June 22, 2022 by The Citron Review
by Liesel Hamilton
The first time I saw a wood stork, it was in flight. As I floated between swaths of cordgrass, I watched a pair of storks disappear into the hazy summer sky, their white wings, tipped in black, stretched outwards, their curved bills pointing them onwards, coral feet trailing in their wake. With naked eyes, I watched them glide higher and higher, searching for thermals to ease their flight.
I told my mom I loved the stork, the mythical bird we hear about when we first begin hearing stories, the bird that delivers us to our parents’ doorsteps in pink and blue hammocks, bows neatly tied around their beaks.
That’s because you saw it in flight, she told me.
She told me I would feel differently when I saw them up close, wading on gangly legs through shallow pools, their bald, furfuraceous heads, an eyesore against thick white plumage. She told me wood storks are molten, scaly, a cousin of those black carrion eating birds that glide above, unflapping, warning of death.
The first time I had a panic attack, I felt all the air leave my body. My chest constricted as the air trickled upwards, my brain spinning inside my skull. It was if my oxygen had turned to helium. It needed to rise and rise, so it continued to fight for height even when there was nowhere else in my body for it to go. As it found its way out, possibly evaporating through the pores of my skin, I felt my self follow. There I was, floating above my body, connected by a thread of spider silk I sweated would sever, leaving me floating, bodiless, forever.
Disconnection, my therapist would later call it. Very common with anxiety.
I watched sweat gather on my forehead, I watched my body, no longer connected to my self, no longer connected to reason, feel a need to run. It left behind a couple, mid-story, it left behind dry, artificial heat that had made everyone shed sweaters and scarfs, it left behind garland and glass orbs reflecting light. My mom watched it leave and when I told her, in an echoey, hollow voice that everything was spinning, that I had to move, I had to leave, she grabbed our coats. I watched us walk the empty suburban streets and I felt the thread of silk getting shorter, almost sewing itself back into my body.
In between panic attacks, fragments of time that began to feel shorter and more unstable, I learned about birds. As my mom sat, watching birds, I sat with her, watching my self drift in and out as she pointed out bluebirds and red-tailed hawks. I learned that you often hear birds before you see them, if you see them at all. One of the first steps in becoming a birder is learning calls–the trill of a Killdeer, the raspy fee-bee of the Eastern Phoebe singing its own name, the birdie, birdie, birdie of a Northern Cardinal. Even waders and shorebirds—herons, egrets, gulls—you might hear squawk or scream or cluck.
The word stork has an undeveloped syrinx. It doesn’t squawk or sing; it can only clatter its bill.
Hypochondriatic, my pediatrician called my symptoms. I had recently turned eighteen, but she was hesitant to shove me out of her exam room, into a more age appropriate doctor’s office. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m saying they’re not real, just that we approach them a different way.
I learned that this was the kind and understanding way of talking about mental disorders. I learned that there are many different words for anxiety, for depression, but still, the world did not want to hear any of them. I learned about pushing through, suffering, faking it until you made it. I learned that even those who claimed to be kind and understanding weren’t always kind and understanding. I learned that my self was not always kind and understanding.
I love the ways groups of animals are named—a cauldron of bats, a coalition of cheetahs, a skulk of foxes. The names say much more about us than about them.
I looked up a group of wood storks. They are a clatter, a filth, a muster, a swoop, a phalanx. I don’t know which one I should use. I don’t want to speak for the wood stork, to speak for anyone, to speak, even for myself. I’ve gotten things wrong so many times before.
This first time I saw a wood stork, it was a rarity. Searching for crayfish in the South Carolina swamps, it was a bit north of where it liked to live. Since then, I have watched thousands of storks stream from Florida, away from the only state they have ever thrived, away from the swaths of tupelo forests that have turned into suburbs—raised inlets where one identical house greets the next, centered around ponds of diverted water carefully monitored by industrial metal tubes. Their bodies in flight say something that cannot be said another way.
Words fail us—what a common idiom, an idiom that makes it seem like this failure is acceptable. Words fail, we should say, but keep trying them anyway. I have been told, since I was a kid, as my voice was drowned by those who were bigger and louder and older and surer and male-r, that there is no other way, that I have to have the words for my grief, my pain, my emotions, my state of mind, that the words will help others understand, that the words will bring me through, bring me peace.
use your words
find your voice.
How can you expect people to hear you if you refuse to speak your mind?
I cry. I can’t find the words to say what is obvious. I don’t have the words to ask,
haven’t I shown you enough?
Liesel Hamilton is the co-author of Wild South Carolina (Hub City Press). She has been published in Audubon, Catapult, and The Normal School, among other publications. Her work has been supported by the Adam M. Johnson Endowed Award for Excellence in Creative Writing and the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center, among other awards and fellowships. She currently serves as the nonfiction editor of the Southeast Review.