Hear One Bird
Most days I kept the blinds closed until noon. On dark days I wore my nightgown until dinner. On this morning, I was out in the garden early, heading to Dan’s shed, surprised by the cool air and the dewy-dampness of the lawn under my feet.
I needed a box to bury my cat.
The cat, Mavis, still lay on the kitchen floor, already stiff, eyes cold and shiny like new marbles, the water bowl untouched, the food untouched. I’d placed an old kitchen towel, the nearest thing to hand, over her body and left Mavis lying in her candy-striped shroud, warmed by a shaft of sunlight.
Finding her was a shock. No prediction this time, no warning words of a death to come. On our last visit, the vet had pronounced Mavis fit enough, considering her age.
It had been different for Daniel.
When the Consultant requested we join him in his hospital office, the medic had blinked, placed his fingers, just touching, together, and looked so much like an actor playing a part in a medical drama that I’d smiled, despite the tight ball of fear growing in my chest. Dan turned, seemed to read my thoughts and smiled back. But Dan’s eyes were bleak. He knew then, knew before the doctor said the words tumor and inoperable. Outside the hospital, Dan paused, staring into a distance that would shorten daily, too fast.
“Told you so,” he said, as he always did when he was right and the facts were irrefutable. Later, we would talk, as people do, about research going on all the time, about new treatments, about time, more time. I made him coffee in the bright kitchen and quoted, to bring him out of his thoughts:
I have measured out my life ….
“Too easy, Jessica,” he said, groaning, irritated. “Way too easy.”
Silly. I should have thought of something harder. We’d played the quote game all the twenty-five years of our married lives, trying to catch each other out. Never a clear winner. How could there be? We’d read the same books since University. Now, six months after Daniel’s death, when a quote came to mind – yesterday, Pound’s She came in out of the night and there were flowers in her hands – I had to look it up. Without Dan’s confirming nod and smile, I felt unsure. My leftover life was likely to consist of endless internet searches.
And this morning, another fragment.
Hear one bird…
Hear one bird sing…
I won’t look it up. It’ll come. It’ll come.
But now: Mavis. I felt sad for the old fur ball, but really, comparatively, she was no tragic loss. Mavis had been Daniel’s cat. I could visualize the animal curled on his lap, his long fingers stroking, stroking. The stroking had looked so sensuous. Why had that irritated me so? Jealousy? Jealous of a cat? She had been my last dependent. The twins were now far from home, involved in their own lives. Daniel was gone. There would be no more mouths waiting to be fed. A freedom, of sorts.
I swung open the door of Daniel’s old shed and stepped inside, my dew-damp bare feet picking up a caked layer of dirt from the floor. I found flattened boxes on the top shelf and I reached for them, dodging, with a leap of my heartbeat, a falling chisel, and snapped a few boxes into shape. Once I’d buried Mavis, I’d start filling them, get rid of this old junk. Daniel’s gardening books for starters. Who would need them now? I piled his tools into another box. To Goodwill, all of it. And then, startled, I stopped, catching sight of something on the dustiest shelf that grinned at me through the gloom: an old garden gnome, bought by the kids as a joke gift for Daniel years ago. Daniel had never placed it in the garden, pretending that he liked to look at it in the shed. It was dusty, dirty, the paint worn, the colors faded. The manic grin was still visible, though, as if the gnome still chuckled at some private joke. Goodwill for him, too.
The spot at the bottom of the garden, under the old oak, was the family pet burial ground. My own dog, Barney, was there, and one of Harry’s rabbits and Julia’s hamster. Mavis would have playmates. A small clutch of pain and loneliness halted me then: it felt wrong to be carrying out such a ceremony without Daniel and the twins. They’d always been present before. But Harry was married now to a woman lawyer with a fierce face who had drawn up a master plan for her life. Babies were included in this plan, but not for four years. How wonderful to be so sure. I had never been sure about anything. Julia lived with another woman in a beachfront cottage and painted huge canvases and somehow made a living out of it. She telephoned occasionally but her life felt so separate, so different. She said that she knew her father had disapproved of her relationships; she said she sensed my disapproval, too, though I vehemently denied it. Never felt it, truthfully. If Julia could find happiness with a woman, then why not seek it? Maybe I would have been happy with a woman if the opportunity had arisen. Who is to know?
