When we were young, my brother Jim once tried to mail a pigeon – a live pigeon, friends – to his girlfriend. There it is. A week or two before school resumed for what was to be his junior year, he had captured it under a laundry basket in an alley behind our house near where the garbage cans dwelt at the rear of the garage. Over much pecking and scratching, Jim had managed to band a love note around one of its legs, and had pinned it down in an empty Converse All Stars shoe box rummaged out of a collection of such boxes that our mother stored in the attic of our big wood-frame house on Walnut Street just in case. (“Keep that,” she would say of any container short of refrigerator size, “just in case.”) Surprisingly enough, the bird quieted down once the lid was on. You could hear its claws clicking on the boxboard but its mad flailing stopped. Maybe it thought it was home or at least in some safe haven, a Pigeon Motel or Traveler’s Rest or halfway house. My brother wrapped the box in the brown paper of a deconstructed grocery bag, poked air holes through the bottom and addressed it to Susie, the girlfriend, who lived in the next town south of us. I know all this because, in this script, I was cast as the stooge.
Not that brother James had called over to where I was sprawled with a book on the family room floor, “Hey, Ted, we need a stooge over here.” But I suspect he knew from the start that a fat kid with thick glasses might have a better chance of actually getting the pigeon posted than anyone who appeared to have functioning brain cells. But, friends, the Postal Service does not fool easily. When I set the box on the polished wood counter, there was a muffled cooing and scratching.
“What’s in that?” barked the clerk, a red-faced man with buzz cut hair that stood straight up like an army at attention.
“A pigeon.” I tried to say this matter-of-factly, as if I mailed pigeons all the time.
“A what?” His tone would exactly define the word incredulous.
I licked my lips, and attempted an earnest, stupid look, which should have been easy in the circumstances. “A pigeon. You know, a bird.”
“I know what a pigeon is. You can’t mail it.” His face was a half shade redder now.
“Because a half-dozen regulations say so!” He was shouting. Apparently I had carried stupid too far. “Get out of here, kid.”
I took the cooing box and left. So much for young love.
But perhaps it was just as well. Imagine the possible outcomes had I managed to slip the box by the clerk. Very likely the bird would have succumbed to crushing or suffocation in a back-room bin at the post office or in a canvas bag in the trailer of a truck on the road. How lovely for Susie to open in the privacy of her boudoir a box containing a dead pigeon, its head stiffened into a permanent droop.
Or suppose that it had – miraculously - lived? Can you envision the moment when the lid comes off? The thrashing bird rising terrified into the air of Susie’s pink (as I picture it) bedroom, dropping feathers and shit as its wings whip the air – not what one would call romantic, even on a bad day.
But as it was, the box was not mailed. Jim and Susie broke up later that year. He dated others, went to college, met a girl in Rome while on an exchange year there, married her, moved, raised two sons, and is yet her husband now, today, twelve thousand seven hundred ninety-five days later. Such commitment is the stuff of real romance as much as we might prefer the tragic bond or the whimsical gesture.
Not that such gestures are without effect. Consider four moments. The first is immediate. Ted, a character now and not a narrator, embarrassed and vaguely angry, leaves the hostile factotum with his bristling hair, leaves the dark cool air of the post office and its smell of polished wood, exits with the box under his left arm into the bright sunshine of an Illinois August Saturday, its air thickly suffused with heat and humidity. At the curb, his brother waits in their father’s car, a light green Volkswagen bug. Ted stops a foot or two from the open passenger window.
“What happened?” Jim asks.
“They wouldn’t mail it.” The younger boy feels his glasses begin to slide down his sweaty nose.
Ted would like to scream, because it’s against the rules, you moron! Instead, he simply shrugs and pushes his glasses back up.
“Get in I’ll take you home.”
“I’ll walk.” This is as close to defiance as he has ever gotten, and he feels a certain exhilaration, like the moment you slide off a tree limb on a rope swing imagining you are a pirate hurtling towards a prize.
