At this moment (9:50am, Central Standard Daylight Savings Time) I am sitting on a porch in a small Nebraska town, and time is measured by robins and gray-haired men. The robins are very trim and appear roughly every two minutes to patrol their territory. The gray-haired men are considerably less trim and appear roughly every half hour to patrol their territory. These two measures of time coexist in the same space, neither taking much notice of the other. There are also bells on the hour from each of the twenty-one local churches that believe in Galileo’s system of measuring time. Galileo, in addition to proving we are not the center of the universe and even the heavens are imperfect, designed the first pendulum clock. He saw it was one aspect of gravity: a heavy weight, suspended from its source across a long distance, moves back and forth in a predictable arc. The pendulum’s travel has been replaced by the same electronics that run our cell phones, beeping to remind us when our loved ones were born and died, and the transcontinental airplanes that fly us across long distances, but our habit of measuring time with the body remains. Before Galileo, the most accurate measure of time was your heartbeat.
At this moment (10:05am, Central Standard Daylight Savings Time), a robin is building a nest. At roughly two-minute intervals, she appears on a nearby downspout, carrying a sheaf of damp grass. She lays it authoritatively on the downspout. Then she lowers her bill, spreads her wings, and does the Macarena. This remarkable behavior serves some important function, but it has been a long time since Marlon Perkins appeared on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom to tell me what. On the downspout, it causes the grass to fall off. Every two minutes she tries again. By 10:17am, she has discovered the grass will stick in the crack where the downspout meets the wall and is concentrating her nest-building efforts there. It was not where she thought she’d end up this year, but it works. Scientifically, this is known as behavioral flexibility.
Personally, I measure time in cats. This method has disadvantages, since a human life may add up to only four or five. Neighbors who measure time in large dogs speak breezily in terms almost Biblical; ah, yes, that was in the days of Bonzo, son of Wellington, daughter of Rex. Their hair isn’t even going gray yet. In a smallish number of heartbeats, Buddha is dying–in this case he is a large dog who looked after my dying father—and he needs looking after himself. So here we are, Buddha and I and the birds, in our coincidental transits.
About sixty miles to the west of the nest is the largest concentration of cranes in the world. They are sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), birds as tall as a teenager, with wingspans wider than a grown man can reach. They are swinging by Nebraska on their way north, running thousands of miles before the wind to find a wild place to nurture their young. The cold wilderness that waits beyond Nebraska is not a place they could survive the winter, so after its summer is gone, they will swing back south. They pass through Nebraska again, seeking gentler climates. Either way, they do not stay long in the place I was born. Each year, the old ones fall away in the wind, and a new generation joins the flocks. Almost all of the world’s population stops to rest not far from where I grew up. At this moment (10:43am) half a million cranes are having brunch together along the banks of the Platte River. At least I hope they are. The weather has been unseasonably warm, most of the Platte River now runs out of sink taps in Denver, and the cranes do not operate on clock time. No one is sure exactly how much river they need to survive, or how they know when it’s time to leave.
Though I grew up not far from here, I have never seen those 500,000 cranes.
Long before I was a trans gay radical West Coast Jewish writer, I was a kid in Nebraska. When I was young, what seemed remarkable was the human ability to model the world. In a digital age it is now so commonplace that people have trouble telling the difference between the world and their Facebook page. But in years gone, families like mine spent hundreds of hours in the state museum, watching the wonder of planetarium shows that could project images of the stars we still saw outside, and touring the new Hall of Nebraska Wildlife. Nebraska wildlife was freely available outdoors. Still, people came hundreds of miles to marvel at the realism of the beaver family, the bobcat stalking a brushy-tailed packrat, the twelve-point buck whitetail. Each was mounted by an expert scientific preparator, every leaf on the beavers’ cottonwood sapling cut separately from parchment paper. The fuzz on the baby packrats modeled with infinite care in their illuminated secret nest was made from sifted cotton lint, lifted into realism by wands charged with static electricity.
