On a frigid Monday morning, over hot coffee and warm bagels, Sylvie announced the bad news.
“The publisher is pulling the plug on us next month,” she said. “But I have a plan.”
The staff of Flock had dwindled from ten to a bare-boned four, and it was no secret the magazine had lost money on all sixteen issues. We sensed our jobs were in jeopardy, but chose to ignore the suspicion in favor of the illusion that we’d finally secured our dream jobs in the editorial room of a big city magazine.
“You’ve all seen the glass heron videos, right?” Sylvie asked.
We nodded in skeptical unison. The “glass heron”, as it had come to be known, was, in all likelihood, an elaborate internet hoax. Three videos of the bizarre bird had been circulating Reddit, Facebook, and every major nature blog for several weeks; Huffington Post called it the “flying freak of the South.” Of course we knew about it.
“I think it’s fate,” she said, pulling the cap off a pen with her teeth. “It’s not often the nation goes wild over a bird, you guys.” She wrote down three numbers on a notepad and held it up to us.
“This is how many views each video has,” she said. “This,” she drew a big frantic circle around the numbers, “is how many people want that story. And we are going to give it to them.”
Reaching into a yellow canvas bag, she set on the table in front of me her digital camera, a GoPro, a plane ticket, and the last of her personal savings, a total of $2800 cash.
She looked at me with a devilish sparkle in her eyes. “I want you to leave tonight.”
Without my saying yes or no, Sylvie adjourned the meeting and we retreated to our individual desks. My thirtieth birthday was in five days, and I had plans to ring in the new decade with my fiancé, friends, and a coked-up DJ named Rex. I’d already put a deposit down on a venue, rented a karaoke machine, and practiced my show-stopping performance of Patti Smith’s “Gloria.” Ten bottles of vodka were sitting in a box above my refrigerator. Since the proposal, Nathan and I were living inside of our own sublime love bubble. We had drug each other through the hell and back over the past two years: infidelity, public arguments, clothes on the lawn, broken phones. You could say we loved as hard as we fought. But now, we were on a major upswing, and the thought of leaving right in the middle of it was terrifying.
I decided to tell Sylvie I couldn’t take the assignment. What could she do? Fire me? The magazine was going to fold in a month anyway. I only turn thirty once, I would say, followed by something like, It’s probably just a hoax anyway, and I would end on a solemn but upward note like, We had a solid run.
I peered into her office through a crack in the door. She was staring despondently into a parrot-shaped mug of cold coffee. I wondered what she would do once Flock went under. She’d spent ten years trying to get the magazine off the ground. When it first launched, I’d never seen anyone so jazzed about stupid bird stories. It was like she had finally reached the summit of her own private mountain, and she was up there throwing rose pedals, singing show tunes, and smiling down at us. Her enthusiasm was electric. At least it was in the beginning. I tapped on the glass pane of her office door.
“Yes?” she answered languidly, lifting her head in slow motion.
“I’ll go,” I said.
I didn’t think the bird existed, and I had to tell her that before I took the last of her money and headed South.
“It’s impossible,” I said.
“No!” she barked. “The moment you’re so certain what is and is not impossible in this world, that’s when you become a fool. I didn’t get this far by pooh-poohing every strange new idea that came across my desk. No! I believed in stories when no one else did. Not believing is easy—it’s too easy. You know what other rumors no one believed? That cigarettes would kill you, that you’d be able to video chat with your friend in Tokyo someday. The bird is out there, and it’s calling our name. I feel it in my bones. This is our big break.”
I replayed her words again and again in my mind as I boarded the plane. It’s amazing, I thought, what a person can believe in when they have everything to lose.
The bird, if it was a bird, was spotted, if it was spotted, on the Cumberland River in Nashville, Tennessee, so that’s where the plane took me. I spent most of my childhood in Nashville’s rural outskirts, so it made sense to everyone that the only staff member with Southern roots should be the one to write the story.
