A tunnel of oak trees arching over Morrissey Avenue hid the stars and the new moon from her eyes, and Arael heard only her shoes whispering to the sidewalk. She hummed a folk melody the mowers sang in the meadows of Ukraine, as they swayed to the arcs of their scythes in the luminous sunlight. She paused and rested her hand on the wooden gate in front of a white two-story brick house at the top of the hill. Looking back down the street, she thought she could see crescents of light from the hidden moon sweep down the avenue harvesting shadows.
All the windows shone black from a shower earlier in the evening, but a slab of pale light fell onto the porch from the front room. As Arael set down her suitcase, the front door opened and Mrs. Benson pushed back the screen door. “Please, come in, dear,” she said. “Arael? Is that right?”
“Yes. I apologize for being late, Mrs. Benson.”
“Oh, not at all. I was listening to some music and daydreaming.”
Arael set her suitcase on the red and gray braided rug. “The train from the city was running late. You got my letter?”
“Yes. And the rent for the first three months. You didn’t need to do that.”
“I like to stay ahead,” Arael said. “And I thought you might need it.”
“But so much money. It made me nervous. Sending cash money in the mail.”
“I didn’t know what else to do.”
“It’s all right. I don’t mean to fuss.”
A collection of porcelain birds sat on a small round table by a dark green
wingback chair. “How charming, Mrs. Benson.”
“Please . . . call me Helen. I hope we will be good friends for a long time.” She touched one of the birds gently. “We have many feeders out back, but these are the special ones. They stay all year.”
“My late son gave me one every Mother’s Day. This was last year.” She picked up the oriole and cradled it in her hand.
“Hope,” Arael said. “He means hope.”
“They used to flock to our yard. Gerald put orange slices out for them.”
Arael set the scarlet tanager on her palm as though he were about to take flight. “Firebird,” she said.
“That was Gerald’s favorite.”
“Mine, too. Do you see many at your feeder?”
“Gerald kept a journal listing all the birds he saw. He watched every day for the tanager, but he only saw a few.”
“The birds meant a lot to him,” Arael said.
“Oh, yes. They did.” Helen looked toward the kitchen door. “He spent hours at the dinette table watching.”
“I know . . . He did.”
They set the birds back on the table.
“I bet this one has never visited your yard,”Arael said, pointing to a bird with wings spread in flight as though ascending through high clouds. “Skylark lives only in Europe. He heralds the dawn. And his song links earth with heaven.”
“You know so much about them.”
“They are my friends, too.”
Mrs. Benson rubbed the sleeve of her sweater. “It’s a bit chilly. Would you like some tea?”
“That would be very nice.”
“You relax while I fix it.”
Arael settled into the wingback chair and closed her eyes to see the moon and her constellation high in the western sky.
Helen pushed a tea cart between Arael and a chair covered with needlepoint roses.
“Well, now, tell me about yourself, dear,” Helen said as she poured the tea and presided over the condiments.
“There’s not much to tell,” Arael said.
“I’m sure there is. Your name. It’s so unusual. The way you spell it.”
“It’s Hebrew,” Arael said. “It means ‘the lion of God’.”
“Oh, my. That sounds . . . imposing.”
“Not at all. One must have great humility to be God’s lion.”
“You must be . . . Jewish then?”
“Oh, no. I’m . . . I always find things to love in every religion.”
“I see. I’m afraid I’m just a regular old Methodist.”
Arael glanced away from Helen’s quizzical look and coughed gently into her napkin.
“How’s your tea?” Helen asked.
“Very soothing. Earl Gray has always been my favorite.”
“What a coincidence. It was Gerald’s favorite, too. And with your love of birds you two would have been such good friends. Oh, not that way. You’re much too
young.” Mrs. Benson’s spoon rattled as she set it in the saucer. “That didn’t sound right. I’m sorry.”
“Besides, he was quite the confirmed bachelor.” With her napkin she wiped the lip of the cream pitcher. “Oh, dear. I forgot our little snack. Excuse me,” she said as she went to the kitchen. In a moment she came back with a plate.
“Oh, they look scrumptious.”
“They’re scones. Gerald was so fond of them.”
“Made with real cream, I bet. And butter.”
“Oh, yes. Have you made them?”
“I’ve lived in Great Britain several times.”
“Gerald loved Ireland.”
”Of course. With a name like Gerald Patrick you have to be an hibernophile.”
“Oh, it’s the word for someone who loves Irish culture.”
“Did you say Patrick?”
Arael took a bite of her scone. “They are delicious, Helen. I knew they would be. I remember having scones when I was a young girl. Withers always had a platter of them on the sideboard every morning.”
“Our butler. I was always late getting downstairs. I hated buttoning my shoes, but Mother always insisted I do it myself.”
“I’m sorry to confuse you,” Arael said. “That was another life.”
“Of course.” Helen frowned and looked puzzled.
“I meant it was so long ago that it seems like another life.”
