by Eric Miller
My father had an immensely fat friend whom I often glimpsed filling a plate alone at the buffet table of the King Eddie’s restaurant as I walked past that grand hotel. This man himself had a father even then in those days a nonagenarian, whom he saw daily, devotedly, taking him to the pool for a swim. It turned out that, obesity or no obesity, the friend would outlive my own father by twenty years. Because I liked the man very much, his longevity does not strike me as an injustice. He had a snuffling voice, small but piercing eyes, a gigantic nose and a fund of forgiving affection, the kind dispensed even in the awareness that what was being forgiven might have been awful. He preferred not to know, though his ignorance was (if I may venture a paradox) well informed. My mother played matchmaker for decades in his behalf, possibly because she found him appealing. Her stratagems did not avail. His marvellous acquitting heart remained unpaired.
He was a developer though quite what he developed I never learned, except, I think, in the case of an undistinguished mall that replaced something approximately as without distinction. He partook of the spirit of Toronto, bulldozing the forgettable in order to raise aloft the unmemorable. He might have knocked down the old himself—never very old—just by walking forward with his characteristic look of merciless mercifulness. I praise him because of his energy. The moment in which I see him most vital is when he stands in the lot, in the wind-raked interval between demolition and construction. Lord of the pit and of the mullein that flowers for a time in the gash. Sometimes—despite his size and his wobbly ankles and his nice shoes—he would go on hikes with my father and my siblings out to the end of the Outer Harbour, this in the days before the spit was subject to manicuring and division among interested parties, the boaters and the sports enthusiasts and the rest, all eager to spoil what agreed with us, a total wasteland, entire dereliction. It may have pleased him to fancy that the debris of his excavations had contributed to the desert spaces where we all plodded in a wind that prevented conversation by grabbing words and dashing them out of reach like a shovel. Trucks may have tipped some of the rubbish of his enterprises into Lake Ontario, which would have stepped back in ambivalent recoil from the heavy donor, his heavier gift. Here was perpetuated on a colossal scale the pause after the jaws of the machinery have had their fill and before the logistics of raising a scaffold or pouring a foundation. All southwestern Ontario’s rejects, quisquiliae, scraps, reached into the midst of drastic cold waves that darkened by the winter minute.
Is it true that cold nights are blacker than warm ones? On the road, snow capped with pocked ice forced us to think of every step as we took it. Swart sky rocked on swart water. My blood might have turned to slush already which, in a soaked mitten, feels more chill than snow by far. Big waves impaled themselves on rebar and bent girders and crooked cinderblock coves. A Snowy Owl took flight as though we witnessed the proud secession of camouflage from the compulsory discretion of having to conform. But when the bird landed it went invisible again, resigned to union after all with what, though not a bird, resembled the owl in every other respect.
So we came to the end of the Outer Harbour, but it was not the end, the mole had not yet reached completion, the planners had yet some distance to go. Jagged wreckage gave way to eclipse that pulsed like a wide valve or diaphragm, the gates to another kind of night than what we were used to: to Erebus. Out of the windy, fluctuant dark came the voices of arctic ducks, long-tailed ducks, white with chocolate cheeks could we have seen them. They called as from within a vast flooded cave soothing themselves with their own production of voices, I guessed, more than calming one another. Among the shattered oddments of the ice-sheathed shore, I saw a dead male Bufflehead. The Bufflehead is a small duck, cavity-nesting, capable by reason of its diminutiveness of adopting the holes hewn by the beaks of flickers, a class of sizeable woodpeckers. The bird lay frozen, lightly stuck by cold glass to the cold glass littering the lake-edge, its eye a pearl, and no injury or blood supplied evidence of a fatal violence. Snow-white patches make this duck’s head luminous; the head is puffy, crested, and gleams with fitful blackish purple of the same style as the hour’s; the bill is blue. I always pick up a dead bird with the persuasion that I have somehow the capability of exempting it from dissolution. I can never lift such a casualty without being stunned by the way it so exceeds the indices by which I recognize it. It is always more beautiful than I could have imagined. I cannot prepare myself; foreknowledge is a superstition only. No matter how often I confront this almost horrifying grace—this truly beastly grace—I cannot grow accustomed to it. It is as if I approached and were enabled to hold a newly dropped meteorite, as if I could scoop sundry stars from the night sky and compact them into a grievously lovely perilous snowball. Where do we wish to stop a process? The error is in the question. There are many processes and some have halted and others have accelerated, and we grasp a tatter and we lose it. We speak of conservation and of preservation; these are better lies than the ones they resist, but are lies. What lasts is the desire of lastingness. And it is our lack of immunity to that longing that must at last kill us, if only so that it too comes to an end.
My father’s friend asked to see the Bufflehead. By “see,” he meant touch. He held it shining with its black body and its white body in his own paws. His aspect at that moment, in the black wind by the black water amid the ruins of time, was paternal. He might have just as protectively encompassed his own child. He had none. He smiled at the word “Bufflehead.” The name sounds to collide buffet with baffle, apt associations for the Outer Harbour in winter where the pedestrian is wind-buffeted and baffled as to why he is there in the first place: but the word is a contraction of “buffalo,” the bird’s big head being recollective, to some early observer, of that shaggy ruminant’s. Like a child he held the Bufflehead, I say: but the man had no child. The bird could not develop: his phantasmal progeny could develop no more than the bird. His aged father in fact usurped the place of any offspring he might have had. Thus, in holding the toy-like Bufflehead, he might have been cradling the image of his own infancy, which only his father possessed. This vision of stasis, impossibility of development—to witness it was to cherish it, though I took the duck back.
Later I stuffed it, having been instructed in the art of taxidermy by an expert in the Snow Bunting. I kept the duck near me. The reliable proximity of something properly, in the order of things, now remote and now intimate according as seasons and places dictate, counselled me in the arbitrariness of collections. By “collections,” I would even include landscape paintings or paintings that somewhere attempt to include landscape or, rather, weather. Look at the sky and chances are you will see clouds. And the longer you look at the clouds the more you will appreciate their similitude to the plots and the events of music and of history. Not abridged but ideally revised and improved Edward Gibbons and Beethovens pass on high whether we attend to them or not, listen or not. The wind is always giving crucial intelligence. Abstraction and divination are natural and daily. The gods die and revive in one Aeolian puff. The prevalence of grandeur in what we breathe would be, did we honour it, the guarantor of our dignity of life. But why does the artist—there have been so many—choose to fix in the heavens this configuration of clouds and not that? I had a Bufflehead with me, but the occult relationship of a study skin to the rest of things I cannot reckon. Art exists in nature, what motivates its production? I had exalted the bird to the plane of art, I consulted it with a vibrant variety of feelings, but it was not necessary. Or does it become necessary with the passage of years?
I know that I adored Anthony J. Erskine’s monograph The Buffleheads. In 1975 I bought it—I still recall buying it—at the sober Ontario Government Bookstore amid a grave block of bureaucratic buildings arranged beside some cannon that had seen service in the Seven Years’ War, of which guns I once found an adventitious chunk lapsed from the breech and took it. What joy to find a shelf of Canadian parallel lives, the understated amanuensis compliant with the least gesture or preference or rumour of a given fowl of the air. The miracle is Erskine’s clarity, which reminds me at once of Plutarch, of Beckett’s plays and of the Psalms of David. I have known people who turned to literature because they loved Wuthering Heights or the adventures of Alice. The Buffleheads takes its station at the gates of Eden, where a sentinel of ideal integrity straddles the line between innocence and experience, fall and restoration. Erskine recounts his only experience of witnessing the Bufflehead’s complete nest departure sequence.
On June 19, 1958, at Watson Lake, British Columbia, I was concealed 25 metres (27 yards) from nest No.33 (situated 0.8 metres [33 inches] from the ground in a dead aspen 31 metres from the shore)….The data following are transcribed from my field notes.
0929 female appeared in entrance, then backed in until only head showed;
0932 female disappeared inside;
0950 female appeared in entrance, looked around, backed in until only head showed, moved into entrance again;
0951 female dropped to the ground (out of my view);
1008 female flew in from the west side of the grove (from the lake?) and entered nest;
1015-1016 female left nest exactly as before;
1027 female flew back and entered nest;
1029 female looked out, then dropped to the ground without first backing in again;
1032 female flew to the lake from the ground near the nest;
1033 one duckling appeared in the entrance and dropped to the ground;
1034 female flew back and entered nest;
1035-1036 female left the nest as at first, looking around and backing in before dropping to the ground;
1037 two ducklings left the nest in rapid succession; then a pause;
1038 two more ducklings left in quick succession;
1041 one duckling left the nest; then a pause;
1042 one duckling left the nest;
1045 one duckling left the nest;
1100 female leading seven young out on lake.
Erskine remarks, “At 1105 the nest still contained one unhatched egg (which later proved to be undeveloped).” He adds, “one young bird was lost during the trip of about 35 metres to the water.” What scrupulous furor mathematicus the ornithologist indulges, as precise as a tailor’s, consulting the measuring tape and the clock and calendar! It is actually love, a form of the blazon which no true infatuate can ever set a period to. And straining in the particulars, like a migrant in a bander’s mist-net, hear that rhyme of Blake’s,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to endless night.
Think of the un-quick ovum in the aspen hollow, and of the Bufflehead duckling missed, poor soldier, on the march to the water. The globe is a cold cradle, and those who claim otherwise have been lucky in their generation.
Time and again, we confront a simplicity that dispirits us. Throughout all the scheme of life recurs a tube, a mouth and an anus its termini. The rest amounts to elaboration, as though zoology studied merely a mask varied to dizziness wrapped round an empty cylinder that gapes to feed on the caloric excess of other, partially edible masks. Scan the horizon, stare into the empyrean, plumb the salt depths or drill into the earth: nowhere will you find anybody—any body—to speak of. The earthworm is the prototypical animal.
