Authors: Mary Alice Monroe
“Praise Jesus!” the man replied.
“I think Dr. Henderson had a little to do with it, too,” Sherry chimed in good-naturedly as she followed Harris into the office. She’d tucked her salt-and-pepper hair into a knit cap and was stuffing her arms into her parka en route to the sign-out sheet.
“No doubt, no doubt. And I’m grateful. Don’t know exactly how to repay you for your kindness. While I was sitting here, I was thinking…I might could do some work around the place. I saw a few spots that could use a good carpenter. And I’m a good carpenter.”
“You don’t have to do anything,” Sherry blurted out as she rushed by. “That’s what we’re here for, you know. To help injured birds.”
“But this ain’t just any bird. This be
Sherry paused her hurried exit to look at Harris. He read in her eyes the same question running through his own mind. Eagles were a threatened species protected by the United States government. No one could own an eagle or possess it in any way. Even at the birds of prey center they were restricted to keep an eagle for only ninety days with out federal permission for an extension.
“Excuse me, but I didn’t catch your name,” Harris said.
“The name’s Elijah. Elijah Cooper,” he said, straightening and extending his hand with an almost courtly manner. “But most folks call me Lijah.”
Harris shook the offered hand. It was surprisingly large and strong.
“Well, Lijah, a Merry Christmas to you,” Sherry interrupted as she swept by them. Her eyes were sparkling behind her glasses with anticipation of the holidays. “You too, you ol’ humbug,” she said to Harris with a brief but heartfelt hug. Then with a softer tone, “I left a little something for you and Marion under your tree.”
“You didn’t have to.” He was always surprised and deeply touched by the many kindnesses the women at the center showed to him and his daughter. It was as though they had some silent pact between them to keep a close eye on the motherless home.
“Of course I did. I won’t be in tomorrow at all, remember. Neither will Maggie. But I’ll be here all the earlier on the twenty-sixth.”
“We’ll be fine. You just have a wonderful Christmas with your family. And drive carefully. The snow’s still coming down.”
“Don’t worry about me. You just make sure you give that little girl of yours some time tomorrow. The birds will be fine for one day,” she called as she hurried down the hall, eager to be home.
Harris turned back to Elijah, who stood waiting with a patient smile on his face as though he had nowhere to hurry off to on this snowy Christmas Eve. Harris usually didn’t like talking to strangers or engaging in social chitchat, but there was something compelling about the man’s serenity.
“Lijah, I don’t mean to keep you any longer, but there’s something I don’t understand.”
He cocked his head and his dark eyes glowed with interest.
“How is the eagle
bird?” Harris asked. “Do you keep it somewhere?”
“Keep it? You mean like in a cage?” Long lines crinkled the edges of his eyes, joining the multitude of others as he shook his head and chuckled. “No, sir. Nobody can keep an eagle. First off, it ain’t legal. Second most, it ain’t right. They noble creatures, meant to be free.”
“Then how is it that this bird is
“I figure you can say she adopted me.” When Harris’s brows knit in confusion, Lijah explained, “See, years back, when she was still in her black feathers, she flew low, right by me. You know how they be… She just glided in, curious like, then she perched on a low branch not ten yards in front of me. She sat there watching me. I reckon it was only for a few minutes or so, but it seemed like a long time we stayed there, studying each other.” He shook his head and smiled at some thought he meant to keep private because he simply shrugged. “Ever since, we just sort of looked out for each other. I call her Santee, after the river where I first seen her.”
Harris stared at the old man, unsure of what to make of the story. He’d never heard such a fantastical tale before, but he couldn’t discredit what he’d seen with his own eyes. Lijah had, after all, walked to the birds of prey center with the eagle held in his bare arms.
“Tell me what happened this morning.”
“Well, sir, I was walking along the big road early this morning, looking for her. I’d parked my car a ways back, knowing she has a nest not too far from here. I knew she’d be showing up to hunt sooner or later. And then, there she was. So I called her.”
“You called her?”
“Mmm-hmm. Like this.” He raised his hands to his mouth, then stopped and shook his head with a rueful smile.
“No, best not. She’d hear it and try to come.”
