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Wistful Woodpeckers

Woody's inspired attempt at woodcarving has stuck with him

In the windows on forever, they glided by -- drummers that Audubon exalted in his paintings. In Appalachia, they survived in plenty, hammering on our roof and slamming into our mirror reflections. Did they pay tribute to Buddy Rich, delighting in the jazz pouring out of our piano? They performed their own improvisations, inviting us to join them in happy cacophony.

While the owls created high drama in West Virginia, the woodpeckers proved to be the shyest -- and loudest -- of all our neighbors. As the flickers foraged on the ground, their relatives took our windows for the sky, crashing on the patio and implicitly asking for a grave. That ten-foot circle of concrete collected as many as three carcasses in a single morning. Unlike Shakespeare, I could find no humor in coping with dead bodies.

Traffic signs offered no more help than they could at LaGuardia. Did our residence function not only as runway and wood shop but also as a hanger for the original planes? When the drumming became heavily repetitive, the woodpeckers seemed to be deconstructing the building. As they expanded on staccato rhythms, architecture lurched toward sculpture in our rafters. Our home supplied their raw material for constant creative endeavors.

So music and labor beat about our heads. To enjoy the concert fully, I took lunch on the patio and sipped my lemonade. Into the green sea of oaks, my eyes traveled, covetous of the flyers' ability to swim where I could only gaze with longing. Tanagers and orioles flashed their reds and yellows, their feathers advertising an incomparable native fashion sense. My eyes blurred with the dazzling passage into a world beyond human vision.

Tracing the giant Pileated Woodpecker on his flights defied my inborn cameras. With a length measured by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at 16 to 19 inches, his wings lasered the foliage.

Watching him required total concentration. The red flame of his crest lit every oak where he hid. If he moved one inch, the flame extinguished. When two woodpeckers consulted together, their flames bobbed and wove like holiday candles. During the day, these special effects created the same brilliance that festive lights did by night. Out our windows, across the Appalachian hollows, a wintery village appeared, twinkling with each breath of wind.

There I sat wrapped in the world of Currier and Ives -- until a missile bombed the window behind me. A body ricocheted off the glass -- So big!

At a distance, the Pileated Woodpecker assumed the outline of an experimental wedge, a craft headed for the cerulean blue of the stratosphere. At my toes, he grew to the proportion of my arm. The bird loomed larger than the plane with every inch of proximity. I saw the jet trails lacing the sky every day: No closer did any test pilot ever come to me. But this glorious creature? He craned my neck -- and then catapulted into my mirror image.

A traffic accident had just occurred! But no 911 emergency digits existed for birds. The Grim Reaper landed in my backyard with no summons and no preparation whatsoever. Death takes whom it will, of course. But why did it choose this secretive artwork and not some threadbare squirrel? No string theory -- or even chaos philosophy -- offered solace when outstretched wings became silent shoulders.

He moved! I sat there, deep in melancholy, and the corpse twitched. So excited that I could not contain myself, my legs sprinted for the garage. Proceeding on childhood memories, I threw Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy out the same window that this bird slammed into.

Garden gloves! There they slumped on sacks of humus soil, as sturdy as this medical assistant required. My mother also tried whiskey -- an automatic remedy for Hemingway's generation. No such balm resided on our shelves. My plan consisted strictly of aeronautical dynamics and instinct.

How many times did I see my mother warming a bird to her breast? She cuddled them like lost lambs, a Mother Theresa of lost flyers. At our original home too, the airborne seemed determined to pass through the gleaming glass trap. Gloves guarded her vulnerable hands from avian surprise that a mortal woman would restore life every time she could. Up, up, she lofted them, swinging her arms like a volleyball server. Would they remember how air felt under their elbows? She banked on a residual brain that knew one primary commandment. Did wonder surge all through them too, leaving death far behind?

My bird continued twitching -- at least once every two minutes. Spreading my skirt like an apron, I took her onboard. Sources like AllAboutBirds reminded me the lack of a "red mustache" pegged this elusive creature as a female celebrity.

How her red head rolled, though -- not a good sign! Her slender feet clenched. Without lift, her black wings weighed awkwardly on my thighs. So I hammocked the girl, soothing her with rhythm. The feet unclenched. Then I inched the glove into her grip -- and I saw the directed motion return to her body. It came so slowly that twenty minutes passed between the movement of one toe and a whole foot. Each time she gained strength, she worked toward standing on my bare arm.

Would she see safety in my eyes -- or stab like a night stalker? The closer we came to revival, the more I had to trust that this giant member of the woodpecker tribe could choose good will. Without it, I would be completely at the mercy of a demon with a relentless nail-driver. She did not attempt to fly at first, however. Her torso just kept reaching for the vertical plane. Clearly, she allowed herself to proceed through phases, so long as I did not rush her on her way.

Secure between my arm and chest, she slipped back, as need pressed, into the waves of oblivion. So my mother taught me as well to ride out pain, to tread it like the swells of the ocean. Increasingly, with each peak, her crest began to rise. At my fingertips, I could see at last that it consisted of the slightest tendrils. No Woody Woodpecker rocked in my arms, but a miracle who raised her forehead into trembling color. Each hand-drawn line contributed its own curve to her flame. Rising and falling until it stood, her life grew as if fire breathed.

At last, her wings began to flirt with the wind. The black of the upper surface allowed her to slide into the darkness. But tip that same wing a single degree, and blazing white brought the sudden contrast of absolute opposites. The perfection of her garb lay beyond the mortal world. She became the midnight that she wore; moonlight stripes hid her eyes. No pearl diluted the red of her blaze into pink. The flame stood alone above the mask and wings opening into linear designs.

She brought me her own painting: she wore it, and she was it. I gasped, worlds away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

How could I ever shamble impatiently in line again to "ooo" and "ah" at exotic species? No one can frame her in a cage. Even if someone could, the Pileated Woodpecker could not streak, within confinement, from dawn to darkness with her eternal light. Into the forests of West Virginia, she finally lifted both halves of self, carrying my heart with her. She did not look back, and I could only wonder which bird flitting far away slept in my arms one summer afternoon.

I like to think I returned a gift that belonged to her. But truth hallows humility. In a single shape she brought art and life to me--and it stays.

In shop windows, now I see a sleek creature flying by. The red hair lifts in the wind. The black athletic suit startles passersby with its running white stripes. The black sneakers create a monochrome from collarbone to toe. In virgin woodland, riddled with homes drummed into music, change and continuity will always be one. Gliding with my mystical friend became a privilege too rare to forfeit.

New initiates into birding can enjoy the original painterly vision in Birds of America (Amsterdam), by John James Audubon (Plate 111). The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO) also acts in concert with the Audubon Society of America, encouraging everyone to join in the joy of birding with BirdSource: Birding with a Purpose. The activity of woodpeckers, especially, can signal the presence of insect pests. Those who prefer watertight homes to drafty jazz salons need to consult the Cornell Lab of Ornthinology web site. Birds may even benefit from inspiration, in the end, to relocate their artistic acts to the Green Mansions of the Emerald Forest.

Meg Curtis