Our Lady of the Wandering Albatross

Fortune's Wheel

Evony awoke one midsummer morning and realized that her purpose in life had abandoned her like a bird at the start of a great migration. Now that her children were grown, she had no reason to believe her purpose would return, which left her to her empty nest and a husband who’d withdrawn into the stubborn torpor that was quintessentially his nature. They shuffled through their long days hoping for news from their children and waited for that era to arrive when even in their most basic routines they would soon become unbearably burdensome to one another. And in that all that waiting, a certain rigor mortis of the spirit set in.

For many years, Evony filled her time volunteering for various local causes – libraries, wildlife rescue, food bank. She tended the her garden at the end of a quiet suburban street, always making sure to leave a little wildness as she privately abhorred the tidy lawns and boxwood hedges of her neighbors’ yards. She lost all sense of time watching the feral cats as they stalked the songbirds and rabbits in the field next to her house – the field where young trees had been planted after the ancient oak woodland was plowed under to build subdivision where they lived. She he imagined her little savannah equal to any trip to Africa with none of the hassles or the costs of traveling.

In the fall, crows perched upon the metal light posts where they dropped walnuts on the asphalt to be cracked by passing cars. From the palm of her hand, Evony fed the scrub jay unshelled peanuts. She said she was lucky in all ways a woman her age could be lucky. Secretly, she hated the word “lucky” as the word implied she’d been spared the worst of human suffering through a divine act of pardoning or perhaps an accident of Fate, and she therefore would always have a debt to settle.

Over the years Evony filled the house with small treasures. These things – lichen-covered twigs, acorns, bits of abalone shining like oil sheen, brittle sepia photos of people she didn’t know, scavenged curiosities – were reminders to her of life’s brevity. She knew she and her husband had sacrificed something immense and vital for something meaningless in all those long years, although what it was remained obscured – the thing was constantly shifting in the blurry edges of her mind.

One day an old woman Evony had never seen before walked down the sidewalk from the direction of the main road. Evony was watering the last of the sunflowers she’d planted in late May near the stop sign (the earlier flowers had been trampled by the crazy neighbor’s son). The old woman wore a long and very filthy, grey cloak with an oversized hood that covered her face even though it was late July and the day promised to be a scorcher. She limped badly and her toes hung over her sandals like claws. Evony decided that the old woman must want something – that she must have some hidden purpose – so she hatched a scheme to get rid of her on the spot.

“May I have some water?” the old woman asked, licking her parched lips.

Evony offered her a drink from her hose, being careful not to touch the old woman’s soiled hands. She drank like someone dying of thirst.

“Do you have any food?” the old woman asked, kicking up the dust.

Evony shifted uneasily. She had just been to the grocery store. Still, her husband was sleeping on the couch and she was busy enough with the task of watering her sunflowers before the sun got too high. “Not at the moment. Come back later and I’ll pack you something,” she said. Feeling mischievous, she added, “If you can’t wait, you can try that house over there.”  She pointed to the house across the street where her crazy neighbor lived with her adopted son, who was turning out rotten just like everyone said he would.

The crazy neighbor liked to tell anyone willing to listen: “I found my poor boy abandoned in a shopping cart at the mall. He was only two.” The story often changed; sometimes he’d been found in the stockroom of the auto parts store, other times he’d been given to the neighbor as a newborn by a dying mother. Evony wanted to see what her crazy neighbor would do about the old woman as her suspicion of strangers bordered on paranoia. The old woman followed Evony’s eyes across the street and rested on the crazy neighbor who was measuring the distance between the rear end of a shiny new sports car parked near her driveway and the section of curb she herself had painted red the previous morning. The crazy neighbor’s son was shooting the pigeons off the telephone wire with a pellet gun. Anyone could see it was not a welcoming house.
“Never mind,” said Evony to the old woman, feeling ashamed. “If you wouldn’t mind watering my sunflowers, I’ll get something for you in the house. Don’t go to the neighbor’s house. I’m sorry I suggested it.”

“Good. But please hurry. I’m dying of thirst.”

Evony hurried into the house to collect food in order to send the old woman on her way as quickly as possible. She did not want any trouble.

“Stay right here Mrs. – err…

The woman did not answer. She was watching the sky. Evony hurried up the front stairs, passed her husband snoring on the couch. A war documentary blared on the television. In the kitchen she gathered dried fruit, nuts, some hard cheese and bread and a bag of hard candy. She put the food into a paper bag and brought it outside. Despite her warning, the old woman was across the street begging from the crazy neighbor. “She left the water on the thistles,” Evony muttered.

Just as she was about to call out to the old woman, the crazy neighbor began shouting and waving her arms in the air. She turned her garden hose on the old woman and sent her reeling backwards. Then the son shot his pellet gun at the old woman, missed, hit the sports car instead, shattering the side view mirror. A policeman happened to be patrolling the neighborhood. The crazy neighbor dropped the garden hose as if she had done nothing wrong and instead began shouting at the policeman about the sports car that was parked at the curb over the red paint. While the crazy neighbor had her back turned, Evony ran over and escorted the old woman towards her house as quickly as the lame woman could go. The son aimed his pellet gun at them while his crazy mother shouted the policeman.  Once they were safely on the front porch, Evony peered out through a small hole in the tangle of climbing roses to make sure no one was watching. She shut the door just as a second police car arrived.

Evony said, “I have some food and a bottle of water you can take with you. Maybe I can give you a ride somewhere? Or do you have someone you can call? A family member?” Evony’s husband opened his eyes and stared at the old woman in the long, grey cloak standing in his living room. He looked at the pile of dirt and leaves she had shaken off onto the carpet. He blinked and slapped his face as if trying to wake up from a bad dream.

“Thank you dear,” said the old woman. “You are kind to help me, but I am going to meet my true love. I won’t burden you. Here,” she said, removing a tarnished silver locket from a string tied around her neck. Engraved on the surface was the image of a beautiful young woman, framed by a sunburst. She smiled, revealing her toothless, purplish gums.
The old woman put the locket in Evony’s hand. Only three middle fingers protruded through the fingerless gloves the old woman wore. Where were her thumbs and pinkies? The skin was red and wrinkled and her nails were long as talons. She stunk of fish. Evony breathed a long sigh of relief when the old woman opened the door and hobbled out into the day without another word. She dropped the locket in the pouch of her apron next to her pruning shears and went around to the side yard to turn off the garden hose. She let a few minutes pass before walking out the street to see which way the old woman was headed.  Evony thought she was sure to make slow progress with that limp. But there was no sign of the old woman anywhere.

Two policemen were taking away the crazy neighbor and her son in the patrol car. A man who lived down the street came running over when he saw Evony. He said he’d photographed the crazy neighbor with her bucket of red paint the day before. He showed the photo to Evony. “Some people!” He told her that he had seen the son shoot his pellet gun at the police officer and he’d even gotten a picture for the police records.  The man was excited. “And that was that. Everyone knew the boy would turn out bad.” He shook his head in disapproval. Still, Evony felt defeated by the predictability of life, by the bald truth that people were such slaves to their habits.

Later Evony examined the little locket. She turned it over and over in her hand, admiring the skill of the engraving. The clasp was sealed shut from years of wear.  She threaded a silver chain through the loop and put the locket around her neck. It was unusually heavy for such a small piece. After dinner alone – her husband was asleep in front of a television program about an oil refinery explosion – she climbed into an empty bed. She did not think about he old woman once.

That night Evony slept fitfully. She dreamt of being lost in a city where giant turbines as big as skyscrapers spun along the waterfront. The place – vast with no apparent order to things – was more like a machine than a city, and she was inside of it. She saw faces of women and children chained to rusted machines in factories near a beach. Soldiers marched in formation, shooting the whirling gulls out of the sky. All night, a menacing figure moved silently in the shadows of these dreams, always behind her and invisible. It was all very horrible each time she awoke. In the morning she felt a deep fear of something she could not explain, as if she was dreaming the dream of a Colossus, as big as the earth itself, and that they had switched dream worlds. She’d heard of such things happening to women her age.

*      *      *

In the morning Evony suffered a shock; she discovered that she had been changed into a seabird during the night. She stretched two enormous wings on the bed. They spanned the entire width of the room.  She saw that her feet were webbed and she had made quite a mess of the duvet. Instead of words, Evony could only produced only screams and whistles and grunts. How would she explain this to her husband? What would her children think? She flapped her wings and knocked over a lamp and a framed picture on the wall behind her bed. Her husband, rouse at last by the racket, burst into the room. He stared with the blank, unbelieving start of a sleepwalker at the albatross on the bed where his wife should have been and rushed to the window. He opened it wide and shooed her out into the backyard. Evony tumbled down, banging her head and wings on the branches of the mulberry tree. She jumped up onto the picnic table, caught a breeze and took flight as effortlessly as a kite.

She circled above her house for a few moments, calling out to her husband but it was no use because the poor man lacked imagination – though it wasn’t his fault – and would never mistake the cry of an albatross for a woman’s distress.

Evony flew above the miles of houses stretched out below her in an endless grid, past the vineyards, the dairies and farms, the dams and power plants, the forests and dunes. Soon she was soaring over the waves. She flew along the coast for many hundreds of miles, marveling at the endless streets and buildings, terrestrial asteroid belts of big box stores spread out across the tortured earth. Frothy brown plumes blossomed in the river mouths and harbors. How many women must live as she had lived, she wondered – women whose purposes had abandoned them to these shadow worlds. She flew towards the open ocean and this gave her mind some relief. Flying required no effort at all; but for the weight of the locket on her neck, she was as light as a cloud. The sun smiled benevolently down on the empty blue world, its rays racing across the tips of the waves.

Evony flew for many days and nights. Blue whales spouted below her, sounding towards the abyss. She fed on fish and flew wherever the air currents carried her, forgetting her former life, her husband, her children, the unshakable melancholia that dampened her days. At night she saw, for the first time, how the stars crowded into all that black emptiness. She flew until ice fields filled up the horizon, and she was lost in the blinding whiteness all around her. Soon the locket began to grow heavy.

One day Evony spotted a fishing boat. Gulls, albatrosses, and shearwaters – a swarm of birds – scavenged for the fish thrown overboard. As Evony approached the boat, a fishing line snagged her wing. She fell onto the deck where a fisherman cut the line from her but not before noticing the locket around her neck. His smiling eyes widened with recognition. He pried the locket open with the sharp knife – why hadn’t she thought of that when she still had hands? She saw with her sharp bird eyes that the man was young and strong, but that in the lines of his weathered face was written a story of suffering and heartache. He put the locket to his lips and kissed it.

The fisherman set her down on the deck of the boat. The seas were rough and Evony felt sick. Hours later it rumbled into a natural harbor behind which rose the sheer, rugged cliffs of an island. Precipitous rock walls and glaciers formed the backdrop of a sublime landscape. The vegetation was little more than coarse stubble of grasses sprouting up in rocky fields overrun by birds and seals.  The island called to Evony. She longed to soar over its snow capped peaks, over the snaking rivulets of melted ice running down the rock faces, sparkling like silver threads under the mercurial skies. She longed to fly over the lofty nests of birds where no human ever lived.

Evony jumped into the water and waddled up onto the rocky shore. She tried to fly but her wing feathers were badly damaged by the line.  The fisherman gathered his things, waved goodbye to the crew, and carried her under one arm to an old stone cottage at the mouth of a ravine that separated two mountains. The fisherman knocked on the door of the cottage and a grey hooded figure answered the door. Evony recognized the figure as the old beggar woman. The fisherman embraced her tightly. Evony now understood the old woman must be a sorceress to have reappeared here at the far end of the world as penniless and lame as she was. The fisherman put the locket in the old woman’s hand and then set Evony by the fire. She was careful not to spread her wide wings in the tiny cottage. The old woman fed Evony fish from a pale, and a forced a pill that tasted of bitter herbs down her gullet. She fell asleep under a table, watching the glowing embers. For the first time in all her long years, she did not dream.

At dawn the fire was nearly out and the shack was empty. Only the grey hooded cloak of the old woman remained, tossed over a chair.  A storm raged outside, sending hale stones down to beat against the roof of the cottage. Evony lie on a bed of downy feathers under a heavy blanket of seal fur. Her wings were gone. She felt her face, her neck, her hair, her mouth and human hands.  She was even wearing the same clothes she had worn on the day the old woman came to her house. In her apron pocket she found the pruning shears. She was alone, abandoned at the end of the earth. She had no food.

After several days spent in self-pity, Evony grew curious. She drank water from the icy rain that filled in the pale outside the door. She managed to nourish the dwindling fire with the last of the kindling but it brought her little comfort. Why had the old woman brought her here? A shining object on the floor caught Evony’s eye: the locket. Where the portrait of the beautiful young woman had been was that of the old woman.

When the storm broke, Evony decided to explore the island. Waves pounding against the rocky shore and the stench of the seals made her wretch. Salty spray from the sea pelted against her face. She had no equipment with which to scale the mountains, no boat to explore the waters. Disheartened, she walked back to the cottage.  Just outside the door she saw the footprints leading away from the cottage towards the ravine. Scattered about the muddy prints were the shimmering scales of a fish. Evony gathered a few things the fisherman had left behind in the cottage: his knife, the locket, and the flint stones in a tin cup by the hearth. She followed the footprints through the ravine that narrowed into a long, dark tunnel through the bowels of a mountain. Soon the tunnel made a sharp turn into cavernous chamber where a natural chimney in the rock opened up to the sky, allowing a shaft of light to pass through. Mountains of gold coins filled the chamber – a pirate’s plunder. But Evony was not interested. She thought of filling her pockets but having lived as an albatross gliding effortlessly across the curved surface of the world on the circumpolar wind, the weight of her body made her weary. She put a few coins in her pocket in case she might, by some strange fortune, be able to barter for a passage home. Even dream worlds have rules, she thought.