I put on sturdy shoes and found a shovel but it was old and blunt and I struggled to get it into the earth. Below the first soft, dewy layer, the ground was rock solid. A little grave for Mavis would take some effort. Only two miles away, in a local cemetery, Daniel lay.
“I know cremation is easier, cheaper, sweetheart,” he’d said, apologizing. “But fire? I rather like the idea of feeding the worms, the cycle of things. A natural process. You know?”
I did. Although I had cremation written clearly into my own will.
“Of course,” I’d said. “Of course, darling. Whatever you want.” And I hugged him, his body so brittle by that time, and slight in my arms.
I tried again with the old shovel. The ground was like granite and refused to yield.
“Rats,” I said, out loud and then jumped, startled, at a voice behind me.
“Having a problem with that?”
I turned to find Zak, the boy from the house at the top of the hill, staring at me across the fence. He must have slid down the slope instead of taking the road that curved beyond the trees. He was eighteen, worked as a painter in his dad’s construction business. A tall, heavy young man with a buffed body, a snake tattoo that curled under the neck of his tee shirt, a large shaved head. He scowled as naturally as he breathed, seeming to find the world annoying at best. Daniel had been wary of him, said he looked like trouble. I thought, secretly, that it might be useful to have a son like that. Harry was wonderful, of course, but short, slight, intellectual like his father. Not much use when it came to heavy lifting.
“What you doing? Burying bodies or something?” Zak asked, then stopped, eyes widening. “Oh, sorry,” he added. “I didn’t-”
“As a matter of fact I am burying a body,” I said. “Mavis the cat. Died this morning.”
“Oh. Well, sorry.”
“She was old.”
He nodded. Okay, then. Old was fine. Old meant time to die.
“I could dig it for you.”
I considered this briefly. Why not? He was young, strong; the hard ground would not be a problem for him.
“Thanks,” I said.
He climbed over the fence easily, began digging at once.
When the hole was big enough, I placed the box, the makeshift coffin holding Mavis, into the space. We filled in the earth, stood back like farmers to admire the smooth, fresh patch of ground. Zak lifted his t-shirt to wipe the sweat from his face.
“Looks good,” he said.
“It does. Thank you, Zak. Come up to the house. I can find you a few dollars for a drink or-”
“No. No. I don’t want money.”
He said it with some disgust, glowering.
“You want a cold drink, then?”
“Okay. Where’s this shovel go?”
“In the shed. I’ll show you. It can go in the box with the others.”
In Daniel’s shed, Zak studied the half-filled boxes and then lifted the garden gnome and grinned.
“Hey, this is seriously cool.”
“Gift from the kids to Dan. Years ago. I always wanted to put it in the garden but Dan liked to keep it in the shed.”
“You throwing it out?”
“It’s dirty. Filthy in fact. And all the colors have faded. Goodwill might be able to sell it.”
He sighed, placed it back on the shelf.
I hesitated. Should I give it to him? Would he think I was crazy? But he was already out of the door, heading towards the house.
Only seconds after we had taken our lemonade out to the patio, he searched in his pocket, remembering something.
“Oh, wait. Mom said she’s been trying to call you.”
He pulled out his cell and dialed fast. Too late, I realized that I was trapped. He turned then, looking up the hill.
“She’s waving. Look.”
Silhouetted against the sun, Jennie Rafferty looked like one of the seven furies, her bleached blonde hair a wild halo around her head. She was waving, and indicating the phone in her hand. Daniel had called them the Riff-Rafferty’s and suggested that we continue to refuse Jenny’s invitations and Barry’s suggestions for a drink. We say yes, we’ve got to invite them back, he’d said. We don’t want to get into all that. They’re not really our kind of people.
“Our kind of people?” I had asked, snippy.
He shook his head, sighing, didn’t answer the question. I knew what he meant, of course. Our few friends were quiet, bookish types, like ourselves. The Raffertys, clearly, were not. They were loud. Laughter, music and, occasionally, angry voices and slamming doors could be heard from the house up on the hill. Once, late at night, I looked out of the bedroom window and saw the couple dancing on their patio, pressed closed together, swaying to music I couldn’t hear.
Zak passed over the phone.
“Jessica, I’ve been calling you for days,” Jennie said. “You ever answer your phone?”
A long sigh.
“Listen, honey, we wanted to ask you up here tomorrow night. Just a few drinks. Our twentieth anniversary. Thought, well, you might want to get out a bit now. Some people from town coming over, some of the neighbors over on the Ridge Estate-”
“Sorry. I’m busy.”
