The Nighthawk

Before I tell you that I know all about Maria and offer you my sincerest congrats on your new-found role in life, I have a little confession to make: I quit praying for you yesterday. I know you’re probably surprised to read this, but I realized that I was being selfish, that my prayers were mumbled only to alleviate my guilt in leaving you. Please forgive me, dear man, and don’t think me heartless, but I know you’ll get along fine without my prayers—I’m sure the whole congregation is praying for you anyway.

As for me, I’ve lost confidence in the ways of God. I’m smiling now because I know that your reaction to this epiphany of mine will be a smarmy “I told you so,” but just because I’ve given up God doesn’t mean that I doubt his existence. In fact, I’m more sure of his reality now than when I was a pastor, which is a little strange and must be aggravating news for you because what now could keep me from you? My faith was always a stumbling block for you, and your lack of faith, spiritual or otherwise, irritated me. You never really did believe in much of anything, other than that mare and plow of yours. Oh, and your beer.

I was reminded of God’s existence when, on my way to work a few weeks ago, I passed a bride and groom leaving a church. They were sweetly holding hands under acanopy of red balloons, and I had to pull over and watch them. She was beautiful in herwhite gown, he frozen in his tuxedo. Even from where I sat I could see that they were nervous. They were young, twenty-something, and let me tell you, they looked like us leaving our simple ceremony a dozen years ago. I had plenty of time to stare at you while you drove us away. You seemed sostrong at the altar, you with your large hands, strong mind, and firm mouth. But while you drove,your jaw began to tremble and tears fell down your cheeks. You were just a little boy—how did I not ever see that before? I nevermade an effort to comfort you, much less tell you that I saw you cry. I actually pretended not tonotice. It’s a fine way to begin a marriage, don’t you think? A union created in fraud? Only three hours into our marriage and already you had a phantom spouse. Ishould have held your hand and not been such the fearful Mennonite girl you always accused me of being.

The newlyweds crawled into their car and drove away. I wondered if the groom had dreams, ifthe bride was hopeful. As I was leaving, I noticed an older woman crying at the endof the walk. She was the bride’s mother, and I’ll tell you why she cried:she knew that painwould stalk her daughter like the elusive fox that stalks your chickens. And this is my bone of contention with God: contrary to what people think, marriage isn’t a joyous event. Instead it’s a God-sanctioned killing of personalities. Why does something have to die for love to exist? You see, I believe in God enough to know that I have to get as far away from him as possible. His actuality has been my downfall.

While I drove to work, I thought of our first night together. Remember? The musty carpeting? The stained bedspread? The A/C that wouldn’t turn off? Our fingers touched and wandered over each other’s goose-fleshed bodies. I clawedyour chest, and your legs held down my thighs and your coffee breath was heavy on my neck. Yourrhythm was off (as usual) and you came the moment you entered me, drowning my desire. When I got up to shower, you stayed under the sheets and told me that you wanted to farm-- nothing big, a “hobby farm” I think you calledit. How romantic to plow with horses, how Amish of you to use antique implements. I told you that you had no idea how hard farming was, even afew acres. But you, like your mother, were stubborn and insisted on woodworking, too, bedsteads, bookshelves, andpicture frames, all things to make our house beautiful. I can’t deny that you made our house beautiful, but don’t you think it’s funny howthe very thing you like about another person can so soon drive you crazy? You, the handsome Jewish vegetarian carpenter—and now I hate you for it. For Christ’s sake, go eat a pork roast.

You’d laugh if you could see your long-lost bride—I’m in a bar sipping Jack Daniels betweengloomy, meat-eating men. They’re trying hard to be polite and not stare while I write, but they can’t help it. One fellow with tattooed angel wings even bought me a beer. I came here because this place serves microbrews, so I figured it would be easy tosummon your presence and feel you near. And indeed you’re near, but you brought Maria along too, and I can’t stop thinking about her.

What lovely hair! What lovely teeth! What ample hips! Such brown eyes! I know all about her—does that surprise you? It shouldn’t. I could always see right through you. I saw Maria and her daughters at the flea market in Shipshewana about a month before I left you. She was cordial, asking me how I was, how my congregation was, and even had the nerve to ask me about you. I told her that you were fine, and she said something about you being such a great craftsman, and that husbands like you just don’t grow in fields.