Helen held up her scone. “Apricot,” she said. “He insisted on apricot. It’s odd. To miss someone’s stubbornness. He could be so exasperating sometimes. But such a gentle soul. How could anyone not love him?”
“People did love him.”
“But he wouldn’t listen to reason. I couldn’t make him see how foolish he was. He just would not stop.”
“Gambling. I told him it would be the ruin . . . I’m sorry. I shouldn’t burden you with all this.”
“It’s not a burden. Please tell me.”
“He was so restless. Anxious. About everything.” Helen set her cup and saucer on the cart. “Arael. I don’t mean to be forward, but you seem to know so much about Gerald. His middle name, and . . .”
Arael cleared her throat.
“Did you know him somehow? Maybe you two met in Ireland. Or at the Bird Watchers’ Convention.”
“No. I have a lively imagination. I’m a writer, and everything turns into a story in my head.”
“But Gerald is real to me. And sacred. Maybe sacred isn’t the right word.”
“It is. And I honor your love.”
“I kept his room intact for a while. I would sit on the bed and talk to him. Then it seemed like he wasn’t listening anymore. It broke my heart.”
“I know,” Arael whispered.
“And then a little voice in my head told me I couldn’t keep him there. The room needed someone else. So I put all his things away in the attic.”
“Yes.” Arael turned her hands palm up in her lap.
“And the next thing I know, you answered my ad. I thought perhaps you were the person who should fill the room with . . . new life.” Helen looked down.
“I had been looking for a place, and I saw your ad. It seemed perfect. That night I had a dream. A man came to tell me his story.”
“In a dream?”
“A special dream, yes. It was Gerald. We talked about his life. And his love for you.” Arael set her cup on the cart. “Helen, Gerald is at peace.”
Helen looked up, startled.
“He loved his life with you. His unhappiness was within him.”
“He wouldn’t tell me what was distressing him. I tried to help, but . . .”
“He told me you should not blame yourself for anything. You did help. You loved him. That’s all that matters.”
Helen covered her mouth with her napkin.
“You are blessed,” Arael said. “Tears are a gift. Let them fall.”
Helen got up and turned to go to the kitchen. Arael stood and took her hand.
“I’m sorry,” Helen said, brushing her cheeks with her hand. “I shouldn’t . . .”
“Yes. You should.” Arael held her, and Helen, pressing her face against Arael’s shoulder, wept quietly.
A cooing sound drifted in from the back of the house. Helen looked up. “What was that?” she said. “No, it can’t be. It’s night. They come in the morning.” She went into the kitchen with Arael behind her and stood at the window over the sink peering through the ruffle-edged yellow curtains. “I can’t see them, but listen. They are there, cooing and pecking at the ground, looking for seeds the others have dropped. As they do every morning.”
Arael put her hand on Helen’s shoulder. “The velvet music of mourning doves. They want you to sing with them.”
Helen turned and looked into Arael’s eyes. “Who are you?”
“A friend who knows your sorrow.”
Helen set the kettle on the back burner and wiped the stovetop with a hand towel, scooping crumbs into her hand. “Thank you for helping, Arael. We’ve tidied up everything together, as though we had done it many times.” She rested her hand on the stove and looked out the window. “It’s strange, but I feel that I’ve known you before.”
Helen put the towel on its rack. “This is all so mysterious,” she said. She looked up at the kitchen clock. “Oh, my. It is getting late. Let me show you your room.”
On the landing of the stairway stood a large urn adorned with a peacock. Arael stopped. “He’s beautiful,” she said, as she touched his painted feathers. “The eyes of the stars.”
“My husband found that treasure in a dusty antique shop, in this very town.”
Mrs. Benson pushed the door open and stepped aside as Arael entered the small bedroom. “It’s simple, but I hope it will suit you.”
“It’s very sweet,” Arael said. She glanced around at the single iron bed with its lace coverlet, the dresser with its antique pitcher and bowl, the nightstand with its opalescent lamp and Bible. “It’s perfect, Mrs. Benson.”
“You may not want the crucifix. It’s the one thing of Gerald’s that I left here
when I stored his belongings. I thought it would . . . bless the room.”
“It does. It’s very peaceful here.”
“I’m glad you like it. “She turned toward the door. “Oh, I almost forgot.” She pulled an envelope from the pocket of her apron and handed it to Arael. “The keys. The large one is for the front door. Do be careful with them. Now, is there anything special you would like for breakfast? How do you like your eggs?”
“No eggs, please. Toast and coffee? And some fruit perhaps?”
“Very well, dear. I will see you in the morning. Seven-thirty?
“Sweet dreams, Arael.”
“May you sleep well too, Helen.”
