Mind circling, a holding pattern of if-onlys, I hike along the escarpment behind two friends, their couplehood from this angle a feat as remote as flying, as effortless and far-fetched.
It’s vulture season: in the valley, dozens of birds the size of large dogs ride the thermal updrafts. The cliffs prop us at eye level. We hike and gawk, hike and gawk, stop for lunch on a rock outcrop. Vultures swoop close—no warning, no call, only the cold whoosh of violently displaced air. Prehistoric bodies silhouetted behind the feathers when they soar against the sun. Small red heads like buds that failed to bloom.
Then, as if on expedition, three of the creatures, wingspans as wide as a grown human is tall, disengage themselves from the kettle of their fellows and—we three gasping as if touched in just the right place—wing down one by one into a cliffside tree, mere metres from our picnic.
One of the birds waddles imperiously a few paces up his branch, flapping for leverage.
I take a small step forward for a better view, and crouch.
The three of them studying the three of us, my circling mind for a moment stilled.
Surprising repose in the mutual regard.
A gap in time.
The gaze holding, deepening, a valley of a moment.
The moment ballooning foolishly as if there were no breaking point, holding, and me wondering when it will end—it will have to end, dark will come, somehow it will end—and just then the one I’ve had my eye on turns away his keen red head
and wings off like a lover you’d have to be another species not to disappoint.
Did you know that a group of vultures is called a venue?
That vultures circling in the air are called a kettle?
My love said, life will have its way with us.
Say venue of vultures. Say kettle. Try to speak a word, any word, without breathing out.
Vultures can soar in slow spirals for hours at a time without once flapping—they simply keep their wings extended and surf the currents, articulating the sweeping upward circles of a thermal, tracing a law of ultimate ascension half-way to a plausible heaven.
Some translators argue that in Exodus when God says, and I will bear you up on eagles’ wings, it should actually read, and I will bear you up on vultures’ wings.
Is it just me, or is the vulture version decidedly less consoling? Rot as part of the great ride.
I hate it when people prescribe equanimity in the face of loss.
Say, life will have its way with us.
Say it without equanimity, but also without bitterness.
Is that wonder?
Yesterday there was a woman rocking herself gently on her high-heeled sandals out front of the Church of the Epiphany, and as I approached her it took me a moment to identify the dissonance in the picture, but then I saw—not only were her toenails painted, but each entire toe was painted with fire-engine red polish. Each toe an unlit, opaque Christmas bulb.
One can imagine the scene: the woman at home, perched on the side of her bed, intent on this meticulous gesture of self-improvement, painting her toenails as if it were the first step on a pure new path, a path free this time from disappointment. Painting her toenails and not quite able to stay in the lines, her hands shaking from the meds, and thinking it somehow best to keep going…
Vultures shit and piss down their own legs; the acid kills the bacteria left over from stepping in their rotting meals. Vultures are bald so they can thrust the whole red head inside the carcass to get at the meat without rot getting stuck in feathers.
If only her red toes weren’t evidence she’s lost track of the difference, not only between toenail and not-toenail, but between the wished and the real; if only I could trust they were, instead, an ingenious trick she’s evolved to protect herself from some real threat.
Passing, I looked up at her face and as I met her welling eyes (that sun-shot green-brown colour called hazel), my pity lost its bearings and, just for a flash, drifted into unmapped thickets.
Watch a bird flying high, watch it glide and plunge, and say to yourself not flying, but swimming: flight can flash familiar for a second.
Summer afternoons in the lake, slow underwater soar through the sun-shot green-brown element, its foreign style of gravity tugging at you from above. All you had to do was flap a little to stay down.
Try to speak a word, any word, without breathing out.
Flying in dreams is exactly like swimming only with breath.
Awake we can have one thing and not another. Breath but not the soar of swimming. Bouts of swimming but not the throughway of breath.
In dreams we can have breath and swimming at once, but can’t have firm borders between realms. One thing and not another.
A cross-section gives you a gateway to the inner, but gives up the intact outer.
I fly often in dreams. It’s like climbing on the back of the air. Always, I’m the only one able to do it, and though it’s elating, it’s also lonely. Like having a face.
Like being the only one behind your face, everyone else always on the other side.
A life is the length of time these features persist in a face.
Aristotle said that the soul is the form of the body.
Say it slowly: the soul
of the body.
He meant it plainly. As in: the movement of the soul scattering is the very same movement as the body beginning its slow scatter, its disassembling, its rot.
The agreement undoing itself.
The composition decomposing.
