Even though the sky promised to sweat itself dry and we had no raincoats, I knew that by the end of the afternoon, I would have seen enough of Mother Earth’s feathers to sketch them in the dust of the parking lot on our way out. Behind the trees whose leaves now curled skyward in anticipation of the rain, hid White-throated Sparrows, American Goldfinches, and Black-backed Woodpeckers. Sitting on a collapsing bench soon to be reclaimed by time, we waited, listening to the white noise of the highway. We only had an hour before our early check-in at the hotel. An hour before I took an iron to a Grey Heron cocktail dress and soon-to-be-graying blonde hair. An hour before I would make us late for our third wedding in two months.
Before we entered the woods, I had made him brush the bottom of his shoes to make sure we weren’t harboring any invasive seeds. He didn’t resist, but he did give me one of those stingy sighs. His sighs always gave me poison ivy – making my skin itch for hours. To be fair, I knew I could make him itch too. Prick him with a glance or my silence or something else I was always able to do. Like when I overheard him say to Claire at Mark and Annalese’s wedding that there would be a “ring by spring.” Or at Ida and Kurt’s when he told Nathan that I was going to be the one to catch the bouquet this time – no question. He would do that tonight at Jenn and Drew’s. Coach me on catching Jenn’s bouquet. Brush the bridesmaids aside, track the flight of the bouquet with absolute precision.
Sitting in the woods, he was a tree to me. His arms merely limbs that had recently shed their leaves. What a lovely perch for a bird he would make: tall and still. I saw his hand, palm-up like a leaf on the knee closest to mine. He was waiting for rainfall too. My hands found my binoculars as I raised them to my eyes, leaving his palm dry.
The wind ran its fingertips along the trees. I could feel his eyes resting on me and I pressed metal binoculars farther into my cheeks. I had birdlike eyes, he always told me. He used to ask me if my winged eyeliner ever migrated south to some tropical resort with citrus liquor. He was clever and could curl my winged eyeliner up when I let him.
We met in college, just like Jenn and Drew. Sophomore year. Room 423 in the Stadig Building. The newly formed ornithology club’s first meeting. He thought it was a meeting for study abroad.
I thought about Jenn right now, draping herself in white, transforming herself into the elegant egret we saw flying over the highway on our way here. Jenn and Drew met on an alternative spring break to Nashville building houses their senior year. Jenn used to keep me up at night telling me that she would never find a husband, that she was so jealous that I had Mr. Clever over here. I’d tell her, half-asleep, not to worry. Sure enough, she found Drew. Now they planned to build their first home together.
“Sky’s getting dark,” said the man on the bench next to me. I lowered my binoculars but continued to scan the woods. Sure was getting darker.
“You wearing that gray dress tonight?” Yes, I was wearing that gray dress tonight. He said it was pretty before briefly pausing and then asking if I had brought that purple one too. I’d only brought the gray.
Silence crawled around our feet like beetles. He checked his watch. The birds continued to hide from us, the couple on the rotting bench.
“See any birds, Little Bird?” I used to sing for him when he called me that.
“No birds.” I heard the wind shush us for talking. My binoculars came up again. I hear him sigh.
When I asked him why he sighed, he shrugged. Said something about being distant just as thunder exhaled in the county over.
Trees tensed. He was crossing his arms now, his palms no longer open on his knee. If we were caught in a downpour, what would we do? Jenn and Drew might kiss, pollinating dewy lips for tomorrow’s flowers. She’d pick him his own bouquet of wildflowers and he’d slip petals into her hair. We’d probably run back to the car swearing.
Then he was whispering in my ear, using leaf hands to lower my binoculars to my lap. His hands didn’t linger, and the wind felt a little bit colder. “A woodpecker,” he breathed, pointing to a tall, dead white birch.
It was a Black-backed woodpecker. It wore a crown of gold, tapping the wood with a masterful beak.
Tap tap tap.
He had opened a hole in the birch with his beak, fishing for insects. Woodpeckers enjoy dead or burnt wood, finding a way to live off of decay. I pressed the binoculars harder into my face, and imagined I had a beak. I felt my nose grow long, wooden and sharp. I could peck the tree next to me and make myself a doorway, enter with a smile.
Tap tap tap.
I’d be good at cracking open trees, peeling bark then sending it fluttering to the ground. What I didn’t think I could do, even with a beak, was harvest something dying.
What I thought was a raindrop on my shoulder turned out to be his finger.
Tap tap tap.
He pointed at his watch. Time for rings and bouquets. I nodded before lifting my binoculars once more, settling on the woodpecker in the tree. I felt the man beside me stand, placing a hand on my back. He would do this again later when all the bridesmaids and college friends stood behind Jenn as she steadied herself to throw her bouquet over her sculpted shoulder. I would turn my palms skyward.