Great flocks of summer vultures circle campus, worrying the incoming freshmen.
The birds coast on thermal air currents, spiraling first up, and then, in wider and wider circles, back down. Adults teach the fledglings by example to conserve energy, to stretch their wings wide and rock along the rising bubbles of warm air, rather than flap. The lessons are quiet, graceful. As autumn takes over Laramie, the shorter days will mean less sun to heat the ground; the thermal columns will be fewer, and the birds will move south. And who among us hasn’t longed to escape one winter or another?
When the vultures leave, the job of clean up will be handed back to the resident crows and ravens, who noisily announce even the smallest fortune. New World vultures have no syrinx, or vocal chords. They hiss in alarm and grunt or whine for any other need. I’ve never been close enough to one to confirm or deny it. And while I can see over a dozen from my office right now, I’ve yet to see them hunched and flocked around any of the local roadkill: rabbits and squirrels who, in a moment of bravery, sought the other side of the street and failed. But neither have I ever seen a two-day old carcass. The birds are modest in their efficiency.
And their efficiency is admirable. It takes only five hours for a flock of turkey vultures to dispatch the soft tissue on an adult human corpse. We have forensic science to thank for that bit of trivia, useful for solving murders, to be sure, and for the scripting of an episode of Law and Order: Home on the Range, perhaps.
Though classified as raptors, turkey vultures are not equipped like their predatory relations. They have a fairly weak grip, and use their talons, not to snatch and tear, but to hold bones down in the dust so the real work can be done with their sharp, curved beaks. We call them scavengers, but this is too unsympathetic a word for the service they provide. They dispatch that which horrifies us so that we might imagine, for a moment, a world where all rabbits are safe, where all roads are crossable. With their heads down in the literal heart of the matter, they tear and rip and shred until every pliable, awful scrap is gone, and only hard whiteness remains—a truth undeniable about support and structure.
In my grandmother’s National Geographic Society Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1983 edition, she’s made four marks next to the turkey vulture entry. A check mark next to the bird’s name means that at some point in the twenty-odd years that she saw one. A small star under the check means that she saw one on her property in Estacada, Oregon. Based on the map next to the description, the bird she saw was probably there enjoying the temperate summer like Laramie’s vultures. It would disappear south before the first hard frost.
Just underneath the map she’s written what might be a letter V and an M. I think the M stands for many or multiple, but I don’t know for sure. Every page in the guide looks like this: painted plates of birds on each right-facing page, and maps, text, and her notes on the left.
The last time I saw her, I asked my grandmother about these marks. Other birds in the book have the same VM (which might be a “check-M”) and some, just an M. Some have circled capital A’s nearby. Sometimes the penciled mark was inked over in blue or black pen. There are also occasional dates and place names noted in the margins or along the top of the page. She saw her first Green Jay in Texas, in February of 1988, her hasty scrawl informs me. She used to write down every bird she saw every day—but she can’t remember where in her towers of papers and books those journals are hidden. They’re somewhere; she won’t throw a single thing away. I was welcome to look for them, she said. But the task of searching felt Herculean. I regretted the brevity of my visit, my fear of the large country spiders that guard her things now, her drifting attention. She couldn’t remember what the M stands for, or the possible V. This was three weeks ago.
I saw my grandmother for the first time in years because my mother said it might be the last chance I’d get. I’m not sure if that’s true, since the women in my family tend to live longer than expected, despite a proclivity to histrionics. Nevertheless, it’s hard to eat with a clear conscience once a skull is on the table, so I got in the car and drove twenty hours for a picnic.
My parents, my mother’s oldest brother, his wife, and I have come to visit, this improbable August, because of word from my youngest uncle that my grandmother’s health is failing fast. If she were more alert, she might ask why we are all here, with no holiday and no birthday to celebrate. It is a somber party, to be sure, whose dissembled meaning is not lost on my grandfather. Though his legs shake violently if he stands too long, he gets up to greet each guest at the door as they arrive: his sister, my soldier cousin, her wife, their son, family friends, and still more tenuous relations, until the house is full.
In her backyard we have a picnic, which, for the first time in my life, my grandmother does not prepare. Everyone chips in, recreating her dishes. My mother makes the deviled eggs while my aunt worries aloud about the lack of MSG for the potato salad. Grandma used it as her secret ingredient in just about everything and the food won’t taste right without it. It has been a long time since my last trip home.
At one point, from her wheelchair in the grass, she says my name and my sister’s name to my mother.
Yes, my mother says loudly. Chelsea and Brianne.
I can remember them just fine when they’re together, my grandmother says. But I’ve been having a lot of trouble with names lately. The names of everything.
My sister isn’t here, but at her home in Arizona. My mother just nods. It doesn’t feel like Alzheimer’s, my grandmother says, later in the afternoon. She hasn’t forgotten how to act or who she is (like her father did, at the end), just words, names. Her bluntness is meant to inform, not comfort.
