Texas. Winter 1999. J and I rent a small house on the Gulf Coast along San Antonio Bay, just three miles up the road from the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge where the only wild flock of Whooping Cranes left in the world hangs out during the winter.
A month or so into our stay, I find a bird snug in the chops of our neighbor’s dog as he slinks between our little white house at Hopper’s Landing and the little white house next door. The pooch skulks low to the ground dragging his belly as if he can make himself invisible as he heads for his secret spot—wherever that is—to finish his meal. He looks happy and expectant, the way I probably look just before devouring a plate of J’s fried catfish.
I could let him pass. Let him slink off to enjoy his however-hard-won morsel. I could applaud his somewhat unusual doggy prowess and rejoice in the fact that I am witness to the beautiful cycle of life.
After all, I’ve just moved to this waterside hamlet from a ranch in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains where throughout the previous nine months, this city-turned-mountain girl became accustomed to the natural way of things.
Mountain lion kills elk. Mountain lion eats elk.
Eagle kills rainbow trout. Eagle eats rainbow trout.
Bobcat kills mouse. Bobcat eats mouse.
It’s a logical system, one that has worked for millennia. And knowing what I now know about how it all fits together, I should let Charley pass.
But I can tell from the way one wing is flapping that the bird is still alive, and I must be feeling tender after nine months of witnessing all that killing and eating and killing and eating. Maybe I’ve just had enough of the cycle of life for a while.
So I play God.
I stomp toward Charley, wave my arms, and holler. He stops, looks at me, and then surprisingly, drops the bird and runs off in the direction of the rock jetty.
Once on the ground, the bird flops about and then lies perfectly still.
“Is it dead?” I ask. J comes up behind me from the truck.
He steps toward it. “I don’t think so, but it’s hurt. Damn dog.”
I move closer. “Oh,” I say, “its eye.” The left socket is empty and the eyeball hangs down on a thread. There is a cut on the bird’s head and one wing is broken.
A few minutes later we set him in a small shoebox lined with one of J’s well-worn t-shirts. He is a shiny little thing with a brown head and neck and a black body.
“What kind is it?” I ask.
“Don’t know,” J says, which surprises me because he usually knows everything about everything when it comes to the natural world, especially the natural world in Texas where he grew up.
“It looks exotic,” I say. I am still easily impressed.
The first time J and I drive up the oyster shell road and park in the yard of the little white house, the wind is warm, even though it is December. There are just a handful of houses at Hopper’s Landing. All are white, and now—midnight—all are dark. I hear waves hitting a rock jetty twenty or so yards away. The stars above us are shocking.
With the headlamps lighting our path, we unpack the truck, and though J warns me about rattlesnakes and water moccasins, I leave the front door of the house open as I trek back and forth, toting suitcases and boxes of books. For the next three months, I will write, read, watch birds, and fish, with emphasis on the first. J will read, watch birds, and fish, with emphasis on the last. Knowing that at the end of this time we have to go our separate ways in order to fulfill life obligations—me to Massachusetts, J to the ranch—both of us will try to decide if the other is “the one,” if we should ever come together again. It’s a strange construct.
Bear, my dog, sniffs her way from room to room; there are only three, so her investigation is brief. Within minutes she is tracking the geckos that scramble up the walls and across the window screens. When the truck is almost empty, a gray, full-bodied cat struts in through the front door and purrs. She walks up to Bear and rubs noses. Bear looks pleased. Cats, unlike most other dogs, please her.
When she’s done with Bear, the cat saunters over to the couch where I’m leafing through my new field guide to birds of the southern and western regions of the United States. J’s copy is dog-eared and worn. Mine still smells like the bookstore.
The cat leaps onto my lap. I pet. She purrs. Always the chef, J fixes her a bowl of tuna from a can. She practically sings.
At 2:00 a.m., after organizing a checklist of the birds I hope to see in my new surrounds, I decide to call it a night. I pick up Gray Kitty—as we’ve already begun to call her—set her outside, and close the door.
A few minutes later as I’m searching for my toothbrush, thump.
I look at the door, of which the top half is glass and the bottom half wood. Gray Kitty is clinging to the wood with her claws. Her faced is pressed to the glass, whiskers splayed. She grumbles.
I let her back in.
“There’s a pond back there,” J says, pointing to a thicket of brush off the road. He’s got the tackle box. I’ve got the bait. We’ve each got our own rod, a few snacks, a bottle of water, and a book. “Let’s cut through here.”
We jump the ditch and climb the short, steep hill.
“What about rattlesnakes?” I ask.
