by Jeanine Lipp
Lark is a wisp, a vapor, a graceful ghost who flits into my mind at the most inopportune moments and stubbornly remains despite my efforts to dislodge her from my memory. It has been this way since that first day I saw her in the park. In the midst of a summer day, a beautiful lilting song, clear and melodious, intricate yet unpretentious, drifted in serpentine spirals into my consciousness and cleaved my attention from my pathetic attempt at writing poetry. The song was like nothing I’d heard before. But then again, what do I know about birds, or for that matter, anything? Poetry is my latest failure in a long list of failures.
My moon-pie face (as my Mum habitually described it to her gaggle of hen friends) turned toward the sound like a sunflower tracking the sun, until I found her, perched on the stone edge of the gurgling Italian style fountain. Brown streaked with white, her eyes outlined in black like a bandit, twigs of silver at her feet, she sang that delicate carol until I thought my heart would break beneath the weight of its beauty. Before I could decipher the reason for the silver twigs, her song abruptly stopped. She snatched up the twigs and took flight with a flurry of wings.
That’s what I thought I heard, but when I turned, a large crow beat the air with wings that sliced the bright daylight with the black of night — cawing his warning threat. Or was it a threat? As he passed just inches from me, I could feel disturbed air and hear the pounding of his heart thickening his voice as his warning dissolved into entreaty. She flew off in the opposite direction without a backward glance. He followed, his feet slapping on the sidewalk, his long tail flowing out behind him like a coattail.
I hoped he’d never catch her. The extinction of this exotic and exquisite creature from this Earth would be a sin. And if he is pursuing her out of love, as I suspect, he will find, as I have in my thirty-five miserable years of life, that beauty is untouchable for the likes of a brut like him or a botch like me. Beauty is something to observe from afar, for as soon as you try to capture it, it dissolves in your hand like gossamer, disappears without a trace, or dies.
So, I decided that I would merely observe this Lark and bask in secondhand splendor. It would have to be enough.
I walked to the park the next day, book in hand and lunchbox packed, hoping for a glimpse of the Lark. If she appeared, I would know she was safe.
I waited all morning.
Patience is my virtue, and it paid off. She flew in just past noon, settled on the warm, flat stones that edged the fountain and began to sing. A few people stopped and listened for a while, then moved on with smiles on their faces as if the music had washed them clean. The afternoon wore on and soon everyone had drifted back to work, or home, leaving the two of us alone. I was held captive on my bench, seized by the sweet trill of her song as it rose in the air, clear and sharp as needles that pierced my heart and embroidered each delightful note into my very soul. I dabbed tears from my eyes with the hem of my shirt, berating myself for allowing this little brown bird entrance to my heart. I grabbed my backpack and escaped before anyone witnessed my humiliation.
I stayed away from the park for three days. Exactly three. On the fourth day I found myself glued to the bench opposite the fountain waiting for the Lark. This time she wasn’t alone. My irritation grew as she chirped and chattered to her feathered companions, her song abandoned. My heel tapped a staccato tattoo on the sidewalk, muscles taunt as I twisted anxiously on the bench, wishing them away. When the strain became too much, I leaped up and rushed forward, raising my arms and yelling. The birds, along with the Lark, scattered in a cloud of feather dust, leaving only the silver twigs behind. I gathered them up, tears fogging my eyes as I jammed them into my backpack. I’ll bring them back tomorrow and give them to her. Perhaps, she’ll allow me to sit with her in gratitude.
She didn’t come back that day or the next or the next.
I’d scared her away, her trust in me broken. The Lark would never sing for me again.
The nights soon became my torment, for the silence deepened in the absence of the music I craved. How can the sound of nothing become so unbearably loud? The crickets outside my window no longer sang, the faucet no longer dripped, even the neighborhood dogs were silent. The roar of emptiness reigned and I slowly became a hollow-eyed zombie that shuffled up and down the worn carpet of my hallway in search of a ghost.
One night, I lay stiffly in bed, forcing my eyes to close in an effort to will myself to sleep. Faintly, a tiny thread of her song edged into my mind and began to weave its magic. I floated on the wave of song, rising and lowering with each swell, dipping and drifting far, far away until I was nearly lulled to sleep. Then, the notes turned to discord and began to sour, pulling the weft tighter and tighter against the warp in a loop that repeated one phrase in an endless refrain. I knew my only respite was hearing the real Lark sing, a sure cure for an earworm. I would have to completely abandon my convictions against attachment to get the relief I needed. To ease my conscience, I rationalized that the harsh lessons I had been forced to learn in childhood were in the past. This was now. And I had to act at once.
The next morning, I walked over to the library and searched online for any information I could find on Larks. It was difficult to pinpoint which species she was, so I studied them all, checking off items that related to her.
LARK – Alaudidae Family
Passerine – perching bird
Songbird with elaborate, extravagant songs
Ground hopping (more like fountain hopping)
Lark is a symbol of daybreak, a messenger from Earth to Heaven (of course)
The male courts the female by giving her a twig.
The last one holds the answer. I’ll regain her trust by offering her one of the silver twigs she is so fond of. I’ll have to figure out a way.
By noon the next day, the gift was in place, but I didn’t sit on my usual bench. I waited anxiously behind the rhododendron which had an excellent view of the fountain. The Lark arrived alone a few minutes after and stopped short when she discovered what I’d left for her. Her dark shiny eyes glanced past my hiding place as she searched the park square for a sign of her benefactor. Her entire demeanor was cautious, almost frightened. This was not the reaction I’d imagined. She lifted her wings, poised to take flight. I stood, revealing myself, not willing to let her go so soon.
But, these sounds were not mine. They came from the same crow, who flew around the corner and advanced on her, flanked by two more black crows, tall and lean with mean eyes and hooked beaks like noses. Her frightened eyes danced around him in search of an escape route. The three of them closed in, obscuring my view of her. The large crow merely stared at her, his eyes stabbing into her, until she suddenly tried to break free, but she was powerless against their combined strength. The murder of crows spread their wings, covering her. She cried out, then, something toppled from the edge of the fountain to the brickwork below and I saw it was her. The Lark lay still and quiet, broken and bleeding upon the stones.
“Hey you!” I heard someone yell and was shocked to discover it was me. The crow defiantly turned to look at me, his eyes burning with rage. He took a determined step in my direction, but his accomplices rose into the air, cawing at him, until he followed them as they disappeared around the bend of the garden path.
I looked around. The crowd had also disappeared into the haze of the summer day. The Lark and I were alone. My feet shuffled toward the tiny huddled figure. Her chest rose and fell with life. I couldn’t leave her there for others to discover and prey on. So, I took her home.
The Lark was light as a feather when I lifted her and cradled her to my chest. I scooped up the silver twig with my free hand. My place isn’t far from the park, just two blocks. She didn’t stir when I carried her up the stairs, nor did she wake when I made a nest of my flannel blanket atop my bed and nestled her down into it. Upon examination, I could see that both of her wings were broken. I bandaged them against her body for support while they healed. After I applied an alcohol swab to her other wounds and washed the dirt away, she looked better, but she was still unconscious. I just was beginning to wonder if the injury to her head was serious when she opened her dark, ebony eyes. The black markings surround them appeared even larger now, somehow smudged, but it must be my imagination.
The Lark looked up at me, twin reflections of fear shining brightly in her eyes. She attempted to sing, but her mouth wouldn’t open. Upon this discovery, she panicked and began rolling and flopping on the blanket. The bandages on her wings made it impossible for her to move very far.
“Shhhhh. It’s going to be okay,” I soothed. “I’m Francis. You know, like Saint Francis of Assisi? I’m going to make you well.”
I tipped her head back and poured a few drops of water into her. I noticed she had some difficulty swallowing. That bastard crow had broken her jaw. How could she sing now? She sank back onto the nest I’d made for her, her lids fluttered, already drooping. I hoped I hadn’t put too much Diazepam in her water. Birds have delicate nervous systems. I know it’s important to keep patients calm in order to let them heal.
The Lark slept through the night and seemed to be improving little by little. I calmed her with more Diazepam. I had more than enough to last her recovery. I stopped taking it months ago, but the prescriptions kept coming in the mail, thanks to Mum. While Lark slept I used the opportunity to go out in search of a nice roomy cage for her recuperation. I’ll see that she stays confined until she is well enough to fly, I’ll remain by her side every minute throughout the entire process – building trust and hopefully, yes hopefully, love will bloom from that trust. And then, she will sing. Just for me.
It’s been two months and the Lark has improved greatly. However, things are not going as I’d hoped. For one thing, she now insists on feeding and bathing herself, taking away my greatest pleasures. For another, she has begun to talk. Yes, talk. She picks and nags at me. It’s the oddest thing. She doesn’t move her beak to speak, yet I can hear her. Whn, whn, whn? The sound whirls in my brain until it finally makes sense. When? My mind answers now, you’re ready to fly now. But my heart screams never. I shake my head angrily to shush her. With mute understanding, her eyes glaze over and she sinks back down to the bottom of her cage where I’ve fashioned a nest of torn newspaper.
