Donna Steiner | Essays
My father had a pigeon coop in our backyard, and he cared for what seemed like a hundred birds. He fed them, administered medication, fastened a small metal band around a leg of each bird, let us name them. On weekends he selected a few and raced them against pigeons belonging to other men. He had a special clock that timed the races, and he’d spend the afternoon waiting for the birds to return home. I don’t remember the logistics or rules of pigeon racing. But I remember being in the coop with him, admiring the birds, listening to their coos, watching their jittery steps, following with my eyes a downy feather as it wafted through air that smelled of sawdust and sifted sunlight. I remember him cradling a pigeon in his hand, telling me it was sick. “Can it get better?” I asked. He shook his head no, then swiftly twisted the bird’s neck. As its head flopped loosely in his hand, I understood the pigeon was dead, understood that my father had killed it, but the act had been so quiet, so discrete. I hadn’t known death was like that. I hadn’t known death was like anything.
Leonardo da Vinci was a handsome, even beautiful man. In his twenties he was arrested for engaging in “wickedness,” including, it was rumored, with a 17-year-old boy. Some things can be known as fact, some cannot. It is known that as a famous painter, Leonardo dressed in fine clothes of pink and purple, a bit of a bird himself.
When I was a kid, I wanted to fly. I didn’t want to be a bird, just a girl with wings. I practiced by jumping off an old picnic table, over and over, and by swinging on a rusty swing, going as high as I dared then leaping into the air. I wanted to be a sea creature, too, and practiced “breathing” by swimming as far as I could underwater, then surfacing as great bubbles of air escaped my nose and throat. I was old enough to understand that I could not become a flying creature nor a sea creature, but I continued my efforts for some years, because what should be known isn’t always what is known.
Amy, a friend who’d slowly become more than a friend, called me on the telephone. We had phones with answering machines back then; I didn’t answer because I was mid-dinner. Her voice echoed through the house. “Hi, I’m at the lake. I found some dead birds and I’m not sure how to get them home.” I picked up the phone. “What do you mean?” I asked, intrigued. “Well, they’re lying on the rocks, and I want to bring them home, but I don’t have anything to carry them in.” She added, quietly, “I’m afraid to leave them all alone. . . .” She asked if I could help, but I was in a relationship where leaving dinner with one woman to spend time with another would have caused tension. “It’s okay to leave them for a few minutes,” I said. “Nobody will bother them. Find a bag or a cloth to carry them in. They’re going to stink up your car. Make sure you wash your hands.”
My mother insisted we wash our hands after being in the pigeon coop. She wasn’t fastidious, and we were mostly left to our own devices, free to play in the dirt, in the creek, free to roam for miles if we felt like it, as long as we came home before dark. We were feral kids—fera bestia, animali selvaggi, wild animals, they called us—so it concerned me that my father’s pigeons were not free. There was a lock on the coop and, although I adored my father—he was like the benevolent king of our chaotic home—I daydreamed about how to break into the coop.
Leonardo, it is said, purchased caged birds just to release them. Amy, my future love, rescued dead birds so they’d not be alone. I dreamed of picking the coop’s lock, dreamed of what all those wings lifting off for good would sound like. It didn’t occur to me that the birds were trained to return. They might have flown the coop, had I facilitated escape . . . but it’s also possible they’d have boomeranged right back to us.
My therapist, Kate, asks, “Where do you think they are now?” She’s referring to my parents, who have died close together in time but not in space. There were just six weeks between my mother’s death and my father’s. They were not married, had not been so for decades; it wasn’t one of those she died then he died of a broken heart stories. I think Kate wants me to say something metaphorical or insightful, but I say, “I know where they are. Their ashes are in the Atlantic Ocean.” After Kate dies—because she dies, too, although when my parents die, we have no reason to consider Kate dying, no reason to focus on the hypothetical death of anyone we know let alone millions of people dying in great waves—I read the notes she left in my file, hand-written, barely legible. They are simple recordings of what I said during our sessions. There is very little commentary, very little of Kate. We got to be close—maybe closer than one would normally get with one’s therapist—and sometimes she’d say, “We’re breaking all sorts of boundaries,” but there is no evidence of that in my file. There is little evidence of any “we.” There is just her handwriting. (We were not a “we” in the way you are imagining. She engaged in no wickedness with me. But I was in a cage when we met, and she did try to free me.)
