*FOR ONE OF MY DEAREST FRIENDS EVER...
[May 27, 1938 to January 7, 2009]
DOIN' IT RIGHT was long-listed for the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Award in 2012.
*FOR ONE OF MY DEAREST FRIENDS EVER...
[May 27, 1938 to January 7, 2009]
DOIN' IT RIGHT was long-listed for the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Award in 2012.
© Frank Westcott, 2012. All rights reserved & all that legal stuff.
DOIN’ IT RIGHT
“Doin’It Right” is a story about love, loving and comradeship. It involves Irwin, a retired writer, war correspondent, living in Thornton where he has put down roots he lost in childhood. Through his pal Matthew, a late-teenaged mentally challenged youth, he regains himself somewhat by recollecting the war, his loves, his passion and what he is good at. This all happens as a result of a favourite pigeon dying. True love and true friendship are shown in the ending’s silence. It was long-listed for the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Prize in 2012, and is a longer version of my short story IT WAS THEIR TIME. I have also written “Doin’ It Right” as a play.
DOIN’ IT RIGHT
Irwin watched his pigeons circling overhead, and knew one of them was going to be hit. A white female flipped twice then spun down with the flock. A hawk, roving the sky for days, seemed motionless, suspended like a wayward speck, a dot, in white clouds. The hawk’s vision, telescopes in the air, waited to signal its brain releasing its body, a finely tuned machine into a downward plunge of light bones and feathers.
Irwin knew the time would come soon. He'd seen hawks for weeks now, circling and training their young. Spring did that, bringing out the birds and insects almost simultaneously. So far, the hawks had left the pigeons alone, and fed on field mice scurrying along their miniature highways, occasionally visible from above in wispy field grass. The south wind began to blow harder. For the young hawks, it was the time for bigger game and winged targets.
Irwin rattled a metal feed can, a signal to his pigeons to come down. Twenty-seven birds began descending in a long spiral winding their way to the hutch. One cream coloured bird tumbled three times below the others, then, bounced back up like a feathered ball on a yo-yo string. Irwin waited, looking forward to the sound of air passing through feathers as his pigeons fanned their way to the wire mesh flight pen. Fine poultry fencing protected his birds once they were inside. Irwin studied the half-inch holes formed by the grey wire, making sure there were no broken sections. The fencing was solid, securely attached everywhere. He followed the frame’s line as it extended out from the hutch. Once inside, his tumblers and roller pigeons would be safe. Irwin searched the sky, finally locking on the hawk's position. The bird was lower than before. He could see the distinct, dark outline of the bird’s wings. Irwin focused on the curving elbow-like bend, when tucked, propelled the hawk into a killing machine capable of torpedoing the air, and any prey in its scope. Built for speed and force, menacing talons would rip the life out of any small mammal or unwary bird caught in their clutches.
Quickly, Irwin counted his birds ensconced already inside the wire enclosure. Then, he scanned the sky for the two or three birds that strayed earlier from the circling flock. He saw two winging in from the east, rapidly approaching the hutch. There was no way Irwin could tell if his birds knew the hawk was dropping like a stone in a bag. Then in a sudden flurry of black feathers, the red-tailed hawk slammed Lady. Ebony down and long white flight feathers scattered the air around Lady. The hawk's talons penetrated, crushing her light bones. Lady went limp, swinging like a school book at the end of a kid’s arm. The red-tailed hawk sped away. Both the hawk and Lady’s form disappeared over the ridge where Irwin’s field met the valley-lip. The forest rose to meet the skyline shrouding the hawk and Lady in their descent. Lady’s struggle had been short. Irwin was glad he had seen her become quiet. He blinked. Even closing his eyes, he could not block out the image of his favourite bird, head bobbing in the hawk’s talons. Irwin winced. He hated re-seeing behind his closed eyes, the swing of Lady's shiny black head. He could tell from the way she moved her neck was broken.
He had that hen twelve years. Twelve years. Irwin brought Lady from Toronto with him. His one blue-bar, a bristling heavy male almost as old as Lady, made a right angled cut behind the hawk's path, flying wide over the spruce tops. The blue-bar flattened out in the air, his short, strong wings beating furiously as he slip-streamed into the flock, strutting and cooing on the flight pen roof. The blue-bar was agitated, pecking the air like a sunfish tearing at the sides of a dead trout.
Irwin checked the sky. There were no more hawks circling. He thought he saw into the trees near the valley, but knew he couldn't. Yet there, in the back of his mind, it seemed like he saw the hawk rising higher and higher through the trees, then above the trees, then finally high above the clouds and the Sagawaka River. In this dark mind-place where things seemed clear also, Irwin saw the great bird's prey, his beloved Lady, dangling limply, and still, and out of herself, not truly seen in the visible. In Irwin’s inner vision place and with Lady's spirit gone from her body, the red-tailed hawk flew wide away from the river and out of the valley, its wings soundlessly spreading the air.
Irwin lowered his head. He kicked at, but missed, a dry earth-clump. "Lady, you were a good bird,” he said. “You were so sleek. And shiny. And black.” Irwin sighed half grateful, half relieved, and desperate, too. “Lady, you left us an egg. Only one this year to carry you on. Only one Lady. Why… only one?” Suddenly knowledge came to Irwin from some source outside himself, and deep within at the same time. Irwin knew why. “It only takes one egg to carry you on,” he whispered to the air, to his memories and to Lady, wherever she might be. Irwin blinked, again. He stared into the space above his pigeon coop where no bird flew. No bird dared to even walk or strut in this air in and around the flight pen. No bird dared to fill the air with random cooing. To Irwin and the pigeons, this air felt like the air of death. And it was. And loss. Which it was. Neither Irwin nor one of his pigeons cared to give that voice. A deep silence invaded Irwin. His body became quiet. His mind silent. A solitude he had known before, found him once more in this moment of spirit, when catastrophe and loss touched him from the unseen. A heavy thickness seemed to envelope Irwin. All in the circle surrounding him, his space, his coop and his beloved pigeons sensed and knew as never before this was not their space. Alone. It was inhabited by many in the unseen and visible. Irwin did not own this space, his space, in the true sense. He knew this now. Nothing was his. The birds, the farm, even his soul belonged to the universe. Nothing belonged to itself. Everything belonged to some ungovernable force or energy permeating all things. Irwin knew then, clearly, Lady's time had come. She had been called. The hawk was just an intermediary fetching her into the beyond.
In this space surrounding Irwin now, a space of intense feelings triggered by loss, Irwin experienced a sense of the power of the universe. A master of all things. He stood there beside his coop, quiet in himself. He let these feelings fill him, hoping they would restore him, so he could pass out of this occurrence bigger than he was before. With more knowing even if it was a knowing he didn't understand. And he hoped with this knowing, he would be able to move beyond loss, and realize loss of this kind, part of something all knowing, begged him to forgive and be bigger than he truly wanted to entertain at that moment, yet felt compelled to pursue. Something guided his thoughts, something he could feel, sense, know in some other way of knowing he did not comprehend. A way of knowing falling away from every kind of rational thinking, or logic, a way of thinking that seemed to concretize the unfathomable, to make it hard, and fast, and solid in him, somehow. So he could know. Because it seemed that if he wanted to, he could hold these thoughts in his hand, notions strangely objectified in an irrational way.
