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Authors: Mary Alice Monroe

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BOOK: Skyward
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“I’m getting hungry,” she said with decision to Marion. “How about you?”

She nodded, scratching her head lethargically.

“Let’s you and I see what’s planned for dinner.” She reached out her hand and was gratified when the child took it. “Do you think we might find something in your refrigerator other than mice?”

To her horror, mice were exactly what she found.

Ella opened the fridge to find a container of milk, a car ton of eggs, a half loaf of bread and myriad condiments. There was also a large Rubbermaid plastic bin. Curious, she bent closer to open it. The seal burped, releasing a pungent odor as she removed the lid.

“Oh!” The lid fell to the floor as Ella slapped her hand to her mouth with a shriek.

She stood panting before the fridge, her eyes wide with disbelief. Inside the container were dozens of dead mice, black, white and bloody, packed high to the rim. Seeing mice outside on a tray for the birds was one thing. But here in the refrigerator next to a wrapped package of butcher’s meat was another thing entirely.

“Is everything all right?” Harris asked, entering the house. His voice was winded, as though he’d come running. “I heard you shriek.”

“There are mice in the fridge!” she exclaimed, standing in front of it and pointing accusingly.

“I know.”

“You know?”

“I put them there.”

“Well, that’s not right! It’s…it’s totally unacceptable.”

“I didn’t think nurses were so squeamish.”

“Squeamish? Squeamish?” she repeated, her voice rising. “I can think of a thousand reasons why dozens of bloody, dead mice should not be in the family refrigerator that have nothing to do with being squeamish.” She moved her hand to her forehead, catching her breath. After a minute, her lips twitched and she said, “But let me tell you that one top reason is that they are an absolute appetite killer.”

He reached up to scratch behind his ear, holding back a grin. “I guess they are at that. I sometimes keep the overflow in this fridge when the one at the clinic is full. But I didn’t mean for you to cook tonight. You’re our guest. I have steaks thawing.”

Her stomach turned at the thought of eating any meat that came from that fridge. “Marion needed to eat,” she explained. “I thought I’d fix up something quick.”

His face reflected understanding, even approval. “I’ll get the grill started.”

“Mr. Henderson,” she called out, halting his retreat. “Please, before you do anything else, could you take these mice out of here? It really isn’t sanitary. And…” She gathered her courage. “It’s not my business how you manage things at the clinic, but as this will be
my
workplace, I simply cannot have dead animals in my refrigerator.”

He paused to consider, then nodded and came to retrieve the offending container. Marion was leaning against the sofa in the next room, watching with keen interest.

“Thank you,” Ella said with heartfelt sincerity as he took the bin. Then, wanting to be helpful, “Is there anything I can help make for dinner?”

“No. I’ll do it. Like I said, you’re a guest.”

“But I’m not. I don’t like sitting around uselessly and Marion should eat as soon as possible. Why don’t I season the steaks while you start the grill? And I could make a salad. I see fixings.”

“You certainly are a go-getter,” he replied in a flat tone that she couldn’t decide was complimentary or critical. “All right, I’ll leave it to you, then. It’s your kitchen from here on out. I’ll just get rid of these and start the grill.”

Later that night, Ella sat on the edge of her bed staring out at the night from her open window. Her long hair flowed loose down her back and ruffled in the occasional breeze. The night was nippy and she’d opened the window to hear the hooting of courting owls. Harris had explained over dinner that it was the mating season for owls. He’d told her how at dusk, when the rest of the bird world was settling in, the owls were just waking up, becoming active and vocalizing.

Harris. She’d been pleased to find that her employer was an appealing, well-mannered man. Yet she’d not been prepared for her reaction to him. The attraction hit her hard and caused her heart to beat so fast in her chest that when he was near her she had to wrap her arms around herself to try to still it, sure he might hear its thundering. At this moment he was lying in his bed down the hall from her and she was painfully aware of every noise she made in this small bedroom, exquisitely aware of his nearness.

Ella wrapped her robe tight around her neck and leaned forward while listening intently to the melodious series of low hoots. The melancholy cries moved in a synchronized manner from one pen to another. Occasionally, an owl from the trees answered the calls. Over and over, east to west, calling and answering, the mysterious, erotic song circled her in the night.

She closed her eyes and put her face to the chilled, moist breeze. The ghostly moon shone overhead, and it felt to her as though it opened up her chest and drew out her neatly folded and stored memories like so many antique linens and gowns being removed and aired from a dusty trunk. They hung, suspended, around her in the mist, leaving her feeling empty and lonely. Love sang all around her, and she sat, utterly alone, on her bed.

As usual.

Ella was thirty-five years old. She could say that to anyone who asked without stuttering, blushing or trying to fudge a year or two. For fifteen years, Ella had worked as a pediatric nurse with all the tenacity and devotion that was in her nature to give. On the eve of her last birthday, Ella had, in typical practical manner, made herself a cup of tea, lit a fire in her fireplace and, while staring at the flames, laid out her realities as neatly as sums on a ledger.

She was a plain woman with a good education and solid job prospects. She hadn’t had a date in eighteen months, a boyfriend in four years, and her romantic prospects weren’t rosy. She’d told herself that it was time to face the likelihood of a life lived alone.

The reality was not so much frightening as it was chilling. While she stared at the embers, her private dream of a family of her own thinned and dissipated like the wisps of smoke that curled from an old fire grown cold.

On that birthday evening spent alone, she’d dragged her self up from the edge of despair to arrive at a decision. She couldn’t change her lot in life, but she could alter its course. Her life
would
have meaning, success and joy. If she couldn’t dedicate herself to a family and children of her own, then she would dedicate herself to her career and the children placed in her care.

And, she’d determined as she shivered in the bitterness of a Vermont winter’s night, she would at least be warm.

The next morning she’d pulled out maps and chosen only those cities that were near sandy beaches and palm trees. A big medical hospital was a must, a theater and good music would be nice, and museums a big plus. Number one on the list, however, was a balmy climate. It didn’t seem to her to be an unreasonable demand and she’d set her mind to it. Just after the Christmas wreaths and boughs were hung around the inn, she’d packed her Toyota Camry with everything she could squeeze into it, kissed her weeping aunts goodbye and driven south to begin her new life by the New Year in sunny Charleston.

On the long drive, she’d blindly passed the landscape. Her mind was too occupied wildly wondering what awaited her at the end of the long journey. Her imagination played with all manner of possibilities. But never, not even at her most creative high, did she consider that she’d have raptors as neighbors and live in a teensy house with a single bathroom she’d be sharing with a stubborn man and his recalcitrant daughter.

She chuckled at the perversity of fate, then rose to close the window tight. Shivering, she slipped from her robe and climbed under the heavy down quilt. It took a few minutes to warm her chilled body. She tucked her arms close to her chest and rubbed her feet together. Soon, the cocoon of warmth softened her muscles and her breathing grew rhythmic. Closing her eyes, she could still hear through the closed window the soft lullaby of the owls’ love songs circling her. It was a melancholy song, rich with longing. This time, her heart responded.

Before falling asleep, just when her heavy lids began to seal, she thought she heard the rich baritone of a man’s voice join the owls in song.

Feathers
are marvels of evolutionary adaptation. They are some of the strongest and lightest structures formed of living tissue and do more than merely help birds fly. When fluffed up, feathers form dead air spaces that act as insulators against the bitter cold. When pressed tightly against the body, they help to expel excessive heat. All birds periodically shed their old feathers and replace them with new. This is known as a molt.

5

ELLA AWOKE AS THE PINK LIGHT OF DAWN HERALDED a cacophony of bird chirping outside her window. Not the melancholy love songs of owls or the piercing cry of raptors, but the squabbling and squawking of jays and mockingbirds in the surrounding woods. She brought the edge of her comforter closer to her chin and cuddled deeper in its warmth. Suddenly, her eyes sprang open. With a burst of clarity, she recalled where she was.

