I finished this story about a year ago. Here it is, shy but enduring.
In the daydreams I have now when I lie in bed half asleep, there are birds that coil inside my rib cage. They are small, flitting, black shadows. They are almost pitch black, but I can still make them out because of the glints of light on their feathers. When they are sleeping, huddled together, their wings are like the shape of lungs. When they unfold them, their bodies are three times the size they were before.
There are red birds too, but they come only seldom. They are far away from where we are. They are the spots of blood in the snow when I walk to work in the morning through downtown Toronto.
The yellow birds are the most vivid. They are so real to me, they dull the light. They wake beside me as the sun comes up. They are your hair, your pale golden-brown hair, as it tangles into clusters when you sleep. Your curls grip each other in tight knots that you refuse to comb; they are birds whose bodies are their own nests.
The birds with white spots settle on the bar across the window. They are the snow. They look in, as if watching us lying there.
I once looked in through the same window in the same manner. I had lost my keys and wanted to find you. Locked out, I stood on the deck, peering in at the paintings that hang slightly crooked on the walls and the dust that had settled on the edges of the furniture that we never see when we pass by. I saw your abandoned yellow dress on the bed. I don’t remember where you had gone.
The birds look away as the day moves on. I see fewer of them when I walk home from the subway terminal in the evenings. They notice that the light is fading. They fade too, as if echoing.
When the spring comes, I see them flying faster. They grasp objects that flap wildly against their tiny feet like the sandals of children running down the beach. They gather sticks, broken shells, and leaves.
Ravens, I’m told, look for silver things. I wonder if they will come for me when I’m old.
As I walk by the birds, they tell me things. They don’t speak in words. But when I see them, I hear my own thoughts differently.
I realize that birdsong makes shapes like human bodies – ridges that rise and fall in repeating patterns. These are the rise of your chin, your chest, the fall of your stomach. Then the sudden incline of your bent knees.
On the beach that we go to together each summer, we watch the birds wade slowly into the water. The shadows they cast on the pier are spotted like the coats of wild animals. As you walk on, I look up at the gulls above me, whose shrieking sounds move like forks of lightning.
I watch you walk away along the sand, stepping nimbly to avoid broken shells. You are far away, down by the water, watching a small child gathering stones.
You have a shy smile.
You have shy teeth. You said this to me once, and I’ve always remembered it. You have a strange and lovely way of saying things: shy teeth. You said this a long time ago, only a few days after we met.
I asked you what you meant.
“I only mean that I should learn to bite my tongue,” you laughed, flashing white. “I wish they’d step in a little more quickly when I say too much, which I often do. They could spare me. But they hesitate. They defer to me, as if I knew better.”
Your laugh is beautiful and low. You touched my arm. I noticed that your hands were cold; this was when I knew winter was coming. You had just come in from outside.
On that day, the leaves were starting to fall. We were at a party hosted by someone whose name I don’t remember anymore. I tied the sash at the back of your dress for you when it came undone in the front hall. The ties were hanging down, brushing against the backs of your ankles.
“I come undone too easily,” you said.
You were carrying a tray of glasses propped against your waist. You asked me if I wanted to walk with you out to the garden. The lace at the bottom of your dress brushed coarsely against my legs as we walked. It made me realize, though I should have known before, that I was underdressed. I was new to the city then. All my long pants were still packed away.
When you smiled, I noticed that your eyes aren’t quite symmetrical. One of your eyelids is slightly fuller than the other and there is a small birthmark just at edge of the crease of your left eye.
I wouldn’t have noticed any of this, except that at one point you turned to me and touched my hair. Your face close to mine, you brushed away a leaf that had fallen down from the tree above. Your eyes were the same dimly lit green as the undersides of the leaves above.
You lingered close to me for a moment, looking into my face. When you turned away, you laughed at how my beard already had white hairs throughout. I was only twenty-seven then.
“Salt and pepper,” you said. “That’s what they call it, don’t they? I always take too much of both.”
When you laugh, you always close your eyes.
I walked you home that evening. When the streetlights came on – all at once – your eyelashes cast sudden long shadows down your cheeks. As a car drove past us, you looked up at me and ran your arm along my lower back. Startled, I stepped on the edge of your dress.
I remember that moment vividly. Even now, years later, there are times when you touch me a certain way, and it is almost as if I can hear the sound of grey lace tearing under a flood of dim yellow light. And then the gentle hush of your laughter.
