Of Songbirds and Stellar's Jays

We camped in a hollow where two brooks meet, sheltered from the wind that roars across the ridge above us every evening. We camped in the trees, facing east so that the morning sun is full on our faces when we step out of our tent, sleepy-eyed and grouchy from being wakened too early by raucous birds squabbling over crumbs left behind on our picnic table. We're here for what's left of the summer, a few precious weeks during which Nate and I can collect the data we need for our next book. Nate is the scientist, and I'm the writer. We've been together so long that family and friends have stopped asking when we're going to get married. I have too.

This is the third summer we've spent gathering field data. Summers are the only time we can get away from the city to do our research. We both teach. Nate teaches high-school biology and I teach kindergarten. We process during the fall, we outline during the winter, we write in the spring, we camp in the summer. We have no children. I've stopped asking when. Now I simply wonder why not. I also wonder why Nate stays with me when he knows I want to marry and have children. Does he think he'll never find another collaborator who'll follow his schedule and share his tent? Do I stay because I like having my year planned out? Do I stay because I like sharing his tent?

This year, though, I told Nate that he was gathering data on his own. I told him that I wanted to use our time in the mountains to start writing poetry, and that he didn't really need me anyway as he gathered seeds, probed animal scat, and made molds of bobcat tracks. So here I sit, day after day, composition book on my knee, waiting for words. I've been waiting for the words that spin around in my brain to find their natural order, a rhythm, so that I can write them down and see the music that I march to as well as hear it. But I can't seem to get them to materialize in the right way. I suppose I've let the jays distract me.

I read up on them last fall. They're nature's pickpockets, really. They're mimics. They're thieves and misers. They hoard their seeds and berries like Fagin hoarded his watches and jewels. They're all flash and glam. They're brilliant blue, trimmed with black. I sit on the boulders behind our tent and watch them pick over our campsite and I think about my childhood and my notebook lays empty and my pen falls to the ground.

I grew up in a little, bitty town on the Colorado prairie. It was a whistlestop town then. The tracks went right through town, dividing us, one from the other. When I was in high school a boy that I liked died when he took a dare to walk the rail on a rainy night. The train took the grain that the farmers grew to markets in the east. It brought us our mail and the packages we ordered out of the Sears & Roebuck catalog. It brought Mrs. James to town the summer I turned eleven. It took her away again that fall.

I was working for Mrs. Edderly that summer, minding her two youngest babies while she took in sewing and ironing. Mr. Edderly had died the previous winter of the flu. Mrs. Edderly paid me fifty cents a week. I made lunch and dinner for the Edderly's as well. Their house was right next door to the manse, and in the afternoons Mrs. Jefferson, our pastor's wife, and I would walk our babies together. Mrs. Jefferson had a pretty baby boy that year, and she said I was right good company for her. I imagine that she longed for good company. Reverend Jefferson was always too busy looking up big words for his Sunday sermons to be much company, I supposed.

Mrs. Jefferson was just about the nicest person I could ever imagine in the world. She was tiny. About the same height as me, when I was eleven. She had pale rosy cheeks, and soft brown hair that curled around her face. Her eyes were calm and gentle, like the eyes of Jesus in the picture that hung in the Sunday School classroom. She had been my Sunday School teacher since I was five, and I loved her more than anyone else in the world, including my mother, though I never told my mother that. My mother was the no-nonsense type. She got her hair done every Friday at the House of Beauty, and she wore a dress, girdle, nylons, and heels every day of her life, I think. She made me put the fifty cents I earned every week from Mrs. Edderly into my piggy bank so that I could buy school shoes with it at the end of the summer. Mrs. Jefferson told me not to cry about it. She said that crying never solved anything. I wanted to ask her whether she cried when she walked into her kitchen door and got a black eye. She had a black eye about once a month. Once I asked my mother why Mrs. Jefferson always kept walking into doors, and my mother said to be quiet and not ask so many questions and for pity's sake not to pester Mrs. Jefferson about it. I never asked again. Sometimes I looked after all three babies when Reverend Jefferson was on his rounds visiting the sick, so that Mrs. Jefferson could take a nap. I wondered how there could be so many sick in that little bitty town of ours.

And then Mrs. James came to town.

She came on the train, an opera singer from New York who had been ill and had heard that the high prairie air had recuperative powers. She answered Mrs. Edderly's advertisement in the Denver Post and rented a room from her for the summer. I was so excited the day she arrived that I took the babies and went down to meet her train. Stella James was like a beacon of light as she stepped off the train from New York and into our little flea-bitten town. She was wearing a bright blue suit that day, with big black shiny buttons down the front and a blue and black pillbox hat. Her glossy chestnut hair was swept up in back and knotted as I'd seen in Vogue magazine. She had on black strappy shoes and her fingernails glistened fire-engine red. Her lips were glossy, and her figure was absolutely perfect.

