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THE HERON

From:
Charles Frazier, Cold mountain


[Meanwhile, back at Cold Mountain, a solitary Ada struggles to survive on her father's farm, Black Cove, after his death. When she's near despair, an indigent but resourceful young woman named Ruby offers her help. One night, on their way home from the town, Ruby shows Ada the wonders of nature.]

When they reached the west fork of the Pigeon and turned up the river road, the light was growing thin and a shadow already draped itself over the knob called Big Stomp, cast by the larger mountains of the Blue Ridge. The water looked black and cold, and the smell of river hung in the air, about equal parts mineral and vegetable. Though the river had fallen some since morning, it was still up from the last night's rain, and the rocks out in it were wet and dark where trees from either bank nearly met in the middle and kept the watercourse shaded all day.

They had not walked far above the fork when Ruby stopped and squared her body to the water, sighting on something in it as if to take range. She sank down in her knees just a notch, like a fighter lowering his center of gravity to compose himself for attack. She said, Well, look there. That's not a common sight.

Off in the river stood a great blue heron. It was a tall bird to begin with, but something about the angle from which they viewed it and the cast of low sun made it seem even taller. It looked high as a man in the slant light with its long shadow blown out across the water. Its legs and the tips of its wings were black as the river. The beak of it was black on top and yellow underneath, and the light shone off it with muted sheen as from satin or chipped flint. The heron stared down into the water with fierce concentration. At wide intervals it took delicate slow steps, lifting a foot from out the water and pausing, as if waiting for it to quit dripping, and then placing it back on the river bottom in a new spot apparently chosen only after deep reflection.

Ruby said, He's looking for a frog or a fish.

But his staring so heedfully into the water reminded Ada of Narcissus, and to further their continuing studies of the Greeks, she told Ruby a brief version of the tale.

-- That bird's not thinking about himself at all, Ruby said, when Ada had finished the story. Look at that beak on him. Stab wounds; that's his main nature. He's thinking about what other thing he can stab and eat.

They stepped slowly toward the river edge and the heron turned to look at them with some interest. He made tiny precise adjustments of his narrow head as if having trouble sighting around his blade of beak. His eyes seemed to Ada to be searching for her merits and coming up short.

-- What are you doing up here? she said aloud to the heron. But she knew by the look of him that his nature was anchorite and mystic. Like all of his kind, he was a solitary pilgrim, strange in his ways and governed by no policy or creed common to flocking birds. Ada wondered that herons could tolerate each other close enough to breed. She had seen a scant number in her life, and those so lonesome as to make the heart sting on their behalf. Exile birds. Everywhere they were seemed far from home.

The heron walked toward them to the river edge and stood on a welt of mud. He was not ten feet away. He tipped his head a notch off level, raised a black leg, scales as big as fingernails, the foot held just off the ground. Ada stared down at the strange footprint in the mud. When she looked up, the bird was staring at her as at someone met long ago, dimly registered in memory.

Then the heron slowly opened its wings. The process was carried out as if it were a matter of hinges and levers, cranks and pulleys. All the long bones under feathers and skin were much in evidence. When it was done the wings were so broad that Ada could not imagine how it would get out among the trees. The bird took a step toward Ada, lifted itself from the ground, and with only a slow beat or two of the immense wings soared just above her head and up and away through the forest canopy. Ada felt the sweep of wings, the stir of air, a cold blue shadow across the ground, across the skin of her face. She wheeled and watched until the heron was gone into the sky. She threw up a hand like waving 'bye to visiting kin. What would that be? she wondered. A blessing? A warning beacon? Picket of the spirit world?

(Charles Frazier, Cold mountain, New York: Vintage Books, 1998, p. 192-193)

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Last updated 24.11.99
Burkhard Leuschner