Tanya Chernov


Gradual Habituation


I’ve worked in Seattle a long time now, traversing the neighborhoods most often by bus through the cold, misty mornings and back again every blustery, wet afternoon. The way might get warm during late summertime, but it’s always just as wearisome.

If the sun hasn’t already set and the rain hasn’t yet fogged the windows opaque, and I am able to catch the earlier, less crowded bus, I might see the gulls searching the port’s shallow waters for food as we drive over my bridge. They scoop down beside the container ships so swift and steep that I always think they’ll crash into the Sound. I watch their angular wings catch the air’s sharp edges, drafting off of each other; their faraway bodies gliding along, effortlessly, the wind giving them everything they need. The closer they get to the water, the faster they go.

I can’t claim the Magnolia viaduct as mine the way those birds can claim the winds and waters as theirs, but that bridge brings me home, so I pretend.

*

During summer nights as a child in the heart of northern Wisconsin, I’d see bats flapping their bony wings against the dusky twilight in frenzied clusters. They’d smack into trees and windows, now and then, even getting tangled in someone’s hair on occasion.  

My family’s business, an all-girls’ summer camp, provided me with free range over more than 400 acres. My parents fought hard to instill a kind of respect for nature in me, along with an indefatigable sense of wonderment at the grandeur of my woods. Camp offered towering red pines leaning over the aspens and birches; the sky jewel-blue and clear; our narrow but plentiful lake with its white sand beaches and bullfrogs lining the shore; the long stretch of green grass flanked by maple and sage; linden and tamarack on the south slopes—all of it grounds for my mischief.

To keep me occupied during the pre- and post-camp weeks when I was five or six years old, my father sometimes challenged me to gather as many varieties of insect as I could in one afternoon by dragging a white pillowcase behind me on the ground. He knew my mind worked exactly like his; all I required was a brief spark of curiosity to send me into a full day’s worth of exploration.

Competing against no one, I’d walk one end of our long trails to the other, collecting beetles, roly-pollies, daddy longlegs, and ticks. Walking the dirt paths or grassy fields under the summer sun always made my inky, fine hair hot to the touch and threatened to scorch my scalp, as if my body hadn’t provided enough cover for the adventures my imagination demanded. The animal kingdom outmatched me, with exoskeleton and wing, feather and scale to protect. When the pillowcase was satisfyingly dirty, I’d crouch low over the bespeckled expanse of fabric and count my loot, letting the critters pass over my hands, tickling my palms.

I don’t remember which I enjoyed more: setting my motley assemblages free, storing them inside a jar at our kitchen table, or simply reporting my findings to my father. It made no matter. The game was my own in the end.

Well before I was old enough to start living in a cabin with the other newbie eight-year-old campers, I used to boast about being able to walk from the north end of camp to the south with my eyes closed. I’d rush to prove such talent, to whoever paid even the slightest attention, by navigating the curves of the dirt road by feel of rock and root under my bare feet in twilight and darkness. As if the ultimate test of bravery, I imagined walking the woods alone gave me control over all the creatures within it—even the ones I couldn’t see, or hadn’t yet learned about but knew were out there. Maybe birds and bats and worse things are flying overhead, I told myself, but it doesn’t matter; I’m little, but I bet I’m bigger than they are.

As I took my unruly nightly stroll one evening, the winds kicked up the infant beginnings of a thunderstorm. On rare occasions, high-pressure systems pushing down from deep, cold Lake Superior to our north met the warmer air resting atop the sandy, shallow shorelines of northwestern Wisconsin. Short, steely-edged windstorms and even the occasional tornado aren’t unheard of. I heard something on the breeze—something like a cry, higher in pitch and timbre than a child or a dog. I turned my head to the dimming sky above the lake and saw a Great Blue Heron hanging suspended in the air, screeching. The hard-blowing downdrafts of the growing storm had trapped the bird over the water, suspended in the brace of the headwinds.

The lanky crane flapped and flailed, squawking terribly as it fought against the force of the storm, until it dropped down in a crash angled nearly straight into our lake’s choppy waters from exhaustion. My breath caught. My young heart pumped in fear for the great bird, probably taller than I at that age.

Up until that moment in my memory, that place—my woods, my lake, my sand, my trails—was always just home. Now it was something else; it could be terrifyingly, magically unpredictable. The winds had only ever cooled my face against the summer air, only ever brought to my nose the scent of campfire and freshly cut grass, sticky pinesap between the fingers. All that had been beautiful about this landscape had suddenly become, perhaps no less enchanting, but turned into something fierce.

