I watch vultures, when I get the chance. I mostly see them the same time you see them — when a truck snags a deer on the highway and you roll past the carnage. By the time you come along, the deer might look as though it laid down and went to sleep by the side of the road. Depending on what condition it’s in, it might look like it had a bar fight just before hand. And if it’s warm out, even if you’re in a more densely populated area, the vultures come.
There are vultures, and then there are turkey vultures. Turkey vultures are huge and monstrous and the best way to describe them if this were a 1 star Amazon review is that they look like understudies for Skeksis from The Dark Crystal. They look like hamburger meat ice-cream scooped onto a scare crow’s body, a scaly beak skewering vomit. One Thanksgiving, I came around a bend of road and nearly took one out with my car. His wingspan encompassed the entire windshield and for an instant I was pinned, helpless in the driver’s seat and eye to eye with this reptilian beast, as though I could see right back into his retina, all the way into pre-history where his ancestors fed on the meat of fallen dinosaurs. And then he was gone. I never really forgot him, but that had not been my first run in.
By the gods, they’re hideous. I’ve seen people scream at them, shudder at the mention of them. There was a time I perceived them as ugly, too. Even in our lexicon, we tend to use it as a derogatory term to describe people who steal from others unfairly, who have not earned what they took. That’s well and good in our human community, but out in the indifferent universe, vultures will never hang their heads in shame to be vultures. Try looking one in the eye, like I did. You’ll be the first to look away. And after all — what did they take that was not going to go to waste in the long run, anyway?
In 2001, I was 22 and trying to find employment before the school semester ended. That same week, I got a call back to work at a New Jersey State Park. When I try to look back and remember that time, time itself is disjointed. That year was book-ended by a death and then the WTC on September 11. I was reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves in the middle of the Jersey Pine Barrens, home to the rumored Jersey Devil. A chaotic and strange period of life that they say I will never really grow past — that I will, internally, be arrested at that same age for all of my life. They say the same of Kurt Vonnegut’s own pivotal experiences — his biographer speculated that it was not the bombing of Dresden, but rather, the cumulative effect of being forced to enter basements and pull out corpses in the stifling air at gun point afterwards, that stopped Vonnegut in time, forever and ever.
And so it goes.
But at the time, I found myself weirdly employed at a State Park and the employment itself wouldn’t last long. But while it did last, every morning I put the flag up the pole at the entrance and then trudged in to open the public areas, among which was an outbuilding at the lake shore. In another hour, other personnel would arrive, but for this hour at dawn, I had the place to myself.
The sun would rise over the rim of the mixed oak and pine trees. Scattered over the shore in one long line at the water’s edge, vultures gathered there. I had never seen this in my life, though I had seen many strange things in the wild. With their backs to me, they could not see me, but they waited for the sun to come over the horizon and then they opened up their wings and balanced there, soaking in the sun in their communal salutation. It was indescribable to explain how birds so wretchedly ugly underwent a golden metamorphosis, to spy upon them at their effulgent congregation. They brought a silence with them, deep and everlasting. They’d stay for as long as possible until people began to file in, and then they’d leave as though they’d never been, and reappear the next morning, to do it all over again.
It wasn’t that they had anything to tell me in particular; but what they showed me, by the shore, was like seeing a seam pulled wide in the curtain of the universe and catching glimpses of this ancient machinery. The chance to ponder the construction of it, to know it at last, this thing greater than yourself, and how small it renders you. Vultures are a brutal reminder than no amount of hubris and opinion, righteousness and good intentions balance out your scales at the end of life. The vulture knows no shame, exalts in the sun, and then leaves quietly, without notice, an invisible presence beyond the sight of humanity.
I took strict lessons from my fellow vulture. Like the vulture, I hide away at my desk. I roll in this carcass I call a novel, pull it apart with my beak, rearranging sinew and muscle. I toil in secret, and disappear at the first stirring of life. It is the work itself that humbles; and when you take us all in our totality, and you realize that indeed, there is an invisible fleet of us at work in like fashion. We are all the same, seeking warmth and comfort before we scatter and separate. You need only look past your shoulder, and discover a long line of others just like you, wings outstretched. Faces, turned. Awaiting the sun.