9 February 2009 | Vol. 8, No. 4
Queen of the Sparrows
Merritt watched Amrita lift her arms to the flock of sparrows heading south and mouthed the thought that clucked at her every day since their arrival in Toronto: I don't want to be here. The birds skimmed over the roof, wheeled, and faded to a darker blot in the clouded sky. Her daughter's slender hands, unmittened, trembled in the cold. Stirred by the birds' passing, the purple, gold, and silver ribbons tied around each stick-thin wrist fluttered upward. They were wings, Amrita explained as she scattered breadcrumbs across the tangled weave of frozen grass and weeds, wings to fly her home.
"This is our home now, Ri," Merritt chided, shortening her daughter's given name as Victor had asked her not to do, and stuttering over the words that spilled out. She bit her lip, disoriented by this slippage into bitterness and homesick for the life they used to know. Pouring more crumbs into her daughter's outstretched palms, Merritt shivered from the cold and her uneasy thoughts. She returned to her perch just inside the back door.
Amrita dusted off the last of the crumbs and twisted her body, arms stretched wide, swooping and gliding over the yard, memorizing the landscape, making it her own. She had moved just so over the grass at their home in Cincinnati and at the shore when they traveled summers to South Carolina's sandy beaches.
"Ri," Merritt called. "Come in now."
Amrita ignored the command. She ran faster, propelled by windy gusts of anguish and longing. Observing her daughter's flight, Merritt wondered again at Amrita's peculiar looks, searching for the familiar in her child's face. She had accepted Victor's demand to honor his family heritage and give their firstborn child an Indian name. But Amrita, full-of-nectar, didn't match Ri's freckled skin, or the cowlick of black hair that grew upward above her forehead, or the strange peak of her mouth, like a bird's beak, always moving to silent music and the breeze. Merritt watched Ri's lips move now, pecking at an unfamiliar song that hovered on the wind, the colored ribbons at her wrists feathering outward, startling against the gray air and the drab brown furrows of the backyard garden. A row of empty tomato cages, left behind by the previous owner, listed toward the detached garage. Over the fence, beyond the neighbor's clothesline, the jagged Toronto skyline lifted, tooth-like and tilted, around the curved lip of Lake Ontario.
"Time to come in, Ri. Now!" Merritt opened the screen door and pressed one hand against her heart to still the ache that sent her too searching for the shadow of the birds winging southward in the low and threatening sky. Tonight would bring the first snow of the season. Robbie pushed at her skirt.
"Let me out," he said, his sturdy legs working like pistons as he tried to sneak past her. "I want to feed the birds."
Without turning, Amrita shook her head. "You're too little, Robbie."
"Am not," he shouted, driving his head into Merritt's thigh. "I'm three." He shoved his fingers into the screen door and scratched at the netting.
The front doorbell rang. Merritt scooped Robbie up and sailed onto the back stoop. Amrita lifted her eyebrows and stared into Merritt's frown. "Will they fly away forever, Mommy?"
"No, Ri." Merritt captured one of Amrita's hands and pulled her toward the house. The dried leaves of the grape arbor rattled around the fence posts. Shaking with cold, clutching at her daughter, Merritt felt Amrita's ribboned wrist slip away from her grasp. Hiking Robbie closer, she lowered her head, breathing in the smell of cedar hiding in his Maple Leaf's sweatshirt. Just this morning, acknowledging defeat, she had unpacked their winter clothes.
The doorbell sounded again, an impatient squawk in the empty hall. Merritt gazed into her daughter's upturned face as she prodded her up the steps. Not knowing if Canadian sparrows migrated south for the winter, Merritt added the only thing she could think of: "They always come back in the spring."
Inside, the gas furnace blew great drafts of hot air up her pant legs as Merritt stepped across the heating grate. She angled Robbie into his booster chair and brushed at Amrita's coat, smoothing the down that had bunched up during storage in the attic. "Uncle Samuel is taking you to the park. You can see more birds there."
Three sharp raps replaced the chime sounds. Merritt hurried down the hall. Caught in the act of pounding, Victor's younger brother thrust his hands into the pockets of his windbreaker and smiled.
"Sorry, Sammy." There, she'd done it again, shortened a name without permission, but Samuel seemed too formal for this slight, awkward, adolescent boy who looked and acted nothing like his clever, competent, older brother. Only their smiles were the same, swift, compelling, certain to snare acquiescence to whatever request they made. Merritt murmured something about coming in, leaving him to close the door while she returned to the children. Sammy followed her into the kitchen, trailing wood smell from his work at the carpentry shop.
