An Ostrich-Plumed Hat: Chapter Sixteen

ambrose bierce devil's dictionary

Begin with Chapter One ~ Return to Chapter Fifteen

Hedda Burgemeister, December 1911

My dearest Emmy,

True confession: I had not the patience to wait for Madame Toselli’s book from the library. I splurged and purchased it immediately. I am sure “her own story” will soon be forgotten, for her writing has little merit. However, the glimpse inside the life of royals proved irresistible. I opened a can of Campbell’s oxtail soup – giving in to the Campbell’s habit, sometimes asparagus or pepperpot, into which I lazily slip all too often – and read it cover to cover.

It is easy to understand how her book angered the upper crust of Saxony, whom she describes as so old-fashioned that antediluvian is the adjective most appropriate. She writes, “The Court circle at Dresden… was composed of the most narrow-minded, evil-speaking and conceited collection of human beings it is possible to imagine.”

Continue reading “An Ostrich-Plumed Hat: Chapter Sixteen”

Ominous omens keep flying by…

OMEN, n. A sign that something will happen if nothing happens.

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)

No matter what, it’s the San Antonio Book Festival’s fault. Writing about some of the authors scheduled to appear there sent me back to a post from long ago about Jake Silverstein’s book, Nothing Happened and Then It Did, which had sent me delving back into The Devil’s Dictionary. Hence the omen reference. Add to that overstimulation from listening to five full sessions of authors talking followed by the Literary Death Match.

National Park Service photo of red-tailed hawk
National Park Service photo of red-tailed hawk

This past Thursday morning, the Mister and I headed southward for our morning walk. A hawk swooped onto a tree not 15 feet in front of us. It was a newly planted tree on the Eagleland stretch of the San Antonio River, the name of which comes not from sightings of eagles but from the Brackenridge High School’s mascot.

The branches of this 12-foot tree were not big enough to successfully support a hold-onto-your-chihuahua-size hawk; so, before we could even zip out and focus the smartphone, he flew off. While we were fiddling like dummies with the smartphone, the hawk caught something white now dangling helplessly from the hawk’s claws.

I wasn’t thinking omen yet. But a mile or so later on the Mission Reach by Lone Star, we saw another hawk swooping through the sky. We were impressed by a two-hawk day because we rarely even spy one.

But that afternoon, there was a third flying across 281 right in front of me as I headed to a meeting.

Three hawks. Now that seemed ominous to me.

Some people view hawks as messengers. Messengers bearing warnings, not usually glad tidings. I was afraid to even begin to surf the internet to find out what it would mean if three were trying to deliver news to me. I elected to prefer the theory that the hawks just happened to live nearby; it was meal time; and I was passing through their grocery store.

The next afternoon was warm. We had the doors on the second floor wide open. I kept hearing noises, though home alone.

Bravely going back up the stairs to the third floor, I found the source. A sparrow clinging to the shade on the south bank of windows.

I’m thinking omens again. Some people believe a bird flying into your house is a sign of death. I prefer the belief it means a loved one is trying to communicate with you from the grave. That seems more comforting.

Unfortunately, the windows on the third floor do not open. I was pondering how I was going to convince the sparrow to go back down a floor to the open doors when the sparrow spied this:


The bank of windows on the north side. Well, the sparrow went for it as fast as his wings could flap through the length of the house.

Smack. Thud.

I’m thinking serious omen.

A bird breaks his neck flying into your window, particularly while inside the house? Not a good sign. A harbinger of death.

But a break came. A major stroke of good luck. When the sparrow hit the glass, he fell smack into the middle of the trashcan beside my desk onto a soft bed of kleenix, ever-present during this season of pollen.

I was able to cover him with a jacket and cart him out to the back porch. Upon my removal of the cover, he sat there stunned for quite a while. He had been tricked by those very same green leaves once, and, no fool, he wasn’t going to race toward them again. After about 30 minutes, he trusted his surroundings and fluttered home.

Surely that trumped all prior gloomy warnings.

I fretted a bit all weekend but finally decided no news was good news.

brokenwindowOur daughter solved it all inadvertently with an email with this photo attached. Aha, the sparrow must have been trying to tell me there had been a storm in Austin, and a branch blew into their house and smashed a window. Phew.

And then, on the phone later, she told me about the impending death. The Mister’s Infinity that had passed her way was in the process of passing away.

The Mister was sad. He loved that car.

But I was jubilant. Those hawks were only trying to tell me the Infinity was dying. I can handle that. I never even learned to find it in a parking lot; one silver sedan looks just like all the others to me.

I’m not paying attention to messages from birds again though; no matter what that pair of coots on the Mission Reach seems to be trying to say. The foreboding row of dark cormorants perched on the dam won’t scare me.

And those herons and egrets? They and all the other birds who didn’t use to flourish here are only here because our environment is improving everyday as the San Antonio River Improvements Project matures.

clawThe Mister and I just happen to walk right across their dining room table, often interrupting a crawfish feast, as we head southward.

And, that sparrow spared by the bed of kleenix absolutely has to be a sign of good luck.

April 29, 2014, Update: The flock of wild parrots that are spied around Southtown periodically just spent about 10 minutes fluttering around a cypress tree outside my window. Spectacular. Wish they would stay, but I think even that temporal a siting is a good sign.

‘Nothing Happened’ a Good Omen

Writing historical fiction about a time prior to your birth is tricky.  I spend a lot of time rummaging through newspapers from the 19-teens, trying to understand as much as possible about what life was like during this period from which no reliable witnesses remain.  A few months ago, one of the characters in my never-ending novel borrowed several biting definitions from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary (1911) to compose a letter to a friend. 

So I loved it when Jake Silverstein started talking about his quixotic quest to discover what happened to Bierce during a recent reading from his “chronicle in fact and fiction,” Nothing Happened and Then It Did, at The Twig Book Shop.  This search for a sensational storyline, among others in his book with chapters alternating between fact and fiction, did not end as Silverstein had hoped.  During her introduction of Silverstein at The Twig, Jan Jarboe Russell described the book’s theme as “thwarted ambition,” even though its author, editor of Texas Monthly, seemingly would be unacquainted with failure.

Silverstein’s early approach to finding topics magazine editors would deem worthy of publishing was unusual:

One day I unfolded a map of Mexico and looked for a place to live…. I had the notion that it would be good, both financiallly and journalistically, to live someplace where there was nothing happening.  That way, when something did happen, there would be no one but me to write about it.

In Nothing Happened, the author wandered from one potential feature story to another, with none materializing as planned.  But his book itself stands as proof; the stories were there all along. 

There is always a story (Although readers of my blog might suggest I rethink this theory.).  The story might not meet a writer’s preconceptions, but it is there nevertheless, an omen as defined by Bierce:

OMEN, n. A sign that something will happen if nothing happens.

The story sometimes is merely dormant, waiting to be awakened by an author, who is, as Silverstein wrote in his introduction, willing to permit:

…the real to mingle with the imagined, as it does in the deserted labyrinth of the mind.

Silverstein’s first book is a good omen (as defined by Merriam-Webster not Bierce) of writings yet to come and for Texas Monthly, where he can bedevil reporters with assignments to uncover memorable stories where, at first glance, there are seemingly none.   Don’t let any of them remain untold, like Bierce’s death, “reductus in pulvis” (pulverem) (RIP as defined in The Devil’s Dictionary).

Note Added on June 1Interview with Jake Silverstein