But this was all outside the present, yet intrinsically connected to it. Part of the beyond, the other, Irwin had heard about and known in bits, especially after Sheila and the war. Pieces of his soul were reconnecting almost mystically twenty-seven years after. After D-Day. After seeing the hawk take Lady, everything seemed to be moving so fast around and in him. When working on a story that took him out of himself, Irwin sometimes felt that way. When the words just seemed to flow out of his fingers like a river, like the Sagawaka, like the Saga. Like words on rapids, so fast and fleet and white hot, he could not contain them. Yet, when finished, these special pieces were whole unto themselves. Finished. In concrete form. Thoughts cemented. Typed symbols damming the flow of words, holding the current fixed, letters on a page. All there for him. To read. To file from overseas to the Star. And he only ever had to fix the typing errors. That was it. When it flowed. When the flow carried a story and the story seemed to carry itself. Dispatches were easy then. Getting to press a snap. It was these pieces that seemed to roll right out Irwin’s fingertips, however rare they might be, that readers wrote the Star’s editor about, saying what a fine job war correspondent, Irwin Daws, had done. The editor would wire these comments to Irwin. Usually attached was a request for a local colour piece for the paper’s weekend edition. Irwin would wire back saying, “Not my gen. War gruesome. No colour.” In his day, Irwin had written stories, columns, everything for the Star Weekly and the daily. During the war he stuck to the nuts and bolts of a story. The facts. And didn’t like colour.
Years later and away from all of that, he had stepped into this other place, this other stream of life and knowing. It was a deeper way of living than he had ever known before. Even with Sheila. And Irwin realized this, because of a red-tailed hawk and his pigeon called Lady. For a second, Irwin thought he saw Lady standing still as a stone on the coop-top. When he looked again, trying to focus on the spot, he saw only clear air, and the passing shadow from an evergreen’s branch jutting down and over the coop's roof.
Irwin shrugged and raked his hair with his fingers. “An optical illusion,” he thought and mumbled. Irwin nodded to himself. It was time to train Matthew to look after the pigeons. Just in case. "Just in case I have to go somewhere," he said aloud, how he would say it to Matthew, "Somebody's got to look after the birds. Right, Matt? Just in case."
Irwin stuck out one hand feeling the air around him, and how it had become thin. Easier to see through. The thickness was gone from him and the air. Irwin closed the flight pen’s door, pushing it securely into position. He turned the jam to the right and set the gate lock tight so no raccoon, skunk or cat could, with dexterous paws, wiggle it loose .
"Bobcat... 'win... Bobcat... or Pete-Cat... or Sally-Cat... Why aren't there other kinds of cats in the bush? Why ? Why just Bobcats? And wild, you know, home cats. D’at makes no sense, ‘win. Makes no sense. Home cats in the bush? Wild? Home cats should be in the house where it’s warm. D’ey dumb."
Irwin laughed lightly, remembering Matthew’s response on hearing how the pigeon coop’s gate- latch would even keep Bobcats out. Irwin slowed into himself and eased away from the coop’s space. It had become cooler. The sun behind the trees created shadows edging a spruce row, bringing dusk to the evening, and a chill around the pigeon coop and woodpile.
Irwin walked away, down to the front of his cabin where he could see across the fields to the flat horizon line holding the sun down. "I'll miss you, Lady," he said to the grey light. "This was the first spring in your life, you only laid one egg. Old Red will miss you too. You bin mates for most of the twelve years I've been back here."
Suddenly, Irwin turned and kicked another grey dirt clump. Puffs of grey soil became airborne around his feet, as he hurried back to the pigeon coop. Once inside, he watched old Red pecking at white grit stones, seemingly unaware of Lady's death. Irwin slammed the hutch door tight behind him and poured fresh seed into the metal floor-tray. He picked up the metal cake tin he used for water, and tossed the old sideways, sending the liquid streaming to the ground. Caught in a beam from the hutch’s overhead light, droplets arced in a silver spray away from Irwin.
"Damn..." Irwin smacked the cake tin against his leg and stepped back outside to draw fresh water from the pump. He splashed some cold water on his face with his left hand and jigged the pump handle with his right. In younger days, he would have cried. The pump sucked air and lost its prime. Irwin filled the dipper hanging from the bucket of water he always kept on the concrete disc covering his well. Irwin jigged the handle vigorously while pouring a dipper-load of life into the pump. He felt the motion of the handle slow down and thicken, as if sluggish with grease. The prime had taken. Irwin splashed more water on his face. Then from the surging spout, he filled the cake tin.
Back inside the hutch, Irwin found Red sitting on Lady's remaining egg. When first laid, Irwin had thought about giving Lady a rest for the summer, replacing the egg with a marble proxy. Relieved he had left nature alone, Irwin sighed, deep and long. With Lady gone, he hoped Red could do the job alone. Irwin slipped his hand under Red's breast. The rough scaly surface of Red’s legs, where they curled into his under body, touched Irwin’s fingertips. Carefully, Irwin put his forefinger and thumb around the one, small, white egg. Gently pulling the egg into his palm, Irwin lifted the egg back out. He turned towards the door and whispered, "Just in case, Lady." Through an opened hutch door, he stared off high over the ridge where the hawk took Lady. Turning back to face inside the hutch, row upon row of nesting boxes looked back at him. He’d fashioned his nesting wall out of orange crates set on four rear wall-length shelves. The orange crates with their natural centre divider made perfect two-nest, portable sections. Nesting ready, he was able to just set them on the removable shelf-boards in late-April or early March. When cleaning became necessary, he could easily remove two nest compartments at a time, do the job, add fresh grass, then set the crate back on the shelf. Four nesting crates to a row. Two nests to a crate. Enough for sixty-four birds a hatching season. With hawk losses, Irwin stabilized his flock to around forty-four birds when fall slid into winter. He'd wait until late summer to cull the numbers. Winter hawk kills and natural cold-weather deaths took their toll. Spring would see him with thirty-plus birds in his breeding flock. Irwin would take his August-cull birds to a Toronto side street, release them in the dark, and later, on visits to the city, occasionally see a bird once belonging to him. His own little joke on Toronto. His birds being rollers and tumblers would flip over in the air, stunning onlookers with their acrobatics. Because of this, his flock’s progeny got special attention when fed by friendly humans on park benches. “Well deserved special attention,” Irwin muttered now, searching the rows of nesting boxes for a suitable surrogate for Lady’s one egg.
Wrapped and warm in his palm, Irwin slipped the egg under a cream coloured pigeon. The Cream and her mottled grey-on-white mate could handle three. She had before. Used to his touch, the Cream stood up for Irwin to put his hand, egg enclosed, under her breast feathers. Irwin felt heat from her light body press into his hand. Irwin released Lady's precious last egg to the straw under the Cream and beside her other two eggs.
"Be a good mom, bird. You're all Lady's got now," Irwin said.
