© Copyright 2021 by Joyce Benedict
We don’t forget our
childhood dreams. We just tuck them away like old photographs, a
crushed flower from a high school prom, a ticket from some long past
memorable event. My dream of having
interactions with the animal world was carefully tucked away in my
unconscious to be forgotten through years of high school, college,
marriage and children. Little did I know that after my first marriage
ended, and shortly into my second, my childhood dream was to be
Spring had begun to unfold late as it does in the small towns that are nestled in the Catskills. Our little town wasn’t too far from the Hudson River, but far enough from the big city that bordered it to make two weeks difference in spring’s coming. While the city already had fresh green leaves sprouting on most of its trees, our little town was encased in the aura of soft, yellow green of new life, when all trees and shrubs barely suggest themselves to us. We are more than just whispering a hope for spring, we are shouting internally for it. It had been, as usual, a long, rugged winter.
My husband, two young sons, and myself had rented a modest cottage on a pleasant little dead end street. A space heater provided all necessary heat for the dwelling. The bathroom was, unfortunately, the coldest room in the house, being the farthest from the heat. Nevertheless, the little space heater, with some imagination, gave one the feeling of having a fireplace. It was a perfect place to set freshly kneaded bread in a pan and watch it rise in a way that only yeast dough can. When the second rising occurs the bread is baked. When eaten fresh out of the oven it becomes manna from Heaven, especially when smothered with gobs of fresh butter. Sons and I could devour a whole loaf in minutes.
The little place was indeed modest. The children’s bedroom floor slanted to such a degree that block building or other projects had to be executed in the living room. Our bedroom should have been the bathroom and vice versa. It was so small. The bathroom larger. The door opened only a third to enter the bedroom because the bed was there. It and a bureau filled the room.
Our dwelling included an old blue stone well in the backyard that had long been converted to a septic field. It provided the most luxuriant grasses in all of the county especially since the oncoming summer would bring the worst drought in many years turning lawns to pale shades of beige and brown. How that septic field was to be a part of my destiny and a childhood dream is indeed a strange story.
As one of those spring days ebbed to sunset, It was time to bed the boys and do dishes. The kitchen window was small, but afforded me a view of our backyard which was treeless save for a very old apple tree standing like a lone, weatherbeaten, old soldier at the far reaches of the property. It served only one function now, and that was feeding worms and birds as the old apples ripened.
It was one of those sweet moments in a young mother’s life, children quiet, the evening meal consumed, husband out on business. The evening’s coolness sifted through the screened porch into the hot kitchen, and along with it, that intoxicating smell of spring’s cool night air.
A slight movement under the apple tree broke my reverie. Since it was darkening quickly I had to squint to discern what was causing the movement. I saw a bird. My mind registered ‘bird,’ as I plunged hands into soapy water, but then mind said, “What kind of bird?” Something had dimly registered that this was not an ordinary bird. Its walk was most strange, a rocking forward and backwards movement that reminded me of the dance known as a rhumba.
Apron, soapy hands, and I quietly passed through the backdoor, through the screened porch door. I walked slowly to reach a spot where I could see this strange guest. It was damp and chilly. The old apple tree was gallantly, silhouetted against a pink gray sky.
Standing silently like a sentinel underneath the old tree, atop a small cut hay pile, was indeed the strangest bird I had ever seen. I was no more than eight feet from him and was bracing myself for a rapid takeoff as is the custom for most birds. This one remained immobile. Fascinated, I dropped to my knees and bending over addressed this strange guest. “Well, who are you?” I couldn’t take my eyes off his beak. It measured at least two inches long, and his eyes, how strange they were. They were set high on his head and almond- shaped.
I perceived a depth and intelligence in this strange little creature. He was all shades of brown and beige, with a powdery beige breast. What amazed me most of all was that he remained there, each of us scrutinizing the other. Actually, I felt rather silly kneeling, as I was on all fours repeating like some parrot over and over softly, “Who are you? “Who are you?’ As if he would answer! And yet__there was that deep, primitive dream-seeking reality.
Suddenly, as if a spell had been lifted, as if the wheels of time had resumed their laborious turning, I was aware of being cold from what was now night air. A typical human reaction ensued and cut into my reverie. “Gracious, what will my neighbor think, me kneeling in the grass at night, with my rear end in the air, staring at an apple tree?” I mused. Probably that her young, artistic neighbor had gone over the edge!
Shivering from the cold night air, I got up to return to the house and my old Audubon book. With a soft whirring of wings my strange guest flew into the air. He circled the cottage overhead and headed towards the stream. “ ‘Oh my!, I thought to myself, ‘If only Jim had seen this little fellow.’
