The Birds of the Angel Luna

The Birds of the Angel Luna

In Short Story by Rachel Stewart Johnson

As a child, Virginia DeSanti believed that the backyard of her brother Huey’s house on Perry Street was a perfect square. She studied every part of it: the lawn interrupted by a concrete path down its middle, the Jonathan apple tree in one corner, the T-shaped clothesline. Virginia understood where the fence was sound, and she noted its imperfections: the knots and then the splinters. She saw the failures in the paint, the places where the color rose to its own rogue surface.

Young Virginia was barely older than her brother’s children, making her both the aunt and the playmate of her two nephews and one niece. The four of them harbored two important secrets. One, they found a dead finch one June. They kept the body hidden by rocks built against the side of a downspout. Two, there was an angel named Luna that visited the backyard. Luna was the caretaker of the backyard birds, both the living and the dead.

Virginia had been pleased when her only niece, Adele, was born. Virginia, seven years old and delighted by the news of a baby girl, made the new baby a bookmark. It was a lovely strip of Virginia’s best construction paper that she covered with the letters A-D-A-L-L.

A month later, Virginia started second grade and her father lost his job at the bank. Virginia imagined him guiding a sailboat down the South Platte River to a point around a corner that no one had ever seen. It led to a hilly green place with toucans and macaques and the prettiest zoo in the world. One day, Virginia guessed, her father would return from this place to retrieve her. He would arrive on a cold morning, and she would have to wear her winter coat and pack a breakfast in her school lunchbox. Her father would take her in a big warm truck back to the South Platte, where they’d board his sailboat and float to where the water ended.

With Virginia’s father gone, her mother, Nita, spent her days washing and treating her cast iron cookware. Nita rubbed the iron with oil and baked each piece with nothing inside it. One day, Virginia fetched her latest art project from school, a clay dodo bird, flat and smiling, and brought it to show her mother. “Lookit what I made,” she offered. Nita continued to scrub a frying pan.

“Look,” Virginia said, louder.

“What?”

“This is a dodo bird.”

“What,” Nita said. “You know what I–.” She didn’t look at her child. She stopped mid-sentence and scraped the pan with her thumbnail. Virginia looked at the bird and guided her finger around its edge. She waited for her mother to look up. She talked for the bird in a low whisper: lookit what you found, lookit what I found, look at look at me. Finally Virginia gave up and returned her creation to its preferred spot: resting on her mattress, the bird’s back propped against the nicked wood frame at the foot of her bed. She knew that Luna would commend her for her skill in finding such a bird, and then surely she would cradle the dodo with great care. Virginia smiled at the clay creature as she sat at its side.

Not long after that day, Nita began sending Virginia to Mass on Sunday mornings with Huey’s family. “You should go with them,” she announced one week.

“Us?” Virginia asked.

“Oh no no. No, women like me — no,” she said. “But Huey will take you. You should go with them.”

Indeed, the musky scent and the dark brick walls of Saint Scholastica’s gave Virginia comfort from the beginning. Without her mother near, Virginia felt like a grownup. Silent on a pew, she was free to imagine more details of the life her father was leading. She felt certain that he had discovered new regions of the zoo that had been unknown to even the animals. Surely he had befriended a jaguar; most likely not just a jaguar but a lemur, a goat, and that strangest and most wondrous animal of all, the coatimundi.

Years passed like this, with Virginia delivered by her mother every Sunday morning to Huey’s house. “Be good,” Nita would remind her daughter on the drive there. “No talking. And make sure your hands are clean. Don’t always sit right next to Uncle Huey. He probably wants his own kids right by him.” Nita always retreated back down the driveway quickly, before Huey and his wife began the process of urging all four children into the family’s Oldsmobile.

One morning when Adele was four years old, she interrupted Virginia’s thoughts as the priest read the gospel accordion do mark. “We pray Luna to play with us after,” Adele whispered. She touched her palms together and motioned for Virginia, then age eleven, to do the same.

“What do you mean?” Virginia said, bending over.

“Come on,” Adele instructed. She sat on the kneeler. “Come!” she demanded. “Go like this.” She put her hands together again. “Luna come and play, okay. Today. Amen.”

