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It's Nelly's World

Ticked Off

alec vanderboom

The night is interesting. It is not simply an inside-out day, showing the stitching on the seams. It is another world.

At 4:45 a.m., the whippoorwill starts calling. It is imperative, his call, and loud. For hours, it seems, he calls nonstop--or is it she?--rhythmically, insistently (whippoorWILL, whippoorWILL) and then, for a passage, speeds it up doubletime as in a frustration I know well: Answer me, please!

This is the way life starts: the day, the warming weather, the season of nest-building and life-giving. Is this why they made Mother's Day tomorrow, in the spring? The world is now greening at headlong speed, as if it cannot wait to be born.

A bird has made a nest in the back of the newspaper box; at first I thought a prankster had been at work, stuffing the box with dried moss and grass. It would come out with the paper every time I pulled. But it wasn't. It was instead a life-giving force that persisted, against the incessant destruction of the human hand, until one day it was a bird that suddenly flew out into my face when I reached in for the day's news (or "news").

This urge to build a nest and to live will continue in all things until it is finally impossible--the big human hand reaching into the box!--for it to go on. It's that simple. Even in me. It is why I woke at 3 in the morning, tossing in bed, finally to turn on the light and work for a half hour, then turn it off and toss some more, then to go at last what the hell downstairs, work spread out on the kitchen table, third cup of coffee by 5:00, a banana, and the thick dark and the whippoorwill outside the big plate glass window. There are things happening out there that I do not know. Things that I should not know.

I have the need to build a new nest for myself and for my young. But it feels (cue the violins) as though a hand keeps reaching in my box and pulling out my hard-won collection of material, strewing it on the shoulder of the road. I keep collecting more.

This is maudlin stuff, created in my head by the dark and the sleeplessness and the fear of change. That's elemental, the fear that rises when you don't know where you will go, what it will look like and feel like and be made of. It's frightening, though I hasten to add (for those who will kindly rush to tell me how much better it will be) that I also know it will be better. Even as I remain frightened. How's that for duplicity? Or human nature? I only hope that I do not have to wait yet another year for my life to begin. Or for my new nest to be built. I do not like living in the middle of transitoriness. Some people find it exciting to live in borrowed places, out of suitcases; to me, it's the definition of hell. A place where I never fully arrive because I know I must soon leave.

The light, at 5:20, is now coloring the sky a royal blue, the exact color of silk in a skirt I bought for a special occasion four years ago this week. I always thought of that skirt as a piece of night I could wear.

The coyotes are probably beginning to stir, to scratch at the places where the ticks are firmly attached. While the house was being shown yet again this morning, and I thus had to disappear yet again, a friend and I walked with Nelly into the back field and across the neighbor's property (once the realm of this old farm) to the woods. There is the melody of the stream rushing over the little falls made by the beavers' work. We trespassed on the moss-covered trails created by the custodian (obviously someone who deeply respects their magisterial quiet and insularity) of these woods. Occasionally we passed cairns, sculptures of rock balanced impossibly but precisely into towers, marking the turns, and we walked and talked, stopping before a bright green inchworm suspended on his invisible trapeze at nose height, or an orange salamander frozen at our feet, or a small purple wildflower like a violet but not. And when we came home, we were crawling with ticks.

I've since had a shower and changed clothes twice. And still I picked one off my back just before throwing in that towel on sleep at 3 a.m. I had taken three from my hair this afternoon, and a small one that had already dug into the soft place just behind the knee. Nelly, of course, was a veritable tick mop, sweeping all that lay in her path onto her long white hair, so they could get going and play hide and seek along her spine, rushing to the neck, ears, eyes. I took maybe twenty off her today, as she, not a patient dog, sat patiently--she seems to know what I am doing, and after the detachment (when some hair is inevitably included), she demands to see the proof that the pain was not in vain. I hold the moving thing out and she stretches her nose toward it, watches, then seems satisfied. I can go on.

She herself will do what work I cannot, because it's impossible to find them all. What I find difficult to do with my clumsy fingers she uses her lips to accomplish, and she then rolls it around in her mouth and finally expels it, dead. Do you know how tough it is to kill a tick? This leads me to think it is some kind of knowledge lodged deep in the canine DNA: "How to Kill Ticks: Remember, They Are Special." I hope so, anyway, for the sake of the coyotes, who do not have the assistance of a primate in tick removal. Are they covered, slowly sucked dry by hundreds of them? How do they cope? Perhaps they help one another, carefully pulling them off and rolling them around in the mouth. Maybe it's their bedtime ritual, like toothbrushing.

At 6 now the colors outside are separating themselves out from the uniform black: there is the pale green, and the gray-brown of bark, the chrome on my car. Things look like they are coming to life, but it is really a second life, just the one we are used to calling our own. The first life goes on at night, without us. I may have just broken my own record on sleeplessness, which is saying a lot considering the nighttime torture (I don't use that word lightly) I've gone through in the past eight months. It is what it is. Anyway, there had been, until this last few days, a great improvement: See? All loss is eventually survived! But this fretful waking now is testimony to the importance of nest-building. Until I make a new one, I will not sleep, transitory and afraid, and will look out onto night until it gets light.