“Mom’s not going to like you walking home.”
Ted wavers a bit but does not move.
“Okay if that’s what you want.” Jim puts the bug in gear and chugs it up the street.
Ted does not know what he wants. He is twelve, the pudgy son in a thin family, whose extreme nearsightedness has affected his eye-hand coordination and balance and rendered him hopeless in any sport. He is booky and smart and all the more isolated by the fact that all the other smart kids in his class are girls. He wants to be like everyone else. He wants to be special. The VW has disappeared around a corner. If he was a swinging pirate a moment ago, now he is a lumpy kid swaying in uncertainty with a pigeon in a shoebox in his hand.
Home is over a mile away. Before he is halfway there, Ted’s shirt is wet with perspiration and sticking to him front and back. Stopping by the yellow brick church at the corner of Walnut and English streets, he pushes his glasses up again and realizes that he does not want to go back. It’s hot and he has been had again and he does not want to see his brother or explain to his mother where he has been. Instead of crossing English, he turns left and heads for the park, an even longer walk but one that will end, he hopes, in a shadowed spot where no one will know him.
And so it is. The park is nearly empty when he arrives. It is too early for Saturday picnickers and too hot for tennis. The concession stand will not be open for an hour or two yet nor will the train rides around the park’s perimeter that are a highlight for the under five set. A few of the shady benches are occupied by old people reading newspapers. A young couple, perhaps Jim’s age, are tossing a Frisbee near the browned stubble of the football field. A young man, younger than Ted’s dad at any rate, pushes a pig-tailed girl on a swing. Other than these four and Ted no one is there.
Ted finds a grassy spot in the shade of a giant oak twenty yards north of the picnic pavilion and the same distance east of the playground. As he sits and sets the box down, the bird coos and scratches again. Stupid pigeon, he thinks, aimlessly kicking at the parcel and missing. But then he begins to wonder what the bird is doing. Is it afraid? Lonely? Would it, a pigeon in a box, feel used? Embarrassed? He reaches for the box, lifts it carefully, begins to pull at the tape and brown paper wrapping. In a moment or two it’s off and the box is resting in his lap.
Ted takes a deep breath and lifts one end of the Converse shoebox lid an inch and a half. The bird turns its head and looks at him with a red eye that seems perfectly round. Slowly Ted works his right hand under the box lid and brings it down as gently as he can on the bird’s back. It shudders but, to his surprise, does not struggle. With his left hand, he lifts the lid away and sets it in the grass, yet the bird remains still. Carefully now, he cradles it in both hands, his thumbs just above the bird’s wings, his fingers encircling its breast.
The bird is beautiful. Now close up, Ted sees that its plumage, which seemed simply grey from even a short distance, covers a spectrum of subtle hues, ranging from white at the crown of its head, through overlapping shades of slate and brown and blue down across its wings and back, to something approaching purple on its tail feathers. Beneath his fingertips he feels the rapid beat of the pigeon’s heart and feels his own heartbeat quicken in response. He wishes he could keep the bird forever, wishes he could be it, wishes he was beautiful and could fly. Ted whispers, “No box for you,” and lets the bird go.
It beats its wings and rises into the air, four, eight, a dozen feet, then glides down to the ground again, landing in the same pool of shade that Ted sits in, strutting and eyeing him with its perfectly round eye. Will it come back? Considering this, Ted reaches for the shoebox, sees that some of the unpopped popcorn kernels that his brother had scattered in it are still there (together with the note and a rubber band – now broken – that had affixed it to the pigeon’s leg). Picking up two of the seeds he tosses them into the space between him and the bird, and is delighted to see it find first one and then the other. He finds another, holds it up between the thumb and index finger of his right hand, then lays it on the palm of his flattened left. The pigeon hops twice, then rises again, takes the kernel without landing, then coasts pack to the grass a yard or two away. The third time, the bird lands on his hand and stays there, snatching the kernels and tickling his palm with its scratchy feet. Ted holds his breath and watches the bird turning at the end of his outstretched arm. It remains there until the pig-tailed girl from the swing runs over, but even then when it flies, it lights nearby.
