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A flicker has wings

''Look at him - unfit to walk flat-footed on this earth!'' Cousin Henry points out the window through the rain at the redheaded woodpecker - no, it's a red-shouldered flicker - clutching the edge of the garden table where my sixteen-year-old Alexander had sprinkled seeds.

Greedily the flicker hangs awkwardly onto the table edge, trying to beak his feast sideways in the rain. His feet are made for climbing up tree trunks. His beak isn't fit for seed; it works best drilling deadwood after bugs. But this winter has been cold, he has returned too soon to this grove, snow is mixing with rain, now he must somehow adapt to our offerings.

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Solipsistically speaking, I know I would get dizzy shinnying up that chestnut oak and hammering vertiginous bark for bugs. Like the flicker, I have learned to clutch edges and ledges, vertical, horizontal and diagonal.

''But you must learn not to hang onto people, even out of love,'' Cousin Henry has admonished me, especially when I shout after Alexander, ''Did you have enough lunch? Take a sandwich! Where's your jacket? Don't forget the life preservers!''

''Stop mothering him so much,'' Cousin Henry advises.

And whenever Cousin Henry leaves, it seems I try inadvertently to restrain him also with my love: ''Would you like to come back for supper tonight? Tomorrow? I should mend your shirt. I do wish we could - ''

''Loving is letting go.'' The torn shirt goes on over his sweater.

''Is feeding then hanging on? That flicker - ''

''The flicker has wings.''

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And sure enough the flicker flies off, scuttles up the rough bark of a stump, drums the bark, then returns to vary his diet at our garden table again.

I admire his adaptability. Perhaps he will teach me his equilibrium. For yes, I am always hanging on, greedy for more feasts of life. I cling to the wet edge of everything. So much to do, to want -

''Be wishless,'' Cousin Henry insists. ''As the Germans say: wunchlos.'' He prepares for a run in the rain.

Wishless? Someday, Cousin Henry. Maybe. A nice goal, but for later. For now, since I suppose I cannot yet swallow the whole world, I still want to nibble as much as I possibly can. I would climb straight up trees, I would fly -

''Meanwhile,'' says Cousin Henry, ''come run with me in the rain. . . . But do wear my warm cap - and better shoes for the mud.''

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