*

Every summer for 25 years, 300 young girls found a second home at my family’s camp and a surrogate father in my own. After Dad died, I knew there would never again be any home for me other than camp, not after how much he had loved it, and it turned every inch of that landscape to pain. The pull of so many almost daughters to share in my grief felt like a violation of the bond my father and I shared. But my mother and brothers needed me to stay on and help keep camp running in Dad’s honor. To have to share this place, which had somehow always seemed to secretly be mine, and to be forced to share my father so publicly even in death began to turn me away from the entire state, the Midwest, the family business—and in some ways, the family.

At the close of our first camp season without my father, I sat reading one afternoon a few days before flying off to Europe for the fall, anxious to leave home. My plan was to live in Greece, like the poet Jack Gilbert or my vision of a modern, female ex-pat Hemingway type, hoping to write my first novel and make friends with the townspeople. I would fail at this attempt to strike out on my own and would have to begin again, but didn’t know it then.

Looking up into the late summer breeze, I saw—perched on a wooden railing no more than 10 feet away—one of the bald eagles that nests in the tallest white pine near our beaver pond. It just sat there, blinking, for what seemed a very long time. I sat, blinking back, unmoving in kind.

From talon to beak, the bird could easily reach mid-thigh. Its feathers splayed flat in a spread that extended past the old, dull gray of the wood beneath him, the brilliant shine of the black tail so beautiful it began to hurt my eyes to look.

After a while, I wanted the eagle to act. I desired a show of the full expanse of its wingspan. I was certain that it had grown bored of me and I of it. When, finally, the great bird simply hopped to the ground, I turned my back to him and walked inside. Those are steps I've always regretted taking.

*

When I worked my first job at the flagship Nordstrom in downtown Seattle after traveling through Europe for those miserable months, I wore woolen pea coats and high-heeled boots that zipped to the knee. I carried purses I thought made me look like a woman instead of a girl. In stolen sideways glimpses of store windows on the way to work, I looked rather lovely. Pristinely assembled, strikingly composed. Good girl. But underneath, the recklessness of something wild wanted to rip off every piece of clothing. Run barefoot in the snow. Stare down predatory birds. Quit the shallow, petty retail job and write the stories crawling under my skin like the insects I used to allow trespass over it. Wash my face clean and scrub my body with scalding water until it shined, pink and raw like the newborn flesh of a baby bird before its down has yet grown in. My own dark eyes were always looking back through those storefront reflections, mysterious even to me.

I used to walk during my lunch hour most days, wandering down toward the water or south downtown’s Pioneer Square, where the artists worked and where I could fantasize about writing in one of the grungy lofts, long before I knew anything about rental prices or what my writing process would one day look like.  

Mid-winter and nearly dark already at three o’clock one afternoon when I headed west to the waterfront, I stopped by a small crowd to see what everyone else had all stopped to see. There were birds overhead—hundreds of them, maybe more; I don’t know how I hadn’t heard them first. They must have been swallows, or starlings, something miraculously tiny and ghostly fast, filling the narrow sky between Macy’s and the crazy old luggage store on Pine that casts a giant, undulating shadow on the street below.

All the other strangers on the sidewalk let their umbrellas drop and dangle, bumped by the winds at their thighs. We lifted our chins to the skyline together, each of us entranced, so we could watch this hybrid swarm swerve and swoop at incredible speeds in the air above the streetlights and stunted sidewalk trees.

I’d never seen birds move that way, reaching all at once to fly toward a skyscraper’s face and then crashing back the opposite way. One end of the mass pulled back and under itself as if tying a knot made of water. The overflow on the other side spread wide like one massive wing before looping around again, this pattern repeating strobe-quick. They could move as they pleased—violently fast—make their bodies take on any shape en masse. My heart pulsed in time with the beating of their wings, watching, as they seemed to defy all law of physics. In my mind, it was so beautiful and new. At home in Wisconsin, strong winds could trap a bird nearly to death, but here, the same could send them into frenzy. Ecstasy even.

Soon, the cloud of bird dissolved away, pushed apart by winds. The birds abandoned their colony, and on the street we birdwatchers were made strangers again. Umbrellas were righted and perched. The rain was just rain. I felt the wind kick up into my face, neither fair nor friendly, and I turned away from it. The chill of that wind defied me, sending a draft up the thin, silky lining of my coat, slicing clear through to the bones of my spine.

*

It’s been decades since I ran free through the woods in Wisconsin, or worked a full summer there. I’ve called Seattle my hometown for nearly fifteen years now. Last summer when the camp season ended, I traveled home for a family weekend filled with afternoon beers, fishing off the dock, and overlarge breakfasts together at the fancy new cabin. The three-storey log chalet sits at the end of the property line; it has its own driveway and fishing dock, and we keep our own special canoes under the porch for early evening paddles before the mosquitoes get bad.

