The Sacrifice TreeInterrupting the horizon with the languid lightning
of its black and white flight, a magpie flew
toward us, squawked, and folded up so quickly,
it seemed to collapse into a juniper tree
some twenty feet away, where shifting restlessly
from foot to foot, it cocked its head at us,
all the while clucking and scolding,
a current of iridescence rippling across its breast.
As we drew closer, the dark rainbow
of its wings rose into the air,
coasted, then dropped, into another tree
another twenty feet away.
Again we approached, again
the restless chattering, the half-hearted fanning
into the air, the floating descent
into a tree a little further on.
Each time, we drew closer,
the bird would shift its head from side to side
as if trying to see us
in a shifting mirror. Its gutturals,
full of clicks and whistles,
as it turned the prism of its gaze,
began to seem a kind of speech, full
of the stubs and clumps of meaning.
I remembered that man who claimed
that if you split the tongue of a magpie or raven,
it could mimic human speech. He raised pigeons
and kept a raven as a pet. The raven
was chained to a stump, and as we fled
his enclosure, shadowy with the beating of wings,
the raven had cried out, at random,
in an almost human voice. As we rode on,
another magpie appeared, then another.
Together, they all began quizzing us, swiveling
their heads and muttering, as if we could understand
or answer. Finally so many enveloped us,
we seemed to become part of the flock.
When we pulled our horses to a halt,
the flock circled us, shrieking, their wings shying
the horses onward until we came to a cedar tree.
There, in its heart--a great-horned owl,
its back against the trunk;
its pupils drunk on light
could not focus on the magpies
who stabbed at it then jumped back,
as the owl snapped open and shut
the great hook of her beak. To us,
it seemed a place of awe, that shape
caught in a net of bird and branch,
for we could see the tiny white down
of her throat, the cut crystal of her stare.
We had never come so close, yet it was hard to look
into that face stunned by sunlight, while the tree itself leapt
and shrieked with the black and white furies.
It made me tremble to think the magpies called us,
with their arterial coaxing, to be the assassins
of the owl. We heard the call of murder or wonder,
yet the truth is, never knew what they wanted.
In the branches of that tree, their voices
seemed like static, a random frequency
from which a clear melody would never arise.
We could only sense in the white noise, the approach
of something like meaning, the muttering
of the primordial world itself, calling out to us,
trying to fix us forever in the bright
gaze of the vanishing birds.
Issue #11, September, 1999 :
Santa Fe Poetry Broadside.