Plate 291 (Numenius borealis) is the only instance in which the subject appears dead in the work of John James Audubon.
Beneath the cedars stirring in the churchyard,
stone angels endure the weather for the dead
while townsmen, slinging shovelfuls of dirt,
strive in a singular rhythm. He sits alone
sketching the angels from the shade—a kind
of heavenly bird he reasons with himself—
although their wings are broken, faces scarred,
each fragile mouth feigning the same sad smile
as the one before it. Offered double his price
to paint a likeness of the pastor’s daughter—
buried for more than a week—he reluctantly
agreed—times being what they are. The men
call from the grave—beckon with their hands
calloused and swollen with the wage of work.
The nervous bird worries the waterline,
probing the sand between the waves’ retreat
and surge. Its shrill call dies into a wind
that scours the wide, airy stretch of shore.
How dull it seems against the gulf—with no
raised crest or striking plumage to admire,
no flamboyant breast or ivory bill,
only the markings of a common plover.
And yet he studies it—from behind the dunes—
studies its several postures, grounded and
in sudden flight—and not content to praise
it from a distance, to sacrifice detail,
unpacks his brushes and arranges them
before raising his rifle and taking aim.
The men still beckon from the grave. The angels
seem expectant. In the short walk between the shade
and where they wait, he thinks, for the first time,
of the work ahead. The men, who moments ago
joked about worms and the girl’s virginity,
delicately scrape the remaining dirt and clay
off of the coffin’s lid. They sweep the lacquer
with their hands. The cedars rattle overhead.
And while they struggle with the lid, he vows
to recreate her—as she might have been—
to excuse her blemishes—whatever they
may be: the jutting cheekbones of her face,
her sunken skin—to find the form that once
was there, and, afterward, erase what was.
Wings stiffening against its breast, the curlew
refuses the rigging. Driven by the sun’s descent,
a lack of wood, and never being one to work
from memory, he lays it in the sand
beyond the tide’s tall reach. Nothing escapes
his hand: from alien feet to modest crown,
the upturned wing and speckled down, the throat,
the meager curve of beak—the small, dark eye.
He thinks it wears its body like a cloak—
or like the white gown draped loosely around
the pastor’s daughter, the shadow of the cedars
branching over her folded hands, her chest,
her exposed neck and clavicles—her face
still radiant as if she might sit up to greet him.