"Hello, little goalie," Sammy said, patting Robbie's head and tweaking his ear. Robbie laughed and batted at Sammy's hands. Merritt frowned. She had to correct him every time he came over.
"Sammy, he's not going to play hockey."
Sammy shrugged and thrust his right hand into the pocket of his jacket. Drawing out a small, carved hockey stick, he handed it to Robbie, who laughed as he swooshed an imaginary puck across the table.
Amrita tugged on Merritt's arm. "If they're gone from the yard, won't they be gone from the park?" She stared at Merritt's mouth with her solemn, brown, owl eyes, waiting for an answer.
Merritt sighed. She wanted Amrita to stop asking questions, questions for which Merritt could find no suitable answer. Amrita was always interrogating her, like last night when she wanted to know where they would live if Victor's plane crashed in the jungle. Or last week when Robbie flushed the goldfish down the toilet. Would it survive, Amrita asked, and swim home to the river behind their old house?
"Not so soon as today, Amrita. Just now they are waiting for you," Sammy said, winking at her. He reached into his other coat pocket and withdrew a second carving, this one a miniature bird wearing a crown. Handing it to Amrita, Sammy lowered his voice and whispered, "This one won't fly away."
Amrita cupped the gift to her chest. "Oh, thank you, Uncle," she whispered back. "I'll keep him forever."
Merritt sniffed and opened the cupboard above the stove. She lifted out the cracker tin where she kept an assortment of small candles. She would select the ones for the birthday cake after Sammy and Amrita left. Her arm brushed against the calendar taped inside the cabinet, today's date circled, Thanksgiving USA printed below the Thursday in small, precise letters.
"Are you ready, little bird?" Sammy asked, smoothing Amrita's hair with his hand.
Merritt removed Robbie's soup from the microwave and tested it with her finger. Her son banged his fists on top of the table, chanting soup, soup, soup.
"Mommy, I‘m hungry too," Amrita said, hopping from foot to foot and pulling at her upper lip.
Merritt set the bowl down in front of Robbie, patted his head, and sprinkled oyster crackers in his bowl. "Uncle Sammy will take you to lunch."
"Six years. Has it really been that long?" Sammy asked. He stared at Merritt and she knew he was counting the years in his head, just as her mother-in-law had counted the months between the wedding and Amrita's birth. Between Victor's move to the States and his return to Ontario. Measuring time. It was as much a habit in the Gupta family as following the old customs, even though their grandfather had come to Canada as an immigrant more than half a century ago. Both Victor and Samuel were born here. Still, when Victor announced that he would marry Merritt and not the nice neighborhood girl his family had selected for him, his parents were not pleased. Only Sammy had defended his brother's choice, defended her. She owed him some loyalty for that. Merritt nodded but did not speak.
"It's time we were going, little bird." Sammy reached for Amrita's hand.
"When will you be back?" Merritt said, opening the candle tin.
"In a few hours." He smiled at Amrita. "I hear there are lots of birds in the temporary aviary the city put up in the park. You want to see the parrots, don't you?"
Amrita pulled against his grasp and stood on tiptoe, straining to see into the yard. "My birds might come back, Uncle. I wouldn't want to be gone when they come back."
Merritt exchanged another look with her brother-in-law. Some things, the look said, were not to be understood. Like what she was doing here. They had a good life in Ohio. Victor flew transports for DHL out of Wilmington, and Merritt's library consultant position allowed her to set her own schedule. In a house she loved, they had lived close to her sister and her parents,. Now they were here. Only temporary, Victor promised, but she could feel the permanence settling around them like shrink-wrap. Victor loved Toronto, loved the cold and the bitter narrowness of a city brownstone and flying planes to the Caribbean for TransCanadian and being closer to his parents. In case they needed him, he said. What about what she needed? Some things were not to be understood.
"Ri." Merritt gestured at the ribbons. "Maybe you should, you know, take those off."
Amrita tucked the wooden bird inside her shirt and hid her hands behind her back. Slipping beyond Merritt's reach, she moved toward the hall, pulling Sammy with her.
"Wait," Merritt said. She snatched a crocheted pink scarf from the hook where she kept the children's outside clothes and, folding it in half, wrapped it around Amrita's neck, slipping the ends through the loop. "Now you'll be snug as a bug."
