, FootHills Publishing
Illustration by Carol Zaloom
|| My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse
— Ashokan High Point, Catskills
Never before had a grouse failed to explode
from the underbrush with a wing-beating panic,
a feathered cannonball fanning a leaf-ripping tail.
But this bird didn’t budge. It kept pecking
at leaf litter as methodically as a maid
checking under cushions for coins.
For several minutes, I focused my binoculars
on its lady-bug eyes, its black-banded tail,
but didn’t want to spoil the magic by staying too long.
Bushwhacking through acres of mountain laurel,
I navigated tangled stalks like woody barbed wire.
Finally, a boulder ramp led me down to a clearing.
But which direction to the reservoir lookout,
rumored to lie east of the blueberry bald,
I couldn’t sense any better than from above.
Behind me, I spotted the grouse half-sliding,
half-hopping on clownish chicken feet to catch up.
It stopped on the rock, cocked its head sideways,
then eye-balled me with an orange intensity.
Oh, yes, I remembered that look,
unblinking, undeterred, unashamed
of being in charge, yet being in love.
Could this bird really be my late mother?
At her burial last winter I scattered grouse feathers
to honor her passion as an Audubon birder.
Did I unwittingly plant the seed for her return?
Crippled by strokes, she lived so long in a nursing home
she had no idea I lived in a cabin, not Hoboken
or Manhattan. To her, I was always 23 and married,
for some unfathomable reason, to my cousin, Muggsie.
This grouse clearly knew what she wanted.
Softly she cooed and finally winked.
I murmured my best grouse impersonation,
eager to talk no matter what we happened to say.
I sat on the grass, an invitation she accepted
to prance close to my boots, cocky as a city pigeon.
For her country outing, she’d dressed
in subdued browns and whites, but make no mistake:
her feathered crest sharpened her head.
When her blinking turned almost flirtatious,
I lowered my eyes, apparently a fresh invitation,
for she paraded alongside my leg, pausing
every few steps to nip at a blueberry flower.
With my hands I could have cradled her like a dove,
cooing, content. Was that what she wanted?
Behind my back, she pecked at my daypack zipper.
How could I explain my bachelor’s cabin,
the dirty socks from last week’s hike still hanging
on the upstairs railing, the dirty dishes forever
crowding the sink? Did she think
she’d be satisfied eating seeds from a bowl
made of plastic and sharing my cold wooden floor
with the mice? Didn’t she know
I could be arrested for bringing a grouse home
under the Wildlife Protection Act?
Did she know how rarely I swept?
No, I needed to end this strange encounter.
I stood and shouldered my pack, nodded good-bye.
But giant steps up the rock didn’t do any good.
She hopped up her own crooked ladder
of laurel stalks, then paused at the next dirt patch
for me to catch up. How could I shake her?
Whenever I plunged in a new direction,
climbing and tripping through bushes,
she scampered nearby, easily low-hurdling
trunk tangles and roots. I barged like an oaf,
but she didn’t act disappointed in me as a grouse.
She waited and cooed with encouragement.
Not until I broke loose on the blueberry bald
did she stop at the edge of her laurel protectorate.
Yet no matter how long I rested on the only boulder,
pretending to admire the quixotic flight
of black butterflies sampling blueberry nectar,
I knew she waited with unbending love and devotion
in the bushes I couldn’t avoid to hike home.