The routine in our house isn’t ideal, but it is as expected when we decided to forgo summer school – a tendency to stay up late, an inclination to sleep in. Problem is that by the time we’re ready to do anything, the temperature outside is past 100 and we’re ready for our two hour lunch. And even if we’re ready at an earlier time, we have to deal with our lack of finances. So…we stay home. Not bad other than the resulting cabin fever … the kids bicker, D and I snap at each other, the dog runs out the door. We’ve taken steps to resolve the problem – we go swimming at the pool or we go hiking or biking along the creek near our house. No need to get in the car, no need to spend money.
The trail nearby offers a constant reminder of the city it cuts through – the trees and purposeless concrete structures bear layers of graffiti, trash is everywhere, old chain link fences lean to and fro. Yet on the other hand, there are signs that nature is winning out. Those fences lean into the water and are covered with vines and spider webs and the skeletons of springtime weeds. The concrete structures are equally covered with plants, each year getting increasingly buried. The trash comes and goes – people pick up, boy scouts do their part, fewer and fewer people travail the pathways.
The other day, D, A, and I went riding in spite of the heat. We go there because all the shading by the aged oak trees drops the temperature a good ten degrees. A and I hit the dirt road at a good pace, realizing quickly that D trailed behind us a good ten yards. A said, “I feel sorry for Daddy – he’s not used to this like we are.” We waited and when D rolled up next to us he said, quite openly, “I feel out of control going down those hills.” I found his nervousness interesting, revealing for a man who ran three marathons in his past life. Granted, life has changed us – he’s not the same, neither am I. We’re bound to come upon our limitations. I resisted the psychoanalysis. Anyway, we three were riding over the rocks, attempting to get our bikes through the water without putting feet down, when A and I turned a corner and way down the creek, we saw a large white bird. Looked like a heron or an egret. The beautiful creature dipped its beak into the murky water and then flew away in a burst of cloudy white. A and I barely breathed as we watched.
“Is it a magical bird?” he asked.
“No,” I said, smiling to myself at his innocence in the face of living with a cynical almost-thirteen year old. “She must live in the trees. I’ve never seen a bird like that down here.”
We waited and only when we left the spot, did we see her return for a brief moment.
“We’ll come back tomorrow with a camera,” I said.
The mosquitoes and bees and flies buzzed loudly as we zipped past spider webs and avoided poison oak. We finally turned around at the foot of a massive incline, the path going upwards without end. We rode back beneath a canopy of oak trees and over an old spray-painted bridge, spotting an overturned shopping basket in the water, its plastic mesh long invaded with water-loving plants. The end is always rough going – a steep, weed-covered incline. We huffed and puffed all the way home, our drinking water gone.
The next day, A and I woke up with a mission: to capture the heron or egret or whatever bird we’d seen with our cameras. We gathered our equipment – A has a compact film camera from his aunt, and I’ve got the digital Canon. Got a zoom lens, too. Dragged along the tripod.
This time however, we hiked. We trudged across the creek at the trail’s several spots, bearing the ninety-degree heat well because we had cold water and the drive. The first thing we noticed on our walk in was the unusual spider webs on the weeds – spiders wove their webs into funnels, through which we assumed they’d crawl. All around us, all along the bottoms of tall spiky, dead weeds, were white, downy black holes. We carefully stayed to the center of the trail, unsure of the type of spiders that built these homes. We must never have hiked the trail at this time of year because we’d never seen these before. And when on our bikes, we sped past them without looking.
Slowly, we made our way to the site of the white bird. Again, A asked whether it was magic. I asked why he thought so to which he replied, “Because the unicorns are magic and the bird looked like a white unicorn. Only a bird.”
“And here we are, the only ones who saw it.”
The spot was an active part of the creek. Schools of tiny black fish swam in the greenish water, bees flew around tree roots, mosquitoes buzzed close to green swampy moss, and the water gurgled over colored rocks. Plants lay flat in the water, pressed down by the current, like ladies in repose. A balanced on a board between two rocks. Our feet got wet as we tried to find a place to sit quietly to wait for the bird.
We did find a nice rock on which to perch. We crawled over thick roots and through water, landing on the flat, leaf-covered rock. We waited. We listened. Birds cawed and bugs buzzed. Rabbits and squirrels rustled bushes. But no white bird, no heron, no egret. What we did see were the dragonflies. Red and blue ones danced around us in pairs, and one black, noisy one kept buzzing past us so loudly we couldn’t help but laugh at its motorcar sound. The dragonflies soon captivated us to the point where we forgot about our magical bird. We set the tripod up back across the creek and worked at getting pictures, not the ones we wanted, but new ones of something sweet and surprising.
The red dragonflies accommodated us with their habit of landing one at a time on a lone branch in the middle of the creek and sitting there for long minutes. Plenty of time for me to focus and shoot. Click, click, click. We took a bunch of shots for just the few that would turn out. For the longest time we played in the water with the dragonflies, making stories up about who they were, about their playful dances in the air. The afternoon moved slowly, the excessive heat far away from us, up above on the hill where we live.
The creek seemed an idyllic place – strangely untouched even though there was plenty of proof of the city’s population here, plenty of empty bottles and cans and paper. But there wasn’t anyone else there in those hours. Just us, alongside our imaginations and a kind of slow peace that is easily forgotten in the hectic rush of the regular city’s day.
We went home, tripod on shoulder, cameras swinging, chatting endlessly about the dragonflies. And what about that bird?
“Something magical happened today,” I said. “Maybe because of the bird?”
A agreed, to a point, “We have to come back again.”