We’re walking home from the corner store—a different loved one, a different year. A mourning dove is on the ground, beneath a hydrangea bush. The dove’s wing is broken and it can hardly breathe. I want to rescue it but my lover says, “It can’t be saved.” She grew up on a farm, harbors no sentimentality about wild creatures. “Can we leave it?” I ask, meaning are you sure?? I want to believe the dove will make it through the night, then fly away. “It’s suffering,” she says, scanning the vicinity. She spies a rock, one that fits perfectly in the hand. “I can’t,” I say, stepping away. She pauses for a second as I walk toward our house. I wish she’d let me get inside . . . but I hear the sound. Bones are hard, we think, but the dove skull breaks as easily as an eggshell.
I dream of flying and of other people flying. In one dream I hold on tight while my teacher flies over a city with me, like Superman and Lois Lane; in another my brother floats in a hot air balloon over the Paris skyline. Awake I imagine planes plummeting to earth. I imagine this all the time, wherever I am. In the desert, in a little east coast town. As soon as I hear an engine in the sky, I picture the plane falling. But in my dreams, we fly and nobody crashes, nobody plummets.
I thought my father could do anything. He fixed my bike, he coaxed fruit trees to bloom, he taught me to swim, throw a baseball, pour a beer. I thought that’s how all men were—good at things, easygoing. Leonardo painted The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, and he designed war machines. He was a man wrapped in velvet who designed tanks and cannons. He was welcomed in the courts of royalty, he was arrested for dalliances with other boys. He thought about bodies embracing, and bodies dying.
Amy and I are walking across the campus of the school where we teach. It is night and we hear waves crashing on Lake Ontario’s shoreline. We’ve just seen a movie and discuss it as we head to her car. From a distance, there appears to be something on the car’s roof. A bookbag? A sweater? As we get closer, it looks like a dead bird.
We are bewildered—it is a dead bird—and we become more disoriented when we discover the bird is headless. Did the mutilated bird fall from the sky? Was there a fight in midair, and the losing bird landed on the car? Amy removes the bird, bestows a name upon it—Cinema, she whispers, in honor of our movie date—and places it gently in the grass. The next day, the bird is gone.
I’m hiking in the desert. I find bones all the time. Sections of femurs, skulls, vertebrae. I’ve developed a knack for finding exactly what I am looking for, and on this hike, I want a bird skull. I find one slightly bigger than a dime. A tiny raft of feathers limns it like a judge’s collar; I treasure it like a piece of silver.
I consider myself curious and empathetic, but looking back, I didn’t spend much time thinking about how dead creatures became dead.
In the second summer of the pandemic, the duration through which we’ve had weekly phone therapy or “porch therapy”—that is, an occasional visit, sometimes under blankets, on her porch—Kate is diagnosed with cancer. She has a positive outlook, has survived cancer before. I suggest we pause therapy so she can concentrate on her health, but she wants something to do, wants to continue as normally as possible. I am skeptical about the mundane part of therapy—How can I discuss my dumb issues while Kate is sick?? And I’m terribly sad, uncertain she’ll survive.
It becomes clear, quickly, that it’s uncomfortable to discuss things we normally talk about, so the difficulty of participating in therapy becomes the topic of therapy. “How can we talk about my suffering when YOU’RE suffering?” I ask. “It’s good for me,” she insists. I try to believe her, although when we embrace she is as fragile as a bird and I think I might break her if I hug too hard. Every time she sees a doctor, I wonder about the air she breathes. I wonder how her body will endure through cancer, and how she will avoid Covid. We both have autoimmune illnesses—it was one of the ways we initially bonded—and we’re at increased risk. We’re part of what the media calls “vulnerable populations,” and Kate has become more vulnerable than ever.
