by Judith Ford
It had started with the sparrows singing in the mock orange bush in her backyard. Anne loved to hear them calling out to the dawn when she’d first open her eyes in her bed, before the sun was all the way up, when there was a gray smokiness to the air and a chill. She loved it even more when she was outside very early, walking along the lake. A few birds would start up, and more would join in, until the trees exploded with bird calls. It wasn’t just the sparrows, then; it was all of them. The robins and woodpeckers and starlings and jays.
After everyone had left her, she’d taken up the habit of dawn walks along Lincoln Memorial Drive. It had started after Ned, the youngest and the last to fledge, began his studies at the University of Chicago. There’d been that brutal goodbye ceremony, the bagpipes playing as the entering freshmen walked through Hull Gate and into their new lives. The parents had been herded off to a picnic buffet. Along the way, upperclassmen handed them tissues. Anne had asked for a whole box.
Everything had changed after that. For the first time in over twenty-five years, she was free to do whatever she wanted. She’d expected she’d finally get around to taking yoga classes, learn to knit, read all of Dickens, catch up with women friends she’d lost touch with. None of that happened. Instead, she did the New York Times crossword puzzle every day and read trashy novels. She cleaned her closets, sorted her clothes by color; her bathrooms sparkled with an unearthly light. No pots or silverware, glasses or dishes sat on stove or counters. No hall table collected anyone’s keys, papers, phones, or dust.
Ned had graduated in just three years, and went off to work in a financial firm in New York City. Their oldest, Sarah, had landed a great job at the Denver zoo. And, shortly after Sarah left, Anne’s husband, Ed, had died in his sleep.
She hadn’t realized how much she’d depended on Ed, until he was gone. Not only could he be counted on to bring home a paycheck, he also mowed the grass, shoveled the snow, and cleaned up the kitchen every evening before bed. He was always willing to stop whatever he was doing if someone he cared about needed him. He’d wake in the night to fetch a hungry baby and bring him or her to Anne to nurse. He’d wake, too, whenever one of the kids—or Anne—had a bad dream and needed comfort. When Ned had his appendicitis while he was away at school, Ed had driven all night to get the two of them to Ned’s hospital bed before their son woke from surgery. When Mr. Goldman, next door, needed someone to take care of his dog while he traveled for work, Ed was the man. He walked that dog every morning and every night for two weeks at a time. Loved doing it, he said.
He woke up dead one morning, Anne liked to tell people, once she’d gotten through that first hard year. Still as a stone, a tiny bit of drool at the edge of his lips. Being told this way, people’s faces would open in shock and, a second later, crumple into confusion. It amused her. She supposed that was cheap of her, and maybe unkind, but she enjoyed this bit of inappropriateness. In her twenties, she’d been a rebel, a nonconformist; Never Trust Anyone Over Forty, Power to the People, that kind of young person.
Plus, talking that way about the loss of her husband made her feel larger somehow. Now that her house was empty of everyone but her, she often felt small there, the walls towering over her, the floors vast and the ceilings as open as the sky. The silence unending.
For many years, she’d been a champion sleeper; throwing herself out of consciousness as if plunging off a cliff into a hospitable, warm sea, where she’d drift, weightless, for eight or nine hours. Now that she was alone, there was no friendly water. Only her cool, vacant bed, where she lay as vulnerable as one of the baby rabbits her dog exposed every spring in the backyard. He’d bring them to her, those thin-skinned, squeaky creatures with their tiny velvet ears, their eyes shut behind gray, veiny lids. So proud of his prize. Shaking it, dancing, while the thing squealed in fear, or, worse, made no sound at all, hanging from his mouth, boneless as a rag.
The first time she’d walked at dawn, she’d startled awake, sweating, in the aftermath of a nightmare of teeth and thin skin. And without thought, without shoes or robe, she’d gotten out of her bed and left the house. Barefoot, shivering in the early spring air, she’d walked around and around her block. As the bird notes filled the thickening air, she didn’t consider who might see her, walking in her nightgown, or what they might think. That would come later in the day, with a blushing realization of how her stick-thin legs must have looked, scissoring beneath the thin white cotton hem, how her nipples must have been contracted with cold and poked against the fabric at her chest. At the time, her only thoughts had been about the bad dream and the birdsongs that rose with the sun.
As she’d rounded a corner for the fortieth time, she’d paused, realized she was in front of her own house, and had gone to the backyard to sit on a step and better listen. That’s when the tears had overtaken her. What she was weeping for, she would not have been able to say. Later, she’d thought of it as the birdsongs filling her overfull.
She hadn’t planned to repeat that first morning walk, not consciously. But when she went to bed the next night, she’d put her walking shoes beside her bed, laid her trench coat across the foot. She’d slept fitfully and, again, woken before dawn, put on her shoes and coat, and walked out. This time she left her block, walking without direction, her only purpose to be away from her bed, away from her house, out of her empty self, walking to bear witness to the birds’ morning.
She did this every day for six years, no matter the weather. When it snowed or rained hard, the birds didn’t sing, but the weather made up for the loss; the rain scrubbing the air clean; the freshness that followed. The exultation of lightning. The certainty of the thunder she knew would always follow. The way the weather followed the rules of weather, all of it reassured her. The weather and the birds.