I did however warn my colleagues of my life as an “indoor kid” listening to punk rock and reading Emily Dickinson anthologies. I didn’t have the kind of bucolic, home-cooked Southern childhood they probably imagined. When I was a teenager, I wore black clothes with spiky accessories, neutralized my Southern accent, and wrote endless volumes of bad poetry. No one took me fishing, I didn’t know how to make cornbread, and I certainly had no proclivity for outdoor pastimes. I’d never even been near, much less on, that river that twisted through my small town. The Cumberland was new territory to me, and I promised my team nothing but a good college try.
With a generous budget and two weeks to find the mutant bird, I made daily rounds on river cruises that crept along the banks where the three sightings had reportedly occurred: two in Cheatham County, one near downtown Nashville.
For $10 a ride, I could take a 2-hour pontoon cruise in the morning and then again at sundown, so the first phase of my search involved nodding off in a pontoon boat, eating Pringles, and listening to the motor hum behind me as I drank my sixth cup of coffee that day. Most days were hot and I watched the families on board the humble cruise boat interact in adorable ways. All familial interaction that wasn’t a dark implosion seemed adorable to me. Or I would spend the ride talking to Captain Irons about lucid dreams, science-fiction books, and the latest development in a million-dollar factory up for grabs near the county line.The pontoon boarded and docked at a park near my old house, a park I’d never actually been to, save for a few carpooling transfers. In fact, my only memory associated with the park was the time my youngest brother and a couple of his friends got arrested for chalking on the sidewalk without permission. Being the protective sister I am, I was furious when I got wind of such a ludicrous and unjust reason to take an innocent minor inside the county's vile jail, even if only for a few hours, until my brother confessed his "artwork" consisted of a five-foot long penis adorned with a tiny cowboy hat. That was my singular connection to the park.
Sylvie insisted I spend the whole two weeks bird-watching on the river. Every single day. What if the glass heron doesn’t turn up, I asked. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it, she said. It was as if her soul went dark when I asked the question. She simply could not extend her vision beyond the next two weeks, beyond the hope that we'd find the bird and break a national news story. She could not, would not, imagine the possibility of defeat.
On board the aging pontoon boat, passengers were encouraged to indulge in the complementary offerings of chilled Capri Suns and snack-sized bags of chips served on deck in a plastic laundry basket. Above us, the roof was lined with dirty lifejackets, secured with a network of bungee cords. The earthy sounds of steel drum music played softly from the speakers as Captain Irons, wearing one of his many Hawaiian shirts, walked the length of his ship to ensure all was in good order before departure.
“There’s no frou-frou stuff on this boat, no nice stuff on it,” he said on my first ride. “I don’t try to be frou-frou, so the boat works out great for me.”
I asked how long he’d been operating the boat.
“I bought it fifteen years ago, just for this. Could have bought it twenty years ago if, well, if I’d been able to give up the sex, drugs, and alcohol sooner, but I couldn’t, so fifteen.”
When I spoke to him, which was not all that often, I was certain he could sense, if only psychically, that I was not a student of a nature. His eyes often glazed over during our conversations as if I was discussing the latest trends in Louis Vuitton handbags.
Captain Irons knew a great deal about the river and its subsequent anatomy. He had an entire language about it that was lost on me. As he spoke I pondered the difference between a rill and a channel, and between regular water and brackish water. I couldn’t conjure definitions for watershed or quagmire or silt.
I wondered if one day we might lose these terms entirely, words that articulate the nuances and specificities of the natural world. Language has a Darwinian way of anointing things, of signaling what we hold dear, and what we deem worthy of carrying in to the future. If we forget how to talk about nature, perhaps we will forget about nature itself.
On my fourth ride in two days, Captain Irons peered askance at me and asked if I was up to something funny.
“I’m a journalist,” I replied mechanically. “I’m here on an assignment to look for a rare bird.”
This piqued his interest. “Well well, what kind of bird?” he asked, finally softening to me. “Ain’t a single bird I don’t know. Ain’t a single bird I ain’t seen.”
“They're calling it the glass heron,” I said. “Have you heard of it?”
“Oh, I’ve seen that thing,” he said dismissively.
I leapt out of my plastic lawn chair. “What?” I said. My heart felt like it was going to careen out of my chest. In the milliseconds that elapsed after his words, I suddenly found myself on top of that mountain with Sylvie—roses, show tunes, smiling down. “You’ve seen the glass heron?” I asked, my voice achieving an new register of pitch.