There’s a Buddhist exercise: one meditates on one’s own body decomposing after death.
Surfing the net the other day, I came across a film. In one minute I watched the forty-day decomposition of a baby pig’s corpse. By the end of the minute I was weeping—how generously it let go its form. How gracefully it dissolved into the ground. Like a vigorous boil cooling, sinking into stillness.
Of course, the film was fast and distant enough for me to have by-passed the stink and squirm of it up close, in real-time.
Zoroastrians in Mumbai, unwilling to defile the elements with the impurity of decay, cannot bury, burn or submerge their dead and so have built Towers of Silence in the heart of the city where vultures come and feed on corpses.
The Buddha said, Short is the life span of human beings. One should live as if one’s head is on fire.
A venue of vultures: between faces, the space where the event takes place.
A kettle of circling vultures: the rolling boil of it.
I’m ceasing to take for granted the fact that we don’t all fly apart or collapse. That instead—for a while, at least—we sustain our shapes and co-ordinates.
I’m ceasing to look through windows without marvelling at how sand can be transformed into a completely transparent and very hard slab which sings a little when you knock your knuckles on it.
After the hike I came home and laid myself down, stared out the window for a while, curled in the unexpected sunlight (it was supposed to rain all week—the weather reports were emphatic), gazed through glass at moving clouds behind the just-blooming lilacs. And with the slow earnest stealth of a hunter (because it will flee if you come upon it too quickly) I began to turn my attention to—what?—watch its back as it goes…
the invisible infrastructure,
the uncanny undergirding,
the discreet crowd control
that keeps the glass intact, that keeps the lilacs the same distance from the window glass outside as my face is from the window glass inside, that keeps the clouds far, that circulates breathable air between and among all the recognizable things.
Between faces, the space where the event takes place.
As I was lying there looking, a thought kept trying to come to me—something about forgiveness, something about difference. I kept trying to achieve sufficient stillness and permeability for it to enter and settle for a second.
Once by another window, in a café, across from an old friend who had, I suppose (though is there ever such a simple story?) betrayed me seriously years before, I sat in winter sunlight, a song swimming low in the café, our tea cooling on the table between us, the steam rising in the shared air, and I looked up at her face, my old friend’s, and forgiveness happened. It was not at all that I forgave her, though I had been thinking that I needed to, even wanted to, in fact had been working at it, hard, for months. It had little to do with me or her. The story did become simple for a second, only in a way I hadn’t foreseen.
Cold whoosh of violently displaced air.
Of having stumbled upon sufficient permeability and stillness.
Effortless and far-fetched.
It’s a misconception that circling vultures mean there’s a dying animal below. Often, it only means they’ve caught a thermal and are riding. They’re only attracted after death, to the stink of putrefaction.
I find lately I’m interested in a certain species of coldness. The kindness in this coldness.
Or maybe it’s the kindness that interests me. The coldness in that kindness.
Choose your cross-section.
In India, where DDT is killing the vultures off, there is a serious and growing problem with accumulation of rotting flesh.
Consider the vulture not as sinister or dirty, but as patient and obliging. As cold and kind.
Lately I’m interested in the willingness to lose one’s bearings. We don’t get to stay intact.
Anaximenes said all is air. Xenophanes said all is earth.
Thales said, All is water and the world is full of gods.
Heraclitus said, The world is now and ever shall be an everlasting fire, with measures kindling and measures going out.
What if there is only one element. Anaximander said earth, air, water and fire were manifestations of an underlying primal substance, and he called it goat.
Call it forgiveness. Call it flux. Call it goat.
What if there is only one element and we leave it unnamed. Say to yourself, awake is to indoors what dream is to outdoors. The real a shelter. Dreamstate a wild, disorderly region we venture out into.
Consider the lung and the wing—both pulse with air, one containing, the other contained.
Say there is only one element, and forgiveness is made of it as much as air is. Dream as much as the real. The gaze as much as the face. Soul: the body’s form. Our species and distinctions as well-intentioned, as confident and misguided as the practice of placing hot glasses on patients’ backs to suck the sickness out.
Still, I would not trade the drama of medicine.
I would not trade the effort to stay inside the lines.
Or the sting of trespass. Or the ache of absence.
We could not have a world without the lonely, inviolable sanctuary behind every face.
We could not have a world without the vulture winging off.
Say, life will have its way with us.
Say it without equanimity, but also without bitterness.
Is that wonder?
Or is it forgiveness?
Is there a difference?
Published On: December 26, 2009
Permanent Location: http://www.forgetmagazine.com/091226f.htm