Where we live now, there are always noises outside, though we chose to live as far from the world as we could. We live on the edges of Toronto, which is, as they say, the centre of the world. We live in slow orbit of its heart. When I go to work, I walk along streets that turn into sidewalks, and then catch the bus or subway the rest of the way.
You grew up in the city, but you never learned how to block out the noise of its chaos. Instead, you can feel it blossoming. In the centre of the city, when you walk there, you can feel the vibrations of subway cars under the pavement when you walk down particular streets. You have told me you find it comforting.
Where we are, if it is quiet enough, you say you can feel the soft rumble of the bulbs of your calla lilies as they spread their lips under the ground. I smile when you say this. Your eyes stay wide, like a child’s.
In the evenings, most of the sounds we hear are the night birds. On many night, we sit by the windows in the living room and talk until it is time for bed. We can both hear them, the birds, even when the windows are closed.
I don’t know their names, and you don’t either. But you play at guessing their position and how far they are from us by the way that their sounds resonate.
You have always been good at guessing distance. You laugh and say it is what comes from being the girl who was only rarely invited to parties. You always stood just at the edge of conversations. From there, you learned the way that sounds move around you. You learned to listen with the whole surface of your skin. You could feel words settle like moths on your bare arms, then flutter on as they passed by to someone else.
You told me you began to know the outline of your own silhouette from the way that voices glided over it, like hands over unset pottery.
I am different: I see things. I used to believe I could see inside people. I used to think that I could read what was going on inside someone just by looking into their eyes. In many ways, I’ve held onto this belief.
Once when I was sixteen, I stood beside a man on the bus whose heart was about to give out. I don’t know how, but I saw in his face that something was about to happen, though his eyes were still. It was there in the steadiness of his gaze itself as he looked past everything around him. He looked like an animal that has just woken up in the spring and is startled by the cold in the air. I don’t think he was aware of anything, until the moment he clasped his chest.
He said nothing, but fell down suddenly. His coat brushed my shoulder as he fell. His knees folded in close toward his chest, like a child sleeping.
The driver pulled the bus off to the side of the road. A stranger beside the man knelt down and steadied his head in her lap. When the bus doors opened, none of the passengers left. We all stood there, listening to the sirens in the distance, trying to gauge their direction.
It was, I think, in that moment that I decided that someday I would be a doctor. I believed then, if only for an instant, that I could fix things if only I could catch them a moment before they fell into pieces. Maybe this could keep them whole.
I still believe, though I know I shouldn’t, that I can see into people before they even speak to me. There are signs in their movements, in their sighs, in their eyes, and in the way they hold their bodies.
Last night when I was walking home, I saw two crows on an ice covered tree. One was cleaning the feathers of the other. It was intriguing and beautiful. It made me linger there, slowing down in the cold, though I had been on my feet at the hospital all day.
I watched them as I walked past, trying not to seem as if I was slowing down. Absorbed in themselves, they seemed not to see me. If they turned their heads, they were subtle in their movements, letting me believe I was no threat.
When I met you, I had just started medical school. I was the first one in my family to go to university. You never quite understood what this meant. It marked me as different.
When I flew home on breaks in the semester, my parents would introduce me to their friends with words that seemed to catch in their throats.
“This is Matthew,” my mother would say sweetly, nervously, to the strangers who came into the hardware store that she and my father owned together. “My son. He’s going to be rich someday.”
I’d try to laugh like you would laugh: with a wide smile, and with eyes to the floor.
I’d leave the store alone and wait for my parents to come home at the end of the day. They seldom took days off, and never left early.
I’d sit alone in their living room, perusing stacks of old newspapers that were beginning to yellow on the lower shelf of the coffee table.
The papers on top were a paler yellow, the ones that were closer to the light. My mother never threw out anything that she believed she could use again. The papers were for starting fires in the winter.
She still had a trunk of old sweaters that she had knitted for me when I was a small child. She kept the trunk in the attic crawlspace, where it sat for years in between the times when she’d pull it down and open it. The top was covered in a thick veil of dust, but the sweaters inside were perfectly clean, as if they had never been worn at all.
One year, you came home with me in the summer. We stayed for a month. In the first week, my mother got down the trunk of sweaters to show you. She took out each sweater one by one.
You and I were sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of her. You were wearing your yellow dress, the one that was almost translucent under certain lights. You looked up at my mother attentively.