“Yep, online. Ain’t real.”
My heart plummeted. I said nothing more, just sulked in my chair for the rest of the ride, silently reminded myself, over and over, that I was royally wasting the last precious days of my twenties.
But a curious thing happened late that night. As I was trying to fall asleep in my squeaky hotel bed, I found myself unable to shake that momentary spark of belief the captain’s words had roused in me. It was brief, but it was there. And now, somehow, I was desperately clinging to an unlikely, unfounded tinge of hope.
By the fourth day on the pontoon, I'd taken a liking to being on the river. I started to see it as an escape. Staring out aimlessly into the distance made me feel lost, and by being nowhere, at least in my mind, I was free, the feeling was a measure of peace, a salutary emptiness within.
At its stillest, the river was a mirror, reflecting a perfect image of the living world above it. It was as blue as the sky, as green as the trees. As our boat meandered down the canal, the glittering ripples hypnotized me. The soft push of spring winds, the smell of nothing and everything. The course appeared, as it always did, to be simultaneously still and moving.
It’s shocking what happens when you spend hours looking—looking at something or nothing, it doesn’t really matter. It’s the act of looking that counts. When you notice things you wouldn’t have noticed in a million years. The world reveals itself to us in layers, and the more time we spend looking, the more we see. At some point in the journey, I stopped looking for the bird, and just looked.
On the day of my thirtieth birthday, I decided to take a cruise on the General Jackson, an historic paddlewheel showboat that boarded next to a famous country music stage, a hotel with a forest inside, and a shopping mall that was once a theme park. I reasoned that if I couldn’t be with my fiancé and friends on this special occasion, I might as well treat myself to buffet dinner on a frou-frou boat.
The first mistake I made was arriving in high heels and a tight dress. I’d felt like a disheveled swamp rat the entire trip, and thus, despite my awareness of its utter futility, felt compelled to doll myself up for the night. So I did. I did it up. The nines. The tens. The elevens. Beneath the flickering fluorescent light of my dilapidated hotel bathroom, I carefully applied fake eyelashes, thick black cat eye liner, and sultry red lipstick. At one point I paused. What the hell was I doing? What was all this for? I shrugged my shoulders at my own tawdry reflection, grabbed my bedazzled clutch, and slammed the door behind me.
The General Jackson was a behemoth paddleboat that looked like a old-timey building from the loading dock. Country music blared in the waiting area as the captain, or maybe it was a fake captain, stood in full regalia pushing $8 tours of the Pilot’s House.
I sat on a wooden bench as droves of white-haired women in white summer pants shuffled toward the boarding gate. A strapping young man gingerly swept the fallen leaves from the walkway. There were so few actual leaves, I wondered if his job was more symbolic than functional, merely an act of servitude and luxury for the boat patrons. Watching him, I felt a slight tingle at the very top of my head, the same tingle I used to feel as a child when my mother swept the kitchen. The sensation was accompanied by a deep and fully enveloping sense of calm.
The boatmen shepherded everyone onto the craft and into the Victorian Theatre, a magical two-story concert hall, where dozens of silver buffet trays were lined up and seething with fragrant steam. The trays overflowed with herb-roasted chicken, steamed asparagus, broccoli and carrots, creamed potatoes, and yeast rolls with whipped butter. Your classic Southern fare. At the carving station, a sweaty man in a double-breasted chef’s coat sliced a giant hunk of prime rib under a beaming hot lamp.
I was assigned to a large round table that gradually filled with strangers, most of them priggish couples whose gentility made them seem, as far as I was concerned, like historical artifacts. I’m pretty sure they assumed I was a resident call girl, and I did little to persuade them otherwise.
The table was prepped with an iceberg salad and a sauceboat of dressing, so you could begin stuffing your face as soon as you sat down. A spry little man in a maroon waistcoat and white apron introduced himself as Gino, our server.
“Please know that I am here for you,” he said, “Whatever heart desires. We are all here for you.” He exited our tableside with a deferential bow.
The production of the dinner was so formal that all the guests momentarily forgot they were on a boat. Until, of course, it started moving. Suddenly the earth began to pass by the row of ornate arched windows as though we were trapped inside a giant kinetoscope. By some miracle, no one threw up.