“And oh, those bed frames he makes,” she said, “so lovely.”

Lovely bed frames indeed. How many times has she seen them? Maria’s daughters hid behind her skirt, looking at me warily as if I were some sort of monster; and when I gave them a smile, they looked down and blushed. The littlest one began to cry and her tears made me secretly happy—someone had to cry over this whole affair. I’m sorry that life didn’t flow from me the way it does from Maria. It would be so much easier if I,like God, could speak life into being. Or at least lay a fertilized egg for you to sit on until it hatched. You’d like that, you cold penguin.

I had overheard you talking with Maria a few nights earlier. It was a warm evening and the moonwas full, and since you were in town drinking with your buddies, I decided to use your wood shop for myevening yoga. I sat on the floor and stretched until I heard you drive up and make your way to the shed. It was childishof me to have hidden from you, to have crawled into the large crate where you keep your rags and blankets, but I wanted to avoid another fight about my trespassing in your space. The blankets were soft and smelled like pine shavings. You werechipper, probably a little drunk, when you opened the door. You flipped on thelight and ran your hands over the surface of a bookshelf in progress, checkingthe dovetails where the shelves connected to the frame. Then you called her on your cell.

Your face glowed brighter than the moon while you two talked. Laughter was suddenly easy for you. You were vibrant, engaged. I barely recognized you. It was a long talk and I don’t remember much of your conversation except for this: “I hope it’s a girl.” The one I couldn’t give you, of course.

After you shut the door, I crawledout of the box and looked out the window. I felt numb. You were in the kitchen making a sandwich, probablyarugula and cress on wheat.

That’s love, right, knowing what your husband eats at night before bed?

I thought it ironic that I had to preach a sermon on adultery soon after. Adultery is aslippery notion, and I had a hard time trying to wrap my head around it. Most would find it easy to condemn, perhaps too easy, but my trouble in writing the sermonlay in the contradiction between what the biblical texts said and how it affected you: after your conversation with Maria, you were the happiest I’d seen you in years, spirited and in love, and I found myself falling for you again. It was as if youhad received a salvation. You were a different man. I tried to avoid your gaze while I preached, looking at those sitting around you instead.

I saw Esther knitting and her husband asleep. I noticed Faye fanning herself withthe bulletin and Elroy sucking on his toothpick, nodding every now and then. “If we believe that God’s essence is love,” I preached, “who are we to say where love can or cannot grow?” I looked at you, and you mouthed “I love you” to me. And at that moment, I loved you too. But don’t misunderstand me: what youdid to me was wrong, and I know that more now than I did that day nine months ago. Love has consequences, dear man; love and hate are two sides of the same coin.

I feel like a stalker, but I often check your Facebook page. I’m surprised you haven’t blocked me yet because I blocked you immediately. I suppose it would be more grown up of me to just call, but I’m afraid your voice would trigger hate, and I don’t want that, not now. Last week, I saw comments on your wall saying “Congratulations!” and “Way to go!” and “A girl!” So yes, congratulations from me too.

Just now I thought of a psalm that made me think of you: I’msinking in deep mire (read shit), and there is no firm ground for my feet. Do you feel grounded,dearest daddy, with your feet muddled in dirty diapers? I’m laughing hard at the consequences of love.

I suppose that you do feel grounded, because farmers are of the earth and settled in their ways, content to watch their crops grow. You’re not anything like Ben, my lover—yes I have one, and it’s so much fun to say—a flighty man of the air. He’s an ornithologist at Washburn Univeristy and he walks with ahunch, a consequence of hiding from birds I suppose. He wants to fly, I can see it in his blackeyes, and he will because he has no roots to hold him down.

I met Ben at the library downtown. I was at a table reading Dante (I’m still trying to figure that book out) when he plopped down across from me and introduced himself. He had a stack of bird books, and when I expressed interest, he smiled and gave me a mini-lecture about endangered birds, mating rituals and climate change. He was so endearing, so earnest. He asked me where I worked, and I told him. A waitress! Can you believe it? It’s really not much of a leap from pastoring in that both positions require keeping your customers happy. Ben was easy to get to know, and by the end of summer we were seeing each other nearly every day. A fewdays ago he invited me on a bird watching trip to the Flint Hills. We left Saturdaymorning.

