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“Little White Horse” (2013) by Coke Wisdom O’Neal. Courtesy of Mixed Greens

The Weight of a Feather

Laura, who comes every other week to clean my house, seems not to engage with the little narratives I leave for her. On my refrigerator, for instance, I have three fish magnets that I arrange in a simple linear narrative, no Last Year at Marienbad or Memento stuff. At the top of the story is a fish I got in Barbados. It is a barracuda looking fish. But if it is in fact a barracuda, it is one goofy looking barracuda. It’s just swimming along with no thought for the morrow—or, for that matter, the moment. Below it is a shark that I have set in a vicious downward angle in pursuit of what looks like a snapper, but it’s not a red snapper, more blue and green. Probably a spangled emperor snapper, though the emperor when frightened will change its color, so who knows. The snapper is swimming desperately upward in the direction of the nitwit barracuda, but its attempt to escape is clearly doomed. The shark is hungry, relentless. Laura rearranges the fish in peaceful and parallel paths across what I intended as an ocean of pain and truth. I don’t think she has a Disney World narrative in mind, but that’s the story I see.

As I am a fisherman, several of my narratives for Laura involve the sea, the whale-roads of the ancients. Recently the captain of one of my shrimp boats, the Pequod Junior, rammed the boat into a rock formation. I left the boat lying awash and snagged on the rocks for Laura to discover. It was what sailors call “broke deep,” its hull broken into below the Plimsoll line. The captain was unfamiliar with these fishing grounds, fog ruled the night, and the rock formation does not appear on any of the known nautical charts. This occurred in the otherwise safe waters of a shelf in my study. A larger trawler, the Essex, has just managed to veer away from the rock formation. The captain, a woman who has been with my fleet for years, saw the rocks just as she was about to set upon them and pulled hard on the ship’s wheel. She is a recovering alcoholic, so this is not her first rodeo. In the far distance is a Greek lighthouse with a sweet little skiff, the Δάφυη, moored nearby. Daphne. None of my other ships are under Greek registry, nor is the Aegean the site of this occurrence. It’s just that the maritime world of my shelf is vast. As for the disaster, Laura sets the Pequod Junior aright and goes about her dusting. I was hoping she would bring Δάφυη over for a rescue mission. Or run the Essex aground, not that my female captain needs another shipwreck in her life.

More complex is the tableau vivant I arrange on a shelf in my bathroom. I say vivant here, but that is not to suggest that the fish magnets and shrimp boat captains don’t have lives and agency in their world and mine. The difference is that the central figure on my bathroom shelf has a different claim on my life. At the center of the tableau is a fish. It is acid-etched into a small rectangular piece of granite. A Greek fisherman on Mykonos gave it to me. He was also a restaurant owner and womanizer. I was in his restaurant with my then-wife, and he was drinking wine and holding forth at a table of fellow fishermen nearby. Full of wine myself, I stopped by his table to say that I was a fisherman also. He rose from his chair and embraced me and especially my then-wife in Zorba-the-Greek embraces. I was Alan Bates to his Anthony Quinn, but I don’t quite know whose equivalent my then-wife was in this Mykonos movie. The fisherman insisted that we sit at his table and drink wine.

An hour or so later he invited us to see his art collection. That’s where he gave me the granite fish. Searching for a gift in return I reached for the small Buck pocket knife I carried, the only thing I could come up with in reciprocation. He thought that I was reaching for money to pay him, and he threw up his large and calloused fisherman hands in veto. But when I extended the small pocket knife in the palm of my hand, he accepted. He then began to make overtures to my wife and insist that we drink more wine. That’s when I knew we needed to head for our rental car. As we departed, he took my hand in a handshake. Looking at me with eyes that scanned day after day Homer’s wine-dark sea, he told me that he knew I was not a fisherman because my hands were soft.

Gathered around the Homeric fish on my shelf as though in worship are an elephant, an awe-stricken weasel, a sheep on a child’s wooden alphabet block, a ceramic Scottish terrier, and three alligators. The alligators are wooden pencil sharpeners that my friend Jane brought to me from the Alligator River in eastern North Carolina. You put pencils in their mouths and they sharpen them.

In my narrative for Laura I take one of the alligators from its cohort of three and place it across the tableau to stand between the Scottish terrier and the sheep, though still facing the heroic fish. This alligator is the outlier, the alienated one, the contrarian, or perhaps the ostracized one. Or maybe even the joker. Those are possible agencies that I have not made clear in my narrative. Laura takes the lone alligator and places it back to make complete the alligator trinity, apparently the only configuration that she can imagine.


There is, however, a story in which we have a mutual understanding and investment. I had an exquisitely curved needle for the repair of bicycle tires in emergency situations. Not the tube, the tire. The shape of the needle’s cross-section was not rounded; it was triangular, in favor of more flex strength. It had an extra large eye to receive the thick linen thread needed for tire repair. I used the needle to string cayenne peppers from my garden. Not that I needed flex strength; I just wanted a needle easy to thread. I hang the peppers in my kitchen for chili and Mexican dishes that cast my gringo stomach into hell. The needle turned up missing from its home, a bowl I bought from a man in Zihuatanejo. The bowl is magical with its fish and mermaids, who have only the one stylized eye on the side of the head common to primitive paintings. There are palm trees and an ocean from which a smiling sun arises. My needle was a citizen in that prelapsarian world.

I suspected some painters who were working inside my home, and to put them on notice that I knew the needle had been taken, I asked Laura to write a note that I would leave displayed on the kitchen counter in hopes that one of the painters might surreptitiously return the needle to its bowl. El senor, she wrote, quiere saber si ustedes vieron la aguja del estambre.

My aguja del estambre was never repatriated. But I later figured out that it was not one of the painters who took my prized awl, rather it was their Anglo boss. At another time when he was completing a job in my house and was the only one with access, I came home to find a leather belt missing from the closet door knob where I had left it hanging.

His girth was notably larger than mine, though mine is not what you would call slight. What possible use could he have had for my belt? He’s going to offer for sale on eBay a single belt? The story by which he could have found relative happiness in his life must have been lost somehow in a history of kleptomania, and he would forever seek in stolen items that lost narrative. But the son of a bitch had my aguja del estambre and handsome leather belt, and all I had was an empty bowl and memory of a handsome belt which I wanted to keep me girded and distinguished when I walked out into the world.

At another time Laura sucked up into the vacuum cleaner an eagle feather that I had not told her the story of. Nor had I arranged it in any playful narrative for her to disregard or fail to respond to. While staying in a wilderness lodge in Alaska my friend Jane and I decided to get out of the wilderness and back onto the grid for a day or two. We went to see the calving of the Aialik Glacier. Great tons of ice calved into the water, and we were part of that thundering spectacle. Jane had found a small charter boat for us, and we had the whole bay to ourselves, just the four of us, the captain and his sweet wife and Jane and me. The two-story tour boats had gone in an opposite direction to view another glacier, but they were socked in, fog obscuring their view, they reported on the radio. Small isles of ice, luminous with a delicate blue cast, floated around our boat. The captain’s wife broke one into pieces and packaged them for martini ice.

The captain told us that he had some work to do on the engine of the boat and he would put us ashore to view the Aialik up close. Handing us a canister of pepper spray, he said that grizzlies might come down from the upper elevation in search of salmon but the pepper spray ought to keep them at bay. Just don’t get between them and the salmon. As Jane and I skirted the glacier, the captain shut down the engine of his boat, which now seemed diminutive and far away. Soon after the cessation of engine noise, we realized that there was no sound in the world except that of our own voices and the occasional calving of the glacier. We fell silent and listened to the only sound there was.

Something caught my peripheral vision, and I looked down to find a white feather, almost indistinguishable from the snow except for a sharp black edging. My guess was that it was the feather of a bald eagle. One is ill-advised even to appear to have interfered in any way with the life of a bald eagle in Alaska. If the feds don’t get you, the long mystical reach of the Inuit will find and haunt you in your dreams. But this was only a feather, which I later verified as that of a bald eagle by comparing it to the plumage of a mounted specimen in a museum in Homer, Alaska. A Homeric eagle, so to speak. The black edging was there, and I took the feather home.

I put the feather on the tray of a scale, one of a collection of scales that I have in a recessed section of shelves beneath the stairs leading to my study. What do things weigh? And of what value is that weight in the world? On one scale is an arrowhead I found in a field after a rain in my native Panola County in Mississippi when I was a boy. The arrowhead is probably Choctaw, of which blood I am one-sixteenth. After a rain in a freshly plowed field is the optimum time and place to search for arrowheads. The soil is washed anew, and the search is intensified by the memory of one’s few previously discovered arrowheads unearthed by the plow and glistening wet in the sunlight. The arrowhead on my scale has a unique opposing bevel, an enhancement that makes for a twist after penetration, a surer purchase in the flesh. That, its maker must have reasoned, would be the difference between eating mush for another week or making the kill and eating meat.

On a postal scale near the scale from which Laura’s vacuum snorted my eagle feather like ethereal blow is a letter from Dmitri Nabokov responding to my request for directions to his father’s grave in Montreux. “Enter by the main gate (rather than the one by the chapel) and, after passing, on your left, a large angel left over from an ancestor of ours, take the next lane on your right. Midway through, on your left, you will see ‘Vladimir Nabokov, Ecrivain.’”

