Make Way for Life

It’s the middle of February and Vermont is finally covered in deep snow. The tree limbs are laced with filigrees of white. Snow from plows lays in heaps at the end of driveways and along road sides. Tracks of deer and rabbits criss-cross clearings and woods. At school we see their tracks in the the field. Our stone Buddha, in repose by the edge of a copse of trees, is cloaked in white up to his neck. On his head a tall, rounded cone, like a bishop’s cap.

On mornings like this Whitman’s voice echoes in my head. I hear his optimism, his breadth of joy, his openness to what will come.

A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
I am wondering if you have ever stood outside in the deep snow as the sun first rises. Have you have ever watched the morning light fall across a field where deer have tracked before the dawn? Have you woken up with the world and stood, alone and powerless, with snow-powder blowing around your ankles?  Have you reckoned with the fact that you are stardust and also nothing? When you have done this, you will be one step closer to being truly alive.
         In the morning our school fills with the thumping sound of the kids kicking snow off their shoes. Cold drafts and wet footprints follow them in. There’s a rush and clatter as they rumble down the basement stairs to put away their things. The energy and motion in the room builds. They crowd by the white board to tally the money they have raised so far for their pledge into jump into our ice-covered pond. Lena has gotten a pledge for $100 per plunge—“and I’m gonna go in ten times!” she exclaims. The money will support financial aid. They clear off the tables, feed the piranha, empty the trash bins, write on the white board, print their work.

          Tal, where should I put my lit response from last week? Who’s cleaning the big room? Can we get three people to go out and shovel the snow away from all the doors? Lyle’s going to be here in a little bit. We need to get the trash bagged and out for him to pick up.

        “Tal, Tal!” shouts Wyatt. “Look at my drawing I made of the Old Man.”  He holds his sketch book out to me that reveals the face of an old man, his Santiago, cross-hatched in blue ball-point pen. Wyatt has been drawing faces obsessively during morning meetings and literature class. As though following Whitman’s gentle prodding, he is practising so long to draw.

           “That’s a good one, Wyatt. I like that you put him off to the side and tilted it. It’s more interesting the way you have it.”

“Hey, Eric’s here!” Phoebe calls. “He brought in a deer fetus!” 

All the kids in the room shout “What?” and drop their brooms and shove back their chairs.

Eric, our  science teacher, hit a deer on his way home the night before. He was driving Rosemary and Paul back to Lincoln after cross-country skiing. It was getting dark, and even darker on the winding back mountain roads. The deer dashed out from the woods and Eric clipped her. She staggered into the deep, snow-filled culvert, where they held her in her panic.

“It was thrashing around and trying to go back into the road,” Paul said. “But she wasn’t going to live.”  Paul, Rosemary, and Eric pinned it down in the snow until a game warden arrived and shot it. Then he said Eric should take the body home.

“Somebody in Lincoln will know how to dress it,” he told Eric.

That night Eric gutted her. In the doe’s womb he discovered twin fetuses. He set those aside in jars along with all the organs to bring into class. Now the kids are crowded around as Eric hands them the two jars. Phoebe holds one in her hands, cradling the glass as though it were alive.

Look at the hooves. Can I hold it? Oh my good, it’s so beautiful. 

In meeting Paul tells about the ride home the night before but Rosemary is quiet. 

“What was it like for you, Rosemary?” I ask.

She looks down at her lap, her eyes filling with tears. “I was just sad,” she says. No one speaks, and for the moment no one needs to. 

“It is hard to see something die,” I say after a short period of silence. “But maybe we can think of it differently. There’s one understanding that says death and life are two separate things. Another understanding says death is only a part of life: life contains death.  Life is not life without the part we call death. You see a great tree in the woods, a massive moss covered stump. And in the rotten long-dead center of that stump we find a small pine sapling growing. Life comes from death. Death makes way for life.”

Eric lays all the organs out in the science room. Two microscopes are set up. All morning the kids come in to look at the lungs, large intestine, heart, placenta, and the two fetuses.

“Tal, Tal, did you see the lung?  We cut it up so you could see the inside!”

At lunch I look up to see a game warden standing in the doorway.  He’s the one who helped Eric the night before, and he’s come to measure the fetuses and record the health of the doe. He’s got a severe crew-cut and a heavy green kevlar flak-jacket,  military  boots, and a Glock pistol in a fortified holster. He’s imposing, like a line-backer, seeming more ready for battle than checking hunting licenses and visiting schools.

“Eric,” I call, “there’s someone here to see you.”

 I show him to the science room. On the table large tin casserole are pans filled with the organs. The smell of offal is distinct. The stomachs are cut open—digested bark and twigs, sprigs of balsam, grainy mash, undigested kernels of corn spilling out. The cilia of the stomach lining are like tiny white teeth.

