Plain Text Version - Fiction
Palomar by Jennifer Anthony
“You eat like a bird,” Paloma said.
“My mother says I eat a lot,” the girl countered.
“That’s what I meant,” Paloma said. “Birds eat their weight every day.”
The girl shrugged and continued to eat. When the last stale flake was gone, she looked up for the first time and said, “One of your pigeons sleeps really well.”
Paloma raised her eyebrows. She would endure a few more minutes of idle chitchat, then steer the kid to the pool.
“I know because I couldn’t sleep last night,” Heather said. “I went to ask you for something to drink, but you weren’t in your bed. It was still made.”
Paloma took a long swallow of her coffee. “I slept on the couch.”
“No, you didn’t,” Heather said. She set the spoon down on the table. “I looked everywhere, even the couch. Abuela says you sometimes disappear.”
Sweat was now collecting under Paloma’s armpits, threatening to shiver its way down her sides. “What has this got to do with the sleeping pigeon?”
“Well,” Heather said, pushing the cereal bowl away from her as if she needed more room for her story. “When I couldn’t find you, I went outside to see the pigeons. There was one more pigeon there than when you showed me them yesterday. Fifty birds yesterday. Forty gray; ten white. Fifty-one birds late last night. Forty-one gray; ten white.”
“They are homing pigeons. They come, and they go,” Paloma said. She set the mug down on the counter and added, with a clap of her hands, “So. Pool today? I think you’ll need SPF-150.”
“The sleeping pigeon looked older than the others. She didn’t even wake up when I went outside,” Heather said.
“Probably faking it,” Paloma said. “Didn’t want to be bothered. Pool?”
“I’ll go grab my suit,” the girl said. She rose from the table, started to shuffle away, and then added over her shoulder, “You got some feathers stuck in your hair.”
Hours of swimming. Handfuls of cookies, chased down with milk. An enormous ham sandwich, followed by lemonade. A band-aid applied to an elbow chafed on the concrete bottom of the pool. Esmeralda tended to it all with a smile, while Paloma glowered and sweated from her plastic chair in the shade. Esmeralda cheered on the girl’s every paddle, kick, and splash, while Paloma watched two robins flit around the oak trees shading the pool, waiting for the child to leave.
“Time to go,” Paloma said, when she was sure the child was sufficiently worn out.
Esmeralda walked them to the gate, still exuberant and chattering after hours of ministering to the child’s every whim. “You’re welcome back any time, Sweetie,” she called out.
Paloma trudged back to the house with the child in tow. She waited until the girl had dried off and changed into street clothes. “Must be sort of tired, after all that swimming.”
“Not really,” the child said. “I don’t sleep a lot.”
Paloma bumbled to the stove to prepare dinner, as she was sure it was once again Feeding Time. The kitchen window looked out over the backyard, where the pigeons rustled around in the coop, beaks open, wings held out from their bodies, waiting for the heat to abate. Paloma would normally be out there by now. Earlier and earlier, with each passing day and new ache.
“Too bad Esmeralda doesn’t have grandkids,” Heather said.
“Not everyone wants them,” Paloma said. She poured water into the pot, wondering how much rice it would take to satiate the kid.
“But Esmeralda does,” Heather said. She leaned against the far wall, her chlorinated hair dripping onto the linoleum. “And even if you don’t, it’s nice to have some friends. You know, people to help you out and stuff.”
Paloma chortled. “Is that what you were doing over there at the pool –as Esmeralda fetched you food, towels, band-aids? ‘Helping her out?’”
“She likes to do it,” Heather said. “It makes her happy.”
Paloma harrumphed. She stole a glance out the window at a bare branch of the oak tree, then down at her swollen feet, which spilled over the tops of her tennis shoes like muffins.
“I know how to cook rice,” Heather said. “You can go out there, and I can cook my own dinner.”
The water was boiling now, and a scalding drop flew out from the pot and onto Paloma’s arm. “No, no, I can’t leave you alone,” she mumbled, aware after the fact that she had fallen into the child’s sleuthing trap.
“Your dad did it, too, huh? Changed into a bird sometimes?” the child asked, creeping closer. “And maybe you watched out for him when he did it.”
Paloma poured the rice into the pot, stirred frantically. “Huh? What?” she said.
“If you teach me how, I could do it, too,” the girl said. “And then I could watch out for you.”
“Child, I think some of that pool water seeped into your brain,” Paloma said. She clicked the burner temperature to low and started to turn, when a dizzying jab of pain shot from her foot, up her right leg, and into her hip. She stumbled.
Heather scurried over and put one cool hand under Paloma’s elbow to support her. Paloma started; it had been months since anyone had touched her. Six months, to be precise. She remembered how Papí’s fingers would curl over her shoulder when she led him outside.
“If you teach me, I could watch out for you,” the girl repeated.
“Not just anyone can Change,” Paloma grumbled. “You have to have the gift. You can help me out right now by letting me finish the dinner.”
“But I have the gift!” Heather cried. “I know I do!”
“Hush!” Paloma said, turning away quickly when she saw the girl’s face crumble. “Let’s just concentrate on making dinner.”
After dinner, Paloma waited three hours before the light in the bedroom clicked off and all was still. It had been a sullen meal, filled with pouting and sour looks and a rather refreshing lack of conversation. After the girl had cleared her plate – eaten every teeny grain – she had stomped off to her room to read and pout some more.
Night had fallen, and with it, the cool had descended. Paloma gazed out the screen door and listened to the bustle of the pigeons, excited by the fresh air. In his final years, she had let her father stay out outside all day and night, coaxing him indoors only when visitors came to call. She had spared him his human physical pain when she could, looked out for him.
But who would watch out for her?
Legs grousing with every step, she walked down the stairs and into the back yard. She closed her eyes, inhaled the fresh air, and had just begun to flap her arms when she heard careful footsteps.
Paloma peeped one eye open to find Heather standing behind her. Sighing, she squeezed her eye shut again and pretended not to notice. Her feet were singing now, and it would not be long before they gave out altogether. There was nothing to lean her weight on out in the middle of the yard.
“So what will you tell your grandmother?” Paloma asked her.
“I won’t say anything,” the girl said. “On one condition. That you let me fly over here at night,” the girl said.
“Carajo!” Paloma cried. “Absolutamente no.”
The girl snickered. “My grandma swears in Spanish, too! You’re kinda alike, except your accent is better.”
“Saturdays,” Paloma muttered.
“Weekends,” Heather countered.
“Okay,” Paloma said. “But only for a few hours, each night. And then you go home and sleep in your own bed.”
“Yes, yes, yes!” The girl frisked around the dark yard, jumping and leaping.
Paloma resumed the flapping. She shed the weight, the gravity, and the pain. Lifted into the air. Zoomed and zipped over the roof, above the trees, and down and across the grass. Landed.
Another bird stood on the lawn, white feathers tight and shaking, blue eyes glowing in the dark. Paloma waddled toward it, launched herself into the air, and circled back a few times. After three loops, the bird mustered enough courage to follow, and they soared, together, in the night sky.
It was Sunday. The child might return Friday night.
I can make it, Paloma thought. Just five days.