On another scale are the jaws of a beaver our guide John Herzer gave me when my friends Will and Duck and Vereen and I were fly-fishing on the Beaverhead River in Montana. I put the jaws in a mild solution of bleach to cleanse them of desiccated flesh and whiten the bone, accentuating the tawny brown coloration of the teeth. The teeth of beavers can take down trees you wouldn’t imagine. The curve of the teeth is almost exactly that of my lost aguja del estambre.

I should not have taken the pottery shard that I found beside a path on Delos in the Aegean. I had left the Terrace of the Lions and was walking to the peak of Mount Kynthos to look down on the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. The pottery shard has the imprint of the human hand at work, part of an arc, and I can imagine the circle in the wet clay that the potter needed in order to make complete the story in her mind. It is balanced on its double-tray scale by a pottery shard from a path in New Mexico I shouldn’t have taken either. But I imagined it as a gift from the Anasazi to the Choctaw.

On another scale there is a foreign bill from Czechoslovakia. My friend Yaroslav, who survived Dachau, wrote back to thank me for that portion of bills that I had sent him for Christmas. But the currency had been devalued. The governing currency now, he said, was that of the Czech Republic. With signature Slavic humor he told me that he had left the bills on Kafka’s grave, weighted with little stones, the latter a Jewish custom. He and I had visited the grave the year before. When I stopped to buy a flower for Kafka from a street vendor, Yaroslav smiled and said no, no, no. He picked up a pebble and handed it to me. I was to place it on Franz K’s grave, he instructed me. What do things weigh? What is the weight of a 100 koruna bill from a past ministry? Or the weight of a feather? Or the weight of a human body that has been reduced to almost nothing? Yaroslav told me he thought he would die in Dachau. When released and sent home to Prague, he ate raw liver, following a folk custom, to regain his life.


What narrative can I draw from the tonnage of history carried by these objects on my scales? A story of currency which once had value but now is no more than paper in the hand? That in some chamber of the human mind it is possible to reason fake showerheads that release Zyklon-B into the tiled room? And that my friend’s name was not on the list for a shower and the incinerators? That an angel is transported with care from Russia to honor a grave in Switzerland? That in haste one day Laura sucked my eagle feather into the vacuum cleaner? And by the time I figured out what had happened, the dust bag was lost in a dumpster at the recycling center?

When my father, who sat beside me on the Caterpillar D8 bulldozer, reached and, gently though with unmistakable intent, took my hands away from the levers that controlled the direction of the bulldozer, I did not know what he was trying to tell me. What was the story? Then I reasoned that he meant I did not need to expend energy constantly adjusting the direction of the bulldozer. At the time, that was the only way I could understand his lifting of my hands from the levers.

We were in a large field, and I had the bulldozer headed in the general direction of where we needed to go. If required, radical turns of the bulldozer could be initiated by foot pedals, but short of that, the direction of the machine was controlled by the two steel levers that I straddled. Pull on the left lever, a slight braking action occurred in the left tracking system and the dozer tracked accordingly; pull on the right, similar response. But I was tending the levers with unnecessary attention to nuance. I was a teenager, and I wanted to show my father that I was a man who could operate this enormous machine he had entrusted me with. But it wasn’t as though we needed the laser precision of a guided missile. We were easily headed in the direction of an area of the field where my father would give me further instruction in operating the large blade of the bulldozer. It lacked the hydraulic system of today’s bulldozers. The blade was controlled by a steel cable coiled around a drum behind me. The lever extending over my shoulder engaged with the drum. Similar to the effect of the directional levers, if I pulled one way on the blade lever the drum took up cable and the blade lifted; pull the other way, cable was released and the blade lowered. What my father was instructing me in was the proper alignment of the blade with the earth or object that was to be bulldozed.

We were draining the Everglades. Or at least a portion of them. We didn’t know any better, not that my father would have otherwise desisted. We were getting down to the rich soil beneath the water. Muck, it was called. Black and organic from centuries of decomposition of the richness the Glades had covered. It was unlike anything we had in the soil of Panola County, Mississippi, our home. That fecundity, in tandem with two growing seasons a year, possible in the warm climate of South Florida, made for ideal farming. Though, as with any farming, success is not a given. The farmer adjacent to us told me that just as he was readying for the harvest of his major iceberg lettuce crop of the year, a cloud appeared above his field. It was a square cloud, he said, a replica of his field, and it aligned itself with its earthly likeness. Hail came down out of it with a fury. An anomaly in South Florida, but there it was. The farmer said it looked as though someone had walked down the rows and shot each individual head of lettuce with a Colt .45 pistol.

Before you indict us for our violation of the ecology, unwitting though it was, consider that you have eaten celery, corn, lettuce, peppers, and the like from that drained land. And sugar. The man with whom my father had contracted to drain the Everglades sold the land to exiled Cubans, who turned it to sugar cane.

To get to that soil, we had built a bridge across the West Palm Beach Canal and begun forming dikes and digging a network of drainage ditches over acres and acres to carry the water into the canal and on into the Atlantic Ocean. The drainage was accomplished by diesel engines powering pumps that drew the water of the Everglades into the West Palm Beach Canal. The pumps ran day and night, fed by elevated fuel tanks that we had mounted beside them. To control the flow of fuel, my father installed mechanical governors on the engines. But if we neglected to keep the fuel tanks properly filled, they would empty and the engines would go out of control, revving madly on the diesel fumes from the tanks. The governors could control only liquid; they lacked engineering to control fumes. If an engine was going to go berserk, it was inevitably at night. My father and I drove into the dark of the Everglades to try to shut down engines that would otherwise shake loose from their concrete foundations. Usually we could manage to shut them down, but on one occasion a renegade engine shook itself into heaps. Cougars came to the periphery of the field to see what all the commotion had been about. Their eyes shone in our headlights as we left the field.

And so when my father took my hands from the levers, I assumed that he meant for me to line up the dozer in the direction that we needed to go and not fiddle with the controls unless there was need to change course in an appreciable way. We were headed for an area of the field where the next day Desmond and I would be bulldozing willows and other vegetation from former hummocks. We would then push the uprooted trees and brush into piles and set them on fire. Sometimes just for fun, instead of using the dozer blade, Desmond and I would jam down on one of the foot pedals and spin around insanely on top of a willow to uproot it. An occasion for grand laughter in the heat that was otherwise almost unbearable.

Desmond was a Bahamian. He had come to Florida to earn money for his upcoming marriage to the woman who was waiting for him back in the Bahamas. He brought what he called sweet biscuits to the lunches we shared, just the two of us in that desolate expanse of open field. Anywhere we looked there was nothing. The black ground we had cleared extended into the horizon, flat with no relief. But Desmond talked of love. As a teenager, I had no story in which to incorporate what he said, other than to know that this woman was his life. One day he brought no sweet biscuits, ate nothing that I offered, and said that his woman had taken up with another man. We cranked up the dozer, made our piles, poured on them a mixture of diesel fuel and gasoline. Whoosh.

Desmond never regained his sense of play and buoyancy. Previously in situations where we differed in strategies for meeting an engineering problem, we would laugh it off and work half his way, half mine, or flip a coin. Now he would turn away and say, “Don’t vex me, mon.”

It was not until years later that I understood the story my father was trying to tell me in taking my hands from the levers. He was not arranging fish magnets and wooden animals and boats in play. He was not placing feathers on a scale. He meant that I should not infatuate myself with the Caterpillar tractor or the engines that drove the pumps or the notion that there would forever be another piece of earth to turn into arable land. He did not want me to follow his life. Or to let the power of the machine delude me into thinking that it was a power within my body. His kind of work, he wanted me to know, would finally break a body or put it at risk of injury. The latter of which would find truth in his own life.

While trying to help a man he supervised, he had bent to lend his hand to a large wrench the man was struggling with in breaking down a dragline for repair. Draglines were what we used in digging the network of drainage ditches that cleared our fields of water. They were Northwest draglines, I remember, because my father had a Northwest dragline watch fob that I coveted.

The wrench slipped and struck my father in the temple. A week later he blacked out on the way home from work. I was called to where our Willys Jeep truck was resting peacefully on the elementary school lawn, as though it had been given an unexpected recess. We drove my father to Palm Beach for surgery and then to Miami for further surgery to address the clot in his brain. He came out like James Brady, who took a head-hit in the assassination attempt on Reagan. My father became a man I barely knew. He laughed inappropriately. He cried when laughter would have been the normal response.

It is a commonplace to note that some of the stories we attempt to tell elude or otherwise fail in their mission. Likewise stories that we are told. We can’t follow the narrative line; it escapes us utterly or we lose it somewhere along the way. Or the import of the story eludes us. As for the stories we tell, those that involve a sense of play are particularly prone to misinterpretation. They have the wrong traction, the wrong tonal register, the wrong timing. They can embarrass us or leave us unsatisfied with our attempt. On Wikipedia they would be in need of disambiguation. But we continue to offer those stories for play in the world. How else would Laura have the chance to bring the little Δάφυη across unimaginable nautical miles to the rescue of a broke-deep shrimp boat? Ah, Daphne, whom by our story we free from the laurel tree of myth to join us in rescue and then make jokes with us about the beleaguered captain of the Pequod Junior. How else to laugh finally about a feather with a claim on sacredness getting sucked into a vacuum cleaner? Or about the fisherman who wanted to fuck my then-wife? How else not to be lost in weeping for the hurt and the too soon gone?

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James Seay

James Seay’s work has been published in Harper’s, The New Yorker, Oxford American, and others. He is the recipient of an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.