It is fitting, he thought and nodded to himself. The Cream had been one of Lady's offspring several years back. He remembered how he had marveled as the Cream’s glorious palomino-like colouring emerged. He loved how her beautiful boot-feathers, pure white like fresh snow, cascaded over her pink feet. Irwin looked at her white flight feathers shining pure and bright beside her light golden caramel body. "Such a luxurious looking bird, you are," he breathed hopefully, remembering being initially bewildered by her colour. Such a strange genetic combination to come out of old Red and Lady, with her dark ebony black and his vibrant rusty red. Some ancestor, or ancestors, far back in their lineage must have triggered the Cream. Whites, maybe. Or solid creams. Or combinations. When the Cream’s feathering originally grew in, he considered keeping her inside all the time because she looked so gorgeous. He lightly stroked the bird's head, as she settled back onto her nest. "I didn't try to restrict Sheila. And she was the most gorgeous creature I ever knew. I won't do that to you, either. Maybe somehow, you and Sheila are connected. And Lady, too. Sheila's auburn hair looked more like Red than either of you two," Irwin said, noticing how his vocabulary and sentence structure often quickened when he spoke to the birds, or the trees, or the air, letting his thoughts flow out of him to no human presence, but innocently to all life around him. "The vagaries of rural living. Alone," he said to the birds, the coop and whatever else might listen. "Only Helen Green seems to have the appreciation for my linguistic gymnastics in these parts. Her I can talk to. No matter. I've got you birds. Doesn’t get better."
And Irwin wondered at the hours he spent talking to Matthew in long winding meandering sentences about anything at all. Often nothing. But talking. Just talking for the sake of the talk. Communication and connection. Symbiosis that sometimes occurred between two people regardless their intellect or where they came from. Usually, he pondered, a coming together in a way that was far more than the talk itself. An invisible thread between the two speakers, the two listeners, connected by spoken words. And the invisible words. Connected in the invisible by words unspoken.
The mottled-grey male flew from the feed tray to a side-wall perch, and began strutting up and down and along the six foot, flat, one by three. The Cream, settled back on her nest, seemed either unaware or undisturbed that she was now a surrogate mother. The mottled-grey male would accept any egg in the nest once the Cream's scent blanketed the shell.
Irwin stepped back and along the wall’s four rows of nest boxes. He stopped in front of one, Lady's and Red's. Red still squatted on the egg that wasn't there. The phantom egg. Soon, or when old Red returned after a sojourn for feed or water, he would realize the nest was empty. And Lady was gone, too.
"Sorry Red," Irwin said to Lady's mate, a bird alone. Suddenly, Irwin felt a profound affection for this old bird, one of his originals coming from Toronto with him, just like Lady. Irwin stroked Red’s head, smooth under his fingers. "Just in case, Red. Just in case. It’s easier for the Cream and Grey. Single parent-hood is tough in any species. The Cream and Grey-Spot will look after your egg. They'll do it fine. They'll be doin’ it right, Red."
Irwin thought of Bertha, and Matthew, and how she, alone, had raised her mentally retarded son. And defied the town. And the community. And everyone who tried to put her down for having a child out of wedlock. A retard at that. Raising him in full public view. Letting Matthew out like any normal kid. Irwin pondered on this too, while mulling the events of the day.
How strange, he thought. If it wasn't for young Bertha's courage facing the town and church people, Helen Green would never have started her special school and taken Matthew as her first pupil. And Helen Green would never have gone around the countryside, Matthew in tow, encouraging the parents of other feeble minded children to release their embarrassment, and let Helen teach long hidden, mentally challenged youngsters life skills. Embarrassment, Irwin thought. Such a force in life.
Embarrassment fuelling love, fuelling the courage of that loving. Something he might write about one day. If he could ever write again. Words came hard after Sheila’s death. And yet, salvation often came out of tragedy. In a backhanded way, first through Bertha's courage and then Helen Green's, these abnormals, like Matthew, had been given life. Life. Helen had given them life. And in the giving of life, Helen had found her own. In the end, for some in the town, these weak minded youngsters brought a special joy, giving them a new dimension to their lives.
Irwin didn't know if it was the attack on Lady by the hawk, or just the day, that made him think about these things. Then he knew. It was the hawk on Lady. The loss in the attack. As so many attacked those who were different. How a wolf pack charged and put to death a maimed member. Deformed at birth or in battle.
Irwin knew this. He knew humankind was no different. He paused and looked at the nesting box wall, as if he could see into the beyond, past the farm, past the forests, out of the valley and riding the Sagawaka River to some distant place. A holy place he visited only in the shadows of memory. Or… he thought… in the foreshadows of the future. He saw and knew, in these moments.
He had done much in this life. But he knew the most vital, the most courageous had been sticking by Bertha when she got pregnant. And later, helping with Matthew. Taking the town's abuse. Right beside her. Taking Matthew under his wing like the Cream took Lady’s egg. Irwin turned and looked back into the hutch where the Cream sat on a foster egg.
And he knew again and saw again how much the other dynamics in his life, and in life, seemed to mirror each other."Treat this youngin' well, new mother. Love this one," he said to the Cream.
Irwin refocused and saw the bird shapes, but in outline, clearly inside the coop. Even though he had flicked off the interior light, everything was clearer than before. There seemed to be an edge, on edges, he had not seen earlier. A clarity. And again, he knew to be true what he had just thought. One life reflecting another. One seemingly singular element playing out alongside a parallel drama. Yet parallel dramas, linked, mimicking, copying each other, and connected between two parallel lines randomly traversing the Universe. Somehow the orphan egg, his thoughts about Matthew, and everything that had happened on this day were connected. Matthew, raised by Bertha. Loved by him too. Matthew part of his life. Like a son. Not his. Every day. Every day he saw Matthew. No less than if Matthew had been his son. Like a foster son. Like the egg. A son he could never have without Sheila. A kind of son he was able to have by circumstance. The egg. Sheila. Death. War. Lady. The hawk. Red. Even priming the pump all seemed connected. Bertha. Him. Helen Green. The farm. And yes, always Matthew. Nothing by chance. Yet seemingly parallel. In a strange way, Irwin too, had become like an orphan taken in by Matthew, Bertha, Helen and some in the town. Irwin closed the coop’s door and stepped outside.
A one winger, he called them, beings like him. Like Matthew. Like Bertha. Like a one-eyed wolf or a crippled grizzly no longer fighting life, but trying to flow with it. "We're one wingers. You and me, Matthew. Yep. We're one wingers," he had said one time while cleaning out the coop.
Irwin laughed in his mind, and out loud, and in his voice, recalling Matthew's response, "Good thing we not birds, `win." And Matthew had smiled at some mind-image he saw of one-winged Irwins or one winged Matthews. "We not fly too good on ohnee one wing," Matthew had said, and thought, and giggled too, suddenly realizing something, "...unless we fly togedder...`win... D’en we have two wings... D’en we can be ohnee one wingers and fly... D’en we have two wings… if we fly togedder like ‘ttached… D’en we got two wings like d’em birds got... Yep... Dat’s how we could do it. …`win... eh? "
"Yep... That be okay, Matt..." Irwin had said, putting a flat warm hand on Matthew's head.