Some of the sweaters had animals across the front. The smallest had a single blackbird across the chest. Another had a black dog with white legs. One sweater showed tigers with tongues shaped like small hearts. Another had dragons with scales down its back like small half moons.
“The animals grew with Matthew,” my mother said. Meaning, I think, that for every year that I got older, the kind of animal she chose became less soft and instead became fiercer.
“Matthew is a human now,” you said with a smile after she said this. “He is tall and vulnerable.”
My mother laughed with you. It seemed strange to me, because I wouldn’t have expected her to.
As a child, I’d watch her knit in the evenings. Sometimes I would try to grab the teeth of her needles, fascinated by the moment when they drifted through the mouths of half-formed animals.
As we all sat together, my mother told you stories about when I was a child. She told you about the time when we stopped at a beach on a road trip from Vancouver to Seattle. While at the beach, I wandered off by myself and found a cave near the edge of the water. I wandered in and stayed for a while, watching starfish float in small pools that had formed in the rock.
As the tide came in, I started to get scared that I would be trapped by myself in the cave. My feeling made no sense, really. The water had only come in as far as my ankles. Still, I was afraid. In my fear, I called to my mother. I called out again and again for what seemed like forever. My voice resounded across the waves. And then she was there, suddenly. She waded through the water toward me. The bottom of her long grey skirt was soaked black and clung meekly to her legs.
I held one hand out to her. In the hand, I held one of the starfish from the pool, its five limbs misaligned against my five fingers. I made her promise not to tell my anyone that I had been afraid.
My mother let me take the starfish as far as the shore, then we walked on together to the car.
When my mother stopped talking, she seemed all of a sudden to notice the sweaters laid out on the couch beside her.
“You should take them, Matthew,” she said firmly. “They’ve always been yours.”
She was speaking to me, but I saw her eyes. Her eyes were on you. You were weaving curls of your hair through the fingers of your left hand.
You looked up, and I think you saw it too – the way that she looked at you. I’m sure you did. I waited for you to say something later when we were alone about what that look meant. But you didn’t.
We went upstairs together to the room that had once been mine. You sat near the window, wrapping my oversized grey cardigan around your body. You smiled at me and leaned against the windowpane. You pressed your hand against the glass.
You said that you wanted to get some air. And so we took the long road down to the sea shore. You wore my cardigan. Old and stretched, it hung down a ways past your hips.
When I think of that night, I remember you as the colour of the grey sky and the dimly lit slats of the boardwalk. You were all dull grey light. But I remember too the movements of your hair when the wind came up out of nowhere. The knots in your hair moved like tiny yellow ribbons on kite strings that had caught on the breeze.
As we walked, we said nothing for a while. We didn’t speak of my mother or what she meant by bringing out the trunk of sweaters. In all honesty, before that night, I had never really thought much about having a child. But for a moment, as I looked down to the shore, I could see him standing there, a future vaguely forming, with the same long legs and slender chest that I had when I was a boy. A tiny echo resounding across the water.
Your mother named you Penelope, because she wanted you to have a name that would stand out.
Her own name was Sarah. She had grey hair from the time she was thirty. By the time she was forty, it was long, vivid white.
As a child, you would call your mother the swan wizard, because of her long, feathery white hair. When you were eight years old, you wrote a story about her.
In the story, the swan wizard saves a captured prince from a tower that stood above the sea. Using her powers, she turned the water into a spiral staircase. This allowed the prince to walk down on his own.
You had drawn little pictures in the margins of the now-tattered notebook. In one, the prince gazes down at his feet as he descends the staircase. I thought he looked concerned about the cuffs of his pants getting wet as he walked. Or maybe he was only afraid of falling.
You drew your mother with a long white gown and grey birds’ feet sticking out from underneath.
At the end of the story, the swan wizard watches the prince walk away from her back into the forest. The forest was where all the other princes lived. They lived in herds, and only one of them would lead, just like in packs of animals.
The swan wizard’s prince looked the same as all the others. Still, she knew him when she looked for him in the crowd.
As soon as he disappeared from her field of sight, she spread out the loose folds of her gown. These became her wings. She floated high enough through the air that she could see far into the trees. At one point, the prince turned around and looked up. His face looked startled, as if he had heard something calling to him in the trees. The swan wizard was there in the line of his gaze, but he couldn’t see her, because she was the same colour as the clouds.
