today the rain was pouring down
the haze clouded your sight
as you flew through the leaves
crashed against my window
and died on my patio
If not for the rain, the bird would not have flown to seek shelter. If not for the rain, the bird would have seen. If not for the rain, the bird would not have died. If not for the rain, I would have left the house. If not for the rain, Dinah would have remained where she was, and I would have no story to tell.
When I was a child, sprite-like and floating with white skin flecked with freckles, black-brown hair in pigtails, I liked to play between our large blue spruce trees. There was a group that grew with their skirts together at the back of our lot forming an irregular circle. I claimed the throne of this kingdom and brought my dolls to play away from the sting of my brother’s harsh words and rough play. I did not always want to be a girl and very often played just as tough as he and his friends, but there were times when I claimed my right to be alone, to be female, to kill no one and harm nothing … to be simply all-powerful in a kingdom of my very own. It did not matter that my only subjects were rooted trees and seemingly inanimate dolls; I was queen and in control.
Viewing the backyard, I can see all of the past, but it feels alarmingly present. The lower lids of my eyes become full of tears that finally trickle over the dam, cascading over my cheeks. I blink slowly without wiping away the residue, wondering why I am crying for a bird I might never have seen, and but for a rainy day would still be alive. No concern of mine. But its’ lifeless body remains limp and soaked beyond the cold pane, so I step outside my parent’s warm home into the storming outer world.
Emerging from my haven, I resemble more of a tramp or hobo than an adventurer. Dressed in my father’s old raincoat and clomping around in his boots I feel no thrill, but am full of trepidation. (A dead bird on your patio that beckons you into the unknown somehow does not seem a good omen to my mind.) I had planned a week in which there was much to do; sorting, packing, and cleaning. The day was supposed to be clear, but when I saw that the forecaster had lied, I decided today was the day to tackle my mother’s kitchen. It was 11:00, I had been working non-stop for three hours making piles of what to sell, donate, store, or keep among the cookbooks, pots, pans, and every conceivable mechanical appliance that could be ordered through late-night info-mercials. I had laughed earlier, remembering my mother venting about dad’s insomnia and how it was cluttering up her kitchen with all these useless gadgets and gismos. I had just stopped laughing when I heard the thud and seen the bird.
It seems strange, the outer world had looked so cold and wet from inside, and though I know it must be, I barely feel anything. The bird is actually quite a large crow, and I know that if light were to hit any part of the feathers, a beautiful gloss of black would reveal hidden greens and purples, but the sky furrows its’ dark brows and no light shines on the corpse. I begin to reach for it, but jerk back suddenly recalling a moment from my childhood. My mother’s stark voice calls from the past, “Don’t touch death with your bare hands.”
I try to laugh it away, but the laugh clogs my throat. In the garage I find garden gloves with the spade and a small box nearby. I resist the temptation to line the box with tissue paper, reminding myself once more the bird is dead and can feel nothing. Niceties are unnecessary. “The bird is dead, Mama. I can’t just leave it there.”
Carefully, with gloved hands, I place the black crow inside the cardboard box and seal it with packing tape. I could go and put it in the garbage and let it end up in a dump somewhere, but I know why I have the spade. I look across the yard as though I have not made up my mind yet, but I have. Still bundled up, I trudge across the backyard to my kingdom, wondering if it will receive the dead as well as the living.
I can’t help it. I have to smile as I complete my own ritual of walking around the trees three times before entering.
Is three still your favorite number, Allison?
“Yes, Margaret-Sue,” I whisper toward where the oldest doll used to sit, “at this advanced age, three is still my favorite number.”
You’ve been away a long time. How did you know that we would still be keeping court?
“I only know that this is your favorite place and you would rather be nowhere but here.”
I envision her nodding at this quietly. What have you brought us?
“A lost creature who died and needs a proper burial. Will you grant us one?” You are the queen, not I. I was only keeping court till you returned. A slight pause is appropriate as she glances significantly at the other dolls. Have you returned?
I know she’s not there, that where she used to sit is a damp spot not yet soaked. I know she is not there and that today of all days is not the time to retrace my steps to childhood. I only have a week to get things in order, but no matter how I reason, her words – what she would say if I was eight and we were still paying – seem to echo in my mind as confidently as the memory of my mother’s warning.
