Dragon in the Sky

By Margaret King Zacharias

            

            “G’day, J.C.,” Michael Osker said, as he strode into the Paradisio.  “Have you found me Coonawarra Cab?” 

            His confident gait belied the fact that Mike's rumpled white t-shirt, well-worn blue jeans and weathered leather bomber jacket looked completely out of place in the elegant tropical wine bar.  

            A bit of belligerence lurked in his voice, and in the way he carried a large head thick with red hair. He looked like what he was -- an undercover street cop on the beat, and the World Aerial Dogfight Champion.

            Jesús Domingo Cruz turned towards him with a beatific smile. 

            “Buenas tardesSeñor Mike. For you, I have it, of course.” J.C.’s warm brown eyes glowed beneath a rainbow portrait of the Lady of Guadalupe that presided above his bar. Pulling out a bottle of Mike's Australian wine, he poured ruby liquid into a gleaming Waterford tumbler. 

            Only if bar patrons were watching intently would they notice an additional movement. He passed his hand over the glass before sliding it to Mike. 

            “Señor Gabe, he is already here.”

            Mike picked up his glass and headed for their usual corner. Yes, there was Gabe, on the phone as always, talking into two different headsets while rapidly typing notes into a laptop on the round koa table in front of him. 

            It sounded like he was speaking Hebrew, and Russian.

            “Try Gaelic,” Mike said, under his breath. "Or Maori." 

            His coiled tension vibrated as he set the crystal glass onto the table, and crouched to squeeze his Viking-size body into the slender turquoise booth.

            Gabriel Kaplan, celebrated global news reporter, clicked off his phones. He tucked them and their headsets into the pockets of his khaki safari vest.

            With a characteristic gesture beloved by millions, Gabe tossed loose dark curls away from his face. He flashed Mike a veteran newscaster smile. 

            “You look less serene than usual, my friend. Rough day?”

            “I’m wondering why we can’t meet at a proper pub for once,” Mike said. “Surely there's someplace in these islands where a man could get a decent pint o’ Guinness?”

            “Come on, Mike. You know this is the Boss’s place. J.C.'s all right. He found you your Coonawarra, didn’t he?”

            “Aye. I’ve just seen too much human tragedy lately. And I'm not getting enough action,” Mike said. “I can’t even practice my sword."

            "Why not?"

            "Uriel's off trekking this week. He's the only one that can give me any competition. Have you heard from Rafe?”

            Gabe sampled his Hess Merlot, then shook his head.

            "I know he’s due back from Europe today. I’m sure he’ll join us as soon as he arrives.”

            J.C. appeared at the table with a platter of hot crostini. Again he gently passed his hand over the offering before slipping away.

            “The word is, this job will be more dangerous than usual,” Gabe said.

            "What's up?" 

            “There's trouble at the naval base on Oahu. The men in the weapons stations are getting -- quarrelsome."

            "I've got teenagers assaulting and robbing old aunties in broad daylight in Honolulu," Mike said. 

            "Half of the North Shore on Kauai has been washed away by floods." Gabe slipped back into reporter mode. 

            "An ocean-floor internet cable, the main trunk that serves all the neighbor islands, has been severed underwater several miles off the coast of Oahu. It's going to take weeks to repair. The island cell phone towers are breaking down from data overload."

            Gabe took a deep breath and smiled again at his friend.  "If I didn't have my own special equipment --" 

            Both of Gabe's phones started beeping and flashing, at the same time. He snapped on his headsets. He spoke to Mike as he listened.

            "Pele's on the march.  Kilauea's erupting on the island of Hawaii.  It's not just Hawaii. Puglia in Italy just had a massive earthquake, at Mount Gargano. Multiple reports of hurricanes, cyclones and tornados coming into the New York office. They're blasting through South America, Asia and Africa." 

            Mike nodded. "There's a crisis in every hemisphere."

             “C’est vrai.” 

            A slender man with cropped silver hair, dressed in an elegantly tailored black suit, placed a bottle onto the table and shrugged.  "When Pele comes, she comes." 