Your mother would call you every night after you moved away from home.
“Penny,” she would say. “Come home to me.” She would say it as if she were joking, but it stayed with you. You could read beneath it. You could hear her loneliness.
Maybe it leaked into you: I could see something sometimes there just beyond your eyes.
When we moved in together, your mother only called every few days. She had moved to Vancouver to be closer to your brother and his child. Every now and then, she would call when we were already asleep, because she would forget the time difference. You started not to mind, because you would stay up late into the night anyway, working on your paintings.
I work nights sometimes, when I am needed. You worry about me not getting enough sleep, but you don’t say this to me, at least not out loud.
Sometimes when I get back home, it is already mid morning. Some days I find you asleep in the bed with your clothes tangled around your body. Once, you had taken your shirt off partially. One armless sleeve had wound itself around your neck, like a lover’s arm embracing you. Your stockings were crumpled up beside you, the size and shape of a small fist. Your shoes were abandoned beside the bed.
When you woke up, you looked at me, but I don’t think you quite saw me.
“Matthew,” you said, still half asleep. “I had that dream again. The one where we’re moving underwater.”
I didn’t know what dream you were talking about. You had told me once that you never remembered your dreams. All the same, I nodded and laid down beside you.
I must have fallen asleep. We both woke up to the sound of the phone by the bed. You grabbed it, suddenly alert, and walked out alone into the hall. You cradled the phone between your shoulder and cheek.
When you returned, your face seemed pale. You kissed my forehead, and I felt the brush of your hair against my cheek as it fell down from behind your shoulders. Like a gust of wind.
“I’m going out for the day,” you said. “I’ll be back before you leave.”
I laid back in bed for a while, watching the light from the window edge across the framed photographs on the wall. I heard the sound of you closing the front door. I heard the sound of the rain slowly starting to fall. And then there was nothing for a while.
I knew you were home when I felt drops on my skin. It had started pouring just as you left the subway station.
You hovered over me in the bed. You pressed your face to mine. “There’s rain on my eyelashes,” you said.
I blinked. “I don’t mind.”
You laughed. “Don’t worry, love,” you murmured. You curled your body next to mine. “I asked the rain to stop for you. I asked it to come back tomorrow instead.”
You lay with me as the evening set in. When I got up to go to work, you were in your studio humming a song you had told me your mother would sing when you were a child. When I touched your back, you seemed not to notice, but then you turned and pressed your hand gently against my cheek.
When we were still young, you worked twice a week at the box office at a theatre downtown while we were both finishing university. You worked nights when the symphony was playing. I would come and walk you home at end of the night.
While you worked, you sat beyond a small glass window a distance from the central theatre door. From behind the window, you could hear soft music filtered through the walls and silk dresses. You would watch the smudges on the glass shift into patterns before your eyes.
You hated the job. You said this loudly one night at a party after you had had a few glasses of wine. You leaned in to a man beside you and said that you had lost track of the number of times you had had to call an ambulance to take someone away.
The man beside you looked at you, not understanding.
“They’re old,” you said. “The people who go to those sorts of things. Not all of them, of course. But many. Bodies stop working at all the wrong times.”
A woman on the other side of you laughed uncomfortably. “But you have no reason to be so jaded,” she said. “You’re young.”
You looked into her eyes disarmingly.
“I’m twenty-five,” you said. “In dog years, that’s about two hundred.”
You laughed. The woman laughed with you after a moment.
I came up closer and leaned against you. You were cold, and your hair smelled like fog.
The rain was heavy outside that night. I remember we walked toward home around 3 in the morning, getting drenched along the way. You took your boots and socks off when your feet had gotten soaked all the way through. You walked on, holding them in your hands.
You looked over at me. “I used to do this when I was a little girl,” you said. “It’s better this way. It’s cold for a while, but it doesn’t get so deep inside.”
That was the night we stayed out until the sun came up. We stopped at an all night cafe and drank bitter coffee that made my teeth ache. We dried ourselves off as best we could under the hand dryers in the washrooms. I was ghostly under fluorescent lights.
When the rain was over, we found a park that neither of us had been to before. We sat for a long while on a bench that was shaded by an oak tree. The tree sheltered us from the view of those who passed by on the road. After a while, you laid your head in my lap.
I tangled my fingers through your hair, counting the lost things that had gathered there: small twigs, tiny flowers from the tree above us, a hair pin, still thoughts that almost became words, and other small things blown there by the wind.
As the sun came up, I watched shadows pass across your legs. I saw the shadows of small birds that flew above us, dappled with light, as they flitted across your dress. I watched shadows dance across your thighs, along your stomach, across your chest. For an instant they seemed to pause just as they reached your closed eyes.
You sighed in your sleep. I shivered a little, not knowing why.
“Matthew,” I said, “You have to stop spilling things into the darkness. No one wants to pick them up again. No one wants to get their hands dirty.”
I smiled at your back as you walked down our front steps toward the road. I was speaking of the bags of trash that you were taking out to the street. There was a rip in the side of one of them that you hadn’t seen. As you walked, crumpled paper and other things scattered in a trail behind you. I could just see the edge of the tattered yellow dress that I had finally decided to throw away.
At the bottom of the stairs, you looked up at me with a half smile. I don’t know if you heard what I said, or only the sound of my feet.
“Come back soon,” I said as I came closer to you. You laughed; you were only going to the side of the road.
So much of my life, it seems, has been made up watching you come and go. I am like my namesake: the Penelope who never stopped watching the harbour. This makes me laugh in the same way I laughed when I was a little girl: with my teeth hidden under my hands.
Once, a few years before I would sit by the window everyday when I got home from work, waiting for you to come home too. One day, I had my sewing basket beside me. I was mending a fallen hem. As I sat there waiting, I opened a packet of needles and threaded them one by one onto a strand of my hair. I watched the needles hang there like icicles, holding them across my cheek. I thought that if I held them balanced just under one eye, they would hang down like strange silver eyelashes. But when I pulled them across my cheek, they all clumped together because of their weight.
At that moment, I saw you through the window coming down the walkway. You were always there at the same time.
In the mornings before you leave for work, you kiss my forehead when my eyes are still slow and half shut from the window light. After you are gone, I pull my hair over my eyes to dull the light again for a little while.
My hair is still mostly the colour of sand. The grey is only there if you look close.
Your mother once stroked my hair as I sat beside her and told me to never wear yellow.
“Yellow clashes with yellow,” she said. “Just like how red clashes with red. Some things together are just too much.”
“Then blood shouldn’t mix with blood,” I replied. She narrowed her eyes at me in the mirror, catching a meaning I’m not sure if I intended.
“She’s jealous of you,” you said to me later when we were alone.
“Why?” I said. “I’m not beautiful.” But I knew this wasn’t what you meant.
“You stole her child.” Your soft laugh caught behind your crooked teeth.
As I watched you, contemplating your face, it took me a moment to realize that you were referring to yourself. I don’t think of you as a child. You are no one’s child. In my mind, you are always fully grown, with your strong words and your clothes cut perfectly against your broad shoulders.
I stole you.
Yes, I suppose I did. I imagine myself wearing all black and crawling through an open window to take you away from your cradle as you sleep.
But it’s funny; I hardly ever see you sleeping. You seem to wait until I am already asleep.
I once might have believed that you don’t sleep at all, but when we first lived together, you would often stay up late at night reading books on anatomy and other such subjects. You would fall asleep with your face pressed close against the pages. I would find you like this, your eyes tightly closed, your cheek pressed against drawings of bodies without skin, your pale red lips mirroring exposed muscle.
My memories of you, I think, are of parts of you more so than the whole: your face, your eyes, your hand on my waist, your shadow moving across my thighs.
Once when we were trying to save enough money for you to finish school, I cut your hair with the kitchen shears. You smiled up at me as I worked, not looking in the mirror. It was a terrible haircut, and I felt terrible. But for several days after I had the secret joy of finding pieces of your hair in my pockets and on my clothing. I would find it on the pillow cases and in the bed clothes, mixed in with my own.
I wonder if it would thrill me in the same way now. I don’t know.
Sometimes I wear your sweater when I paint. It fits me in the shoulders, but hangs down well past my waist, almost to my knees. When I slip my hands into the pockets, the grit inside them reminds me of an old memory: I am running my hands through coarse sand, hoping to find something lost there. I was the girl who always looked for jewels that old ladies had forgotten at the seashore. I was certain they were there. I would sift through the sand for hours, looking for diamonds hidden amidst conspicuous sparkles. Once I found a marble that looked like the eye of an animal.
When you were a child, you once told me, you would go to the beach and watch the seabirds. You would watch them wade a little ways into the water, their feet pressed down into the wet sand. If you got close enough, you could see the waterlines on their tiny, thin legs. You would watch them watching you, their cold eyes measuring the distance between your body and the sky. When you got too close, you knew to take several steps back.
I laughed when you said this. “Matthew,” I said, “You should teach classes on boundaries. The doctors I see always get too close. They always press just a little too hard. They need backsteps and seagulls’ eyes to set them right.”
You laughed too, because you knew you should. “Penny,” you said. You traced my name again with your mouth, because you didn’t know what else to say, but you know I like the shape of your mouth.
Like you, my father was a doctor, but he worked in general practice. He would spend long hours at his office. Endless hours, it seemed. He and my mother separated when I was very young.
When I was a child, sometimes I would stay with my father for a week or two at a time. I would borrow the white lab coat that he tucked in the back of his closet and drape it over the bannister of the staircase in the front hall. I would sit on the stairs by myself, waiting. The staircase was my sailboat, and the coat my white sails.
When my father got home, he would pretend that he didn’t see me. He would guess out loud what country I had gone to. It was always a different country, though from time to time they would repeat.
My favourite was always Iceland, though I had never seen it, not even in pictures. I believed that the people there lived in castles made of ice. Their beds were made firmly packed snow. Every morning when they awoke to the morning light, their hair was full of icicles.
“Penelope,” my father would call to me again after a while. “Come home. Your dad gets lost only talking to his own shadow.”
My father’s mother’s name was Isobel. It is also my middle name. I never use it or even think of it, but right now, I am sitting in the hospital, waiting. This is the place where full names matter. My last name too: Klassen.
All nine syllables of my name: these are the weight of my body. They are my outline. They are who I am before I appear. Everything that I am is beneath this name.
My name is printed on the tab of a yellow folder. It is there, tucked under a nurse’s arm. I am in the waiting room. I know I will be called soon.
I look around, wondering if I am the only one there alone. But no, I’m not. It seems that only the nurses cluster together. They other people spread out like boats in a harbour.
The nurse who holds my file is talking to three other dark haired nurses at the reception desk. They are turned away from me. I can’t see their faces, but in my mind their pastel uniforms match their eyes. Their eyes are lilac, sea foam, and dusty rose.
When the nurse calls me, I can see my name again: it is there in the shell-shaped pout of her pink lips.
I hadn’t told you that I came here. Maybe I should have. You had known about other appointments that I have had over the years. But not this one. There were test results that I hadn’t shared with you. I suppose I wanted an answer first.
Because you worry. You always worry about me.
And so it is another doctor, not you, who tells me as I lie there before him that I should not try to have children. Not anytime soon. I shouldn’t. Because there is a constellation of cysts in my uterus that could mean any number of things. And that I would need more tests to know better answers that will determine a course of action.
It could be nothing, he says. As in, nothing to worry about.
But they are not nothing: they fill the sky.
For a few minutes I lay back as he fills out paperwork. I think about the tiny dots on the ceiling tiles. I think about the tingling in my hands. I think about whether anyone ever falls asleep on cold steel tables, and if so, whether they dream of ice castles.
“You can get dressed,” the doctor says after a while. His mouth is a little like yours, but his teeth are perfect white.
You are four floors below me in another ward when he says goodbye to me.
You work on the third floor, where you scrutinize charts and x-rays and forget the colour of your patients’ eyes. I ask you sometimes if you remember them. You laugh and say that you know something deeper. You are humble, but have always believed that you can see deeply into their souls.
I’ve watched you spend hours gazing at images of bones. To me, the images always look like the bones are floating in black water covered by a film of soft grey smoke. I suppose bodies must all start to look the same after a while.
You taught me once years ago how to look for the tiniest crack that is visible in bone: a tiny fissure that looks just like a stray hair trapped on the screen. I wouldn’t have seen it without your direction. We were looking at the x-ray that you had brought home of a small child’s arm.
You told me that when the boy was discharged, he had looked up at you with a wide smile and asked your name so that he could recommend you. His parents behind him held in their laughter by pressing their hands over their mouths.
In the waiting room, there is a woman who has a tattoo of a ship on her arm. She is frail. I can see her bones under her skin; they are simple like the folds in origami. I sit beside her for a while before I go to find you. She looks up at me just as I am leaving.
I take the stairs down to your office. You aren’t there, and so I leave you a message and wait in the cafeteria. I watch the crows fight over food on the concrete balcony.
You come down a while later, surprised to see me. I tell you things, but my voice seems strange.
We leave the hospital together and take the subway home. You wrap one arm around my shoulder. I look out the window at the blur of dark colours that is interrupted every time the subway line runs above the surface of the city.
“I’ll tell you a story,” I say after a while. “One I’ve never told you before.”
We have this game, we do, you and I. You call it our game of memory: a game like children play with cards. You tell me a story from the past, and then I match it with one of my own that has similar features. Or sometimes I start, and then you match my story. The match only needs to be simple. We say we have told each other everything by now. But we haven’t. There are memories that didn’t seem significant at the time. We bring them out when we need them.
As I lean close into your body, I tell you the story about the bird that flew into my window once when I was living in a tiny apartment in Ottawa. It was the year before I met you.
I had been sleeping. The bird hit the window of my bedroom. I didn’t see it when it hit, but I felt it. I heard the sound, the thump of its body, and knew at once what had happened.
I crept down the hallway. I don’t know why, but I was frightened. I slowly opened the door to the yard. The bird was there, just to the side of the back deck. Without thinking, I bent down and cupped its small body in my hands.
It stayed with me for just a minute, and then, startled, it flew through the open door a little ways down the hallway. The light that hung from the ceiling flickered just for an instant at it passed.
It fell down near the bathroom door. One of its wings was slightly bent. I moved a little closer, but I was afraid it would panic if I touched it again. It stumbled as it tried to lift itself.
Not knowing what else to do, I lifted it into a cardboard box. I could feel the bird shivering, though its wings were completely still. I wondered then if birds’ hearts flutter in the same way as the hearts of mammals. And if they stop in the same way.
I called a few friends, hoping they would tell me what to do. No one answered. I shut the bird in the bathroom. I suppose I thought that the smallness of the room would somehow help it to stay intact. Like a brace around its body.
When I came back to check on it, it had moved to the edge of the bathtub. I don’t know how it had gotten there, because I had believed one wing was broken.
I pressed my hands together, open: the outline of the body of a bird. I will always remember it this way. The emptiness of my hands.
I had called animal control. Two men who worked for the city came eventually and took the bird. They looked at me, but I felt they looked through me. I suppose they see so many people.
In the days that followed, I thought from time to time about the bird. I called to check on it, but the only answer I got was from a woman who told me that she would look into it and return my call. She never called back, and I didn’t call again. I told myself they had more important things to do than tell me things I don’t need to know.
You grip my hand as I stop talking. I am surprised when you don’t offer me a story. The lights in the subway car flicker sometimes with no rhyme or reason. You rest your head on my shoulder. For a while, we ride on in silence. At one stop, we see a grey haired homeless woman gripping a broken suitcase. She looks up to the window. Her eyes are a steady ocean blue. You press your hand to the window just as the car starts to move again.
At one of the stops above the ground, we see a small fairground in the distance. Over derelict buildings, we can just see the top of the ferris wheel. Its silver-black bars stand out vividly like words against the white sky. You press a hand against my leg. I think I hear you sigh, but it could have been the sound of the wind against the subway car wheels as they start to move again.
We get off at the next stop and find our way through the unfamiliar streets until we reach the fair. As we walk, you hold my hand, and I realize how seldom we hold hands now when we walk together. We have become so familiar to each other.
At the top of the ferris wheel, you take my hand again. I notice the way your hand quivers a little. There is a look in your eyes that I can’t quite place. But you smile at me kindly, because you understand.
As it starts to get cold, you warm my hands by holding them inside the sleeves of your coat.
“You should rest,” you say. “You’re tired. I’ll take care of you tonight.”
We walk on in silence. We pass by families with children they can’t control and young couples too absorbed in each other to notice anyone else. I bump shoulders with strangers. You steady me as I lean in against your body.
As we walk, you hold my hand. You hold my hand as we walk through the winding grid of the city, waiting to recognize the street names. You hold my hand as the clouds start to wear thin and the moon becomes visible. You hold my hand as I count the night noises in my head. You don’t let go as we walk the rest of the way until we reach home. We stand hand in hand beside the edge of the garden.
“As long as we have each other,” you whisper sweetly beside the silence of my wilted lilies, “It is enough.”
Written by Allison S.