In those days my mind was soft and my memories had no first and no last. I only knew that I was myself and I was young—and I knew that I was there. I remember coarse serrated grass on hilltop fields and I remember the way the July sun splashed my neck like molten steel. The summers were always getting hotter, and nobody was surprised when weeks went by without a whisper of cloud.
It was on a day like this when Julia yelled at us for an open window, not because of the two scrub jays darting about the kitchen but because of the electricity bill we could almost afford.
“Do you have any idea how hard your Papa works to keep these lights on? To keep you from cooking in bed at night like an egg?”
Rina and I pointed to the birds. Wings flashed and beat and folded about the dangling glass bulbs and luminescent coils, agitating the air and causing the lights to sway so that the faint daytime shadows came alive. But Julia’s glowering eyes did not leave us, even when they darted right past her nose in a flit of cobalt and silver and alighted in the small nook atop the worked cherry cabinets and the low belly of the ceiling. One opened its beak and cut the air with its shout, a cry soon imitated by its companion before they contented themselves with preening beaks and rustling feathers.
“Even the birds are fleeing the sun into this house. That should teach you something,” Julia said.
She turned and huffed upstairs to the bathroom we all shared, leaving me and Rina alone in the kitchen with its one window, the one we had opened to lean into the cool morning air and watch the sun’s first light. The loud pipes in the walls came alive the way they did each time one of us ran a cold bath to take the heat from our soft bodies.
I turned to Rina. She was watching the birds, too, and then she was watching me with her lips slightly parted, as though you might hear a beautiful secret if you only waited long enough. I was the one who said it:
“They can’t be in here.”
“The only thing would be to open the window.” She shook her head. “Julia would be crazy if we did.”
“We could open them really fast, and she wouldn’t have to know.”
“She will know.”
Flustered, I made my case.
“They could fly onto the stove, or hit the window and then they couldn’t fly anymore and it would all be because of Julia.”
My voice quavered at the last words, and I trailed off. Rina came over and sat with me. She kissed me on the head.
“They’re only birds, Maxie.”
Swept in a wave of frustration at being alone in the truth, of being the only one with eyes to see and ears to hear, the only one who knew—I slammed my fist against the wooden countertop. The jays began screeching and flying about the kitchen, sweeping so close over our heads in the cramped space that we felt their wind. Rina put a hand over mine and hushed me softly, steadily.
“You can’t make a noise like that. We have neighbors, and Julia will spank you.”
“I don’t care about Julia,” I said.
My face was hot and immediately from the way Rina changed, I knew I had crossed a line I was never meant to cross. I felt my anger and wished it would leave me, but it did not, and instead of pushing it out I grasped it tightly and could not let go.
Rina was silent. The birds’ movements seemed soft and faraway. In my sister’s eyes was pity, and a shine of wetness that drew out the silver flecks on her irises that only showed when she was sad.
“Maxie,” she said in a sweet voice, trying to calm me.
“I don’t care about anything ever,” I lied.
My anger shook me. I wanted to tell Rina that I didn’t mean it. I cared about her, and I cared about Papa. I cared about going home one day to see my brothers and my cousins, who were older and had kids that I could play with under sleet and snow. I cared about Mama’s little sisters who used to hug me and kiss me and tell me how much Mama had loved, how she would never have left us—never wanted to go away to see God but God had called her anyways. But still she loved me, she loved me, she had always loved me.
We heard movement upstairs, the opening and closing of doors. Julia appeared on the stairs in her bathrobe and leaned over the banister.
“Maximilian, there is enough work to be done in this home without you destroying everything in another one of your fits. No wonder your teachers are complaining. All day it seems the phone is ringing with stories of another tantrum, and yet—”
“It was my fault,” Rina said.
Julia bore down on her.
“Don’t think I can’t see what you’re doing.”
Rina got up from the counter and stepped between me and Julia.
“I provoked him. He would have been perfectly fine if I hadn’t been here. He didn’t mean anything.”
From the stairs Julia scrutinized me. I looked into my lap.
“Is that true, Maxie?” she asked.
Rina turned and mouthed ‘yes’ to me. I felt queasy at the thought of her taking the blame, but again she mouthed the word and nodded urgently.
“Well? Is it true what your sister tells me?”
“Look me in the eye when you speak to me.”
Though I hated myself for it, I obeyed, and lied again. A tension went out of Rina’s spine, and there she stood. Proud and unafraid.
Julia pursed her lips. A screech and a flutter of iridescent feathers stole her eyes and held them for a short time, but soon she was back on Rina.
“We will talk when I come back down.”
She climbed the short staircase, and we could hear her footsteps on the second floor moving toward the tub, then the water sloshing as she got in.
“Maxie,” Rina said, seeing my dejection, “it’s best not to worry.”
She crossed the kitchen toward the lone window in the living room. It wasn’t much of a room, only a small nook in the back. Julia had had the idea to outfit the space with Mama’s harlequin rug, which we had brought with us. Soon after we had found a secondhand sofa and a reading lamp to go with it, and the space started to take on its own character, distinct from the rest of the place. Rina dusted the sunhot armchair with two swipes and settled in. She waved me towards the sofa.
“Let me read to you,” she said.
I followed along and took my seat where she had indicated. The light from the square yellow window tingled my bare arms with warmth. My anger had gone out of me, but a piece of my mind called out for it and yearned for the pleasure of destruction. It wanted to stay angry forever and break things and scream and yell at Julia, to tell her she could never be Mama, no matter if she was the oldest, no matter how much she pretended whenever Papa went out. But I was tired and weak. At last I gave myself over to the long slow calm that stretched out before me and flowed like living water.