            Rafael Tanaka, physician and Akido master, gestured to his bottle. “Chateau Lafitte de Rothschild.” He carried three slender wine glasses between his long fingers. 

            “Gentlemen, may I offer you this superior, this authentic, this exquisite cabernet sauvignon Français?”

            Taking in the looks on their faces, he smiled. 

            “Non. Ah, bien. But it may be some time before we can meet again. The situation appears dire.” 

            Rafael shot his immaculate white cuffs, and sat down to join his friends.

            “I know already that there's great danger.” He spoke as he poured for them anyway, despite their obvious reluctance.

             “In Paris, vandalism, arson, mass murder. Soon enough there will be plenty of action to challenge even you, Michael." 

            Rafe passed his hands over the glasses. 

            "More nefarious spirits are gathering now, as we speak.”

            J.C. quietly placed a bowl of ahi poke next to the crostini platter.  Rafe thanked him with a smile.  

            Gently swirling his wine, he inhaled its aroma. He scooped some poke onto a slice of crostini, and took a bite before continuing. 

            “Terror, of course, remains the ostensible leader, finding it easy to enter during this trauma of floods, earthquakes, eruptions, and massive storms. Anger, Depression, Despair, and the others tend to cluster, once Terror has gotten a toehold.”

            “Right,” Gabe said. “Like the Jealousy and Rage about to break out over there.” He pointed across the room to the table farthest from theirs, in the opposite corner.

            A woman’s voice, high and hysterical, suddenly rose above the delicate strains of a Mozart concerto. Her companion’s resonant bellow followed. A fist slammed onto the table and the woman’s voice escalated to a shriek.

            Michael lifted his arm. As he moved his hand from left to right toward the heads of the squabbling couple, their eyes dropped closed, and they both slumped onto the floor.

             “I think,” he said, “that this is bigger than a few frightened people. That activity around the Kauai satellite base has potential to threaten the whole world, if even one technician falls victim to Confusion. Or Revenge." 

            He looked over at Gabriel, who appeared distracted. “What are you hearing?”

            “Barakiel, Sarakiel and Raguel are already here,” Gabe said. “With six of us on site, there’s little doubt. We’d better get started. Uriel is heading back, and the Principalities are on their way.”

            "But why send us all to Maui for our home base?" Michael looked perplexed.

            Gabe shook his head. "The horsemen have landed on all the continents, Michael. Plague."

            "For centuries," Rafael said, "Each of this world's most sacred prayer traditions has been gathered, sheltered, and nurtured here, on these small islands so far away from the rest of the world. Gathered, to stand together in spiritual unity against mankind's ancient enemy, on the day."

            Rafe looked into Michael's eyes. "And, mon ami, don't you remember? Maui is the navel, the birth center, of Earth." 

            He stopped at the bar to speak to J.C. on their way out.        “Please give those people this, when they wake up,” he said, waving a hand toward the still insensate couple in the corner.  He handed J.C. a slim white card.     

            Rafael Alexandre Tanaka, MD PhD

            Board of Psychiatry, Canada 

            Marriage and Family Counseling

            

            

            Rafe, Gabe, and Michael conferred for one more minute, just beyond the threshold of the Paradisio.  

            Gabriel pointed up as they stepped outside. 

            A huge reptilian shape writhed and whirled above them, spewing scarlet fire against the nighttime sky. Its menacing glow almost seemed to dim the stars' eternal radiance.

            "Could be just smoke, a reflection from Kilauea," Gabe said. 

            "No." Michael sounded certain. "That's the ancestral Dragon. I'm after my sword." 

            Then they all disappeared into the darkness, to gird for the ultimate battle.


 


Sunset and evening star, 

And one clear call for me! 

And may there be no moaning of the bar, 

When I put out to sea.

But such a tide as moving seems asleep, 

Too full for sound and foam, 

When that which drew from out the Boundless deep

Turns again home.

From Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Crossing the Bar”


The Dancing Companion

By Margaret Zacharias


     It took me way too long to figure out that the lady was alone. By the time I did, the moment of opportunity, if there was one, could have sailed right past me.

     I was just too accustomed to seeing them together. When I saw Roxanne sitting by herself near the edge of the dance floor, I assumed that Jack was cashing in his chips at the casino, and would be right along.