Carl Akeley perfected this type of diorama more than a century ago so that tenement-dwellers from Brooklyn could take the subway to see gorillas in the mist. But the Hall of Nebraska Wildlife wasn’t designed to offer its visitors scenes they could never witness in life. It asked you to notice the world beyond your door. This same spirit animated the old tradition of State Fair dioramas: an acorn the size of your head, an enormous cornucopia of perfect fruit, a display window that could have held elephants filled instead with a model cross-section of backyard dirt, a single earthworm the size of ourselves modeled in loving detail. But the Hall of Nebraska Wildlife used none of these wonders of scale. Its master artifice was time. Visitors came to bear witness to thousands of hours of painstaking skilled labor, all required to recreate a timeless model of their own world.
Only we—the visitors—moved, through frozen landscapes lively with our absence, listening to voices always audible to us through the invisible mechanics of recording, wondering at what we saw. In other words, we went to see the mounted cranes on their majestically painted river in the Hall of Nebraska Wildlife, but we did not think the regular return of half a million of their living kin along the Platte was anything unusual.
Time marches on. At 11:00am a cardinal lights on a branch outside, eliciting an honest gasp. It is precisely the color of that perfect tomato you are always looking for in the supermarket and can never find. This too did not seem to me remarkable before I left Nebraska, where they are ordinary, for a place where such things are not found.
To tell the truth, I never thought much of ordinary dioramas. I was drawn instead to the cat-eyed Allosaurus (extinct 150 million years ago), to Baluchitherium, the largest land mammal that has ever lived (25 million years ago), and to the dwarf mammoth the size of a large dog (1 million years ago, almost close enough to touch). I spent hours at the farmyard, every inhabitant of which was a skeleton, from the cow to the chickens to the farmer himself, one bony foot on the paddock gate, a strand of mounting wire between his teeth. (Forty-five years later, he is still there, though in the era of Ronald Reagan, the wire was discreetly tucked back and hidden behind his incisors. Like the past or your own skeleton, you can’t see the joke unless you know it is there.)
The dioramas I loved were the prairie oceans, decorated with colorful crinoids, cruised by cephalopods in shells like party hats, and busy with trilobites, faintly beetle-like creatures whose faceted eyes gazed back across the unbridgable distance of 500 million years. With unerring instinct, I honed in on the artifice that evoked those lives we could no longer touch, the calls that we would never hear, separated forever by time.
In the Hall of Paleozoic Life, each glowing window on what at first seems to be the same tropical reef announces the passage of millions of years.
In the beginning, we had nothing to stand on and did not even know what we were. At a place named Avalon, on the edge of a cliff called Mistaken Point, you can step out across the bottom of the sea on one particular day 565 million years ago. You can see every creature–all reproduced here, in the first diorama–as they anchor in the ooze like tiny junipers or lie cowlike on the ground. You can touch the details of their bodies, how they spread out across the country in scattered herds, the way the siltfall that entombed them left them all pointing in the same direction. You can know everything about them, except who they were. We have no idea. Were their lives anything we could recognize? We do not even know if they were animals like us. At this distance of time, the information is something we may never recover. The diorama is very small. It is illuminated by a mysterious blue light.
At the other end of the Hall is the end of time. It is called the Permian extinction. 90% of all life on earth died, far more than what was lost with the dinosaurs, far more even than is being lost now. No one alive knows why. When you look through that last window, you see the world on the day before the dying. The reef teems with life in every imaginable pattern; all you can see at first is a thicket of fingers and eyes. The fingers are eloquent corals and sponges speaking in signs, the stalks of sea lillies, the spines of sea urchins and sculptured lamp shells. The eyes belong to fish and trilobites, scallops with scores of eyes as blue as my father’s, and nautiloids called ammonites, after the ram’s horns of the indomitable Egyptian god of empty space. When you look up you will see that the sky above you, through which the light comes, is made of blue glass. When you look into the distance through the skein of life, you will see it extends indefinitely, receeding forever, as when you were a child and turned two mirrors to meet each other and found yourself living in a hall of mirrors without end.
To the left of the diorama is a small doorway. There is no announcement. There is no door to open. There is nothing to stop you. Sooner or later your footsteps will take you through this doorway, and you will be in another world. The blue light will be gone. Nothing will ever refer to it again, as if it had never been.
From now on you will live on dry land.
Each spring when I was a child, my family would pack a picnic and set off for a small place called Weeping Water. A story says the name records the grief of two tribes for all the dead in the long war between them. This is probably a romantic mistranslation. There is a permanent creek here, and it falls through some of the largest natural deposits of limestone on earth, making a lot of noise for a part of the world that has never seen a waterfall. The limestone deposits were once coral reefs. A man named Dave Meyers once owned a limestone quarry here, digging out the bones of reefs to crush into road gravel. The top of the reef had been flattened by the mining, and families like ours would climb the hill and picnic on the scrape plateau. If, on a warm spring day, you had eaten your fill of fried chicken and leaned back off the edge of the blanket, your palms would come away printed with clamshells, a thousand miles from the nearest ocean. We used to scoop up crinoid stems to string into keychains; the hill was made of them. The ground we sat on, fissured with zones of prickly pear and ornamented with occasional abandoned cars, was a tropical reef 300 million years old, the peak of the world’s abundance, the last age before the age of the great dying.
In a building on the town’s main street is a model of the town’s main street. It records a time forty years before I arrived in the world to eat fried chicken on the fossil coral reef and drink soda pop from a 25-cent machine that vended bottles. Each building on that other street is minutely detailed, cut from varicolored paper and assembled like a house of cards. Beneath each is a drawer. Each drawer holds a stratigraphy–a record of each person who held, for a fragment of time, a lease on that spot. In 1904, Fong Jon ran a Chinese laundry; in 1910, Jim Look gave him a run for his money. There were doctors and barbers and homeopaths, a lunch counter and a cigar factory, a newspaper called the Eagle that ceased publication in 1893. The model and its stratigraphy were made by the hands of Dave Meyers, the gravel king, who helped start the town historical society.
Forty years later, the coral reef is called Potash Quarry, owned by PCS Phosphate, a multinational mining corporation based in Canada. PCS Phosphate does not donate to the town historical society. About seven hundred truckloads of fossil coral reef are removed every day. The site is fenced and posted against trespassing; even the locals no longer try to go there.
A local explains the situation. “They don’t let people up there without permission, if you can even get permission–the ownership’s outside the country. It’s all different now. A boy went up into the quarry years ago and drowned. Now everybody’s worried about their liability.” The man is a volunteer with the town historical society and has stopped by the town coffeehouse, which doubles as an antique store. (It’s also a historical costume library doing a national business via the Internet, with its own in-house armory and prop fabrication shop, and a bakery when the owner gets around to making popovers.) The owner gives the man coffee in a china cup with his name on it. Bill drinks his coffee and slides back the cup. The owner says, “People have been known to prosecute.”
Bill has a ball cap that says U.S. Navy, ret., and no particular place he has to be just yet. A burly man comes in from the armory. He and Bill and the woman serving coffee catch each other’s eyes, and the man hands Bill a set of keys. They’re board members of the historical society, which makes this something of a quorum. “We’ve got five buildings,” Bill says. “Do you want a tour?”
In Hastings, Nebraska, a man named Dave Stewart once walked upstairs at a building where he rented space and found a railroad whorehouse. Generations before, the last owner had retired, locked the front door, and left. By trade, Dave Stewart was a janitor in the art department at the local college. One night he found an assignment left behind on the studio chalkboard: find objects and make a sculpture. So when he found the windows of the whorehouse were still level to lean out and chat with the long-gone gentlemen on the passenger trains that no longer came in, the velveteen settees and the wardrobes and the flower-figured wallpaper still waiting, he figured he ought to do something. The place is now called the Burlington Sleeping Rooms. Dave Stewart will take you up there if you swear he’s not liable if you fall through the floorboards and die.
There are a few cast-off but graceful mannequins; they gaze out a window or turn away from you to brush their hair, and the wardrobes are now full of the clothes these women might wear, and there are delicate celluloid grooming kits on the vanity tables, and perhaps a photograph tucked in a mirror. But mostly the rooms are empty. It is as if the inhabitants had just stepped outside for a moment. You are waiting yourself, with a strong sensation of being out of time and perhaps inside a Joseph Cornell box. You are not quite sure what you will say to the women when they come back. The painted nudes in gilt frames on the walls are by Dave Stuart, more Matisse than pornography. And when you peek in a bedroom, a woman who is no longer there has just been writing a letter to her mother, to say hi and talk about cousin Millie and the weather and the loneliness that sometimes comes into this house like a visitor from another time, and patches of plaster sometimes fall from the ceiling, and in the end you will always lose your nerve and leave before the women who work here come back. But you don’t forget them, ever.