And now, Matthew was beloved by him. One wing. Or no wings. And by Helen. By some who frequented Bertha's Cafe. And, despised by others who could not comprehend the right of the feeble minded to have lives. And feelings. And intelligences however different they might be, however uncannily touching a knowing, a simplicity others could not. A knowing of a different sort. Vive la difference! Irwin thought then, and still did.
Irwin shook his head, his mind having wandered to so many places in the last little while. He thought how the closed minded missed out on the inherent goodness found in some feeble minded. Or those who were different by choice, or made so by life circumstance. Perhaps the feeble minded were the truly blessed. Matthew had an unconditional way of loving, Irwin had never encountered before, anywhere. Even in Sheila. Then he stopped. This train. Of thought. Suddenly jolting him to a mental halt. Bertha had it too. This way of loving. Of caring. As long as. You. Didn't abuse it. She had always accepted Irwin. As he had her. In these moments, Irwin saw more in the connections between people, in their bonds of commonality, bringing them together, linked by the mysterious in the commonplace. The simple. "It is in the commonplace, everyday events, in the day to day business of living, the answers to the true mysteries lie,” he whispered, then said in full voice, “A singer sings. A writer writes. A magician makes magic. An anything, or an anyone, doing what they were made for… answers their own question. Be it Matthew. Or Bertha. Or even himself. In that doing, a self could be found. And sometimes, you get a human with gifts that seem to come from the beyond, that grow from many roots housed in one mysterious underground bulb. Ah... Bertha you have it, too, these gifts, as does your son. I am blessed by your presence," he said, then Irwin went back into his pigeon coop. He picked up old Red and pressed the bird to his cheek, snuggling into the feathers and the smooth surface of Red’s beak where it touched his skin. "It was her time, Red."
The next morning when Irwin went out at dawn to open the hutch-flap and release the birds to their freedom in the air, he saw the red pigeon, flat and stiff, with both wings spread wide lying on the floor. Irwin nodded to himself. A mystery had circled him and guided his hand on the previous day. The Cream stood and stepped out of her nesting box away from the three eggs. Her mate, the mottled grey male, hopped from his perch and nestled in on top of the soon-to-hatch, pure white eggs. One egg Lady's and old Red's. The other two their own.
"I wonder what your last one will be like?" Irwin said, bending to pick up the stiff reddish form that had been Lady's mate. A long slow tear rolled down his cheek, off his chin, to the dirt floor.
Irwin wiped his chin, embarrassed by this display of emotion. Then he realized he was totally alone. His face contorted. A cry squeezed from him. And he wished, somehow, he had been able to find peace on this Earth. And he thought of his nephew, Yewell and Yewell's dear mother, Edna, his sister-in-law. Then an image of his vitriolic brother, Reverend Calvin C. Daws. His history flashing in his mind. Irwin winced. Pulled into himself. Hate filled him.
Irwin lifted old Red by one wing. One wing. He never liked this part of having birds. Irwin carried Red out of the coop by this one wing. But, he held his arm stiff. So the bird would not swing loosely at his side and be disgraced in its death-form. Head swinging. And by its flat, stiff form, so different from the sleek, light, power of the bird in flight, or while perching on a nesting box’s edge, waiting to take his turn squatting softly on Lady’s eggs.
Irwin kept his gaze straight ahead, staring over the tall field-grass stretching to the valley and trees. He saw into the shadows there, and imagined Lady's spirit flying out of the hawk like a flurry of black and white, black on white, feathers in a turbulent slipstream. Even though old Red's form still dangled from his right arm, Irwin did not see the bird there. He saw old Red flying out of a cloud. Towards Lady. A white, cumulous cloud. And Red flew down into a powder blue sky, joining Lady in mid-flight. In his reverie, Irwin witnessed the spirits of these two birds realigning and flying together, once more. From this mind-place, Irwin watched Lady and ol’ Red fly straight up the valley to the bridge where they ducked down in unison, swept the air away under them and sliced a wind-current, whisking them out of danger from the bridge’s cement pilings. Irwin then watched the spirits of ol’ Red and Lady pop out from under the bridge’s far side, and flap mightily, straight up, higher and higher, and levelling off. Gliding. Flip-flip-flip. Somersaulting backwards. Together. Perfectly timed.
Irwin stopped beside a soft spot in the field where his once regularly cut lawn ended, and field grass and weeds now bloomed. He liked it better this way. Natural. He drew a circle with a stick around a particularly tall stalk of bright blue wildflowers, he couldn't identify, but liked. Then Irwin set old Red down inside the circle, close to the plant’s stalk. He kicked the grey-brown dirt and watched it burst in a flame of soil in the short air over his boot. The land is dry, he thought, and walked back to the cabin where he took a shovel off the wall under the back eve. Shovel in hand, he returned to the field’s edge, and stood in front of the wild blue flowers. Irwin inserted the shovel-tip into the soil. He stood on the steel flange, letting his weight drive the blade downward, deeply into the ground. With each shovelful, he gradually made a circular pattern away from the plant. Irwin massaged the soil by turning the shovel-blade enough, so no main root-stems would be cut. He dug. And dug. And dug. Even after the digging, as if reaching down into his soul instead of the soil, he did not notice how his other pigeons had all flown from the coop, and were poking around in the dirt, pecking at coarse sand and bits of gravel, devouring the vital grit they consumed to help digest the grains they ate. The Universe seemed to enclose the scene in something larger than even itself, yet at the same time, bring everything into its own frame. Clearly. Something special. Yet hazily defined in the grey-light of evening. To an onlooker, if there had been one, two entities existed boldly in the moment, a flock of birds and one man, both entities unto themselves. Yet their energies functioning as one in this, combining to make a bigger moment. Life condensed into this bigger thing. Of pain. Of love. Of hurt. Bringing all together in a truth known only in the unseen and quiet simple moments. One man digging in the dirt, unknown to himself, yet finding himself in the moment of doing, finding the universal frame of existence.
Irwin dug. He listened for nothing. He looked for nothing. He became robotic. Mechanical. Seeing into some dark place where silence reigned. And stiffness.
The images of the spirit flight of Lady and Red haunted Irwin. Part of him felt as if he was only an old man digging a hole in the earth. A hole where he could bury the body of an old pigeon. A bird. Passed on. Immersed in his feelings, he had no way of knowing how much he had personified this bird. Old Red, Lady’s mate. Irwin knew, one day the ground would take him, too. And in the not too far off, he would join Lady and Red. He could feel it.
The dark, hard place inside where he seemed to be now, told him. In Red’s old body he could see himself. Irwin felt as if he was burying, putting to rest, a part of himself. Putting to bed an old friend. Red. Himself. Sheila. Dressing an old wound. And this was so...
Irwin stood in this hard dark place he was now, Thornton, a town and a farm he left many years before. In some ways, it was Thornton he had returned to after the war, as much because he had nothing else to do, as a returning home.