     My name is Max – that’s short for Maximillian -- better than a million dollars, according to my wife Marie. For almost five years now, I’ve been working as a dancing companion for the older ladies on this ship. The Women’s Clubs check with the cruise line to make sure I’m on board for their annual trip.

     They live for the dancing. In those moments of spinning around in my arms on the dance floor, they feel young again. Believe it or not, they consider me a highlight of their vacations. I know all the regulars.

     Roxanne’s a thoroughbred, a natural blond with good bones and simple clothes. She takes on a radiant glow as the days at sea progress, like a fine rare pearl. Her speech is always gentle, even with the lowliest crew members. She simply doesn’t go out without that gracious attitude.

     Jack’s a polite guy, too, even if he is a charter member of the “I paid for it, and I’m going to eat it” club. Though neither of them is small, they've actually given me some real competition on the dance floor.

     Since they live in San Diego, they can catch the ship at the local terminal, and they do, sometimes four or five times during whale-watching season. Jack and Roxie love to watch the whales.

     I had always liked the lady’s style, but I had never asked her to dance, because, let’s face it, she had a partner. And the cruise line pays me to dance with the ones who don’t.

     So on this particular night, I didn’t pay much attention to Roxanne at first. I had no way of knowing that she had joined the ranks of the left behind. I took a closer look, though, as I waltzed by with one of the more difficult dowagers in the current crowd.

     It struck me that Roxanne was wearing her sunglasses at night. This bothered me because I particularly remembered her expressive blue eyes. When her husband still had not shown up by the time the band took a break, I walked over to her table to find out what was going on.

     “Hey, Roxie. Glad to see you. It’s been awhile.”

     “Hello, Max,” she responded, a sweet sigh. “Too long.”

     “We’ve missed you on the dance floor.”

     “I’ve missed that dance floor, too.”

     “I’m wondering where Jack is. Was he lucky tonight?” I asked her.

     She shook her head. “Not anymore.”

     “What do you mean?” 

     “He was dying, Max, for a long time. Not quite a year ago, it was over.”

     Now, I can twirl them through the Jitterbug and dip them at the end of a Tango. The Salsa moves are easy because I know how to Swing. From an elegant Waltz to an energetic Cha Cha, I can give the ladies whatever they want.

     But all that fancy footwork was no help at all in responding to Roxanne’s news. There was nothing I could say. “I’m sorry,” just doesn’t cut it, and the responses get worse from there. “How are you doing?” and “I’ll bet you miss her,” people murmur, until you think you’ll go mad. I couldn’t believe she was taking this cruise alone. How could she bear the pain?

     “I do understand how you feel,” I finally said. “I lost Marie five years ago.” 

     Then the band came in and started up the music, so I waved at the bartender to bring over Roxie’s favorite champagne cocktail and told her I’d be back. I went off to do my dutiful shift of keeping things equal in the attention department. There were still a few charmers who hadn't gotten a turn on the floor, and they were waiting.

     In order for the magic to happen, the man must be strong in the lead. If the man’s in charge of the timing, and in control of the speed, even a woman who doesn't know what she’s doing can feel like a great dancer. All she has to do is come along for a thrilling ride.

     But that’s it, what I provide, just the dancing. Some of them expect more, and they're disappointed. I don’t usually have to deal with the vicious ones until closer to the end of the voyage, when they’ve gotten used to being pampered, and think they can demand anything they want.

     It amazes me every trip to see how some people can lose any manners they ever had, in only seven days. A couple of them have actually complained directly to the Front Office, in voices that carried the length of the Promenade Deck. Can you believe that?

     I don’t care, really, for myself. They know me here. But I’m willing to sacrifice to avoid that kind of scene because it spoils things for the nice ones, like Roxie. She’s the sort of woman who makes a man want to rise up to her standard.

     My next partner was tiny and thin, like a sack of bird bones in my arms. I liked her because she was light and spry, easy to turn and spin properly.