Leonardo da Vinci was determined to document the human body. He planned to do more than just draw it; he wanted to explain everything about it. He wrote notes to himself: “In four drawings you will depict the four universal conditions of man, that is: joy, with different ways of laughing, and draw the cause of the laughter; weeping in different ways, with their cause; fighting, with the different movements of killing; flight, fear, ferocity, boldness, murder and everything belonging to such events.” I reread “four drawings” and think, Is it that simple, Leonardo? What would it take to document the mechanics, intentions and repercussions of a single sigh?
A blue jay slams into the front door outside my study. I am living in the woods, and birds hit the windows all the time, but the jay is the first to fly full speed into the door. On the landing, one wing lifts, painstakingly, then falls. Half of the bird appears to be waving in slow motion, and the wing is like a bellows, seeming to inflate and deflate the bird’s lungs. I should do something to end its suffering, but I just sit with it as it dies. I stay with it for a long time, then bury it beneath my window.
When I visit Kate in summer, we talk in an open room surrounded by trees full of birds. I interrupt our conversation to note “blue jay” or “cardinal,” common local birds, but she is surprised I can identify them. When I talk about whales or octopuses, which I’ve been reading about, she asks how I know so much. “I don’t KNOW anything,” I laugh. “I just research a lot.” She shakes her head. “A lot of people research things,” she says. “I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about what you know.” I know you are suffering, I think.
We are told that Leonardo painted with his right hand but drew with his left. He also wrote with his left and, notably, wrote backwards, starting on the right side of the page and dragging his pen to the left. To read it, you hold the page up to a mirror. His handwriting looks like artfully arranged marks rather than individual words. His letters are like drawings, and remind me of how I perceived my mother’s handwriting as a child. I loved her writing and thought it was magic. The marks—I knew they were called words—turned into stories. By looking at the marks you could decipher the story. I tried to do this magic trick—I drew loops and mountains, attempting to imitate the penmanship of my mother. I’d hand my pages to her and ask what I’d written. She’d “read” me my wondrous story—it was amazing!—and in my little universe I assumed magical status, although of course my mother was the magician. She was magical, off and on, until her stroke. And then for just a little while she was something different—not exactly alive, not dead, not exactly a parent, not a bird, not magic . . . but a tender creature whose hands trembled, who appeared to bless herself, over and over, as she lay half-awake in a bed with rails in a hospital whose name sounded like it was near the ocean, but it was not near enough, so when she wanted to see the ocean in those last days, it was impossible, because we couldn’t fly her there, couldn’t drive her; we couldn’t, alas, move her at all.
At some point, one or both of Leonardo’s hands trembled—il mano tremante—and scientists speculate it may have been a stroke, may have been Parkinson’s, may have been an injury. Art historians study his drawings, debate if the marks on certain sketches were intentional, or if they were caused by uncontrollable shaking.
A hummingbird zips through the open front door and whaps into the window on the other side of the room, falls onto the sill. My lover holds it in her palm. The bird shimmers like a handful of emeralds and rubies, but doesn’t appear to be breathing. Suddenly it quivers and stands; my lover gently tosses it toward the door. It’s gone as unexpectedly as it arrived.
Although she seemed physically fragile to me, Kate’s hands were expressive and strong. She bruised easily, long before the cancer, and would dress in long sleeves and layers, perhaps to cover the bruises. I’d get distracted when she gestured—I’d catch a glimpse of the marks on her arms, see the bruises on her hands—but if I wondered aloud if she was okay, she’d shrug it off—just another symptom. We always had symptoms—autoimmune illnesses are euphemisms for Endless Weird Symptoms that May or May Not Be Serious—so I became accustomed to her failing eyesight, accustomed to the bruises, accustomed to her struggles and dismissal of those struggles. Her handwriting was angular and large. It became larger over time as her vision became problematic. So when I looked at my file, it seemed, at first glance, like the notes should be easy to read. But only odd phrases are discernable: “mostly good; stop, say stop; get still; go underneath . . .” If I had my mother’s powers, I could make a story of those notes. Instead, I must remember our story: I made her laugh. She called me honey. When we hugged, she’d kiss my cheekbone. (Maybe if I hold the notes up to a mirror. . .)