Mechanical and unthinking, Irwin bent over the hole he had just dug. He reached across this space, his fingers finding old Red's lifeless form. He lifted his revered bird by one wing and laid him down inside the hole, a hole where even in this dry spring a cool dampness breathed out of the earth. Irwin leaned forward, farther still, and snapped off a blue flower from its earthly bouquet. Carefully, almost tenderly, Irwin set the royal blue blossom on top of old Red's breast.
"I see you here, Red," he said, "But I see you in some other space, too. Maybe we'll cross feathers again someday. Say hello to Lady for me... and Sheila."
As Irwin began to shovel the soft earth back into the hole, and on top of Red, he was able to leave the dark hard place inside. His inner eye looked past the bridge, where in his mind and heart, he had left the bird spirits to fly to a new horizon. There, in this new special place, he saw them fly into the branches of a tall, perfectly formed, spruce tree looking out, and over and up, then down a long deep lush valley, he couldn't quite see into. In life, his pigeons rarely, if ever, landed in an evergreen tree. Even in winter when the thick green branches would have protected them from a sudden storm, they would only ever come down onto a leafless, deciduous tree's branch. Need clear sight lines, he had thought, once. And it stayed with him. But these two spirit images of Lady and Red landed on a bouncing wide green bough. Then they walked one behind the other along the branch to a shadow-place near the tree's thick wide trunk. The birds, his birds, Lady and ol' Red seemed to enter the shadow place. It was dark. Black. But not hard like it was inside when he had been thinking of Sheila. This was a soft black. A soft dark. A place he wanted to be. With them. And, Sheila. It was there. In this place. The birds leaned forward in this place, and space, flying deeply, so deeply, into some magic thing. A magical place. Irwin wanted to join them. And in his mind, he took off with them flying deeply into this space. And it became light. The darkness left. He was in the place of spirit. They were in the place of spirit. Three of them. Four of them. Ol' Red. Lady. And... and... Sheila and Irwin.
Irwin knew on some level that Red had gone on to be with Lady. They were more than just Earth-mates. They must have been spirit-mates on some level, in some mysterious way he did not understand but felt close to. As if he could touch it. And almost hold it. But this thing dangled in space just beyond Irwin’s reach.
Yet he knew, Lady and Red were spirit-mates in the true sense. In a way, it was like he and Sheila had been. Almost. But he and Sheila were never able to connect completely in their war-shortened time together. They had connected in part. Not totally. Not for always. They had only a brief glimpse. What they might have had, lost in a London air raid. Then Irwin wondered, were his thoughts and memories really Sheila reaching out to him from the other side connecting in this moment. This was foreign to him. But it was there. Almost breathing on him. In the way he felt close to Red and Lady, and where they now existed.
As his thoughts, these meanderings on the edges of something he rarely got close to, swung all around him, Irwin knelt in the soil, and slowly began sliding loose dirt in upon Red. Irwin did not see his hands moving the earth. He saw only the clear grey in the tears flooding his eyes. Tears he had not cried when his own mother died. Or when he learned of his father's passing. But tears he had cried, over and over, when the building collapsed around Sheila. His beloved Sheila.
Irwin convulsed now, remembering the life they had. A life he still lived. A life Sheila had left him to live out alone.
Irwin dug on. Scraping. Scraping into grey loose soil and dry earth around the hole. Slowly, Red became completely covered by the soil, still, like a perch fanning itself with invisible fins deep under the surface of cool waters. Irwin imagined this, hoping Red was swimming in the air, somewhere, doing his acrobatics. There in this place he would fly, now. And always. "Enjoy your travels wherever you might be, Red," he said, gently tamping the grey grave soil with the flat of the shovel blade. He looked around for a rock, something, to put on top. To mark Red's passing. Nothing handy.
Irwin set the shovel down and walked back to the pigeon coop, his boot kicking and spraying dirt in all directions. The birds, pecking in the grey dry dirt, scattered as he walked past. A few tools, a rake, a pick and an axe, leaned against the coop. Irwin shrugged into himself, holding his emotions tight, hard, inside, where he couldn't let them go. Just then. He reached into the moment, into something he was still trying to grasp fully. The quiet smell of straw and pigeons blew through the coop back to him.
Then he saw it. What he wanted and hadn't known he wanted. A young birch growing beside the woodpile. A keen white birch, he had meant to dig up each of the past three springs and plant away from the cabin. For three falls, he had carefully stacked wood around the tree, saving it for transplanting the following year, when spring moisture was still in the ground and there was ice a few shovelfuls down. The best time to move a birch. Each long May weekend, he had just not gotten around to it. Waiting too long. Now, he knew why this tree had stayed, even if he didn't leave the tree on purpose, for now, deliberately.
Irwin went back to the coop’s wall for another shovel. The ground and heat-browned field grass groaned under each step. The sound of his feet and the sound of his thoughts inside his head both seemed to crunch their way to the young birch, and the wood pile. With one boot heavy on the shovel's steel stepping curve, Irwin sunk the blade into the earth, and turned the sod clump over onto itself. Onto the grass. Trampled by all this activity. Under the sod line, he watched a worm wiggle out of the shovel's way and into the rich black soil, rich and moist still, from Irwin’s morning spray of the coop and flight pen. "You are some rich soil here earth," he muttered to the worm and the soil, adding between huffs, shoveling, and between thoughts, "Pigeon poo makes you rich dirt. Pay dirt, I suppose. No wonder this young birch has thrived."
Carefully, Irwin dug around the tree. Slowly. Deliberately. Using the motion and the work to pull the pain out of him. Irwin shook his head. "It's just a silly bird. A silly bird." But Irwin knew it was more than that. So much more. It was about him. Lady. Red. Sheila. Being alone. Bertha. Matthew. No blood family in his life. Living in the past. And somehow walking through to this, to this present, in this mist, this inner mist, surrounding him on this day. Love? He wondered about love. Is there such a thing? Such a thing that was true? He shrugged and wanted to know that there was. Yet, he believed, life told him over and over this was not so. Ever. With these thoughts disgracing the love of Sheila, Matthew and Bertha, the pace of his digging picked up. Anger immersed itself in his digging. Anger. Red anger. "Too much... Too much..." he sobbed, jostling the shovel deeper into the earth around the young birch. It was time, he thought and felt, but didn't know for what.
As the space around the birch trunk's base became a rich deep furrow, Irwin slowed. Sweat rolled down from his arm pits, and inside his shirt. Irwin folded his elbows into his sides, like a bird folding its wings, and squished sweat back into his armpits and the hair there. A soft, sucking sound squelched from under his arms. "Matthew would like that sound, tree," he said to the birch, as if it truly shared this moment with him. Irwin nodded and thought and said aloud, "Yes tree, you share this moment with me. And Red. And Lady. With Matthew, too. I'll tell him about the arm squishing, later. You are part of this, tree. And you will grow tall. With old Red you will grow tall. You are so much a part of this, tree. Whatever this is. Must be going crazy talking to you, tree," he said slowly, happily, grinning now. He felt okay."May be crazy. But, I'll be happy…"
Irwin stepped back, enjoying the moment. The present. This.
