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A Window

by Hank Lentfer

Published in the September/October 2008 issue of Orion magazine

IF I WERE IMPRISONED in a windowless cell and allowed out for just one week a year I’d choose seven days centered in September. I’d come home to my Alaska-cabin-in-the-woods and clean a few pounds of spruce needles out of my neglected kayak, oil up a fishing reel, pack a three-day lunch, and paddle upriver. I’d float to the top of the tide, tie the boat to an alder, and follow the bear-shit-splattered trail upstream. I’d sit on the wet grass, listen to the rain tap away on my sou’wester, and watch for the deep flash of coho in a dark pool. I’d then pray for luck, unwrap a sandwich, and wait.

The luck I pray for and the answer I await is the voice of cranes. Though on the wing, the answer comes not so much from above as from behind: behind time, back before primates even existed with their insane potential to burden their brains with thoughts like being imprisoned in a windowless cell; before time was even a thing to be named, served, lived out, endured, or enjoyed. At any given moment, through ice ages and asteroid strikes, sun flares and volcanic eruptions, night and day, fall and winter, there has been one if not a thousand cranes calling somewhere on the planet. That long lineage of sound drops from the sky each fall as sandhills migrate from Alaska tundra to California cornfields. Only when that ten-million-year-old procession of prayers reaches my ear would I set down my sandwich, rig the pole, stand up, and fish.

The moon, using that inexplicable, invisible force called gravity, bulges the ocean’s surface like a newly pregnant belly. When the Earth spins through that bulge we call it high tide. A coho is a ten-pound distillation of herring, needle-fish, plankton bits, near misses with the ivory teeth of killer whales and sea lions, and a thousand revolutions through that moon-induced bulge. When the Earth tilts away from the sun each fall a million cohos slide from the ocean and slip up any stream still clean enough to support life. When one of those sleek, tight bodies grabs the other end of a monofilament strand it’s hard to know precisely who is tugging on what.

Most of the year I don’t even think of the Earth spinning at a bazillion miles per hour. But the confluence of cranes and cohos, the simultaneous flush of fish upstream and birds down south changes everything; during an otherwise normal afternoon I’ll suddenly become gloriously dizzy with awareness of our careening planet. When I lie on my back to watch the cranes I tell myself I’m doing so to alleviate strain on my neck. I trick myself into believing I could stand up if I wanted to, that I am not afraid of being flicked into space like a muddy drop of water off a bicycle tire.

The tension of a coho pulling your arms down while cranes draw your senses up is like electroshock therapy. Things like presidential debates, insurance deductibles, and urgent e-mails get fried first. If the coho is big and the flock bigger, the amperage cranks and starts burning through models of global warming and tallies of corporate greed. If the fish just came in with the tide and still has the full vitality of the sea, if the cranes are skimming just above the treetops, their voices so close and loud that the sound tickles our long-neglected reptilian brainstem, then the voltage can burn even our sodden obsession with mortality.

Those few seconds, before the line breaks or the birds pass, is the window I am constantly trying to retrofit into my cell. Such remodeling is hard work, but with enough cranes, cohos, and luck I believe it possible to live in a glass house. And, with even more cranes, cohos, and luck I believe it possible to break all those carefully constructed panels and let the wind blow on through.

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Hank Lentfer lives on a creek bank in Gustavus, Alaska, where he is working on a book titled Faith of Cranes.

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