“Do it again,” the girl, perhaps six, calls excitedly to him.
“Shhhh.” Ted drops two more kernels onto his palm. The girl’s father comes up quietly behind her. The bird returns, takes the corn, and again stays there.
“Can you do it, Daddy?”
“No,” the man says. “He’s good with birds.”
Ted feeds the bird until the corn runs out. By the time it’s gone, the Frisbee couple has stopped to watch from a distance. Not until an old woman walking a cocker spaniel is tugged through the pavilion in its direction does the pigeon fly away. Ted does not care. He is good with birds.
Field trip, mid-September, sophomore year, Starved Rock State Park. It is supposed to be a bonding experience for the class, but Ted feels like an alien has captured him and so cannot even bond with himself, much less anyone else. In fourteen months, he has grown six inches taller and gained no weight. He has gone from round, soft kid to gawky beanpole without knowing how. Not certain quite where his feet are in space, he trips often. His clothes generally do not fit right. (What garment maker produces a thirty waist, thirty-six inseam pair of pants?) His glasses seem too small for the nose they perch on now, which occupies more of his face than before and angles slightly to the right since his brother broke it in a front-yard wrestling match. Ted keeps to himself as much as he can, hoping no one will notice him until his alien encounter ends.
On the field trip, Ted hangs back as the coach unloads and his classmates, push, shove, and shout in their usual way before they and the chaperones disperse in clumps towards a picnic area to the left, lugging coolers and brown paper lunch sacks. When they’re mostly off the asphalt, Ted jogs quickly rightwards toward a carved sign at the corner of the parking lot that directs the pedestrian to the Lodge, to the River Trail, and to Starved Rock itself.
Checking first to see that no one is watching, he disappears into the trees.
Which are mostly oaks, he notes, with some cedars mixed in, as well as an occasional white pine. Not good for birds, at least not right here where the foliage is interlocking and dense. But the shade feels good, and he is glad to be alone even though he knows he’ll be in trouble if anyone notices he’s gone. Chances are that no one will. He knows that among his self-absorbed and cool-obsessed contemporaries he is as invisible as a ghost unless he literally stumbles into someone. This seems strange at times, as though he is somehow not quite real, but here among the trees he enjoys the sensation of transparency, the sense that he could walk right through the sandstone bluff ahead of him without disturbing a single molecule of its structure.
That structure, Ted discovers, is the actual Starved Rock for which the park is named. A trail sign yields this information and he follows the arrow that leads him up, away from the lodge and farther away from his class. He works his way up the steps and inclines of the trail and notices that the trees are changing. Still oaks but fewer of them, more open space, and other trees mixed in as well. On top of the rock, the canopy suddenly opens itself to a view of the wide river and to the forests and fields beyond it, and Ted, feeling bigger than he ever has, is somehow pulled to the edge where a low rail is all that separates him from the whole world, where his arms raise themselves from his sides, where a shout begins to form inside him.
“Ted?” He turns to see a girl on a bench he had not noticed, tucked behind a hickory tree. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing.” The girl is Marilynne Sims. She is blond and slim. She is popular. She has been crying. She is not someone to whom Ted speaks except in class discussion and then only rarely, but he finds himself asking, “Are you all right?”
“Yes!” she answers fiercely. “I’m fine.”
Ted feels a blush rising but with it resistance to her tone. He speaks flatly:
“That’s obviously not true, Marilynne.”
“Yeah? Why should you care, anyway?” She stands up and steps toward him, her arms folded in front of her.
Ted is confused. Why shouldn’t he care? Before he can respond, however, something small and fast and blue whizzes between them.
“Jesus!” Marilynne literally jumps. “What was that?”