My Lord, what time was it? She pushed back the covers and the chilly, dank air hit her like a cold shower. Grabbing for her watch, she saw that it was not even half past six. The air had that bitter, dank cold that told her the fire had gone out. She shivered and reached for her robe from the bottom of the bed where she’d tossed it the night before. While slipping her arms through the sleeves she crossed the icy floor on bare feet and peeked through a small opening in the window curtains.

Outside, the morning sky held that rosy, misty softness of an awakening day. Enchanted, she pulled back the curtain for a better view. The pastoral scene of a small black-bottomed pond tucked away by vivid green pinewoods was one she hadn’t noticed on her arrival. A small smile tugged at her lips. She was pleased at the prospect of such a charming view each morning. A one-room cabin with a tin roof perched on a small rise beside the pond. It was probably the very cabin Harris had offered to sleep in, once the weather turned warm. Very sweet-looking, she thought as she let the curtain fall from her fingers. She began to turn away when, from the corner of her eye, she saw a blur of movement by the cabin.

She yanked back the curtain again and bent close to the glass to peer out. It wasn’t her imagination…. A lean black man carrying a small bundle under his arm slipped from the cabin in a furtive manner, then hurried out of sight.

Her mouth slipped open in surprise. Could anyone be sleeping in that cold cabin? she wondered. In this weather? There wasn’t any telltale sign of smoke from a chimney and icicles formed at the corners of the roof. It had to be freezing in there, she thought, shivering at the nippiness in the house. It was all very suspicious, and she decided she’d best mention it to Mr. Henderson at breakfast.

“A man in the cabin? Are you sure?” Harris asked her as he studied the plate of bacon before him. Three thick strips of bacon, blackened at the edges and pink in the middle, were drowning in a puddle of grease.

“Of course I’m sure,” Ella replied, standing at his side, refilling his coffee. “You don’t think I’m making this up, do you?”

“No, no of course not. It’s just that…” He returned the bacon to the plate and reached for the toast. This, too, was burnt to a crisp at the edges. “A tall man, you say? Slender? Black?”

Ella cringed inwardly at seeing him scrape the burnt edges from the toast. He had a sleepy look about him with his tousled hair and heavy-lidded eyes. He looked so boyish she had to stop herself from calling out “Eat up!” the way her aunts had when she was growing up and fiddling with the food on her plate.

“That’ll be him,” she replied.

Harris set his elbows on the table. “Lijah,” he concluded before slathering the blackened toast with jam.

Ella felt another swift flush of embarrassment at the sorry breakfast and quickly returned to the kitchen and poured herself a fortifying second cup of coffee. She’d already been up for hours. The first one up, she’d showered quickly in the single bathroom, then dressed in jeans and a thick navy sweater in record time. The house felt strange to her and she’d fought off a sudden attack of homesickness and doubt as to why she’d ever left home in the first place. But she marshaled her will, focused on the task at hand, then went in search of a broom and dustpan. She’d found a butcher’s-style apron hanging on a hook in the kitchen and the broom behind the kitchen door. Tools in hand, she went directly to the wood stove. As she’d suspected, the stove had long since gone cold to the touch.

Woodburning stoves were commonplace in Vermont and in no time she’d swept the ashes, dumped them outdoors and revved up a good fire with wood she found in a basket on the front porch. Then, after washing her hands, she thought it high time to make better acquaintance with the kitchen. The north was in her blood, after all, and a chill in the morning air energized her.