She beamed at me, standing awkwardly, manning an oversized double stroller stuffed with two squalling babies. She waved, as if I were her long lost best friend, and she beckoned me over. She asked me would I be so kind as to help her find a taxi. I told her that there wasn't a taxi in town, but that Old John would be by to pick up her luggage if she left it on the landing and that I would take her to Mrs. Edderly's myself if she liked.

I fell in love with her that day. Mrs. James was New York. She wore bright blue and Chanel Number 5. She drank champagne and took long bubble baths. She read poetry and wrote letters on lavender-scented paper and talked on the phone to friends in New York. She sang like an angel.

I remember the day Miss Cora Schmidt recruited Mrs. James for the church choir. The Methodist Church choir, that is. Mrs. James had already turned down the Presbyterians and the Unitarians and, of course, the Catholics. She needed to rest her voice, she politely told the various church delegations. She was in our town for rest and relaxation. Privately, she told me that she didn't hold with too much church going as she didn't believe in feeling guilty and guilt was mostly what churches were selling, as far as she could tell. I didn't tell her that Mrs. Jefferson only talked about God's love at Sunday School. I guess I didn't want Mrs. James to think that I was just a silly country girl and didn't have the stuff to follow in her footsteps.

Cora Schmidt didn't recruit Mrs. James single-handedly. She also brought a committee consisting of the organist, Mrs. Hanrahan, the choir director, Mrs. Peabody, and Reverend Jefferson. Mrs. Hanrahan talked about her years studying at the conservatory in Denver, and Mrs. Peabody talked about the challenges of mounting The Messiah without a strong soprano. Reverend Jefferson asked Mrs. James how she was feeling. He leafed through the poetry books she had left on the parlor table while the ladies drank the tea I served and nibbled on the cookies I had made. He told her that when her voice was sufficiently strong again she was welcome to use the sanctuary in which to resume her training. Mrs. Peabody looked at him sharply when he said this because he has a strict rule that only sacred music is to be played in the sanctuary. Mrs. James said she would consider their offer. That Wednesday night she went to choir practice for the first time. Thursday morning, Reverend Jefferson paid her a call and they talked for the longest time in Mrs. Edderly's parlor with the door closed.

Mrs. Edderly said that Mrs. James was now officially on the sick list. I wondered what she meant by that.

And so the summer wore on. The days were hot, and the nights were hotter. I lay in my bed and thought about Mrs. James and her bright blue dresses and I wondered whether my mother would let me buy a bright blue sweater for school in the fall. I worked at Mrs. Edderly's---cooking and minding the babies, though I never seemed to have much time in the afternoons anymore to walk with Mrs. Jefferson and her pretty, fat baby boy. I spent most afternoons running errands for Mrs. James---mailing her letters, washing her silk stockings, listening to her sing. Singing in the choir was like a tonic for Mrs. James---Sundays the whole town was envious of the Methodists who got to trot off to services and listen to Mrs. James's clear, sweet voice soaring toward heaven. Reverend Jefferson was often so moved by her singing that he would gaze at her for several moments after she had finished, a look of rapture on his face. And then he would collect himself with a start and begin his sermon.

I stopped going to Sunday School after Mrs. James started singing with the choir. She needed me to run a bath for her after church and make her special tea that would soothe and mend her vocal cords. Once, while she was in the bath, and I was hanging up the silky blue and black dress that she had worn to church that morning, she called me into the bathroom. She asked me to sit on the stool and read to her from one of her poetry books. I read poems by a man named Baudelaire. And she asked me what I thought of Mrs. Jefferson.

My mouth went dry. I suddenly thought of Mrs. Jefferson's bruised eyes, soft as Jesus's, and then I thought of her pretty baby and her words about God's love. I remembered how she had dried my tears and walked with me and kept me from feeling sorry for myself. I thought about Reverend Jefferson's visits to the sick, and how the closed parlor door when he was visiting Mrs. James made my stomach knot and ache.

"She won't leave him," Mrs. James said calmly, lifting an arm and watching the soap bubbles slip across her skin and drip into the water. "Her sister's begged her to. Thinks it's her duty to stay. So, now it's my turn. Will you help me, K.C.?"
I nodded. I really had no idea what I was agreeing to except that Mrs. James's words made everything about the reverend and his wife finally make sense to my eleven-year-old mind.

You must bring her to the sanctuary tomorrow at half-past three in the afternoon, while I'm practicing. The doors will be locked. Before you go to get her, slip in here and take that key on my dresser and unlock the side door.

"How do I get her to come with me," I asked numbly.

"Say anything. Lie if you have to, just make sure she comes to the sanctuary at three-thirty tomorrow afternoon. I'm depending on you."