A year before he left, pre-divorce, my father drew a mural on the wall of our living room. We watched him paint a long tree branch upon which perched several cardinals. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. In retrospect, I’m certain it was a kit, a paint-by-numbers, do-it-yourself project meant to prettify our mess of a home and, if you looked close up, you could see where his brush shook. But I loved cardinals, love them still, particularly in winter when they are flashes of dazzle against the snow. During a blizzard once, wind and sleet blasted a floor-to-ceiling window of the house. A pair of cardinals was outside; the male threw himself repeatedly at the glass. The female hunched nearby, and I wanted to let them inside. Perhaps someone more intrepid would have tried; I didn’t let them in, don’t know if they survived the storm. And I don’t know who painted over the mural or when. But one day it was there and then it wasn’t.
Age 11, I am singing in the yard, swinging on a swing. The song is about a kite. As I swing forward, the chain of the swing breaks and I fall. I had been watching my shadow lengthen in the afternoon light; everything about my anatomy interested me in those days and I studied my body with the attention of an artist. I fall hard into the dirt and my father spontaneously laughs. I’m not injured, but even now I sometimes feel the repercussions of too much happiness, sometimes feel haunted by the body in flight and thwarted flight. One day my father was there, laughing, and then he wasn’t.
I was pretty sure, as a kid, that my ribs were like fledgling, furled wings. I’d stretch out on the floor and notice how my rib cage rose up, how my hip bones and shoulder blades stuck out. The bones were so close to the surface, the skin just a sheath. It seemed feasible that wings could sprout—they’d merely have to break through the surface. I’d make a little person of my fingers and walk them up from my hips, across the ripples of my ribs. I thought my bones resembled mountains and now, all these years later, as I try to survive the pandemic, I can see my ribs again. I’ve lost weight: a fact, maybe a symptom. My anatomy is less a source of fascination now, more a repository of information, of clues. But if my mind settles, I resemble the girl I was. I imagine remnants of wings, primal and essential, like if I believed enough, if I believed in almost anything, I might feel a flutter.
Leonardo studied anatomy, he dissected corpses, drew every part of the human body. He may have described Parkinson’s disease centuries before it was officially understood and named. “You will see . . . those who . . . move their trembling parts, such as their heads or hands without permission of the soul; (the) soul with all its forces cannot prevent these parts from trembling.” Mani tremanti, trembling hands. When my mother was recovering from her stroke, (it looked like she was recovering), her hand would tremble up from her side, rise to her collar bone, then to her lips. She touched her mouth with reverence, like touching the hem of a saint’s robe, or like whispering a vow, and then lowered her arm. She did this repeatedly, a labor or devotion, intentional or not. Some days I could not bear to watch.
Kate had the same autoimmune illness I have and it was comforting to know someone who understood its ambiguities. Good days, bad days, good months, bad months. Whole years muted by pain, the illness perpetually destabilizing. At any given time, regardless of how I actually feel, I could be slightly ill, very ill, or dangerously ill. The way I experienced my illness was not the way Kate experienced it. The way I experienced therapy was not the way Kate experienced it, although I can’t know that, can’t research it. The time to learn anything more about Kate is past.
One day we were talking in the sunshine. One day I was leaving a message on her answering machine. One day I sent her a song she might like. One day I was planning to see her just for a visit, not therapy. No more therapy, I decided, until Kate got stronger. But she didn’t get stronger. One day she was alive and getting ready for chemo, alive and supposed to recuperate, alive and reading poetry in bed, alive . . . and then not.
The last time I saw her was on her porch. We talked for a while and before I left I leaned down to hug her because she couldn’t stand. She said, “I love you,” as I walked down the steps. I turned around and smiled as hard as I could. I said, “I love you,” then whispered Kate because I often whispered her name, like a prayer. It was a full sentence: Kate.
Where do I think she is now? I don’t know, but she is not here.
It is impossible to escape some images. I return to my mother in her hospital bed; I return to her younger self, laughing, biting her lip as she tried not to laugh at our antics; I return to her teaching me to read; I return to her imploring us kids to dance with her as Sinatra played, the record skipping, her extended hand. In the last few years, when I visited, I’d wave goodbye from my car and then start crying, thinking, “This could be the last time.” But at the hospital we never said goodbye.
