By Philip Levine
MAGPIETYYou pull over to the shoulder of the two-lane road and sit for a moment wondering where you were going in such a hurry. The valley is burned out, the oaks dream day and night of rain that never comes. At noon or just before noon the short shadows are gray and hold what little life survives. In the still heat the engine clicks, although the real heat is hours ahead. You get out and step cautiously over a low wire fence and begin the climb up the yellowed hill. A hundred feet ahead the trunks of two fallen oaks rust; something passes over them, a lizard perhaps or a trick of sight. The next tree you pass is unfamiliar, the trunk dark, as black as an olive's; the low branches stab out, gnarled and dull: a carob or a Joshua tree. A sudden flaring-up ahead, a black-winged bird rises from nowhere, white patches underneath its wings, and is gone. You hear your own breath catching in your ears, a roaring, a sea sound that goes on and on until you lean forward to place both hands --fingers spread-- into the bleached grasses and let your knees slowly down. Your breath slows and you know you're back in central California on your way to San Francisco or the coastal towns with their damp sea breezes you haven't even a hint of. But first you must cross the Pacheco Pass. People expect you, and yet you remain, still leaning forward into the grasses that if you could hear them would tell you all you need to know about the life ahead. * * * Out of a sense of modesty or to avoid the truth I've been writing in the second person, but in truth it was I, not you, who pulled the green Ford over to the side of the road and decided to get up that last hill to look back at the valley he'd come to call home. I can't believe that man, only thirty-two, less than half my age, could be the person fashioning these lines. That was late July of '60. I had heard all about magpies, how they snooped and meddled in the affairs of others, not birds so much as people. If you dared to remove a wedding ring as you washed away the stickiness of love or the cherished odors of another man or woman, as you turned away from the mirror having admired your new-found potency--humming "My Funny Valentine" or "Body and Soul"-- to reach for a rough towel or some garment on which to dry yourself, he would enter the open window behind you that gave gratefully onto the fields and the roads bathed in dawn-- he, the magpie--and snatch up the ring in his hard beak and shoulder his way back into the currents of the world on his way to the only person who could change your life: a king or a bride or an old woman asleep on her porch. * * * Can you believe the bird stood beside you just long enough, though far smaller than you but fearless in a way a man or woman could never be? An apparition with two dark and urgent eyes and motions so quick and precise they were barely motions at all? When he was gone you turned, alarmed by the rustling of oily feathers and the curious pungency, and were sure you'd heard him say the words that could explain the meaning of blond grasses burning on a hillside beneath the hands of a man in the middle of his life caught in the posture of prayer. I'd heard that a magpie could talk, so I waited for the words, knowing without the least doubt what he'd do, for up ahead an old woman waited on her wide front porch. My children behind her house played in a silted pond poking sticks at the slow carp that flashed in the fallen sunlight. You are thirty-two only once in your life, and though July comes too quickly, you pray for the overbearing heat to pass. It does, and the year turns before it holds still for even a moment. Beyond the last carob or Joshua tree the magpie flashes his sudden wings; a second flames and vanishes into the pale blue air. July 23, 1960. I lean down closer to hear the burned grasses whisper all I need to know. The words rise around me, separate and finite. A yellow dust rises and stops caught in the noon's driving light. Three ants pass across the back of my reddened right hand. Everything is speaking or singing. We're still here.
Philip Levine is the author of many books, including a collection of essays, The Bread of Time (1994). His poem in this issue of The Atlantic is taken from his new book, The Simple Truth, to be published this month by Knopf.
Copyright © 1994 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1994; Magpiety; Volume 274, No. 5; pages 110-111.