I nodded again, fear clutching my heart.

Then she held up her hand and grasped my fingers in hers and kissed them gently.

"You're a good girl, K.C." She paused, and then squeezed my fingers again. "You'll make a good woman."

The next day at three o'clock in the afternoon when the sun was at its hottest and the air was dry and dusty, I slipped out of kitchen, where the babies were sleeping, and crept up to Mrs. James's room. It was cooler and darker than the rest of the house. I pocketed the key she had shown me on top of her dresser, and then I ran down the back stairs and down to the church. As I ran by the manse, I wondered whether Mrs. Jefferson had seen me and how I was going to get her to go to the church with me after I unlocked the door.

The key was stiff in the lock of the church and I had to use both hands to get it to turn. I thought about poking my head inside, but then I remembered that Mrs. James hadn't said to do so. She had been very explicit in her instructions, and while I didn't know what she was up to, I did trust her. My heart was pounding as I walked back to Mrs. Edderly's. The babies were still sleeping in the kitchen, Mrs. Edderly was in the basement doing another load of men's shirts, the bread was rising. I took a deep breath and walked over to the manse and knocked on the kitchen door.

Mrs. Jefferson greeted me with a smile. Her face was puffy, and she was wearing long sleeves, although it must have been at least ninety degrees inside. Her wrists were black and blue. She told me that she had just gotten the baby down for his nap and that she didn't want to put him in his stroller just yet.

"I don't want to go for a walk," I said. "I need to find my Bible. Mama says I've lost it, but I think it's in the Sunday School classroom. Come to the church with me to look for it," I begged.

"But the door's locked," Mrs. Jefferson protested. "James is out on his rounds, and he keeps the door locked when he's not there."

"Please," I begged again. "I can't go home without my Bible. Mama will scold something fierce. Please. The door might be unlocked. It's worth a try."

So we went. I turned the knob and swung open the side door to the church. The long hallway was dimly lit with afternoon sun. The fragrance of lavender and Chanel hung heavy in the air. I took Mrs. Jefferson's hand and led her quietly down the hall. I could feel the tension in her hand as we neared the sanctuary. The murmur of religious ecstasy seemed to emanate from the stained glass light toward which we were walking. Mrs. Jefferson stopped short of the door into the sanctuary. Her face was flushed and her eyes bright and hard. Her jaw was flexing.

"He's with that woman isn't he," she said, looking past me, staring at the open door, unable to walk through it.

"Yes," I said. And then I added, with a sudden burst of wisdom beyond my eleven years, "She wanted you to know."

We listened in the hallway, Mrs. Jefferson and I, to the sound of the seventh commandment being broken all over the alter of our church. The sweet smell of sin flowed out of the sanctuary and rose rancid in our nostrils. I felt rooted, my heart as heavy as my feet, my throat felt thick.

Mrs. Jefferson was the first to move.

"Help me, K.C.," she said softly, squeezing my fingers. I looked into her eyes, and read in them the pain and fear that had held her soul hostage for years. I saw hope abandoned and fallen gods and mother love.

I pursed my lips and nodded, then together we fled from the church on the wings of angels.

I'm proud to say that Mrs. Jefferson and her baby boy were on the four-ten train that day, westbound to San Francisco. On the way to the station, we stopped by the bank and withdrew every penny in her husband's account. I was back at Mrs. Edderly's before the babies woke up.

I played it cool and calm when the Reverend James Jefferson came home to find his wife and child gone. I said not a word when he called out the sheriff to look for the refugees. The train conductor was questioned, but if he had seen a skinny girl in a bright blue blouse helping Mrs. Jefferson to buy a ticket and get her baby on board, he never said a word about it. The bank teller said she simply assumed Mrs. Jefferson was authorized to withdraw money from the reverend's account.

By week's end, Mrs. James was asked to leave the choir. I heard Cora Schmidt tell my mother that Stella James had bewitched poor Reverend Jefferson, that she was little more than a whore, all flash and glam. A camp robber. "The devil always sings in the choir," Cora said with a worldly sigh and grim shake of her pious head.

One day in early fall, when the chrysanthemums were at their peak and the asters were holding forth in all their glory, Mrs. James left town on the morning train. I waved to her as the school bus drove by the station. She was on the landing, surrounded by her luggage. She was wearing a jaunty black hat with a blue feather. I never saw her again, but I heard that she sang Madame Butterfly to great acclaim. I think it was in San Francisco.

I don't know why I can't seem to find a way to make my words into poems. They spin and spin and never settle. All I seem to be able to do is sit here on these boulders above our tent and watch the jays raid our camp. I think of home and the ten commandments, the smell of sin, and the year I learned what love can do when unleashed upon the world.

 

2003 Copyright held by the author.

 

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