Ted’s eyes have followed it and catch it now on the limb of a small, gnarled tree near the bluff. “It’s an indigo bunting. See it there? Listen?”
The bird hops this way and that on the limb and begins to sing, four clear doubled notes, repeated twice.
“It’s beautiful,” Marilynne says.
Ted indicates silence with a finger to his lips, sets his bag on the bench, and carefully removes a sandwich. With the fingertips of his right hand he crumbles some breadcrumbs into his left, and lifts it up and out in front of him while moving slowly and soundlessly across the sandstone of the bluff. He stops and waits at the edge near the tree where the bunting sits, mindful of the opening space below him and the river moving past and the breadth of the autumn sky.
There is no time. He stands still, arm outstretched, for what could be a minute or an hour, and there is no sound save the bird’s song accompanied by the breeze. At last the bright blue bird descends, takes some of the bread, and rises to the branch. Ted hears Marilynne’s gasp of surprise behind him; he raises his right hand next to his left and waits. The bird comes down again, and now Ted brings his hands slowly together around it as if folding them for prayer.
It flutters briefly but then quiets itself, its head turning back and forth like a mute mendicant’s wordless beseeching of a passing crowd. Not to worry, Ted says, speaking with his mind rather than his lips. You will get what you pray for. He turns to Marilynne, holding the bunting at chest height.
“How did you do that?” She touches the captive bird softly with the tip of her right index finger.
Ted shrugs. “It’s just something I can do. I’m good with birds.” Now he raises the bunting slowly toward his face, nuzzles the crown of its head with the end of his nose, and opens his hands as he says softly, “No box for you.” The bird hops twice on his palm before it flies off, under the branches, over the cliff, over the river, disappearing into the blue sky.
“Why did you say that?”
Ted shrugs again, aware that Marilynne is standing quite close to him, which is at once alarming and nice. “I say that to all of them.”
“But what does it mean?”
Her eyes, nearly as blue as the bunting’s feathers, are only inches away from his. He looks down and away, notices her sleeveless top, the freckles of her left shoulder. “I guess that they aren’t meant to be caught. Stuck in a life that someone else made for them.”
Marilynne is silent. When Ted looks up again her blue eyes are still fixed on his face. “Why were you crying?” he asks.
She does not answer. Her eyes drop, then come back up, wet now, searching like the bunting’s. His hands are dangling at his sides but Ted can almost feel her heartbeat in his fingertips, her weight on his palm. He says, “You’re stuck, too, aren’t you?”
She nods. “How did you know that?”
“I don’t know.” Ted feels himself smile a little. “Maybe everybody’s stuck.”
Marilynne’s eyes search his for a moment longer before she walks to the edge of the cliff, looking out into the sky into which the bunting had disappeared.
She speaks without turning. “When we were on the bus, you know, in the parking lot, Steve wanted . . . like” Steve, Ted knows, is Steve Burke, her boyfriend. “ . . . to, um, like make out . . . but I didn’t want to . . . right there with everyone . . . and he grabbed me . . . like he owned me or something . . . and called me a dumb piece of snatch.”
She says no more. Her head is down. Ted can hear her quietly sobbing. He has no idea what to do. He steps closer but stops a few feet away as if afraid that the stone he walks on will crumble if he moves too close. “Steve is an asshole,” he says. “Don’t be crying because that idiot said something.”
She turns and moves a half step nearer, eyes hot and jaw set, shoves him suddenly with both hands, shouts angrily. “I’m not crying because he said it, stupid. I’m crying because . . . because it’s true.”
Ted reflexively puts his hands up, catches her wrists when she reaches to shove again, holds them tightly. “HEY!” he shouts. “Hey. I am not the bad guy. And you don’t really believe that, anyway, do you?”
“YES!” Marilynne tries to shake loose but cannot. “That’s all anyone thinks when they see me.”