“Step carefully. Keep your eyes and ears open.”
I look down. I can’t see anything through the thick grass and all I can hear is a truck scrumbling past on the gravelly road. It slows as it nears us, and the man behind the wheel leans out of the window. I wave my fishing rod, thinking we’re on the receiving end of a bit of the warm, friendly Texan hospitality I’d been looking forward to. Instead the man hollers, “Y’all know that hole is full of gators, don’t ya? Got a sixteen-footer in there.”
I glare at J and scramble down the hill.
Nada finds an eyedropper that looks like she last used it fifty years ago to force cod liver oil down one of her kids’ throats. “It works,” she says.
I nod and squeeze the cracked, bulbous head.
“Whatcha got over there?” she asks. She and Carlton Hopper are the head Hoppers at Hopper’s Landing. Years ago, they mined oyster shells right off the jetty, and their place—the biggest of the houses, but still not very big—has a public restroom, a dusty ballroom where folks used to gather from miles around to dance, and a small store that sells bait and cold cans of Coca-Cola.
“An injured bird,” I say, racing out the door.
I’m making a grilled cheese sandwich in the kitchen when the guy who lives next-door—maybe a Hopper or maybe a friend of a Hopper—sneaks around the corner of my house with a shotgun pressed against his shoulder.
When I open my mouth to holler, “What the hell are you doing?” he puts up a hand to silence me.
He shifts the gun to his hip and relaxes. “Come on out and see.”
After so many months on the ranch, I’m used to guns, but that doesn’t mean I like them shot so close up. I inch outside, unsure of what to expect.
The gun, I’m happy to see, is leaning against a tree. The man, crouched low, is nudging a long stick into the open space under my house. When he stands, he’s got a four-foot-long rattlesnake hanging from its tip.
He turns, holds it out to me, and grins. “Don’t touch it now. Snakes can still bite after they’re dead, you know. Involuntary response.”
J digs for worms, chops them fine, and mixes them up with a bit of water so we can put them in the eyedropper.
I open the box. The bird is still. I try not to look at his eyeball as I lift him, careful to fold the broken wing into place as I do.
“He’s breathing,” I say, nudging his beak with the eyedropper. When it opens, I tuck the dropper inside his mouth.
“Just a little,” J says. He likes to be the boss of animal-related business.
After I get a bit of worm mush into the bird, I put him back into the box, close the lid, and set him near the window so he can hear the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher’s raspy chatter. Psychological rehab.
J and I drive a few miles inland to Tivoli to make calls at the payphone outside the 7-11. The single trailer across the street is more stereotypical than seems possible—laundry lines hang between straggly, half-dead trees; children tumble out of a doorless frame; braless women with tank-top straps loose off their shoulders holler with their breasts swinging like giant egg sinkers; tires and rake heads and stacks of battered crab traps are strewn around the scruffy yard; and a dirty white pillow lies in a lone patch of thick pea-green grass.
“Are you going to get a phone in that place?” my mom asks as soon as she picks up, but what she’s really asking is, “Are you actually going to stay in the middle of nowhere with no immediate plans for your future with a guy you met on a ranch?”
“I don’t think so,” I say, volunteering an answer only to the stated, not the implied, and praying that the tone of my voice warns my mother away from asking about the fiancé I left behind. “We’ll only be here a few months.”
“What if there’s an emergency?”
“Let’s hope there isn’t one,” I say.
As my mom fills me in on the latest news about my sisters, the dirty white pillow suddenly stands. I stare. Where I come from, pillows don’t stand.
Then the pillow shakes, stretches, and struts across the yard.
“That’s not a pillow,” I say.
“What?” my mom says.
I shake my head and lean forward for a better look.
“It’s a chicken,” I say. “A goddamn chicken.”
And it is. The fattest, featheriest hen I’ve ever seen.
Once the chicken gets its bearings, it heads across the street towards me, and when it gets to my side of things, it flops down in a patch of dirt next to a signpost. Dust rises around it.
“You wouldn’t believe this,” I say to my mom, and I laugh out loud.
While doing trail maintenance at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge, J and I come upon a momma alligator lying half in, half out of a watering hole. A handful of newly hatched baby alligators—each not much longer than my hand—chirp and crawl on their momma’s back. Every few moments, they slip into the water, swim and chirp, crawl onto the land, chirp some more, then return to their mother’s back.
We creep closer to get a good photo.
“Careful,” I say. “We don’t want to mess with a momma alligator.”
J takes a few more steps and snaps a picture.
Snowy Egret / Double-crested Cormorant / Western Bluebird
Check. Check. Check.
Gray Kitty comes and goes. When she comes, she lounges, eats dinner, and offers a bit of feline wisdom. Each time, she refuses to leave when we go bed. Instead, she curls on the couch in the dark next to Bear, hinting that this time she might just spend the night. But it’s a ruse because inevitably, when her nocturnal hunting instinct kicks in, she pushes through a screen in the window and slips out. She’s always gone by morning.
J and I banter about what could come in through the screen that she’s pulled a few inches from the window frame. Rattlesnakes and water moccasins are at the top of the list. J mentions coral snakes. Even so, neither of us fixes the screen nor evicts Gray Kitty before she’s ready.
“What is it?” I ask, looking at the strange, swollen, white bulb on the end of my line.
“Be careful,” J says. He gathers himself up from his comfy rock on the jetty, hitches up his pants, and slowly makes his way toward me. J doesn’t do too many things fast.
“It looks like a giant egg. Did I catch an egg?”
“Hang on,” he says.
I hold the rod in my left hand and the line in my right. The bulb sways back and forth.
“Damn,” he says. “It’s a puffer fish.” He’s impressed.
I preen. “It looks like a prehistoric egg.”
He explains that it’s a delicacy, but a deadly one. So much so that only specially trained Japanese chefs are permitted to cook puffer fish for public consumption. “If it’s not done right,” he says, “it will kill you quick.”
We release it back into the sea.
Gray Kitty gets knocked up. Her nipples swell and turn pink. Her belly balloons. During the thick, muggy afternoons, she and Bear lie nose to nose on the grass outside the house. When she gets bored, she bats Bear in the head with a paw. Bear stretches long and nudges back. They’re an odd, unlikely pair.
When the bird starts to get his spirit back, we drive to the refuge at the end of the road and ask to see one of the biologists.
“What do you have there?” he asks when he sees the box.
“An injured bird,” I say.
Large photos of the nearly extinct Whooping Cranes adorn the walls.
“Let me take a look.”
“He’s blind in one eye,” I say before I open the box. “And one wing is broken.”
The biologist nods.
I open the box.
He looks inside and then up at J and I. “You know what you got here?” he says.
We shake our heads. I’m sure it’s an exotic, nearly extinct species and that we may be saving the last of its kind. J is a little more realistic.
“My, my,” the biologist says, “you’ve got yourselves a Brown-headed Cowbird.”
My heart soars. What an exotic name. Brown-headed Cowbird. I’ve never heard of it before, but I realize right then how easily we could have looked up this bird in our book and I can’t quite put a finger on why we didn’t.
“They’re quite common around here,” the biologist continues. “Nuisance birds really. Used to follow bison herds across the country but since there are no more bison herds, these guys just hang around and cause problems. Lots of folks get rid of them any way they can.”
J and I look at each other, then at the bird. Get rid of them? Any way they can?
“So, you can’t take him in?” I ask.
“No, I’m sorry,” the biologist says, and his eyes flicker up to the photograph that highlights the 7.5-foot wingspan of the critically endangered Whooping Crane, “but I can help with that eye.” With a quick snip, he severs the nerve/vein from which the eyeball hangs. “Try the Texas Zoo up in Victoria,” he adds. “They might take him.”
I gently press down the cowbird’s head with my index finger and close the lid.
The female blue crab has an inverted triangular belly plate. The male has an inverted T. Before J drops each into a pot of boiling water, he hypnotizes it by stroking its belly plate. I’m not sure how science weighs in on this practice, but I swear the crab relaxes every time. As a chef and an outdoorsman, J adheres to a simple philosophy: keep and cook only what you eat, honor the animal, show respect and kindness.
A Yellow-rumped Warbler dominates the feeder J makes and hangs in the Chinese tallow tree outside our door. It’s not a grand feeder, but it’s a fine match for the house we’ve rented, which is quite obviously pieced together with scraps and leftovers from the more finished year-round houses that surround us. One frame of our screen door is a picket from a nearby fence. Of the hundreds of nails driven haphazardly into the floorboards of the front porch, some are pounded all the way in; others protrude dangerously. In an obvious attempt to minimize the possibility of contracting tetanus while dropping off your fishing gear in the dark, a few of the protruding ones are bent over. Many are rusted.
There is no insulation in the house so when a “norther” blows through—as one did two days ago with the wind blowing hard enough to bend bushes to the ground and the temperature plummeting to 50 degrees—the inside temperature drops even lower. J assures me that in another day or two, things will be balmy again, but as I shiver next to the sole propane heater, I don’t have much hope.
When I go over to buy bait, Nada tells me about Mrs. Garrett, the fisherwoman for whom our house was originally built, and while I appreciate the fine details, I’d figured out most of the story myself. I know Mrs. Garrett was short because the light pulls—fishing line with buttons tied to the bottoms—are exceptionally long. I know her passion for fishing ran so deep she’d installed a paper-towel holder on the front porch so she could clean up after a day on the jetty without mucking up the house too much. I also know she was a gardener with a strong affection for roses.
Though our house is flawed, it is well lit, which is because—as Nada confirms—Mrs. Garrett was a passionate reader. At night, I tug the fishing-line light pull over the chair in the living room, bask in Mrs. Garrett’s mindfulness, and read Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust.
Belted Kingfisher / Greater Yellowlegs
Felipe, another of the refuge biologists, strides into a small pond. The water is thigh high, and six or seven alligators laze not more than twenty feet away. I pause.
“It’s all right. Those gators won’t do anything,” he says. “They’re just little guys.”
Little guys up to six feet long.
I can’t make my feet move.
Felipe steps out of the water on the other side and looks at me. “I make my students wrestle one of those alligators every semester,” he says. He’s serious.
“I’m a volunteer, not a student,” I say.
J marches into the water. He’d love to wrestle an alligator.
As the two men threaten to disappear into the brush, I call, “Hey, wait for me,” and I wade into the pond, keeping a close eye on the six-footers who are keeping a close eye on me.
I wake with yet another tick burrowing in my skin. This one in my left ankle. To the naked eye, it looks no bigger than a pinprick, but it feels like an octopus extending its tentacles into my leg.
When I take Bear out at dawn, the porch screens are coated with water. It beads and streams as if it had been raining for hours, but, in fact, it is just that humid. The figs on the tree next to the house—of which, the Hoppers have assured me, I’ll get to eat none before the birds devour them—drip with it. The thick, wet air muzzles me.
One hundred or so Red-winged Blackbirds fill the trees and gurgle like water bubbling over rocks. Stunned by the collective song, I sit on a rock and listen. Later I read that the liquidy song is part of a courtship display and I realize it worked: I’m in love. I’m just not sure with what.
Thousands of ants march in a single-file line along one side of the road that runs from Hoppers’ Landing to the refuge. Each carries a ragged swatch of bright green leaf over its head like a bumbershoot. Each swatch is as big or bigger than the ant carrying it.
“They have strong mandibles,” J says. He bends to study them.
“Left, left, left, right, left,” I chant, marching along beside them.
Even without an eye and with a bum wing, the Brown-headed Cowbird seems pretty happy. He hops around when we open the box and raises his head for food.
“Hey little dude,” I say, wedging the dropper into his beak.
Gray Kitty knows he’s here. She sniffs at the door to his room. We close it when she comes to visit.
“Go play with Bear,” I tell her.
Brown Pelican / Great Egret / American Kestrel / Burrowing Owl
Check. Check. Check. Check.
As we climb to the observation tower, J and I recite the facts we’ve learned about Whooping Cranes—or whoopers, as the locals like to call them:
Stand five to seven feet tall
Live up to twenty-five years in the wild
Nest in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada
Winter in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
Fly 2,500 miles each way during migration
Mate for life
This last one stumps me.
On a piece of crab, I catch a twenty-eight-inch redfish. It’s the biggest fish I’ve ever caught and the first I ever keep instead of releasing back into the sea.
J promises a delicious stew, but before he cleans and cooks the fish, he poses the two of us—fish in my arms—in front of our house and snaps a photo. Later, when I look at the photograph, I realize how awkward that fish was and how I struggled to hold it steady.
Gray Kitty yowls as we step from the truck. She shoots from behind the neighbor’s house and races to our door.
Yowl. Yowl. Yowl.
“She’s going to have her kittens,” J says as he lets her in.
“Now?” I say.
“Looks like it,” he says.
Gray Kitty bolts under our couch without even a glance at Bear.
“Here?” I say.
I’ve never been with an animal when it gave birth. A human, yes. My sister when she birthed my oldest nephew. But never a dog or cat or cow or sheep.
While J, Bear, and I wait like anxious grandparents, Gray Kitty yowls and jerks under the couch. After one particularly spectacular bawl that goes on for a full thirty seconds, she is quiet, and when we peek under the couch with a flashlight, we count five small slick balls nestled against her.
The next morning, Gray Kitty carries each kitten out from under the couch in her mouth. With a few purrs, she encourages us to pet them and lets Bear give each a good sniff and a lick before placing it back it in its spot.