Every town in Nebraska has at least one museum. In Nebraska City, population just over seven thousand, there is a civil war museum where John Brown’s best friend’s sister once lived. A sign on the lawn of the post office preserves both the town newspaper article that reported the escape of a slave with the phrase “she must have been enticed away by some white-livered Abolitionist,” and the information that a large crowd of all races drove her former owner away when he tried to recapture her. His mansion, which burned down, is now the Post Office lawn. At the Dinty Moore Lunch Counter, a descendant of someone chats happily with a visiting Dominican woman from New York City; she makes an appointment to visit the Civil War Museum.
There is also the Windmill Museum, a factory whose last owner locked the front door and left; they used to run the equipment in demonstrations on Sundays. Up the hill, there is a fine and costly new museum about Lewis and Clark (they slept here), with dioramas of local wildlife. It’s not far from the renovated historic barns and orchard where Arbor Day was founded, but right downtown is also the River Country Nature Center, open by appointment, which displays dioramas of local wildlife along with 100 different breeds of chickens, and one of the largest collections of albino creatures in the Midwest. It’s the life’s work of a dedicated taxidermist. The town pitched in to get him a place. Down the road is the village of Union, population 99. All the business on the one-block main street are shuttered, but the town jail is on the National Register of Historic Places. There are small towns in Nebraska where it might be impossible to forget anything.
In Weeping Water, Bill unlocks the first of five buildings. It is a wunderkammer: a museum of the most remarkable things people here have ever seen. There’s a two-tine hoe made by Nellie Sac’s grandfather from a single piece of iron, and a vespa wasp nest found in Michigan by Mrs. Sigvald Jensen. Here are the thirteen white silk roses placed on the coffin of Sam Baker in 1991, the last survivor of the Last Men’s Club. Here are the typewritten minutes of the seventy-three annual meetings they had after they came home alive from the War To End All Wars, a record of thirteen men’s yearly toasts together and of their slow deaths one by one.
At the coffee house, the three locals had briefly argued over whether this building was the oldest in town. “No,” said the woman behind the counter, “Linda’s house is older than that. She’s got steel bars on the windows to keep the Indians out.” Bill answers immediately in the reflective, thoughtful tone that substitutes here for indignation, “My great-grandfather, when the Poncas came through each spring, he used to always give them a calf. He never had any trouble.” The third man goes in the back and looks up Linda’s house; at 1856, it’s the oldest European structure.
The wunderkammer gradually resolves into a stratigraphy, a cross section of Weeping Water’s life through time. There are coral heads the size of large dogs (Pennsylvanian: Virgil Series, Shawnee Group), then a scattering of nautiloids and Pseudozaphrentoides horn corals, who lived more solitary lives. Then come artifacts from a village of Oneota people, who lived here before the Poncas did (North side of Weeping Water Creek, 700-800 years ago, excavated in 1976 by Dr. Lloyd W. Kunkle, MD, who wears a pith helmet). A large round pot from the site thoughtfully resembles one of the corals. Then Ponca, Omaha, and Oto people are making everyday objects with fine geometric decorations, first of porcupine quills, then glass trade beads. By 1850, someone is making a fry griddle from slate bound with iron, and twenty-five years later, someone else feels the need for a fluting iron to press ruffles into fancy clothes. Most of the rest is war.
Recent wars are not much represented, though when I ask Bill whether he’s from Weeping Water, he tells me he came when he was eighteen to inherit his grandfather’s house and go to college in the nearby city. “That was the plan, anyway,” he says. “Like a lot of people my age, I took an unexpected vacation.” He does not directly mention Vietnam. After his tours of duty, he returned to Weeping Water, Nebraska, population 1000, and never left.
Between the uniforms of World Wars I and II are the children’s button shoes of Minnie Barden and the chestnut duster of Jens Morgensen, who was so fond of his favorite horse that, when it died, he had it made into his winter coat. Two dignified older ladies are on their knees cleaning under the cases; come spring, the place will be open to the public on Sundays. They are trying to raise funds for historic preservation. This requires a whole different idea of what it means to keep a record. Bill mentions to his colleagues that an outside consultant emphasized Excel spreadsheets, and the ensuing discussion includes the word “Heavens!”
Suddenly, the room fills up with music. The sound resembles a music box the way a toy piano resembles a Bach organ concerto. It’s a Regina disc player; I last heard one forty years ago in a small town like this. The air resounds with a forgotten pop song from 1807: Hogtown Pig Annie’s Two Step and Cake Walk. One of the women says, “I just touched it by accident and it started. It started by itself. No one knows how to fix it. We’re not supposed to play it anymore.”
We all stand still and listen until the dance runs down.
The last of the five buildings is the office of Dr. Fate. When he retired from Weeping Water, he locked the door and left the fainting couch and the tower of medicines and the ribbon web that held the names of the people he cared for. Bill and the other folks down at the coffee house have kept hold of the keys. It all remains. At any moment, Fate will walk through the door and find us.
Though PCS Phosphate has fenced off the picnic site atop the coral reef, the woman who pours the coffee tells me quietly, “Go straight on down this road to the town park. Head North as far as you can go–don’t leave the park, the guy who owns the other side of the creek tends to prosecute. But the park’s public property.” The man who takes the keys back from Bill disappears for a moment, then opens his hands. They are full of fossils.
I go where she tells me. The creek still makes its resonant music. The banks are still filled with rough limestone and nodules of chert and tiny green frogs. My hand closes on a fragment of bone, then a stone made entirely from pieces of clamshell. And where the water sings over a riffle, I reach in, and there on my palm is the stem of the sea lily, the one that waves across all dioramas of first life, that still grows today in the depths of far oceans if only you know how to look, the one that sat on my palm atop a coral reef on another spring day, and the forty years that have passed since then is no time, it is no time at all.
According to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the five phases of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In the first phase, we pretend nothing has changed. We look at the landscape and tell jokes. My return to the place I was born was carefully planned to avoid such problems; I would see the spectacle of migration, half a million individual bodies in flight, then return the next week in solitary splendor to see what the world looked like when they were gone. But migration and flight do not work so neatly, even if one does not forget until standing at the rental car agency that time and important birthdays means one’s license to drive has expired, even if one does not forget that spring in Nebraska is tornado weather.
I bargain my way to a new license. The sun shines warm on our backs. Birds and people go about their spring business. Soon I have a car.
The sky turns black.
When the storms roll in, I stop watching the robin building her nest.
In the visitor’s book where I am staying, someone has written, “DO NOT MISS talking to Joe, the taxidermist at the River Country Nature Center. He’s amazing! (98 years old).” The entry is dated a number of years ago. It’s the year my father died, within hours of crossing the border back to Nebraska, the state he had never wanted to call home. They tell me his last act was to pump his fist in the air in triumph that he had made it. One last roadtrip, then home. The last time I came here was to see his body before they burned it. I did not go to Nebraska City and meet Joe.
Everyone’s father dies. Yours, mine, Nellie Sac’s, Jens Morgensen’s (in the museum is an antique photograph of his son wearing the chestnut coat), the father of Dr. Lloyd W. Kunkle and of Standing Bear, chief of the Poncas, who illegally returned home with a few survivors of his decimated tribe to bury his son in the hills that held the bones of his father. First he had to stand in a courtroom and convince American law that an Indian is a person. Legally, only people have the right of habeus corpus: to know why my body is here. They say that when he spoke, the judge wept.
At an architectural salvage yard in Nebraska City is a tool whose name is lost. The owner does not know what it is. The business end is heavy, so much that it must have been designed to fall through something, as a scythe does. Like a scythe, it is achingly beautiful, even to eyes that no longer understand how every element was made to further the action of a tool that would save your life if you used it well, and if you did not, it would kill you. A thick blade is strapped to one side with iron bands, its shape the swooping curve we used to call an apple knife. A generation before me would have called that blade a bill, and a billhook to harvest apples might be what the tool is, though I have never seen one this size. The handle is so beautiful it hurts to look at. Its curve resembles a natural growth, or what an axe handle might look like if it were hand-carved for giants by Alberto Giacometti. The wood is still solid, though it has been bleached the color of bones by weather and time and neglect. The blade is rusted dull. No one will ever use this tool again to do the work it was designed for. But it is here, not in a trash pile, not beneath the ruins of a decayed barn. The price tag says sixty-five dollars.
We all die. The people who inherit their grandparents’ houses and stay on in small towns know this. They have no way to pretend otherwise, even if they can now sell old farm tools to tourists. The thirteen white roses on Sam Baker’s coffin marked the death of the Last Men’s Club, which waited seventy-three years to find out which man would win the reward of flowers they would never see. The roses were laid by a member’s son. There was no one else to do it. Someone records his contribution to the museum on a small white card. Someone dusts the card. Someone paints a story of two warring tribes on a wall in a small Nebraska town, a tale without victory, all the survivors weeping. Someone donates the old cup they found while laying a new water line in their basement. Someone’s father made it. Someone’s mother made the big Vespa wasp nest Mrs. Sigvald Jensen found in Michigan. Someone wrote Mrs. Jensen’s husband’s name on the label. Her own name is lost. Trilobites. Crinoids. Coral reefs. The monarch butterflies that celebrated my childhood summers like ticker-tape parades of tiger lilies are on their way to the Endangered list. At the entry to Weeping Water is an enamel sign proclaiming their high school sports team state champions in 1961. All that lives is becoming extinct.
I go to see the cranes.
They are scattered in the thin rain across the stubblefields west of Grand Island, feeding on bugs and waste corn, not lining up to be counted. You might not notice them unless you know they are there. Once you see them, they are everywhere, strolling like small gray Herefords casually about the fields. They are the impeccable color of morning clothes. (The youngsters are an embarrassed brown.) Though I had imagined fields of pavé cranes, they do not congregate all in the same spot, or come in a day or leave in a day. Instead they arrive thin and hungry, wander about the rich soil, and leave in much better condition when they feel strong enough to continue and the wind is right. Some ease up the road a way, others continue half-way around the world. There are enough of them in places that they move in waves, like flamingos in a nature video.
At the Rowe Audobon Center in Gibbon, a few older volunteers run tours at dusk and dawn, and maintain large maps of the world. The maps open when the cranes arrive, and close when most have moved on. Visitors apply colored pins to mark their own migration. This year they came from East Falkland Island, East London in South Africa, Tabriz in Iran. From Casper Wyoming, Texarkana Texas, Meekatharra Australia, Niamey Niger. They came from Moscow and Hammerføst on the north end of Norway, at the top of the world. Someone arrived from Siberia, apparently just to check if the cranes were on their way. From Matamoros in Mexico, from Chad near the Libyan border, from Pearl City Hawaii, from Ooligah Lake. A visitor from the Marshall Islands remarked on how nice the place was. In the parking lot on this dark afternoon, a dozen vehicles sit in the freezing wind, license plates from Iowa, Colorado, Wyoming, Minnesota, and two old farm trucks from up the road.
The cranes are not at the center this afternoon, though the trees by the river explode with the calls of red-winged blackbirds. There is a whiteboard account of what’s been seen today: bald eagle, wild turkeys, sharp-tailed grouse, greater yellowlegs. Someone has added “Northern Cardinal” to the list of notable birds.
In the fields, the farmers wait until after the cranes are gone to plant the new season’s corn. A couple of men work on an irrigation pipe. At a small feed lot, cranes graze on one side of a fence, and Herefords on the other. At the other end of the lot, pairs of cranes take turns showily hopping a foot off the ground with their wings spread, like transcendental mediators practicing levitation. Occasionally they will pick up a sheaf of damp grass and toss it into the air with every evidence of delight. The young Herefords take a close interest in this, and toss their heads.