The family returned to Perry Street mid-morning. Rather than follow the rest inside, Virginia strode first to the path leading to the backyard. Alone in the sun while the family bantered indoors, Virginia stared at the seesaw waiting on the grass. She approached it and stood like a finch paused between hops. She followed the lines of the chipped paint, some exposed regions resembling jigsaw puzzle pieces. As she studied the lines, she thought of her mother sitting in the apartment they shared, probably listening to the television without looking at the screen. She thought of her father in the faraway place, and she pictured the ferns that lined the pathways around his zoo. The ferns had the ability to grow lush and green throughout the year, even when it snowed outside the zoo gates.

“Luna came!” Adele yelled through the screen door. Virginia turned.

“Oh. I know that already,” Virginia called. “She’s out here,” she said, nodding toward the seesaw.

“No, not there,” Adele frowned, shaking her head. “No, you didn’t know.” She shook her head again.

Virginia felt the smooth palm of her hand. “No, not there,” she aped. The single phrase transformed from words into sigh, from sigh into ice, dropping at Virginia’s feet. She fixed her eyes on her niece. “You’re wrong.”

As the years passed, the teenaged Virginia kept growing until she was taller than Huey’s wife, taller than her mother, and taller than most of her classmates, male and female. The same month she reached six feet in height, the zoo where her father lived closed its gates. The pool that once housed the pair of pink dolphins had already been emptied, its surface now cracked across numerous spans — seventeen large splits on closing day. The animals that remained simply left, never in twos, each one alone, wandering past the zoo’s perimeter in every direction there was. The animals dispersed without hurry, ignorant of their days as hunters and prey.

That was the semester that Virginia was enrolled in an art class in high school. On an especially dark Tuesday in January, a picture in one of the teacher’s coffee table books caught her eye. The image was an item called a reliquary, the caption explained. Virginia’s lips parted as she dropped her nose closer to the photo. Reliquary, reliquary, she rehearsed. For her next project, she decided then, she would create her own reliquary. Her chosen medium was the adobe-colored clay that was stored in wet butter-like chunks in the back of the room. As she sculpted, Virginia paid close attention to every detail. She decided on her own flourishes: every side was adorned with dozens of crosses. When she finished, she made certain to use the lovely word: “It’s a reliquary,” she explained to her teacher.

The fall after she graduated from high school, Virginia got a job at O’Riordan’s Church Goods. She helped as needed, instructed infrequently by the ancient and partially deaf proprietor Robert O’Riordan. At least nine inches shorter than Virginia, O’Riordan was a thin man who wore the same polyester-blend short-sleeved shirts and black trousers day after day. Virginia went to considerable effort to look busy. Every day, she dusted the display cases filled with cross necklaces and crystal rosaries, pendants of the Virgin Mary and pins of the Body of Christ. Over time, her most cherished items became the angels. There were ceramic angels with downward gazes and china angels peering toward the sky, all with peach-kissed cheeks. She never told anyone — especially not the languorous Mr. O’Riordan — her longtime secret: she was herself acquainted with an angel, and the angel’s name was Luna.

Virginia was still working at O’Riordan’s years later when Adele graduated from the local state university. That summer, Adele came to the apartment that Virginia, now almost thirty years old, still shared with her mother. Since the women hadn’t seen each other for several weeks, Virginia first took Adele to her bedroom and showed her the newest items from her growing collection of angels: angels painted onto wood, angel Christmas ornaments, child angels and angel pins. “See?” Virginia asked her niece, reaching a tiny gold angel across her bed.

“I have news,” Adele said, ignoring the object. “I’m engaged. To marry George.” Virginia’s eyes widened in response but she said nothing and disappeared down the hallway. When she returned, she handed Adele a book, Preparing for Marriage God’s Way. “Oh,” Adele said. “Why do you have this?”

“I brought it home from the store.”

“Really,” Adele said, not looking at Virginia, eyes on the back cover.

Virginia smiled. “Oh, the Mass will be so nice. I can check at Saint Scholastica’s for you on the dates.”

Adele faked a cough. “Well.” She looked at her aunt. “I think actually we’re going to have a garden wedding.”

Neither spoke. “I don’t think I understand,” Virginia finally said. “With Father Ralph?”

Adele only shook her head.

“Why?” Virginia asked. “We’ve been going to Saint Scholastica’s. You, and the boys, your parents. Me.”

“It’s, I know. It’s just — it didn’t feel quite right for me and George, you know. And stuff. It’s. That was actually a long time ago kind of.”

“Oh,” Virginia said.

“We’re thinking maybe the botanic gardens. They allow ceremonies there. And it’s really pretty there. Have you been?”

“No.”

The two sat. Adele tapped the book on her lap. “Why again do you have this?”

Virginia stood up and took the book from Adele’s lap. Without speaking, she hugged it close to her. Then she walked out of the room, stepped into the bathroom, and closed the door. When Virginia didn’t emerge after several minutes, Adele stood. She paused at the closed door but said nothing, and left.

After that news, the women did not speak for four months. Adele and George moved in together before their wedding, renting a duplex unit four miles east of Perry Street. Adele’s phone rang on a Sunday night long after the sun had set.

“I have found a dead body in the bathroom of the fellowship hall,” the voice said.

“Hello? What?” Adele said.

“It’s me. What do you do when you find a dead body?”

“Virginia? It’s…I… Are you okay?”

“Yes. I was here late. There’s a dead body in here.”

“What kind of dead body? I mean, is it okay? I mean, you know what I mean.”

“I don’t know.”

“Where are you now?”

“I am in the hallway. Could you — you could get a man to help lift the body? One of your brothers. Or one of my — my brother.”

“Virginia, maybe you should call the police. I’ll come. You’re at Scholastica’s?”

“Yes. But don’t come. But Adele?”

“What?”

“Luna is here.”

“What?” There was no response. “What do you mean?” Adele waited. “Virginia?”

Adele sent her father. Huey never asked many questions, a trait his only daughter had learned to appreciate. “Oh geez,” he said. “I’ll go now.” He followed this with: “Your mom says hi.”

He called Adele later that night. “Virginia is okay,” he told her. “You know she’s having a rough, or a tough, or, a rough time I guess a little bit you know these days. But now she’s at home with Grandma. She agreed to go to bed. She’ll — Grandma can handle this. Maybe there’s something somebody can do. You know doctors maybe.”

“Thank you, Dad.” Adele did not ask about a dead body.

Three weeks later, hearing nothing further, Adele decided to find Virginia at Mass. She discovered her aunt where they’d always sat as children, the same part of the same pew, and slid next to her. Virginia turned to Adele but said nothing. “You look nice,” Adele whispered. “I like that,” she added, pointing to Virginia’s blouse. After the service, Adele could only repeat what she had already said. “That’s a nice top you have on. You look nice. I’d better get going.”

“Pray for us,” Virginia said.

“What?” Adele asked, but Virginia had turned from her and begun to walk away.

Three months later, Nita died. The funeral was the first occasion in over a year that all of Huey’s children and his sister had been in the same room together. Huey smiled throughout the service, as was his habit. Virginia sat stone-faced throughout and spoke little. No one noticed that the only person who appeared to struggle with the experience was Adele, who rubbed and widened her eyes repeatedly. She caressed her temples. She paused after standing each time, as if waiting for her balance to return. Just a week later, she told George that the time had come to ask a doctor about her growing slate of symptoms. After two appointments and then a referral to a specialist, there was bad news: a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Huey was the one who called to tell Virginia what they’d learned.

“How can– ?” Virginia asked her brother. He interrupted her to talk about how the disease might go away on its own. “Oh,” Virginia breathed.

“But then it comes back.”

The next morning, Virginia crossed the front yard of Adele’s home. She touched the angel pin she wore, pushing an edge into the soft pad of her thumb.

“Oh, hi,” Adele said as she opened the front door. “Come in.” She dropped with effort onto the couch and patted the cushion next to her. “So.”

Virginia looked at a walker sitting next to the wall. “Are you well?” Virginia asked. “I mean, okay? Are you all right?” Adele opened her mouth to respond but Virginia continued. “I’m – so sorry. We’ll get through this.”

Adele nodded and smiled weakly.

“Are you…in, um? Hurting? Does it hurt?” Virginia asked.

Adele shook her head. “Not all the time. I don’t use that much either,” she said, motioning toward the walker.

“I would like to say a prayer,” Virginia said.