In the car, Ben played a CD of bird songs for me. Many I had heard, but one in particular was unusual, a series of screeches followed with what sounded like a thunderclap. I asked himwhat it was and he told me that it was a nighthawk. I told him that it didn’t sound earthly, and he said that if we were lucky we might see one. I asked him if they were endangered.

“Not really,” he said. “They’re just well-disguised.”

I wondered about the thunder-like sound. He told me that it was air flowing throughthe feathers of the male’s wings while he showed off for the female, a mating ritual. We were both quiet for a while. I watched the prairie go by and pictured you out there behindyour plow, its blades slicingup the earth, the gaping furrows waiting for your seed. Some mating ritual.

You’d be surprised at how hilly Kansas is. The Flint Hills stretch north and south, their long, flattops eaten away by wind and rain. I imagined buffalo standing on the ridges, their hunchedshoulders and wooly jaws silhouetted in the sun. The wind was constant, buffeting Ben’s carand turning the long grasses into wide, green rivers that flowed up and over the hills and into the shallowravines. The sky was open and the land stretched far, and the light was so sharp you could cut your finger on it.

We arrived at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve at dusk. We hiked for a while, and the windsettled when the moon came up. He led me off the trail toward a grove of cottonwoods. Our stepswere muffled in the grass and it was wonderfully quiet, no insects, no birds. He held my hand and we listened to the silence until Benpointed at shadows swooping through the sky. I asked if they were nighthawks.

“No,” he said, “they’re bats.” He kissed me and I pulled him close. Theair smelled green and new and I shivered.

The next evening Ben invited me to dinner. He made a cassoulet and served hot French bread. We sat on his couch, drank red wine, and talked. He wassurprised at my being single. I wondered what he meant by that, and he told me that he was lucky to have met me and wondered if I had been in any serious relationships. I toldhim that there was once a man, a dear man.

“He was fortunate,” he said. “Did you consider marriage?”

“Yes,” I said, “but it never happened.”

Ben went to the kitchen and returned with ice cream and a present, Dante’s Inferno, carefully wrapped in newspaper. He reminded me that it was the book I was reading when we met, and since then I really haven’t let it out of my sight. He had read the book before he gave it to me and was surprised to learn that hell is frozen, that there are no flames on Cocytus, the lake of ice, and that Lucifer fans his bird-like wings to keep things cold.

“How weird is that?” he said, flipping through the book. He read part of Canto 34 to me:

Howchilled and nerveless, Reader, I felt then;

do not ask me—I cannot write about it—

there are nowords to tell you how I felt.

I did not die—I was not living either!

Try to imagine, if you canimagine,

me there, deprived of life and death at once.

“How chilling,” I said, and he said that I was funny and asked me what happened next. I told him that I didn’t know, that I never have made it through Purgatorio.

We made love in his bed. He didn’t rush me but took his sweet time, loving the desire as much as the release. I thought then, here is my savior, the man who will deliver me from God, and now I wonder if you felt that way about Maria, whether she rescued you from me. It’s okay if it’s true because we all need to be saved. We lay in his bed for a long time. He told me that I was beautiful. He fell asleep with his hand on my head.

When I woke up, I slipped into his robe and went to the freezer for more ice cream. It was full ofplastic grocery sacks. I dug through a few, looking for the Breyers, but found a bird instead. Iput it on the counter and read the tag: Chordeiles minor (Common Nighthawk)

The bird’s eyes were gone and it had ice crystals growing on its breast. Its small beak was opened, like it had been captured in the act of singing, and the little bristles around its mouth were dusted withice, its breath now frost. I touched one bristle and it fell into my hand. Funny how ice makes things fragile. But even frozen, the bird was beautiful. They nest on the ground, you know,and it’s no wonder we don’t see them because their mottled feathers hide them well.

So be careful when you plow. Watch for the birds that hide in your field. And in theevening, when you’re on the porch sipping whiskey and rocking that baby of yours to sleep, think of me and watch the halo around the security light.

If you’re lucky you’ll see a nighthawk.

About the Author

Chad Gusler

Chad Gusler teaches English composition and creative writing at Eastern Mennonite University. He earned his MFA in fiction writing from Seattle Pacific University. "Wild Geese" is adapted from Requiem, a novel-in-progress.