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Authors: Mary Alice Monroe

Skyward (5 page)

BOOK: Skyward
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If you are agreeable, and if my credentials meet your standards, I can take the position as caretaker for your daughter immediately for the term of one year.
Naturally, we should allow for one month’s trial period, after which one or the other of us can cancel the arrangement without penalty or blame.
I look forward to meeting both you and Marion. Tell her that I love to read and play games, that I know lots of card tricks and that I’m curious to learn what she likes to do, too.
Most sincerely,
Ella Elizabeth Majors, R.N.

Harris sat in the resulting quiet looking at the letter in his hands. He’d read the letter a dozen times since receiving it a week earlier. He’d been very impressed with her résumé and every person he’d telephoned on her long list of references only had the highest words of praise for her abilities. They’d said she was bright, clean and neat, punctual, efficient, responsible. All qualities that made her a first-rate nurse. There was nothing, however, about how well she played with children, or whether she could cook, or even if she was kind.

But once again, Harris counted himself lucky. He’d requested some medical knowledge in his ad but he hadn’t expected a nurse. The personnel director of the hospital had assured him that Ella Majors had no skeletons in her closet when he’d asked what her reason was for leaving. In closing, the woman’s voice had lowered and she’d made one comment that lingered in his mind.

Sometimes, a nurse in the emergency room just sees one too many children die.

He wondered as he folded the letter back up if that was the case for Miss Majors. If it was, he thought, cringing at the memory of the gut-wrenching fear he’d felt while waiting for Marion in the emergency room, he certainly could understand the woman’s need for a break.

“Is that all, Daddy?”

He nodded, tucking the letter back in his pocket. “Yep, that’s it. Except, of course, she’s coming. I expect she’ll be here by lunchtime tomorrow.”
Please God…
“So, what do you think?”

“I dunno,” she said with a shrug. “Is she pretty?”

He smiled at the child’s question. “I have no idea.”

Marion yawned wide and blinked sleepily. “Okay. I just hope she doesn’t smell bad.”

He laughed out loud and squeezed his daughter with affection. “I sure hope so, too.”

Later that night, after Marion was asleep, Harris walked around the mews of the resident raptors, then strolled through the medical pens where the injured birds were housed. It was his customary evening walk and the birds knew him—his looks and movements—so they were not flustered by his presence. Likewise, he was soothed by their quiet acceptance. In contrast to the quiet of the pens, out side in the plush cover of the surrounding trees, the little southern screech owls were trilling and wailing, wildly searching for mates.

He stopped outside the medical pens to check the three ospreys currently in Med 8. With that black band across their eyes, he’d always thought ospreys looked like dashing Zorros as they soared through the sky. Only they weren’t bandits at all. They were fish hawks, skilled fishermen that neither begged for nor stole their food. One of the ospreys was breathing in wheezy pants that rocked his body, a sign of possible lung infection. Harris made a mental note to take him out for treatment in the morning. With that decision, his tour of the grounds was completed. He turned and began his trek home, his mind free to struggle with his decision to bring Miss Ella Elizabeth Majors into his home.

He was as wary and testy as any bird at having a stranger enter his territory. It was far different to hire someone for a job at the neutral ground of an office than it was to bring someone into one’s home, into one’s daily routine. This allowed entry at an intimate level. How was he, someone who eschewed company, going to handle such an intrusion?

She’d written in her letter that she’d stay one year. That meant twelve months, fifty-two weeks, three hundred and sixty-five days of togetherness. He hoped in that space of time he’d be able to get a grip on the diabetes situation. Then he’d only have to endure her presence for that finite amount of time. He could put up with that, for Marion’s sake.

He could only afford one year, anyway. Miss Majors was taking a minimum salary, a lucky break for him. But even that small salary would eat up every penny in his savings account, and then some. Somehow, he’d make do. He’d always man aged in the past, hadn’t he? Even with Fannie’s bills.

Fannie. He paused to run his hand through his hair and take a deep breath. Other than his mother, she was the only woman he’d lived with in his life. And if that was any indication of what that experience was like, he would pass, thanks very much. Lord, if this Miss Majors was anything like Fannie…

He shook his head, surprised at the way his adrenaline was pumping even at the thought. There was no way she could be like Fannie. There was only one like her…

He’d made the decision to bring Miss Ella Elizabeth Majors into his sanctuary. He’d see it through. Even if the very thought of it made his breath come as wheezy and as fast as the osprey’s.