I sit down somewhat numbly. I blink as raindrops cling to my eyelashes and only now realize that Dad’s rain cap is still in the pocket of the coat. I comb my hair, which is now wet and crowding my eyesight, with fingers to the side. I was going to put it back earlier, but decided to have a thoroughly unglamorous day.
Even as I sit here, I know something is not right, as though I’m at the wrong point, in the wrong place, from the wrong time … as though I’m very close, but not quite right. It seems hours that I sit in this state of stupor pondering what is wrong, what is not quite right, and it suddenly dawns on me how very tired I am. I notice that I am holding something and remember the reason that I came was not to reminisce, but to bury the dead. The paralyzing stupor begins to clear and I remember how to move my body once more, but still, the spell that has been cast over me is not broken.
“Where in the kingdom should a dead bird be laid to rest?”
Let the dead bury their own …
I look up sharply, knowing Margaret-Sue was never one for quoting the Bible so off-handedly.
“Where do you think, Margaret-Sue?”
But Margaret-Sue is silent and her lips pinch white.
“That’s unlike you, to have no opinion, but if you insist on being quiet, I will have to make the decision myself.” Why am I talking to absent dolls? But Margaret-Sue’s face is now before me, looking almost frightened behind her frosted blue eyes. I tuck the wet box beneath a few branches, reach for a spade and begin to dig near the southern-most spruce. A clot of grass is quickly removed and I dig a little further, approximately a foot down when I reach something solid.
I have an opinion.
“What’s that?” I ask without looking up from where I scratch the tin surface with the spade.
Let the past alone.
“Don’t touch death with your bare hands!” Mama’s voice is firm now and I jerk up once more, in time to see Margaret-Sue staring at me, her doll-like expressions all too animated.
Listen to your mama, Allison, and let the past alone.
As my hand uses the spade to pry out the object, the rain pelts away years of dirt. It is square box and metallic with a plastic handle on the side. I turn it over, and as the rain washes it clean I recognize it as my old tin lunch box on which Strawberry Shortcake, still dressed in her old-fashioned dress, is taking tea with Blueberry Muffin.
My first impulse is to drop the tin and run away, but I resist and push it away gently so I can finish burying the bird. I had planned on thanking God for the beauty of the wings that had once soared, and even though I have only been here to witness its’ death and bury the remains, to thank Him for that as well. I find, though, that the words are stones sunk inside me and all the nice thoughts dissipate as I try not to look where I laid the tin.
I quickly finish packing the dirt back over the bird and replace the clod of grass. I stand up on teetering feet, but I cannot leave the lunchbox behind now that I have found it. The past with all its happy laughter and shrill whinings now sits in my lap, unyielding.
Let the past –
“Shut-up, Margaret-Sue!” My whisper is hard and strained, my lips close tight around my teeth. I refuse to look at her glaring at me as I try to casually bend down and pick up the lunchbox by its handle. I realize as I start to move that I should not take it into the house, though I don’t know why. “Well, I can’t leave it here …” A funny little voice giggles behind me and I turn to where LoraLeigh is looking up at me with slanted green eyes.
You can take it inside without going all the way in.
And so I scamper, for perhaps I am again eight years old, back into the garage and drip on the clean floor. The stillness and neatness always struck me as fascinating. My mother never tolerated a messy garage and each spring mom would clean and reorganize the garage. Only after the garage was clean would she garden. Before I found my kingdom, I would bring my dolls inside the garage and play with them there, but eventually my brother would find me and I would have to hide the dolls behind the peg-board where the tools hung.
I can barely breathe, I feel as though I am intruding on the past. I flip on the light to no avail; the power has gone out. A shock of lightning provides enough light for me to find the shelf with candles. As I light one, I set it on the floor then light two more to make a triangle of light.
Placing the tin within my sacred three points, I randomly observe Strawberry and Blueberry have some secret between them as they share tea, or whatever fruit people drink together. Perhaps their secret involves the special drink. Of course, it would be non-alcoholic, as it would not do to think of them as drinking buddies … but perhaps it is some magical cordial … I shake my head, knowing I am allowing my thoughts to tangent in order to remain ignorant. Ignorant, oblivious, and numb. Able to cry only for a bird’s death. As I stare at the corroded lunch box, I remove the gloves from my hands. Absently I let my fingers drift through a flame. I blink twice and then take the blackened fingers and trace the lid of the box. With my bare hands, I open it, hearing no further warnings or reprimands.
Inside, I have cushioned the contents with several layers of yellowed tissue paper. A soft rustling sound surrounds me as I slowly unwrap the treasure within. A teddy bear, resembling a furry Cyclops, comes out of her exile willingly. Dinah.