Adele winced when she exhaled. “Oh. Sure.”

Virginia closed her eyes and began to rock, moving her lips silently. Adele sat waiting but then interrupted before Virginia opened her eyes. “Okay thanks, amen,” Adele said. Virginia slouched and hung her head. “What’s wrong?” Adele asked.

“Adele,” Virginia said, her gaze distant.

“What?” Adele asked. She licked her lips. “What,” she repeated.

“Oh, I just. I wish you hadn’t done–.”

“Done what?” Adele hesitated and dropped her shoulders. “Oh I’m –. Yeah I’m–. You’re right. I’m not that patient these days. With everything that’s happened.”

“Mmm. I think. You know. I think it’s always been easy. So this feels strange for you. I bet.”

Adele frowned.

“It’s that,” Virginia continued, “you know. There was nothing that was mine. You had kids in your house, your brothers, and the backyard. I was always just visiting. You had a mom who — did things, and you had a dad. And you still do. And all the boys that came around. None of them even asked about me. Who would? She’s a hundred feet tall, they all thought.”

“Oh,” Adele said. “You had a lot of things.” Virginia stood up then. Adele raised one hand toward her. “No, don’t,” she said. “Come on. I’m sorry,” she continued. “Here, sit. Please.”

Virginia obeyed. She clasped her hands together. “You even had — her,” she said.

“Who?”

“You know what I–,” Virginia said. She didn’t look at her niece. She stopped mid-sentence and instead rubbed her thumb and forefinger together. The action made no sound. Finally she broke the silence. “I. I actually should go,” she said. “I just realized. I should go.”

Virginia walked to the front door. When she opened it to the cold air outside, she stood motionless. Without turning toward Adele, she spoke. “You even made Luna yours.” Then she stepped onto the porch. Before she took a second step, she turned back toward the house and leaned inside. “But I think she can help. Us,” she said, and then she turned around a final time. She stepped from the patio straight onto the frozen grass. Her steps, with just the barest friction beneath them, were as faint as the sound of flight, as faint as two wings fleeing a falconer. As Virginia continued toward the sidewalk, the great bird broke free, its wings shocked by their reach.

Adele’s phone rang that night after she had gone to bed. She tried to lift from her pillow but feared a slicing sting toward her arms, so she summoned George. She was aware of her fiancé’s speaking but was seduced away from his words by her sleepiness.

“Could you just talk to her for a minute? She’s insisting,” George said.

“It’s Virginia?” Adele murmured.

“Yeah I’m pretty sure,” George said.

“What?” Adele let out a deliberate sigh. “I can’t—,” she whispered. “Help me up.”

George propped a pillow behind her back. Then Adele lifted the phone to her head. “Hello.”

“I have been thinking about your pain.”

“What?” Adele’s body had consented to her upright posture but her eyes raged. She stared at her legs under a blanket in the darkness, a mountain peak of broken terrain. “I was in bed,” she said. “Is this–? What do you mean?”

“Are you tired?”

“I’m not…that tired. But.”

“No? Oh. Good.” The voice was lifting away.

“Just. Sometimes I need to lie down I guess.”

“Oh. I think we have done everything you need, she and I.”

Adele raised her hand to her forehead. “I’ll be okay. It’s all right.”

“You must always take care of the birds,” the angel Luna said then.

Adele bent her knees further beneath her blanket and the ravines of her black mountain shifted. “You came here,” Adele quaked, her voice breaking. The mountain grew a second peak, and a shelter of backyard stones formed. The stone would be speckled, Adele remembered. Within the gaps, where the rocks were piled, one could peer in and see the dead finch. By now there would barely be bones. “Please. Not for me. For Virginia,” Adele finished. She dropped the phone. She pulled the mountain near her chest then, the geography of this distance once again painless.

About the Author

Rachel Stewart Johnson

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My short fiction was featured this week on Litro Magazine, and will appear in the June issue of Pithead Chapel. You’ll also find my fiction in Gravel, pif Magazine, District Lit, Literary Mama, and elsewhere. Nonfiction has appeared recently in elephant journal, Thought Catalog, San Diego Free Press, and Thrive Global. My short story, “The Disappearance of Jimbo Kite,” was nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize.