Most don’t see the faded beauty or grace of the abandoned, derelict manor. Most see the broken roof tiles, cracked windows, peeling paint, and rotten columns. Most see a ruin inhabited by birds lured by the skittering and slithering creatures who found their way into secret corners. I see an elegant manor returned the splendor of its heyday with its windows gleaming, its chandeliers glowing, and its doors thrown open to invite guests in formal attire. An orchestra warms up in a corner of the ballroom. Waiters pass through the crowd offering delicacies and crystal flutes of champagne. Join me as we attend a ball where the lines between human and avian blur.
Phoenix scowled as he strode up the wide double steps to the covered entrance. He tugged at his black and russet streaked cumber bund, a small rebellion against the formality of tux and tails. His jacket was lined with the same fabric. He would have preferred the russet and black on the outside, but at least he had the secret satisfaction of wearing his signature color. The black silk eye patch he wore added a rakish air to his rugged face. Females noticed him and smiled coquettishly trying to catch his eye. He ignored them. He didn’t want to be here. He hated formal balls. He accepted the invitation only because the hostess told him Star would be there. Phoenix stood on the wide front portico and stared across the graceful curve of the drive and the manicured lawn to the wooded area beyond. It was early. Guests were just starting to arrive. Phoenix knew Star would be fashionably late.
Phoenix watched the Rolls Royce Silver Shadow glide up the drive and stop in front of the steps. The liveried doorman held out his arm to help Garbo step lightly out of the car. A classy lady, Phoenix thought, arriving in a classy car. Not for him, though. He preferred to travel under his own power. He nodded towards Garbo. She paused, then nodded back on her way into the graceful foyer. Phoenix stayed outside.
A waiter offered a tray of hors d’ouerves. Phoenix shook his head. Another offered champagne. “No, thank you,” Phoenix told him tersely and turned to watch for Star. He decided to give her 10 more minutes before he gave his respects to the hostess and left. The late afternoon sky was starting to streak with color. Phoenix hated being out at night. Nights were for more personal pursuits. “Ahem.” Arnold the butler cleared his throat. His bald red pate and rheumy eyes belayed his attempts to keep the years at bay, but he stood soldier straight in his formal black jacket and offered a tray with a single lead crystal class holding a deep amber liquid. “I thought this would be more to your liking.” Phoenix smiled and picked up the glass of Scotch whisky. “Thank you, Arnold, how are things?”
“Just fine, sir,” Arnold replied. “Although it takes me longer to get going in the mornings these days.”
“Doesn’t it just,” Phoenix smiled. He and Arnold went way back. They had fought together on foreign soil and in their share of brawls. He had lost his right eye in one of those brawls, ending his military career. “Why don’t you join me?”
“I can’t. I’m working. If you stick around after the party, we can share the rest of this bottle.”
Sipping, Phoenix considered. Then he caught the amber flash of wings across the lawn. She’s finally come. He watched as Star soared over the trees and lighted gently on where she stood and shook out the shimmery copper skirt of her satin gown. The satin rustled faintly as she walked, like a hawk’s wings cutting through the air. “I plan to be otherwise occupied tonight,” he told Arnold.
Star felt Phoenix’s gaze and smiled to herself. She knew he wanted her and had decided to let him try. She lifted her head and met his stare.
This piece was inspired by a real event. I was standing under a tree near the road to The Bird Rescue Center with barn owl Garbo on my fist. A black rolls Royce came up the road and stopped next to where I was standing. The window rolled silently down and a gentleman with white hair, twinkling blue eyes, and a mischievous smile looked out at us. “Is this were I drop off an injured bird?” he asked. I pointed to the hospital building, and he drove off. The car reminded me of when I saw a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow glided up the drive to Villa Montalvo in Saratoga. The car was magical. It looked like it belonged to a different era, and I imagined a ball held in the manor. With birds, of course.
Garbo looked out the window of the Rolls Royce Silver Shadow as it glided noiselessly up the circle drive to the gracious manor. She sat, spine straight as she had been taught, and smoothed the skirt of her dress. Not a gown. She wore a dress cut just below the knee. Cream colored, set with beads, fringe along the hem. Her white hair was styled in a short bob with finger waves. Her feathered arms covered in long kid-skin gloves. She belonged in this car.
The car slowed to a silent stop and a liveried doorman approached. She lifted her arm so he could help her step into the evening light. She saw Phoenix standing on the portico and hesitated at his nod. She knew him by reputation only. A dangerous hawk. She held his glance for a moment and then graciously nodded back.