"About three feet you are, tree. The perfect marker for Red."
Then, Irwin slid the shovel blade into the trough in the black earth, and dug under the wide root bundle below the tree trunk's base. Leaning on the shovel-end using the trough-edge for leverage, he pried upwards, heavily leaning on the shovel, forcing the remaining hair-roots away from the soil. Irwin lifted. The young tree with enough dirt around the birch's vital root system to foster new growth, balanced on the shovel’s blade.
Irwin grinned. Again. Big. Like before. Happy. For some reason. Happy. He had done right. Here. This was right. It felt so. It was, so. Right.
"Watcha doin' `win?" Matthew's voice came in a holler from the drive. A
Matthew holler. "You movin' d'at tree now? ‘afore we chop more wood... for where the tree goes... went... ah.. is... was... ‘afore we chop wood... You gonna chop winter wood, now... `win...? D'at what you be doin', now? D'at be what you be up to? Is d’at what you, we, be up to wi' d'at tree you got carrying on yer shovel ting d’ere..."
Irwin laughed. Feeling good. With Matthew there. And feeling good with everything. Suddenly. Oddly. It was a small laugh. A happy laugh. One with love and beauty in it. And affection and joy. This simple man-boy had arrived like he so often did, just when Irwin needed a spirit boost. And he had already been boosted by the tree. His conversations with a tree. The tree. And he thought, how odd so many tree things, today? So many tree things. He lifted harder on the shovel, holding it steady so the tree wouldn't fall. For Red’s sake that became important.
"No, I’m not chopping wood," he said slowly, not knowing how to say it other than to just say it. "I'm making a marker for ol' Red, Matt. He's gone."
"Dead gone? Or he fly somewhere… gone? Away… gone?"
"Dead gone," Irwin said matter-of-factly.
"Ah... me sorry... `win.. Him old dough... Him be ready ta die... Huh...`win...? Him wanna move on from d'is place... eh? Huh? Huh, `win?"
"Yes..." Irwin said, and looked at the tree, and thought of seeing images of Red and Lady flying over, to, around and disappearing into a tree from the other side. In the world of spirit it seemed. Then. When he saw it. That way. In his mind. Or wherever it was that he saw it. Irwin dipped the shovel a couple of times in the air, as if the blade could nod, too. As he nodded to Matthew. Now. And the tree. And the universe. That was about them. In this moment. These moments. In a way and ways he didn't fully understand. Couldn't understand. Yet, it was there for him more and more, in and around, whatever was happening. He could feel it. It was in this town. This place. This farm. His farm. Where he grew up. Then left. Coming back. After Sheila died. After the war. And after his father died, leaving the farm to him. And there was the valley. And all Matthew had ever really known. Ever. So simple. So profound. So both. And Mathew so understanding of something else. That other thing, he, Irwin, was trying to grasp. Get a hold of. "Mathew, you are one fine philosopher. One fine philosopher."
"A.... a... a... `ill aw... What... am I ,`win. ? Waht you sayin’ I am? I'm a `aw-pher?"
"Yup" Irwin said to this man-boy. "You are one fine phil-ah-saw-pher, Matt. Phil-ah-saw-fer," he said slowly, pronouncing the syllables separately."Wanna help me fill the hole for this tree when I dig it?"
"Can I do the diggin' an' you do the fillin'? I could phil-awwwww-sawwww-fer fill it!" Matthew grinned and asked.
"You could at that, " and Irwin could smell Matthew, as Matthew stepped in beside him, Matthew, with his bulk and valley sweat and cafe breakfast smells of coffee and bacon… and Bertha's cooking on him. Warm smells.
"You smell good enough to eat," Irwin said. "Breakfast all done?"
"No. ‘ustomers still there. Me done. An' me come here to see you… 'win. No fishin' today. Me sleep in…Jus’ enuff time for floor cleanin'... ‘n sweepin’ wi’ my new broom."
A few days before, Irwin had bought Matthew a new broom. Extra wide. With good bristles.
"Broom a good one `win. Broom a good one. Sweep up d'em dirt tings an' food crum-dumbs real good."
The man and man-boy stopped at the blue flower clump where the soft recently disturbed soil awaited Irwin's return.
"Me dig? You scrape?" Matthew asked, pointing at the other shovel lying on the ground.
Irwin nodded. A short way from the blue flower, he drew a circle in the dirt. Away enough from Red.
"It be good d’is," Matthew said. "Tree on one end an' blue flower on one end. Not both on one. Ya know, each on its own end. Like d’at." Matthew gestured at the disturbed soil. "An' ol' Red in the mid-dul. Him fly troo d'uh earth, now,`win. Him be flyin' troo d’uh earth. Him be doin' d'at I bet. Do you bet it,
"I bet it, too, Mathew." Trying to stay silent, Irwin lowered the birch to the ground, and with one hand on Matthew's back he guided this hulking man-boy to the other shovel.
"Me dig careful, now? Red be in there," Mathew said, bending over the shovel as if it were a delicate instrument. He pressed his huge work boot onto the blade-top. The shovel cut into the earth. Swiftly. Like a knife. With precision accuracy. Staying perfectly inside Irwin's boot-made circle-guide. Red would be undisturbed.
"D’is be good," Matthew stretched. "Red like d’is place, 'win. Him not have to fly high no more. Mmmmm. Lady... be... uh... lonely, huh...`win?"
Irwin played with a leaf on the young birch. "She be dead too, Matt," Irwin said, speaking again, in the language of Matthew.
Irwin glanced up. Matthew followed his gaze. "Hawk... D`em new hawks do it?"
"Yup," Irwin said, looking away towards the valley.
"She be with Red now, too. D'em fly in dat udder place togedder, now. D'em be togedder like when d'ey was here. Huh... `win? D'at be it `win. Huh?"
"That be it, Matt. You know it, Matt. You say it right. The right way. And that's how it is. The way you say it."
Matthew stopped shovelling, gasped and hopped from side to side, pounding one foot after the other, hard and thudding, onto the ground. He started running back to the coop, "...`win! ...`win! Dee egg. Dee udder egg! It be gettin' cold... `win! We godda move dee egg!"
"Matthew! Matthew! It's okay, lad. Matt..." Irwin paused, catching up to Matthew. He put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. Steadying him. Relaxing him. Irwin shifted. Moving around in front of Matthew. Square. Facing Matt. Seeing straight into his eyes. "Matt... It's okay... I moved it... It's all right... The egg is okay... The Cream has it... And that grey you like... The egg is fine, Matt... The Cream took it right in..."
Matthew made a show of wiping his forearm across his brow. "Whew! D'at be good `win... You done it right! An..." and Matthew grinned. "And... me say it right... about Lady ‘n Red. Dat be the way it is, huh, `win?"
"That be so, Matthew."So... is the tree-hole ready? Let's have a look." Irwin patted Matthew on the back. It always seemed so simple with Matthew. Not black and white simple. But simple. Matthew, so accepting of the way it is. The way things were. Yet wanting to take care of what is for as long as it was part of his life.