The tunnel narrowed to a small crack in the wall where the two walls of the ravine converged. Evony managed to squeeze through by sucking in her stomach. On the other side of the crack was a cave with a low ceiling. Cold water dripped on her head and she was forced to crawl onto her hands and knees, groping in the darkness over sharp rocks. After many hours of slow and painful progress, she saw a pale sliver of light through an opening in the rock. Evony squeezed the first half of her body through and got stuck. She struggled to get free until exhaustion overwhelmed her. She did not resist. She waited there for an entire day, willing herself to shrink. Finally she succeeded, collapsed and slept between the rock wall and a thicket under the pale light of dawn.

When she was rested, she found an overgrown path that lead through a thicket. She used her pruning shears to cut back the vegetation. Thank goodness for pockets! Soon the thicket opened up and she looked down from the plateau where she stood onto lush and fertile valley – a lost Eden.  The sun warmed her skin. The air was heavenly and warm and smelled of tropical flowers and fermenting fruit and river water. As she made her way down the slope, she poked at the ground with a stick, turning over soil that was dark and rich and loamy.  She napped on a clump of soft grass under the branches of a massive tree blooming with pale yellow flowers that smelled of lilac.

Evony rose with renewed vigor and a jittery sense of excitement. She wandered along a little trail inside the lush jungle, taking in the verdant foliage, the palpitating redness of the berries, the chitter-chatter of birds in the canopy. Large droplets of water splashed upon her forehead. After walking for some time, she came to a beach with gold-flecked sand. Dolphins played in turquoise waters that lapped languidly on the shores. Large green coconuts bobbed in the whitewash. When a breeze lifted her hair, her skin tingled; she thought I must be dead.

She saw a little wooden shack hidden in a grove of pines. She knocked on the door but nobody answered so she let herself in. On a table made from the hatchcover with platters of fish, fruit, nuts, wine, flowers – there was even a suckling pig.

“Oh!” Although Evony no longer believed anything she saw, her human hunger was very real. Just then an old beggar woman appeared in the doorway. Evony instantly recognized her crazy neighbor. She saw that her pockets bulged with gold coins that weighed so much she was forced to stoop. Behind those covetous, darting eyes Evony saw a hungry ghost.  The neighbor showed no sign of recognizing Evony at all.

“Do you have anything to eat?” the woman asked, peering over Evony’s shoulder at the banquet. “As you can see, I’ve fallen on hard times and I have a son to feed. I found him in a basket in the reeds. I raised him myself, as was God’s will. Surely you wouldn’t turn away a woman trying to save her poor son when you have so much to spare.”

Evony, finally understanding her fate, emptied her pockets of the gold coins and the locket, the knife and flints stones, and even the pruning shears. “Please, come in,” she said. The crazy neighbor pushed past her, knocking Evony into the door. The woman gobbled up the food and stuffed the locket, the gold, the flints stones and the shears in her bursting pockets. Despairing, Evony went out onto the beach, filled the empty pocket of her apron with the heaviest stones she could find and walked into the sea. She sunk down to the sandy bottom until her lungs were empty and the blazing corona of the sun began to fade.

“What bad luck,” she thought. Just as her body began to tingle all over, a mermaid helped the fisherman pull Evony out of the sea and up onto shore. “Drink,” said the fisherman smiling as he poured cool, clean water into her mouth. Evony instantly knew the mermaid’s face as the face on the locket.

*     *      *

When Evony awoke in her own bed, she heard the sound of exploding bombs and women screaming on the television downstairs. It was midday. She removed the locket from her neck and took a deep breath. The stale air of the house filled her lungs. She was alive, yes, but none of the weight of living had returned to her. She walked downstairs and opened all the windows to let the fresh air in. She went outside and looked up at the sky. A bird with an enormous wingspan whirled over her crazy neighbor’s house, blackening out the sun and casting shadows in the shape of the hooded woman on the pavement. The crazy neighbor’s son was standing on the lawn with a gun. He aimed and shot the bird out of the sky, grinning cruelly as the great bird tumbled towards earth, its body breaking upon the curb that was freshly painted red.

Evony went back inside her house, turned the television off and tapped her husband gently on the shoulder. Startled, he blinked the unbelieving blink of someone who has slept too long on the train and woken up in the wrong city.

“Come. Get up,” she said. “There is a place I want to show you.”

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