State of Grace
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
“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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
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
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.