Wish on a Red Bird
by Mel Lee-Smith
Of course the rental car’s fancy GPS doesn’t register Anna’s address. Soon as I turn down Willie Kay Drive, its robotic voice warns me, “Please drive carefully! You are entering an area with unverified map coverage.”
“Damn right I am,” I mutter as I cut it off and roll the driver’s-side window all the way down, relishing the blast of humidity. I’ve reluctantly acclimated to Irish rain and wind, but this Carolina girl ain’t built—physically or mentally—for long-sleeved shirts in June, Aran wool knitwear in September, for toting an umbrella around everywhere I go in all seasons.
Took me almost a full day to make it back here. Now, I’m in spitting distance of my favorite place on Earth: Anna and Dylan’s half-finished project of a log cabin cocooned in fairytale forest. Even in this alien car, I still know how to navigate the sweet spots of the long driveway, easing over rotting plywood boards sunk into wet clay so I don’t get stuck. Muscle memory—it never leaves you.
My favorite cousin is waiting for me on the porch just like I knew she would be, watching me as though I’ll vanish if she looks away. My hamstrings, half-asleep from the long drive and red-eye flight, tingle as I suppress the urge to run to the porch. Anna rises from her rocking chair and reaches for me, locking me in a tight squeeze I never wanna leave.
It’s hard to feel uneasy in arms that have raised as many babies and grandbabies as hers. They recycle all the bad into good, like trees. Her love is science. The last time we embraced each other like this, not long after Dylan’s diagnosis, she wept into my shoulder, and I bargained with the universe to absorb even a pinch of her undeserved sorrow.
“I know you’re so happy to finally be home.” She sways, rubbing my back, her soft voice reverberating in my bones.
I swallow the joyful sob dammed up in my chest, choose to smile instead. I don’t wanna make her cry, too, for what will surely be the umpteenth time today. I ain’t got nothing to cry about, anyway. It’s here, the moment I’ve envisioned every day of the four hundred and sixty-six days that have passed since we saw each other last. I’m home.
“You want some tea?” she asks when we unlock.
“I don’t mind fixing it myself.”
She waves a hand. “Don’t be silly. You must be wore slap-out after all that traveling.”
I roll my eyes, feeling myself grin. “Fine. I would love a glass of sweet tea. Please and thank you.”
While she shuffles into the kitchen, I pace the back porch. Planters hang from steel chains and spin gently in the breeze, butterfly wings of purple shamrocks spilling over ceramic. The hummingbird feeder is almost empty, and a little garden catty-cornered where cabin wall meets porch withers in the heat. Plastic toy tractors and trucks are strewn all over the yard, and a bicycle is propped up against a tree. The broken-down van Dylan fixed up for the grandbabies to use as a “spaceship” is still sitting in the corner of the clearing, sinking into a patch of knee-high weeds. Its pink and purple spray paint job brings a smile to my face.
I don’t need to follow Anna to know the house is almost exactly the same as I left it. The sunset-colored tinge of sulfur-infused well water staining the shower and sinks; the wood stove topped with thrift shop knick-knacks in the living room; the chandelier of turquoise wine bottles hanging above a knotted pine table on the front porch; the rusted solid-iron mermaid standing sentinel over fairy forest—it’s all there. The only thing missing is Dylan.
Remembering him lounging on the porch swing, singing, playing guitar, talking about anything and everything and nothing at all, makes my throat itch. My tattered pocket notebook is filled with hastily scribbled anecdotes from before he got sick, tales about when his band got kicked out of Canada, the song they wrote after they all got locked up after a show in Tennessee. Times like these, I’m glad I had enough sense to capture those stories. But he wouldn’t want me to waste precious time wallowing. I ain’t got nothing to be sad about anyway. I’m home.
I kick off my Converses, shed my socks, and skip off the porch, twisting my feet in the dirt. These city-softened soles have hungered for this sensation. The tears, inevitable, slip silent down my cheeks. I wipe them away so Anna doesn’t see when she comes back.
“Goodness gracious, youngun.” The front door slaps shut behind her, and she sets my tea by the swing. “I leave you out here for five minutes and you already barefoot! You better not come crying to me when you get eat up by fire ants.”
I feel a smile light up my face as I remember a story she told me once, about the time Uncle Samuel made her put shoes on to get pictures made at our grandma’s house. I still got that picture somewhere, I think—she’s pouting, eyes squinched shut behind clenched fists.
I lean into the creak of the porch swing, noticing a plump writing spider meditating in the web she’d built across the window. I feel an instinctive shiver rise at the sight of her long, yellow legs, but I calm it. She ain’t gonna hurt me.
Anna has befriended so many of her fellow forest dwellers: writing spiders and good news bees and stick bugs. Two red birds greet her outside the kitchen window every morning before sneaking off to steal food from the cat’s bowl. A black mama bird makes her nest in the flowerpot beside Anna’s rocking chair every year. She’s the Dr. Dolittle of Level Land.
I sip tea and watch my favorite cousin like she’ll vanish if I look away. The rocking chair’s wood blades knock against porch slats, an even rhythm orchestrated by her flip-flopped feet. Her thick silver hair tumbles to her elbows. Cobweb smile lines dig into the corners of her eyes and mouth a little deeper than they did the last time I saw her.
I don’t need to tell her how much I’ve missed her, ’cause I tell her just about every day, anyway. “I love you across oceans and time zones” is my favorite text message to send. It’s the only sentiment that encapsulates my homesickness.
“I miss you like you miss home,” she told me once, back when her grief was brand new.
But we don’t have to miss each other anymore—at least, not right now, not yet.
We while the evening away on the porch doing what we do best: telling stories and smoking cigarettes. After she retreats to bed, I tuck my feet onto the swing and light up another one. Ah, I’m home.
When most folks picture the Emerald Isle, they envision crumbling castles, shale crags jutting out over a frothy sea, cows ruminating in grass so green it almost glows. Unfortunately for me, I’m only treated to those pastoral scenes on long bus rides. My apartment block is on the corner of a major intersection in Waterford City, right across from an all-girls elementary school. Noise is an incessant part of daily life, one that leaves this Carolina girl restless and miserable.
But there’s no man-made cacophony to pollute my senses here. No suffocating exhaust fumes, no cars idling or crosswalks beeping at all hours, no streetlamp light painting orange stripes on the walls through gaps in the blinds, no rain-slick pavement pressing up hard and even against my boots. Just green grass, red clay, a blue sky, a yellow sun, and purple shamrocks.
Out here, though, the soundtrack to my days and nights is just as loud. A chorus of crickets trills its everlasting note into the dark, backed by the skittering hum of katydids and the deep-throated drone of cicadas. Tomorrow morning, the track will change. Grasshopper sparrows and Carolina wrens will cover the morning music shift with delicate, whistling songs. I might mistake the quiet vibration of hummingbirds’ wings for a bumblebee hovering nearby.
On a stormy summer night, the kind I’ve been aching for, the track will change again. Raindrops will clang on the porch’s tin roof, pinto beans in a steel bucket, muffling distant thunder. I will sit safe on the porch swing, two feet from the downpour, contemplating my comfortable presence within this wondrous wilderness, this fairy forest—my favorite place on Earth.
So many songs are missing from the soundtrack now that Dylan’s gone. I remind myself for the umpteenth time that he wouldn’t want me out here “boo-hooing” and carrying on like this.
“Whatchu cryin’ for?” he’d holler, jovial as ever. “You’re home!”
I wander off the porch. The grass, still sun-warm, tickles my dirt-filmed toes. A muggy wind rustles the dense tree cover. I gaze up at the full moon— shining brighter, sharper out here than it does through Waterford’s light pollution—and sing one of Dylan’s songs.
“And I hope all the scales in Heaven are somehow rigged around, where the bad weighs like a feather and the good weighs near a pound, and everybody makes it, not one soul is left out, ‘cause that’s what ‘love thy neighbor’s’ all about.”
My voice cracks on the last note and the dam breaks. I flash back to the last time I wept to the moon like this. It was two days after he passed, the night I fixed Thanksgiving supper for my Irish friends. I almost canceled, but I chose to celebrate his favorite holiday with a feast of fried okra, deviled eggs, and cornbread, with singing, dancing, and drinking into the wee hours of the morning. I even managed to stay composed until I went outside for some fresh air and saw that moon shining down, tugging at the oceans of my soul. Sorrow and grief hollow me out, gratitude and joy fill me up. It’s been the same old song and dance for nigh on two years.
Tonight, joy eclipses sorrow. I’ve pined for this exact flavor of freedom for what feels like an eternity—and now I’ve got it. But it’s not the same. It’s not fair. Life keeps rolling on and changing things no matter how I feel about it.
The next morning, I wake before Anna and put on a pot of coffee before stealing her seat in the rocking chair. Pen and notebook in hand, I concentrate on the magical melodies of the morning, searching for the words to describe them, knowing I will come nowhere close to doing them justice.
A red bird lands on the dirt in front of the porch. Maybe it’s one of the pair that always comes calling. Her darting gaze settles on me for the quickest moment. I close my eyes, make my wish, and blow her a kiss. She carries it away when it lands on her.
My mama taught me how to wish on a red bird when I was just a little bitty thing. She said if the bird flies off with your wish, it’ll come true. But you’re not supposed to tell nobody what it is, ‘cause then it won’t come true. And I really want this one to come true.
Mel Lee-Smith has been writing since she was old enough to hold a pencil and telling stories since she was old enough to talk. Her lifelong love of the craft led her from a small mill town in South Carolina to an ancient market town in England, where she earned her master’s degree in writing. She now lives in Ireland and works as a freelance writer and content editor. Her novel-in-progress, Escape Artist, falls somewhere between Southern literature and fictionalized biography but is ultimately a retelling of the stories her family passed down to her.