I hear two sounds in the marsh. One is the call of a bird, hidden. The other is the gasp of my life-long friend, struggling to push enough air through his lungs so he can pause to communicate with me, like the bird. “Was that your rail?” he says.
I turn to him and whisper yes, and we both breathe easier. Together we are participating in Audubon’s winter bird count, searching for a species often heard, but rarely seen. It is four days until Christmas. The same Frank Durbin who used to playfully mock my love of birds, now stands near me, braving the cold damp of morning while he endures the symptoms of a brutal neurological disease forcing me to question the existence of God.
We’d been friends since first grade. We grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Grass Valley. We lived next door to each other. Our birthdays were a day apart. Sometimes our parents combined celebrations. Our presents foretold our life-long differences: Frank, who’d go on to a career in the Marine Corps, often received hunting gear or something to do with motor-cross, while I – the aspiring ornithologist –got books, or more binoculars. We gave each other those sorts of gifts, too, understanding the depth of our friendship reached beyond our worldly affinities.
I hear the bird again. It is indeed a Black Rail. The species is the ultimate in avian illusiveness. Seeing Laterallus jamaicensis is a birder’s prize. Its numbers have diminished significantly in California. It’s listed as threatened here. Its specialized marsh habitat is spotty, disconnected. But the bird survives.
I wait silently for the rail to do something. Again, I hear Frank’s ponderous breathing. I turn to him. He stares at the marsh and nods as if he’s using his chin to chop wood. I follow his bearing and see movement. I keep my focus on the rustling, but still cannot see the bird.
As it is with childhood friendships, ours grew apart as time passed. Yes, we called each other once or twice a year, sent each other Christmas cards, and were groomsmen in each other’s wedding. Frank and I recognized this was the best way to maintain our relationship, like a well that needs priming every once in a while. And like the presents we gave each other on our birthdays, it was recognition of our individuality. Though we had chosen different paths, we still walked over unshakeable terrain.
But then there was the time I hadn’t heard from Frank for almost a year. I’d presumed there was some dire reason for the distance, but I wouldn’t let my pessimistic imagination overcome me. So, I called him.
He was different over the phone, his voice vacuous, subdued. For the first few minutes we said practically nothing, though Frank tried to show some interest and enthusiasm when I talked about my daughters, who were both following in their father’s footsteps with careers in conservation. “I’m happy for you, man,” Frank had said.
But then there was a long silence; and finally, Frank told me about his disease and how he had put off sharing the bad news with me. “It’s that Lou Gehrig thing,” he said; “Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” he added succinctly, like a kid enunciating a difficult word in a spelling bee.
I knew enough about ALS to understand the seriousness of Frank’s affliction, and his fate. I couldn’t speak. I felt as if I was watching the violent burst of a star in the distance, beyond my reach, and unchangeable. My friend had always seemed super-human. I had no recollection of Frank ever being sick, or breaking a bone or straining a muscle. And then, in his voice came that unrelenting spirit, that strength I’d grown so accustomed to: “Hey, but don’t you worry about me,” he’d said; “I’m going to beat this thing.”
The Black Rail calls again, kick-ee-doo…. kick-ee-doo
“It’s right there,” Frank whispers. He points with his finger this time.
I move closer. I stand as still as the bird must have been standing. I wait. Then I turn back to Frank. He watches me the same way I’d looked for the bird, riveted, as if we are both witnessing the disarming of a bomb. Just then I consider the power Frank’s death would have over me, what it will feel like with him forever absent in my life, except in memory. Sighting the rare bird seemed suddenly unimportant, small, petty, and selfish.
“It’s right there,” Frank says. I’m dismayed. Frank can see the bird but I still cannot. I wonder if I am looking too hard for it, if Frank’s lack of passion gives him clearer and less obstructed vision, if he simply sees what is really there, instead of what he wishes to behold.
In high school, because of Frank’s athletic prowess (he was an all-league middle line-backer), we had different friends. Sometimes I’d wonder if Frank was embarrassed to be seen with his nerdy, bird-watching buddy. But my consternation was always short-lived, and there were occasions when Frank went out of his way to assert our friendship. The most notable was when one of his football teammates, a knuckle-dragger named Leon Bass, saw me at lunch spying a Ferruginous Hawk in a snag next to the school quad. Leon had been standing in a group with Frank.
Then Leon broke away and came up to me and circled about, flapping his arms and making a squawking sound. Frank, who was both feared and respected by his fellow players, quickly intervened. He stepped between me and Leon and asked me what kind of bird I’d seen. He spoke loud enough so everyone could hear him, and gave me permission to raise my own voice. “A Ferruginous Hawk,” I said. “It’s the largest hawk in North America.”
Frank straightens and points again. “It’s right there, man!” he says.
This time I see the rail. It is as if the bird understood the singularity of the instant with my dying childhood friend. Yes, there’s the bird, bold in its charcoal plumage, its band of rust color behind its head, and its fiery red eyes. And it doesn’t move. It stands in the open, starkly visible against a patch of dead reeds. Then it vanishes into the dense and greener rush.
We leave that part of the marsh. We meet the others who are part of the Audubon count. They’d gone off to survey a nearby creek. There are three other birders, the same group I’d been doing the count with for the last 15 years. They report in with Black-headed Grosbeaks, Spotted Towhees, a Red-shouldered Hawk, Song Sparrows. When I tell them about seeing the Black Rail, they share my celebration with high fives. Frank looks upon this with mild discomfort. Such gestures are reserved for athletes, or soldiers, he is thinking.
Back home, our wives make clam chowder and cornbread. My daughters are there. My girls have always loved Frank.
That evening we sit around the fire. Then we watch It’s A Wonderful Life. Later that night I add the Black Rail to my life list, that record of bird sightings kept by bird-watchers. My list contains over 500 species. I circle the rail and put a star by it.
The next day, Frank and his wife, Gerry, rise before dawn to begin their drive back to Southern California. Before they depart, Frank and I sit around the kitchen table and look at old photos. Then we go out on the street and embrace. They drive off and Frank sticks his head out the window. He shouts: “Glad you saw your bird.”
Over the next year, I talk to Frank often over the phone. But I don’t see him again until he is in hospice. Finally, I travel alone to Frank’s home in San Diego. He’s heavily medicated. He can no longer speak. But he knows me.
For days, I relieve Frank’s wife, Gerry and spend nights with my friend. Then she encourages me to go back home to my family. “He’d want you to do that,” she says.
Frank dies a week later. Gerry calls me when I am alone at the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge. After I hear the news, I wander into a corner of the marsh. I conceal myself in cattails. I stay there until after dark, hidden, not wanting to be seen or heard by the predacious world. When I emerge I smell and feel the life in the wetland: damp and musty, but teeming. I look into the night sky. Frank is there, not as something observed and recorded on a list at a point in time, but as a whole life, lasting for as long as my own life will last.
John Thomson’s novel for young readers, A Small Boat at the Bottom of the Sea was published by Milkweed Editions. His short fiction has appeared in several literary journals, including TRP (“Anna and the Speed of Light”). Out of Good Ground won Terrain’s Fiction Contest, 2018. He is a retired conservationist.