Early the next morning, Harris followed Lijah to the site of Santee’s nest. They trudged in a companionable silence through miles of silt and mud along the Wando River. Harris’s long legs could traverse a rough landscape at a clipped pace. He paused twice during the long trek, thinking perhaps the older man might need a rest. Lijah, however, wasn’t even winded. It was a cold, damp morning and most of the South Carolina reptiles and amphibians were nestled in a quiet, dark place, waiting for the warm sunshine of spring. Here and there, however, they’d spy a shiny black salamander burrowed in a pile of moist, composting leaves, no doubt waiting for a meal of earthworms and grubs. They reveled in the brisk wintry air, breeding and laying their gelatinous egg packets that would emerge as tadpoles months later.

At last the two men reached a cluster of ancient, proud longleaf pines that towered into the sky. Countless smaller trees and shrubs clustered around the bases of the giants like children holding on to the hems of aunts. Lijah reached out and pointed.

“That’ll be it.”

Harris craned his neck to gaze up at the conical nest. It was massive, more than six feet in diameter, comprised of large sticks knitted together, deep in a vertical fork of the tree. Sitting beside the nest like a lone sentinel was the eagle. He glared at them, as though daring them to come closer.

“He’s still sitting by the nest,” Harris said. “Poor guy.”

“He sat on those eggs for the longest time. I knew he’d have a hard time of it without Santee. Did what I could to help. Brung him fish most every day. I’d whistle to let him know I was here, then set the fish right at the bottom of the tree. Once he knew it was me, he’d come on down, grab a fish, then go right back up to the eggs. I was hopeful.” He shook his head.

“Don’t take it too hard, Lijah. It’s just the way of things. It takes two adults to incubate the eggs.”

“But Pee Dee… He kept with the nest. He didn’t give up.”

“Even when the father makes a valiant effort, he eventually has to leave the eggs from time to time to feed. The odds were against him. It’s just too cold to leave those eggs exposed. Sometimes, if he’s lucky, a male will find a new mate who will help incubate and raise the young as her own. But that’s rare.”

“It’s a real shame.”

“That it is. I feel for him.”

Something in his voice must have alerted Lijah, because he turned his attention from the nest to look at Harris. “You mean, on account you taking care of your young one alone, too?”

Harris drew in a long breath and placed his hands on his hips. It was rare for Harris to speak openly to others. He found the act of confiding personal information painful and often wondered why others seemed to do it freely. But the old man’s sincerity and disarming warmth thawed his icy hesitance. Or, it might just have been some private longing for advice from a father he’d never had.

“Marion’s mother left me soon after she was born. Fannie was a beautiful woman, but flighty. She had…problems. But she gave me Marion, and for that I’ll always be grateful to her. I never for one moment regretted having my daughter.”

“’Course not.”

“I do the best that I can for her. I’ve provided a decent home. I see that she’s warm, fed and has enough clothes. I’m gone a lot, but I’ve always had someone to look out for her.” He shrugged, hearing the plea for understanding in his own voice. “It’s hard. They count on me at the clinic to treat the injured birds that come in day after day. Then there are the resident birds to look after, and their training. That alone requires hours of my time. On top of all that, I’m always seeking donations, doing fundraisers, sending out mailings, anything I can to keep the center afloat. I have to bring home food to the nest, too, so to speak.”

He looked up at the eagle sitting alone among the cluster of tree limbs. The nest beside him loomed empty and desolate.

“I rationalized how busy I was, how I had so much to get done.” His lips tightened. “But when I look back on those days, those weeks, before her illness, if I’m honest, I see how I wasn’t paying attention. Sure I put the food on the table and paid the baby-sitters, but I wasn’t really watching. If I had been, I would have seen her symptoms, seen that she was thirsty or losing weight. Seen that she was looking poorly. I’m her father. I should have seen. My daughter had to have convulsions before I noticed. What the hell kind of a father was I?” He paused. “So yeah. I do feel for that eagle up there. You think Pee Dee failed? I failed.”

He wanted Lijah to agree with him, to tell him that he was a bad father, guilty as charged. Maybe then the voice in his head that whispered those words over and over would be silenced.