The warmth from the cottage was delightful, and I went directly to the bookcase to get the book. Looking through it carefully I couldn’t decide whether it was a dowitcher, a marbled godwit (which to describe my feelings at the time seemed a marvelous name for it) a Wilson’s snipe or woodcock? In moments, I knew it was the woodcock, for beneath the picture the following was written, “a nocturnal, owl-like snipe of wooded swamps and wet thickets, breeding in southern Canada and the northern states east of the plains, wintering in the south. Pathetically reduced since Audubon’s time. Length 10-12 inches.”
I read the passage several times, reflecting on how strange that bird was, let alone the fact that we had eyeballed each other for so long. It had been rather a haunting experience, and I was vaguely aware that I had indeed had an ‘experience.’ I felt sad that my boys or husband had not seen him too.
Jim arrived home shortly thereafter and I was bursting to relate to him my strange encounter. Between the tea kettle whistling, the boys filing past the kitchen table to go ‘potty’, and a neighbor calling about the new A&P coming to town, I managed to describe the little vignette that occurred.
With the aplomb of a male Sherlock Holmes, I showed him the picture, read the caption and concluded by saying, “I just know it’s a Woody,” and so evolved his not too original name.The boys listened the following morning to ‘Mommy’s bird story’ and having stated they wished to see Woody too, finished breakfast, did bathroom duties, and went to their room to dress.
I returned to my kitchen sink whistling while I worked. There arose a shriek from the boys room. I rushed in immediately to find both of them with noses and hands pressed to the glass, and in that calm way children have when totally absorbed, the eldest asked, “Mommy, is that Woody?” With a third nose pressed to the glass, I announced quietly, “Yes, little fellow, that’s Woody.”
There he was, walking in
rhumba-like fashion in the tall green grass by the septic field,
digging and probing with that crazy beak for
whispered to myself, “Woody, you came back because you knew,
didn’t you, that I wouldn’t hurt you.”
How eager the boys were to go out and see their new friend. They were warned very emphatically that if they ever scared him purposefully or threw even one stone to harm him, they would be punished severely. With serious nods and glances to one another out they went. Knowing full well the cowboy and Indian hollering that would ensue, I assumed that was to be the end of Woody.
But it wasn’t the end
of Woody To my utter amazement, Woody remained. Even
General Custer chasing Indians, and Indians chasing buffalo, and the
bawling that follows a banged knee, through all the somersaults and
pow- wows that take place where little children congregate, Woody
remained going about his business in woodcock fashion, walking the
delightful rhumba-like walk.
Jim teased me, saying it was the delicacies surrounding the septic field that kept him here. In my deep self I knew it was something else and remained awed. No matter, my activities that brought me to the backyard, planting seeds in the borders, hanging up clothes, washing the car, Woody was always there. Oh, the conversations we had, one-sided of course, but I knew he listened. His eyes always told me so.
Spring crescendoed to its full brilliance, the apple blossoms and Baltimore orioles were a small orchestra in themselves. The cacophony of bird and insect world reached great heights. The heat of summer then descended, the cloudless skies continued, and everywhere lawns dried, radio and tv expelled dire warnings and water was restricted in the big cities. Gardens were left unattended and wells dried up. As far as we were concerned we had the prettiest and greenest backyard in the whole town. A rare and unusual event unfolded for us daily, unbeknownst to the populace.
A routine began during those lazy hot days. Woody would meander around the house walking in and out of the bramble bushes. Usually, a bit after noon, he would come to the little maple tree beside our front porch and squat as a duck on its eggs. How convenient this was for me. The children took their naps at this time, lunch and dishes were taken care of, the garden had been weeded, and for me, the heat welcomed. The bees and hornets buzzed contentedly around the porch. My morning glories were about to trumpet their arrival, and the garden, despite water restrictions, was birthing our favorite vegetables, as we had our own well.
If I could I would at this time take a breather from household duties and sit beside Woody on the lowest porch step under the little maple tree. I would inquire of him how worming had been that day, or what new delicacy had he found in the brambles. Sometimes I asked if he understood me at all. I asked where he came from. I even asked if he had a soul, and if he knew about death? No matter my tone, Woody sat silently, always looking at me with those strange, unfathomable dark eyes, limpid yet deep.
I longed to pick him up and caress him, kiss him, have him rub my cheek or take seeds from my hand as I offered on many occasions. On the hottest days, when words somehow were meaningless and I was too hot to contemplate the mysteries of Creation, he would lower his little lids in half reverie and half sleep. It is then I was bold and stroked him, from head down his back. He accepted this attention without a ruffle of a feather.
When the mailman came towards the porch to hand me the mail, I held my breath for fear Woody would be startled, or that the postman would see him and try to grab him. I sighed relief each time he didn’t see him. He blended into the dry grass with the same beige coloring.
I had a strange musing thought that only a romantic could have thought, and that was, maybe, maybe he wouldn’t have seen him even if I pointed him to him. After all, in tales of past there have been pookas, mystical animal beings. Perhaps Woody was mine.
