Authors: Mary Alice Monroe
“Ah, I see.”
Did she, she wondered? The house was much smaller than she’d imagined it would be and there didn’t seem to be any other rooms. She chewed her lip, seized with a sudden fear that she’d misunderstood Mr. Henderson’s job description.
“Coffee?” Harris called, stepping into the room carrying a tray from the kitchen.
She settled herself on a hard chair by the warm stove. He’d thoughtfully put leftover holiday gingerbread cookies and chunks of cheese on crackers on a plate along with a blue pottery pitcher filled with milk. He poured a glass of it for Marion and set a few chunks of cheese on a napkin before her. She quickly gobbled them up. Ella took a sip from her mug, glad to have something to do with her hands in the awkward silence. The coffee was good and strong, not that black water some people made. Restored, she waited until he was settled on the sofa with his coffee before speaking.
“Mr. Henderson,” she began, sitting straight in her chair. “Allow me to get right to the point. This
a live-in situation, isn’t it?”
He hesitated with his mug close to his lips. He placed it back on the table and put his hands on his knees. “Yes.” A faint blush colored his cheeks as he chose his words. “I realize that the house is small. Not too small, I hope. It might be a bit cramped at first, but once the weather warms, I figured…well, there’s a small cabin by the pond. There’s no heat, you see. But come spring, I could move there. And use the outdoor shower.”
“Oh, I’m sure the house will be fine,” she replied hastily, relieved that she hadn’t misunderstood. “But… Mr. Henderson, which is to be my room?”
Understanding dawned on his features and he brightened. “I guess I should have showed you that right away. I gave you the main bedroom. It’s the largest and it has a nice view of the pond. I put a little television in there, too. And a small rolltop desk. I thought, well, I figured you’d want some privacy.”
“I hate to put you out.”
“It’s no problem. There’s a bed in my study for me. I’ll sleep fine there, and besides, I’m at the clinic most hours, anyway.”
Ella was enormously relieved. It would be cramped, indeed, but manageable.
She saw Marion eyeing the cookies. Ella reached out to place a few more crackers and cheese on the child’s plate. These she ate without argument. Ella made a mental note to toss away all the gingerbread cookies, cakes and other sugary items that might tempt a five-year-old.
“Can you tell me about Marion’s diabetes,” Ella began. “What are her current insulin levels?”
Harris wiped his mouth with the napkin. “Marion,” he said, turning to his daughter, “why don’t you go in your room to play for a while. Miss Majors and I need to talk.”
“Do I have to?”
“She can stay,” Ella added.
“I think we should be alone to discuss this,” he replied firmly.
“It’s healthy for Marion to be a part of this discussion. She might have questions of her own.”
“I don’t think she has any questions.”
“No? After all, the disease is happening to her.”
He paused, and she wasn’t blind to his growing annoyance “I don’t want her to be afraid of the disease,” he said with finality.
“She might already have fears that need listening to.”
The two adults stared at each other, each recognizing the stubborn strength in the other.
Harris turned again to his daughter. “Marion, do you want to hear this or do you want to play in your room?” His tone clearly was trying to persuade her to play.
“I wanna stay,” she replied without a moment’s hesitation, settling farther back into the sofa with a smug gleam in her eye.
Harris pursed his lips, his eyes flashing his irritation, but conceded.
It was hardly a victory, thought Ella, since there was no real battle, yet it established her position in the house. She couldn’t possibly stay if he was going to dictate her job. The house may be strange and new, but managing a diabetic child was her field.
They moved into a lengthy discussion of Marion’s diabetes, during which Ella noticed that, though the child picked at a scab and looked at the ceiling, she was listening intently. Ella had experience with children of all ages who had diabetes. Though they all reacted differently according to their personalities and level of maturity, they had one thing in common. They each wanted to know what was going on in their own bodies, and most of all, they wanted to know how many shots they needed to take each day.
“Would you like to take a walk and look around before it gets dark?” Harris asked after they were through.
“When did Marion last have her blood checked?”
Ella saw Marion tuck her legs in close and her face grow mutinous. Harris’s face visibly paled.
“I checked it before you arrived,” he replied.