Her eyes are still smoldering but her mouth has softened now, her lower lip quivering like a frightened child’s. Ted watches for a moment, catches a glance from her, feels himself begin to smile, then laugh.
“You think this is FUNNY?” She jerks free and takes a step back.
“No. But your nose is running.” Ted is still chuckling. “And what do you think people are going see if you never let them see anything else?”
Marilynne reflexively wipes her nose with the back of her hand then finds herself staring at the glistening streak that trails there. Ted is laughing again and for a moment she would like nothing better than to slap him but then she’s caught the laughter, too, lets it roll, says between gasps, “Now what am I going to do with it?” And the thin boy with glasses takes her hand gently and slides the back of it across his own shirt.
And somehow this gesture quiets her, calms something inside her the way a feverish child is calmed by a mother’s hand on her brow. Something is different, something absent has returned, something from before the time her breasts and hips came and the boys – Steve and the ones before him with their smiles and insistent hands – had wanted to touch her. She gives his hand a soft squeeze, asks, “What do you see when you look at me?”
“What will you let me see?”
She holds onto his hand and examines it, first the back, then the palm as if trying to read her own future there. Glancing up, then down again, she wonders what she can say; she shakes her head, then quietly speaks, “I like peanut butter cookies. And science.”
“So you’re going to be the chief chemist in the Pillsbury test kitchen?”
Marilynne laughs. “Maybe. What about you?”
The boy shrugs, tips his head, warily catches her eye. “Everyone says I should be a lawyer because I’m good at arguing.”
Everyone says, she thinks, and knows exactly how he feels. She knows her reply is as much for herself as for him. “You can’t live where everyone says. Only where you really are.”
Ted’s voice is hesitant at first, then more confident. “I like . . . I want . . . uh . . . I’m going to be a writer.”
Now Marilynne clasps his hand between both of hers, raises them to shoulder level, opens them slowly so that his fingers are resting free on her palm.
“No box for you,” she says.
“Docteur, elle prepare a mourir.” The speaker is a very black woman in a very white habit, a young nun in a clinic on the outskirts of Jacmel, a seaside town in Haiti. She is speaking about a very old and very black woman with grey-white hair whose chest barely moves under a starched white sheet. She is speaking to a very tanned woman with untamed blond hair, a doctor in green scrubs, Mari Sims.
“Oui,” the doctor says, thinking, of course she’s preparing to die. All of them were preparing to die. There was no medicine, only dirty water, and little food except on the rare days a truck came from Port au Prince. What else could they prepare for? Often it seemed that her clinic served, at least for her older patients, more as a hospice than as a place of healing. But there was dignity in their dying, and that was something.
And maybe some for her, too. The mess her life in Chicago had become was anything but dignified – hurried visits with her patients, tense meetings with the divorce lawyer, meals on the run when there were meals at all, an apartment where stacks of dishes grew in the sink and stacks of paper grew everywhere else. Never time to relax, to think, to care – no time and no one to talk to.
Until Ted. She hadn’t seen him since high school, had run into him in Chicago in a cluster of travelers waiting to board a jet outbound to Miami where her now retired widowed mother lived in a colony of old people growing older. A tap on her shoulder; turning to a tall man in a corduroy jacket with a blue canvas briefcase slung over his shoulder, something vaguely familiar about his face, asking, “Marilynne?”
No one had called her that for years. “Yes?”
“Ted – Ted O’Connell? We were in school together.”
“Oh my God! Ted!”
The Ted she remembered – who had remained a friend after the meeting on the rock - was rail skinny and a bit unsure of himself even as a senior. The man in front of her was thin, yes, but with shoulders that hadn’t been there before and an air of confidence that was new as well, and no glasses now. They had exchanged the usual pleasantries in line – what you do, where you live, who you talked to back home lately – and Ted had wangled a seat exchange with the woman next to Mari, his aisle farther forward for the middle in Mari’s row.
“So, Doctor Sims, huh? Who saw that coming?” Ted said as they taxied out towards the runway.
“Nobody, I guess. But you get a share of the blame.”
“Me?” Ted’s dark eyebrows arched. “Can’t think why that’d be true.”
“You. We were lab partners once in biology, dissecting frogs, I think, and I was doing the giggling, ‘oh gross’ thing and you got kinda pissed and told me to take myself seriously for once and stop acting like a silly girl.”
“Harsh. No wonder I never got a date with you.”
“It was harsh, and it made me mad. But it was true, too. And that lab was the first “A” I ever got in anything in high school, and I liked the way it felt.” Mari watched him half smile at this, and liked the way that felt, too. “And maybe the reason you never got a date with me is that you never asked.”
“So that’s the way it works. Who knew?” Ted looked away for a minute and fussed with his seat belt and Mari knew he was returning to that adolescent self, uncertain and trying to find his way. After a moment, as the plane was beginning its take-off, he looked up again and surprised her with a question. “So is it a good life?”
“Well, that’s, um . . .” She felt the plane wobble slightly as it lifted into the air, thought of a blue bird landing on an open palm, decided without deciding to speak the truth. “No, not really.”
And that exchange had framed the conversation for the three-hour flight. Ted listened while Mari described her assembly line visits with patients, the wrangling with insurance bureaucracies, the days with not a minute to spare and no room to breathe, her mother’s gradual decline, the emotional free fall when her husband told her he’d found someone else. “Makes you believe in karma,” she said, “to be rejected like that after all the rejecting I did in high school.”
Ted reached up and gave her forearm a squeeze on the arm rest, grinning. “Exactly why I never asked you for a date.”
“My loss.” She felt herself returning the smile, wished that someone was always there to hold onto her arm. “And what about you? If you live in New York, how come you’re on a plane from Chicago to Miami?”
“In Chicago I was interviewing a woman who runs a program for incarcerated mothers. And she told me about a nun in Haiti who she thought I ought to meet. That’s where I’m going.”
‘Wait a minute – what’s the connection?” Mari is caught by the freedom of his movement. Now lighting on a branch here, now flying off to another.
“I’m trying to do a piece on people who actually see the folks that the rest of us overlook. That’s why I want to find this sister.”
The drink cart came then and they both ordered wine and the subject of conversation subtly came back her way – her worries about her mother, restaurants in Chicago she liked, what she would do if all her present obligations ended. Later she would see that Ted, the reporter, had orchestrated the movement of their talk but in the moment it was seamless, like the chord shifts beneath a melody. In Miami, before he had to hurry off to make his connection, they traded addresses and promises to stay in touch. She didn’t believe that it would happen – did it ever? – but found herself in a cab to her mother’s hoping she was wrong and then sliding, sadly and suddenly, into tears. Catching her reflection in the cab’s tinted window and thinking of his article, Mari knew he had seen her and wished that someone always would.
As it had happened, she did not run into him again. But six weeks or so later an envelope from New York had arrived in her mailbox, sandwiched in among the bills and come-ons. Inside a clipping from the New York Times Magazine: I Once Was Blind, Ted’s article about the nun in Haiti, the lawyer in Chicago, and a seminarian in New York who spent his nights among gay prostitutes in Manhattan’s West Side tenderloin districts. Stuck to it, a note: Ever thought about escaping to the tropics? T.
Now the old woman in the bed opens her eyes, which are yellowish and rheumy. Mari takes her hand gently, and the old woman speaks in a rasping whisper. “J’ai peur.”
“Oui, ma mere. Je sais.” I know you’re afraid, she thinks. I have been, too. But of what? Not of dying, though she knew that one day she would be. More afraid of living maybe, of living in a way that wasn’t really life. Now the old woman’s thumb presses her palm as if to make certain that she is still there, and Mari lightly squeezes her hand in return. “Je vous vois, ma mere.”
