. No, I stayed and was watching from a safe perch the day he planted a “mighty oak” three feet tall to replace the broken sycamore of forty rings.

    One day we had a visitor who offered to loan my daddy a book. He said my ears are
set on crooked for a purpose and promised to send an e-mail to his friend in California. The reply right back was that I must be sent to a school in McKinney, Texas where they’d feed me nice plump mice and teach me to take care of myself in the woods. We only had time for a picture and one last walk. I told my daddy that for his sake I would try. He scolded me again when I pulled at his hair over an ear. Ten other young owls at the school did just as they were taught and have all gone out to make families of their own. But, as the Princess Minerva, I alone could not forget. He told me, as we walked round the wetland, that Cousin Mike died when he was young. Everybody was sad then glad and sad again because of the poems he left.

    On the day of the ashes evening came. The friends entered from the kitchen: the doctor (a woman), the friend from Austin and his boy, about ten. After a while I asked, “Would you like to see the pond on the new farm?” as I called the Perry Parks place. “I’ve made it bigger.” “We’ll go in my van,” the boy’s father said.  So we didn’t walk along the shaded ways Mike knew. Our path in the bulldozer’s tracks was rough. Around the pond extended banks were bare. It hadn’t rained yet; the water was sharply down to cover a new expanse. I named the species of trees and grasses I would plant. “Wild ducks return...,” doing all the talking. Then the moon began to rise and the child pointed to an owl, in a low swoop, shifting her perch from one tree to another.

    Princess said: “She was my mother; that young boy, my friend. I believe my story will have a happy ending.”



    In Paris, November 1991. The Sparrow. The church is Saint Eustache, whose cornerstone was laid in 1532. Saint Eustache was consecrated in 1637. According to the guidebook, “It has a long tradition of organ and choral music.” In the last century first performances of works by Berlioz and Liszt were heard, here. The notice says that Sunday mass will include Gregorian chants and “music on the great organ.” The Sunday before I didn’t go to church. Instead I watched children feed carp in the Round Pond at the Tuileries. Sixteen years earlier I’d sat with my mother by the same pond and watched the children sail their boats.       

    My hotel is on the Left Bank near the Pantheon and Luxembourg Garden. On this Sun
day I start early, intending to walk to Saint Eustache. There is time for a stop in the garden. I make a picture (their camera) of a German couple in the city “just for a weekend.”  We can tell already it will be “a beautiful day.” The poem I select to read, from the works of Ranier Maria Rilke, is “Autumn Day”: “Whoever is alone will stay alone ... and wander on the boulevards, up and down, restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.”

    Approaching Saint Eustache from the river I cross “the forum” of Les Halles. From an earlier century this place had been Paris’ central market. Young in another city, and sensing Rilke’s “no house,” I had known Covent Garden. Leaving the “magnificent house,” rushing to the nearest Underground station for the last train to north London, I associated the fragrances of cabbages, carrots, cauliflower and onions with the melodies of La Boheme and Swan Lake. (The market at Covent Garden is also gone.) Les Halles is far different from that other garden, the Luxembourg. Trees will not grow large or put down deep roots here, for Les Halles is now an underground, multi-layered, shopping mall of plastic and chrome. On my earlier walk-through it from the Metro, on the second level, I stood intently before a display of heavy black boots, and left without going deeper.

    On the south side of Saint Eustache in a large, semicircular open space is a seventy ton s
tone head, one cheek down, as though lost from a giant doll. Separate, an equally large hand is about to shield the face, or caress it. A child moves between the cheek and palm. Her father’s camera clicks.

    I decide to enter the church early to hear all the music and prepare myself for the mass in a language I will not understand.  A sparrow just inside flutters at the rim of the holy water basin.  It alights and reaches swiftly, but cannot, and flies high up, the distance too great by an inch. Ignoring my presence the sparrow returns.  As close as reaching out my hand, I feel its desperation.  Quick to the floor, away again, but never far from the water.  Splash some water on the wall, I think; an old woman enters.  I select a chair and set my mind to measuring the long nave and “soaring” gothic arches.  Under sparkling chandeliers the high altar waits.  I turn to look at the organ pipes in back.  The sparrow is again at the holy water basin.  A fashionably dressed young woman enters and walks alone, slowly, down the center aisle.  She takes a seat midway in the row of chairs, across the aisle from me.  Then she moves to a chair at the end of the row.  To my right, but on the opposite side aisle, two young men are talking.  One sits in the row ahead of his friend.  As they talk, he looks up, often, at the organ pipes.  It is an animated face, engaging.  His friend never looks at the organ.

    T
he music starts.  A man and woman take their places on my row.  The clergy’s procession, with a gold cross moving ahead, includes incense.  The two young men prepare to leave.  When we sit again I move one seat to leave a chair between myself and the man.  I’m thinking about the sparrow, but try to follow on the page the chant.  The man beyond the chair is clearly familiar with the service.  He sings at all the appropriate places, but when the host is offered he does not go forward.  Over the priest and altar the sparrow flies from one perch to another.  Maybe a draft high up will show a way out.  When the mass ends, and after the clergy have moved out, the organist continues to play.  Many people remain in their chairs.

    The sparrow is at the door.  A woman starts to touch her fingers to the water, but seeing goes without.  I imagine a swift motion of my hand.  Perch on my shoulder; I will walk just right.  Another woman sees the sparrow and me watching.  She understands.  To the floor between us.  She glances again, “What can we do?” does not say, “Only a sparrow.”  I should have looked in a trash container for something small and shallow, or put in a branch to be a lower perch, and left bread crumbs.

    In the afternoon I go to Pere-Lachaise, the Paris cemetery where famous people are
buried. Colette is the first I recognize.  Ahead two young men are looking at another grave.  I see the one with the animated, engaging face, feel for a moment that I’m with them, then find Edith Piaf whom the people of Paris called her “Little Sparrow”.  Her grave is covered with fresh flowers.  A procession moves by continually.  Proust, Chopin, Wilde—with an excess of bright red lipstick, someone has kissed his stone.

    Along one boundary are memorials to people who died in the various Nazi concentration camps, Maulthausen, Auschwitz and Ravensbrook.  I am alone on this path, except for loud ravens overhead.


    On a high ledge, cascading cold down glass fans in scarcely perceptible motion a tuft of dusty brown feathers..., but I saw the sparrow fly.


“... recorded by Salmen Lewenthal in a diary exhumed from the ashes after the war. ... in [this] denial of final triumph lies our acceptance and understanding of the Holocaust experience.”


A mother was sitting with her daughter, they both spoke in Polish.  She sat helplessly, spoke so softly that she could hardly be heard.  She was clasping the head of her daughter with her hands and hugging her tightly.  “In an hour we shall die.  What a tragedy.  My dearest, my last hope will die with you.”  She sat...immersed in thought, with wide-open, dimmed eyes.... After some minutes she came to and continued to speak.  “On account of you my pain is so great that I am dying when I think of it.”  She let down her stiff arm and her daughter’s head sank down upon her mother’s knees.  A shiver passed through the body of the young girl, she called desperately “Mama!” And she spoke no more, those were her last words.


    After visits to Prague and Vienna, I return to Paris for another week, going a
gain to places like the Musée d’Orsay in the old train station.  At a cafe near the roof, I stand in line. Four grandmotherly women from England are ahead. One assumes the job of humoring the others, saying the line will move fast, and if they eat now they won’t have to have anything again till supper. They are seated, then I. On this November day the cafe is warm and pleasant. Through a round window, across the city, Sacre Coeur and Montmartre are visible as passing clouds bring alternating sunlight and shadow to their hill. Many people are talking. At the next table, close at hand, a young woman turning the pages of her guidebook receives a small pitcher of red wine, bread and cheese. Her hair is long and wavy, bright brown but streaked with gold. She has heavy eyebrows and a cover of peach fuzz on her cheeks. And a mole. Beyond her, exactly in my view, is a man dressed all in black, both shirt and jacket. He appears to be about thirty. His hair is brown but so dark it appears black too. Speaking to a woman across the narrow table, he is handsome. Of her I can see only one side of the back of her head. The hair is brown (lifeless I think); it has not been brushed. The man stops talking; he listens intently. I wonder if her face holds as much beauty, reflecting his. The English women are jolly now.  The young woman near me sips her wine. Something attracts the attention of the wild-haired woman; she looks this way. Altogether sufficient, I decide, turning to watch another table. The younger woman is dressed in a perfectly matched outfit, every pin in place. Opposite her is an old woman enjoying every bite. She wears white walking shoes, white socks, bright green pants, and a multicolored, knitted sweater, buttoned around her neck. Her face is not wrinkled deeply but pale and long. Her hair is straight, absolutely white and soft; it frames her face, reminding me of.... She will soon go out with her daughter (or niece?) to see more of the museum, or home. When I finish my meal, I fold my still-unsoiled paper place mat, with the clock and MO, to be a souvenir. The table of the young woman with the peach fuzz face has no place mat either. She watches me fold the paper. “Time to hit it again?” she asks. I say, “Yes, but this is my second visit.” She says she is from California and has two more months to stay in Paris before returning home. I bow slightly and leave, wishing we’d spoken sooner.


    As I draw these pictures later for a friend visiting Mulberry, there is another. I am at Sainte Chapelle watching the 12th Century stained glass become brilliant, then darken, dazzle and fade, on this November day, when I notice a young man appearing to be not of our time. His black hair is cut a different way, his clothes another fashion; and, watching the changing light, his face changes too through moods of piety I can only see, not know myself. I decide he is a country boy “from the provinces,” maybe Brittany. “Or maybe you,” my friend suggests, “many years from now, when you go to Paris again, for the first time.”


    Continuing to grow old, I’m more aware of things I didn’t know when, or just on the cusp of something major. How to prepare? And how might “meaning” have been different, had I known? Hear the story....

    Connect “related” experiences separated by the years of a life-time; see persistent patterns in the fabric—after the star-burst of Rilke’s famous challenge,

“You must change your life.”


photo: Bernard Buffet’s painting (1956); below left: on a Paris walk along the Saint Martin canal (1991);

        Myth, translated by Justin O’Brien, Vintage Books, 1955.


    In 1961, when I’d started venturing into Manhattan from my perch on the Atlantic coast with more time for reading during long evening hours, I approached Fifth Avenue, probably on 40th Street, from Lexington and the “Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen’s Club,” and found on a corner a Doubleday bookstore. I would return often to this store, to its well-stocked paperback section. On one occasion, prominently displayed all around, were many “prints” of the same Buffet painting, which I knew I had to have. Not because I’d already been to Paris, in 1958, but because of its stark, monotone colors, the bare, rigid trees in it, resonating deeply with my spirit then. It was not a cheerful picture, or welcoming, somehow sinister; not even the shadow of a human figure in it.

    I knew that Albert Camus, whose The Stranger I’d read the previous summer, had recently been killed in an automobile crash. But I didn’t yet know from him about “the absurd,” only that there were numerous other works of his I hadn’t read, but must, with no inkling of the direction they would turn my life.... Not yet. In that Doubleday bookstore (not famed Brentanno’s down the avenue), I purchased The Myth of Sisyphus, then The Rebel, The Plague, and The Fall. Camus put into words what I already felt, but could not say, or know.


   1991: I’m in Paris again on a walk along the Saint Martin canal; it’s a national holiday, not many people around, but two distant figures on that ramp. I don’t cross again the bridge in the picture, where a Japanese crew is filming a movie, following instead that upward slope, as on a “mountain.” See us now?


“Radical Idealist Meet Sisyphus”


    from Camus’ Preface to the American edition) ... The fundamental subject ... it is legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life has a meaning. ... Written fifteen years ago, in 1940, amid the French and European disaster, this book declares that even within the limits of nihilism it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism. ... it sums itself up for me as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert.


    ...  At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.

    ... man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. This must not be forgotten.

    This must be clung to because the whole consequence of a life can depend on it. The irrational, the human nostalgia, and the absurd that is born of their encounter....

    In this universe the work of art is then the sole chance of keeping his consciousness and of fixing its adventures. Creating is living doubly. The grouping, anxious quest of a Proust, his meticulous collecting of flowers, of wallpapers, and of anxieties, signifies nothing else. ...

    All of Dostoevsky’s heroes question themselves as to the meaning of life. In this they are modern: they do not fear ridicule....


    The Myth: The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor....

    You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. ... he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock. ... If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. ... There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.

    If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. ... Again I fancy Sisyphus returning toward his rock, and the sorrow was in the beginning. When the images of earth cling too tightly to memory, when the call of happiness becomes too insistent, it happens that melancholy rises in man’s heart: This is the rock’s victory. ... But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged. Thus, OEdipus at the outset obeys fate without knowing it. But from the moment he knows, his tragedy begins. Yet at the same moment, blind and desperate, he realized that the only bond linking him to the world is the cool hand of a girl. Then a tremendous remark rings out: “Despite so many ordeals, my advanced age and the nobility of my soul make me conclude that all is well.” ...

    All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. ...

    I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. ... The

struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.


    At the Sainte Chappel in 1975, we were almost thrown out because my mother Gladys, turning to a dark encrusted wall, started to fleck off some old paint with her fingernail. Long ago I mentioned that The Return of the Native was her favorite book. It ends like this:


        Yeobright had, in fact, found his vocation in the career of an itinerant open-air preacher and lecturer on morally unimpeachable subjects; and from this day he laboured incessantly in that office, speaking not only in simple language on Rainbarrow and the hamlets round, but in a more cultivated strain elsewhere.... He left alone creeds and systems of philosophy, finding enough and more than enough to occupy his tongue in the opinions and actions common to all good men. Some believed him, and some believed not; some said that his words were commonplace, others complained of his want of theological doctrine; while others again remarked that it was well enough for a man to take to preaching who could not see to do anything else. But everywhere he was kindly received, for the story of his life had become generally known.


photo above: “I am Gregory” with Pauline Topsy (1997)


Hallie’s Comet has come and gone

without our watching it together.

Grandmother Maudie told my mother,

“When it comes again, you will be an old woman, and I will be dead.”

Today (May 25, 1979) I went back to her hospital room.

Another “light stroke”. She is eighty.

I told her about a new desk for the house,

and maybe I will try to write something.

As if rehearsing, like helping me start, she said....



    ... before the end of his life, I know he prayed a prayer that God couldn’t turn down. God couldn’t say No. I know, because one day I prayed that kind of prayer. When the coffin lid comes down, a thousand stories are lost forever. When people file by and look down at a face, they have no way of knowing what that life was like. Poor Joe, when he reads that letter Dean wrote. I cried again when I read it. She asked me to burn it. Once I tried to talk to Wanda, but she said, “Don’t say it, Gladys! Just don’t say it.” I said to Mama, “Whatever you do, don’t hate.  Promise me that you won’t hate her,” and she promised. It was God speaking to her through me, on that last day I was with her in this life. She was a Bugg. Maybe she was shy and plain, not equal to his passion. She said, “You just don’t know how much pleasure I get out of gathering up the eggs.’” She could have been a dress designer. She knew how to make beautiful things from plain white material, dyed yellow with bois d’arc chips. The most beautiful dress I ever had, she copied from a store window in Gainesville, and made it for twenty cents. She died on a Saturday night around eight o’clock, and we buried her the next day. The bank had taken my car. Aunt Lois picked us up at that corner, by the highway, when we came on the bus. A few weeks later, Aunt Lois said, “You children have got to get you dad out of that house.’” But we didn’t, and that was the beginning of all those years with.... My life has had so much sorrow.  It has such deep roots. You hoe and hoe and try to dig it out, but it’s impossible.”


    ... these images prepared me one summer day when I’d reached the age of twenty-five, to realize that “someday” I will be approaching the end of my life too. “Playing like” being afraid? I’m still not afraid: Only “unconvinced” perhaps because of all the things I didn’t have, will never have ... yet “so much” for one life, “mine”....  With Denver, I believe that “nothing ever dies.”








from Rilke’s “Eighth Elegy”:


... The Open, which is so

deep in animals’ faces. Free from death,

We, only, can see death; the free animal

has its decline in back of it, forever,

and God in front, and when it moves,

    it moves

already in eternity, like a fountain.

Never, not for a single day, do we have

before us that pure space into which flowers endlessly open....








    For as long as I can, I make the people of Mulberry friendly. Then, on December 13, 1999, all the “gathered words” return to brittle news clippings in family Bibles, shoeboxes; they are changed again. Kneeling beside “Kemp Ferry Road,” coming into “the little town of Mulberry” from the river, I am with Echo. Minutes before I watch her cross the arched footbridge where a point on the wetland narrows, and wait for her to catch up to my walk. Closing the gate, I hear she’s hit and look north at the fleeing truck. “This is not a dream.” No blood, and still so warm, like a rag-doll-dog, eyes bright, making me think she’s not crumpled, will jump up to “go”  with me again. Return alone to bring her home, bury her under a tall cedar in the park, howl for her.        

    When I walk the woods on winter evenings now, on Perry Parks’ place I “own,” remembering the woodcutter’s shack was “there,” near a “Cedar of Lebanon,” in my imagination, on the path that links two “winding gates” that Odie knew. “Red gate” on Mr. Croff Parks’ place.... Red through trees is sunset fading. Wild spring fragrance, white hog plum on the way home from school, like Mulberry’s poverty.