a short story by SUE PACE
My Aunt was in her electric wheelchair on the back patio. My Uncle was having lunch at the downtown deli with his chums. That lunch was a weekly getaway for a man dedicated to the woman he’d loved for forty years. As for me, watching Aunt Sylvia once a week was an easy way to say thank you for the room over the garage. That was where I lived while going to graduate school because my parents had thrown me out for being a lesbian.
‘I’m going to die,’ my Aunt said. Cancer was eating her alive and the stink of death hovered around her like sour perfume.
‘We’re all going to die,’ I replied.
‘I want to come back as something with wings.’
‘Butterflies only live a week,’ my Aunt said.
‘Monarchs live months and travel thousands of miles.’ I was combing what was left of her hair. Most had fallen out in chunks but there were scraggly locks over her ears and at the nape of her neck.
‘I don’t want to rely on the wind,’ she whispered. ‘I want to fly on my own power.’
‘How about a bird?’
‘Or an airplane? How about a fighter jet?’
‘I don’t want to be a machine.’ She sighed and her head fell onto the pillow propped at the back of her wheelchair. It took her half a second to fall asleep.
That was the Saturday before she died.
Flies buzzed around my Uncle’s compost pile. It was knee high and steamed behind the garage. When the weather was hot and dry I could hear tiny insects outside my open screen window. Their wings were iridescent. A Great Horned Owl lived near the top of the Douglas Fir at the end of the fenced yard. It could be heard at dawn and dusk. I had seen it once, swooping onto the lawn, sharp talons reaching for a squirrel. Other creatures lived in that tree, Stellar Jays and Sparrows. Ladybugs and all manner of other flying insects.
I watched as Dragonflies dipped and soared and sometimes landed on the bird bath at the edge of the patio. Hummingbird feeders were there and they flitted about, vibrating in counterpoint to the bees.
Three weeks after she passed away, we had Aunt Sylvia’s memorial on the patio. Decades of memories were shared along with New York cheesecake, three kinds of pie and enough champagne to fill an above ground swimming pool. Later, my Uncle dug a hole at the edge of the patio and poured in my Aunt’s ashes.
‘She loved sitting here,’ he said. ‘Best I can do.’
I put my arms around his thin shoulders and we stood together and watched all the backyard’s winged creatures rise to give my Aunt a sendoff of their own. Then we went inside to do dishes and talk about better days. When I went to the stove to make us a pot of tea, he placed a lovely wooden box in the center of the kitchen table.
‘You meant the world to her,’ he said and handed me her jewelry. ‘She said you should sell it to pay for college.’
‘I can’t take those… they are worth…’ I stopped babbling when I saw something flit and flash in the dark hallway behind him. It could have been my imagination but a shiver went down my spine and I took the rings and emerald broach and pearl necklace. ‘Thank you,’ I whispered. ‘I won’t let her down.’
When I went to bed that night, I heard the soft hush-hush of wings over the patio. I stepped into my slippers and went to the window. The moon sent snippets of light through the trees and I could hear the television program of our nearest neighbor. The music was from an old Western, rising and falling only to rise again. Somewhere a few blocks over, a dog was barking and as I reached to shut the window I saw the shadow of my Aunt crossing the lawn. There was no three dimensional shape guiding that shadow and when I craned my neck to look upward there were only puffs of cloud hiding and then revealing a full moon.
I started to call out to my shadow-Aunt but the backyard owl swooped low and the intersection of reality and fantasy broke my concentration. Then there was only silence. No wafting of wings. No barking of dog. No muffled television. Nothing.
The next morning, I stood on the back patio with a cup of steaming coffee in one hand and long white feather in the other. The was no dew on the grass to mark the arrival or departure of any earth bound animals but the feather was not from the winged creatures of the back yard. Nevertheless, I had found it resting on the dark dirt where my Uncle had poured my Aunt’s ashes.
There were many logical reasons it was there. That’s what I told myself. My Uncle may have left it there to symbolize his love and his desire to fulfill every wish my Aunt ever had. Or an exceptionally large gull may have lost it on the flight from ocean to city park where feeding the birds was a long held tradition. The paper boy may have left it as a joke. But probably not since he was, actually, neither a boy nor humorous but an adult male who was proudly conservative and seriously religious. He was also, for the most part, unsmiling and joking of any kind didn’t seem to reside, as they say, in his wheelhouse.
I put the feather back on the ground and zipped up my running jacket. I would set my alarm for four the next morning, in order to keep an eye out for any possible well-intentioned behavior from the garbage man who usually tramped through our side yard on the way to the alley where trash bins and recycling boxes lived. He had loved my Aunt’s cookies, and when she got sick he’d told my Uncle to not worry about hauling out the garbage bins; that he, repaying years’ worth of brownies and shortbread, would take care of it.
I finished my coffee, re-tied my running shoes and headed for the park. I would go to the jeweler’s later and then to the bank. In the meantime, I promised myself I would watch for feathers and listen for the sound of wings.
© Sue Pace, 2018