Wegman’s was Armageddon. I went in with one woefully inadequate reusable shopping bag and met a wall of people at the check out. Fueled by news of Boston’s blizzards and YouTube views of Yeti helping dig them out, everyone in Fredericksburg had been called to the barricades. I pushed through denuded aisles, thankful we didn’t need toilet paper, getting necessities like People magazine and Pepperidge Farm Golden Layer Cake.
Driving home, I fretted over my book project, which wasn’t going at all well. The weather report had everyone in a tear and everything in the chilly air seemed out of whack. We were all focused on ourselves, on surviving this storm which by no means would be epic even by Virginia standards.
As I unloaded groceries, I heard crows making a terrible racket down the street near the wooded area. Their harsh cawing had a tribunal quality. (Poet Louis Jenkins said crows “have a limited vocabulary, like someone who swears constantly”).
The piercing kee-kee of a red-tailed hawk punctuated the crows’ shouts. A blue jay added his two cents’ worth to the melee. I had to see what was going on. If a hawk had been injured, the crows could mob him. Instead I stumbled on an amazing scene.
On the ground two red-tailed hawks squared off in the “mantling” posture, wings fanned open. It took me a few seconds to realize they were fighting, most likely over territory. Another hawk fluttered nearby and a fourth flew in. The crows carried on higher in the trees. The fighters gripped each others’ legs with their talons, as two wrestlers might clutch arms above the wrists, panting and terrible-eyed.
The crow crowd seemed to be taking sides and laying bets. The other two hawks could have been seconds in an old-fashioned duel. And the blue jay reported the proceedings in the excitable tone of an announcer at a boxing match.
I approached as close as allowed. At last the hawks flew off, the crows scattered, and the blue jay shut up. I walked over to the fight ring. The only sign of a scuffle were two breast feathers netted in the underbrush. I hurried home, by then truly freezing, but also feeling somehow privileged and cleansed.
A few hours later, a chickenfeed snow began to fall. Small dry flakes quickly drifted over the ground where so much had been at stake a short while ago. Through the window, I watched from the warm safety of my home as the snow disguised the familiar world. I wished I could bury my faltering book project under the whiteness.
In his book Secrets of the Universe: Essays on Family, Community, Spirit, and Place, Scott Russell Sanders advises writers “…to free themselves from human enclosures, and go outside to study the green world . . . if we are meant to survive, we must look outward from the charmed circle of our own works, to the stupendous theater where our tiny, brief play goes on.”
Later still, when it was dark and bitter cold and snow was still coming down, I looked out on the porch and saw tracks. Cat pawprints. I knew with certainty that this was no neighbor cat making casual rounds. Not in this weather.
My husband filled a plate with cat food and put it on the porch. Then we waited until a shadow separated itself from the swirling night and hunkered over the plate. My worries over a book project seemed as petty as people squabbling over a case of bottled water.
Hawks will fight for the right to hunt and stray cats will search for food and shelter in the wider story of real survival. I remind myself to step off my insignificant stage and gaze out into the stupendous theater. I might learn something from players different from me, no less important.