I see you. That was it, wasn’t it? What Ted had written about in his article. Just to see and be seen. The old woman is whispering something that Mari cannot quite make out and she leans forward to hear.
“Me chantez.” Sing to me.
Mari looks at her and feels tears welling in her eyes. She does not know any songs in French or Creole.
“Me chantez,” the woman whispers again.
Mari’s eyes are closed now and she shakes her head. Then an epiphany – her memory produces the image of a bright blue bird on a boy’s palm on a bluff on a cool day, a picture so clear that it is as real as the shabby, too warm room in which she sits. With it a song from even deeper down, her mother’s voice at her bedside long ago, where she lies, sick and feverish. Mari sings along with the memory. “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word, mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.”
The old woman’s eyelids slide shut now, and her breath becomes quick and shallow. Mari lightly presses her hand and the young nun, Sister Sophie, sits on the end of the bed. “If that mockingbird don’t sing, mama’s gonna buy you a golden ring.”
It was Sister Sophie whose picture, snipped from Ted’s article, had haunted Mari from the door of her refrigerator where it was pinned by a Chicago White Sox magnet, Sister Sophie to whom Mari had finally written months after the clipping had arrived, Sister Sophie who had written back, He told me you’d be in touch. Come be with us. Now Sophie picks up the tune and hums along as she sings, “If that golden ring turns brass, mama’s gonna buy you a looking glass. If that looking glass don’t shine, mama’s gonna buy you a diamond mine.”
The old woman squeezes Mari’s hand and smiles without opening her eyes. And then she is gone, flown away. Her grip relaxes and her breathing stops and Mari whispers, “Pas de boite pour vous, ma mere.”
Sister Sophie, a child in her lap, watches Mari in the garden, a space of a hundred square meters set off by a low white fence next to a sparse stand of trees on a promontory below the clinic overlooking the blue, blue sea. The garden was Mari’s idea. They were sitting near a tree there listening to the surf at midday after a nine-year-old girl had died in the clinic, too weak to fight off the influenza that swept through that year – a hard loss for both of them. After a long silence, Mari reached over, squeezed her shoulder in a half hug, and said, “Let’s make something beautiful here.”
And so it was. With whatever help they could pull together, working at dawn and after dusk, digging with broken shovels, moving compost of banana leaves and outhouse leavings, building a fence from pallet scraps, garnering cuttings and seeds from roadsides and rich people, hauling water in five-gallon buckets, one in each hand, down the slope from the rusty spigot at the corner of the clinic. The ground, as if awaking from a coma, had come exuberantly alive, putting on, like Easter vestments, masses of flowers that poured perfume into the sea air.
Today Mari wanders in the garden in the hot sun, moving from blossom to blossom, pruning here, watering there. The women of her morning nutrition class are busy in the open-air kitchen, and their children swarm around Sister Sophie in the shade as she teaches them the mockingbird song in a language they have never seen. “If that diamond mine falls apart,” they sing, sweet and uncomprehending, “Mama’s gonna buy you a pony and cart.” Sophie thinks of her mother in Boston who does not understand her vocation but loves her anyway. She thinks of the deaths and births at the clinic, of the hunger and the laughter of the people who come. She thinks of Mari who does not know why she has come there but stays with them just the same. “If that pony cart breaks down,” the children sing, “you’ll still be the prettiest baby in town.” Now she watches as Mari plucks a red trumpet from the shrub in front of her, extending her hand to the sea. A bright green streak stabs toward her, then hovers; a luminescent spot in the clear air. “Regardez,” Sophie says to the tot in her lap. “L’emeraude.” A gem of a hummingbird, feeding on the pollen of the flower in Mari’s hand. The garden brings them, she thinks. Something beautiful they made for no reason, the way God made the world, something just to catch the eye with its lovely profusion.
The boy on her knees stirs. “Mari,” he says with conviction, “est bon avec les oiseaux.”
“Oui.” Sophie nods. Good with birds.