I’ve never said goodbye in a proper way to anyone.
Leonardo’s drawings are among the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. On a page where he is trying to depict how the shoulder works, he writes “First draw the bones of the ribs . . . Make the ribs so thin that in the final diagram, drawn with threads, the scapula can be shown in place.” I can look at the drawings for hours, but I could not watch my mother’s arm, up and down, over and over, grazing her lips, again and again, September, October, until she died. Understand, I watched a lot. I saw a lot. I wrote things down, like the good researcher I am. But then I could no longer watch and no longer write.
To draw a body, the artist chooses the posture, position, pose, isolates parts of the body, decides what to show. Angles, ratios, techniques, light and shadow are determined. Also to decide: what is left off the page.
If I had to name what I’m leaving off the page, I’d call it anguish. It can only be shared in tiny doses, manageable doses. But it is rarely manageable, and so when I can’t write it, I make marks on paper that are not words but are, perhaps, a language. They are drawings or paintings; friends praise them for being pleasing. But art does not suffice, language does not suffice. Anguish does not suffice, but it’s what I have.
What I’m leaving off the page: how Kate died. What “caused” her death.
What I’m leaving off the page: how much risk exists for every person living with an autoimmune illness in the time of Covid.
What I’m leaving out: how little attention this merits.
Little doses. Still, unbearable.
What I have to clarify: there was no autopsy. So maybe cardiac arrest. Cancer. Stroke. Autoimmune illness. All of the above. Other. (Leave it off the page, leave it off the page.)
There is no proper way to say goodbye.
Amy keeps dead birds in the freezer. They have names. She is tender in ways that are hard to explain, and she is also brave and strong and smart and loyal and fierce. She has done difficult things that nobody else I know has done. But these little birds trouble her heart, and she has a dilemma. We are still living through a pandemic and we need freezer space for food. All those years ago, she phoned me wanting to know how to retrieve bird bones on the beach. Now we are married. “Do you think it’s okay to bury them?” Amy’s voice is soft. “It’s okay,” I say. “It’s okay to bury them, it’s okay to not bury them. Whatever you want.” We talk about what to wrap them in, what part of the yard might be best. “We can do it together,” I say. She might need me there, or she might need to do it privately. In the morning she asks again if they will be okay in the ground. “Yes,” I say. “Will they be cold?” she asks, and this is not about the birds any more. This is another story, a story about what Amy was asked to do, and did. “They might be a little cold. But it’s okay.” It might sound like I’m talking to a child, but I’m talking to an adult who is very wise, an adult traumatized by deaths she has witnessed, deaths she was asked to assist with.
When Kate was diagnosed with cancer, she asked Amy to help her be brave. Amy visited, listened, helped. Now she buries the birds herself, tells me she wrapped them in orange cloths. She is still worried they might be cold; the weather is about to turn wintry. “It’s okay if we take them out of the earth and keep them in the shed,” I say. She has a choice; she didn’t always have a choice. (Not a real choice. The word choice doesn’t actually mean choice.) She leaves the birds where they are, not too far from the window where she reads at night.
A couple of years before Kate died, Amy’s partner asked for help, too. She asked Amy to help her die as she faced dementia. Kate didn’t ask for help dying—help me be brave, help me get through surgery and chemo—and Amy helped. But the cancer was uncaged, not contained like we’d hoped, and then who knows what happened after that. But it happened so fast.
Amy took pictures of the birds before she buried them. “Look, you can still see the feathers.” The littlest bird was beautiful, small as a curl, barely born when it died.
Amy took pictures of Kate, too. She was beautiful—everyone thinks their friends are beautiful—but she was wild and brilliant and vibrant. In the last photo her stillness might be considered peacefulness, but all I see is the absence of almost everything I loved. It’s a selfish feeling, but I needed her, and I didn’t want her to die because of how much Amy loved her, how much I loved her. Almost all I have left now are some gifts, some notes, her boxy, illegible handwriting. I hear her laugh, hear her ask, “How do you know so much,” and I think lord, I know nothing.
