Part 1 of 4:
Spring had arrived at last after a long, hard winter. He was sitting on the front steps of the small, wood-frame farm house. He turned his face toward the morning sun and, closing his eyes, gave himself to the pleasure of its warmth. The family wagon taking his parents to the village for the day had just disappeared around a bend in the road. It was wonderful to feel the warm glow of the sun again. But it was deceptive. There was still a chill in the air. His mother had reminded him to “take good care of your little sister, and make sure she stays buttoned up.” But he had allowed his mind to wander and he was thinking of other things, the sharp knife and the partially carved piece of fresh pine wood in his hands, and especially the splendid hawk circling high over the field at the edge of the woods.
He had been trying to capture the hawk’s spirit in the wood. The great bird was too far away for him to see clearly the fine details of its appearance. But he imagined them in his mind’s eye, and rightly or wrongly, took some liberties.
He wanted to be like the hawk, wheeling and turning high above the world, free to soar to his heart’s content, to go ever higher, even out of sight, or to swoop down suddenly and take what he needed from the earth, and then return unfettered to his real home in the sky.
So, the longings of his own inner spirit were reflected in the image of the noble bird he was trying to carve from the fresh, still heavily aromatic wood: there was a human aspect in the streamlined shape of the head, with a strong brow and eyes set forward. But that was as far as he had been able to progress with the carving. The rest of the image was still captive somewhere in the raw wood, waiting for him to discover and set it free. He was stalled there, uncertain how to proceed, afraid to make a mistake that would spoil everything.
For a while he toyed with the wild idea that maybe this was how God made the universe, by carving it out of some vast, shapeless piece of raw material, with a flashing cosmic blade. He imagined the dust and shavings flying through the utter darkness. They became the stars and planets, and then the dust and the clay from which all things in this earthly garden were made and given life and spirit. He watched the hawk soaring, circling over a butternut tree at the edge of the wood at the back of the near field. He knew the great bird was surveying the ground below in the most minute detail for any sign of movement. He decided then and there that this proud, beautiful, and intelligent bird was the culmination and perfection of that creative process.
That startling idea thoroughly captured his imagination as he looked up into the sky for a long time while the block of wood and the knife rested on a bed of shavings in his lap. Then out of the corner of his eye some motion on the ground caught his attention. He looked down, over to the near field, and saw the mare’s new colt running boisterous circles around his mother. The already high-spirited, young animal was overflowing with the sudden wonder of being alive and testing his new legs with breathtaking speed and agility. From time to time the mare looked up to make sure he wasn’t getting too far away. then went back to nibbling on the tiny, fresh, green shoots of grass. Suddenly the colt stopped in its tracks and stared over at him. The mare lifted her head too, with eyes wide and ears erect in his direction. And so they both stood like that, very still and alert, for a while – more curious than anything, as if they had just seen something amazing.
He turned his attention to even more things, to the little song birds greeting the sun with rapturous relief, to the tiny unseen creatures he imagined were coming to life everywhere. Then he looked back up into the sky where the hawk was still circling, more directly overhead than before.
Suddenly he heard a child’s delightful laugh and his little sister came running around the corner of the house in mischievous pursuit of a kitten. The little creature scampered up the nearest apple tree to the first limb where, tail twitching and eyes flashing, it seemed to be playfully defying her to “come and get me.“
But the little girl turned her curiosity toward her brother, just a few feet away on the porch steps. She was as happy and full of life as the first spring flower reaching out of the cold, damp earth toward the sun; and as delicate.
“What’s that?” she asked, her bright eyes fixed on the strange piece of wood in her big brother’s lap. She sat down beside him for a closer look.
Before she could say anything more he realized her coat wasn’t done up.
“How long have you been running around with your coat open like that?” he said, alarmed to see the pale skin of her neck exposed by the unbuttoned collar of a shirt that was far too light for this still chilly, early spring day.
“That’s not the shirt mommy put on you this morning. When did you put that one on?”
“I didn’t like the other one. It was ugly. This is a pretty shirt,” she said firmly and defiantly.
“How long have you been outside running around like that,” he said. “You’ll catch your death.”
“I’m not cold. The sun’s nice and warm.”
“Here, you do that coat up right now,” he said, drawing her near and buttoning her up. She made a little show of resisting, but gave in easily after all, knowing her big brother knew best. “The air is still very cold.”
“What is it?” she asked, pointing to the carving in his lap.
“There,” he said, pointing to the circling hawk so high above in the sky.
He told her he was trying to carve an image of the bird, but that he had to imagine in his mind’s eye what its head looked like because it was too far away to see those details clearly..
“It’s the spirit of the bird I’m trying to . . .” He searched for words to voice what he was doing, but couldn’t find anything adequate. . . “see,” he said finally.
He was momentarily taken aback, but broke out into a big smile, and even laughed, delightfully, as he put his right arm around her shoulders and gave her a big hug. “Now isn’t it just like you to ask just the right question.
“I don’t know,” he went on, scratching his head. “It’s just something I feel like doing. It’s like there’s more to everything than you can actually see. And that’s what I want to carve.”
“Is that what you mean by spirit? What’s spirit?” she asked, her curiosity growing by leaps and bounds.
“So many questions,” he said with feigned exasperation he knew she could instantly see through. It was the sort of mental game they sometimes already played. “I think maybe it’s the part of things that you can’t see, the part that really makes them what they are, makes them special, the most important part maybe.”
He wondered if that made any sense. But she was still listening intently, so he supposed maybe it did, at least to her. He wouldn’t have been surprised if she already understood it better than him. But that didn’t bother him; he thought it was wonderful she was that bright.
“I don’t know. That’s just the way I see the bird. Maybe somebody else would see it differently, somebody like you, especially you, bright eyes.”
“Like me? Could I see the bird’s spirit different than you? But then wouldn’t it be a different spirit?”
He smiled again, his eyes full of love and admiration for this most delightful of all living creatures, his own little Jeannie. He felt more than ever that they had a special bond. He looked with affection and admiration at her sparkling eyes, so full of wonder at everything, now including this new idea of the spirit of the hawk. He thought it truly amazing that so much spirit and energy could be contained in such a fragile being.
Jeannie reached down from the porch step to the ground and touched a new little blade of grass. “I bet even this little piece of grass has spirit, doesn’t it Bruce?”
“If you think it, then it must be so,” he said, giving her another tender hug. “Yes.”
It was only then he realized she was shaking from the cold, and was damp from her exited over-exertion a few minutes ago while his mind was somewhere else.
“Come on. We’d better go inside. You’re cold.”
But it was too late . . .
(To read part 2 of this story, click here. This is the first of a four-part story that appeared in a book of short stories called “Previous Lives,” I self-published and copyrighted a few years ago. The story is inspired by events that took place all too often in pioneer/homestead communities. Hope Ness was still such a community in 1908.)