"I'm not a bug, Mother," Amrita said, frowning as she tugged on her mittens, poking at the ribbons until they disappeared inside each sleeve. "Birds eat bugs."
Sammy took Amrita's hand again and they moved together into the early afternoon. When the front door slammed, Merritt felt the rush of air slap at her. The hair on her arms prickled. She sighed again, the weight of her daughter's questions lifted for a few hours. In his chair, Robbie slurped at his chicken noodle soup, humming, in between swallows, about ladybugs flying away.
Pounding. Someone was pounding at the door. From her position at the sink, Merritt heard Sammy's muffled shout. The oven buzzer went off. Amrita's cake was done. Merritt lifted her hands out of the dishwater, snatched up the potholders, and yanked open the oven door. Lifting out the twin cake rounds, she shoved them across the stovetop, grabbed a dishtowel, and dried her hands. Then Merritt hurried toward his knocking.
"Be quiet, you'll wake Robbie."
Sammy pushed past her, tearing at his stocking cap, staggering as he stepped across the threshold.
"You haven't been gone very long."
"Amrita," he said.
"Amrita?" Merritt looked out into the frigid air. Then she looked back at Sammy. His whole body flapped like a sail caught in the wind.
"I only went to buy some birdseed to feed the pigeons. I only stepped away from her three feet, two feet, just to buy the seeds." Sammy was crying, his dark eyes shiny, his cheeks wet and trembling.
Merritt dropped the dishtowel and grabbed at his shoulders. "Where's Amrita? Where is she?"
"I don't know. Merritt, I'm so sorry," Sammy collapsed against Merritt's body, his slight figure curving into her larger form. "I don't know where she is."
On the second-floor landing, Robbie stood cradling his stuffed rabbit, the blue and white baby blanket Merritt's mother made for him trailing behind like a tail.
"Mommy," Robbie spoke into the air. "I know where Ri is."
"Hush, Robbie, hush now." Merritt untangled herself from Sammy's clutch and went to her son. Plucking him off the stairs, she cradled his head against her shoulder. "Sammy. We must go look for her."
Sammy lifted his face. "Maybe we should call the police."
"No." Merritt's shout echoed in the downstairs of the house. She faced Sammy and clasped her free hand around his arm. "Not yet. First we will look for her."
"Mommy," Robbie grabbed her face in his hands and tugged her toward him. "I know where Ri is."
"Robbie, you have to be quiet now." Merritt tried to remember where she had left her purse. "Little boys must be quiet and brave." She shuffled through the living room, lifting the pillows on the sofa shoved up against the grating of the fireplace that needed repair to keep the bats out of the house, scattering books and newspapers, Robbie tucked tight against her side.
Robbie pushed at her, squirming to free himself from her grasp. With a cry, Merritt set him down. He waved his rabbit, put his thumb in his mouth, popped it out, and stared at her.
"What?" she cried. Sammy located the purse under a pile of folded laundry.
"Ri, Mommy," Robbie said. "The birds took her."
Merritt pushed the stroller along the sidewalk, lifting the front wheels to avoid uneven patches of concrete. The wind snatched at her, pulling back the cuffs of her coat, trickling into the loose spaces between her sweater and her skin. She stopped to snug her headscarf more tightly around her neck. Every few feet she called Amrita's name. Sammy trailed behind, hands bunched into fists, repeating his request that they notify the police.
"Perhaps you should have locked the door, Merritt," Sammy insisted. "Now anyone can get inside the house."
Ignoring him, Merritt searched her heart but found no empty spaces there. She would know if her daughter were in trouble. She would know if she were dead. Hadn't she always known this, the certainty of her daughter's existence? Doubt chattered at her. Merritt recalled the last month of her pregnancy with Amrita, the dream that ended every night with her calling Ri's name down a long unlit corridor until she found her, wriggling and safe in a huge nest of quilts.
When they reached the park, Sammy led the way to the aviary. Merritt lifted Robbie from the stroller and set him down beside the entrance.
"No, Mommy." He pulled away from her, his face set and scowling. "Go home."
"We just have to look, Robbie, now be a good boy." Merritt felt the lump of panic rising like dough inside her. Soon it would fill every spare part until she couldn't breathe. What kind of a mother loses her child? She had only wished for a respite, a brief time free of Amrita's prodding questions and her desire, hers and Ri's, to go home. Robbie kicked the wheels of the stroller.
"Go in, Merritt," Sammy said, "I'll stay here with Robbie."