The game warden, Spc. Dale Whitlock, looks over the table. His eyes are bright and he’s smiling. “Wow, this is awesome.” The kids are watching him with a measure of pride. They’ve already taken ownership of the deer’s remains, and it seems our guest is impressed.

“I never get to see this,” he says, picking up the heart. “It’s slightly larger than ours. It weighs about one and a half pounds. This is awesome.” He brings the heart to his face and looks closely into the sawed-off aorta. He runs his fingers through the contents of the stomach. He studies and measures each fetus.

“It’s against the law to feed them corn, “ he says.”When they adjust to their winter diet, they’re unable to digest, and if they do eat it, the corn ferments in their stomachs and they die. Hey, if you get all your guys in here we can take a picture.”

Creed races outside to fetch the kids who are working on their snow shelters.

“You guys, this is so great that you are doing this,” he says as we gather around the table.

And by this he must mean this moment when what we call “school” becomes raw and real and pretense is discarded. The power of comes from giving way to forces outside us. Our senses are over-taken and we become diminished and egoless. So life outside of our own, along the fields and hillsides, is enlarged and made complex and wondrous.

                                                                             ***

After lunch, Wyatt is about to present his project on Civil Disobedience. Before he starts I am thinking about the game warden’s visit.

“You guys, Hemingway said everyone needs to have a built in bull-shit detector. You want to be able to really pay attention. If you are you can feel the goodness of a person. You can just know that someone is bringing light into a place and believes. Or if it’s a person who brings darkness or is a negating force, you can feel that. You want to learn this so you can know when you are in the presence of something good or bad, you can tell the difference.”

They aren’t sure about why I am telling them this. So I tell them a story.

“Once I got a call from the elementary school across the road and they told me the Vermont Commissioner of education was visiting, and did we want him to pop over here for a visit. I said sure. I wanted to show off our school. I thought he’d be excited to see this crazy place where school was entirely different.I waited by the door for him until he pulled into the driveway. He walked toward the building, wearing a brown suit. His hands jammed in his pockets. He entered the building and we greeted t each other. I watched him. He looked up and down. His hands never came out of his pockets. He passed the big room, glanced in, and then looked around. He looked out the window. He was jingling change in his pockets. He didn’t ask any questions. He didn’t greet any kids. He didn’t want to stay. He looked around, asked how long we’d been here, and then he said thanks and turned around and headed out the door. He wasn’t interested, didn’t have the time to be curious, didn’t seem to want to learn anything new. He’s the boss of schools in Vermont, but when he walked into this one, he had  a stone cold heart.”

Now they are listening to the story,  but still not sure where it’s headed.

“Then that game warden came in. When I saw him I thought he was GI Joe. He looked like he was part of the Special Ops. His head was shaved and he was carrying a scary weapon . But when he came in he was smiling. His eyes were twinkling. He was alive with excitement to see something he cares about and get you excited about. He was learning new things from that deer, and he was teaching us things in the same moment. He wants to come back and bring all the different animal hides he has and teach you about how Vermont animals survive the winter. You could tell the second he walked in the room he was good. The commissioner never took his hands out of his pockets. He didn’t want to touch anything or get close. The game warden was alive to what was happening. He wanted to be close. He picked up the heart, and brought it right up to his eyes.”

Later, in the middle of Wyatt’s project, we take a break. The smell of smoking fried venison fills the school. Eric has cooked the liver, heart, and loin of the deer in a giant black skillet in the science room. No one passes on the chance to taste it.

When my students leave school this afternoon, they will go down the mountain along the river, past farms and open land. Others will go home along the icy mountain roads where the afternoon sun angles through bare trees and lays  blue shadows over the snow.  They will sit in the back seat looking out the windows and they will will think back over the day. They held a cold heart in their hands. They saw how the veins run out and carry the blood. They heard how the living will kick and thrash until the end.

                                                                                    ***

The morning the deer came to school Rosemary didn’t say much. In meeting I had asked her what she felt.

“Well, I named the deer,” she said.

“You named it?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said, nodding and looking down at her lap.

“What did you name her?

“Jeanette.”

“Why?”

“Because I wanted her to have something of her own, that belonged to her.”

Jeanette never gave consent to have her body or her fetuses given to the scientific pursuits of humans, or to our discussions of life and death. But she was here, as surely as there are tracks into and out of the woods, as surely as frigid nights give way to faint dawn. Her body lay before us and we learned from it what we could. Rosemary held the doe, named her, and wept for her. She reckoned with the thousand sad and beautiful acres, and she didn’t look away.

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Author: talbirdsey

I am writing a postcard to the President everyday.

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