Her unhappiness is troublesome. I have done everything I can think of to make a loving home for her. The Lark now occupies a majestic cage, an ornate antique that takes up half the kitchen, but she mopes in the corner, ignoring her food. The swelling in her jaw is the last of her injuries to heal and I am blessed and cursed by that development. How can she speak, but not sing? How is she able to speak at all with her malady? Or am I hearing her thoughts?
This curious development is something I have never experienced before. The beetles, lightning bugs, butterflies and creepy crawlies I cared for as a child never spoke from their round glass jars. I nurtured them, fed them, named them and they betrayed my love with death. Always death. Leaving me nothing but dried, disintegrating husks curled up on the bottom of the jar. My Mum’s garden was littered with my homemade grave markings made of Popsicle sticks. Here lies Toby, Jinx, Penny, and Bugsy among dozens of other various types and specimens. As I grew older I set out snares for mice and rabbits, and once caught a mewling baby vole. That was my Precious One. But, she died too, like all the rest. I hardened my heart. Until Lark.
The Lark is becoming agitated, flitting from corner to corner and mumbling whn in my mind. I must make her cage more fit for the princess she is. That will settle her down. Female birds must nest.
“Shhhh, little one,” I cooed. This only made things worse. She knocked over her water bowl, tipping it upside down and wetting the newspaper. “Bad Lark,” I scolded.
I unlocked the cage and reached in to remove the small bowl. She darted forward and raked her talons across my wrist causing blood to bubble in a dotted line on my flesh. Shock dispatched flames of fire up my arm while one question echoed in my brain. Why? Hadn’t I done everything in my power to aid her, comfort her, please her? Had the healing process made her crazy? No, not that. I’d been called crazy by people I trusted in the past. I knew the sting of seeing disgust cloud their eyes, so I didn’t admonish her. I merely smiled and went over to the sink to rinse the bowl and refill it. Just a few more crushed tablets of Diazepam mixed in with my finger to ease her anguish.
As the Lark slept, I pulled my Mum’s woven shopping bag from the pantry and slipped out the front door. Dandelions were poking their golden maned faces up through the cracks in the walkway. I didn’t want Mum to look down from heaven and see that I’d neglected her house since I’d been engaged with nursing the Lark. I didn’t mean to slack off. Mum always said the road to hell is paved with good intentions when I’d put off a chore or wait too long to release my little pets. She was right of course. About many things.
I glanced over at her garden. All of the vegetables had shriveled up, exposing the Popsicle stick tombstones that marked every failed capture. Eyes averted, I walked past on my errand of love vowing I’d get to the weeding soon.
I sat at the kitchen table and waited for the Lark to awaken and discover what I’d arranged for her. Her eyes fluttered open at last and I prepared myself for the explosion of joy that would send her dancing in her cage. She blinked her eyes in quick succession and looked around at the dozens of glittering crystals I’d hung from each and every golden bar on her cage. The morning light from the kitchen window struck them at just the right angle to paint rainbows over the entire kitchen. But, the burst of joy I anticipated never happened. The Lark surveyed my labors with a bored look and then turned her hard black eyes on me. Her beak opened and shut, but no sound escaped. Then, the most extraordinary thing happened. A tiny tear beaded at the corner of her eye and slipped down, landing with a plop onto her newspaper nest.
Fascinated, I dropped to the floor and scooted closer to observe. Can a bird cry? Another tear dropped like rain from the other eye. It wasn’t my imagination. Tiny strangled sounds emerged from her. How had I happened on such a magical creature as this? A bird who cries like a woman, a bird who speaks to me in my dreams – what else is she capable of?
Is this unbearable sadness of hers a sign of loneliness? Am I not enough? You’re as worthless as tits on a nun. Wise words from Mum. Lark is finding out Mum’s always right.
I can relate to her loneliness, for I have felt it my entire life. I had no one, but the tiny captive creatures. I was taken out of school when my brother died. But, I didn’t mind. I hated all my classmates, but my brother Sammy was worse. Tricks and lies. That’s all he ever gave me. Sammy once told me he could do a magic trick and fly. I didn’t believe him so he called me names. Sammy was always calling me names like Psycho and Stuperman. Mum and Dad always believed Sammy, not me. They believed his lies about me. When I tried to tell them how he bullied, tortured, and taunted me, they laughed it off and told me to get a sense of humor. So, to prove my point that my brother was lying, I pushed him off the top of the stairs. I was right. He couldn’t fly.
Dad disappeared soon after that and other grownups stopped dropping by. So, it was just me and Mum. Until she left too, just like all my beautiful creatures, and like them, she’s buried out in the garden with a Popsicle stick to mark her grave.
