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Sign language

Walking the frozen towpath on New Year's afternoon I find on dried grass beside the canal a path of swan feathers. Whistling swan feathers crossed in an irregular V, pointing north by norheast.

Cousin Henry has jogged ahead, silver curls bouncing around his pate, his huge hands pumping the air as if to extract more energy from the winds, his long legs carrying him too fast for him to have noticed the feathers.

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His son, my six-foot-tall "little cousin," who until now has been a stranger to me (and sometimes, I suspect, to himself), is walking beside me. He is discussing astrophysics, Shakespeare, Zen, and other matters of fascination to this particular 16-year- old.

"These, on this day, must be a symbol," I tell him, picking up the swan feathers.

"Of what?" he asks, eagerly entering my game.

"I don't know."

He is disappointed. I want to invent a metaphor, but he would not be fooled. I replace the strayed feathers on their cushion of grasses, V-aimed as before.

We continue along the towpath in silence. Three pairs of ordinary ducks float in the half-drained canal, speechless in the cold.

Later, upriver, caught by fall floods in a wisp of islet, one end bobbing in platinum waves, is a wooden ladder. Meant to lead up or down, it now bounces horizontal. A see- saw for a waste sprite. We try to milk it of whatever symbolism. It remains enigmatic.

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Cyclists and hikes pass us or we overtake them. Stragglers from a Sierra Club expedition look for birds or squirrels or perhaps stray legislators to lobby. No one has noted a whistling swan.

When we jog to catch up with Cousin Henry, we find he has met an athletic senator of his acquaintance, and they are settling the world's problems handsomely as they hike along. Cousin Henry gives us a blow-by-blow account of the economic future of the globe. His long arms saw the air as if he were playing his beloved violin. He asks us rhetorical questions about the state of the ship of state, the stables of candidate, the Meaning Of It All.

We have no answers, although we inform him of the swan feathers. He isn't sure how they will fit in with the balance of trade, the oil situation, or the price of gold. He and the senator discuss economic and other indicators until the icy air is misty with meanings.

My "little cousin" and I stop to examine an abandoned wren's nest for its portents . . ..

The senator jogs off, but a foreign ambassador of Cousin Henry's circles is hiking toward us. We change course, as it is getting cold and time to turn homeward. Cousin Henry and the ambassador are already deep in the balkanization of the Balkans. My "little cousin" and I tag beside, but they are striding along as quickly as they talk, both at once, and other hikers and cyclists keep cutting through our ranks, and then we stop to examine an inexplicable sprig of forsythia. Gradually, we drop behind them.

As the chill sun shuffles behind darkening hills on the Virginia shore, the boy remarks, "Of course my father does not know me."

His words form calligraphs of frost in the air.

Nor is there much I can say. What 16- year-old believes his parents reallym understand him? What parents do? And this 16- year-old is off in his own orbits, his father in others. Each is a dazzling meteor, hurtling along -- who knows where?

Who knows anything? Maybe eventually these two will intersect. For now all I can argue is, "At least he loves you."

The boy nods. He already knows that.

I in turn admit I do not know if Cousin Henry loves me. I do not look over at the boy to see if he nods again or makes any sign. Cousin Henry certanly knows me. He does not love lightly. I say I do not if Cousin Henry will take off soon again, as is his wont, to the ends of the earth, or if he will continue to live and write his books close to us. What will this new year bring us, together or apart?

The homeward path is chilly and dim. My little cousin and I walk close together, past the potentially portentous wren's nest, the laconic ladder, the silent swan feathers. Here my little cousin bends to pick them up, examines them.

"White on white . . .. As if to underscore fidelity . . .."

I wonder where he has found that phrase. He replaces the feathers in their original north-by-northeast V.

We run to catch up with Cousin Henry, who is still conversing brilliantly with the equally loquacious diplomat. They have proceeded from the Balkans eastward across Azerbaijan through Nepal and Bangladesh, and are now somewhere in Tibet.

They don't even know that we are behind them. My little cousin raises his finger to his lips and smiles: it is now a game to see how long we can tail them without their knowing. We are shadows, we are spies, he is indisputably, 16, perhaps I am, too.

No, we cannot be sure that Cousin Henry knows or loves us. We have only our love to offer. Perhaps he also questions if we really know and love him?

But we know: neither all our brilliances, lonely or combined, nor signs left by design or chance will necessarily explain what is, what was, or where anything will lead.

We have only faith.

"Hey, aren't you two cold?" Cousin Henry asks, then looks over his shoulder. He pauses to say goodbye to the ambassador, and turns to us again.

"Come on, I'll race you both to the road -- last one has to wash tonight's dishes!"

His son quickly outdistances us, and somehow Cousin Henry a lso tricks me into passing him at the last minute, too.

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