JCSM called nine members of the university community to respond objectively and subjectively to art from JCSM’s growing collection of natural history prints. The resulting exhibition is an orchestrated chorus of diverse voices responding to the art, science, and wonder of representing the natural world.
To expand the conversation, Ralph Brown Draughon Library’s Special Collections Department loaned materials from their collections; JCSM appreciates their kind collaboration. We also thank the Auburn University Museum of Natural History in the College of Science and Mathematics for loaning materials from their ornithology collection.
I am traveling across the sea, again. Sometimes it seems I have spent more time on water than on land; sometimes, when I am home, I wake up in the middle of the night and am surprised when my old legs meet solid, unswaying ground.
Earlier tonight I was dining with strangers and one of them—a young lady, with a hawk’s nose—mentioned Wilson, and looked at me, slyly, with a hawk’s intelligence. I did not answer her. My son swooped in, and changed the subject, quickly, delicately. He is my protector in all things.
But now it is late and the rest of the ship is asleep, save the seamen, for their work is never done, and I sit on the first-class deck and stare at the black, black sea, my father’s pocket watch in my hand. I was born on an island, with a native’s mistrust of the water.
It has been many years since Wilson was mentioned in my presence. I do not hate Wilson. I do not think of him. Others have hated him, in my stead. Others have thought of him for all these years, so I might turn my mind to birds.
My friends, who came to my defense: they said Wilson copied me. And then Wilson’s friends: they said I copied Wilson. There was symmetry, at least, to the accusations. This evenness of proportion: it pleased me. Wilson was already dead, felled by dysentery. I met the man once, in Louisville. He was finely featured; when he opened his mouth, a Scot’s brogue emerged, roughly beautiful. I could have listened to him speak forever.
Audubon, Audubon! My name unfurled on strangers’ tongues, across the world. Audubon, Audubon! Wilson—I wonder how my name would have sounded on his tongue. He never spoke it in my presence. I imagine he thought of me as he lay dying. I imagine he hated me. Because though Wilson knew birds he did not love them. He must have envied me my love.
A wave slaps the ship. I do not have to consult my watch to know that it is late. The young lady has unsettled me. But not for the reason she intended. It is like that, when I am near a woman who is young, who is smart, who might have been Rose or Lucy in the life I might have had if God had looked the other way.
Infants: they move like baby birds, bones within a sack of downy, featherless skin, their movements irregular, fitful.
“Father?” I turn, startled, toward the voice. My son. I would have liked to see the girl again. I would have liked the pleasure of her company for a few minutes longer.
He takes me by the hand, prepares to lead me back to my cabin. I resist.
“Wilson envied you,” he says, quietly, this boy who understands me so well and not at all.
“Yes,” is all I say.
He should have envied me nothing. He was a smart man: he never married, never fathered a child, never closed a child’s eyelids so that she could rest in peace. The eyelids: they were warm. They gave easily beneath the pressure of my fingertips.
I myself am a bastard, conceived in the tropics. Whatever I have in this life, I have made it. Whatever love I have received, I have returned it, two-fold. When I see a bird I see movement, I see flight.
I see a way into a new world.
Anton DiSclafani is the author of the novels “The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls” and “The After Party.” Her fiction and nonfiction has been published in “Washington Square,” “This American Life” and “Biographic.” She teaches creative writing at Auburn University.