A flock of blackbirds covers the field. Two hundred, maybe. Silent and still before rising, as though at the lift of some unseen maestro’s baton, into the air in one loud flap like a bleached sheet on a clothesline. I watch and listen and shiver. Blackbirds. Sign of cold weather.
Grannie said that. And every year, come fall and the first golden day in the 60s, come sycamore leaves bigger than my hand and the color of cured tobacco falling in layers in the backyard, come the rattling of peanut trailers and the drone of cotton pickers, I hear her voice. “Black birds. Sign o’ cold weather.”
Grannie was not a superstitious woman. Well, maybe she was: She didn’t sweep out the back door after sundown and she didn’t wash clothes on New Year’s Day. And, for some reason we never figured out, we couldn’t have fish and ice cream at the same meal. But superstition was a plaything. You could never really know — unless you went ahead and washed clothes on New Year’s Day and you got to the end of the year and nobody in the family had died. That was, however, an experiment she was not willing to undertake.
Signs, though. Signs were different. Signs were visible, audible, tangible connections to the world. One could plant and harvest and, thus, survive by signs. One could plan and hope and, thus, survive by signs. They were gifts of knowledge in a world where knowledge was scarce, where television had yet to be invented, where newspapers did not get delivered, where the only book in the tin-roofed house was a Bible.
And so she woke up each morning — babies at her feet and on her hip, cast iron skillet in her hand — and looked for signs. A red sky meant bad weather was coming. Thunder in the morning meant “sailors take warning.” And blackbirds meant cold was on its way.
I’ve been told that I look like Grannie. Once I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror in a dark room — hair pulled back tight, no makeup — and a short, shallow gasp left my throat. For a second I thought I’d seen her, long dead, walking beside me. Not long after, Daddy came in from the field and walked past a room where I was standing and stopped short.
“My God!” he said, this man who uses the name of the divine only with reverence. “You look just like Mama.”
But it is not just the large eyes and the straight nose, the dark hair. I look like Grannie for signs. I watch the sky, but I also watch people. I watch the birds, but I also watch the times. I listen to the wind, but I also listen to the silence, the words and the spaces between them.
What was knowledge for Grannie has become information for me, and information is not scarce in my world. I press a button on my telephone and ask Siri, “What is the temperature in Abu Dhabi today?” and in less than two seconds she tells me. (The high will be 100 degrees, the low 86.) Knowledge, though — that is still the pearl of great price.
What, then, are they signing, the birds who rise and circle and land again in one grand apostrophe? What is the message they telegraph in the black dots and dashes of their winged code? What knowledge lies within the whispers of their folding wings?
“All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise.”
Watching. Listening. Shivering.