Photo credit: Neha Gautam
When I lived in Pennsylvania, the hikes gave structure to my days. I was drafting a novel, but I wouldn’t understand the story until after I left the Susquehanna River valley behind. Each hike was four miles, a long stretch of gravel road and dirt path. On either side lay the half-visible hunters in their neon orange camouflage. Deer couldn’t see orange, somebody said, but humans could. More than once, on a certain stretch of trail, they would stray out of the hunting preserve. The pop of gunshots would echo through the stands of silver birch and Osage orange, and we would throw ourselves down behind the low ridge that lay between the trail and the forest. We, too, wore neon orange during hunting season, but we could never be sure of the white men with their rifles. That was the autumn of the circling trucks brandishing Confederate flags, the season of the effigy of Hillary Clinton hung by a noose in front of a neat house with white trim.
The winter before I left Pennsylvania, I knew spring was coming by the snow geese circling the marshlands in rings. They liked to walk the low, muddy water. They liked the browning stumps of corn stalks and the frost that lay on them, liked the frozen insects that emerged from the melted snow. I used to walk the loop of that small town’s pond when I was drafting, the path that skirted the peeling maple and snaked from the vending machines into the woods. On the other side of the forest lay a housing development, and if you went the opposite way you’d reach the steep hill with its mansions that overlooked the factories and the fields where they grew barley and corn. Further out lay the low blue stripe of the Appalachians. I used to walk that footpath and think of the city where I was born, imagine a life in which I could afford to move back. I tried to imagine a childhood where I was Atreyu with his horse and a luck dragon. I could not imagine adulthood for this boy, or a career like the one in science I had left behind the year before, or anything that did not look like vanishment. But I wanted to, and so I wrote. I wrote in the dry autumn of that year when they burned the hills, and I wrote from the carpeted dining room and the balcony infiltrated by yellow jackets. I never saw so many turkey vultures as I did in those years. I am searching for a way to tell you that my marriage had isolated me for a long time, and I no longer knew where to go.
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Ned Smith had seen the yellow-crowned night heron in May of 1968, the plaque on the drawing said. I don’t think he had been out hunting, but then again, I don’t really know.
I was so alone in that town, and I was looking for the freedom the birds knew better than me. The Ned Smith Center for Nature & Art lay off a solitary stretch of road near Wiconisco Creek, and behind the art center ran a sliver of that creek — a tributary of the Susequehanna — crossed by a rust-red pedestrian bridge, teeming with small silver fish. Susquehanna, I will learn, is a corruption of the word Sasquesahanough
, “people at the falls,” and this is whose land we are on. On the other side of the bridge the trails begin, limned by picnic tables. The main trail, once an old rail line, runs straight along the base of the mountain, which slopes up at such an angle that it is near impossible to climb without a switchback, except for the one November day when we end up at the intersection of the power lines on the upper ridge. It isn’t the right weather for such a steep descent. We follow the slice of the power lines and descend on our backsides, sending down a spray of rock and ice, but we make it, somehow. These days, the trail maps don’t list that route anymore.
I wanted to write my way into a world where I, too, could be sacred, a world where I was a creation of the divine.
I saw a bear that winter, on a different mountain, a warm black mound the size of a boulder. You had to look out for their claw marks on the trees in the autumn and their black, berry-dotted excrement; they were hungry then. I was less afraid of bears, though, than of the dogs. Beyond the power lines, beyond the end of the trail where the macadam began, there was a wooded road with the homes of white families on either side. To this day I don’t know if the dogs that sometimes blocked the narrow road, growling and barking, were let out of their yards on purpose or only happened to escape, but what I do know is the feel of the glares from the porches, the dogs bolting toward us as we turned back, the memory of that first dog with its raised hackles pursuing us until the houses were out of view. After that I didn’t want to go down that way anymore. Maybe I felt like a bird then in my orange puffer jacket, chilled and trembling, knowing I could be hunted.
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I was writing a novel about a bird and the queer person searching for it. I didn’t want the bird to be real, but I wanted it to feel as though it could exist, undiscovered, for many years. Among many SWANA (Southwest Asian and North African) peoples, including the ancient Egyptians, the ibis has long been sacred. I wanted to write my way into a world where I, too, could be sacred, a world where I was a creation of the divine. The Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar
said that 30 birds persevered on their quest to find the Simurgh, who was the divine, whose name itself means 30 birds
. I didn’t have a mirror in those days for how my life might be. What I had was fear, and the way the people in that small town talked about queerness as corruption and Islam as terror, and the crows in the morning picking their way through the fields in a black comb.
Crows do mourn their dead, if a ritual is indicative of mourning. Maybe it would be better to say that they release their dead with dignity. They have been known to cover a corpse with twigs and leaves and bits of debris. This is the strength of crows: their intelligence. Even when they cannot save their own from an attacking hawk, there is protection in a cluster of them in the trees. Crows remember kindnesses and even repay them. They have been known to gift crushed coins, silver buttons, the broken heads of screws and bits of dull glass, but first you must make the right offering. Even in a valley full of hunters, fable is alive and well. How else to make sense of my flight to freedom? How else to explain the evil eye at my wrist and the scars across my ribs, or the way the Susquehanna shimmered on the morning that I left? Girl changes into tree to escape pursuer; child becomes bird; boy is cursed to live with wings. Enter: boy, feathered, among the branches.
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That last winter, a flock of thousands of snow geese touched down in a fallow field that would be corn in summer. In south central Pennsylvania, snow geese come through for just a few weeks in early spring, when the snows still glass the ground, migrating north to the Arctic. The cream-colored flakes of them in the sky signal the changing weather. When they pass, their calls ring for miles, and the cloud of them rolls without end. It’s rare to catch the geese spiraling downward, but we did, that one time. It took nearly a quarter of an hour for them to fill the empty field with rippling white. We stood so quiet at the edge of the clearing that the hunter, approaching from the woods, didn’t notice us. Hunting was illegal in that protected patch of trail, but hunters have wandered before, or mistakenly shot hikers.
I put one thick-soled boot into the browned field. Then we ran, shouting up the geese. No gunshots. The birds swept over, the same color as the low-slung sky. I held my breath and thought: I am alive, I am alive. I didn’t know, then, about the moving truck, or the ten inches of hair I would bury in California soil, or the night streets of Queens where I’d walk with the ones who would love me through my rootlessness. But they were out there, beyond the blue hills, waiting.
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is the author of The Map of Salt and Stars
and The Thirty Names of Night
. He is a member of the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI) and of American Mensa. Joukhadar’s writing has appeared in Salon, The Paris Review
, The Kenyon Review
, and elsewhere and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net. The Map of Salt and Stars
was a 2018 Middle East Book Award winner in Youth Literature, a 2018 Goodreads Choice Awards Finalist in Historical Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize. He has received fellowships from the Montalvo Arts Center, the Arab American National Museum, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Camargo Foundation, and the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation.