State of Grace

Julia Klatt Singer

 

Henry watched as the cardinal cocked her head.  She sat on the lilac outside the window over the sink, the bush Grace had complained about, whatever the season; it blocked the sun, kept the kitchen in shadow, it was too overgrown, too brambly, knotted and unkempt.  It was, in fact, just the way Henry liked things.

            The bird sat completely still, except for the turn of her head.  First to the left, then the right.  She seemed to be listening for something.  Or maybe hearing something, although Henry couldn’t imagine what.  It was January and the world had gone cold and silent.  There wasn’t a breath of wind today.  The cold had descended and left everything frozen in place.  A god awful month, January.  A month that made you question everything, wonder what the point of living was.  Henry hoped the point wasn’t the message January gave him—just a thing to get through. 

            And then the bird looked directly at Henry.  Such a steady gaze.  Henry didn’t dare breathe, didn’t dare move.  She was eight or so inches away from the pane, and he was only a few inches further away on his side.  He had been rinsing out his coffee mug when he first noticed her.  Set the mug down slowly and stayed there, leaning in.

            What did she see, he wondered.  A reflection of herself?  The glaze on the glass?  The sun’s curve?  Did she see him?  He loved the bronze of her feathers, the muted red cap.  The male cardinals were beautiful when they flew, a flash of red on a blue sky, but sitting still they were too showy for Henry, so bright and cheery, always looking their best.  This female wore her muted colors with such queenly grace.  He wished he could talk to her, wished he could offer her seeds of gold, his devotion.  He imagined himself, down on his knees, head bowed as he held seeds in his cupped hands for her.  He could almost feel her clawed feet landing on his finger, the soft sweep of her beak as it grazed his hand. 

            The thought made him smile.  He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been down on his knees.  Was pretty sure if he tried now, it would kill him. 

            The phone’s ring startled them both.  Before the ring died away she had taken flight.  Damn, Henry muttered.  Damn damn damn.  He wasn’t going to answer it, on principle.  Who needed the goddamn interruption? 

            It rang again.

            And again.  Henry grabbed his walker and shook it to get it rolling.  The phone hung on the wall by the back door.  Before answering it, he glanced out the window of the door, hoping she was there, at the feeder in the backyard, but there was no sign of her.  Two squirrels chased each other around the trunk of the elm, stopping to chitter at one another.

            “Yes.”  Henry said.  Grace had hated when he’d answered the phone this way, and he felt like a defiant child, even though she wasn’t there to hear him. 

            “Henry, is that you?” 

            It was his sister, Hulda.  “Of course it’s me.  Who the hell do you think it would be?  You dialed my number, right?  Wanted to talk to me…”

            “It’s just that it took you so long to answer.  Are you okay?”

            Henry hated these conversations with Hulda. “Calling to see if I’d croaked already?”  Grace died a month ago, and he was pretty sure everyone that knew him figured he wouldn’t last long.  That he was completely incapable of doing anything without her, living included.  He was a useless man.  Cared little about the things necessary to keep ones’ self alive.  He could hear Hulda swallow.  She had this habit of swallowing shallow breaths when she was hurt.  She hated to be scolded, hated grumpiness, but she never seemed to remember that Henry was a scolder and a grump.  Always had been.

            “I wanted to come by today.  To pick up those things of …”

            Henry knew how hard it was for Hulda to say Grace’s name.  They had been friends since they were twelve.  Henry didn’t come into the picture until later, after he’d g rad uated from high school and done a tour of duty.  He was

older than Hulda by almost six years.  When he left for the war, they were girls, children still.  When he returned, all three of them had changed, Grace a beauty then, Hulda a worrier, and he had learned survival has more to do with luck than anything else.

            It was even harder for him to say Grace’s name.  He thought it all the time.  He talked to her regularly, in his head, but he could not say her name out loud.  He knew too, if he was a good brother he’d say something now, instead of letting the silence grow, Grace’s name hanging there between them, but he was not a good brother.  He had not been a particularly good husband either.

            “Henry?  What time should I come by?  Do you need anything?”

            “I’ll be here, Hulda.  All day.  You come by whenever.  And no.  I don’t need nothing.”

            “Okay Henry.  If you think of anything you need, you just call.  I’ll be by after lunch.”  Hulda had raised her voice both in pitch and tone, trying hard to sound cheery.

            “That’s fine.”  Henry hung up the phone.  If I think of anything.  That made Henry laugh.  He wondered if women’s mind were blank most of the time, and then pretty little thoughts popped in like bubbles.  If I think of anything.  What did she think he was doing?  Rattling around this empty house without a single thought?  That he’d given up thinking too?  Wasn’t every wall, every tabletop loaded with thoughts, with memories?  Photos of their children and grandchildren were windows to memories and family events.  The mantle above the fireplace still held all the holiday cards they had gotten this year.  He had tucked the condolence cards behind them. Grace had knit the afghans that draped the couch and chair in the late eighties.  Had wallpapered each room herself, three times over.  Grace had left her fingerprints, drops of her blood, strands of hair everywhere in this house-- her life trapped within them. 

            He knew some of the things were from Roland and Marie.  From when they were children, shop projects Roland had made and given them to use; a dust pan, a wooden picture frame, a bowl he had carved.  And there were pillows Marie had needle-pointed, curtains she had sewn, but Grace had been in this

house nearly every day for the sixty-three years they had shared it, and thus it was hers, all hers. 