Now, looking around the kitchen, Ella thought again how it really was a pathetic little room. Everything was out of proportion. The miniature Roper stove was so small she’d bet it had been pulled into service from a camper. In contrast, the porcelain farm sink was deliciously enormous. It stuck far out from the narrow, dark green Formica counter like a full-term belly on a thin woman. It would be fine for washing big pots and produce, and she wondered if Marion hadn’t bathed in it a few times over the years. There was also the tiny refrigerator—sans mice—an ancient toaster with a dangerously frayed cord and beautiful hand-hewn wood cabinets that looked so heavy she hoped the wall wouldn’t collapse under their weight. All in all, a challenge to even the most capable cook—which she was not.

Ella sighed, hoping she’d find a few good cookbooks in the bookshelves to steer her through the ordeal. She was about to add a dollop of milk to her coffee but stopped, seeing how little was left in the jug. She thought Marion would likely want some when she awoke, and with a resigned sigh she put the remaining milk in the fridge. Frowning at her cup of jet-black coffee, she joined Harris at the table.

“We need milk,” she said, taking a seat.

“I’ll go shopping today.”

“No need. I can go, once you tell me where the nearest grocer is. I’m good at directions, as you can tell,” she added with a slight smile. “We’ll need to work out some kind of system for shopping. A budget and all. I expect you’ll give me a weekly allowance?”

“If that works best for you.”

He wasn’t much of a talker, but he was trying to be amenable. “I got up early and took a look around. I made out a list of things we need,” she said, pulling a sheet of paper from her apron pocket. In two tidy columns, she’d started to list all manner of groceries, sundries and cleaning supplies she’d need to get the job started. In fact, she could feel the caffeine racing through her veins and couldn’t wait to roll up her sleeves. She very much wanted to make a good start.

“Of course, I want to ask you what kind of meals you and Marion prefer, and what kind of things you hate, like onions, peppers, that sort of thing. You’re not allergic to anything?”

“No, but Marion’s not great with vegetables. Especially not okra.”

She laughed. “I wouldn’t know an okra from a collard green, anyway.”

“Oh.”

Ella thought it sounded more of a groan than a comment. She tapped her fingers on the rim of her cup before setting it down and folding her hands on the table. “Mr. Henderson, I suppose now’s the time to tell you I’m not the best cook.”

He looked up with a worried expression.

“It’s just that I grew up with my aunts, you see,” she hurried to explain. “They own an inn and they just love to cook. My aunt Eudora is a master chef. She can make a béarnaise sauce that would send you swooning. And her desserts!” Ella rolled her eyes. “Not to be believed, all made with fresh Vermont cream and butter.

“Aunt Rhoda is a baker. She has no interest in anything but breads, rolls, cakes, pies and the most delicate pastries. She always smells of sweet flour and has these big strong hands that can knead out a kink in your shoulders as readily as a glob of dough. They received a four-star rating from Fodor’s,” she added with pride.

Harris was now looking at her with an air of hopefulness. Realizing what he was thinking, Ella shook her head and smiled sheepishly. “So, you see, there was nothing left for me to do but clean up after them.
That’s
what I’m good at. Cleaning. Really, I know more household hints than Heloise and my specialty is getting rid of germs. I’m organized, too. Even as a little girl I could take charge of the pantry, and let me tell you, I ran a tight ship at the hospital.” She glanced around the room, narrowing her eyes in speculation. “And I can see I’ve got my work cut out for me.”

“But, you
do
know how to cook?” Concern deepened the creases in his long forehead.

“Sort of,” she confessed. “After all, I’ve lived on my own for years.” She refrained from telling him that, other than the hospital cafeteria, she existed mainly on food that came out of boxes, the freezer or from care packages from the aunts. “My aunts taught me the rudiments, of course. I mean, I can boil water and I know what
bake
and
fry
mean. I figure with a good cookbook, how hard can it be?”

Harris looked at the congealed, undercooked bacon on the plate like a condemned man.

“This Lijah,” she asked, eager to go back to the earlier subject. “Does he work here?”

“He’s the fellow I was telling you about. The one who carried that eagle in his bare arms? Had to be him coming out of the cabin, that cagey old coot,” he added, the affection in his eyes belying the scold in his tone.

“You didn’t know he was there?”