The manor itself was two story white stucco with a red tile roof. A double set of stairs let up the terraced lawns to a long, columned portico. Double doors flanked by gently arched windows stood open to welcome guests. Strains of a waltz whispered through the air as Garbo floated up the steps. It was early yet. The sky glowed with the dusky blues and purples of sunset.
In the high-ceilinged foyer, Garbo accepted a crystal flute of champagne from as passing server. Lifting the glass, she let the bubbles tickle her nares while her dark chocolate eyes scanned the ballroom that opened beyond. Couples circled and swayed, skirts swirling gracefully to “The Blue Danube” played by the orchestra. Garbo heard the clinking of glasses and the murmur of conversation as she made her way around the foyer. She nodded regally at casual acquaintances and stopped to talk with old friends. She waved at Poe and Jazz across the room. They made a striking couple; his all-black tails and her rich sable wrap that brought out the gold in her large eyes. Garbo scanned the room looking for Him. She knew he would be here. That’s why she accepted the invitation. There, in the corner, in white tails, silver hair brushed back, his onyx eyes bored into hers. Champagne wasn’t on his menu tonight. Nor were oysters or caviar. Garbo and her beau saw only each other. They met in the center of the room, circled, and soared out the open French doors into the fading light and the dark shadows of the tall fir trees behind the manor. A light breeze ruffled their feathers, bringing with it the dark secret scents of the night. They seemed to float up to the tops of the trees. Swooping, dancing. Flap, flap, glide, flap, flap, glide to the orchestra’s waltz. Finally hunting in the dark. Mating. Elegantly as only barn owls can.
Prior Giuseppe stood by a narrow window in the three-spired gothic priory and gazed at the graveyard below. His eyes were rheumy with age, but he could see the late afternoon sun burnish the tombstones and bathe the village windows in a golden glow as if they were lit from within. The mist that always swirled around the grounds obscured the pathway through the graveyard with its frigid blanket.
Giuseppe pulled his cowl over his head and shivered. Damp seeped through the priory’s brick walls and emanated from its stone floors. His bones were always cold these days. He shook back his sleeve and looked at the nearly translucent skin of his arm, sinewed and scarred from decades of tending his garden. His fingers were knotty and bent with arthritis. Before too many more full moons, he too would be planted in the graveyard.
His garden grew well this year. Last fall, he had painstakingly exhumed bones of saints from the crypt beneath the chapel and crushed them. He sowed them under the first new moon in spring, watered them, and weeded them until they sprouted. Skeletal arms and hands speared up in rows among the tombstones. They were nearly ripe. In three days, the Hunter Moon would rise, cold and white, and his crop would be ready to harvest. Sweet, crunchy saints’ fingers. Giuseppe’s mouth watered.
Raucous ravens cawed overhead. Circling, calling others to join. They, too, liked saints’ fingers. Giuseppe hitched up his robes and hurried down the stone steps into the graveyard. He picked up his rake and swung it overhead like a gaunt scarecrow shouting at the birds. “I’ll plant you next! These are mine! Stay away!”
As dusk settled, he walked among the rows of saints’ fingers chanting softly.
On the morning of the Hunter Moon, Giuseppe rose just before dawn. He brewed a pot of femur tea, then sat to eat his breakfast of toast and pâté made from the livers of supplicants. While he ate, he thought about the crop he would harvest as the moon rose.
At nightfall, Giuseppe gathered his trowel and basket. His steps were quick on the path. He breathed in the damp, earthy scent. The air was still, silent. Ravens perched along the graveyard fence and watched, waiting. With practiced movements, Giuseppe picked up his trowel and knelt beside the first skeletal arm. The brittle saints’ fingers rattled. The hair on Giuseppe’s arms stood straight and he paused to listen. A soft slither whispered from the earth. Roots stretched, then tendrilled to grasp his ankles and circle up his legs. Bony hands reached to pull him to the ground. “No!” his cry was muffled by the soil filling his throat. As Giuseppe drew his last ragged breath, the forearms of the saints’ fingers creaked and bent. Fingers pushed earth over his body and patted it smooth.
The ravens swooped down to enjoy the harvest.
Abraham Lincoln woke with a start. He shook his marble head and knew immediately something was wrong. He stood, ignoring his stiff knees and strode down the steps of his memorial towards Thomas Jefferson’s memorial.
“Thomas, Thomas, wake up. We are needed.”
“I am awake. I know. I’m coming” Thomas stepped down from his pedestal and walked out to meet his fellow president and patriot.
“Our nation is at risk yet again. How many times must we defend against being destroyed from within? Don’t answer that.” Lincoln said.
They strode together towards the Capitol building.
