As a child, fresh out of the hospital
with tape covering the left side
of my face, I began to count birds.
At age fifty the sum total is precise and astonishing, my only secret.
Some men count women or cars
they've owned, their shirts --
long sleeved and short sleeved --
or shoes, but I have my birds,
excluding, of course, the extraordinary
days: the twenty-one thousand
snow geese and sandhill cranes at
Bosque del Apache, the sky blinded
by great frigate birds in the Pacific
off Anconcito, Ecuador; the twenty-one
thousand pink flamingos an Ngorongoro Crater
in Tanzania; the vast flocks of sea birds
on the Seri coast of the Sea of Cortez
down in Sonora that left at nightfall,
then reappearing, resuming
their exact positions at dawn;
the one thousand cliff swallows nesting in the sand cliffs of Pyramid Point,
their small round burrows like eyes,
really the souls of the Anasazi who flew
here a thousand years ago
to wait the coming of the Manitou.
And then there were the usual, almost deadly
birds of the soul -- the crow with silver
harness I rode one night as if she
were a black, feathered angel.
the birds I became to escape unfortunate
circumstances -- how the skin ached
as the feathers shot out toward the light;
the thousand birds the dogs helped
me shoot to become a bird (grouse, woodcock,
duck, dove, snipe, pheasant, prairie chicken, etc.).
On my deathbed I'll write this secret
number on a slip of paper and pass
it to my wife and two daughters.
It will be a hot evening in June
and they might be glancing out the window
at the thunderstorm's approach from the west.
Looking past their eyes and a dead fly
on the window screen I'll wonder
if there's a bird waiting for me in the onrushing clouds.
O birds, I'll sing to myself, you've carried
me along on this bloody voyage,
carry me now into that cloud
into the marvel of this final night.