By Elmo Ishii
When Todd asked Abigail to be his wife, she crawled out of the balloon-suspended basket and into a free fall, breaking both legs, her pelvis and, as Todd would never have the privilege of pointing out, her hymen. The pain of recovery was long and grinding, but she didn’t complain. In fact, she was pleased; it wasn’t a suicide she wanted, but a wheelchair.
She loved Todd. He was small and timid, but clever enough to tease her—she liked that. He didn’t care for other people and she liked that too; she wanted him to care for her and her alone. She loved his thick-strung red hair and smoky lips, how they shared the same birthday and weren’t too proud to take the train or tip street-dancers. She loved him and would never leave him, but lived in fear that at any moment he might forget her entirely. She fell from the balloon to end the uncertainty, convinced that after a few months of elevators, graceless kisses, and coworker pity-whispers, Todd’s love would lose its pulse and she’d be free.
But Todd found the life that blessed his laden love well worth its inconvenience. Wheeling Abigail here and there had made him stronger. Once rawboned and brittle, he found a sense of accomplishment in filling out his shirts and even began a daily routine: twenty minutes jumping rope, twenty push-ups, twenty sit-ups. When they went to the movies they parked in blue without a worry, and never had to sit too close to the screen. Doors were held open when they approached buildings and stranger-made apologies seemed sincere. People talked kindly to him, and when he worked nights at the call-center he began talking kindly to people. He listened to Abigail and wrote down her more beautiful insights in a lined notebook—what she’d say about God and other unseen things. He attended his soul, seeking counsel from men of greater faith. One Sunday he found the closest congregation to his apartment and spent the afternoon laughing and crying in tongues with the pentecostals. He arranged a weekly visit with the pastor and was always punctual. Todd washed in his wisdom and left their sessions dripping with a more determined devotion. His pity for Abigail soon bloomed into exhausting patience.
On their twenty-third birthday he missed his own party to help her try on dresses at the department store—her birthday wish. He plucked her from the dressing stool and paraded her about the displays, weaving through whooshing racks of things she couldn’t afford. Abigail blushed at his cartoon strength and caught the glances of walking shoppers, winning their jealousy, she hoped.
He spent his days at her apartment and would stay at her side for hours, finding fresh ways to serve as she plucked at her online assignments. He’d wheel her to the window to see the clouds burn cherry-purple, arrange for visits from loved ones, bring her newspapers bursting with golden tulips. Her sisters gushed when they came to meet him, saying he was too good to be true. Abigail shook her head and grinned, but soon wondered if he was too good to be true to her.
She spun in worried circles until the room stank of charring rubber, questioning his goodness before the tulips needed water. She convinced herself that his tenderness was building toward something terrible—perhaps the day of her healing, when he would realize he had confused pity for passion and leave her apartment, taking the tulips and forgetting her entirely. She would be left to wither, her bottom melting each day more into the chair until it was rendered geriatric. These suspicions made his companionship something to avoid. Sometimes she’d pretend to fall asleep in hopes of his leaving, but he would stay another hour humming, holding her bare ankles, rolling her back and forth on the hardwood.
Do you love me, Todd? she asked one day.
I love you, yes. Very much.
Why do I love you?
Todd didn’t know why. She was beautiful and fragile and they had read the same books. Her nose turned at its end like a trumpet and he could run his fingers through her black hair all day without drawing any grease. Though buried deep in plaster casting, he remembered her pale, balletic legs with fondness. She loved him and when she told him so for the first time his contents wobbled with familiar warmth. She had a way of looking at him that made him feel like he could play the stock-market. She trusted him because he respected her. Even if her healing bones could have born his body, he wouldn’t have suggested sex. Todd was not a virgin, but Abigail was and wanted to wait—he liked that. There was a curious open-endedness to each kiss that marked her purity and he liked that too. He had lost all interest in other girls, and in conversations with female coworkers would ask safe questions about the weather that week or what they thought of the new headsets. They could tell he was happy, and if yesterday one of them had asked if he loved Abigail he would have said yes. Now he wasn’t sure. The next few nights at the call-center, he posed the question to customers until his supervisor sent him home. Why do I love her? Why do I love her?By the time he saw the pastor on Sunday, the question was shorter.
Do I love her? I’m
Perhaps, he said, Or perhaps you love serving one of the Lord’s wounded lambs.
So you’re saying it’s not Abigail? You’re saying I love God?
I’m saying you’re a good man.
Plodding the three blocks home from what would be his last meeting, Todd was unhinged. At once he missed Abigail and felt relief at the thought of never seeing her again. In his apartment he draped himself over an armchair and smoked a pair of cigarettes, bathing in the lamp-light. It was unreasonable—unnatural to expect one to wait so long for lovemaking, he thought, and went to sleep wondering what other worlds awaited him.