Merritt jerked away from him, dragging Robbie back with her. She watched Sammy's face fold upon itself, the I'm sorry words hovering inside his mouth. Trying not to stammer, she lifted her son and stretched her hand toward her brother-in-law.
"You stay here with the stroller," she said.
Inside the exhibition hall, the air was humid and stifling. Above, the glass panels had fogged over. Moisture dripped among the foliage, slipping down the leaves of the palm trees in the tropical forest room to tattoo the floor with their cryptic message. Merritt loosened Robbie's coat and her own, but she did not take them off. The hall was only lightly occupied due to the weather forecast, and over their heads, Merritt heard the birds traveling from branch to branch, calling out in their secret language the mysteries of the day.
"Mommy," Robbie pressed his lips next to her ear and tapped at her neck.
"Amrita," Merritt called out. "Amrita."
"The sparrows love Ri, Mommy." Robbie laid his head next to hers and patted her shoulder. Merritt remembered Amrita sitting cross-legged on Robbie's bed, telling him a story about flying with the birds. About Robbie going with them. About going home.
Merritt shifted Robbie's body and set him down. From the corner of her eye, she noticed a small clutch of visitors heading toward an exit. Hiking up Robbie's snow pants around his slender waist, she lifted her head and searched for movement among the trees. Something cawed. A large black presence swooped low, squawking out a warning as it glided over them. Merritt ducked. Tightening her hold on Robbie's gloved hand, she pushed through the heavy door from the tropical garden to the woodland forest area. Merritt and Robbie stepped inside, the sound of their footsteps muffled among the hardwoods and pines. When she stumbled against one of the bricks that lined the walkway, all the bird sounds ceased. On the path ahead, tucked up against the base of a Keetler juniper, Merritt found Amrita's pink scarf.
"It's been twelve hours," Merritt said, standing at the back door, her hands grasping at the warmth of the coffee mug. The arena of clouds watched her, the lights from the city sparking up like earthbound stars. Through the window, Merritt glimpsed a flutter. Two sparrows settled along the handrail of the porch, hopping back and forth in the wind. When she opened the door, they twisted to stare at her, their eyes tiny diamonds in the light that spilled from the kitchen.
"Go away!" Merritt screamed, waving and stomping. Sammy pulled her back inside just as the birds fluttered upward, silent and swift, disappearing into the fretful sky. Slamming the door, Merritt leaned her head against the window and sobbed.
Sammy touched her shoulder, refilled her cup. Sammy, who refused to go home or to sleep, patrolled the house, fixed her meals she could not eat, and prayed. "The police promised to call as soon as they had any leads," he said, his voice older than it was the day before, the week before.
The grandfather clock in the hall chimed 12:30. Merritt moved into the living room. She glanced at the faded red, plaid sofa, the covey of family pictures huddled on top of the coffee table, the navy blue recliner where Amrita loved to cuddle. They had left so much behind, but they had brought with them what they needed. Except now Amrita was gone.
In the dining room, the purple and gold crepe paper streamers hanging from the chandelier twisted in the air currents. Merritt fiddled with the paper plates and stared at the cake rounds, un-iced and stale and sad, the gold-wrapped presents stacked in the corner. She lifted the cardboard crown Amrita had insisted on buying. I can be the queen, Mother, Ri had told her, the queen of all the sparrows.
Biting her hand to keep from screaming, Merritt paced back into the living room. She wiped her nose with a soggy tissue and lifted the coffee to her lips. Victor had come home, gone on television, hired a detective, returned to the police station, called just now to say he'd be there until morning, but, please God, Amrita would be home by then.
In the chimney space behind the couch Merritt heard a rustling. What if a mouse got in? Or Emmeline, the neighbor's cat? What if it was a bat? Merritt stepped toward the couch. The noise stopped. In the upstairs hallway, footsteps pounded. Sammy's voice floated down the stairwell, anxious and demanding.
"Robbie? Robbie, are you down there?"
She listened for Robbie's reply. Sammy called again. "Robbie?"
Merritt's heart pounded inside her chest. The cup slipped from her hand. It bounced and rolled, a peacock's tail of cream-colored liquid spreading across the floor. Racing from the room, taking the stairs two at a time, she rushed down the upstairs hall. At the end of the corridor, Sammy came out of the den, his hands empty, his face puzzled and afraid. Merritt stepped into Robbie's room. The casement window stood open, the inside of the glass panes already frosted over from the frigid air that swirled in the small space.
"Robbie?" Merritt moved to the window and cranked it closed. "Sammy, have you lost my son?"
Sammy cringed in the doorway, one hand grasping at his neck, the other holding him up against the wall. "But he was just here."
The bedskirt, decorated with pterodactyls and tropical trees, rippled. A small hand stretched out from beneath the bed. Merritt knelt down and tugged on Robbie's arm. His body slid free of the space with a sound like air rushing from a balloon. Like the sound of a baby sliding free at birth.
"I was just reading to him," Sammy murmured, "and I had to use the washroom." He shrank from Merritt, pressing himself closer to the wall. She tried to forgive him.
"Ri can fly in, Mommy," Robbie said, pointing at the window. "Just like Peter Pan."
"You stay here," Merritt commanded, shoving Robbie into bed, smoothing the bedcovers over his body. She checked the lock on the window once more. "You stay right here," she repeated, staring into Sammy's sad eyes. He nodded and took her place on the bed.
Downstairs, Merritt collapsed into the recliner. Drawing her legs up, she stared at the coffee stain. When Victor took the new job, she should have insisted they stay behind. Amrita was safe there, safe in their suburban neighborhood where lawns stretched green and fluid as sea currents and birds remained beyond a small child's reach. She should have insisted they stay.
Behind the sofa, Merritt heard the rustling repeat itself, the soft, stealthy sound of a small animal, a noise like a hundred tiny wings brushing against the night. Damn! A bat must have come in from the cold. She lowered her knees and grabbed for the afghan. Perhaps she could capture it with a single throw. She took two steps forward. The noise stopped. Merritt held her breath. The thought of Amrita huddled and crying, in a dark place, taken and abused by a stranger, dead, settled over her shoulders like a shroud. Merritt counted. One thousand one. Just so she had counted the seconds between lightning and thunder when she was a child. One thousand two. Just so she had counted the seconds during contractions before Amrita's birth. One thousand three. And the moments when her anger at Amrita's curiosity has threatened to spill out of her in loud and hateful words. One thousand four. Driven away by Merritt's failure to accept her daughter for who and what she was, had Amrita gone away forever? One thousand five.
The noise resumed, a cadence of clicks followed by soft, feathery stirrings. Merritt tugged at the sofa, but it was heavy, an oversized bargain she couldn't pass up despite its weight and bulkiness. Kneeling to gain leverage, she wrapped her hands around one of the sturdy wooden legs and groaned. With a pop the sofa pulled loose and slid across the hardwood floor. Merritt raised the afghan above her head and prepared to pounce.
Amrita, her eyes closed, her coat damp with snow and sweat, sat up. Her mittens were gone. The silver and purple and gold ribbons at her wrists clung in tatters to her fingers, each one iced with frost. Her lips shone blue in the darkened room.
"Birds," Amrita said, shivering, "am I home?"
Merritt screamed. Calling out to Sammy, to Robbie, fumbling for the cell phone to contact Victor, Merritt stretched her free hand toward her daughter and traced the outline of her face.
Amrita sighed, tiny bubbles of saliva escaping from the crust of salt and ice that rimmed her mouth, but she did not open her eyes. A feather caught in the crown of her black hair lifted, floated upward and settled back among the shiny strands.
"Am I home?"
Gathering her daughter to her chest, Merritt rocked back and forth. She rubbed Amrita's hands to warm them. She ran her hands over her daughter's back and legs, lifted her feet, the same things she'd done the day Amrita was born. When Ri opened her eyes, Merritt kissed her forehead and her cheeks and her nose.
Amrita reached inside her shirt and pulled out the wooden carving Sammy had given her. Caressing the feathers etched into its back, she raised her head. "My birds said you needed me. But I want to go home." Tears gathered and spilled down Amrita's cheeks.
Merritt lifted Amrita and carried her into the dining room. Picking up the birthday crown, she placed it on Amrita's head. "You are home, little queen of the sparrows," Merritt whispered into her daughter's hair, "and so am I." Then she untied the ribbons.
About the author:
Janet E. Irvin left teaching this year to concentrate on her writing, although she continues to challenge herself by subbing at all grade levels. Her stories have appeared in a variety of venues, including Tertulia Magazine, Oasis Journal 2008, the Plymouth Writers' anthology Points of Connection, and the January/February 2009 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. She has completed a young adult novel, The Magic. When she 's not writing, Irvin prefers to paddle a canoe somewhere in the North Woods.