Arael turned on the cold water and spread the bathmat beside the claw-foot tub. She set the suitcase on the bed. It had been only two dollars at the thrift store. Perhaps it held a clue about the former owner: a scrap of paper with a scrawled telephone number, or a train ticket, a shopping list. A musty smell rose from the empty case as she opened it. She set the pink flats in it, then wiggled her toes, breathing a sigh. She tucked the rose quartz pendant from the antique mall into one of the shoes, and on them she placed the gray flannel skirt, the pink cardigan, and the matching sweater with its circle pin. Remembering the keys, she tucked the envelope between the skirt and sweater. She didn’t want to leave a trace.
Turning off the water, she started to step in but remembered the bedroom window. The weights and pulleys of the old casement grumbled as she lifted it. She sat on the windowsill, the curtains fluttering gently behind her. The bricks felt like sandpaper against her heels, and the chill air caressed her face. She rested her hands
palms up on her knees and closed her eyes, letting the thin light of the moon wash over her body. The pinpoint flames of the stars filled the sky, those of her constellation Sagittarius the brightest of all.
She settled into the bathtub, listening to the chill song of the water as it covered her. Drops fell from the faucet in a soothing cadence. Water was always a comfort when the energy began to rise. She covered her eyes with the damp washcloth. After a few minutes she heard scraping on the windowsill, then footsteps.
Daniel came in and sat on the lid of the toilet. “Arael,” he said. “I am honored.” The melody of his voice was like an ambling brook. She took a deep breath and lifted the washcloth from her eyes.
“Moral Support at your service.” Daniel took off the jacket of his sky blue cord suit and laid it across the basin.
“I’m glad you’re here, Daniel.” She reached up over her head, and he grasped her hand and gave it a squeeze.
“It’s all right to be nervous, little Firebird. After all, it is your first time.”
“No rehearsals for this,” she said. She pulled her knees up and sat with her back to him. “My neck does feel tight, though. Would you mind?” She lifted her hair, and Daniel leaned over and massaged her shoulders.
“Think of all the risks you took in the earthquake,” he said. “The lion has great courage. This is an important step on your journey, and I have great faith in you.”
“I know. I’m grateful.”
“You’ll be back soon. I wonder who you will be next time?”
“I’d like to be me again.”
“I hope you are. We’re a good team.”
“It is sad to leave her, after all these months.”
“It is always hard to detach.”
“Her tears were beautiful,” Arael said.
“You have opened her grieving. And now . . . the fulfillment.”
“But the empty room tomorrow . . .”
“Everything is moving along as planned. A new boarder will be here in the morning. Helen will be mystified, but she will soon have a new daughter to care for.”
Arael leaned back against the tub.
“Thank you for the massage.”
“I knew I could be of some help.” He chuckled.
“More than you know,” she said. “I needed your support.”
She stood in the tub, clasped her fingers together, squeezed, and then let go and shook her hands at her sides. She turned to face him and reached for his hand. Closing her eyes, she breathed deeply and steadily.
He kissed her hand. “You won’t falter.”
She listened to the water trace its calligraphy down her body. Daniel reached for the towel on the glass rod above the tub.
“No,” she said, opening her eyes. “Let the water tell me its stories.”
He picked up his jacket. “I’ll be in the other room.”
Arael opened the drain, put the washcloth on the towel rack, and draped the bathmat on the edge of the tub just as it had been. They would be dry by morning. After her mission, as Daniel liked to call it, he would come back and close the window from the outside. With her arms behind her, she arched her back to lift her heart and breathed into the stretch. Then raising her arms, she laced her fingers together with her first fingers pointing skyward. She steadied her breathing, and a deep calm filled her.
Daniel rose as she entered the bedroom. “Dear Arael, I commend you.” He bowed and gave her a little salute. He picked up the suitcase and, smiling, walked to the window. He climbed out and sat for a moment on the sill with the suitcase in his lap. He turned back to her. “Go in the light, Phoenixicis.”
“And you also.”
Daniel leaned forward into the night.
Arael climbed out the window and sat on the windowsill with her heels against the scratchy bricks. A cluster of amethyst jewels burned to the west, the Archer waiting for her. As she rose into the obsidian sky toward the moon, the violet and silver rays of the stars bathed her solar plexus. She leaned back as she floated upward, surrendering to the light, and as she rose higher, she released her breathing to the pulse of the heat radiating through her as it turned to feathers and ribbons of fire falling from her body to the earth.
The treetops glinted with echoes of flame, and streams of light fell through the branches onto lawns, sidewalks. Sparks like St. Elmo’s fire flickered across roofs and danced over hedges and lawns. The houses on Morrissey Avenue and through the town reflected the incandescence of the white two-story brick house at the top of the hill.
Arael opened her eyes as the last shadows vanished into the luminous sky.
And she followed them.
Over the past sixty years, Malcolm Glass has published a dozen books of poetry and non-fiction. His poems, fiction, and articles have appeared in many journals, including Poetry (Chicago), Prairie Schooner, and The Sewanee Review. His newest collection of poems, Mirrors, Myths, and Dreams, was released by Finishing Line Press in 2018.