The knock comes as Ellie scratches at the remnants of a dream. A chilly wind on her cheeks. Moving against gravity high up into the blue, her head tilted towards a melee of trills and chirps. Ellie squeezes the sounds tightly in her fists.
A gentle voice scatters the birds. “Good mawnin’, Miss Ellie.”
“Is Rose. I’m ‘ere to get you up.”
In the sharp slice of light from the door, Ellie sees a head bathed in a rainbow. Shimmery threads weave in and out like thin silver snakes. The rainbow lady opens the door wide and Ellie covers her eyes with her fingers. Good smells float in like old friends come to visit. She remembers coffee with James, in a place with books.
“May I turn on de light?”
Ellie nods, eyes still covered, and hears the switch click. Mum always came to wake her. ‘Here comes the light,’ she’d say. Ellie would separate her fingers slowly to ease into the day and see Mum, smiling.
“Hello, Mum. I had a strange cream. A..a dream.”
“Mmm, dat so? You wan’ to eat an egg today, Miss Ellie? An’ a piece a toast? Mebbe a nice glass o’ milk. It’ll do you good. What you wan’ to wear today? De red sweater or de blue? You ‘ave to decide, you see.”
“Hmm.” Ellie points, then turns away from the rainbow lady and hunches forward, fumbling with the buttons on her pajama top.
“Now, Missus, let me ‘elp you wi’ dat and get you washed up. Mi shame tree dead.”
Her words mystify, but they are like the notes of a new song to enjoy, not an old melody Ellie must remember.
On her breakfast plate, Ellie spies soft lumps that remind her of sunlight through morning mist.
“Egg,” the rainbow lady says. She puts a few bites in Ellie’s mouth. Says she must eat, so Ellie clasps her hands in her lap and chews the tasteless morsels. Next to the soft lumps are hearts. Ellie knows them. They are sweet and good and they have a name. What? What? She clenches a spoon in her fist and inhales gusts of air. She drags one of the hearts to the edge of her plate with the spoon and it plops onto the snowy cloth.
“Now, Miss Ellie, let me ‘elp you wi’ de strawberries. No need to fuss wi’ dem.”
The rainbow lady scoops the fallen heart onto a plate and slides it away. Ellie’s chest slows its heaving. She stares and stares at the red shape on the cloth.
The rainbow lady takes her arm so Ellie walks with her to a place where the ceiling is open to the blue sky. Ellie stops and stares up; here, there are no places for shadows to hide, just brightness pure as truth. She sits and breathes easy, bathed in warmth. The rainbow lady brings a book with different sized smiles on every page. Ellie turns and turns the pages and wonders at all the eyes that stare back as if they know her.
More and more people enter the room and Ellie covers her ears with her hands to press away the rumpus. She recalls some singsongy words: there’s always room for a rumpus in a rumpus room. She shakes her head hard. No room for a rumpus in here.
The rainbow lady returns, but not alone; a man behind her holds hands with a young girl. He has very short black hair and a high forehead, all crinkly from his raised eyebrows. His lips form a thin, straight line. The girl’s hair falls in brown waves to her waist. Her eyes are blue and her dress is red with white dots. In her mind, Ellie spins in circles, watching a polka dot dress billow around her while Mum laughs, a distant echo that fades too soon. Ellie lowers her hands to listen.
“Miss Ellie is ‘avin’ good days, Mr. Jensen. Ever since she come back from walkin’ off to de ol’ house, she been jus’ fine. I’ll leave you to your visit now but I’ll be keepin’ a close eye, you see.”
Ellie thinks: Mr. Jensen, Mr. Jensen.
“Thank you, Rose. Hi, Mum. It’s Gerald. I brought Julie with me.”
His voice is deep and hopeful. He leans down to kiss Ellie’s cheek and she sees that his hair sticks up like a million tiny tree trunks. She pats the place where his lips touched her face. Mum. The man runs a hand across the top of all those tiny trees. But they aren’t knocked down—just pop back up.
“I see you’re looking at the album. Let me show you where I am.”
He turns a few pages—points to a broadly smiling boy clutching a fish.
“That’s me. Your son.”
He turns to another page where a boy holds a cake bright with flames.
Ellie stares from the picture to the man and back again. Yes, yes. Someone has done this before and she makes her smile as big as his.
“Julie wanted to see you. She’s your granddaughter.” He opens to a page much further ahead and points. “Here she is.”
Ellie gazes at the short, wild curls and missing teeth. Son. Granddaughter. The man sits beside Ellie, and the girl stands between his knees, locked in. She twists her body a little—one way, then the other—and Ellie gets a whiff of soapy clean and remembers babies. She catches the girl’s eye and smiles. Granddaughter. Son. She squeezes the words tightly in her fists until she feels her nails press her fleshy palms.
Pages are turned again and again and they look together at all the happy strangers. He tells Ellie stories about people who go on adventures. He says the one on the mountaintop and in front of the cabin is her. That she hiked and slept in the woods. Ellie’s breath comes in fits and puffs, as if she were scrambling up a steep slope. The pictures blur before her eyes—too many threads, colliding and tangling.
“No…no…no. Sticky, messy faces.” She pushes the book hard with her fists and it crashes to the floor where several pages tumble out. The girl’s eyes widen into blue rippled pools. Her hand hangs from her mouth by a finger. Ellie’s hands hurt and she opens them to look. The girl’s moist finger touches the deep red lines, soft as a kiss.
“It’s okay, Mum,” the man coos. “There, there. We’ll put the album away. Shall I read you a story?”
He pulls a colourful book out of a bag. Mum read to Ellie. She was dramatic—with a different voice for every character. They would huddle on Ellie’s bed under the covers, spotted black and white like the dogs in the movie. Wedged beside her, Mum gave Ellie a little squeeze each time she turned a page. After, she cupped Ellie’s face in her hands, kissed her nose and said, ‘I think tomorrow will be a good day.’
Ellie grasps the book eagerly to see the blue bird on the front. The man smiles and eases the book from her hands. He reads while Ellie stares at the pictures, painted bright as rainbows.
“One day, young Blue Jay sets off on an adventure.
“He flies far away. Just far enough to lose his way. So he searches and searches for home.
“‘Is this where I live?’ he asks Eagle perched high in his aerie on the side of a cliff.”
The man’s voice comes out the same for every word.
“‘No,’ screams Eagle. ‘You are so small—I might crush you beneath my talons in the night.’ Blue Jay shudders and flies on.
“‘Is this where I live?’ Blue Jay asks Great Horned Owl, who sits in a tree nest warming her clutch of eggs. ‘Nooo,’ hoots Great Horned Owl, ‘I found this home so I could have my babies. There is no roooom for yooou.’ So Blue Jay flies on.”
The colour in the room changes; above Ellie’s head, the blue has turned to grey and drops drop tick, tick, tick onto the glass. Splat. Splat. The drops roll down and find each other—splat, splat. They form thick watery snakes. Ellie stares and stares at the rolling and joining.
“‘Is this where I live?’ Blue Jay asks Black Crow, who hops from branch to branch in a birch tree, ducking and weaving around his many friends. ‘Sure…sure…sure,’ chatters Black Crow. ‘You can stay…stay…stay with us.’ But Blue Jay is afraid of the flapping of all those quick, black wings.”
A tall, thin man walks in and Ellie stands up, her voice rising above the rumpus. “James. Come and dance with me, James.”
The man crosses the room, smiling his old broad smile. He takes Ellie’s hand and curls his other arm around her back, just the way he always did. They dance. She tilts her head back and feels the weight of her body against his encircled arm. All too soon it ends. His brown eyes are soft and sweet like chocolate.
“Gotta go now, Ellie. See you next time.”
Ellie watches him walk away. He sits beside a man with wispy white hair that blows around as he moves his head. Ellie feels a touch on her hand, like the wing of a bird and the girl’s eyes are on her—wide as an owl’s. The man holds tight to the book and his eyes are questions, too.
“Are you okay, Mum? Do you want me to finish the story?”
He helps Ellie sit.
“Blue Jay lands on a poplar branch to rest. He is tired and hungry. Suddenly, he hears a familiar sound, like the squeaking of an old rusty water pump, and he tilts his head to listen. Somewhere up, up through the trembling leaves, his mother is calling him. And then he is home. She preens his head and back as he pecks at a juicy strawberry. ‘Where have you been?’ she chides.
“Blue Jay pauses his munching. ‘I don’t know,’ he answers sleepily, ‘but one thing is sure: This is where I belong.’”
Ellie’s eyes meet the girl’s and they both smile, then the girl hides her face behind a curtain of hair. Her fingers trace the soft ribs in the man’s pant leg. When he closes the book, Ellie spies two familiar words below the bright picture of the blue bird: Eleanor Jensen. Eleanor. Jenson. Ellie stares at them and wants to ask but nothing comes.
They sit in the big, clattery dining room. The girl pecks the soft centres out of each half of her grilled cheese sandwich. Ellie does, too. The girl’s milk leaves a white line on her lip that her tongue swoops out to lap up. They laugh and Ellie tries it but the milk dribbles coolly down her chin.
The rainbow lady returns. “Is time for Missus to rest, Mr. Jensen. She ‘ad a big mawnin’ with your visit and de story an’ all.”
Ellie smiles at the man with the short, black hair. She has always been grateful for the kindness of strangers. He grasps her hands in his and his shiny eyes hold hers, looking and looking—as if he were following a penny into a well. After planting a gentle kiss on her cheek, he walks away with the girl. Then they stop and the girl turns back. Her hand opens and closes, open and closes. Ellie waves back.
The rainbow lady reaches for Ellie’s arm, but Ellie folds one across the other in front of her, tight tight. The rainbow lady rests her hands on her sides and tilts her head like a robin listening for worms.
“Thas fine if you wish to sit, Miss Ellie. I’ll be back to you soon. Just breathe easy.”
Ellie looks around at all the nodding heads, shuffling feet. Windows full of tears.
After a while, Ellie lets the rainbow lady take her arm and they walk together to a place where Ellie can lie down and rest. A blanket is tucked tightly around her shoulders and the curtain pulled across the window. As Ellie drifts off to sleep, she stares into the blue and sees birds. All kinds of birds. Swooping and diving, gliding and flapping, harnessed to the wide open sky.