The only times she’d missed her walks were when she’d had the flu, another time bronchitis, and another time, when she’d stayed up too late watching a French film called Amour.
She even walked when she travelled to visit her grown children. She heard the birds in New York City and in Denver where Sarah lived with her husband and two kids. She heard them in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains—the mockingbirds, the mountain jays—when she took a trip to Santa Fe with a friend. But mostly, she loved her birds, the first birds who’d called her out of bed on that first morning.
Then there came the morning when she couldn’t get up. Her head pulsed with pain so loud she couldn’t hear the sparrows outside her window. When she tried to sit up, to move her legs, she found she couldn’t. She dialed 911 from the phone beside her bed. There was a long time then of not knowing where she was or who. Eventually, the routine of the hospital, with its meal trays and therapy sessions, pulled her down to reality, a new kind of reality, of pain and stiffness and the uncooperative workings of her mouth and limbs. Rehab followed, and by the time they sent her home, she was somewhat reassembled, but not the same.
She didn’t so much mind that she still couldn’t move the words of her brain to her tongue and rely on them to come out whole. What mattered more was the loss of her morning walks. Her legs were as ungovernable as her tongue and couldn’t be trusted to carry her farther than to her bathroom. With a walker.
Her only birds now were the loyal sparrows of her backyard.
Some days, a visiting caregiver would wheel Anne’s chair outside and set her under the old red maple. She’d spend hours there, in the shade, remembering. She used to lie on a blanket in the cool grass under this same tree with baby Sarah lying beside her. The checkered light bouncing through the leaves would make Sarah giggle, so infectious that even now, these decades later, Anne laughed aloud. She remembered, too, holding her hands to make a step for seven-year-old Ned to reach the lowest branch to climb the tree, how she’d fought her fear and cheered him on, ever higher. And that one loud night when a storm had torn loose a huge bough of the maple and tossed it onto the roof, where it fell through to the attic, breaking a box of old photos. The winds had lifted them up and out and sent them flying over the entire block. For weeks, neighbors had shown up at the door with pictures, slid them through the mail slot, if no one was home. Most were lost forever, ruined in muddy puddles, tromped under foot, shredded in hawthorn branches.
One morning, just as the sun’s first rays sliced through Anne’s bedroom window and crawled across her carpet, she woke to the sound of a single sparrow very near, closer than the yard. So loud, so clear and clean, that, could it be—it must be—yes, it was. The bird was in her bedroom, perched on a curtain rod. She was very pleased, and hardly dared hope that the performance would be reprised the next morning. But it was. Morning after morning, one sparrow, sometimes two, and, eventually, three and more, came to perch on her curtain rods, the top of the mirror on her dresser. One morning, she woke to find two larks singing their hearts out atop an overstuffed armchair in the corner. Another morning, there was a flock of starlings; a murmuration, she remembered the word. She rolled it around in her mind, murmuration, murmuration. It had a sweet taste to it, like maple syrup. The starlings sang not well but loudly, drowning out the sparrows and the larks. Then rising together in a great net and swirling up through the ceiling.
Even though, in time, many of her words returned to her, Anne didn’t mention the birds to her daughter, who visited as often as she could, or to Ned, who sometimes called. She didn’t ask her daytime attendant to clean up the bird droppings because there were none.
Then came the morning when the birds grew bold. They were all there when she woke that day. The songbirds and the sparrows, the starlings, the mockingbirds and the New York City pigeons. Gulls, ospreys, a red-tailed hawk. An owl scanned the room from his spot at the top of her bedroom door. And a heron bent its long legs backwards as it waded through her carpet. Robins and juncos nested in her open dresser drawers. A wren perched on her water glass and dipped to take a drink. Hummingbirds buzzed the vase of red flowers sent by the neighbors. The air of her room, crowded with wings and beaks, perching feet, chirps, trills and chatters was as clamorous as the county fair, as rustling and humming as an audience waiting for a performer to take center stage.
Birds hovered at the corners of her bed. Birds pecked at the edges of her sheets, then took the sheets in their beaks, flapping their wings, great and small, until, Anne felt herself lifted, swaying, as in a hammock. The ceiling of her bedroom was as high and open as the sky. She rose in clouds of birds. Was it the bed sheet holding her aloft or was it the songs? She could no longer tell.
Memories flaked from the surface of her skin, like snowflakes, like photographs swept away in wind. She is kissing Ed at the altar, her skin flushed, her white lace veil cascading down her back. She is spooning with Ed, a thick down comforter covering them both. She’s on the front steps of her childhood home, her father snapping a photo of her in her yellow prom dress, daisies in her hair. She is eight and skins her knees when her roller skate catches on a twig; her mother places a red-lipstick kiss on her cheek; goodnight, goodnight, I love you. The children, all ages, gurgling, crawling, walking, climbing, growing lanky, disappearing.
The pictures came faster and faster, fluttering like shuffled cards. The bedsheet, the sounds, the pictures, the birds, and the sky, everything melted into everything else, into a great soft blue, warm like the sea of her oldest and deepest sleep, refined down to a drop, a point, one note of a sparrow’s song.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing