In The Land Before Time

I feel like I'm dreaming those years, the years BCE.

"In the land before time it happened that the leaves began to die."

I am pressed against my father on the couch in our first house. I see the two of us in the long front window. The colors of The Land Before Time shimmer on everything, on him and me and the rough wood of the walls and the bare planks under the loft. My footies wiggle in the window. See, that can't be right, footies.

"The mighty beasts who appeared to rule the earth were ruled in truth by the leaf."

Our window comes almost to the floor. Belly our dog stands on her back legs to see out. Our hill falls away from the window. Six tall junipers peek in at the bottom. Belly looks between them. Every little thing fascinates her. We look too but we can't see what she sees.

"Desperate for food, the herds struck out for the west, searching for the Great Valley..."

I learned to walk holding on to that sill, my father says. Unlike Belly, though, I couldn't make out anything beyond the glass: woods running down the hill beside us, pines hiding a two-lane road at the bottom, a neon roadhouse on the other side, and hills climbing again from there, across from our hill but all dark at night, not like ours, with never a light up there anywhere.

A human needs longer than a dog to grow up, and takes longer to walk and to see, but then the human lives longer. My father said Belly would live through the end of high school for me, all those mornings and afternoons and bedtimes, and see me off to college. She didn't. Neither did he. Nothing he said came true, and I am still trying to make out what I see, like back then through that glass.

"...a land still lush and green, where the treestars grow, all you could ever want. It was a journey toward life."

At night we watched deer move against the trees at the bottom of our hill, move against the dark like ghosts, shadows against the shadows. First one, then more, then everywhere. Like the stars that come when you give your eyes time.

One spring I saw a fawn with spots at the edge of our wood, wobbly and blinking in the afternoon light. I ran out there with a saucer of milk but I was too late. Ha!

I remember a fat spider building his web in that window at sundown, between the junipers. How did he start his web, I asked my father. How could he get the very first thread to go between the junipers?

We looked on the Internet, in his office in the basement. The spider is a trout fisherman. He stands on a high cliff of juniper and casts a tiny loop of line on the wind. He waits for a tug on the line, then he reels himself across to the next cliff of juniper, on a thread that sways like the rope bridge to Macchu Pichu.

Every night for a week Dad and I came early to catch him fishing there. "Here he is," one of us would call, but we were already too late, he was already midair, scurrying along the spokes of his web.

One spring my father and I watched three baby rabbits growing up under that window. Every morning I ran there as soon as I woke up. One morning I saw two dozen turkeys holding a meeting there. Just that week we had waited for a parade of turkeys to cross a mountain road.

ME
Dad, those turkeys are here!

He came and held my shoulders and looked over my head.

MY FATHER
Oops. Look again.

ME
Not turkeys?

MY FATHER
See those bare necks?

We watched a lot of Animal Planet. That and Discovery were the only things he let me watch on a schoolnight. Dirty Jobs. How It's Made. Bear Grylls. Mythbusters. Animal Planet. Only an hour while we ate, or bedtime would come before we finished homework, the math was the worst.

ME
Vultures?

He nodded.

ME
One of our rabbits?

He nodded.

ME
Can't we go hit them all with a big stick?

MY FATHER
Do vultures kill things?

ME
No. They only clean up dead things.

He nodded.

ME
(reciting)
Everything that dies helps something else to live.

He nodded.

MY FATHER
Remember our coyote yesterday?

I gasped.

ME
I'd like to hit him with a stick and break his back.

MY FATHER
Him?

ME
Her?

MY FATHER
(nodding)
She has a cub in these woods somewhere. She's trying to feed it.

ME
Do you think we could find some rabbit bones?

MY FATHER
I think so. We'll look.

We did. Not the skull or spine though, I don't know why. Maybe the vultures carried them away.

We called it the Law of the Savannah. Mothers feeding their babies the babies of other mothers. The mother cheetah and the baby wildebeest. The mother lion and the baby baboon. The hyenas and the baby elephant. The hyenas and the baby giraffe.

We saw it everywhere. We saw it under our window. One spring my father and I were watching a mockingbird nest in the last juniper and a barn swallow nest under the roof of the porch. We were betting which babies would fly first. The two baby barn swallows were close to winning. They fluttered around the porch, from perch to perch, practicing, while the four small mockingbirds were still growing their feathers.

One afternoon I heard a clatter against that window and screeching from that last juniper. I called my father and ran to the window. The mother and father mockingbird were flying at a big owl and screeching for all they were worth. The owl paid them no attention and calmly gathered the baby mockingbirds in her claws. I ran out there but I was too late. The owl lifted off with three chicks in her claws and dropped the fourth in the dirt, broken and twisting. My father and I were still outside when she came winging back three minutes later. She went to two tall trees behind the neighbor's house and raided them. Birds of all sizes flew at her in a screaming knot but she took no notice of them. She flew away with her claws full and came back for more three minutes later.

ME
Can't we stop her?

MY FATHER
How?

ME
Don't we have a gun?

MY FATHER
Where do you think she's going with all these chicks?

ME
Her tree? Her nest?

MY FATHER
Right. Why?

ME
Chicks?

MY FATHER
Right. She has chicks too, and they're huge by now. They eat everything she can carry and screech for more. It's killing her, trying to feed them all.

ME
Look, she got the barn swallows too.

He was looking towards the woods instead.

MY FATHER
Did she? What's that?

Our barn swallows were flapping from branch to branch, amazed at themselves for flying.

[ $revision: 972 $]

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