There once was a young girl who walked on a garden wall. A friend had dared her, triple-dog dared her, to climb up the wall. The girl accepted. She thus proved her courage, and atop the wall, she brushed dirt and dust from her small hands and paused a moment before standing, becoming even taller than the wall. She was the giant from every story. She was taller than her parents, than every parent in the world. Her friends looked up at her, and when the young girl refused to come down, they refused to come up and ran home to dinner and parents and a safe night.
The first night on the wall, the young girl walked and walked. She walked in darkness and did not fall.
After many weeks, she had grown accustomed to the height. After many months, she had become the height, the tree/bird/sky/sun/thing-looking-down.
After a certain time had passed, the young girl saw a far-off object in the sky, a movement of life, something else alive in her high and quiet world. And she didn’t want to be the thing-looking-down, so alone that she forgot that movement. The young girl wanted to jump off the wall. Most girls her age wanted to fly up into the sky, but she wanted to fly down at the ground. The earth itself was foreign to her now, though, the way the sky was to many other girls.
Day after day, the girl walked the wall’s perimeter. She stopped at various points to study the ground. Earth whispered to her: Jump.
The father saw his daughter as some sort of bird, perched on their garden wall constantly. He’d heard an old story about female children turning into birds. He knew you could not force a bird to come to you. Rather, you had to entice the bird with a seed. He scattered various seeds on the ground. He was patient.
The young girl remained on the wall.
Earth sang her songs, melodious and in need of no words. It knew she wanted to leave.
The music was loud enough. The young girl swayed in rhythm atop the wall.
The father became frightened for his daughter’s life. As he paced their home, his wife asked him what troubled him. He told her of the problem and his failed solution. She laughed at him. She said, Little girls are not birds and cannot become them. The mother scattered apricot slices on the ground because she knew little girls liked apricots.
Earth increased the volume and speed. The young girl remained on the wall. The young girl danced maniacally.
The parents consulted a wise man. He told them to leave his daughter alone, so they did.
The little girl remained on the wall.
Earth got tired and silent.
One day, soldiers came and took the parents. They did not see the little girl atop the wall.
Months and months. Strange plants had grown, and the garden had lost its shape. The little girl could no longer see the ground. Oh, Father, what have you done? She jumped to the earth, fearing she could not make it through the plant growth. And yet her body hit with such force that Earth shook, bled even as she bled. The overgrowth covered her bloody body from the sun. The smell of rotting apricot was sweet. Like seeds and apricots, the young girl became part of the mayhem, and above her, the wall looked down—and somewhere, a birds’ wings winked at the ground, their secret simply the movement of life and a song and a dance that never ends and an old, old story that never was a lie.
Our first case: a man with AIDS. I made him touch the clock, the minute and hour hands, and said, “Here, this is a cloud that looks like a camel.” He didn’t understand, and I said, “Here, this is today.” He didn’t understand, and I said, “I’ll read you a story.”
When I was a child, I was clean like a child. I played in the sunshine with clean sheets that were drums in wind. “When you fall in love,” my mother said, “make sure the girl is clean.”
Mrs. Maxwell was senile for two years and three months. A baby who never cried or ate.
I poured milk on her, just the powder, but she wouldn’t cry. Rock of a woman.
A long time ago, my mother said that I leaped from her stomach.
Roger lost his mother to her bones, which slipped out of her skin. Which were worms that laid eggs. Before coming to Hospice, she walked with a cane. Who was that third who now walked beside her? A worm, and she threw him to the ground and he became her cane. And she became the worm.
Mrs. Luft lost her daughter to lung cancer. Mother shouldn’t lose her child. Mother without a child means dead mother. The dead mother creeps along, snake on the hot sidewalk. I didn’t do anything, remembering the worm.
Along time ago, my mother died, and I fell back into her.
And Mr. Michaels, eighty-four, who just will not die. Long life is in Her right hand, and She is a tree of life. And I have never held a ruby in my hand to know if it’s more precious, but I can tell you that a ruby cannot hold, only be held. A tree has arms.
When I was a child, we wrote letters to my father the way other children wrote letters to Santa. With hope unlike anything belonging to your parents (who are the flesh and blood of sadness). My mother said writing was for me to understand his story. She said, “Look there, at the light. Do you have a story about it when it’s gone? Listen for the Voice.”
Men have written of the smell and look of the dying, but what is the sound? Mr. Michaels isn’t silent or speaking gruffly or whimpering or whispering. He is gurgling like a baby at God.
My father died when I was three. He died on the open road, on a highway at night. Jack-knifed. Jackrabbit, how fast can you go? He died under a star, quickly.And Stan Michaels who finally died far away but here. He ate gold dust, and his body shined so that it could be the candle. He was the burning bush with no message. I looked to the Light for a story. The Light said, There, I am gold. Do you hear?
The day is still warm with grief. My mother was lonely. I was not enough.