Harris could barely restrain the wonder from his face.
“You call and the eagle comes to you?”
“That’s right. Like I said, we look out for each other. And she knows I’d brung her something good to eat. Anyway, this morning I called to her like I always do. She was banking in a nice loop, coming for me.” His expression darkened.
“Then them gunshots rang out. They shot her down.” His cheeks stiffened in anguish. “What kind of man would do something like that? Why would anybody shoot such a fine creature of God?”
“I don’t know,” he replied soberly. It was a question he’d asked himself every time he pulled pellets from a bird. “Did you happen to see who shot the bird?”
Lijah paused while his face clouded with mixed emotions.
“Yes, sir, I did. Leastways, I caught sight of two men with guns back in the woods when I went to fetch Santee. They were standing right where the sound of the gunshot came from so it was most likely them. But I didn’t approach them or ask them nothing. Things being the way they were.” He shook his head and his eyes flashed. “But it was them, most likely.”
“You should report it to the police.”
“I called them already. The woman let me use the phone and they came by while you was in surgery. We talked a bit, I told them what I know, then they left.”
“Good. I hope they catch the bastards.”
Lijah’s lips pursed in thought. “You did say you pulled buckshot out of Santee? Not a bullet?”
“That’s right. A mother lode of it. Why?”
“No reason. Just curious.”
“Another thing. This eagle—” He paused and smiled briefly, conceding the name. “Santee. She has a brood patch. Did you say she had a nest somewhere near here?”
“Yes, sir. Not too far away. They’re good parents, Santee and Pee Dee—I named ’em after the rivers. It’s the second year they bred in that nest. Had two babies last time. That’s what brings me this far north, you see. I be from St. Helena, but I been following them to check out the nest. Sometimes I camp, sometimes I stay with friends. It’s a hike, but I don’t stay long. Santee likes to nest up here. I figure it most likely be where she was born.”
“Most likely. It’s still early in the season. She may not have laid her eggs yet.”
“Can’t tell you that. Only just arrived myself. I been watching them, though. They been busy up there.”
Harris weighed the lecture building in his mind about how humans needed to keep away from raptor nests so as not to disturb them, but decided against it. This man seemed pretty knowledgeable, and at the moment, he needed his help.
“Could you show me where this nest is?”
Lijah rubbed his jaw with his brow creased, then said with hesitation, “I suppose I could.”
“Lijah, it’s going to be hard for that male to incubate any young that may have hatched. Damn near impossible, in fact.
We’ll have to watch the nest carefully, in case he abandons it.”
“I intend to.”
“Maybe if we…”
Harris’s attention was diverted by a gentle tug on his trousers. Looking down, he saw the sweet, pale face of his five-year-old daughter. Marion’s hair was pulled back into an elastic that was slipping off center. The clothes he’d seen her in that morning were now slightly soiled and a smudge of grape jelly lingered at the corner of her pouting lips.
His face softened at the sight of her. “Yes, baby?”
“Are we gonna go shopping yet?” she asked in a soft whine.
Shopping. Christmas Eve. Dusk. All these realities hit him like a bucket of cold water dumped down his back. How could he have forgotten the outing? It was always this way with him. He’d get so caught up in his work he’d lose track of time and anything else that was on his calendar.
His daughter’s eyes were filled with childish expectation and longing and Maggie’s admonitions played again in his mind. He swung his head around to look out the window.
It was only four o’clock but already the sky was dark. A few flakes floated in the dim light outside the door, but nothing to be worried about. He had to make good on his promise.
If he hurried, they’d be in town and back before too late.
“Why, sure, honey,” he replied, tousling her hair, sending the elastic flying. “Just give me a minute to close things up here.” He looked again at the old man, who had already reached out to grab his hat.
“I best be going,” he told Harris. “It’s Christmas and looks like you’ve got an evening planned.”
“We do. Heck of a night to hit the roads, though, isn’t it. Can I drop you somewhere?”
“No, sir. Thank you but I’ll find my own way.”
“But didn’t you say you walked here?”
“I did. But don’t pay me mind. My friends live a short way down the road.”
