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Copyright © 2005 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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our raven is red
june 1, 2005
The past month, Mary and I have been listening to the sound of a female cardinal bashing itself against our dining room windows.
Over and over. Day after day. Early in the morning, late in the evening, just about supper time. Even on weekends.
After a couple of days of hearing it joylessly slap itself against the windows, I stood one morning in the dining room, which we rarely use, we normally eat in bed, a cup of coffee in one hand, waiting for the cardinal to slap again against the glass.
Sure enough, it did.
I felt some relief to see it wasn't slapping against the windows with its head, but its talons.
After its latest slap off the glass, I leaned my face against the window, looking out.
The female hopped from branch to branch in the tall ligustrum hedges growing against the windows, switching its little triangular head left, right, readying its next slap. Female cardinals aren't as pretty as the males. Males are a brilliant red, a paint you'd be too timid to put on your walls, especially if your parents are still alive. They look like fire swimming between trees. Females are drab, except for their orange beaks.
Here it comes.
What adds poignancy to her compulsive behavior is that this very same cardinal, only a few weeks earlier, built a nest in the white arbor on our back door patio, within the green leather leaves of our pink climbing rose (Zephirine Droughin). We were so excited (another cardinal had chosen the same arbor the year before). We carried a short ladder out onto our concrete patio, climbed, peered into the nest, saw the blue, brown-speckled eggs.
A week later, there were three soft-feathered fledglings within the tightly-woven twigs and plastic shopping bag scraps of the nest, blindly lifting their small heads each time we peeked, triangular mouths snapping open, three bouncing yaws.
We were worried. How can she care for her babies if she's spending half the day bashing herself against a window at the front of our home?
The male cardinal seemed agitated. He hung around the nest, even brought the fledglings some food.
Cardinals mate for life.
While he was feeding their babies, the female kept swinging through the air from the nest at the rear of our home to the dining room windows at the front, bashing herself. We knew it was her, not another cardinal, because we kept track of when she was by the nest, when she'd leave, flying north towards the house's front, and when, a moment later, we'd hear the sad slap, slap.
Mary said, "There's something wrong with her."
We've been spending a lot of time working in our garden.
After one of our first long days outside, the early Spring weather in the sixties, the best temperature, such a refreshing coolness on your face and forearms, digging, planting, pruning, weeding, watering, we came inside, defrosted sweet-smelling, heavy in the hand sea scallops, and as we were waiting for the black skillet to heat, me noisily twisting the metal cap off a large glass bottle of Bertolli olive oil, I noticed Mary's lips had swollen to clown size, my voice had thinned to a hoarse whisper.
Spring's air brings spores, so I figured we were each having our own allergic, "hay fever" reaction.
I took Mary to her dermatologist. She gently touched Mary's mouth, prescribed an ointment which shrank her lips. I lived with my hoarseness for a while, hoping it would just go away, sometimes, amazingly, things do just go away, but my hoarseness didn't, so I stood in the aisle of a supermarket, reading the backs of little boxes, bought a bottle of Benedryl tablets.
I'm not used to taking medications. After three days of popping Benydryl, I started having extraordinarily vivid dreams, huge, frightening wild dogs with human faces charging up and down muddy hills. I decided, You know, maybe I'll just clear my throat until the hoarseness goes away.
Which it did. But then I woke up one morning soon after, in that moment of waking when we audit (Did I have fun yesterday? Are there any upcoming events I'm dreading?), and felt this odd sensation across the right side of my forehead.
When I touched the right side, I felt faint lightening bolts of pain from my right eyebrow to my hairline.
I've never felt anything like that before.
Which is not good. Everything you feel, so far as your body goes, you want to believe you've felt before, and it turned out all right.
I remember when I was a kid I leaned over once, on my hands and knees on the wood floor of my kid bedroom, to look at something in my closet, I forget what, but in any event, because my gaze was so rapt at whatever it was I was observing, I leaned further forward on the palms of my hands than I ever had before, especially my right palm, and then leaning back, satisfied at having fully observed whatever it was that had caught my attention, I felt an odd sensation in my right palm, looked at it, horrified to discover there were two thin tendons, side by side, sticking up quite visibly in the meat below my right index finger. I had inadvertently stretched my right index finger so far back I had over-stretched these two tendons. A moment of dread. Have I broken part of me? So casually?
But eventually, that wonderful, reassuring word, the tendons slipped back in place. I haven't seen them since.
Where was I?
It felt like I had an insect bite somewhere on my forehead, but looking in the mirror, Mary still sleeping, I couldn't see any red. Reader, I looked everywhere. Within my hairline, in my eyebrow, under the distinguished black and silver hairs at my right temple.
So a day passed. I mentioned to Mary I had this weird, lightening bolt sensation whenever I touched my forehead.
A day later, a big, angry red swelling showed up on the side of my face, where a man's sideburns end.
Relief, to some extent, that the source of my weird feeling had manifested.
But a day later, the gum at the back of my rearmost lower molar on my right side ached.
Whatever the venom was, it was descending.
Another day, and the glands under my right jaw were painfully swollen.
Not the fiery toothache type of pain, but still, the wearying, never-goes-away dull pain that wears you down.
Meanwhile, throughout all this, every morning, every evening, slap, slap, against our front dining room windows.
The mind can go wherever it wants, and during this constant slapping against the windows, my depressing low grade pain, I sent my thoughts out on sail, and the first image that came back to me, was green money.
Not money like, How much do you have, but money as a physical object.
Specifically, how people used to write on dollar bills, but don't seem to anymore.
I remember in my childhood it was not unusual to get a bill with blue-inked writing on it. The writing might be a phone number, a row of imperfectly drawn hearts, or the scribbled addition or subtraction of three- or four-digit numbers that obviously meant a lot to the writer, but no one else.
When Mary and I lived in northern California in the early eighties, San Francisco was rapidly becoming the gay capital of the nation.
We both worked in banks. Because of the large influx, a lot of our customers were gay.
Many of the bills that crossed our hands had the purple-inked block stamp, Gay Money, somewhere on the green, white and black.
Most straight customers would refuse to accept money stamped, Gay Money.
"I don't want gay money."
The idea behind the stamping was apparently a wish to keep money generated from the gay community within the gay community. If you were paid in Gay Money, you should spend that Gay Money at a gay supermarket.
I remember Mary and me discussing, in the early eighties, how a lot of our gay customers were starting to show dark lesions on their skin. We didn't have a clue what it was, neither did they, but a lot of them had it. A few months later, the lesions were beginning to be referred to as "Gay Cancer". A few months after that, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta started talking about a new disease called Acquired Immunodeficiency Disorder, which was rapidly killing gays, Haitians and intravenous drug users.
At the time I thought, what a weird combination of victims.
A lot of the gays we'd see each week, bright eyed, joking around, cashing their checks, sending money back home, we'd know their names, something about their lives, their weekend plans, stopped showing up. They had died. Poof. Just like that. One day, they were pushing their hair off their forehead, talking about lobster, and the next, they were a dry husk inside a box, getting lowered.
Last week, I got a dollar bill, after a couple of decades, with writing on it. Here's what it said:
For whatever reason, who knows the synapses between thoughts or decades, that made me think of my childhood, when my family used to make ice cream from snow.
I grew up in Connecticut.
Each Winter, we'd get heavy snowstorms, everything outside the windows white and rounded.
I remember how cold it was in our station wagon as my mother drove me to school (no heaters in cars back then). Wool scarf around her neck, she used to point out the window at a snowdrift as she backed out the driveway, saying, "Oh, look! There's a starfish on the beach!"
The first ice cream was supposedly made by the Roman emperor, Nero.
He had slaves carry snow down from the mountains, the snow used to freeze the flavored cream his chefs had created.
The secret to ice cream is salt. Salt lowers the temperature of ice (or snow) enough to freeze the flavored cream.
In my family, I'd bundle up, black rubber boots crunching across the whiteness, a little messenger on a mission, scooping pure gleaming snow up into clean buckets, bringing the buckets back into the kitchen.
Once I was back inside, cheeks red, my parents would fill a paper bag half full with the snow, add tablespoons of salt, massage the snow and salt mixture for about five minutes. They'd then put a smaller, plastic bag inside the first bag, filled with half and half, sugar, vanilla extract.
They'd massage both bags for about ten minutes, until the cream mixture was frozen.
Get out your spoons.
Was it any good?
Not as good as store-bought ice-cream, frankly, but it was something a family did back then, during the Winter months.
We also made our own sodas, which was quite popular during the fifties.
You'd save up bottles of commercial soda, like Coca-Cola, Canada Dry Ginger Ale. All these empty bottles lined up as a crowd down in the cellar, on the concrete floor to the side of the washer.
