The Heat And Being Watched

Backstory: Aug. 25

Nature as constant summertime companion

This summer in Northwest Arkansas is a time for squinting. Deadly hot, leaves prematurely dropping from branches, creeks low and pebbly. We start all our conversations with questions about how we’re holding up in the heat, chatter that would seem boring except that it is bona fide. Unless it is dawn or dusk, or we are inside, or we have just come out of lake water and are seated under a tree, we have a hard time focusing on the details of the living creatures around us.
But we are always being watched. My neighbor puts food out for stray cats. In this heat, he sets out dishes of ice. Three have somehow befriended his tom, so they hole up inside during storms. They are strays at heart, though.
When I pull into my gravel drive (which used to be pocked with mud but is now just tan and lumpy), I don’t see them at first, even if I squint. Then they appear, crouched under the oak, snaky under the rock bench. They’ve caught sight of me long before I see them. If my big dog’s in the back seat I have to get out and swing my arms wildly to make them scramble off so he won’t drag and topple me in pursuit.
Squirrels and other rodents keep us in their sights in the midst of their circus acts. Once, when I lived by the university, I walked from my porch to my old, low-riding Lincoln, and sitting in front of the house next door was a beaver. It was larger than I thought they were, and it had a tail like a furry brown dinner plate. We stared at each other.
Frogs and armadillos, unfortunately for them, don’t spot us as quickly as they should.
Then there are birds. Everywhere. Where I live now, south of the square, it’s mourning doves, whose hoohoo-hoo call I’ve loved since I learned it as a teenager in Los Angeles. There, where I lived in a Mexican neighborhood near Dodger Stadium and where there were still dirt roads and nopal cactuses covering hillsides, sparrows hid behind sparrow-size leaves, jays jetted from limb to rooftop, and mourning doves hoohoo-hooed and swirled in the air and often landed on the ground. They seemed relaxed, like fear wasn’t part of their relationship with humans.
Regardless, they — all the birds — watched us. Their tiny glinting eyes scanned our movements, and their heads jerked in response, readying themselves for flight.
I thought about our being watched last week in workshop. I wondered what people would come up with if they imagined themselves in the position of a watcher. Joy Caffrey wrote this piece from the point of view of a bird:

By Joy Caffrey

I like that you notice me when I sing the sun awake. I hear your footsteps as you flick on the lights, then tap on your keyboard. The running water changes sound as you fill the teapot and then make it sing. The teapot and I both serenade you.
I wait close by as you swing open the screen door, take in the morning and peruse the deck. Your eyes stroke your flowers. I never know if you will water the containers or the garden bed first. I turn towards you as I hear the first burst of rushing water out of the garden hose. My eyes dart to the water droplet’s sun catching display. I flutter from tree to tree to be a part of the morning dance.
You go inside and come out with your daughter. You both sit at ease, no words at first, slowly a few tumble out mixing with the morning air. The cat too knows your rhythm and adds her own feline sleek movements.
After you linger, you are up. The screen door screeches open and thumps closed, open and closed. Eventually you two, mother and daughter, leave together. Shifting into reverse, the white beast rolls down the steep driveway. Sometimes there’s a scraping noise where metal meets street, other mornings roll on soundless, smoother.
The boxy beast brings you back and forth repeatedly as the sun crosses the sky. Each time you return you touch and whisper to the plants before the screen door opens then thumps closed.
In the evening your pace is firmer on the deck. Your body more coordinated. Busily the dinner aromas then dishes come through the screen door and set on the eucalyptus wood slated table. Conversation is livelier, words more complete; silverware to dish clangs punctuate the day’s tales.
At the end, you and I both linger, tree gazing. We watch the air settle and greet the evening sky. And listen one for the other, song to heart, heart to song. I am here, I am here.

No part of Joy Caffrey’s piece may be used without her permission.

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