Lijah only nodded to indicate he’d heard. After a moment, he looked across the wetlands. “Son, it’s a fair way back,” he said. “I’ll walk with you.”

They walked shoulder to shoulder through the mud, back toward home. The sun was rising higher into an azure sky, promising a clear day. Without preamble, Lijah began to sing. His rich baritone rose up from his chest and poured out over the wetlands like a fresh morning breeze that spirits away the darkness. He sang a Gullah spiritual, one that Harris had heard long ago, perhaps in his childhood along the Edisto River.

I look down duh road, en duh road so lonesome,
Lawd, I got tuh walk down dat lonesome road.
En I look down duh road, en duh road so lonesome,
Lawd, I got tuh walk down dat lonesome road.
Owls: Hunters of the Night.
Owls are nocturnal raptors adapted for hunting at night. Fringed feathers allow for soundless flight and larger eyes and ears aid auditory hunting. Owls rest during the day, but at dusk they come alive, ready to hunt. South Carolina owls include great horned owls, barred owls, Eastern screech owls and barn owls.

4

HIGHWAY 17, A LONG STRETCH OF FOUR-LANE divided highway, took Ella Elizabeth Majors toward what she’d hoped would be the beginning of something new in her life. She wasn’t looking for magic. She wasn’t looking for love. What she was looking for, at the very least, was a rest stop between where she’d been and where she was heading.

The open map lying on the passenger seat of her modest four-door sedan informed her that the highway dated back to the colonial days when it was called King’s Highway. Red coats, “Swamp Fox” Francis Marion, slaves and planters had all traveled up and down this roadbed once upon a time.

But it was all new to her. She’d arrived in Charleston a month earlier, and though she’d moved to the South to stay, she was as yet a Yankee tourist—and would be for another twenty years, if the guidebooks she’d read were true.

Ella liked to drive and was accustomed to long journeys alone along highways and winding roads. In her home state of Vermont, she’d driven through deep snow and acres of mud, driven through periods of ecstasy and despair, driven in a glassy-eyed stupor after double shifts in the emergency room. She’d driven in the pinks and yellows of dawn when only the dairy farmers waved from the fields, and she’d driven in the primordial darkness of night on a county road when she saw little but the yellow eyes of raccoons as they scampered across her line of vision.

Yet even her experienced knuckles had whitened on the steering wheel as she crossed over Charleston’s narrow Cooper River Bridge and saw an enormous tanker the size of several football fields ease its way beneath her with seemingly inches to spare. A few minutes and several Hail Marys later, she was over the bridge and following the highway down a long, straight stretch through Mount Pleasant, where shops and strip malls crowded both sides and traffic was slow but polite. As she traveled farther north, the tentacles of the city’s growth thinned. Clusters of stores gave way to a few showy entrances of gated communities, occasional rickety wooden roadside stands where sweetgrass baskets were sold by descendants of slaves, some gas stations and, here and there, small homes barely visible behind foliage.

Less than an hour after leaving the bridge, the road began to curve, the traffic whittled down to a few vehicles and vast tracts of pinewoods bordered both sides of the road. She breathed deeply, more at home in the open space. The flat landscape was different from the cragged, green mountains of Vermont. Here, the blue sky stretched uninterrupted over broad vistas of marsh and, beyond, the glistening blue of water. Above the treetops, the ubiquitous vulture tipped its wings as it circled.

It was hard to believe that only a month earlier she’d packed up her sedan and made the drive from the Green Mountain State to the Lowcountry. In the few weeks since she’d arrived in Charleston, she’d stayed at a hotel and interviewed for several nursing positions. There was a shortage of nurses in the city and hospitals were clamoring to have her.

But the plain truth was, she couldn’t go back to work at a hospital. Not yet. Ella’s heart was bled dry. Her very soul was parched, and her instincts told her to find an oasis quick or she’d wither up forever.

That was when she’d found the ad in the newspaper. It was a small ad, barely catching her notice. Someone needed full-time help caring for a child with diabetes. Some medical knowledge was preferred. That drew her in. But it was the phrase
We need someone who cares
that made Ella circle the ad and call the number. She wasn’t the type to believe in miracles, but she wasn’t about to deny fate.

So here she was again, with all she owned crammed in the back of her sedan, driving toward a new destination. This time to a rural town called Awendaw, a short ways north of Charleston. When she’d left Vermont, her aunts had told her to have a fine adventure. Choosing to live as a nanny in a private home that she’d never seen certainly qualified as an adventure in her book. She’d thought it best not to write her maiden aunts about her latest decision, however, lest they flutter with worry like two old hens. Truth was, her own heart was jumping in her chest each time she wondered if the child would like her, if the family was friendly and whether or not the house would be clean.

After a dozen or so more miles she began paying attention to the mile markers, then slowed to turn off Highway 17 onto a narrow, gravel-strewn road that seemed to lead to nowhere. She stopped, adjusted her eyeglasses, checked her written directions, then craned her neck as she searched the area. There was no sign or mailbox to indicate where she was.

She gazed warily down the road, then pressed the gas and drove twenty yards farther, her tires crunching in the gravel. She came to a stop before a wide metal gate that crossed the road. And sitting on it, not the least flustered that her car had driven within a foot of the gate, was a plump white rooster that stared haughtily at her over its yellow beak. She chuckled. This just
had
to be the Coastal Carolina Center for Birds of Prey.

She opened the car door and put out a foot. “Hey, there!” she called.

The rooster watched her with dark, shining eyes and without so much as a shake from its bright red wattle.

“Okay, old boy. Have it your way.” She was well acquainted with the stubbornness of roosters, having lived with them for most of her childhood. She drove slowly closer to the gate, sure that at any moment the rooster would fly off, squawking.

It didn’t happen. The bird sat unflinchingly as she walked straight up to the gate and lifted the heavy chain from it. Then it hitched a ride as she swung open the gate and walked it along its arc across the road. After she drove the car through, the whole scene repeated itself as she closed the gate back again. Driving away, she saw the white rooster in her rear view mirror, still sitting, still staring impassively. Ella laughed out loud, liking the bird’s spirit enormously.

Passing the gate and its mysterious guardian, it felt as if she was entering another world. Here, the impersonal highway gave way to a narrow gravel road bordered by a jungle of pines, live oaks and choking clusters of chinaberry. Taking it at a crawl, Ella rolled down the window, letting the cool, moist air permeate the stale cabin of her car. It was January in the Lowcountry, yet she didn’t need more than a fleece jacket. She didn’t even need gloves or a hat. Yet, for the first time since leaving Vermont, she felt a twinge of homesickness. These southern trees had to compete with sand and marsh for bits of scrubby soil to exist and their leaves were paler and scrappier compared to their northern cousins. Still, she was surrounded by the familiar smell of grass, moss, mold and damp earth. Songbirds called in the trees. Her senses came alive, awakening dormant memories under her skin.

She followed the curving road to a clearing in the woods where a few cars were parked. She stopped here and got out to stretch her legs and look around. Beyond a barrier of leafless trees, she caught a glimpse of a pod of small wood structures. Up front and closer, and a bit larger than the others, was a Cape Cod house.

She crossed her arms and studied the white clapboard house nestled snug between two enormous longleaf pines, rather like a scene from a Japanese woodblock print. At first glance, the little house made a welcoming impression with its long, narrow veranda, the low-slung roof above it and a solid base of red brick. The porch pillars stood as straight as a spinster’s back and white smoke curled from a blunt chimney, filling the air with the delicious scent of cedar. But the house was weathered gray in spots and the surrounding yard barely held back the wilderness. On the porch, two hand some twig chairs, iron garden tools, all-weather boots and a wooden barrel filled with scrap wood lent the house that shabby-chic, comfortable feel of a home truly lived in.

It was a man’s house, she thought.

Leaving her bags in the car, she removed her eyeglasses and gathered her long brown hair into a clasp, even as she gathered her courage. If all went well, she thought, smoothing the wrinkles from her long khaki skirt, this little house nestled in these woods would be her home for the next twelve months. She would become intimately involved with the family within those walls, help a child adapt to the lifestyle of a diabetic and, if she was lucky, in the process she might regain a measure of joy and purpose in her own life, as well. Straightening her shoulders, she walked across the scrubby yard, with each step hoping that the people who lived in this house were decent and kind. She climbed the six red-brick stairs, relieved to see that the porch was well swept and tidy. A small index card was taped to the door.

Please knock. Doorbell broken.

From somewhere in the trees she heard the song of a mockingbird, and from inside, the canned voice of the television. Reaching out to knock, she smiled at the normalcy of everything. She didn’t wait more than a minute before the door swung open.