Ella looked at her watch. “There’s been lots of nervous excitement since then. Let’s give it a look-see before we go out.”
Harris cast a wary look at his daughter. Ella saw this—and how Marion watched and waited for it. On cue, Marion began to howl like a banshee, kicking and screaming. Harris went toward her, but Ella stuck out her arm, warding him off. She stood abruptly and slammed her hands on her hips.
“That will be quite enough of that, young lady,” she said in a voice loud enough to be heard over the wails. “I will be testing you four, five, six times a day, and I’ll be giving you your shots, too. Every day. That’s my job and…Marion, listen to me.” She moved quickly to grasp hold of the child’s shoulders and lift her to a sitting position. She held tight, ignoring the pummeling.
“Marion!” she said louder, in a command.
Marion sucked in her breath, silent for a second.
Ella rushed, “There’s nothing to be afraid of. I’m a nurse. I know exactly what to do and I’m good at this. Really, I’ve given lots of shots to hundreds of children.”
“But it hurts.”
“It will hurt a little, I know, but not that much if you sit still. And pretty soon, you
get used to it. I promise.”
Ella spoke quickly, while she had the child’s attention. “I want to show you something. I have a special little tool.” She looked over her shoulder at Harris, who stood with his arms by his sides, waiting to assist. “Could you bring my purse over here? Quickly, please.”
Marion was still crouched in the corner of the sofa, but her screaming at least had ceased. She watched warily as Ella dug into her purse.
“What’s that?” she asked with panic when Ella pulled out a little plastic box.
“It’s a kind of magic box that will prick your finger so fast you’ll just be surprised, that’s all.” She held it in the palm of her hand and was pleased to see Marion lean closer to inspect it. She knew the child wouldn’t see the needle.
“But first, come with me. Oh, don’t balk, you silly goose. We’re just going to wash your hands. Come along.” Without waiting for her to agree, Ella took Marion’s hand and half dragged her to the bathroom. She looked over her shoulder and mouthed “test strip” to Harris. He nodded his understanding and went to fetch them. While she rubbed soap onto Marion’s hand, she surveyed the bathroom. An effort had been made to keep the tile and sink decent, but it was a far cry from hospital clean.
“Okay, now let’s check those nails.” While she looked at the short nails she milked the finger she planned to prick. “Hmm…I see we’ll have to clip those little nails later. Maybe paint them, too. Pink? Isn’t that your favorite color?”
Marion brightened, distracted.
“Now rinse,” Ella said, waiting for Marion to turn her back before slipping the lancet box from her pocket. She raised her brows at Harris and he nodded, holding up the test strip.
“All ready? Inspection time!” She took hold of the hands. “Very good job, Marion. Nice nails, too. Okay, then, let’s do it, shall we?” Before Marion had time to go into her fight mode, Ella brought the box up and with a quick, precise movement pricked the side of her fingertip and swooped in with the test strip.
Marion’s mouth popped open in a gasp, but she was too stunned to cry.
“All done!” Ella knew it was the sight of the needles that frightened children most. Looking up at Harris, she was amused to see that his expression wasn’t that different from his daughter’s. She handed him the test strip to check with the meter.
“She’s good to go,” he replied with obvious relief.
“I think we’re ready for that walk now, aren’t we?” She took Marion’s hand again, squeezing it gently. Just as quickly, Marion yanked her hand away and made a face at her, full of reproach. Ella let the snub slip by. She couldn’t blame the child for being miffed. After all, Ella had just outmanipulated her. “Marion, will you lead the way?”
They strolled at a child’s pace through the grounds. The mantle of dark was falling, and as she walked through the shifting shadows and shapes of early night, Ella felt again the strong sense of place she’d experienced when she first passed the gate with its watchful gatekeeper. This strange place was a sanctuary in a harried world. She felt safe here in the cocoon of trees and wondered as she passed a pen of owls that stared back at her with their wise and all-knowing eyes if perhaps coincidence and destiny were intertwined, after all. If perhaps her long journey to this small outpost of healing was written in the stars.
She followed Harris around a cluster of shadowed trees to a few wood structures of various sizes and shapes.
