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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Death of the White Heron

By Maurice Thompson (1844–1901)

[Born in Faifield, Ind., 1844. Died in Crawfordsville, Ind., 1901. From Songs of Fair Weather. 1883.]

I PULLED my boat with even sweep

Across light shoals and eddies deep,

Tracking the currents of the lake

From lettuce raft to weedy brake.

Across a pool death-still and dim

I saw a monster reptile swim,

And caught, far off and quickly gone,

The delicate outlines of a fawn.

Above the marshy islands flew

The green teal and the swift curlew;

The rail and dunlin drew the hem

Of lily-bonnets over them;

I saw the tufted wood-duck pass

Between the wisps of water-grass.

All round the gunwales and across

I draped my boat with Spanish moss,

And, lightly drawn from head to knee,

I hung gay air-plants over me;

Then, lurking like a savage thing

Crouching for a treacherous spring,

I stood in motionless suspense

Among the rushes green and dense.

I kept my bow half-drawn, a shaft

Set straight across the velvet haft.

Alert and vigilant, I stood

Scanning the lake, the sky, the wood.

I heard a murmur soft and sad

From water-weed to lily-pad,

And from the frondous pine did ring

The hammer of the golden-wing.

On old drift-logs the bitterns stood

Dreaming above the silent flood;

The water-turkey eyed my boat,

The hideous snake-bird coiled its throat,

And birds whose plumage shone like flame—

Wild things grown suddenly, strangely tame—

Lit near me; but I heeded not:

They could not tempt me to a shot.

Grown tired at length, I bent the oars

By grassy brinks and shady shores,

Through labyrinths and mysteries

Mid dusky cypress stems and knees,

Until I readied a spot I knew,

Over which each day the herons flew.

I heard a whisper sweet and keen

Flow through the fringe of rushes green,

The water saying some light thing,

The rushes gayly answering.

The wind drew faintly from the south,

Like breath blown from a sleeper’s mouth,

And down its current sailing low

Came a lone heron white as snow.

He cleft with grandly spreading wing

The hazy sunshine of the spring;

Through graceful curves he swept above

The gloomy moss-hung cypress grove;

Then gliding down a long incline,

He flashed his golden eyes on mine.

Half-turned he poised himself in air;

The prize was great, the mark was fair!

I raised my bow, and steadily drew

The silken string until I knew

My trusty arrow’s barbed point

Lay on my left forefinger joint—

Until I felt the feather seek

My ear, swift-drawn across my cheek:

Then from my fingers leapt the string

With sharp recoil and deadly ring,

Closed by a sibilant sound so shrill

It made the very water thrill,—

Like twenty serpents bound together,

Hissed the flying arrow’s feather!

A thud, a puff, a feathery ring,

A quick collapse, a quivering—

A whirl, a headlong downward dash,

A heavy fall, a sullen plash,

And like white foam, or giant flake

Of snow, he lay upon the lake!

And of his death the rail was glad,

Strutting upon a lily-pad;

The jaunty wood-duck smiled and bowed;

The belted kingfisher laughed aloud,

Making the solemn bittern stir

Like a half-wakened slumberer;

And rasping notes of joy were heard

From gallinule and crying-bird,

The while with trebled noise did ring

The hammer of the golden-wing!

Cypress Lake, Florida.