She eschews the comfy box bed we make, but laps up the bowls of milk and tuna J places on the floor.
Each night, voracious geckos arrive just after the moths begin to gather on our windows. They are stealthy hunters that devour the winged creatures by the dozens. As inevitably happens in all communities, one large gecko dominates the warmest window, the one in the kitchen that steams as J cooks. Time and time again, he chases off Stubby—the gecko that is growing a new tail—but is visibly flummoxed when his greatest competitor sneaks between the window and the screen where some of the juiciest moths hide.
Our geckos have five fingers on each hand and are translucent. Through their skin, I can see their stomachs and veins. I imagine I can also see their hearts and wonder what observers would see if I were designed in a similar fashion. Heart visible—thumping—for all to see.
In the back of the house next door—in the space between the outer wall and the inner supporting beams—bees have built a honeycomb from ground to ceiling. It’s an impressive piece of architecture into and out of which the bees buzz all day, making pilgrimages to Mrs. Garrett’s roses that bloom on all sides of our house. There is no question in the bees’ minds where home is.
On the phone, the woman at the zoo in Victoria assures me they’ll take good care of our Brown-headed Cowbird.
“Bring him on up,” she says. “Without an eye, I can’t imagine releasing him into the wild, but you never know. If we can’t release him, he’ll live a good life right here.”
We take a field trip to Matagorda Island with the volunteers from the refuge. After an hour-long ferry ride and a bus tour, we arrive at the lighthouse, which is nothing like the quaint lighthouses of New England. It was built in 1852 of cast iron. Much like a fortress, it is cold and inaccessible, seamed with plates of iron. Now solar, it hasn’t been manned since 1976.
The lighthouse keepers—the last of which, a Mr. Barr who died just a few weeks before—often complained of the venomous snakes and mosquitoes. In the 1920s, they began keeping rattlesnake anti-venom on the island, and even built a special porch on which the lighthouse keeper’s children could play when the snakes got too thick outside.
By the end of the afternoon, I had seventeen mosquito bites, a nasty spider bite, and one deeply embedded tick.
From the observation tower, the Whooping Cranes look tiny. Unimpressive. White specks on a grey and tan canvas.
“We should take a boat tour,” J says, handing me the binoculars.
Boat tours move you close to the whoopers so you can get a real sense of their size and possibility.
“Maybe,” I say, but honestly, I’m content with the current perspective. Right now, it’s the same way I’m choosing to look at things in my pre-ranch life. From a distance, so that they are tiny and faraway. Fiancé back in old life? Tiny. Life’s possessions boxed and stored in sister’s attic? Tiny. Memories of childhood crap I can’t shake? Tiny.
There’s not a damn thing I want to study close up right at this moment. I hand the binoculars back to J.
The Texas Zoo is quiet and empty when we arrive. A major flood in 1998 nearly wiped it out, and it is closed for reconstruction. Two biologists greet us, and as I hand over the shoebox, I’m confident the woman I spoke to on the phone was telling the truth. These folks will take good care of our one-eyed nuisance bird for the rest of his life.
The biologist lifts him from the box, feels his wing, and nods. “Yes,” she says, “something’s going on in there.”
Before we go, I whisper something of an apology to the bird. For Charley the dog. For the biologist at Aransas. For the plight of the Whooping Cranes. For the dearth of bison herds. Somewhere in the middle of my whispers, J takes my hand, and I realize that whether or not we end up mating for life, we’re not through quite yet.
Before packing and heading out, J and I move Gray Kitty’s kittens to one of the Hopper’s houses and settle them in a box lined with another of J’s t-shirts. Here, Gray Kitty will come and go—though likely through the door rather than the window—and the kittens will be comfortable until they’re old enough to go to homes of their own or to mimic their mother’s adventurous ways.
While I fold clothes and organize my fishing gear, Gray Kitty tiptoes among our suitcases and rubs against our calves. We load the truck, and she leans against Bear’s chest. We’re all going to miss her desperately.
“I’ve never loved a cat before,” I say. “I’ve never even liked one.”
“Gray Kitty is not your ordinary cat,” J says. The map with a red line marking the path from here to Massachusetts sits between us.
I know I’m going to miss J, too, but this is likely the last time I’ll see him as well.
“Stop in Tivoli?” J asks as he puts the truck in gear.
I nod and realize that this is the thing about J. He gets the fact that while I’ve seen everything from a Brown-headed Cowbird to a Whooping Crane, it’s that chicken that surprised me the most. The magical bird that will become part of a story much bigger than itself.