“Dirty Dinah deserves to die!” the boys had screamed as they wrestled over her. I did not cry, I did not scream, I did not let them see me weak like a girl.
“Give her back,” I had said in my most grown-up voice.
They happily pitched the bear and followed my brother’s lead as he climbed on top of me. “Dirty Allison deserves to-” they began as my mother came outside.
“Henry, get off of your sister.” She only had to say it once. The other boys, having no desire to get in trouble, took off for their homes.
I had laid still on the ground, unable to move.
“Allison, sit up.”
Darkness covered me like a suffocating blanket and I found that I was shaking. I didn’t know why. My body did not respond to my chanting thoughts; it’s all right, Mama’s here now: it’s alright, nothing to fear now.
“Allison?” Mama’s voice held a question I could not answer, not that day or any that followed. I know that she picked me up and began to rock me back and forth in slow motions. She must have told Henry to go to his room. She must have called Daddy home from work. He must have come and driven us to the doctor. I remember only my chanting thoughts and the heavy darkness that seemed to swallow me.
I couldn’t get away from a man’s dark voice, always creeping towards me, climbing on top of me. I would start chanting again, always loudly inside my head. But his voice would go on chasing me, calling me dirty one moment and then saying I was a good girl and it would be all right. But I knew I would never be all right again.
I finally woke up in my room, with Mama looking out the window. I cracked my lips open, but no words came out, just a sound. Mama turned and came and sat on the bed and held me, just the way I’d learned to hold my dolls. It’s all right, Mama’s here now; it’s all right, nothing to fear now.
I tried to explain about the man with the dark voice, but each time I tried, that strange noise would come out and I would start to shake. She would hold me and remind me that it was gone now, best to let it alone. I kept close to the house for awhile and eventually I began playing with the boys again, but being alone in a safe place was important, too. I had important things to do, I needed to play with my dolls and live inside my circle. Mama and I cleaned together and we talked, not about specifics necessarily, but about life and having dreams and leaving behind fears. And not touching death with bare hands.
For that whole year, I slept with Dinah tightly in my arms, praying that if the mean voice found me again, God would make her a strong bear able to fight the battle for me. I spoke with all my dolls frequently, but Dinah and I never needed words. We understood one another. With her one eye she could see all and with her powerful paws she could protect me. With Dinah I was safe. I was going to live, maybe not be all right like everyone else, but I would find my own way. One afternoon, as I sat conducting court affairs, my eyes fell on Dinah, and I realized that I could no longer clutch her so tightly. Truth be told, she reminded me of something I wanted to leave behind. I asked the court where she belonged.
Why not keep her here always, to guard our kingdom? Margaret-Sue’s suggestion had won a quiet giggle from LoraLeigh and lopsided grin from Dinah herself, though perhaps that is the way I remember it because I wanted it that way.
So, I found Dinah the best and most comfortable underground house I could find and laid her with Strawberry and Blueberry in the ground to keep each other company when court was rained out. I never unburied her, but thought to her for a time. When I outgrew my kingdom, my memories lapsed and clouded, all fears resting in the ground.
She still feels soft and worn in my hands, but there is something about her that reminds me of my mother. I look back at the tissue paper and realize a note has been written there in Mama’s handwriting. I smooth it out and hold it up to the flickering light, “To Dinah, whom we owe a great debt for consoling our Allison. Thank you.” Now I see an unopened envelope lying in the bottom of the lunchbox.
Laying Dinah in my lap, I reach for the envelope and begin reading the letter, cautiously.
I confess that when you first began hiding in the circle of trees instead of playing with your brother, I spied on you. I worried over so many things that first summer, how could I not be plagued by guilt and fear? But, my daughter, you came through so strong. I found Dinah sometime ago, but I am putting her back because you are the one who needs to find her and know that what is in the past has made you strong. Though Dinah and I cannot protect you from all you faced or will face, you know that as much as a stuffed bear and mother can, we love you.
Your very own,
When I shut the door to the garage and enter the house, I hear it click shut. The lights are back on and the digital clocks are all blinking in simultaneous requests to be reset. I lay Dinah down quietly on top of a stack Mama’s things, feeling the tears freely coming down my face for all I’ve lost and all I’ve gained. All that has needed burying lies sleeping in peace underground. All that has needed to be unearthed has finally been revealed.