I killed a turkey with my car while thinking about empathy and the Brewer’s Spruce. I hit it with such force the bird flew across the highway landing in the ditch with the thistle and grass. I killed a turkey and didn’t turn back, but the light from the passing afternoon was like honey, and with the traffic steady at four p.m. on the two-lane road and the storm having just moved east, I considered the death of the animal a possible inconvenience to my daily commute. A temporary delay. But no—that’s not what it made me feel. In fact, I’d wished I reversed my car—I did not feel indifference for killing and thought perhaps my duty was to bury the animal, collect the feathers from the highway and gully (strewn there like a child’s game of marbles or rice, flowers across graves, split metal framework, diamonds) and string them through my yard on lines and sticks, decorate the children’s fort, or at the very least, light a candle for its soul. Perhaps strip its body of organs and skin and keep it for dinner. But I didn’t do any of those things. I kept driving, alert to the lingering startle of both bumper and bird. How does a turkey die? What part of its body stops working first? The heart? Did it break its backbone, its sympathetic trunk? Had it only been out foraging for spring buds and last year’s acorns? And what had I been thinking of empathy? —of certain identification with the mountains, of home, of wishing for political forces to cultivate a sense of care for this place I live, a kind of fellowship maybe, something meaningful, close to love. I was sad about the turkey, and the government too, until upon arriving home, I forgot entirely of the bird and death and Republicans when my daughter met me in our driveway, “Hi, Mama!,” half embracing me with a toothy smile and a bowl of crackers in her small hand.
Our plan was always to go home to Amsterdam at the end of March. By then, we will have been on the road for 200 days. But now home is the new coronavirus epicenter. The projections are that the Netherlands will follow the pattern set by Italy. With only so many hospital beds, respirators and medical staff, Dutch doctors will have to triage. They will treat the younger patients with a higher chance of survival. The others are on their own.
We have no good choices. Staying on the road presents its own dangers. Hotels are vectors for infection. So are restaurants and public transportation for so long as they stay open. We could hunker down in an AirBnB. But who will tell us when the lockdown begins or ends?
Sunday morning, Buckroe Beach. It’s early, before the kids and kites and coolers. A different crowd is here. Another breed of beach-lover.
A small group of Baptists emerges from the water’s edge. The men, burly and robust, call and jostle in boyish exuberance. The sisters, in flowing white, hover around one woman wrapped in a maroon beach towel like a rescued bird; damp curls cling to her forehead. She is radiant.
Just past the pier, the yoga class that started a few weeks ago has already doubled in size. The backsides of fifty-plus downward-facing dogs in every possible size, shape and color, stretch toward the heavens.
Scorpions, jellyfish, poisonous flowers. My orientation as a young newcomer to a Caribbean island began with a litany of how to avoid being stung or cut or poisoned or burned. At age four, I learned to shake out my shoes to check for scorpions. I learned to back away from the pink blooms of jellyfish in the water. I learned to recognize the dark, flitting form of the stingray. I learned don’t step on a sea urchin, don’t eat an ackee raw, don’t taste the milky sap of the oleander plant.
To practice the quick slipping away of ground beneath our feet, geologists built a second mountain. This one is a tender surface, fitted with sensors, and rigged for data. On sunny, cold mornings, to practice how helpless, they measure piles to drop — peat, gravel, water-saturated masses of organic matter, combinations to mimic what might happen — and let them fall into chaos. To practice the moment of shock, they invite everyone like a performance. The scientists on their lunch break gather, promising to stand quietly for five minutes after the stopwatch starts, for the duration of the drop, to watch how it all tumbles, gaining speed, no gasping no matter what it looks like, and for ten whole minutes after. This is the most difficult part. Practicing the quiet after.
I bought it thirty years ago on my first visit to Italy, in a cramped bookbinding shop tucked on a dark, narrow alley behind Piazza San Marco. I paid for it in lire—heavy coins that bore the images of grapevines and olive branches, and oversized pastel bills printed with portraits of Guglielmo Marconi and Maria Montessori.
My address book, covered in blue marbled paper, is the size of 3 x 5 index card. The flyleaf is stamped with the symbol of Venice: a winged lion. The lion looks proudly out, as if—in a city where many go to deliberately get lost in the enchanting maze—he knows exactly where he is going.
Over and over, I dig thin flower stems into the earth, as if mending a hole in an old shirt. The earth buckles at my persistence. I imagine the worms, deep in the ground, ducking each stem in slow, pink frenzy. The flowers are from Safeway along Route 18—dip-dyed daisy petals in blue and pink food coloring. It’s strange to return these gaudy flowers back to the soil. But they were the only ones we could find in the store that weren’t browning at the edges. If you’re going to bring flowers for the dead, they better not be dead themselves.