A fast-moving thunderstorm blew in quickly after the sun set one evening during my visit. Through the walls and windows, I could hear the wind kicking up the leaves of the trees into a full-skirted frenzy, throwing the patio umbrellas against their metal poles, the homemade ceramic chimes clanging cacophonously against the awnings.

It had been that perfect kind of summer day when the water turned to glass right at sunset and the meals turned out just how mom always used to make them. The world could crumble outside our property lines but we’d never know it within their bounds. After sundown, my oldest brother tugged on the sleeve of my shirt, then pointed at the storm brewing outside. With all the family members on site and the new cabin so far down the main road, we had two open-air vehicles still in the gravel driveway; they needed to be driven back into camp and stowed under cover before the storm came. We nodded lazily to one another, groaned into knowing action.

I sipped my beer, kissed the chubby chin of my nephew as I handed him to his mother, and stood to find my flip-flops. One brother took the dune-buggy, the other grabbed the truck. I stared at the dual shifters inside the John Deere “Gator,” a well-worn utility vehicle that looks a little like a golf cart on steroids. I’ve never driven this one before, I said quietly, ashamed that I sounded like such a city girl. Like some invisible badge might be stripped from my chest.

I pressed down on the Gator’s gas pedal and felt the metal frame quake as the engine rumbled beneath me. The air was taking on a quick chill—a kind of damp, dense expectancy. Even above the noise, I could hear the loons calling out to each other in their wavering tremolos, yodeling back and forth across the darkening lake, using the location of the sound to move closer together.

I followed the light on the road made by one brother’s vehicle ahead, glancing every few minutes to the other behind. Trees and grass and sage blurred past on both side and before I knew it, we were taking the big left turn down the athletic field. I drifted the Gator through the sandy turn like a pro, exhaling through it as the winds pulled my hair in wild wisps around my head.  

The three of us picked up speed on the short straightaway that runs past the tennis courts, the lodge, the trip house. I liked it best on that little stretch, shifting into fourth and standing up on the pedals to ease the bumps. This land we’d cared for our whole lives was still my home, even if I’d made such a hard show of turning away.

Before I turned into the big theater building where we’d cover everything with tarps and head back in the truck, I veered off to the right just a little so I could drive under the clouds, unprotected by the thick canopy of the trees, to let my skin get wet with rain from a summer storm if even just for a few seconds.

I wondered if it was only the beer steering me under the open sky, casting the moment in such a perfect hold. I feared it wouldn’t last; the feral girl can be so still now that I’m grown. She only ever speaks in a hush anymore. So many years lived away from the land that raised me wrapped silence around my wild creature, like bandages binding a wound. As I stood under the warm summer rain, I started to peel away those gauzy layers and open up against the twilight sky, for just a moment, to call her back.

From under the cover of the large building’s awning, my oldest brother yelled through the rain, “Let’s go, Tan!” Still, I lingered in the downpour. “C’mon already—what the hell are you doing, you weirdo?”

I eased the gear shifter into neutral and let the Gator roll quietly into position, answering softly “We don’t get thunderstorms in Washington. Not like these.”

*

Starting to make dinner not long ago, I could hear the neighborhood kids riding their skateboards up and down the alley behind the house I’ve lived in for the last five years. I concentrated on nothing in particular—no sound or thought or sensation other than the sweetness of another ordinary day passing. Then I heard a loud, blunt thud of something crashing against my living room window.

I startled and turned around, seeing only a tiny smear of red on the wide pane of glass near the center. I walked closer to the window with my knife and tomato still in hand and paused a moment, waiting.

I heard only the distant laughing of children playing and the nearby cawing of crows, until my ear finally caught the soft flutter of a pair of wings along the red brick windowsill to my left. There was a slick-wet something hopping dumbly along the ledge, seeking refuge against the perplexing wall of glass between us.

I stepped forward, knife gripped firmly, though I couldn’t have explained why. I could see it better then, just an immature crow patched in new feathers of gray and black; even its downy spots shined like oil on water. I’d left part of the window open and when the wounded bird made his way over to the open section, he pushed desperately against the screen, squawking and screeching in frustration. I could see his bloodied mouth now, his crumbled beak. Bits of broken orange and dark, dark red glistening and wet all over his panicked little face.