When we had enough empty bottles, we'd buy, for example, Hire's Root Beer Extract at the supermarket (I don't know if supermarkets still sell soda extracts. Somehow, I doubt it. You used to be able to buy extracts of all the popular sodas, including Coca-Cola).
You'd then mix the extract with sugar, lots and lots of it, a white fortune in sugar, dissolve that mixture in a huge amount of lukewarm water, and add yeast (For the carbonation. A trick, if you wanted extra carbonation, was to put a raison in each bottle).
Once you poured the homemade soda in the sterilized bottles you'd saved, you placed each bottle in a capping machine (a simple device made of iron with a platform for the bottom of the soda bottle, and a long arm that lowered a flat metal cap atop the bottle, whereupon you lowered the arm even more, crimping the cap around the opening of the bottle).
Then you waited.
The fermentation took about a week. Like wine, the longer you waited before you uncapped a bottle of soda, the better it tasted. You also had to store the bottles on their side, during the fermentation process, and within a certain temperature range. Otherwise, they'd explode. Some of our bottles, each time we made a batch, would explode because we hadn't stored them properly.
Was the soda any good?
Again, it was something families did back then.
None of my transporting thoughts, though, kept the female cardinal from slapping against our windows.
It's hard to convey just how depressing those hundreds and hundreds of slaps are.
She's obviously not right.
And they mate for life.
Her fledglings came out okay, thanks to her lifetime partner. They're flying around the trees and bushes of our backyard garden right now, learning about wind resistance and branch thicknesses.
But you hate to see something so orange-beaked and beautiful slowly destroy itself. I've thought of spending a day in the dining room, trying to scare her away each time she flaps in for her stupid self-flagellation, as a kind of aversion therapy. Shout with wiggling fingers by my ears, Boo! Display a newspaper headline about how rapidly the atmosphere is warming. Hold up a photograph of Michael Jackson.
Jim, our next door neighbor, and myself have started work on replacing the long privacy fence between our properties, tearing down the old slats, gray as seaside dock pilings, digging out the deep posts in ninety-nine degree temperatures.
Mary and I got a Digital Video Recorder for our Dish satellite system, so that we're now able to record digital-quality copies of shows we want to watch. We're archiving all of season 4 of Six Feet Under, ready to add the final season once it starts next Monday.
While weeding, I was bitten by a gang of fire ants, across the underside of my right forearm. Each day, I hold the forearm under hot tap water four or five times to draw out the histamines, to get rid of the itch.
I started work on a new short story, one I've meant to write for years, The First Shorts of Spring, one of The Sex Act stories (I have only one more to write after this one, The Wet Months, to complete the cycle). It's been a difficult story to write, because it's essentially episodic, without a strong, unifying narrative drive.
I feed our cats every morning, all of them rubbing up against me, vibrating their tails against the lower walnut kitchen cabinet doors, they're so excited, the smell of the coffee I've measured brewing in the silent air of the five o'clock kitchen.
We bought a pasta machine, one of those gleaming, stainless steel contraptions where you hand-crank the pasta out, look how limp, made some fettuccini, boiled it for only two minutes, tossed it with butter, which immediately began sliding in the hot weave, melting, shakes of salt, black pepper. It tasted delicious, like fresh-baked bread. We intended to only eat a little, just to see if it were any good, but kept going back to the bowl, picking our forks back up off the counter, looking at each other, holding a palm under our lower lip as we slipped more into our mouths.
We sit at the black breakfast nook table, doing our weekly food list, my ear cocked for the sound of the doorbell, the handymen we hired have been refashioning the gate leading into our back yard for about an hour. The gate over the years has started to sag, human, all too human, so that when you go to open it, the bottom edge scrapes resistance across the green, green St. Augustine grass, causing the gate's pickets to wobble. Once I hear that doorbell ring, I know that particular problem has been solved, for only twenty-seven dollars, making me and the meter reader so much happier. But as I wait, I glance out the window, remember again our tallest rear property tree, which flows up into two trunks twenty feet off the ground, has developed a split at the parting of the trunks, a split that has now cracked a yard down into the main trunk, meaning insects and rain are getting in, meaning we'll have to call a tree surgeon, someone who charges much more than a surgeon who operates on humans (it's true, I have the receipts), and, you know what? I got depressed.
The latest issue of Lullaby Hearse (number six) is now out, with a great cover (Martini and Monkey) by Kenney Mencher. My story "Las Vegas" is included. Ordering information is located here.