The Lark’s sobs quieted. If she could talk in my mind maybe I could talk back to her. So, I tried to be kind, to think of something she liked to do, to build back that trust.
“Would you like me to give you a bath?” I’d bathed her often with warm soap and water. She hopped back into a dark corner of the cage and just sat watching me. I opened the door of the cage and offered my arm for her to perch on, but she wriggled herself even further into the corner until I could barely see her. A bird won’t come to you if it doesn’t want to. No matter how much you wish it. I closed the cage and locked it to make sure no harm would come to her. Other chores called my attention.
I drank some water from the pitcher on the kitchen counter and headed out to the garden shed to find the long-handled weeder. Those Dandelions would have to go. I bent over my work and immediately sprang to my feet when I heard a horrible crash, as if a sonic boom had shattered every glass item in the house.
Lark! I dropped my weeder and ran as fast as I could to the door, pulled it open and immediately slid on something. Every single crystal I’d painstakingly adorned the Lark’s cage with had been smashed to pieces and strewn like a glistening carpet across my Mum’s linoleum. Lark was panting in her cage, quick breaths heaving her chest in and out. Whoever did this had almost frightened her to death. But who? Had the crows somehow found us?
“Who did this?” I demanded. The Lark must have seen who it was, but rather than tell me, she tucked her head under her wing and shuddered. I realized she needed a protector right now, not an interrogator. “Shhhh. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything.”
I placed a blanket over the cage to calm the Lark, grabbed a broom and began to sweep up, my mind working feverishly at the problem at hand. Crows were crafty, territorial, and could peck your eyes out. I’d seen The Birds. If we were going to be under siege, I needed the right tool. I emptied the last full dustpan into the trash can, put it and the broom back in the pantry and headed upstairs. Those stairs had worked for me once before with my brother and they might have to aid me again, but there was one more item I needed to ensure the safety of my Lark and myself.
The door to my Mum’s room had been shut tight since her demise, so it stuck a little when I tried to open it. I gave it a shove with my shoulder and forced it open. The bed was still unmade as it had been that morning. For a moment, I saw her lying on it looking up at me with the same look in her eyes Lark had just given me. That’s when I knew I’d lost my Mum’s trust. There’s no room for love when there’s no trust. I knelt down next to Mum’s bed just as I’d done on her last morning. I clearly remember pretending to pray because that was the way to heaven, and according to Mum, I needed all the help I could get to enter the Pearly Gates. When she closed her eyes, I reached under the bed, pulled out one of my Dad’s old shoeboxes and lifted the lid. Inside was the .33 caliber Saturday night special he’d bought her for protection years ago. Mum opened her eyes from prayer to see her son aiming a pistol at her head. I never had to use it. The shock of this horrifying spectacle was enough to give her sudden cardiac arrest. She didn’t even have time to reach for her Nitroglycerin.
Now, I needed that gun for real. For Lark’s sake. I reached under the bed and patted the air in search of the shoebox. But, it wasn’t there. A thorough search of the room left me empty handed. Then, it hit me. I’d stashed it down in the basement after I’d buried Mum in the garden. It bothered me to have it in the house after that, a lot of things bothered me then. Ghosts are real. I’ve seen them, but not for a long while. The basement must be safe by now. I raced down the stairs, grabbed a flashlight from the pantry and headed down the basement stairs. The quicker I get this over with, the better. Ghosts are slow.
I snapped on the light switch at the top of the stairs. Only one working bulb remained in the string of four that lined the ceiling rafters. The flashlight was more help than that feeble globe. My feet clomped down the hollow staircase and I aimed my flashlight at the top of the far shelf where I thought I’d put Dad’s shoebox. There it was. Right where I’d left it. I tucked the flashlight under my chin and scraped the ladder across the floor until it lined up with the shelf. I heard something move in the darkness to my right. Better hurry.
The box had been shoved back just a little, so I had to hook it with my flashlight and pull it toward me. Something else came along with the box, rolled off the shelf and hit the floor with a ping. Then another ping and another. I swung my flashlight to the floor and saw something long, shiny and silver – three of them. Larks nesting twigs. I truly don’t remember putting them up there next to the gun box. The Lark would be so pleased if I brought them to her. She could build her silvery nest in the cage and live happily ever after.
More movement on the left this time. I can hear it and feel it. They’re back.
I retrieved the box and gathered the silver twigs from the floor. The last bulb sputtered and blinked out. Luckily, my flashlight was still working. I dashed up the stairs two at a time as the shuffling behind me grew louder. When I reached the top of the stairs and looked back, three sets of luminous eyes stared up at me from the dark. Mum. Sammy. And Dad. I stopped seeing them when I’d started taking Diazepam. But, I don’t want to take them anymore. I hated the nausea — strange that I feel a little sick right now. Was that water I drank mine or Lark’s? Can’t remember.
