Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Yellow-billed Cuckoo


It's that time. The Big Rain has returned to the thirsty Sonoran.

San Pedro River Valley, southern Arizona. Monsoon season.
Boiling morning water on the edge of a field. Botteri's Sparrow in duet with the dry, rustling grassland. Coffee and milk put to sound. The conversation is sparse and sleepy at first. We are all overwhelmed by the simple fact of having seen so many staggering birds in such a short period of time. Everyone is wincing even though we are taking our coffee in the shade. Too much beauty over the last few days. It is a tolerable pain. 

Who was Botteri? How did he die? The talk drifts between open-ended inquiry and observations of the surrounding phenomena. Rustle of cottonwood leaves. Ants circle the coffee pot. What winged facemelt awaits us today? The timing of the coffee's detonation within our brains coincides perfectly with our mounting bird lust. Camp is quickly broke and we set off across the field to the riparian and the promiscuity of more birds.

Already, the seeds of cumulus clouds are above us. They will grow steadily throughout the day. The monsoon is a slow and relentless clock, its ticking the strange midday darkness that creeps in and replaces the desert light. Great gray billows that will rip open under the weight of water, stitches blown out and the world below violently bathed. Mexican-born butterflies will saturate the air in the wake of this deluge and later, after the sun ignites the torn clouds during its setting, we will fall asleep listening to elf owl families work the night. Dreams of violet-crowned hummingbirds disappearing into sycamore cavities and emerging with firestones. Of finding a covey of scaled quail tucked away in the bottomless pockets of your coat. Wake up and live the day over again.

The field is slowly crossed. We bow to the singing Botteri's as we pass. The cottonwood and willowwall of the river loom large before us. The sounds within this riverine cathedral are kaleidoscopic. Waterwords and morning chorus. Our eyes in the treetops, we are startled by a nearby voice that joins the divine racket. 
'What a place. What a place,' it sings. 
A squat elderly man ambles toward us, his bird head cane swinging wildly. Bohemian in dress, he regards us from out the corner of his weathered and watery eyes. Ancient but excellent field glasses hang from his neck. 
'Sure is beautiful in there. Feels like I just been to church.' 
Spontaneous river spirit, his talk and demeanor at this boundary render him wise and gnome-like in our minds. None of us can manage a morning hello to this wraith.
'Looking for any birds in particular this fine morning? I know this spot pretty good.'
'A cuckoo would be nice,' someone eventually offers.
'Oh, there's cuckoos alright,' he chuckles. 'Take a seat, get comfortable and they'll come and find you.' And with a wave of his cane, the strange sentinel teeters off into the field, his quiet cackling mixing with the dry rustling of the grasses, with the Botteri's.
We turn back from him and regard the river, nay, this church, before us. In the old man's wake, a vast reverence has befallen the world. We are hushed and our pace slowed as we advance towards the water.

Gray hawks and kingfisher calls pepper the air, rising staccatos that spike the blood.
Thrashersongs in the distance and Myiarchus flycatchers darting through the mid-canopy, calling between their crushing of insects bodies.  The drunken hiccups of a summer tanager. Various makes of warblers, yellow, Lucy's, beastly chat, scrawl through the treetops. The river reflecting the world above it, whispering back all the songs it hears. I shut my eyes. It is too much. All together, it is too much.

By themselves, the sights are breathtaking. Alone, the songs an ecstasy. But taken together I feel as if my heart will give out. Which would be welcome. Let me expire in this place, my broken body tumbling into the river. Warm near-corpse floating downstream. The splinted sunlight as a heron descends to pluck my eyes are the last things I see of this world. Let every one of these beautiful winged souls take a bit of me as I sail away, bloating in the day's building heat, fish and water bugs feeding in my shadow from below.

Still alive. Eyes still closed. With effort, I can still make out Botteri's song.

A faint misting against my face. Too early for the monsoon. Haven't heard the boom of the thunderclap yet, either. The boom always comes first, a great gong announcing the imminent reckoning. 
No, this is just a sprinkling. I make mention of it and everyone can feel it now. Eyes skyward to check the clouds. Someone notices movement in the branches high above. We raise our binoculars in unified ritual. Supplication to whatever lurks above.  
A cuckoo, yellow-billed and wild-eyed. In its beak is a massive caterpillar. The bird is beating the larva to death against a branch and with each whack, guts of the caterpillar explode from it and rain down upon us.
We are being bathed in innards.

When the clouds finally broke that day, it was the great cuckoo in the sky at work. Feeding the earth with its violence, the rivers swollen with hemolymph. The world baptized in viscera.

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