photo by Arthur Morris

The smoke was back. There it was, off in the distance, this time over a field. It had moved. And, in another second, gone.

This week I had the lonely task of driving I-40 east from Memphis to Little Rock, a long, straight, and empty highway that stretches away from the Mississippi River. There, the land is flat. The road is simple. The sight lines afford views north and south until the tree lines interrupt them.

It’s empty here, mostly farmland, and the only elevations noticeable are the berms built up to allow for an overpass. Water collects in simple reservoirs for irrigation.

Ahead of my rental Chevrolet, pointed straight until it found the hills of Little Rock, I saw on the horizon what I thought at first must be a cloud–or perhaps, more accurately, a puff–of dark smoke. It didn’t act like smoke, though, given how it blew sideways across the interstate. The speed wasn’t right. Something was off.

Then, just as I blinked, the entire cloud disappeared. I thought I was in trouble, imagining things or worse, hallucinating, while driving out in the middle of nowhere. Immediately I tried to think back to what time I woke up that morning in Memphis, how much sleep I’d had, whether it was possible I was dreaming–

The smoke was back. There it was, off in the distance, this time over a field. It had moved. And, in another second, gone.

I drove further, my mind entirely unsure of whether I was even in the car. Suddenly, there they were: a stream of blackbirds–no, a tunnel of blackbirds–one long snaking tube of them flying in uneven procession over the southern shoulder of the road, over the median and over me, and along the field on the northern side. When they paused, spread their wings, and turned one side or another, their slender bodies suddenly occupied thrice the area. From far away, it looked like the disappearing smoke. Up closer, they looked like the scales of an endless snake.

It reminded me of the time I was at a professional sporting event and a stealth bomber flew over the stadium at the conclusion of the national anthem. The massive plane appeared on the horizon as a flat line; then as someone undoubtedly radioed the pilot to say the singer was approaching the Land of the Free, he banked suddenly, his triangular death geometry filling the sky with foreboding gloom, two plumes of exhaust trailing him as his jets roared toward us. Our chests shook with the roar of him screaming overhead. I couldn’t help but think of the sheer terror such a sight would cause in live battle.

Back on the highway there were no traces of terror. The long procession of blackbirds extended for nearly a mile, thousands, millions of them in a thick belt crossing this way and that. Finally I found the end, where they were taking flight from an empty field, as if they were coming out of the ground like a natural spring, like rope uncoiling as it was being towed upward into the sky by God.

There are days when, unpredictably, I feel too burdened by my own deficiencies in life. That day in the middle of Arkansas could have been one of them. The birds came along, though, and the truckers and pick-up drivers and I could only stare and mutter some words of amazement, something utterly inadequate, and I didn’t stop to think how ridiculous I sounded.

Instead I only whispered Thank You, Thank You, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, over and over and over and over, one for each pair of wings that soared over the barren landscape. Thank you.