My apartment is small, and I made my way out the front door in a few steps. I could see three overfed crows looming above us from my upstairs neighbor’s deck, disapproving such intervention in a situation not of my concern. As soon as I came through the doorway, the injured bird jerked backward and flopped to the ground near the shrubs below the windows with a quiet fuff.

I backed away, brow furrowed and toes tucked inside my slippers, afraid to move again for fear of killing the poor thing with another step.

He barely moved, his chest puffing up and down so slightly that I wondered if I were imagining it. Should I pick him up—with my bare hands? No, this was a common crow and birds carry diseases, all variety of disgusting germs and parasites. I needed rubber gloves, thick ones. Besides, I didn’t have any shoeboxes prepared to house such a creature.

I wanted to look away, knowing it would be better for me to avoid its bloodied mouth, that aquiline, black face. I'd saved, or tried to save, hundreds of critters back home in my forest. A baby bird fallen from the nest or ubiquitous, vaguely wounded chipmunk was easy enough to feed and release in one of the old rabbit cages behind the lodge at camp. There, with their natural environment so readily at hand, the odds seemed favorable. In the city, the odds appeared less so for wild things, or at least I told myself this as I turned away from the sight of the thing.

By nighttime, my hourly checks found the bird trembling in precisely the spot I’d last seen him, stuck on the cement beneath the overgrown rosemary bush. I might have tried to make sweet sounds to soothe him, might have offered food. As a child, I would have held him in my hands, touched bloody feathers and beak with my bare fingertips, would have either fed or eventually buried the small creature with a guardian’s care. Now I wouldn’t even look in its direction, now I shut my ears against the sound of its struggle.

The terrible shudder and thwap of the wounded crow hitting the glass, and then the screen of my window, began to play over and over in my head that night. Come morning, I woke to the sound of raindrops against my bedroom window, the windowsill wet and windy where I’d left it open a crack the night before. I braced the dog close to my leg when we walked through the door for our walk in case the bird had wandered and died there, but overnight the broken thing remained, exactly where I’d last seen him. When I returned from work, he was still there, still breathing. Still blinking. If he hadn’t blinked every twenty seconds or so, each time I glanced back, I would have thought him dead.

Three mornings in a row, I woke thinking, even hoping, that surely it must have died in the night, and each morning found it huddled in a greasy-wet puff of sick under the shrubs, motionless but alive.

I tried to ignore the shallow divot it had made in the dirt beneath the shrubbery, tried to un-see the crusted beard of dried blood and pus around its sullied beak each time I passed to turn my key and quickly unlock the door. Even the dog eventually learned the routine: pay no mind to the sickly creature near the door, it wasn’t our problem.

There was something strange about that bird, something not quite right at all—the way he tried to occupy a square of space in my yard and claim it for his own. He didn't belong there, but maybe neither of us did. Maybe I had no right at all, penniless writer every bit as fledgling and broken as that crow—to judge him and his place in the world. I’d left behind everything that was special and natural about myself to find a quiet place far from home, where I could create my own kind of wilderness. The crow and I flung ourselves at the great adventure of possibility. What had it all been for?

With the bird in the yard, I wished for a storm—the kind we have back home in the Midwest. Thunderstorm, ice-storm, windstorm, blizzard. Something powerful and dangerous and wicked enough to blow away anything that couldn’t withstand the terrible forces of the landscape, even if I were to be blown away, too—tumbled off someplace else, someplace gentler.

Taking out the garbage on the fifth day, I turned to the bird, now covered in clumps of dirt and grit, and said, “You’re just a crow, crow.” It blinked back at me, as if it knew what I said was true. I could have stopped it had I so desired, but I let our eyes meet one last time, our very connection to one another somehow, for the briefest of moments, disconnecting us from everything else. I pushed out a breath and shut my eyelids hard against themselves, forcing an inhale. “The world doesn’t need any more crows, does it?”

Overnight the bird finally left us, by flight or by death I won't know. Rats and raccoons get big here; night could have brought either beast into the yard to steal away my strange, dark bird. I like to think the crow found a quiet wilderness of his own where he could wander and feel the breeze. Sometimes I still imagine that we could have looked smart as a pair, its black feathers and my black hair shinning together under the sun; wild and whole.



Poet, teacher, and editor Tanya Chernov is the author of A Real Emotional Girl, (Skyhorse Publishing), one of Kirkus Reviews’ 15 Excellent New Memoirs. She holds a BA from the University of Puget Sound and earned an MFA in poetry from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, Whidbey Writers Workshop. A Pushcart Prize nominee, she served as the longtime poetry and translations editor of The Los Angeles Review. Tanya lives and writes in Seattle with her dog, Mona, though the roots of her heart remain firmly planted in Wisconsin.

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