            He could count on one hand how many vacations they had taken; add to that the week they spent each summer at Hulda and George’s cabin on Rainy Lake fishing, plus the two, okay three, hospital stays.  He wondered if he should count the third one, if she never came back?

            Henry was still standing by the backdoor, near the phone.  He looked out at the yard, the feeder and bird bath, the gardens covered with snow.  Grace’s gardens.  His eyes traveled the yard, remembering how she liked to putter in them after dinner.  How he and the kids would play catch or chase and find her crouched in a flower bed weeding or transplanting.  They often surprised each other in the dusk of night.  She was so still, blending in with the bushes and green around her.  She always looked like a stranger to him, a beautiful, quiet stranger.

            There she was.  The female cardinal was sitting on top of the fence, blending in too.  She seemed to be gazing about the yard, like him.  Henry watched as she turned her head, slowly this time, taking in the scene.  He found himself wondering if and hoping that the hydrangeas didn’t need anything special to bloom in the spring.  There was a bank of them against the garage and they were his favorite flower.  Fragrant, with blooms too heavy to hold, he loved their richness, how they had more flowers than he could count.  They hadn’t been cut back in the fall.  Grace usually did, but she wasn’t feeling well.  He should have noticed then how weak she’d become, how all the things that mattered to her were falling away. 

            The cardinal was on top of the garage now, near the gutter.  Henry looked back to the fence to make sure it was the same one, not a second one that had entered the scene.  Now the bird hopped down to the long slender stalks of the hydrangeas. 

            Henry wasn’t a man who believed in much.  He found fairy tales and magic like religion-- a silly waste of time.  Seeing the vegetable garden to the side of the garage, he remembered how Marie had wanted a unicorn as a girl.  For a pet of all things. How she was planning on growing food for it to eat, so she could take care of it. He told her right out that they weren’t real and she had fought him.  Grace went so far as to question how he knew they didn’t exist. 

            Who the hell has ever seen one?  Who has one as a pet?  Henry had demanded.

            He remembered how Marie and Grace were sitting at the kitchen table.  Grace was shucking corn for dinner and Marie was drawing a picture of the unicorn she wanted, surrounded by peapods and carrots, broccoli and beets.  They had both smiled at him, after his outburst.  He had expected Grace to narrow her eyes and warn him about being too crass with the child, but she didn’t.  They seemed to be mocking him.

            What are you smiling about? Henry remembered asking then.

            “Certainly you don’t have to see everything you believe in, do you?  We can know things are there, without actual proof, can’t we?”

            Henry had frowned back at her.  “Give me something solid and I’ll tell you it is solid.  If I can hold it in my hand, it’s real.”

 

            The bird was flying now.  Henry rolled his walker back to the kitchen sink, and sure enough she was there, looking in again.  He had this crazy desire to open the window and let her in.  The strangest feeling washed over him.  If he had to name it, right then and there, he would have said it was love, but after a second thought he realized it was longing.  He longed to hold the bird in his hand, stroke its feathers.  He longed to feel its heartbeat, watch its eyes close.  He wanted this bird.  Wanted her.

            “Grace,” he said.  His voice cracking and low.  The bird turned and faced him, sat perfectly still, listening.  “I miss you Grace.  I miss the smell of your hair and the way you talked back to the rad io.  I miss kissing you, like we did when we were young.  When I couldn’t get enough of you.  I miss the smell of your toast starting to burn.  I miss hearing you—

            The cardinal opened its mouth and sang three notes.  Cheer cheer cheer...

 

          “sing.”  Henry swallowed.  Eyes closed, he clutched the edge of the sink.  He knew it was silly, to stand here at the window, tears dripping from his chin.  He knew it was crazy.  He knew if he opened the window right then, she would come in and sit at the table.  He could make her a piece of toast, burnt around the edges, and she would eat it.

          That if he wanted he could hold her in his hand, he could stroke her and kiss her, make love to her again, with his gentle hands, with his words.  Things he’d never done when she was alive.  Worse, things he’d discredited. 

            He was not a gentle man.  He had never believed it was necessary to talk about what he was feeling.  What was the point?  He could remember only a few times actually saying I love you, to Grace.  He had never been an affection man.  He never cried. 

            Opening his eyes, he saw the bird, head cocked, watching him.  She sang again, her simple song.  Henry whistled it back.

            Startled, she sat up straighter, glanced from right to left, then sang again. 

            Henry whistled back to her, softer this time, gentler.  Henry smiled at her, watched as she fluffed up her feather.  Then he began to sing again, adding words this time.  “Blue moon, you saw me standing alone…”

            She hopped to a closer branch, knocked on the window with her beak, turned and flew away.

            Henry watched as she flew.  What grace.  What luck to be a bird.  To see the world from a comfortable height, to feel the wind hold and carry you, to know there was always a safe place to land.  The earth provided everything you needed; seeds, air, branches, rain.  What a joy it would be to live without any need of insurance, a walker, leftovers, grief.  He ought to call Hulda. She had said if he thought of anything he needed, he should call, and by god, he had. He needed a pair of wings.  Pronto.