Leonardo’s notebooks are art and science, imagery and engineering. I study a page of arms, a page of hands. The human arm and the wing of a bird have strong resemblances. They are homologous structures, anatomical structures some animals have in common. Bat wings, dolphin flippers—homology unites us. It’s no wonder—I’m not being whimsical—that I’ve spent my life half hoping for my wings to grow, waiting for my lungs to adapt to underwater breathing, for gills to break through my throat. I am tame now, have been tame for decades, am nothing like the feral child that jumped and dived and swung from bars like an acrobat—but part bird, part fish is how my bones feel. I touch my throat every day, stroke it, assess if my lymph nodes are swollen, if I am on the verge of illness—how many of us do this now, how many of us no longer do this, how many have the luxury of never having to wonder about this?—but also, somewhere in the deepest folds of my brain, is dim, foolish hope for signs of evolution.
Leonardo studied bodies, drew not only shoulders (spala), but necks (collo), arms (braccio), bones (forcola, spatola), muscle (muscolo), artery, (arteria). “First draw the tendons of the neck, how they are bound to the ribs and the spine, and then finally how they join the scapula, and this will be a most beautiful diagram.” The pages of his Anatomical Manuscript include multiple depictions of movement, of musculature, include notes Leonardo wrote to himself for future publication. Many of the drawings of the human arm resemble bird wings.
Anatomy is a way of containing the unruliness of a body. Anatomy is a way of containing the exuberance of a body.
A manuscript is a way of containing the unruliness of thought. A manuscript is a way of containing the exuberance of thought.
An anatomical manuscript does not contain anything. It is a way of releasing. The release requires bravery.
In a perfect world we’d all have someone we could ask to help us be brave. Maybe that’s what art is. Help me be brave in the face of unruliness. Help me remember exuberance.
That first pandemic summer, and then that second pandemic summer, illness and fear cross-hatched politics, marked and re-marked our quotidian lives. Our brains were tired and misfiring, our bodies were agitated, anxious and depressed . . . but the birds seemed elated and everywhere. Pigeons appeared on windowsills. Blue jays zigzagged from rooftop to tree to phone line. Gulls coasted on updrafts, their wings underlit by the setting sun. Hummingbirds fed and cardinals hopped in the grass when we sat in the yard. During the very first month of the pandemic, the doctor who treats me for my autoimmune illness said bluntly, Don’t go out. I couldn’t be indoors with other humans so Amy and I stayed outside—hours and hours of walking and watching, in proximity but not touching, trying not to breath the same air. She was still teaching on a college campus, so I drove back and forth between her place and mine. The only other person I saw was Kate. An hour, outdoors, once a week. Blue jays and cardinals zipped around us, seemingly unaware of our physicality, as though we were ghosts. The birds called alive, alive, alive as humans died and died.
My apartment was high up—I could see everyone’s rooftop, and flying birds were essentially at eye level. Bats swooped at dusk between my building and the next, gulls hovered so close to my window that I could almost coax them in. There were ten windows, big ones, and expansive views of tall trees. Winds off Lake Ontario battered the large panes with ferocity that sometimes scared me. As the months wore on, it felt less like living in a big open space and more like being trapped, like being caged, but when my students complained that they were “in Covid prison,” I had to pause. I thought about how I had once felt caged, trapped in abusive circumstances, and how Kate had helped me. The next day I suggested to my students that their dorm rooms were not prisons. We were living through a tragic and bewildering time, I said, but we were quite privileged. “We can choose to leave,” I said, and we contemplated that claim in silence. I knew, of course, that “choose” was disingenuous—what degree of choice did each of us have?—but the notion of imprisonment needed deeper consideration.
Even as we engaged in these discussions, U.S. citizens were insisting that their rights were being trampled because masks were confining, revealing themselves as individuals who had never known confinement. “Is it possible to feel trapped but not be trapped?” I asked Kate, but I knew the answer. I was struggling to understand what was happening in our country, across the world, in my classroom. I felt the fear and isolation my students felt; I wasn’t sure I could ever again safely be in physical proximity to others. I asked Kate why human beings suffered and witnessed others suffering. There is no evolutionary need for suffering, is there? She didn’t know the answer, but she became very quiet. “Maybe we suffer to make it easier to leave,” she said.