On the carpet was our small leather-bound King James. Its hand-worn pages were the only words in our apartment, and had been since the day we found it under the kitchen sink, six days after we’d come to the City.
“What would you like me to read to you,” Rina asked. She reached down and lifted the Bible with her slender fingers.
I thought very hard about this, but ended up saying the only thing that came to mind, not knowing what else I was allowed to ask for.
“But Maxie, there are so many. Tell me which would you like to hear.”
“I don’t know.”
The wall pipes quieted. Julia was whistling in the tub above us, and the sound mingled with the small wooden clatter of birds’ feet on the banister, on the countertops.
“You choose,” I said, and found myself to be holding down laughter.
Rina leaned into the parched leather chair and opened the small Bible, bent the back cover and thumbed near the back and flipped a few pages, each one snapping as she did so.
“Here it is. This one will do.”
She relaxed her face and cleared her throat—I’ll always remember the sound. Like humming sad sweet music, not so much a clearing-away as a bringing-forth of something from within herself, something that only I knew about and that made us special when we were alone together. I clasped my hands and longed for the miracle and for the clear blue sound of Rina’s reading voice.
“‘And it came to pass on a certain day, as he was teaching,’—this is Jesus who is teaching,” she said, watching me over the dark leather spine until I nodded that I understood. “‘As he’ (Jesus) ‘was teaching, that there were Pharisees and doctors of the law sitting by, which were come out of every town of Galilee, and Judaea, and Jerusalem: and the power of the Lord was present to heal them. And, behold, men brought in a bed a man which was taken with a palsy—’”
Rina looked up.
“Do you know what a palsy is, Maxie?”
I shook my head.
“See, this is why your teachers have been cross with you. How can they teach someone who doesn’t know what a palsy is?”
I wished that Rina would not stop, that her cool stillwater reading voice would fall back over my mind, and that I would be able to close my eyes and it would be her voice, only her voice—the voice and the miracle, together.
“What’s a palsy,” I asked.
“Well,” said Rina, thinking, before going on in quick flourishes of words and hands, as though she were the conductor of her own speech.
“A palsy is a terrible thing. A disease. A terrible disease you would not wish on your worst enemy. A palsy is one of the most terrible things in all the world, and this man by a horrible accident has fallen ill with it. Do you understand, Maxie?”
She looked out the closed window as she spoke, waving her hand airily with each statement. I watched the hand, the weak muscles around my eyes straining beyond themselves as a thousand images flooded my mind as to the unmentionable horrors that a palsy might bring.
“Can I get a palsy?” I asked.
I bit my thumbnail and traced the carpet with my big toe.
“You will never get a palsy. You are a small child. Only a man like the one in the story can get a palsy.”
“Someday I’ll be grown up. Then I might get a palsy.”
“You are misunderstanding,” said Rina, shaking her head. She cut the air with her hand. “You are a small child, who will grow up into a strong, happy, healthy man. You will marry a beautiful wife, and have beautiful children, and you will never get a palsy, and what I’m telling you is the truth. Do you understand now?”
I said I did even though I didn’t, and Rina lifted the book and searched the page and began once more to read.
“‘And, behold, men brought in a bed a man which was taken with a palsy: and they sought means to bring him in, and to lay him before him…’”
Rina placed the small Bible on the sofa beside me. She went to the kitchen sink and splashed cold water over her face. The jays had ventured to the nearby countertop and were exploring the dishcloth with quick and precise movements. With beading drops still on her cheeks and eyelashes, she shooed the birds from the dishcloth and dried her face.
The birds spiraled through the stagnant apartment air in search of a new perch. Everything seemed to move slowly, as though time were wading through a viscous substance and having a difficult time moving forward as it had done for ever and ever. All was under the warm spell of the window light beating on my back and Julia’s whistling overtones leaking in through the ceiling. I was a part of all that I saw and touched. When I came back to myself, my small hand was in Rina’s, and together our eyes traced the weightless feathered creatures curving around and over us.
Julia’s whistling stopped. We watched the ceiling as a metallic rasping commenced the whooshing sound of the drainpipes. The water sloshed again, and Julia’s feet flexed the floorboards between us once again. Rina squeezed my hand.
“Get your shoes, Maxie,” she said.
“Are we leaving?”
“Yes, Maxie. We are going to the market for bread and juice.”
She glanced at the birds, then the stairs. Julia’s silence turned to singing, and I remembered the voice that Papa had fallen in love with, the voice that filled spaces and images in my mind, images of the home I knew only in flashes of wind and sound and winter songs. I remembered the secret sound of Mama’s whispers, before I knew a life could end.
“Is Julia coming with us?” I asked, dreading.
“No, Maxie. We are going just with ourselves.”
Rina searched for an answer and rattled one off very quickly, and I knew she was not telling the truth.
“Because Julia needs some time for herself. Now get your shoes.”
I got my sneakers from under the stairs, and as I came around I stopped to look one last time at the scrub jays that flew close and fast and sang and beat their wings with a fast joy that I did not know, that had come from somewhere else—had come from out there. And in that moment, I knew they were not afraid of us.
Rina held open the thin door at the base of the stairs, and took my hand as I brushed past.
“Is everything okay, little brother?”
I nodded at the floor. My mouth was pulled tight, as I found I was close to tears.
Christian Wagner is a sophomore in Leverett House studying Statistics.