James Silberstein

Auspice

The bird will tell his future, most likely what his heart already knows. She’s gone three days now—to town, or to Mary’s, or to some hairy arms—wherever madness goes. But she’ll come back.

A crow caws in the distance, too far to know for sure what it’s trying to tell him, so he walks the mile and a half to check the mailbox. His footsteps crunch the frozen gravel—the sound, dependable company. The cold mountain air helps him forget. For now, he can pretend the cold is only on the outside. He opens the mailbox to find it empty, except for the rust.

Mistletoe thrives in the stand of oaks across the highway. “Bloodsuckers,” he spits. Whenever he sees the parasite, he tries to cut it out with the chainsaw. But it’s been too long too late for those scrubs. If left after the kissing, mistletoe kills the tree.

Caw

He spots the black feathers and notes the direction, northeast—the crow perched among the ravaged oaks. He knows the time but checks the Omega Seamaster on his wrist anyway, finding comfort in the most reliable thing his father ever gave him. With this data—time, direction, and type of caw—he knows what crow is saying: A woman will come.

Caw: Later, her pickup will raise dust.

He’ll go to the truck to meet her, but he’ll wait for her to open her own door.

“I’m sorry,” she’ll say.

“I know,” he’ll say, not done believing her.

He’ll invite her inside, take her into his arms, and smell her for evidence, the soap not strong enough to cover the sweat from the long drive and the truck’s heater, but enough to wash away any other sins he wouldn’t want to know about anyway. She won’t wear perfume, like a dare to take her as she is.

“You’ve been chopping wood,” she’ll say, removing flecks from his hair.

“The splitter is broken. I’ll go get a new hydraulic line, tomorrow.”

“Maybe it can wait. Maybe we can stay in.”

“Maybe.”

“It’ll be cold tomorrow.”

“It will.”

“Yes,” she’ll say.

“I better take a shower, since I don’t smell as nice as you.”

“No, I like it.” She’ll move to him.

He’ll pull her in, tighter than he should, both of them trying to protect whatever tenderness they have left. They’ll barely make it to the bed, her hands tearing at his flannel, pine splinters in its fibers. He’ll feel the sticky of pitch between his hands and her skin. Her dress too thin for this weather, even inside by the stove, restraint will give way to heat, yield to fire, until they burn into that moment.

“Soha,” she’ll whisper, an inside joke from the first time they made love.

“Soha,” he’ll repeat after her.

They’ll lie quiet awhile.

“Did the birds tell you I was coming back?”

“They did.”

“How come I never met that old woman?”

“You did your own laundry.”

“I couldn’t afford to pay an old Tibetan witch to wash my undies.”

“She wasn’t very expensive.”

“Not everybody’s daddy leaves them enough money to—”

He’ll interrupt her, “Let’s not fight.”

“I’m not fighting.” Her eyes will widen.

Trying to reconcile, he’ll say, “Besides, she said she was repaying a kindness from a past life.”

“So that’s why she taught you to talk to birds, why she transmitted the ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ja-ka…”

Kakajarita Sutra. Please don’t mock.”

“I’m not mocking. Remember I went to Dharamasla looking for moksha too.”

“And you found me.”

“It was you seduced me with all those big Sanskrit words.”

“You said you were my yogini,” he’ll say, remembering how her darkness brightened only when he held her.

“You should have known I was a crazy dakini,” she’ll say, and he’ll read the sorrow in her eyes.

“Maybe it’s not too late to fulfill our bodhisattva vows.”

“Maybe.” She’ll nestle in to him and they’ll fall asleep.

He’ll dream of Dhauladhar, the snow-capped range rising out of the Kangra Valley, once a symbol for what he thought he wanted—a far-out place to practice the meaning of the words he learned, karuna, shunyata, mahamudra.

For a while they’ll sleep soundly on the six acre California retreat, nestled at tree line among the Manzanita and mourning doves.

But Crow knows the difference between dream and reality. After being eaten by its shadow, the bird lost time—present, same as past, same as future. Crow knows what they’re capable of, always has, always will.

Caw: He’ll wake to hear her tearing up the closet for a lost glove, karmas and kleshas the conditions for her crazy.

He’ll get out of bed to shower. When he’s done, she’ll still be ransacking the closet.

Knowing she won’t stop until he says something, he’ll ask her to pass him a clean pair of pants.

“You never understand,” she’ll say.

“But I do.”

“Stop it! Stop saying that. You never let me feel the way I do.” She’ll have stuffed away the dress and be wearing his shirt, too big for her, making her furious action seem inconsequential, comical.

“You’re too busy telling me ‘I don’t understand’ to see how I always let you feel however you want.”

“I’m so tired of this.” She’ll leave the closet, strewing clothes behind her.

He’ll follow her. “You never give it a chance.”

“It’s not working.”

“You have no faith.”

“You don’t believe in me.”

“We should sit.” He’ll wave a hand toward the cushions on the floor before the hearth.

“I don’t want to.”

“Come here.”

“No.”

“It’s not too late to practice,” he’ll hiss through a clenched jaw.

“Means nothing.”

“You’re wrong.” He’ll reach for her.

“Don’t touch me.”

“Stop.”

“You don’t want me here.”

“Just stop it.” He’ll grab her.

“You’ve said it before—you wish I would leave.”

“Please,” he’ll say trying to soothe but merely agitating her more.

“Let go!” she’ll say, pushing, clawing.

Not sure whether to tighten or release, he’ll do both—one hand opening as the other stays tight around her wrist. She’ll fall to the floor. He won’t let go as she kicks.

The two will scream, never to be doves.

Shunyata means the essence of everything and Mahakaruna means great compassion. And the only thing he’s learned out here is how to listen to birds. The black wings flap but refuse to fly.

Seeing no other way, he closes the mailbox and walks back to the events he knows will come. His heart the kind of thing only a crow would eat.

James Silberstein writes and teaches in southern California. His grandparents owned and operated the Idyllwild Dairy in the 40s before settling Baldy Mountain Ranch off Highway 74 just before the turn to Pine-to-Palms. In her 90s, his grandmother still operates the ranch. It is a place of great inspiration for him.