They heard the creaking of long unused wheels. FDR was using all his strength to roll his wheelchair towards the Capital Mall. “Our country needs us,” he wheezed through the cigar he hadn’t smoked for years. “This is another day that will live in infamy.”
“Let me help” Thomas Jefferson called, and wheeled FDR out on the lawn. Eleanor Roosevelt stepped out and marched with them. Souls of other brave women who fought for freedom and justice joined in.
Martin Luther King Jr. heard them coming. “My dream is threatened yet again,” he said and shook himself from the stone of his monument to join the march. “Will we ever stop hating?”
The statues of the Korean war soldiers turned and joined, waving their guns right and left, looking for threats. Threats they had fought to end.
Spirits of the dead from WWI, WWII, Viet Nam, and other conflicts rose and joined them.
Together they marched to the Capitol building.
They stood watching the aftermath of the insurgency incited by a sitting president and the threat to the democracy they all fought to keep.
And they wept.
Dragons marched across the sky
Some were long with curving spiked tails
Others were small with web-like wings
They shifted their shapes to accommodate the wind that pushed them
But they remained dragons
In the early hours while the sun still slept, the dragons attacked
They swung their massive heads, spewing lightning
Long horizontal strikes ran just above the hills
Vertical strikes turned into long legged fire striders
Lighting fires with each step
I asked the wind to blow them away
I asked the cooling ocean fog to come rolling over the hills
I asked rain clouds to soak the flames
I asked the earth to smother them
But no answer came
Fire spread on gusts of wind
The rain that ran with the storm was fierce
But there wasn’t enough to slow the fires
That fed on grasses, and shrubs, and shot straight up the trees
Then jumped and swirled to others
Warriors fought the flames fiercely
But there were too few of them to make a difference
The fires grew
They consumed homes and buildings
And laughed as people fled in their wake
The fires created their own wind
To whip their sparks across the land
Nothing could stop them
But the fires grew
Then the dragons came again
The Black Lives Matter movement is making me realize that I have been an unintentional do-gooder white woman soaked in privilege. Not arrogant privilege. Not better-than-you privilege. But a take-for-granted kind of privilege that has blinded my complicity.
I’m thinking back to the thousands of times I have shopped with no one watching or following me. I’m recalling all the times I have driven past a police car, feeling paranoid just enough to think he might pull me over for something, but not because I’m white.
Blindspots have materialized before me during the past few weeks as I recall incidences where I intervened or tried to remedy a situation. My actions have not always been helpful.
When I worked at The Branson School in Marin County in the 1990s, I was giving rides to a young black student. He was a freshman and was attending the school on scholarship. I was happy to give him the ride and was paid $3/day for gas by his mother, which the student handed to me each morning.
Rather than use the money toward gas, I started putting the bills in an envelope. It was my intention to save the money then open a savings account in the student’s name, surprising him and his mother at the end of the school year. I thought I’d start a college fund for him. When my plan was inadvertently revealed to him during a conversation in the car, he told his mother.
The response from her was one of outrage. She wrote me a scathing letter pointing out my presumptuousness and I was immediately dismissed from giving her son a ride to school. I was also reprimanded by the headmaster who received a call from the indignant mother.
Apparently, my gesture came across as a white woman “rescuing” a black kid. The mom wanted to pay me for my services, not have the money used as charity back to her. I had caused her a great indignity. Did I think she couldn’t send her son to college without the help of a white woman? I did not know the situation with the family and I'd made an assumption that my gesture would be received as an act of kindness.
This incident, which happened 25 years ago, reminds me of the presumptuous action taken by a friend of my mother’s in 1967. This friend had taken me aside, and in conspiratorial fashion confided to me that my parents were having money trouble. A fancy work event was coming up in which my mother would need an evening dress.
I was 14 at the time and was into sewing, The friend told me to pick out a pattern and material, make a dress for my mom, and she would pay for it, all without my mother's knowledge. I chose a McCall’s pattern, a scoop-necked, sleeveless design, and apricot-colored crepe fabric that I thought she would like. I assembled the dress over several days after school before my mother came home from work so that I could surprise her when it was completed.
When I gave her the dress and told her how it had come about, I saw the look on my mother’s face. She was horrified. She was embarrassed. She was disrespected. She teetered on a thin thread of love and adoration for me for having made the dress, and shock and violation at the friend who had made such an outrageous request of me. My mother’s teeth were clamped as I conveyed the whole story, making the friend out to be a caring and generous person. I didn’t understand my mother’s reaction.
She put on the dress. I saw the stress in her face. She wanted to squeeze me. Thank me for my efforts. But she was furious. “I would have had the neck lower” is what I remember her saying. Her cheeks were flushed as she twisted and turned in front of the mirror. The hem was a bit short with her heels. My mom, God bless her, wore that dress to the event. Not because she couldn’t afford a new dress, but because I had made it for her.