“It’s late and the diurnal birds are settled so we’d better not disturb them. I’m afraid this will have to be an abbreviated tour tonight. Over there,” he said, pointing to an L-shaped white house with a low-slung roof, “is the clinic where we treat and house the critically injured birds. We only take in birds of prey, though we sometimes get a wood stork we just can’t say no to.”
“And the crows, Daddy.”
“Yes, we have two crows,” he conceded, smiling at the child. “Marion likes the crows.”
“There’s a baby crow,” she said.
“We try to keep Marion away from the birds,” he said, in such a way that Ella understood this was part of her new duties. “It’s dangerous and she might disturb them.”
“I saw a rooster at the gate,” Ella said. “That’s not exactly a bird of prey, either.”
“Him!” Harris said with a laugh. “We don’t know where he came from. He just showed up one day and never left. We think he roosts in one of the pines and comes down to scrounge for insects. I toss feed his way, too, especially now that it’s winter. He’s quite a character. Very vigilant. We’ve grown pretty fond of him.”
“What’s his name?”
“We don’t name the birds. It gives the wrong impression. We feel we need to reinforce that they’re wild creatures, not our pets.”
“Cherokee has a name,” Marion said.
He shrugged. “See? Children catch you lying all the time. She’s right. Some of the birds do have names, but only the resident birds, those that won’t be set free for one reason or another. Sometimes they come to us with names already and, frankly, with them living here year-round, it’s easier for us to remember names than numbers.”
He began walking again, pointing toward a series of smaller pens grouped together in pods. “Over there is where the resident birds live. We can see them tomorrow. And over there,” he said, pointing to larger wooden structures to the right, “are pens for rehabilitation.”
They walked in that direction as Harris talked on about how the birds were moved from place to place based on their stage of rehabilitation. They began in the critical-care kennels in the clinic and, if they survived, they were moved to the larger pens in the medical unit, then finally to the flight pen where they could exercise and test their hunting ability with live mice.
“This is the final checkpoint to determine if the bird is fit to be released,” he said when they reached the long, narrow flight pen. It was screened with the same heavy black wire mesh and framed in wood. “It’s too small. We hope to build a bigger one soon. Maybe two, if we’re lucky. That would give the larger birds a chance to really test their wings. So, that’s about it,” he said by way of conclusion. “Our goals here at the center are to observe, heal and release.”
As he looked over the grounds she saw in his eyes the pride and satisfaction he felt at having achieved this much. Ella was also keeping an eye on Marion as she meandered along at their sides. What was it like to grow up surrounded by all these wild and ferocious raptors, she wondered, then made a mental note to discuss safety issues with Harris.
He moved closer to the flight pen, bending at the waist to see between the slats. “Look at them back there. Red-tailed hawks. They’re fit and ready to go. I’m hoping to release them soon.”
She squinted, trying to focus in the dimming light. Perched at the far wall, the three hawks were an impressive group, robust and muscular, much larger than they appeared flying in the sky. The hawks glared at them menacingly.
“I think they know they’re being spied on,” said Ella.
“Count on it,” he replied. Then, catching sight of something over her shoulder, he said, “Hold on a minute. There’s something I need to check on.” He hurried off to meet a woman volunteer who appeared carrying a tray of fish and mice on her way to the medical pens.
“Mmm…dinnertime!” Marion said with a giggle.
Ella wasn’t squeamish, but she made a fake shudder to play along. “I hope that’s not for us.”
“It is!” Marion giggled harder, putting her hand up to her mouth.
Enjoying their first friendly exchange, Ella gave a look that said,
She went too far, because immediately the smile faded from Marion’s face and the wariness returned.
Around them, the day’s light was fading fast. Looking at her watch, Ella was surprised to see that they’d been walking for half an hour. She looked again at Marion. The child leaned against the wall and had a tired, hangdog expression, which, in a diabetic child, could signal much more than fatigue.
Harris talked on with the volunteer, apparently about some problem with an osprey. His hands gesticulated in the air as he spoke. Ella wondered how he could be so attentive to the needs of the birds yet be blind to the signals his daughter was giving? The birds weren’t the only ones needing their dinner.