A slender girl about five years of age with flyaway hair hung on the door and stared at her with cornflower-blue eyes narrowed in speculation.

Ella smiled and said, “Hello there. You must be Marion.”

The child didn’t reply.

“I’m Ella. I’ve come to see you.”

The child released the door and blurted, “You’re not pretty.”

A short laugh burst from Ella’s mouth. “No. No, I’m not. But I’m bright. And that’s ever so much better.”

The child glared at her, uncertain of what to say next.

Behind her, a man came forward from the shadowy hall to fill the doorway. Ella sucked in her breath and straightened her shoulders, filled with anxiety. He stepped into the light and met her gaze. He was tall and lanky, what her aunts would call a long, cool drink of water. She guessed him to be somewhere in his late thirties, but it was hard to tell with men. Most important, he appeared clean and mannerly. She almost sighed aloud with relief.

“Hello. I’m Harris Henderson,” he said, extending his hand. “You must be Miss Majors. Please, come in.”

She took his hand briefly. It was warm with long, slender fingers. The cuff of his white shirt was frayed. “Yes, I am.”

“I see you’ve found your way. A lot of people miss the turn.”

“The directions were fine. Thank you.” She dragged her gaze to meet his, clasping her hands before her. He had a pleasing-enough face, even handsome, and it touched her that he went to the trouble to put on a freshly ironed shirt and tie for their first meeting. But it was his eyes that arrested her. They were blue, like Marion’s, but without all her distrust. Rather, his were wide spaced and wary. She suspected he was as nervous of this first meeting as she.

“You’ve met Marion,” he said, rubbing his palms together.

Ella smiled at the child, not the least dismayed that she didn’t smile back. “Oh, yes.”

“It’s cold out there today,” he said, closing the door be hind her.

“I don’t find it cold. Where I come from, this weather would be considered positively balmy for January.”

“Vermont, is that right?”

“That’s right. South central. I’m from a small town called Wallingford, but I’ve been living in Rutland for several years now. That’s where the hospital was, you see.”

“Right. A long way to come.”

“Ayah, it is. I wanted a change and started with climate. I had to go a ways from Vermont to find a palm tree.” She smiled tentatively.

He nodded noncommittally and rubbed his hands again. “Would you like some coffee? Or do you prefer tea?”

“Coffee would be great, thank you. With milk, please.”

“Make yourself at home. I’ve got some freshly made. It’ll only be a moment.”

While he went for the coffee, Ella unclasped her hands and looked around the room. The low ceilings, dark wood paneling and thick red curtains gave it a heavy feel. At the far end near the kitchen sat a round wood table surrounded with four hardwood chairs. A few more mismatched chairs and a sagging sofa clustered before a stone fireplace that dominated the eastern wall. Inserted into this, like an afterthought, was a black iron stove. There were dramatic framed photographs of large birds in flight on the walls, and several wood shelves overflowing with books took up the rest of the space. It was a small, compact room and the wood-burning stove was doing its job, for the house was warm and cozy. She removed her fleece jacket, aware that Marion was watching her every move.

“Where do you sleep?” she asked her with enthusiasm.

Marion’s curiosity apparently got the better of her resentment because she walked over to open a door on the side wall. Ella followed, fingers crossed, peeking her head through the doorway. A narrow hall divided the small house in two. Directly opposite the hall door was a yellow-tiled bathroom. It was spacious but spare, with a tub that stood on clawed feet. The towels hanging on the metal rail were mismatched, but he’d made the effort to supply new bars of soap for the bath and sink. It was, from what she could see, the
only
bathroom.

“That’s where Daddy sleeps,” Marion said, pointing.

Through the partially opened door Ella saw a black iron bed covered with a bright white matelasse coverlet that looked brand-new. She turned her head to look down the opposite end of the hall at a closed door. “What’s in there?”

“Daddy’s office.”

“I see. And where do you sleep?”

Marion pointed up. “It used to be the attic. But Daddy made it
my
room. It’s pink. That’s my favorite color. There’s a stair in the back, by the kitchen.”

“Is there a room for me up there?”

“No-o-o,” she drawled, looking at her as if she was crazy to ask. “There’s only my bed up there. And a closet where Daddy puts all his stuff.”

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