To experience one Woody is strange, but then equally exciting is to be sitting on my back porch and see another Woody arrive. Certainly one doesn’t have two pookas. Yet, towards the end of summer, another woodcock had appeared and the two fed together a whole day, flying up and around the house, landing, and feeding some more. Evening came and the new one flew into the air never to return again. I knew it was Woody who stayed.
Summer passed and the
garden brought forth a fine bounty without the
morning glories trumpeted, the marigolds became
yellow and bold. We had a sunflower grow to ten
my favorite vegetable, lima beans were climbing poles nicely.
By now Woody was a family tradition. The boys had been very good all summer never scaring him or trying to catch him. As September came, Woody seemed almost forgotten. The older boy anticipating school as a first grader. The excitement of walking by himself to school a block away, meeting his new teacher, and getting new clothes for the big event occupied his little mind.
Bread baking resumed with a break in the weather, and then came the canning of tomatoes. I had been neglecting Woody and our scholarly discussions had come to an end.
The leaves fell early due to the drought, and still no rain came. Fall routines fell into place. With the older boy in school, the little one and I had time to play together and take walks to collect leaves for pressing and gather pretty dried weeds for decorations. We would come back and look for Woody and sure enough he would be among the dried, fallen leaves, but this time not so easy to see at first, his colors blending so beautifully with the brush. First we would hear a rustling sound and slowly our eyes would focus on him.
I began asking him when he was going home, for surely I knew he wouldn’t be with us much longer, and a sadness came over me. Did he know that I loved him dearly and that his company all summer was something that I would never forget In my heart? I knew he didn’t need any sign. I was seeking a human sign to show my affection, and something in me knew he didn’t need that, he already knew.
One day he was finally gone. I missed him, his eyes, his walk, the warm spot he left in the grass after his afternoon rest, his constant presence. Winter soon approached and chores pushed Woody to memory. Thanksgiving came and passed, family arrived for Christmas, and at Easter time two inches of snow arrived which provided a strange contrast to the exquisite azalea plant placed in the window, a gift from Jim.
The rhythms and routines of another year unfolded, and before long the little wren was back to begin again her comical efforts to bring twigs into the coconut feeder. All of life slowly began its great cycle again of rejuvenation, mating, young, planting, mowing. The hum and cacophony of spring’s exquisite sounds returned.
This late spring day found me in my housecoat, hands deep in bread dough. It was Saturday and two little Supermen were conquering all the world’s evil outside. Their aunt had made them bright red capes with large S’s on them and they were enjoying them to the fullest. It was cool in our cottage, one of those first days in spring you dare to open the windows to let fresh air in to disperse winter’s mustiness. Mud was everywhere, indoors and out.
I was working the bread dough feverishly when suddenly the front screen door banged wide open and there stood my older boy, cheeks rosy, eyes shining brightly, cape flowing behind, and as all mothers would notice too, muddy boots on the rug. I was about to chastise him when the words he issued caused me to stop, “Mommy, oh Mommy,” he said breathlessly, “Woody’s back!”
Like a school girl whose beau has returned after a long absence, I felt my face flush, and my mouth fall open. “Where ?,” I exclaimed as I flew out of the cottage, housecoat, dough laden hands and all, to the big tree in the side yard my son was pointing to. We grouped together under the bough that Woody was perched on, and all three of us gazed upwards. There he was, my Woody, looking down at us as complacent as you please, those eyes speaking to me of something mysterious.
Proud and thoughtful, he remained perched on the limb as the three of us gazed in silent wonder like humans looking to heaven for their Salvation. As I gazed at those somber, little eyes, I knew I had been fulfilled. I knew that Woody and I, and all the beasts and birds of the world are connected far deeper than most acknowledge. I knew in my heart that Woody knew too.
As Life repeated itself, so I was shaken from my reverie once more by the cool, spring breezes. The dough on my hands was drying out and stiffening. I returned to the house to complete my chores. Time passed and the little Supermen turned into hungry Indians again. As I was helping them take off their boots on the porch a few days later, I glanced in Woody’s direction to see him fly high above the house, circling three times, then flying in a Northeasterly direction. My little one asked, “Is he coming back, Mommy?”
“I don’t think so, little one,” I added softly.
Some things in life repeat themselves over and over, the daily routines, the multitude of human problems that continue with the life process. Woody was a life happening that doesn’t come in cycles. Woody was my dream come true, and such dreams don’t happen a second time. Life speaks to one in mysterious ways. This strange little visitor spoke to me. I didn’t need for him to come again. I know what he said to me. And yet, come each spring, when I am walking to enjoy its warmth, beauty, or planting flower seeds once again around the house, I hear a rustle in the old leaves. I whisper, somewhat hesitantly, “Woody, is that you?”