An act that I had believed to be kindness on the part of the friend was, in fact, an act of control. All these years later, I understand the distinction and I now know what the friend should have done. And it wasn’t that.
When I think back to the black student in 1995, I understand now how my gesture caused that mother so much anger and indignation. It was a big enough deal that her son was going to an elite private school that was 99% white. She didn’t need another reminder that they could receive help from yet another member of white society, especially when it wasn’t requested or discussed.
The student ended up leaving The Branson School at the end of his freshman year. I smarted and shook my head over the misunderstanding. These past three weeks have revealed to me how a propensity for kindness can be misplaced. I realize now that, in my white privilege, it is incumbent upon me to think through the reactions and unintended consequences my behavior might produce. I realize now how my intention, no matter how sincere they were through my white lens 25 years ago, was an insult to that very proud mother and her son. A blindspot has been revealed to me, and I am blinking hard to create clearer insight into an unprivileged non-white world.
Ghost Fish swam slowly across the pond. If koi could waddle, she would have. Her normally bullet shaped grey body spread wide with eggs.
She felt like something big was going to happen, she just didn’t know what.
Victor and Shadow, two large male koi, swam next to her, possessively flanking her and steering her away from the other koi. She felt threatened but didn’t know why.
She felt a spurt and a need to swim wildly. Behind her, the pond water clouded with hundreds of tiny eggs. Victor and Shadow pushed Ghost Fish to the side of the pond, then chased her as she zigzagged away from them. The two males swam aggressively through the cloud of eggs, furiously spewing sperm in an unconscious need to fertilize those eggs.
Ghost Fish swam behind a water plant and hovered to rest and hide from the male koi. She was exhausted.
She looked at the eggs floating on the water but didn’t know what they were. She wasn’t wired to have maternal feelings. Most fish spawn and swim away. Eggs are fertilized or they aren’t. They develop and hatch or they don’t. They’re on their own.
Two days later, the water in the pond was clear again. There were no more eggs. The koi had eaten them.
Ghost Fish had no memory of spawning. Victor and Shadow stopped flanking her. All was normal in the koi pond again. Until next summer.
What if police didn’t target black men
What if those targeted didn’t die
What if we all took a knee, not out of protest, but out of respect
Respect for each other
For our similarities
And, more importantly, for our differences
What if we stood side by side, hand in hand
And saw the beauty in each other
And celebrated it
Skin color from ebony to cream
Eye color from black to blue
Hair from black to blond to grey to white
A beautiful rainbow of humanity
What if we respected each other’s lifestyles
And were curious
And asked instead of assuming intent
What if we worked to erase systemic racism from all aspects of our world
What if we treated each other as individuals with something to give
Each of us equal
I am white
I am privileged
I can’t know what its like to live in black skin
I can’t know what its like to be male
To be feared or hated because of my looks
To be suspected of crimes because of my skin
But I care
And I stand with you
What if we all stood together
Not to pretend we’re all the same because we aren’t
Not to be colorblind because we can’t
But to celebrate the rainbow we create
And to listen to our hearts beat as one
Pindi sat on a leaf and wrapped her arms around her knees. She rested her chin on top of her knees and pouted. Zoom flew by and said, “Hey Pindi, let’s go for a ride. Hop on.”
“I can’t,” Pindi grumbled. “My mother won’t let me leave the tree. She’s afraid of the human virus.”
“Pindi!” called her twin sister Mindi, “Mother wants to know if you have your mask. You’re not supposed to go outside without it.”
“Its not fair!” Pindi yelled. “We don’t even know if fairies can be infected by this virus, but we’re not allowed to go anywhere or do anything!” She got up and stomped into the grand hall.
“Pindi,” her mother, Queen Caelia said softly, “you know we have to be careful until we know if the human virus can infect us.” Pindi crossed her arms and glared at her mother. She refused to be soothed, even though Queen Caelia stroked her shiny hair while she talked. “You father is in in counsel with the fairy kings from other trees. Some of them are reporting virus infections among their fairies, mostly those who live near big human cities. And we’ve heard stories of animals being infected. We don’t know how this will impact us, so we need to be careful until we have more information.”
“I hate being stuck at home,” Pindi complained.
“You’re not stuck,” Queen Caelia replied, “you’re safe.”
After a moment, Queen Caelia sighed and said, “You can go out with Zoom. Wear your mask and wash your hands when you get home.”
“YAY” Pindi ran out of the grand hall pumping her arms in the air. “Come on Mindi, let’s go. Will you grab my mask?”
