Last year, when we returned to the Cape at the end of the summer to scatter my mom’s ashes—the hill turning brown, the corners of the landscape sharpened, the ocean shifting from hazy grey-green to chilly navy—I felt this moment, ten months later, coming like a promise.
No concrete thought yet of metastases and regular scans and clinical trials. But as I sat on the porch swing before the service and watched one of our three guinea hens nervously pecking around in the lawn with her head bobbing up and down in the grass—a vigilant look to the task at her feet, another to the others’ movements, another to the horizon, and again—I understood what it is to stand in the sun on a perfect day and feel winter and grief in the warm breeze and in the dry rustle of the grasses and in the waves in the bay newly tipped with white.
We’d started the season with a flock of eight guineas—exotic looking, high-strung, speckled fowl known for eating pests. Beautiful, anxious birds. They roamed free around the yard during the day, laying eggs, disappearing together into the tall grasses, squabbling, munching on ticks and bugs, and periodically working themselves into loud, seemingly unprovoked lathers.
“Oh chill out, ladies,” we’d say when they would abruptly round a corner and zigzag madly across the lawn in a frantic rush towards nothing and away from nothing. They seemed to work each other up like a pack of children telling ghost stories on a camping trip. “You’re fine, birdies. No worries.”
At night they were cooped and quiet in a hen house perched on the cliff near the ice-age boulder and the clothesline where even before my mom died I could sometimes feel her ghost and the outdoor shower with its mermaid mural and front-row view of fishing boats and ferries shuttling vacationers out to the Vineyard.
Early in the summer, the guineas made a nest in a thicket of poison ivy just off the road down to the barn, and we discovered they must not have all been hens one day when, after a great deal of squawking and fluttering, suddenly there was a collection of downy chicks huddled on the path.
One was dead or nearly dead. The others were not yet very mobile, and all day the kids ran up and back reporting on the status of the babies and arguing over their names and personality traits—getting as close as the alarmist flock would permit before a ruckus would break out and they would flap up and dive at boys’ heads. Then, on one visit, the ruckus turned to something more serious, squawks becoming sirens, and the boys watched an osprey swoop down out of the sky and carry off one of the chicks—Clarence or Roberto or FuzzWuzz—and the boys began screeching and flapping themselves.
And then again, minutes later, after the grown-ups had been pulled into the unfolding crisis, the osprey returned and snatched another. And then another.
We yelled at the sky “STOP THAT RIGHT NOW!” and the guineas all shrieked and the boys shook sticks in the air and the osprey with the chick in its grip looped up and out, disappearing over the tall grasses and the grey-green waves, silent and unmoved as a paper airplane, and when, despite our efforts, every last chick was gone, we walked back to the house to explain with uncertainty in our throats that nature can be cruel and that everything needs to eat.
We felt more tolerant of the guineas’ excitability after that—more of a kinship with their constant fretting. When one or two of them would get separated from the group and start to squawk, we’d say, “Hang on, you’ll find them in a minute,” and we’d crane our necks around until we spotted the flock pecking their way up the path from the boathouse or emerging from under the porch.
Over the course of the summer, a few of them disappeared altogether—the occasional catastrophe of dark grey speckled feathers in the grass. The flock began to stick closer together. We’d count them each night and felt relief when they all were tucked in their roost and the door closed.
When we returned for Labor Day, gouged by loss a couple weeks after my mom died, there were only three guineas left. They were inseparable, more rattled, shriller—if possible. That weekend we found a fox den carved into the cliff about 75 feet from the hen house.
My medical news is good—as good as it gets really. My vital organs are still clear of cancer, and the spots on the bone scan are ambiguous—dark shapes on dark water, like a school of fish or a passing cloud. The phrase the radiologist uses in his report is “increasingly conspicuous” but my oncologist says to try to ignore that language, even though she speaks just as obliquely.
“Let’s just say when the cancer returns for real we won’t be having this conversation,” she says, sitting in her white coat and heels atop a file cabinet in a storage room the breast clinic is using as an auxiliary exam room due to significantly increased patient volume.
“I’m sorry, I don’t really know what you mean,” I say.
“What I mean—and I’m sorry I’m being coy, I just don’t want to jinx things—is we will follow up on these dark spots with more scans because that is what we do, but I don’t think we need to worry about them. They are not what a recurrence is going to look like when it happens.”
Her ocean eyes are filled with all of the ledges and trenches of a cancer doctor.
“I get it,” I say, part giddy with relief, but part like a guinea hen who has wandered away from the others in the tall grass near the cliff’s edge in the final weeks of summer. Who looks up when she hears rustling in the thicket—maybe the others, maybe the wind, maybe something more sinister.