I forced my mind away from my discomfort and concentrated on the Lark. My gift of the silver twigs couldn’t be more perfect. The gift of the male to the female lark at the time of courting. Yes, this will let her know my intentions are honorable. I set the shoebox down on the kitchen table and moved cautiously toward the covered cage. Not a sound came from within. I grabbed a fistful of blanket and slowly pulled it off the cage. She was still there. But, something was different. Lark was molting. Brown and blond feathers had fallen off in tufts exposing pink flesh beneath. I have no words for the astounding beauty that lay curled on the bottom of the cage before me. Limbs long and flesh colored, arms limber and graceful, firm breasts and a flat tummy had taken the place of feathers and talons. Her beak had transformed into sensuous lips of the palest pink. This was a miracle. Magic. How shocked my brother would have been to find out that I was the true magician in the family.
I gently laid out the silver twigs in a row in front of the cage door. My offering to the lovely young lady my Lark had become. A few remaining feathers were tangled in her long brown hair, streaked with pale gold. Her eyes opened – dark, piercing and rimmed with caked, black . . . mascara? Trust had completely vanished from them, leaving behind only hate. When those lovely eyes spied the treasures I had brought to her, Lark crawled forward and reached through the bars, her newly sprouted fingers flexing and stretching in vain. I motioned for her to sit back and be calm. When she did as I asked, I handed her the first twig which she immediately pressed to her lips in gratitude. Oddly, she tried to blow into it, perhaps to warm it for her nest. Her face twisted in pain and I told her to stop before she hurt herself.
“M-must . . . play.” Her lips had barely moved, but it was her voice — the one I’d heard in my head. I listened, but I didn’t understand. What did she mean?
Lark shook her head violently as if to wake herself from a terrifying nightmare. Then, she lifted the silver twig to her mouth and blew once again. I could tell she was in agony, but nothing I could say would stop her. And then. And then, her song filled my ears once again. The trills and troughs, the rhythm of sea, the hills, and all of nature flowed from the silver twig in her hands. It had been so long that I’d almost forgotten the paradise this birdsong had brought to me. I opened the cage and she flew out into the room, dipping and swaying to the music. Grabbing my hand and dancing around the table, she spun me in a whirl that made me dizzy with happiness. This is all I had ever wanted. This single exquisite moment. I stopped spinning when I could no longer hear the music. I turned to tell her how much she meant to me, how much her presence had lifted my spirits, how she, this magical bird woman had made me believe in myself for the first time.
Lark had covered her beauty with the birdcage blanket and in her hand was my Mum’s gun. She moved toward me, motioning to the cellar door. I backed up, hands in the air. You don’t want to frighten wild animals. You never know what they are capable of. I stayed calm and stopped at the door.
Lark leaned down, removed the lock from the cage door, and motioned to the cellar door. “Open it.”
I obeyed and waited, hoping she would consider my careful treatment of her, my loving touch, and my single-minded devotion to her every wish before pulling the trigger.
“Go down there,” she ordered through clenched teeth.
I knew I’d lost her. Not in death like all of the others. She would be the first to escape the fate of all of my other captives. A deep sadness welled up in my chest and tears clung stubbornly to my eyelashes. Was I destined to never be loved? By anyone? Not even this common brown bird I’d turned into a miracle? My tears turned to rage. A growl ripped through my chest and pitched me forward onto her. She would not escape. I’ll make sure she stays with me forever buried beneath a Popsicle stick in the garden.
Something popped like a champagne cork. The floor tilted. I backed up, certain that I’d moved from one world to the next like I used to before the Diazepam. But, I was still in the kitchen, my hands braced against the cellar door frame. Lark had vanished, leaving a hole in my chest the size of a .33 caliber bullet. My vision went blank.
I must have tumbled backward down the cellar stairs, because when I awoke, three sets of silvery eyes glared down at me in the darkness. I don’t know how long I’d been unconscious, but I could hear the multiple screams of sirens getting louder and louder as they approached.
That day was long ago. Now, I just lay here on my bunk staring out of barred windows, waiting for the night and those silver eyes to blink at me from the corners of obscurity. I don’t think the new medication they’ve been giving me is working as well as the Diazepam. To comfort myself, I think of Lark, the wisp, the vapor, the graceful ghost that flits into my mind – bird or woman, woman or ghost. I suspect “ghost” is the answer, because a new set of eyes has joined the others.