My boots broke through a crust of rime, down deep into the hardened snow knocking me off balance with each step. The sound mixed with the papery rustle of a last few umber-colored leaves, skittering across the icy surface of the field. Otherwise, the afternoon was still—back-lit by an incoming storm.
The dirt road between my home and the cedar lot was quiet and few cars passed, only a handful more than when I was a girl on the farm. Stalks of Jersey cow-corn and fescue lay flat and frozen as far as I could see.
I was looking for signs of my father, even though he’d died in October and left me hollow as the oldest apple tree in our orchard no longer bearing fruit—one I couldn’t cut down. We had taken many walks on this land together—300 acres on which to search for wildlife, arrow heads, and tiny agates he would drop in my pocket while he hummed out Red River Valley on his harmonica and I sang along. I traced our steps by memory, but in these many months he had not yet come to me, only to my mother.
A pungent smell of rotten Osage under the snow, and the pissy scent of cedar perfumed the cold air. Smells I’d known forever. The leafless sycamores at the edges of the woods cast tall, authoritative shadows reminding me of him— stretched dark blue like his eyes on the snow the color of his hair. I felt at home here where I had wandered for generations with him and his father, looking through binoculars and down their barrel sites for rabbits or pheasant. This place was mapped on my memory like that old song he had played for me.
I needed a sign his spirit was looming. I wanted an eagle—a human connection to the divine, a bird we both revered. Pleased when I reported they were returning to nest near the river, he encouraged me to watch for them the spring before he died.
Walk across the bridge on River Road and search the treetops for the bend in the branches.
I scoured our land surrounded by the low, rolling Watchung Hills bordered by the Raritan River where perch and brown trout abound. Surely the bird would deliver. Be patient, I could hear him say.
With the fading sunlight and a swath of winter sky overhead, I looked up, saw an inky flock of starlings flow and roll like oil on water and knew snow was on the way, tasting the metal of it on my tongue. I picked my way around the frost-heaved hillocks of uncut, browned-out grasses—the soggy bundles yielding under my weight —smelling the frost in the air, swallowing mucus back.
Then I saw him and froze.
A buck. In the near distance. Twelve points to his rack of ivory-colored antlers, standing stock-still fifty, sixty feet away. His dark, broad chest flared against the sky. Bursts of white stormed from his nostrils as he snorted a warning not too come close to his herd. Sweat trickled down between my breasts. I had been looking for the eagle, bald-headed and bold, but a twelve-point buck was unusual, a sight Dad would have relished. Was this the sign he meant to send me?
Mouth open, lips stiff with cold, my breath became a film in front of my face. Suddenly, with a flick of his white tail, he turned away and bound for the safety of the cedars, the herd following hooves that barely touched the ground.
A slowly circling vulture dipped low to look at me, and a swifter red-tailed hawk flew circles around it, a sparrow on its tail. I was an intruder here.
The sky was turning a darker grey, with flecks of iron and indigo on the horizon and sleet began to sting my cheeks.
A flock of Canada geese nested in a wet ditch running parallel through the field just in front of our silvery split rail fence. They scattered as I approached and ascended into awkward flight skimming the earth with the tips of their wings.
Shivering now with a heart that felt pelted by sorrow, I picked up a dislodged goose feather. Dad had stuck one in the band of his canoeing hat, a Stetson that fell to the floor from its place on a rack of antlers mounted on a wall of our house, two days after he died. It was the first sign he sent my mother he was still with her.
I spoke aloud to the flock as it flew away in V formation, that I meant no harm. I was only looking for my father in all the places I thought he might be. I pushed the feather into my jacket pocket, a place he had once put agates and arrow heads and with my back to the cedar lot, I headed home.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/aka Tman