Pindi stood on a branch and called Zoom. “We can go! We can fly with you!”
Zoom flew to the branch and waited for the fairy sisters to jump on the hummingbird’s back and flew off. Pindi tied on her mask while they were flying and then shouted “Weeeeeee” as they careened around the garden.
“Let’s go see Intrepid, Dasher, Ka-a, Ribbit, and Xylem. Even Blade,” Pindi said. “I miss everyone.”
“You know we can’t visit,” Mindi warned. “We have to stay far enough away from each other that the virus can’t spread. We’d have to shout at each other.”
“I don’t care,” Pindi replied. “I just want to see my friends, even if all I can do is wave hello.”
“Intrepid is still in Santa Rosa,” Zoom told the fairies. “He likes it up there with his buddies from the bird rescue center. He will be sad to miss seeing you, though.”
“Look, there’s Ka-a! Hi Ka-a, “Pindi shouted, waving wildly. “How are you doing?”
“I can’t chat right now. I’m on sentry duty, “Ka-a said as he cawed out an alert about a person walking a dog along the sidewalk.
“Look, there’s Xylem riding on Dasher,” Mindi said. “Hi Xylem. Hi Dasher.”
Xylem turned and waved; her short dark pixie cut hair framing her cute face. “Hi you two. I miss you.”
“We miss you, too,” the fairy sisters said in unison.
“Let’s start planning our mid-summer celebration. Surely, we’ll be able to gather again by then,” Xylem said.
“Yes!” Pindi yelled. “We can send each other ideas by butterfly. It’ll be fun, and we’ll have something to look forward to. Great idea!”
“We have to go now,” Dasher said. He turned and his long red abdomen gleamed in the sun. “Bye Pindi, Bye, Mindi,” he called as he and Xylem flew off.
“Let’s go look for Ribbit!” Pindi said as Zoom turned towards the gutter.
“Ribbit,” called Pindi. “Ribbit, will you come say hi to us?”
“Ribbit may be hiding in the cool dark drains,” Mindi said. “He doesn’t like warm, sunny days. We may not get to see him.”
“We need to get back soon,” said Zoom. “I am getting hungry from all this flying. You two may be small, but you are heavy on my back.”
“Ok,” said Pindi. “But let’s swing by the pond and see if we can find Blade on our way home.”
Zoom circled the Red Japanese Maple Tree above the pond and found Blade lounging on a leaf. He waved a lazy hand at his cousins. “Hi little fairy cousins,” he called.
Pindi grimaced. She hated to be called a little fairy cousin. “We’re 13 now! We’re not little any longer,” she yelled.
“You’ll always be my little fairy cousins,” said Blade. “I love you guys, even if you are pests.”
“Boy fairies! Pindi scowled. “They think they’re so cool. Humph. Let’s go home, Zoom.”
Back at the Green Japanese Maple Tree, the fairies climbed down from Zoom’s back. “Thank you Zoom!” they called as Zoom left to find his lunch. “We had a great time.”
Mindi turned to her sister. “Let’s start planning our mid-summer celebration.”
“Ok,” said Pindi and they walked into the Grand Hall arm in arm.
The cat is trying to decide whether to take a nap on top of the filing cabinet. The sun is shining through the window, pooling light in the perfect spot for a nap.
He’s distracted by a leaf moving in the breeze just outside the window. The dance of light and shadow is too enticing to ignore. Tail twitching, ears straining forward, whiskers quivering, he stares.
A woman walks her dog on the sidewalk. A neighborhood crow sentry calls out his warning. The next sentry in line takes up the cry. Caws echo down the street, marking the dog’s progress.
The cat watches.
The most aggressive of the backyard hens starts her morning performance. What she lacks in vocal finesse, she makes up in volume. I cringe, hoping her song isn’t disturbing the neighbors.
The cat looks at me as if asking me to make the hen stop squawking. I wish I had that power.
I want to take a nap, channeling my inner cat, letting the sun’s soporific warmth lull me to sleep. There’s not enough room on the filing cabinet for the cat and me. And, I have too much caffeine in my system to allow for sleep. But I can wish. I wish I could sleep until the virus has run its course. Until we’re allowed to socialize and shop again. Until this nightmare is over.
The cat has decided to move to the bed. There’s no pool of sunlight on the bed, but it is comfier than the filing cabinet. And there’s room for me. He begs me to join him. “I can’t,” I tell him. “I have to write.”
He winds around my legs and head slams my calf. Finally, he gives up and stalks off to the bedroom with his tail in the air and his heat held high. “Humph” he meows. He hates to wait.