After dinner, the emcee encouraged us to leave the dining hall and explore the decks. I ended up at the back of the boat, peering over the monstrous red paddlewheel. The heaving wheel churned toward me as the river moved away. The thick spokes lifted and hurled the water with a continuous force. It sounded like a thousand washing machines with their lids open. The sight of it was more violent than I’d expected, considering the boat was only moving a few miles an hour. The romantic in me couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to hurl myself onto the mammoth machine. To be swallowed, thrown beneath its thrust. I wondered how many people had had the same thought. Being on a large boat lends itself to romantic, deadly ideas. I turned away and walked to the uppermost of the deck, where I found Gino smoking.
“Taking a break?” I asked.
“Not if you need something,” he said with a artful grin followed by a curtsey. After a brief silence, he said “Are you spy? I saw you taking notes.”
“I’m a writer.”
“A writer? Wow. What kind of character are you looking for? Perhaps I can help you.” He brushed his fingers through his hair as if he was about to audition for the lead role in my blockbuster film.
“None, no characters, I’m here on a journalism assignment. I’m looking for a bird. The glass heron bird. You haven’t seen it by chance, have you?”
He pressed his finger against his cheek and popped his right hip out. “Oh yes,” he said, He pointed his arm toward the sky. “Every night I see it.” His affected tone made me suspicious. There was no question of what hook to hang him on. He was your typical attention-starved sycophantic theatre kid.
Gino then transitioned into a improvised monologue that passionately detailed how he comes to the upper deck every night to watch the glass heron fly by, sometimes right in front of his face. He said it liked the darkness.
“A magnificent creature of the night,” he said. “It speaks to me often. Calling my name. Gino! Gino!”
I walked away from Gino because I could take no more of his inexhaustible thespianism. I ventured to a different deck and again, looked out at the river, which is blue during the day and pitch black at night. It’s a mirror, the original poet, the first writer of light. The river is the sky, I kept repeating to myself. In my notepad, I drew a horizontal line. This is the sky. And another line below it, the river. And yet another below it, time. The same things. The same line.
Just then, we rounded a bend in the river and came upon the lights of downtown. The day-glo arch of the Korean Veterans Bridge stretched across the waterway. Its crystal clear reflection in the water created a vesica picsis, a surreal electric mouth. Moving slowly into the lighted form, my heart slowed, I was in awe. The city lights were arresting, bright and clean, the calm river looked like a sheet of glass. As the boat crept under the bridge, I slung the upper half of my body over the banister and stared down at the reflections, an entire inverted world reached down below the surface, submersed and suspended, it faded out as the boat moved by, rippling the image like a dream sequence.
When I got home from the cruise, I pulled off my eyelashes and was 30, an age that seemed at once promising and impossible. I phoned my fiancé back in Chicago, and did my best to update him on my journey. He sounded confused when he asked me if I actually thought the videos were real. By that point, certainty had become an elastic thing, I explained to him, and it was getting harder for me to make heads or tails of any of it. Who was I to say what is possible or not possible in this world?
“It’s nice to believe,” I said. “It makes the work easier.”
In my inbox were three emails from Sylvie, asking if I’d seen anything yet. I told her I had not, but that I met someone who said they’d seen it. I couldn’t tell you why I told her that. It just felt like the right thing to do.
Over the final week I continued my daily rounds on Captain Irons’ pontoon boat, went on a few group kayaking excursions, and spent three more nights on the General Jackson. On the last day of my assignment, just a few hours before a plane would take me back to Chicago, I purchased my last ticket from Captain Irons. With a Capri Sun in one hand, and a bag of Fritos in the other, I watched as three siblings, two girls and boy, held oversized plastic bubble wands to their lips. They took a deep breath and exhaled a billowing cloud of liquid bubbles off the side of the boat. Hundreds of little prismatic globes rushed the river’s airstream, they bounded through the air and then rolled along the surface of the water like marbles. At that moment, with a strange feeling in my bones, I reached for my binoculars, plucked off the caps, and began scanning the riverbank.
This work is supported through the Bonnaroo Works Fund, the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, and Metro Arts.