Harris shook his head. “He’s a strange man, decent and hardworking, but it’s an unusual situation. He lives in St. Helena, but he followed this eagle north to its nesting area. They have this…relationship, I guess you’d call it.” He paused, recollecting the night he came upon Lijah standing outside Santee’s pen, anxiously peering in. “It’s a rare and beautiful thing to witness, actually. He says he’ll stay only as long as his eagle does. I doubt he expected to stay this long. Then again, he didn’t expect for his eagle to get shot, either. I’m not sure where he’s staying, or even how to reach him, for that matter. When I asked him about it, he just said, ‘I do all right.’ I accepted that and let him be. He’s Gullah.”

Ella shook her head, not understanding what that meant.

He leaned back in his chair, stretching long legs in jeans under the table. “Gullah is both a local culture and a language descended from enslaved Africans. I guess you could say it’s a legacy that was born during the slave trade, flourished on the plantations and, because of the isolation of the Sea Islands, survives to today. You see evidence of the culture all through out the Lowcountry. The sweetgrass baskets, hoppin’ John, music.” He smiled with recollection. “Every once in a while I hear Lijah slip into Gullah when he’s talking to the birds—especially that eagle he likes to think is his. I can’t understand most of what he’s saying, but I’ll be damned if the birds don’t.” He shook his head, chuckling softly at the memory. “They sit and listen like children with a bedtime story.”

“Does he come around often?”

“Ever since he brought that eagle in he’s been volunteering his time here at the clinic most every day. He does odd jobs—carpentry, fixing perches, general maintenance. There doesn’t seem to be anything he can’t build or fix. We’re damn lucky to have him, truth be known.” He frowned at his plate. “But I can’t have him sleeping in the cabin.”

“Why not? It’s a perfectly nice living space.”

“For one thing, there’s no heat. It’s freezing out there.”

“Couldn’t we get a heat source for him?”

“Probably,” he allowed. “But that’s not the point. The cabin was constructed for fair weather only. We often have students and interns come in the summer, and the cabin is where we put them up. I can’t be having the volunteers sleeping here.”

“And you have no idea where he’s staying while he’s here?”

“No. And quite frankly, I don’t think it’s really any of my business to look into the private lives of my volunteers. They come here to give their time and energy to help these birds. I don’t pay them. Some stick around for a long time, others get bored, or figure it wasn’t what they’d thought it would be, or just get busy and drop away.” He paused. “But Lijah, he’s one of the dedicated ones. At first I had to point out where the supplies were and what had to be done, but pretty soon he just seemed to find out for himself what needed to be done and did it. People like that are hard to find. I’ll hate to lose him.”

“So don’t lose him.”

“You don’t understand. He’s made it clear, he’s only temporary.”

“But if he’s as good as you say, surely you can find an agreeable arrangement? Perhaps you can offer him a job?”

He steepled his fingers and stared at them. “Miss Majors, I have my own way of doing things.”

“Well, you really should find out if he needs a place to stay. There’s not a hotel or motel for miles. Does he even have enough food?”

“I’ll handle it,” he said, effectively cutting off her questions. He reached for his coffee, taking a long sip as he ruminated the problem.

Ella picked up her own coffee cup and debated in her mind whether or not she was overstepping her bounds by pursuing this. She felt certain that she was starting to antagonize him again, even though she’d promised herself she’d start off on the right foot this morning. She looked at him through the rising steam of her coffee. He was staring into the distance, the rigid set to his jaw giving clue to his personality.

“I realize my job is to tend to Marion in this house. And I don’t mean to interfere with what goes on at the clinic next door.” She took a deep breath. “But you simply can’t turn your back and pretend we didn’t see anything. What if that poor man hasn’t anywhere to go? He can’t sleep in that cabin another night without heat, that’s for sure and certain. It’s just not right. Why, it was so cold in
here
this morning I could see my breath. Imagine what it must’ve been like in there last night?”

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