Hawk Strike, with Feathers

I am a DAMP.

That’s Danish American Princess. An oxymoron, because the Danes don’t treat daughters as princesses, at least in my family. My former stepdaughter, Sahari, is half Jewish and half Native American, and nobody treated her like a princess either, although I thought I did. Maybe you can’t pass on what you don’t have.

The day we’re talking about was December seventh in Western Washington at the foot of Mount Olympus near the shoreline called Pulali Point. A week earlier, it snowed. That’s to show you how cold it was.

To further suggest context: As I talked on the phone with Sahari, I stared up into the Douglas fir and cedar behind my cabin and shivered. It was three years, to the day, since the monk died. The monk was my husband and Sahari’s father, but one month before his death, he divorced me.

When the monk died, I became another oxymoron: a widowed divorcee. I never knew how to describe the relationship. Widow made me sound legitimate rather than cast off. Divorced failed to credit my love for him and his child.

Sahari seemed even more confused. Eighteen and orphaned, she asked, “What are you to me now?”

In the forest around the cabin, I often found drifts of feathers. Rich, my Audubon buddy, said some hawks could strike in midair at a hundred miles an hour. Or more. They rip their prey in half, Rich said. Once, near Pulali Point, half a crow fell onto the path directly in front of me, its heart still beating.

On the phone that December day, the anniversary, almost, of her father’s death, I was telling Sahari about aging, and how it felt to get ugly (“You’re not,” Sahari said), and how cruel people could be, and how nobody got our continued relationship after her father’s death.

“Yeah, nobody gets it,” Sahari said. “My friends wonder why I even talk to you.”

You see, I stole Sahari from her mother. No, I didn’t snatch her from an incubator or from a stroller left carelessly on someone’s front lawn. I didn’t find her beside the turnstile on the subway, wrapped in a forest green sweatshirt.

My methods were more insidious.

Well, that stealing thing might be entirely untrue. Grandiose, my buddy Rich would say. Perhaps Sahari’s parents, like a species that abandons its young in another’s nest, left her for me.

If one believes in reincarnation, as the monk did, Sahari and I were simply hanging out together. Our apparent bond was some past life thing, and we were trying for another round.

Only, it now appeared, to fail miserably once again.

I first met Sahari when she was two. Her father, then called Hung-Ju and still a monk in orange robes, brought her to my first wedding, as he liked to say. Hung-Ju sat with her in the front row of my family’s section. Two years later, that first marriage dissolved, our paths again collided after the monk, now a layperson, was released from rehab.

For Sahari, at the time, at her age, it was simple. Most kids had a family composed of a matched set. She used to have one mom, and after I came into the picture, she had two.

At other times, she would ask, “Are you sure you’re not my mother?”

(But towards the end: “You forced me to divorce my family.” Sahari has a heartshaped face, dark hair, and eyes fringed with long lashes. When she attacks, it’s best to remain silent.) “You don’t get it, do you? Well, you never do.”

“Maybe you were pregnant in rehab,” Sahari said when she was six.

“I was in rehab sixty days.” Sahari’s right. I didn’t get it, and I never do.

In the seven years it took Sahari’s father to die, our lives unraveled at every seam.

“Everyone else gets to go crazy,” Sahari said. “You and I are doomed to sanity.” A shadow loomed overhead. “The only cure for one insane choice is the next.”

“I was faithful to your father, you know,” I told Sahari.

Hung-Ju once described what he called the “vanity of self-centered existence.” Although Americans demonstrate “great flair for life,” he said, they cannot face death, instead clinging desperately to false values until the final moment.

I glanced up to see an accipiter—I couldn’t tell what kind because it vanished too quickly—soar into the trees. A cascade of downy feathers, a mourning dove perhaps, fell singly, expanding from bird-shape, to bird-shadow, to chaos. Pinfeathers, longer and heavier, a deeper gray, plummeted straight down, as if to pierce the earth. Still murmuring to Sahari, I walked through the shower of feathers. Although I know the laws of nature, and am schooled in the Danish family rule to reveal no pain, I felt my heart might break.  

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