* * *
Abigail had been dreaming about God since Todd stopped coming by. She had the same dream twice a week, but each time would wake not knowing if the memory of having dreamt it all before was just a consequence of the morning delirium. She dreamed that God drew from her mouth a silver finch and locked it in a cage. Her knees could bend and she could run, so God hid the cage in a cobwebbed hole. She crawled inside, worming her way toward the song of the finch. She crawled for days, for years, to the end of the hole, to a circular room with banana-spotted walls. The floor was carpeted with honey candy and from the walls stuck thick ice shelves, each stacked with glass bottles of water. The hand of God hung where chandeliers do, holding high the cage between thumb and forefinger, the silver finch turning about, croaking her tired song. Abigail reached to free her, but in crawling had forgotten her legs and how to use them. Sprawled upon the floor, she stuffed herself with honey candy and drank glass-bottled water until she grew too bored for breath.
How can I help you today?
It’s me. Todd, it’s Abby.
I really shouldn’t talk at work.
I haven’t seen you in months.
Can you please hold?
A jazz ensemble squeezed through the tinny speaker. She dug a green heel into the hardwood and twirled in her unzipped birthday dress.
I can’t talk right now. Why don’t we meet this week?
Sure, she said.
I’ll be at your place at two o’clock.
No. Meet me at Blithe Park—the aviary. I’m walking again.
Todd detoured on his way to their meeting, then only blocks from the park. He stopped to rescue a haggard pair of misioneras who had stranded themselves on the median divider in a sea of unholy traffic. They kissed his hands and, linking arms, ushered him into el Salón del Reino to be counted among the one hundred forty-four thousand souls Jehovah soon would save.
At the aviary, flushing in the afternoon swelter, Abigail rediscovered the pleasure of leaning into a flaccid chain-linked fence. She leaned through hours, birthday dress glued to her naked body, waiting to forgive her Todd in maple-shaded passion. Soon shade yielded to the going sun and she limped the twisted path through the canopy, lapping ferns and giant flowers. The birds hushed. A pair of hooded vultures landed behind her softly, then followed on foot. A melba finch joined in line, then a sunbittern. An eastern screech owl, a white-headed buffalo weaver, a domestic chicken. Tails brushed and claws clacked, but not a yawp from the procession—even the swan geese yielded. An egret flew above the nonsense in winged expanse. Abigail watched as the large slow thing would lift, then pale before the netted dusk; its flight reduced to such clipped circuits. Then Abigail turned and beheld the aberrant parade of birds. Good Lord, she said. Their heads cocked, eyes all agog. A child stood at Todd’s ear translating the discussion about La Atalaya when la puerta del Salón del Reino se abrió de golpe. El hermano who had been sitting outside keeping watch entered, flapping his hands.
Aves! Vengan ya!
The congregation moved into the parking lot. El hermano and the child were pointing toward heaven. Birds flocking by the hundreds, gathering into a great column of kinds and colors, rising in the evening black. They were silent but for the heavy murmur of wings. They circled and spun above a parking structure then doubled in the bright reflection of the hospital, peeling backward en masse and up again. Others in the street began to watch. Two policeman were atop their cruiser, laughing and weeping, gesturing to the angry drivers to exit their cars and look! All were still with wonder and all joined in a whining boo when the birds flew out of sight as if onward to a long migration. But a distant drone of squawks sounded, then grew loud and impending. From the darkness they returned, pouring over the buildings in garish honks and trills. They were calling all birds—seagulls, pigeons, crows—to join their pageant. They soon were countless and in an instant broke into a swarm of terror and droppings, like bats. Then gone. The traffic resumed. The congregation rose from their knees and set to gathering up the best fallen plumes.
Todd was running to the park. Two employees stood at the open gate of the aviary when he arrived; one clawed and bleeding, the other fumbling with a radio—both frantic. He asked if they had seen a black-haired woman with a cane, maybe crutches. They didn’t answer. He stumbled along the unlit paths and through the trees calling her name, but she didn’t answer.
He was tired and had slowed into a nervous walk when he reached the black pond at the heart of the park and saw the egret. It was so enormously white in the smooth and moonless reflection, he first thought it an angel. From high above the treeline it fell like a howling star, then spread into a glide, a slow landing. It stalked with backward knees, it’s head a snake, floating. Then snapped downward, emerging polished with water, a dark fish speared on its bill. Todd watched the great bird as it left the shallow edge for the shore, turning itself toward the trees in an attitude of sharing. High, high above the egret in the ladled crook of a eucalyptus was Abigail cradling a large red hen, singing.