And yet, since our mouths speak as well as eat and to our cylinder are attached hands, we try to project into eternity—time when we are not—some object, be it only a study skin, a defunct Bufflehead eviscerated as though precisely by this signal excision to confess the rule of nature all the more completely. Even during our lifetimes, as we grow older, we observe how the effort miscarries. Have you ever given a gift to an elderly friend and, because the friend is so reverend, so venerable already, expected the gift to be tended thenceforward through the passage of innumerable years? At least while we remain youthful, we mistake the stigma of age not for morbid symptoms, but for a stabilizing proof of endless caring to come. The sage having become so wise is, to all appearances, less vulnerable to convulsions and relinquishments than a man or woman fighting for ground in vexed middle age.
Then the old friend to whom we have entrusted such hope dies. The gift, which after all was more selfish than selfless, lapses back into our hands. We realize we have been playing a macabre ball game, and our partner has perished there on the court, and our role in future we perceive (as our fingers pucker with wrinkles) will be to receive with good humour such gifts, ourselves. For a time we hold them but the strength abandons us, we drop them back into the outstretched, disillusioned grasp of those who had wanted to ensure the intactness of some memento somewhere. We thought we had the power to make a thing persist, but what seemed glorious, unique, imperishable performs the office, at best, of a wizened apple pricked with cloves—only good to scent a few articles of clothing folded away in an old chest of drawers.
Luckily we breathe as well as eat. Inhalation and exhalation are friendly events. Erskine rejoins to my sense that life reduces to a digestion of vacuity by vacuity, by answering one of God’s questions at the end of the Book of Job. Most people know that in this story God manifests climactically in a whirlwind. A twister or cyclone is a weather formation that mimics the body of a creature: it is a cylinder spun round a vacancy. Twirling, interrogative God takes thus the aboriginal shape of one of his characteristic manufactures. He poses queries, and Job, quailing, cannot answer them, and at last the long-suffering man acknowledges he has uttered what he understood not. God tests Job on the topic of nature and natural things, a series of questions rhetorical in the sense that it would seem God usually expects the answer to be “No”:
Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks?
Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom?
Doth the eagle mount up at thy command and make her nest on high?
Now and again God, in his mercy, varies the format of the examination. When he asks, “Knowest thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth?,” his determinateness implies clemency. He hints at one path to uprightness, which eschews evil. Erskine devotes his life to the study of a single such question—the question concerning Buffleheads; and so can impede God’s continual turning, if only for a moment, by supplying an accurate answer. A monograph erects a superb monument of pride and submits the proof of the utmost humility. How did the excellent Erskine grow so full of days? By spending them in the honest company of a small duck.
Together with The Buffleheads, I scrutinized Kafka’s notebooks. I first read Kafka one cold, clear November. My brother and I had the habit of denying the end of summer. We caught wild crickets in our ravine in August, and attempted to keep these tokens of a past epoch alive long after frost had slain all their brethren. I realize that we were anatomists of melancholy in our way. Our energies expended themselves in a melange of resistance and lamentation. We were always in mourning for a previous phase in a cycle. It was November—brown, rustling, scrabbling, spotted with frost—when I first came to Kafka. Ignoring the stony exposure of the month, I read him stretched out in our rockery in a posture of roughly calculated comfort or tolerable unease while creepers and kinglets rang out faintly as Odradek in the attic spaces of our spruce. Kafka’s original ink seemed so fresh I might negligently have smeared the words I was reading when I turned the pages, which—hoisted in front of my eyes—blocked the face of a sun no less bright for imparting less heat. He was atramental: his ink might have been made from the gall of our local White Oak acorns and the soot of our hearth. Through a gap in a hedge piercing through to Prague he might have passed me manuscript pages on which his thoughts were just drying. The story I liked best is short, and he never finished it. Let me paraphrase.
One evening a man came home and found in the middle of his room a large egg. It stood as tall as the table and had proportionate bulk. The man grasped the egg between his legs and cut it in halves with a pocketknife. The sides of the shell fell apart and out jumped a stork-like, still featherless bird striking at the air with short wings. “What could you want with our world?” the man wished to ask. He bent down to look the bird directly in its anxiously fluttering eyes. He got paper and ink, and dipped the creature’s beak into the stand and wrote the following words, without even asking leave: “I, stork-like bird, do hereby promise, provided that you supply me, until I am capable of flight, with a diet of fish and frogs and worms, to bear you on my back to southern climes.”
The man wiped the beak clean and held the paper in front of the bird for its contemplation, before folding the contract up and laying it into a briefcase. Day by day—quite unlike human children—the bird made great progress in its development. The wings grew, feathers decked them and the time arrived to begin flight lessons. The man began with gliding. He sprang up with arms outstretched; the bird imitated him. Later they launched themselves from the table and, eventually, from the top of the cabinet.
Kafka breaks off just there. A course of instruction in the first elements of migration has begun. We must remain ignorant of its outcome. The spirit of anguish (begins the next entry) dwells in the woods, smaller than the smallest mouse.