Leonardo da Vinci was arrested for tangling his anatomy with the anatomy of other boys, other men. Whether he spent time in a cell I don’t know, how he suffered I don’t know, but his mind remained unconstrained. His notebooks are filled with wings and limbs, with weapons of destruction. He adorned himself in luxury, he mingled with royalty; his drawings of the human body were done in chalk or charcoal, drawn over with pen and ink. Erasures are visible; in other places, original lines weren’t erased, creating a visual echo. Sometimes we are erased; sometimes not. Sometimes we’re seen and heard, sometimes not.
Kate’s mind was unconstrained. She left messages on my voicemail. Strong, clear, complex messages. In one she thanks me for our therapy session. She thanks me. I listen to the saved messages, worrying about when they will disappear—a phone glitch, a dropped device, a disaster. Almost every day I think “I should call Kate.” Almost every day, I am calling her—the calls are uniquely-pitched howls, aural erasures. Nobody hears them. I try to transcribe them, but the letters look like the drawings of a child.
Folio 5V of Leonardo’s notebooks features drawings of an elderly man. Several poses highlight the arm and shoulder. On the left side of the page, it appears that one figure is embracing another—a man wrapped around another man. But this interpretation is suspect; it is likely just overlaid studies, as was his practice. I remember when Amy held me this way, wrapped around me from behind, on the beach where we scattered my mother’s ashes. I am haunted by the lost musculature of my mother’s arms, her bruised legs, my father’s lost laugh, his bruised heart. I’m haunted by the speed at which a living creature becomes unliving. I’m haunted by Kate’s smile, by the way I assured her the pain would ease, by the fact that we didn’t say goodbye, not really.
Goodbye. The word itself is a form of denial. An illusion.
Amy has PTSD. I know a lot of what she did, what she saw, what was asked of her and what she gave. Occasionally I watch her face crumple, remember that she sat with M, her dying ex, that she watched M drink the chemicals that would end her life. I think of my father holding the sick pigeon, how I looked away for just a blink and the bird was gone. I think of the mourning dove whose skull was crushed, the blue jay who died by my side, the birds buried in yards across the world, the little hummingbird that revived and revved and zipped away like a zany angel. I think of Amy sitting with Kate, being together in that liminal time where “You’ll soon feel stronger” became “We need to talk about dying.” Liminal meant less than a day to wrap our minds around no recovery, no lingering, no future, no goodbyes, no porch therapy, no birds, no—no more.
Maybe we suffer or witness the suffering of others so it is easier to let go.
A year, two years, a week, a day—time is weird, weirder than ever, and sometimes an hour is a long time to be alone. New variants, new lexicons, new discoveries about who is part of a “vulnerable population.”
How comforting that illusion must be: to believe you are not part of a vulnerable population.
I never unlocked the coop and freed the pigeons. One day they were there, and the next they were gone, and my father was gone, too. He continued to race his birds, in another state. The pigeons learned to return to a different home. He kept painting. He never got better at it, but he kept doing it. Neither of my parents ever knew, quite, what wickedness I was up to with women, which ones made me feel trapped, which gave me freedom. As a kid they let me roam, they gave me books, they let me dream, they let me fly and dive and be gone until it was time to come home. They were wrong in a million ways, but when they told me the ocean could heal anything, when they read me stories hatched from my own scribbles, I believed them.
I’ve never put a bird out of its misery. I’ve seen them sicken, seen them be killed at the hands of humans and by the claws of their own species, seen them fall from the heavens. They are a marvel, and they uprush from local trees as though gods have flung confetti into the atmosphere. “The birds!” we laugh, relieved we can still feel joy.
Amy and I got married during the second summer of the pandemic. I’ll forget the words of our vows, but live them: in sickness and in health. Kate was there, our chosen witness, and in one of the few photos we have of her, she holds her hand to her lips, almost like she’s praying. She’s smiling, her eyes are closed, she is alive with us, and we are all so happy.
