“Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too, just once.
And never again.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke, “Ninth Elegy”
This ramshackle writer’s cabin works well for me. It is nestled in the hillside above the flat that empties into Tomales Bay. The area, mostly ranchland, is being returned to wetlands, I’m told. A few dairy cows are sequestered on the far side of the valley, an odd picture of domesticity against the backdrop of wild and primal Point Reyes National Seashore. The weather has been wonderfully erratic—alternating wind and rain with sun and fog, all amidst dramatic shifts of light.
There are candles mounted on the braces and struts of the cabin, heavy tools on the walls—balpeen hammers, an axe, a pipe wrench, hedge clippers. These hand tools remind me that I am here to work with the tools of the word. Their solid presence makes me feel the heftiness that the craft of language carries. I feel the urge to grasp and wield, turning the fine bolt of a phrase, trimming an awkward sentence.
There is a space heater at my feet, two lamps, two pine desks, two doors opening to the south and to the west, and a balcony I can walk out onto to stretch and feel the wind. A wooden chair on the deck invites me to go out—so I can go in.
Birds swarm around the cabin like gnats to a cow. Last night, just at dusk, a Cooper’s hawk perched on the railing of the balcony not five feet from me. I had ample time to take in his wild feathered beauty. Then he dropped and glided into the bramble, where moments before I had seen a salon of hermit thrushes.
White egrets power their way over the plain like pure thoughts, angelic and untouchable. Watching their flight distills my thinking. They light on the wetlands and the land and waters come to exquisite attention. Vultures circle over the vast green, searching for the fallen, leaving signs that the living don’t want to admit to consciousness. The crows, in their iridescent black, seem the antithesis of the egrets—playful, demonic, steeped in the imperfect, tumbling in delight with Earth’s constant creative surges.
I prefer the crows. They somehow occupy, live, the space between immanent and transcendent, independent and raucous in their irreverence. Their intelligence exhilarates me. I want to be part of their clan. They seem to know what’s suspect and what to accept all in the same moment. They are solitary, or they flock in the hundreds, depending on what suits them. Crows talk to each other constantly, have elaborate communication systems, even on the wing. They don’t worry for tomorrow. They tumble with the wind like black scarves abandoned to chance.
I stand to stretch, open the cabin door, and find a ruby-crowned kinglet dead on the doormat. Is this why the vultures have been venturing so near the cabin? I bend down to pick him up, and as I touch the kinglet, I feel irreverent. My movements seem too clumsy and too swift to impart the tenderness I feel. I can’t help it—I feel the same paternal tenderness toward all animals, birds especially.
There isn’t a mark on his amazingly tiny body. His head is cocked back, leading me to believe that he broke his neck flying into the window. I marvel at his lightness and at the coldness of his body, so soon after death. Most beings are heavy at death, as if they were yearning to be drawn back into the Earth.
The subtle flicker of a ruby streak on the crown of the kinglet’s head flares up to a blaze underneath when I part the feathers. Kinglets are nicely named, both for their color and for the royal designation. I have always been drawn to them for this reason: Kinglet, a small king. Like Rivulet, a small river. They are tiny birds—our smallest next to hummingbirds and bushtits—yet stunning and ferocious in their drab beauty. A white eye ring intensifies their gaze into a disarming curiosity.
Kinglet song is imposing for the size of its creator. One field guide describes the kinglet’s song as “wheezy and subdued.” This does an inept disservice to a Herculean singer. The song is a remarkable outburst, loud and rich, peaking with a rollicking tee-da-leet, tee-da-leet, tee-da-leet.* Kinglets revel in throwing their song to the world. In revealing themselves, questions of size or self-doubt are not in their repertoire.
Kinglets are lucky to live four years.
Vultures pass shadows over the cabin endlessly. One cruises my window with a dead rodent in its beak, taunting me to distraction. Yesterday my writing wheeled around death as if to mimic the vultures. Today, I find death deposited neatly at my door in the form of a kinglet. I seem destined to face mortality on this retreat. It’s as if the Earth is telling me to pay attention. Time to stop writing in circles and deliver up a package.
If I truly believed in my own death, I wouldn’t waste time with doubt, I would just write. As Rilke writes in the “Ninth Elegy,” “Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too, just once. And never again.” My rough translation: “Now is my time to be Lauren.”
The vultures are thickening in numbers and intensity outside the cabin. Something draws them beyond the willow thicket outside my window. They encroach and press in, the sound of their wings the music of my own dying. I try to let the fluttering leaves of the alders drown out the dour birds. But when they do, I hear the same song, even as the leaves shudder with joy. Joy sings out of the breast of death. It is the sound I am drawn to for my survival, for the marrow of my living.
“Here is the time for the sayable,” wrote Rilke, “here is its homeland. Speak and bear witness.”
If Ruby, as I have now come to call the kinglet on the desk in front of me, had not appeared, had not come to me in death, I may not have spoken: “Kinglet, Ruby-crowned. Too-short life abandoned.”
How can my heart praise invisibly
The world as it arises within me
How can I hear the green Earth
And see the caw of the crow
And so satisfy the call of the seraphim—
Holy! Holy! Holy!
There must be some other sense
I can pierce the world with,
Shedding my blindness
To what is so near at hand
A revelation, born of a new organ
With which to know mystery.
Each time I look at Ruby, I feel gratitude. Something wells in me that makes me feel more at home. The way Ruby was laid at my doorstep was like a gift left for a starving prisoner. In a sense I am starving. And I am a prisoner. I hunger, as we all do, for home and place. I feel the pangs of longing for beauty, to never shut down my inner gateway to wonder, at being stunned or terrified. Ruby, here beside my writing pad, makes me feel truly liberated as only duende, the sense of the presence of death, can.
Hunger and imprisonment are not essential to who I am. They are states of mind I induce when I forget and fear. Gratitude dissolves our forgetfulness and returns us home to Earth and each other. There are ruby-crowned kinglets. And alders, vultures, egrets. Just once, and no more.
My kind is now the perpetrator of a great vanishing from the Earth. My kind also possesses a unique evolutionary heritage: to speak and bear witness. And for this, I can feel fortunate to be in the world. For this, I am human.
There is no time to waste. The story strains to be heard.