The Deathless Bird

I close my eyes and go in search of where I've stored the memories of moments that can't be put into words. . .

The Deathless Bird

I close my eyes and go in search of where I've stored the memories of moments that can't be put into words. They must still be somewhere, and I want to look at them again, feel them, and try – I'd rather try than call it hopeless – to find some words for them, before they turn to dust and blow away.

. . .Though I have never been there, I recognize where I am: in Malta, in the Blue Grotto, bobbing in the clear water, though I am not wet. I must be in a very small boat, for the cavern is not large. There is a landing on the white stone where I climb out and tie my little boat. I pass through an arched opening in the side of the cave and enter a long, dry passage that leads to a huge door. I happen to have its key, which is actually a white feather pen I wear in my hair, that has a gold tip on it. The door swings effortlessly on its hinges and reveals a cathedral-like space, dry and bright as a salt mine, but with none of the feeling of workers laboring in a salt mine.

At my feet stand beautiful urns of varying heights, filled with scrolls of bark paper. The writing on them is in pale brown ink made from bark as well. A kind of tannin. I can't read the writing, it is some ancient script. But I know that if I take one with me and bring it back out into the world the writing will translate itself for me, for they are my scrolls, and the words are alive. The writing is somehow conscious of itself, like a seed that can sit for thousands of years, ready to sprout the moment it rains.

I pull a scroll from its earthen jar, and the taste of lemon curd springs up on the back of my tongue, as if my body already knows that both sweet and sour, like joy and sorrow, lay waiting for me inside it. Anxious to take it out into the sunlight, I stow the scroll inside my blouse, between my breasts, so it doesn't get wet, and return to my boat, leaving the big door open. I am careful, as I row, not to bend it as I reach forward with the oars. It is brittle, like papyrus, but not too brittle. I like the way it smells: of straw, unbaked clay, and amber.

I feel its message seeping into my chest directly, radiating warmth like Tiger Balm. But the sensation, though it may contain the essence, is not the story. The child in me wants the story. I want to hear it told. And if I have to tell it to myself, that's fine. As I row out of the grotto into the bleaching sunlight, I think, "How fortunate that where we hear and where we speak are separate locations on our body, so we can listen to ourselves tell stories, unlike eating and speaking, or drinking and kissing or whistling – you can only do one of them at a time." I chuckle and pull the oars through the clear water, my back to the beach.

The wooden hull of my dinghy scrapes on the pebbly bottom of the beach at the eastern side of the grotto. I climb out, and since I am wearing shorts, the water only comes to my knees. I grab the rope at the prow and pull my boat onto shore. It is a blue boat, not as turquoise as the water. Not aquamarine. It has a hint of lavender in it, almost perriwinkle, with white inside and around the rim. I make sure it is high enough on the beach that the tide won't steal it from me. I climb up the slope of the beach to where a few carob trees grow, from which the ink is made. There are a handful of small houses tucked in the shade there, at the foot of the cliff that overlooks the beach. The cliff is a warm color, like honey, and the houses are each a very pale color, washed out by the sun, but you can see that they were once magenta, turquoise, mango, geranium red, with each others' colors as trim, that makes them look like houses children would have drawn with crayons.

My house is the one that was once magenta, but it is now a very pale shade of itself. Its turquoise trim, though, makes a harmony with it that sings, and as I open the door, the air inside is deliciously cool. No electricity here. No running water. No glass on the windows, just shutters to close when it's raining or too windy, or too hot. I pour myself a glass of water that I keep in a jug in a hole in the floor in the corner, where the earth keeps it cool. It has mint and sea lavender in it that I pick in the canyon beyond the trees.

I sit cross legged on my little bed, which is a mattress filled with mosses and fragrant herbs, lots of sea lavender, pine needles, wild thyme and grasses. Its smell makes me feel like I'm sleeping outside under the stars, which I sometimes do. I can see my boat through my open window, like a faithful horse, resting on the sand, waiting for when we have somewhere else to go.

I untie the scroll, which is held with a piece of surprisingly fine cord, though I'm not sure what it is made from. Flax, perhaps. As I unroll the scroll, I feel my face get warm. And the back of my hands itch. It is a bit frightening, and I can't tell if this is a warning to myself not to open it. But I decide to go on. It feels important, like reading a will, like something that needs to be read, to make things right, to set things in order.

As I unfurl it gently, so as not to crack it, I almost drop it in horror. The letters are moving, like wriggling larvae. I think of the word larvae, and how it always makes me think of lava. It is like that, too, I think. Lava always there under the crust of the Earth, but we don't think about it until something shakes up the surface and in the cracks, it wriggles its way out into the light, killing everything it touches; but also, at the same time, it makes new things, huge things: mountains, archipelagos, Hawaii.

With two rounded stones, I anchor the scroll open on my bed and wait until the words stop moving. I realize I am holding my breath, and I exhale, take another sip of herb water and tell myself,  Pretend this is a bedtime story. Your mother is saying, "Once upon a time..." and you are closing your eyes... I pick it up and read out loud:

"It was a summer afternoon when the girl heard the doorbell ring, and she hurried down the hall to answer it. She pulled open the door with the round window like a port hole, and its brass horse-head knocker, and saw a tall man with dark, curly hair, long arms, a musician's slender fingers and slightly hunched shoulders that made him appear shy. Behind him the sun was bright, turning him into a silhouette, so her vision was filled with a dark figure in framed in a sunny doorway, as if he were someone in a dream, a messenger, a prince, a young man from the deep forest who had once rescued her there, and had come back to see if she was safe. He was a figure of destiny. She felt her heart suddenly leap from her chest like a bird flying out of a tree, and she heard her voice before she knew it was hers: a high, swooping, bird sound somewhere between a hoot and a chirp, a sound of surprise and surrender, the kind of sound that comes out of you when you jump off a cliff into a sparkling blue swimming hole.The young man asked if he could come in, and she said, of course, come in, I didn't think you'd come. I wanted to see you, he said. She did not feel the floor under her feet as she led him down the hall to the living room. They sat down together on the long couch, and the room disappeared.

Swinging his long legs and arms, her red-haired older brother appeared, tossed out a Hello as he crossed the room and vanished out the kitchen door into the back yard. Moving slower, her father, a tall, bald, man with very large hands – a cigarette permanently glued to the right middle finger – entered in his plaid bathrobe. He turned towards his daughter and the young man, looking out from under his bushy rust-colored eyebrows, and muttered a hoarse hello, then disappeared into the kitchen to pour himself an orange juice with vodka, his Saturday breakfast. But the girl and the young man hardly noticed the brother or father, as if they were characters in a different story, wandering out of a book that had been left open on the marble table in front of the couch.

The girl had hair the color of the hills in late summer, which hung behind her in two long braids.  heir eyes fixed on each other were like the opening to another world, like the night sky in a place far from any city, where all the stars are visible, and infinity is all around you. She felt like she was falling into that space, but just as a tiny flicker of fear passed through her, his eyes steadied her, and she realized she was not alone in this feeling, and it was alright, alright to let go of the world she knew, and fall into the space of something more real, but totally unfamiliar. He reached out for her hand, just as she reached out for his, so that only the tips of their index fingers touched, on their way to each other's hand.

At that instant, a shock of electricity shuddered through her body, travelling up her arm, and into her heart, and spreading like lightning, sharp and hot and the color of mercury, to the ends of her being, a feeling that seemed to sever her from the reality she had known, in that living room. At that moment, it was as if he became one wing of a great bird and she the other, and they were flying, completely at peace, through all time and all space. An overwhelming certainty flooded her, that for the first time, she was home, and home was what people sometimes called God, and other people sometimes called Love. But none of that mattered. Because she was finally there, and didn't even know she had been looking for a way to get there, to get home, for a very long time, life times, maybe, forever maybe.

What happened next didn't matter, couldn't matter. She was vaguely aware that they were visible to her brother and father if they came back into the room, but they would need binoculars to seem, they were so far away.

They held on then, as if the couch was a cliff in a high wind, though it was impossible to say who was cradling who in their lap, for each gripped a part to press into, to say with their free hand – for the other hands were entwined fingers to fingers – I am here, and in that place, there, together, here with you, in a here at last that has you in it, for you are the opening where the real begins, where I can take the breath I've been dying to take forever.

And it never mattered what happened next, over all the years of coming and going between them, and even at his final, final going, when she wanted to walk into the sea to follow him and not return, not even then, because the bird they made together in that moment is a deathless bird.