Zak, staring at me, frowned.
“O-kay,” Jennie said slowly. “Well, if you change your mind, you just come on up. Hear me?”
“Of course. Thank you for asking.”
I handed the phone back to Zak.
“I’ve got to get the house ready,” I said. “I’m selling it.”
The words had floated out of my mouth, unbidden, unrehearsed. When was that decision made?
“Where you going?”
“Japan, China, India, Africa – anywhere. Everywhere.”
All the places Daniel and I had talked about when we were newlyweds, before careers and family and home building took over. Before we became the kind of people who avoided unsuitable neighbours.
“That’s pretty weird,” he said. He drained his glass, placed it on the small table. “Good luck selling the place.”
“Thanks. And I’m grateful for your help today.”
“It was nothing.”
He headed down the garden. I turned back into the house, shadowy now, out of the sunlight. Sell the house? Why not? All the places we had talked about once. I could visit them now.
Hear one bird…
Good grief. What was that poem?
I began the declutter the next day. In the shed, pulling down more boxes, I paused, uneasy. Something was missing. And yes – there was a large gap on the bottom shelf. The gnome was gone. Had Zak taken it? Could he have sneaked back? I looked around at all the shelves, inspected the half-filled boxes. Yes, it was definitely missing. He’d come creeping back here and taken it, just like that. Actually, he’d stolen it. He could have asked.
Late in the following afternoon, I wandered back out to the patio. Already, the noise from the party drifted down the hill. I could hear music, laughter, the clink of glasses. The air was still warm, scented by flowering shrubs, the climbing honeysuckle. It would be nice to sit out here, have a glass of wine, listen to the music. There was no wine in the house. I had drunk the last of it the previous night, when the impact of the silence, no Mavis meowing for food, no classical music from Daniel’s den, had sent me scurrying for the corkscrew. I turned back towards the kitchen, planning to make a cup of tea, and saw, out of the corner of my eye, a flash of white. As I whipped round, startled, I saw a white t-shirt, blue jeans, disappearing over the fence.
“Zak,” I yelled.
A sharp curse, a thump and then Zak appeared at the bottom of the garden, rubbing at his knee.
“What are you taking this time?” I asked. “Tools?”
“Taking?” he said. “What you talking about?”
“From the shed. I know you sneaked back and took the gnome, Zak. You must’ve. Which is crazy. Because I would have given it to you, without question, if you’d asked.”
He stared at me, unsmiling. His expression was unreadable, but there was no guilt in it. Anger maybe. I saw that he was dressed for the party in a new t-shirt, the packaging creases still visible. He had a fresh shaving cut on his chin.
“You think I stole it?” he asked, a razor edge to his voice. I felt a pinch of fear.
“Well, I didn’t mean that exactly. I said took-”
“So what did you mean?”
I swallowed, said nothing.
“Go look at your rose bed,” he said finally, his face still stiff. Then he turned, scaled the fence and scrambled fast up the hill without looking back.
And there, at the edge of the flower bed, polished, gleaming, all the reds of his jacket, the gold of his hat, the pink face, grinning, grinning, was the garden gnome. Restored, refurbished, back to life. I laughed out loud. The sound echoed, strange and hollow in the empty garden.
“Sorry,” I yelled up the hill. “Zak, thank you.”
But he was gone, and my words, caught by the breeze were blown away, unheard.
I needed a glass of wine, now. Definitely. So, I would walk down to the liquor store, pick up a bottle of wine. I would sit on the patio with the gnome for company, would listen to the music and have a party of my own.
I changed the worn sweat shirt for a light cotton top and combed my hair. It was odd to be so tidily dressed. The breeze picked up as I walked down to the High Street. I could smell the thyme in the hedgerows. Then, falling back into my memory, landing softly, intact, the fragment that had eluded me. By cummings -
I will turn my face/ and hear one bird/ sing terribly afar in the lost lands.
Ah. I had read the entire poem to Daniel many times, when we first fell in love.
It may not always be so…
In the center of town, the road forked. I stood, biting my lip, anxiety causing my pulse to quicken. To the left, the liquor store, a bottle of wine, a peaceful evening with the television or my Kindle. To the right, the curve of the rising road, and a gathering of people, neighbors and strangers. I stood there, hesitating, trembling, for a long time. Finally, I took a long breath and, heart pounding, turned right and began the steep walk up the hill towards the music.