It’s the evenings I find long—even late summer ones like this, its deep blue shadows creeping over the deck. The sinking sun makes monsters of the vines that hide me from the neighbours. Party sounds filter across the yard: ice clinking, booming laughter. It’s been some time since Kirk and I lived it up like these people do, even before ageing gave us an excuse not to. License for my husband to hole up downstairs with the news, its numbing loop.
Oh, but he has his reasons not to sit outside with me. Too buggy. Too damp. Though I can guess why, presently, he favours the TV’s company. It was an evening like this when things changed for us, when our son left us for good. It’s something we hardly talk about, which doesn’t mean we don’t think about it. You never get over a child’s absence, though if you are very lucky or very tough, maybe you grow used to it.
Television voices creep from the basement window. I don’t want to hear about the royal family, the latest nut taking over the Conservative party. Drinking my nightly cup of tea (herbal) I sink deeper into my Adirondack chair (made of 20,000 recycled bottle caps, our daughter’s gift). Tilt my head back, watch the sky’s periwinkle blue deepen.
It’s the light’s slow fading that depresses me. Hearing from Meg would help; nice if she would call. I could call her. But she’ll be busy with kids, getting tomorrow’s gear together. Tennis, sailing: their last lessons before school starts.
Behind the shrubbery a cork pops. A fizzling burst. Toasts pierce the breeze. These neighbours are always celebrating, things Kirk and I would barely note. Purging the basement, offloading stuff to charity. The lawn being mowed, for Pete’s sake. Chores Meg hires people to do; lucky her husband makes such good money. Unlike her dad, who sold insurance and brought home a salary decent enough while she and Michael were growing up, and I ‘worked in the home.’ Not as glamorous as being a lawyer like her partner, as she calls David. Between this and her keeping her last name, how’s anyone to know they’re married?
The harvest moon rises through the trees, three quarters full. Throws pinkish light over the garden gone to seed—it’s too much for a pair of seniors to tend. Meg says her father and I should sell the place, get a condo. Who knows, maybe we will. Just not yet, not yet. This house is too packed with memories, memorabilia. And what would I do holed up in a glass cell with just a balcony to sit out on?
But the view you could have! Meg casts possibilities like a big, shiny net. A place on the thirtieth floor looking out to sea! Motherrr—she makes that gagging sound with her voice, hoping to seem younger?—you could watch the cruise ships coming into port. As if this would make the evenings snappier. Lights twinkling on the horizon, hulking shapes acquiring details. As long as I’m on this side of the turf I’ll live as close as possible to the ground, thank you. But Meg is persistent: You could get a place near the Gardens— think of it, you two could walk there every day. See concerts in the bandstand. Enjoy the birds, the flowers—all that colour without planting a thing!
A condo would be easier for Dad, she says.
Well, yes, Kirk has never enjoyed home maintenance. At times I’ve wondered why he decided married life, family life, would suit him—all the responsibility. Yet he managed it nicely, until our boy went off the rails.
Don’t blame yourself, I told Kirk.
Trying to get us to move, Meg even broached it once: If Michael was around, he would….
What, dear? Have us sell? Clear out his room, move us and his belongings into a sterile little box like the kind you’re so keen on?
He’d agree with me, Mum.
The moon hovers atop the pine tree, the section last fall’s hurricane left behind. That tree was a seedling when Kirk and I moved in forty four years ago. Before storms became major news events and veered quietly out to sea. I swear the air was saltier then, too. As a child, Michael’s favourite smell was in early spring, when, as we learned in school, the Labrador current mixing with the Gulf Stream made the fog that covered the city like wet wool.
The smell is like snorting seaweed, Michael said once.
But on those mornings when he and Meg set off to school, the salty smell would remind me that each day was a gift. I still believe it is, bearing in mind that a gift can be a curse. Which is why the stubborn evening light wears on me, delaying night’s cosiness. Pointing out the emptiness where, once, the hours were packed, the days never long enough.
Finally, dusk falls. Time to retire indoors, to repair to bed, as they used to say in books. The moon climbs higher, the sight, in spite of everything, an invitation to linger. I wonder about Meg. Where she’ll be when her kids are grown and David’s still too busy to keep her company. When life’s fullness is behind her. Its lettings-go too many to count.
If we moved, I could ask, how would Mikey know where to find us?
Autumn’s velvety cool tinges the air, a hint of when the sun and sky will feel more remote. I wonder, obtusely, as I do every year, if winter’s days being shorter might give them more fullness. The way the cold brings mergansers to otherwise empty inlets each January. Watching them and other winter birds brings a quiet joy that, briefly, brings Kirk and me together.
For now, in September we await the herons. Before they leave for wherever they go to winter, a colony appears from wherever they summer and congregates in the wilderness park beside our neighbourhood. If you can still call it wilderness, apartment towers springing up around it.
Though I would never tell Meg, the park and its birds are my truest reasons for staying here.
If long evenings are grating, mornings are a salve. A reminder that possibilities, however small, remain. Another day, another go-round under the sun that might be used to set some piddly thing right.
When this evening’s damp finally sends me indoors I slip downstairs to say goodnight. Kirk is gazing at his device, his cheeks shiny in the TV’s flickering light. And I’d thought he had forgotten. It’s the anniversary of the last time we saw Michael—though his withdrawal from our lives happened over years, an accumulation of events, moments, scenes, that Kirk goes to his iPad to forget.
He wipes his face with his palms. Oh, now, dear, I whisper. Don’t beat yourself up. I’ve said this so often these past two decades I could say it in my sleep. What could we have done differently? Where did we go wrong?
Unanswerable questions since Mikey was fifteen, sixteen—thirteen or fourteen? Smoking weed, stealing from the liquor cabinet, topping up his dad’s rye with water as if Kirk wouldn’t notice. The time Kirk went to pick him up, found him drunk out of his mind, wandering around the bus station. The calls from the police, once from a cop who didn’t have to phone but was trying to keep our boy from harm—further harm.
Then the heavy—heavier—drugs. The time Kirk was out of town for work and Meg away at university and Michael was, what else, at loose ends, living with us after being on his own. Whatever that meant, being on his own. That night, I awoke to noises in the kitchen, the back door banging open in the rain. A pot of cooking oil smoking on the stove, frozen fries dumped on the floor, and a phone—Michael’s—under a chair, buzzing, buzzing. Beside it were pills. Bluish grey ones I knew instinctively weren’t prescription. Michael came staggering in, drenched, barely coherent. Cursing me, he slammed back outdoors yelling that his phone was gone, what had I done with it? He stayed away that time for two days. Came home looking like he’d slept in a car, or worse.
Kirk glances up from his tablet. The heron’s migration patterns, I’ve been googling them. Eyes meeting mine, he puts on a smile. Contrary to how special we find it, the great blue heron is as common as a jay. But knowing this makes the species no less magical. One thing we agree on.
When Kirk speaks again his voice is bitter. Bittern, I think: a bird not to be confused with the heron.
You could have done more, Margaret. You were here. You were home.
These words come crashing out of the blue.
You should have—
Should have what? My tongue feels dredged in sand. Talked to teachers? The doctor? A counsellor?
As if I didn’t. You think I wasn’t scared?
We both should’ve—
What could we have done, Kirk, locked him in his room?
At fifteen Michael was a foot taller than his dad, stronger than the two of us put together. As burly as Meg was stick-like.
What could we have done but wrap our arms around our boy, held him for the minutes, seconds, before he broke free? What could we have done besides love him? What can anyone do, besides that?
Kirk shrugs, his weariness hoarded there. So many years, not knowing if our child is alive or—
Dead, I say. The possible scenarios are too ugly, too horrific, to name. In the hours before sleep they eat at me.
Stop, Margaret. Stop.
The weight of it all is a plank—wedged behind my eyes, unwalkable, unnegotiable.
Kirk is right. It isn’t and never has been useful to pick the wound. As if the wound has ever scabbed over.
I’ll be up in a bit. I’m just trying to find out if the moon affects their comings and goings. Maybe not much, if at all? His laugh is scratchy, as if there’s something stuck in his throat. I think of the word they use on the news, a stupid word: closure.
Completely by surprise Kirk tugs at my hand, squeezes it. We’ll see if they’re there in the morning, okay? The herons?
I wake at five-thirty, shower, dress, apply lipstick. (Meg would approve: That shade’s a superrr pick-me-up, Mum!) Kirk makes coffee, fills two travel mugs. On the way out the door I remember the binoculars on the landing.
Refreshed, more or less, we march quietly, stiffly at first through the subdivision’s dim, slumbering streets. In the dimness goutweed borders the path, a scourge that would overtake all the wood- and wetland plants. Eyes to the ground, we watch each step. Dawn has just begun to light the bottom of the sky. Meg would be aghast. You guys! What if you fell? Think how long you’d lie there before someone found you. And, coyotes! Aren’t you afraid?
Imagining this, I roll my eyes. Yes, dear—and of skunks, squirrels, porcupines, deer and snapping turtles. The animal threats never end, do they, I would say, as though human ones do.
But Meg likes having the last word. Like there being two of you makes a difference.
It was only after I noticed the herons during a solitary walk around the pond, Kirk agreed, grudgingly, to accompany me. That was our first time. Oh, he fretted about the gutters needing cleaned, the hassle to find help, not to mention the walk itself. The pond is lakesize. But when he spotted the herons all was forgiven, if not forgotten. Screened by marsh holly at the water’s edge, Kirk and I stay stock-still. Binoculars were his idea. Out in the middle of the pond the herons congregate, like folks from another realm, old souls who don’t much like or need each other’s company. Reluctantly he hands over the glasses, my turn.
Viewed through their lenses the birds make me think of pterodactyls. Their presence almost suggests that whatever wiped out the dinosaurs didn’t fully succeed: what once was could be again? (Or, like Meg, I read too much into things?) Long-legged, wispy-feathered, bearded, they perch one to a rock, their feathers the same whitish grey as their roosts, half- submerged boulders anchored by lilies.
There isn’t a breath of wind. The rising sun washes the glassy surface orange. The birds stand perfectly still, not a feather ruffled. They could be statues carved from their perches, although I can’t imagine any sculptor carving those stick-legs from granite. One, two, three…I count four birds, then scan the rocks closer to shore, spot two more, then a seventh. A cormorant perches nearby, a straggly hanger-on.
Heron pairs mate for just one breeding season, you know, Kirk whispers. Nudges me to give back the binoculars. They find new partners each year, he says, the emphasis meant to amuse me. He explains to me what I’ve read: by day mothers hunt for food while dads feed the young regurgitated goodies and guard the nest. At night the parents switch roles.
What youngster doesn’t prefer having the mum there in the dark?
Handing back the glasses, I marvel: How magical to see them in numbers! Even small numbers. Each bird like a watchman guarding the edge of one world where it gives on to another, one humans can’t enter—not in the bodily form that, especially on summer evenings, leaves me filled with an unbreachable longing, not for Michael’s return—that would be too much—but just to know he is alive and, against all odds, okay. For him and Meg both to be, what, as I wish they could be? For Kirk and me to be what we haven’t been for years, close?
Meg would hang up on me if I even mentioned the disappointment that, who knows, plagues most mothers? The fact that we raise children to leave us, happily or aggrieved.
Her kids, our grandkids, are too young for Meg to have more than the tiniest inkling of this.
Heron offspring leave after they fledge and disappear for nearly two years before they return and, if conditions are right, rejoin the colony. Beside Kirk, squinting, I fix a naked eye on the birds, a spy watching for movement. For one of them to bend and dart its bill below the surface to nab breakfast. I imagine Meg coaxing nine-year-old Jasmine and seven-year-old Jonah from their beds, pouring almond milk, flinging toaster waffles on plates, drizzling on maple syrup, spreading plant-based butter, telling them to hurry because they can’t be late again, and then, oh, telling me over the phone she has too much on her plate for any one person, what with kids and work and the house, while David’s off on his daily jog before meeting clients….
In my imagination I interrupt: Tell me you’re happy, Meg.
Forget words. Forget the speculations Kirk silenced before I could find the nerve to utter them. About Michael, of course, as lost to us as a fledgling scooped up by an eagle. Or trampled into the dirt of a beaten path by an unsuspecting hiker. The words that have never quit clamouring: Suppose he’s alive, where on earth is he? Is he safe, fed, clothed, housed? Is he sick and suffering? On the street, or in jail?
We raised him exactly the way we raised Meg, the two just twenty months apart. How can the offspring of the same couple raised in the same nest turn out so differently?
We were too soft on him. Or too hard.
A heron flexes then lifts its wings. Its squawk volleys over the pond as it takes flight, a stiff grey arrow shooting towards the trees on the opposite shore, then gone. This leaves six great blues standing as still as can be, sleeping?
On a trip to Vancouver a couple of years ago, Meg spotted a man who resembled him. He had Michael’s build, Michael’s slouch. The man was standing in the rain under an overpass, near some soggy tents and tarped shelters. There were needles on the muddy ground, people lying there. Some were shooting up, others looked unconscious, possibly not breathing. She looked the fellow in the eye, she told me, and he looked at her and, perhaps, in the wildest reaches of her imagination, there was recognition—a smile or a panicked look—before he turned to a woman in ragged jeans, then….No, no, Meg had corrected herself, Mum, it wasn’t really him. I would have known for sure if it was, he’d have spoken, I know it. A sister would know her big brother, right?
I gaze out at the vacant rock, then turn away. Another squawk echoes and wings beat the air. The climbing sun pulls vapour from the pond and I think, foolishly, where there is daylight, things lost should somehow re-surface—shouldn’t they?
Kirk and I stumble back towards the path. Catch a parting glimpse through leafy boughs of the birds that have stayed put: the smaller ones, the females? But the exhilaration of our sighting has already begun to fade. Somewhere out in the harbour a horn blasts the Love Boat theme, one blared note at a time, a cruise ship signalling its departure, or so I’ve been told. Meg knows these things.
There’s a story I recall from Sunday school about a woman who turns her house upside down looking for a lost coin, all the money she has to her name. How did she know it wasn’t stolen? I used to wonder. How had she let it roll out of sight? Then there’s the story of the profligate son whose father snubs, or seems to snub, the dutiful brother by welcoming home the ne’er-do-well with a feast of fatted calf the likes of which the good son would never dream of. Where’s the fairness here? Beside the point, I guess.
Absence makes its own rules.
Kirk isn’t a believer. I don’t know if I am or not— even though the herons strike me as visitations from another, unearthly realm. Which I wouldn’t dream of telling Meg.
Motherrr, I can almost hear her, unable to keep a wistful envy from creeping into her voice. Next you’ll be naming one of them Mikey! Like he’s morphed into a bird and perched in the pine tree.
There were times, I admit, Michael and his troubles soaked up attention better paid to his sister. All the same, correcting her, I would need to speak firmly. Herons only gravitate to water, dear. Fresh or salt, as long as there’s fish.
End of discussion.
Except…. Did he look like he was eating? Was he dressed warmly? Was he sober? Did he seem all right? These are things I’ve longed to ask Meg for two years and still haven’t brought myself to. Because I know how she’d begin: Mum, it’s not like we chatted. Because I’m afraid of her answers.
The last time we saw Michael, his dad yelled at him to shape up, get a job or get out: his choices. I cheered Kirk on, at least part of me did—the part that was sick of making excuses for Michael, of telling myself he just needed to ‘find himself,’ needed more time, etcetera, etcetera. The part that was tired of cleaning up after his messes in the kitchen, the squalor of his room, the angry chaos that seemed to trail him the way dust and dirt trailed Pigpen.
This is how slums start! I once shouted. As if I actually knew.
Gnawing disappointment, worry, a seedling grief—what I naively mistook for grief back then—these feelings my close companions.
His final leaving was so quiet it caught us off guard, took several days, a week, to sink in, even though he took his backpack, his sleeping bag, his phone, and a few more clothes than what he was wearing. He’s gone camping, Kirk said. He’ll be back. After the third night I wanted to call the police, report him missing. The dispatcher told me to phone around first, check with his friends, check the hospitals. I did. By the fourth or fifth night I feared the worst. Don’t worry, Kirk said. When he wants money he’ll be back
It was true, Michael always wanted money. I was grateful when he asked instead of helping himself to my purse, his father’s wallet, our dresser drawers.
On the sixth day we filed a missing person report. A month or two later the police confirmed they didn’t know where he was. Imagine my relief when a few months after that we got a phone call: Michael saying he was in Alberta, wasn’t coming home, and it would be better if we stopped hassling him, let him live his life.
He’s got some major growing up to do! Kirk was right, of course. Except in my mind’s eye I couldn’t stop seeing the child Michael had been. Six years old, black and red rubber boots, yellow raincoat, a Ninja Turtle knapsack strapped to his back. The child whom I hadn’t wanted to grow up, if I’m being honest? Certainly not as he had.
The look in my boy’s eyes still haunts me—a frozen, wounded look, before he hauled on his gear, headed out the front door, and disappeared for good.
You never know, do you. You just never know.
People say so all the time, but how intently do they mean it?
Meg’s SUV is in the driveway when Kirk and I turn up our street. Even loping along we’re winded. She and the kids sit huddled on the front steps. Meg’s on her phone. The look on her face is fraught, more than just distracted. Has something happened? The kids refused to go to lessons? She and David had a fight? Oh, heavens, they’re splitting up? When she sees us she pockets the phone and dashes out to meet us. Her blonde hair wisps out every which way from its large pink clasp, though she’s dressed, I suppose, for work. It’s hard to tell with those yoga pants and hoodie. (Do you know how much these cost, Motherr?) But then I see her nervous, flustered excitement.
You’re not going to believe it.
She pulls in a large breath. Her hand flits to Jonah’s shoulder, lights like a dragonfly.
He’s contacted me. He’s gotten in touch.
Who, dear? Who?
Not Michael. Kirk’s hand flutters to his chest
Yes, yes, Michael. It’s true. Mikey. Our own.
I don’t know if her tears are tears of joy or terror.
Kirk has his arms wrapped around both grandkids, crushing them in a hug.
I huddle on the bottom step, curl into myself. Breathe into my hands. I cannot move. My heart is in my feet, even as something inside me, something feathery, fragile and unwilling, lifts.
No, no, I keep saying. It’s impossible. I’ve pictured this a thousand times—our boy approaches lugging a grimy knapsack, a bedroll lashed to it. His face battered by weather, clothes ragged and filthy, and his heartbeat in my ear.
There’s a soft, distant flapping, like sheets drying on a clothesline, and I look up, way up and away from Meg and her liquid eyes, and though it is too far away to be certain, I’m pretty sure the grey shape winging its way over the house and treetops is a heron.
It’s like seeing someone walk on water.
When? Where? How?
He’s in town, Mum. He wants to come by. Asked if you guys are willing to see him.
We spare no expense, cannot include too many treats in our welcome-home feast. Meg leaves the kids with us and goes to Costco, brings back lasagna, vegan and non-vegan, ribs, barbecue chicken, mac and cheese, tiramisu, non-alcoholic wine, chips, nuts, Gummi worms and all kinds of stuff the kids love and, I’m guessing, she and David do too. She unloads everything while I race around the kitchen making a chocolate cake from scratch—Michael’s favourite, the cake he always wanted on birthdays.
You’ll scare him off with all this stuff, Kirk says.
Baking the cake calms me enough to set the table. Seven places. The good china, crystal water glasses. The silverware that hasn’t been out of its chest since Meg’s wedding. Then I wonder, with a terrible pattering in my chest, if Kirk is right, if I’m jumping the gun, if the fuss might drive Michael away from me, from us.
Meg takes the children home to feed the dog, and then to pick up her brother—from where, she won’t say. The bus station? The airport? A long-lost friend’s? Kirk pours himself a drink, stiffer than usual. By now it’s early evening; he’s sipping it in the living room when the commotion starts out front. Meg and the kids pile out of her vehicle just as David pulls up in his Audi. They’ve even brought the dog, I hear before I see, a retriever that would lick you to death if you let it. Dogs make good buffers, Meg believes. Byron bounds across the neighbour’s lawn and squats.
David’s busy unloading a case of something from the trunk of his car: champagne? The kids linger in the driveway, yelling to the dog. I don’t see Michael—my boy is not to be seen; he’s not here? Dismay, disappointment rush in, fill me with something murky, murky as storm water. Meg, meanwhile, digs around inside her car for a po bag. Then, at last, she’s opening the passenger door.
The man who steps out is old—older than anything could have prepared me to expect. He’s a little stooped and rugged-looking, but still tall and not badly dressed. He pauses there, looking down at the driveway’s weedy interlocking brick, like someone who has landed in a foreign country, needs to figure out the terrain, find his bearings.
Meg loops her arm through her brother’s and rolls up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek.
No fatted calf. No slighted, righteous sibling, no fortune squandered none that I am or have ever been aware of.
I’m stumbling down the steps, fumbling to take him into my arms.
Michael is thinner than I remembered. His grey suit smells of cigarettes and Value Village but fits him surprisingly well. He smells of hardship—and I think of the people I’ve seen outside the shelter where our neighbours, the ones who like to party, once invited me to help donate a meal. A huge casserole of hamburger meat, macaroni, frozen vegetables.
Mom. His eyes warm to their old, soft hazel, the colour burned into my mind. His voice is the same, only—perhaps—a little rougher and yet gentler. Afraid?
When he speaks I see the gap where an upper molar is missing.
The kids hang back hauling on Byron’s collar, apt to strangle the poor dog with affection. Meg pulls all three of them to her, crouching there, reining them in. David stands still, the cardboard box in his arms. Meg shoots him a warning glance. “Mikey’s been clean for, what, Michael, a couple of years now?”
Even standing on tiptoe I only come up to my son’s chin but he bends into my arms and I hug him and hug him until our bones meld—that’s how it feels, his an extension of mine: ribs, spine, shoulder blades under thin grey fabric, under the press of my hands. But only for a second, a long, fleeting second, before he pulls away from me and stalks slowly toward his father.
Hey, Dad. What’s goin’ on? Don’t look so worried, he says. Think I’d come all this way after all this time to stir up shit?
Inside the house everything is set. The food has been heated in the oven, is ready to be served. The cake is iced, the water poured. But something about the sun’s angle, the evening with its soft yet fallish air keeps us there, suspended in this moment, each of us breathing it in.
Its shadowy light ripples over us, its blue the colour, I think, of mercy. Of second, third, fourth and fifth chances—an untold, infinite number of chances, it has me believe.
Even when I imagine flight.