Throughout the afternoon a mood of assessment runs through her children’s behavior. They will discuss in hushed tones, later, that it’s hard not to think about logistics. The stacks of things that need to be parsed. The garage, oh god, the garage! Who is willing to tear through the spiders, to find that which was promised to whomever, however long ago? Who among them can bear to separate the skin of a life from the bones of its house? There is no mood of greed in their plans—my grandmother’s things are worth little—but of longing: growing up under this roof was not easy, and a few good memories are frozen in picture frames, puppy figurines, and chipped china.
I don’t remember her as a still person, or a static one, as she is today, stuck in her chair. She dyed her hair chestnut until I was in college and had a once-impressive collection of matching pantsuits—all the better for clambering over fences for the perfect shot of an old barn, or tromping through the brush collecting dried seed pods. After retiring from her career as a small-town nurse, she traveled the world to look for birds, among other things. She brought back photos of kookaburras, toucans, and pale cranes. Today, my grandfather tells us, is the first time she’s been outside in weeks. Her white hair sticks out from her head at odd angles, as her matchstick legs do from a limp housedress draped and fluttering around her. She used to criticize my weight, my clothes, my smile. Now, I feel only a tenderness—perplexing in its equal pain and ferocity—for this preoccupation with appearances that has her, even now, patting down her own rogue hairs and tugging at her hem.
Once she’s settled back in the living room, a process that takes several minutes as well as the help of my uncle and a wheeled-walker, I ask her what her favorite bird is. She grasps at the air with her hands, small and bird-like themselves now, unsure whether she has a favorite and can’t recall its name or if she can’t pick from the thousands she’s seen and longed to see. I open one of her old field guides and turn to the Evening Grosbeak. I remember her trying to lure them to her feeder when I was younger. It’s on the last plate, and its name has both a check and a star on the opposite page. She slides her glasses up and down the tip of her nose until she can focus on the images.
Oh, those are everywhere now, she says, dismissing them. She stares at the other birds, one by one. Her whole head moves to center each painting within the range of her telescoped vision. Below the grosbeak are a male and female bullfinch. She lets go of the book with her right hand and it sags. I grab it, take the weight of it for her, and she shakily points to a bullfinch.
I saw that one in Germany, she states, and moves her glasses back up. For a brief moment, she looks toward the picture window and the bird feeders out in her yard, and then shakes her head a little. The book forgotten, she turns to the television, her face blank. In the left page margin, under Eurasian Bullfinch (listed as a rare migrant) is a checkmark, and in black pen it says, “84 GER.”
Back at my desk in Laramie, I watch the dark shapes circle up, then down. They epitomize patience as they wait for air currents, the slowest rabbit, the reckless squirrel.
I’m supposed to be writing up my summer research on beetles and oysters, but the vultures can’t wait their turn. In an ironic twist, I devour all I can about them—information and photographs of vultures all over the world. I tell myself that it is an ornithological, an ecological, a scientific fascination.
Their defense against predators is to vomit rotten meat. Their gastric juices can destroy anthrax. With a wingspan of over ten feet, the Eurasian Black Vulture is the world’s largest raptor and is most at home in the Chinese and Mongolian steppes. A livestock drug that has killed nearly all of India’s vultures is now being marketed in Africa.
I learn that, in Europe, governmental concern over mad cow disease has led to new laws requiring farmers to incinerate their dead livestock. With less carrion available to them, Spanish vultures have turned predatory. No longer content to wait for the final scene, the birds are forcing the denouement. They are, hysterical journalists report, especially fond of newborn calves.
If our own town’s brave prey were to vanish, exterminated under a new urban management plan, or by a sudden influx of owls, who here would lie down upon the yellow line and wait?
I read an essay long ago on rescuing birds of prey, especially vultures, and the writer said that she would welcome “burial” by vulture because it would mean becoming a part of its flight. A lovely, if ridiculous sentiment. I doubt she would volunteer in an imperiled calf’s place, since dying, to be sure, is nothing like already dead.
I flip through the field guide, force myself to remember each of those years, what she looked like then, where I was—as though repetition were an antidote to the slow dive down into confusion that is my likely inheritance. There are notes from beaches she took me to, towns we drove past in summers when I was a child.
I consider adding my own message next to the turkey vulture, maybe “UWyo 12” or “Laramie 2012.” But I can’t quite bring the pen down to the page. I have my own birding guide, a new copy of Sibley’s, which has remained notation-free so far. Would my experience—today’s view of vultures—be less of an intrusion between its crisp pages?
In the end, indecision rather than any kind of reverence stays my hand. I don’t know what mark would bring this day back forty years from now, which careful combination of letters and numbers could get my mind across those years in one piece. Or, if by then, that’s even what I’d want. To remember everything—all the slights, embarrassments, rules, and losses that darkly edge any life—might be worse. But I will not get to choose what will stay and what will vanish. And picking at that fear like a loose thread is folly. Instead, I’d rather stare down any eye that would keep me from leaping bravely into the road. Even that dark red-ringed eye which will one day see my bones in the dust and think, Now, it is over.