“But the closest house is a long walk through the woods. I insist. Let me drive you.”
Lijah shook his head and began heading toward the door. “I been sitting here all day. My legs’ll enjoy the stretch. Thanks again for tending to my bird. I’ll stop by tomorrow, if you don’t mind. Just to see how she is.” Before leaving, he bent his snowy white head and smiled warmly at Marion. “Merry Christmas to you, little missy.”
Marion smiled shyly and ducked behind her father’s legs.
“We’ll talk again. I’d like to go to that nest,” Harris said.
Lijah nodded, then left, quietly closing the door behind him.
Harris stared after him a moment. The man left a lingering impression. With a sigh, he peeked out the window at the smattering of faint snowflakes dancing in the gray-blue afternoon. Placing his arm around his daughter’s slim shoulders, he bent close to her ear.
“Will you look at that?” he asked. “It’s been a long time since I last saw snow for Christmas right here in South Carolina. In fact,” he said, squeezing her close, “I’ll bet this is the first time you’ve seen snow at all. Guess it’ll help ol’ Santa.”
“You told me there’s no such thing as Santa.”
His brows rose. “I did, huh?”
She nodded her head.
Even though he never encouraged belief in such things as fairies, Santa and the Easter Bunny, he believed firmly in the magic and beauty found in the wilds of nature and human nature alike. Life was full of hard realities, like people putting buckshot into an eagle for sport. And though he was dog-tired and hungry, at least for tonight he’d do what he could to keep the magic alive.
Harris felt blinded by the fluorescent lights as he strolled into the Wal-Mart store with Marion in tow. There was so much stuff everywhere. Who could need so many things? Bright red bows, gold tinsel and moving Santas seemed to jump out at him from the shelves. Compared to the silence of the woods, the loud and persistent Christmas music was grating to his ears. He squeezed his daughter’s hand and fought the urge to walk faster through the aisles. Other shoppers racing through the store brushed clumsily as they passed in a buying frenzy. He couldn’t wait to get back outdoors.
“Daddy, I’m thirsty.” Marion’s face peeked out from the hood of her pink parka, a hand-me-down from one of Maggie’s girls. It was too small; Marion’s shoulders were squeezed and the cuffs were inching up her forearms. He thought of buying her a new coat, since they were already here, then thought again. Money was tight and it wasn’t cold for that long in South Carolina. He figured this parka would make do awhile longer.
“You had a drink before we left the house and another at the gas station. You can’t be thirsty again.”
Can I have some of that?” she asked, pointing to some icy blue swirling mixture for sale at the snack bar.
Marion dragged tiredly on his arm and whined, “I’m thirsty
Her tone was insistent, drawing his attention from the aisles of toys. On closer inspection her face appeared flushed and her eyes glassy. Come to think of it, she’d downed those glasses of juice this morning as if she were dying of thirst. He wondered if she could be coming down with something.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, bending over to speak gently.
“Let’s pick out your present first and then, if you feel up to it, we’ll go someplace real special for our Christmas Eve dinner.
You can get anything you want then. How’s that sound?”
“Okay,” she replied with lackluster, casting a final longing glance at the drink machine.
It was his fault they’d had such a late start, but he couldn’t help feeling disappointed. He’d hoped she might be a little excited by their special outing instead of dragging her feet and complaining. When they reached the doll section, he spread out his arm grandly and said with the enthusiasm of a carnival barker, “Look, Marion! Have you ever seen so many dolls in one place? And you can pick any which one you want for Christmas. Go on! Any one at all.”
Marion let go of his hand and shuffled close to the row of dolls, staring dully at them with her arms dropped to her sides. There was no squeal of delight or so much as an ooh of anticipation.
He sighed and lowered himself to her level. “What’s wrong, honey?”
“But you said you wanted a doll for Christmas.”
She shook her head no.
“Oh,” he replied, perplexed. Then, regrouping, “Well, that’s okay. You don’t have to get one.”
At least he hadn’t gone out and bought one, he thought to himself. Kids changed their minds all the time, didn’t they? “There are lots of toys here. Games, stuffed animals, sports stuff… Hey, how about a bike?”