Leonardo died of a stroke. I think of my mother’s stroke as a little gate in her neck that closed shut. I was not by her side, nor at the side of my father when he died. I was not at Kate’s side. Leonardo, it is said, died in the arms of a king. He never had a day where his brilliance dimmed. What is the difference between tremble and technique, between a home and a cage, between a trap and a coop and a dream? How can memories make me dizzy, how can I reconcile millions of deaths with the cacophony of voices demanding “normalcy?” Is there a little gate in my own neck, is there a hollow in the throat of a stranger that might harbor a virus, might cough toward me and rewrite my future?
Over 500 years ago, Leonardo da Vinci spent a winter assembling Anatomical Manuscript A. The eighteen sheets include over 200 drawings, over 10,000 words. He appears to have believed in the soul, and there is something about his drawings and writings—that unique script read by holding the page to a mirror, like a magic trick—that holds my attention.
Kate asked me what I thought happened when we die. I didn’t know and she didn’t know either, but said she believed in something. She was certain that we didn’t just stop, didn’t just end. Amy said that on that last afternoon, Kate was peaceful.
Kate was certain that we didn’t just stop . . . but . . . she just stopped.
The yard where I buried the blue jay is filled with the bodies of other birds that died after smashing into windows. The lakeshore is filled with the remains of gulls washed up on the rocks. Little birds wrapped in orange shrouds nestle in the ground near the spot where we were married. Maybe that is sentimental, but sentimentality is a reasonable risk to take in these risky times. I am risk-averse, but I practice flying all the time. In my dreams it’s so easy; you just run until you catch the current, then pick up your feet and you’re flying. I am a flying coach in my dreams; I teach all the neighborhood kids how to do it. “It’s easy,” I say. “You run, then just jump, just lift your feet.”
On one of the last pages of my favorite book of Leonardo’s drawings is a blood stain. It is directly over, but not obscuring the description of Folio 4V, the muscles of the shoulder. The drawings on that page include a man lifting his arm. It is similar to a gesture my father would use when he tossed pigeons into the air, and it is the architecture my mother used to bless herself before she died. They are the bones she broke when she fell from her hospital bed after the stroke. They are the muscles and bones we use to hug, and to push away. Ossatura, uccelli, anima, bocca, amore, sempre, per sempre (bones, birds, soul, mouth, love, always, forever.) My anatomy and Kate’s anatomy embraced the week before she died. It was not enough and words were not enough. “I love you,” she yelled as I walked from her porch to my car. “I love you . . .” I said, and I wanted to go hug her again but forced myself to leave. Kate, I thought. Kate. Like I could will her back to health, will her to stay.
“Maybe suffering is so it’s easier to leave . . .”
Of course, I should have gone back.
Amy walks in our neighborhood for hours. Last week she found a dead baby bird, just barely born, smaller than the point of a collar. She made a little stretcher out of sticks and carried it home, her hand cupped underneath. She buried it with the others. It will not get cold, it will not get cold, because the earth is, at times, a place of safety, even as the very air we breathe could kill us. I am not a wild animal any more, but something feral inside makes my hands tremble, makes my blood pound; I feel it pulse in the vertebrae of my neck. Maybe it is a remnant wing, tense and kinetic, maybe it is a gate slowly closing, maybe it is bird-soul cracking through shell, maybe I am just tired, all of us so tired, maybe we’ll be haunted in ways we’ve barely begun to comprehend.
Draw the cause of laughter, draw the weeping. Draw the fighting. Draw the flight.
Fini, fini. Draw the flight.
Donna Steiner’s poetry chapbook, Part Horror, Part Magic, Holy Ourselves, was published by Thornwillow Press. Lost and Found in Ocean County, New Jersey, a chapbook of essays, was published by Tolsun Books, and Elements, a chapbook of essays, was released by Sweet Publications. Other work has been published in literary journals including The Sun, River Teeth, Radar Poetry, Under the Gum Tree, Brevity, and Stone Canoe.