Irwin stepped to the hole and looked at the birch's root mass. He nodded, and as if on cue Matthew nodded, too. "It'll be fine, Matthew. This is good."
Irwin lifted the birch, holding the shovel's shaft in one hand and the shovel's blade tight in the other to support the root's bulk. Then he stepped back and over the hole grasping the birch's trunk, and keeping the tree erect by leaning the branches onto his shoulder. Propping the blade up with one foot, he tilted the shovel and slid the root-ball into the hole.
Irwin adjusted the tree. He wanted it to stand straight. He checked the root hairs to be sure they were untangled from the ball of earth, and not embedded like fine netting. Satisfied the roots were free to take hold, he motioned to Matthew, "Wanna scrape?"
"Yup. Me scrape," Matthew said. With his hand, he swiftly and steadily swept the dirt back into the hole. As the earth fell over the root ball, Irwin smoothed the soil and moved it evenly around the tree. Occasionally, he gave the tree trunk a shake to draw the loose soil in tighter to the roots. As the hole filled, he glanced off towards the valley, and saw two specks soaring high under a streak of white striated clouds. Irwin's stomach muscles tightened. And his fingers clutched at the soil.
"What, `win? What do you see, up d'ere? What `win?"
"Hawks... The hawks..."
"Dat be d'eir sky too, `win. Not jus' ours. Not jus' dah pigeons. Not jus', Red's... 'n Lady's... Well.., not dem, anymore... You know, `win... It's everybody's sky." Matthew stopped. Then looked at this seemingly ancient man who was his closest friend in all the world, the one man he could just talk to, and whatever came out, or however it came out... was okay. He took a deep breath, expanding his chest, feeling sad for his friend. "It be okay, `win. D'uh sky be ours, too... if we could fly... in it... But we can't, 'win... not even with two…. Err… four…wings us tagedder... We can't do dat, ‘win..."
Matthew leaned his shovel's long grey-brown handle flat against his chest. Vigorously, he flapped his arms in the air. "See `win. Me not fly... Me not ride the air-train..." Matthew pulled on an imaginary train whistle’s chord, "Choo-choo-choo… Dem hawks can do it... Like d'is... when dey flap. Not me ‘win… Not you... See, `win? Pigeons be okay. Da hawks… dem got Lady. Me watch dee air and me chase duh birds back in if dah hawks come. Me do dat. See… `win?"
Matthew crouched down on one knee, so he could put his arm across Irwin's back in the way Irwin had done so many times to him. " `win... you kin smile now... It be okay... Lady and Red be togedder... Dey want to be togedder... Red be lonely all by hisself... here... By hisself... Like me be... if you go in dee air wid duh hawk... or Lady... Me be like Red... Me want to go in dee hole den, too... `win... Me go in dah hole... when you go... huh...`win...? Me do dat...? Me love you... `win..."
Irwin felt his chest fill with hard air driven by the emotion welling from deep inside. He brushed the back of his hand across his eyes. He looked off over the trees, their tall spires swaying like sailboat masts rocking in a Toronto harbour. "Thank you, Matthew. You said it right. Again."
"Me did? Me be doin’ it right, ‘win?”
“You be doin’ it right, Matt.”
“We be doin’ it right for Red… and for us, too… right ‘win?”
"Oh yes, Matthew. Child of God, Irwin thought, remembering the meaning of Matthew’s name. “We be doin’ it so very, very right." Irwin stood and watched Matthew scrape the rest of the loose soil back into the hole. When Matthew stopped, Irwin stood at the base of the tree. He stepped around the trunk a couple of times, the trunk reminding him of a May Pole, as he tamped down the earth with his weight and shoe bottoms.
"Me do dat with you, `win." Matthew stepped in beside Irwin. Together, arms linked at their elbows, they jigged around and around the three foot high young birch, flattening the rich earth into the tree’s base.
Coming from behind and near the pigeon coop, they heard high happy laugher. It was Bertha. "What on earth are you two doing?"
Irwin giggled and felt the happiness that had touched him earlier. "A rain dance!" he called, across the short space of patchy grass to the driveway where Bertha stood. In his mind, he saw a flash of Bertha, much younger and hanging around his cabin, and so much thinner. Never skinny, she had rounded out during the in-between years. Having Matthew. Eating her good cafe cooking. And being relatively inactive except for her restaurant work. But in that flash, that moment of laughing and joy, Irwin had seen her young again, vibrant, solid and determined. Determined to do something with her life. And she had, already. She brought Matthew into the world. She displayed the courage to raise him, a mentally handicapped boy, as if normal, in full view of the public in a small country 1950’s town. And out of wedlock. By herself. Except for Irwin. Irwin who loaned her a stake to start the café. Irwin, who never expected repayment. Finding his joy inside himself. Being good to and for Matthew. Like a father. And to Bertha. Like the father she never had. Bertha had been so strong that over time, most of the community had accepted her, her son, and her way of life. An oddity, perhaps. But commanding a certain respect.
Irwin sucked in air, gasping quickly, realizing this man-boy and his mother were the fulcrum in his life. Without them, his life would be meaningless, making his last years on the farm a complete waste. They gave. And received. Easily. Lovingly. Joyfully. He loved Matthew and Bertha as if they were his own. And trusted them without reservation.
"Hey! Ma-umm! We put Red in dah ground, here. Him got duh tree to know where he be. See! You come? See."
Bertha angled across the patchy grass and gravel to the loose soil where Irwin and Matthew stood. She saw both men looking down, as she approached. They waited for her to speak, heads bowed out of some unspoken, yet acknowledged reverence for Red. Matthew pointed. A gush of air blew from his nose. Bertha put a hand on her son's broad back. She leaned into Irwin, so the soft flesh of her shoulder pushed into him. In both men’s bodies, she could feel the sadness, the emptiness that also held them in a strange inner fullness, a completeness, a closeness to each other, and the land.
Bertha nodded. She sensed this about this moment. But that was all. Just a sensing without words attached. She couldn't quite grasp what she felt or touched in the men. Man-boy and man. Man and boy. Her son. And Irwin.
Somehow, Irwin had been able to connect with Matthew in a way she couldn't. In a quieter way. They seemed to meet in the stillness of each other's souls. Often just being. Simply.Quietly. In each other's presence. Doing chores. With little talk. And in other times, but with the same effect, a steady rambling, rolling chatter from Matthew that filled the space that held them, connecting them in the invisible. Like the men, Bertha looked down at the mound of earth in front of the tree.
"Want help to gather some stones?" she asked, softly.
Irwin shook his head.
"Not for this one. The tree. We just want the tree... for this one."
"Dis one be, Red," Matthew said, emphasizing the word red. The name. That verbal symbol. That gave a creature identity. A place. An identifiable marker, floating in the air as a word, without which all would seem insignificant.
"The name gives him his place," Bertha said in her soft, solemn voice. She knew how the loss of this bird, and these moments were affecting Irwin and Matthew profoundly. She sensed these things, in her special way. If someone had asked her about the moment, she would not have been able to describe it, fully, as she experienced it now. She would only have been able to tell of the events. The details. And through the details and her voice's tone, another might, too, sense the loss, felt by Matthew and Irwin.