Though I have been warned about the shyness of cranes, I stop the car to watch. They are fifteen feet away. Some of the flock ignore me. A few raise heads like scarlet spears, appearing to stare studiously in another direction. I get slowly out of the car. A few eye me, yellow irises gleaming, and the flock gets on with the business of eating.
A girl about six weaves noisily down the road on a miniature all-terrain vehicle. She is wearing a pink parka. The cranes take wing, providing a satisfying spectacle. It’s quite a thing for a little girl in a pink parka to be able to do. In flight, the cranes do not really look like herons or wild geese; they resemble axe handles designed for giants by Alberto Giacometti. The flock calls and drifts a few feet before settling back in the subblefield. Mission accomplished, the girl turns happily down a farm driveway. The cranes graze on. Somewhere on a downspout, a robin is finishing her nest.
As the light goes, I am standing on a bridge over the Platte River, where the shifting sandbanks have provided purchase only for a solitary juniper. The bridge was once part of a railroad. The rails have been replaced with boards for walking, and someone has bolted two vast iron plates to the sides of the open bridge. A person from elsewhere would have no idea why until they step out and are struck by the prairie wind. On my way out to the bridge I meet a couple coming in, leaving behind the wind and the late light; an old woman with an old dog and an old man with a cane. We smile and nod. They disappear into mist. I stand vigil for my hour on the boards.
You will not see all the cranes at once, but if you listen you will hear them. The sound rises constantly from every direction, a purring like running water or a distant crowd. They—who elicit an honest gasp at first sight—have been revealed all day long as ordinary, part of the landscape like Herefords or freeways or corn. It is only here, alone on the bridge, exposed in the gathering dark in the cold empty wind, that you can hear all their voices together. Only then will you understand what we have been skirting the edges of all along.
As night falls, the fine rain that passes for fog here will close in, and the horizon will slowly begin to disappear. The cold might make you think if you stay here you will soon die, but if you have been in such places before, you know that you will adjust, with time. People say that as night falls, all the cranes come together to the river. On the bridge I am standing exposed, clear of the windbreaks, so I can see the horizon from which they will come. I can do this because I am wearing my father’s windproof jacket. His widow, who knows this territory well, lent the jacket to me. It has a small stain of blood on the left sleeve, marking one of his many choices late in life to continue walking, though he knew he would fall. And so I can see that as the invisible sun goes down, first the most distant ridge of coral limestone disappears into mist, then the fields the Oneota and then the Ponca burned for corn, then the windbreak of trees planted by pioneer farmers, and then the closer, more recent trees whose taproots drink from the river. There is no threatening darkness, no markable line. The grayness just quietly swallows them.
Two wild geese fly in. They paddle companionably, lover by lover, for a while. Then they have flown away. Another replaces them, alone. The far bank disappears. And then, when you are about to give up—if you are old enough by now to resist the impulse and stay a little longer, lingering by the sign that marks the limit of public access—you will hear a wild cry.
When you look up they will be there. They are perfect silhouettes, gray on gray, every detail outlined like absence, their voices ringing in your ears. First there will be one. Then thirteen. Another small flock, and a score, and more, and soon you will come to understand that even though all you can see now is the river–even the house that seemed so close a minute ago is fading away–they are assembling. Each time you think they have all come, there are more. They are standing on the water, calling, and you know them by their voices, though you can see them now only as flickers on the edge of your vision, interruptions in the late light. You would not see them unless you know they are there.
And when you have stood on the bridge with their voices for as long as you can bear, you will turn to go, and meet an old man coming the other way to replace you, with his daughter and her daughter. You will nod to each other as your paths briefly cross. You will notice the man’s granddaughter resembles the teenage girl you saw yesterday, from behind a screen of trees, walking up to join her sister on the swing where you and your brother used to swing, in the yard of the house where you grew up, where you no longer live. And you will see there is no place where it ends.
Aaron Raz Link is the author of What Becomes You, a Lambda Literary Award finalist. His work has appeared in journals including Fourth Genre, TSQ, Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly Online, and Porabola, and anthologies including Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, Genderqueer, and American Lives: A Reader. He was born in Lincoln, Nebraska and wrote “Time” fifty years later on a Kimmel Harding Nelson Residency in Nebraska City.