"Here,” Bertha stepped to the side and bent over a patch of grass sprouting daisies. "May I?" She picked one, and held it out waiting for permission to set it on Red’s grave.
Irwin looked her way, then at Matthew. Matthew nodded. "Red be likin' dat... He be likin' dat from his new flyin' place... when he flies past in duh wind... huh.., `win? Red be likin' dat."
"Yes," Irwin said, "He'll be liking that, right now.” He paused, then partly out of habit and partly to lighten the mood, he started a word-play Matthew loved, “Who-you say?"
"You say-I say-who say!" Matthew bubbled quickly, picking up on Irwin’s cue. But Matthew had reacted. His heart had not been part of the response as it always was in happier times. "Me get one, too," Matthew said, stopping the game, stepping over to the grass patch and yanking a daisy from its roots. Softly, like his mother, he laid the short stem on Red’s grave.
Irwin stepped backwards. Then sideways. And snapped a long daisy’s stem near its base. He eyed the two flowers side by side over Red. He folded his stem to match the length of the other two. Then kneeling slowly, he set his flat on the earth between Bertha's and Matthew's.
"Just like three bugs in a rug… d'at are daisies in’tead… keepin' Red comp…any…” Matthew said. “Dey be like us. Dose flowers. You ‘win, ‘n me ‘n ma-umm be like dose flowers, ‘win. We be togedder keeping Red company here where he sleep in duh dead place," Matthew sighed and seemed to feel a peace, or a wholeness with the placing of the flowers on Red’s grave.
"Yes, like three bugs in rug. You're my silly bugs in my big rug," Bertha said, now, lighter and less grave. Once more, she touched these men putting a flat, warm hand on the back of each. She looked to her sides trying to catch the frame of their eyes, to get a glimpse at their pupils to see where they were emotionally.
Irwin shrugged. "Seems a lot over a bird, Bertha. A lot… I suppose."
Bertha shook her head. Death always affected Irwin deeply. Besides her and Matthew, he had no one. Ostracized by his brother. His brother and brother’s son his only known, living kin. Irwin’s beloved Sheila dying years before in the war. She and Matthew were all this dear, kind man had.
Bertha blinked rapidly, holding back her tears. "No.... Irwin... It’s not a lot for a bird. It’s not a lot for anyone... or anything special." Bertha quickly corrected herself.
"Anyone," Irwin said, simply. Softly.
And Irwin slid back through his mind and memories to Sheila. Red hair. Full of life. Glittering blue eyes. Rosy cheeks. High the way he loved them. Cheeks that flashed pink when she became embarrassed or excited. Ah… and a brilliant mind to match his. Then. Irwin’s mind seemed to deaden after the war. After Sheila. He dried up.
"War does that to you," Bill Donnelly, at the paper had said. "Take some time off. You've earned it. Come back when you're ready."
Irwin took the time off.
A long time.
He thought he would go back. But as the weeks passed. Then the months. Then a year. He knew he would never go back. Irwin had come home. To Thornton. Where he grew up. To the farm he inherited when his father died. Back for a short time, he thought. But he never left, except to gather his birds from their Toronto loft, pick up a few things at his flat, and for his yearly flock culling jaunts.
No place had ever seemed home. Not even when he had visited the farm. Yet over time, somehow the presence of Matthew and Bertha in his life, brought him home inside. When that happened, he began to feel at home at the farm, too.
"You're a misplaced soul," Sheila would sometimes say in London during the war and in their earliest days together. "That's what you remind me of... Except when we.... when we..."
And Irwin remembered nodding and finishing the sentence for her, "...except when we make love..."
And he remembered Sheila's blue eyes sparkling, big and round, and her red hair shining so beautifully in the sun spreading through their hotel room, that day. It had been a day of sun. And a day of war. Yet, it had been like a holiday for them. The war had its moments. Maybe it was the compression of everything. Maybe, as bombs exploded around London, it was the awareness that death could come to anyone. Anytime, that did it. Brought the poignancy. Of the moment. Some moments. To a head.
For some strange reason, the previous night the night before had been quiet, as if preparing them, opening them, readying them for the soft sun the following day. A rare day of sun, soft sun, in wartime London.
"Come," Sheila had said, "Let me heat up some biscuits. And she had gone to the small gas stove in the corner of Irwin's room, and lit the pilot light. He remembered watching her bend to reach into the oven, look inside, then slide a tray of tea biscuits onto the racks. Sheila had brought a thin roll of foil, wrapped on a typewriter pencil. He still had that pencil. On his desk. A circular eraser on one end with and a brush on the other. A brush to fan away eraser bits. From a story. A dispatch. About the war. “Rub-crumbs,” Sheila called them. "…all over your table, “she had said staring at the last page of copy for the week. Irwin remembered seeing the page arcing backwards over the typewriter spindle, and how Sheila had to bend lower to read the last line. He loved watching her bend.
"Nice touch," she said, tapping the table with the eraser pencil she kept stuck in her hair.
"The ending?" he had asked.
"No! The rub-crumbs all over your table! Looks like you've never swept them away."
And Irwin had realized that for all the stories, for all the war-time writing in his London room, for all of that time, he had never cleaned them up. Those rub-crumbs, as Sheila called them, accounted for all of the words erased in
copy he dispatched to The Star in Toronto.
Irwin straightened, and looked off into the air over the valley.
"Where were you?" Bertha said softly, not moving closer to Irwin, recognizing that in these, his drifting off moments, no one could penetrate his darkness.
"The war..." Irwin said matter of factly.
Bertha smelled the clear air around them. The smell of spring. And baby birds. And the sweetness in freshly turned soil. This man, so gentle and so important in her life, all of it, held a lot of darkness. Usually disguised. Or hidden. Bertha waited, giving Irwin time and space to close out the memories.
Bertha nodded like Irwin, and knew Sheila had been part of those memories. Irwin's shoulders always sagged deeper, extending his shoulder lines down, curving into his chest when he thought of Sheila. At some point, he would take a deep irregular halting breath. Then he would exhale as if expelling air over a gravelly creek bed. .
Bertha stepped back from the grave and the tree and the men. She wandered over to the edge of the field where grass had begun to green nicely, folding over onto itself. She sat down, pulled a fresh green shoot out of the ground, and began chewing on the end.
This story found its origin in a novel I was writing & still writing, where the main character of this portion was Irwin, who was a writer & raised pigeons. His pal in the story, Matthew, 'Child of God', is mentally challenged. I worked with young folk of this ilk for five years and became good friends with some. Thus the credence for including Matthew in this story. I was also a principal for a school for these children, and have my Specialist Certification in Special Education for Ontario, Canada. As a youth, I raised & flew roller or tumbler pigeons, and lived in a house on a valley's edge. The telling, simply an outgrowth or part of a larger series of works, that will encompass several novels, and this is part of that. I hope you enjoy it. Well, enjoyed it. And interestingly, I had always wanted to end a story with the end. This time I did.