     Nattering but harmless, she told me several times that she was 95 years old and this was her 30th cruise. I ought to carry a few of those little Mariner pins in my pocket, so I could hand them out at times like this. But this lady had long ago exceeded the pin stage, anyway. I was happy to show her a good time.

     Before I could get back to Roxanne, though, I needed to favor three more plump darlings. They’re a challenge, but you learn some tricks, like holding them nearer the hip instead of above the waist. For a heavier load, it sets you at a lower center of gravity, makes it easier to maneuver. It’s a useful move when the seas are stormy and the dance floor is rocking under your feet. I’ve never had a complaint about this, but I don’t risk it with anyone under 50.

     The peaches and I enjoyed a couple of Jitterbugs, sharing the twirls with several other couples out on the floor. Then the band ran us through a lively Cha Cha. I draw the line at the Macarena, though. When the musicians finished the set on “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” I ducked out and headed back over to the table where I had found Roxanne.

      She was sitting absolutely still, in the same position I had left her, with the same serene look on her face. Her champagne cocktail was half gone. I reached up and gently removed those dark glasses so I could look her in the eye.

     “Would you like to dance when the band comes back?”

     Her big blue eyes filled with tears. “I’m not ready.”

     “Okay,” I said, “I see that. Why did you come?”

     “Because I needed to grieve for him here.”

     Me, I came to this ship to escape. The kids and the grandkids tease me about that, say I’m too far away; but I know they’re glad to have me off their hands this time of year. They think I’m a ridiculous old geezer, so proud of my dancing.

      Let me tell you something: not one of my boys can dance. All three of them have two left feet and have trampled over their wives so often the poor women would rather stay home.

     I still have hopes for my grandchildren. Maybe clever footwork is one of those genes that skip a generation.

     Marie, now, she had a double copy of that gene, was a dancer all her life. She wouldn’t marry me until I was as good as she was. I worked harder at Swing than I ever had to work all those years at the engineering firm. That’s what she gave me, and that’s what she left me. But I don’t dance on the ships we danced on. It’s a whole new ship and a whole new ocean for me. That’s the only way I can stand it.

     “Will you let me know if I can help?” I asked Roxanne. She nodded slowly, and even though her lips were trembling, she managed a brave smile.

     The band was going into “A- Train” so I knew we were headed for a lively set of Swing. I danced right through “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Satin Doll,” and “String of Pearls,” without providing the proper adoration my quiet and graceful partners deserved. I kept thinking about Roxanne.

     The third time I went back to the table, she was tapping her feet and there was some color in her cheeks. The music, at least, seemed to be doing her some good. She looked over at me and said, “You’re right, you know. It cuts to the heart. But I feel closer to him here, on this ship, on this dance floor.”

      I decided to plunge right in. “Cancer?” I asked.

     “Prostate to bone,” she replied. When she saw the look on my face, she added, “Yes, all that pain, all that time. We danced as long as he could stand.”

     I paused a moment. “Breast to brain,” I told her. “As long as we could, until she lost control.”

     We sat for awhile in silence. When the music resumed, I asked Roxanne again if she would dance with me. 

     This time she hesitated a moment before she shook her head. “Not now, Max. Maybe later.”

     “I’ll hold you to that,” I said.

     I worked in a couple of Tangos with some spirited matrons from New Jersey before the band began to wind down the evening with the slow numbers. When I was able to steal a glance, I was pleased to see how intently Roxanne was watching me.

     A couple more waltzes, and another evening's good work was done.

     I went back one more time when I was finished, because I knew I could talk the boys into one more number, if she was still there, if she would agree to dance with me. But her drink was gone and the table was deserted. 

     “Ah, well,” I muttered to myself. “Perhaps she’ll come again. We do have six more days.”

     I turned around to ask if I could buy the band a drink, and there was Roxanne, leaning in to the bandstand, gesturing earnestly with her hands while she spoke to the band director. He looked over at me for a long moment, then turned back to her and nodded. I wasn’t sure what was happening, until the band segued into “Stardust.”

     Roxie walked toward me slowly, with that Mona Lisa smile on her face. 

     “Okay, Max,” she whispered, as she nestled into my arms, “What could it hurt? One last dance for Jack; and one for Marie.”

     The band played on. We spun till we were dizzy, collapsing with laughter into a soft sofa in front of the domed windows beyond the dance floor. Then we silently turned towards each other, and we both looked up at the same time.

     A panoply of stars shone down, their brightness illuminating the farthest horizon. Crystalline light splashed back on us, from the waves of unfathomable sea, wordlessly blessing Roxanne, the band, and me.





Copyright 2004 by Margaret Zacharias 

Originally published in J. Tullius, Ed., Ship’s Log: Writings at Sea, Triple Tree Press, Eugene, Oregon.  
All royalties from the sale of this book were donated to the Maui Writers Foundation Young Writers Scholarship Program, enabling Outstanding Hawaiian High School Seniors and their Teachers to attend the Maui Writers Conference.


*****

 
 
 


Hawk’s Wings

By Margaret Zacharias


     The distinctive call of an Irish hunting hawk interrupted Megan Walsh where she stood near St. Patrick’s cross, gazing down at monastery ruins from the curtain wall that encloses the Rock of Cashel. She turned to scan the crumbling cathedral rising on the hill to her right. 

     She located the hawk’s perch just as he launched himself from the top of an ancient round tower, with another resounding “kek-kek-kek.

     As she looked back out over the Cashel valley, the hawk fluttered down to hover in the air only a few feet from where she stood. He waited right in front of her, flapping his wings and staring into her face as if he knew her. 

     Just what she needed, Megan thought. A few of these birds had been known to attack human beings who had trespassed on their territory. She suddenly remembered that she was alone up here. The rest of her group had escaped the cold rain and walked into town for some hot dinner.

     Megan backed away from the overlook, recalling the comfortable niches she had seen inside what remained of the cathedral. She sprinted up the stairs into its shelter, and crouched behind thick stone walls at the threshold while she made sure that the hawk had not followed her. Then she collapsed onto a boulder marking the center of the transept crossing.

     No wonder, she thought, that Celtic kings and churchmen had erected these sturdy buildings, to conceal themselves from the unpredictable forces of nature. She felt safer here, reassured to be inside the perimeter of stacked and mortared stones. Although the four original transepts had lost their coverings long ago, a vaulted roof protected the central crossing from the rain.

     The hawk appeared again. She could see him through the open east choir, circling high above her. Why had he approached her at the curtain wall? 

     Megan watched him perform the acrobatic sky dance she had admired in another bird, above her Iowa home, at the end of winter. 

     She had welcomed that first hawk’s large stick nests in the woodlands bordering her yard. She had known he would capture the pestilent rodents that gnawed on her tulips and lilies. He would frighten away the itinerant crows who stole gluttons’ shares of her berries.

     Then again, at the airport earlier this spring, she had spotted a similar hawk – it might even have been the same one – swooping into a field by the runway while she waited for her flight to depart. 

     That hawk had come without warning, almost faster than her eye could follow. He flashed through the sky with the sun behind him, to capture his prey in his talons before he soared away.

     Now here was another formidable hawk, and this one was frightening Megan. Perhaps in County Tipperary, she should address him by his Gaelic name, Ri-seabhag.” The King Hawk’s prowess as a hunter had endeared him to generations of royalty. 

     But even at an ancient Irish castle, Megan thought, this raptor should not be appearing this often. She was feeling pursued, and a little bit provoked.

     Cooper’s hawks flew reconnaissance in Iowa; sparrow hawks nested in Ireland. Those were what she expected to see when she encountered a hawk. Yet these rare King Hawks were starting to be as populous in the air as the white-tailed deer were thick on the ground.

     The aggressive hawk seemed to have disappeared for the moment. Megan had just decided she was calm enough to walk down the hill and rejoin her group, when she began to hear faint music. The sounds of flutes and fiddles rose through the patter of the rainstorm. 

     As she listened, the melody grew louder. Megan recognized the strains of “Danny Boy.” But who were these musicians, and where were their instruments?

     One by one, then two by two and then in a swarming mass, the gargoyle figures carved on the corbels, capitals and lintels suddenly sprang to life. The gargoyles danced on the transept walls, swung down on ropes from the lancet windows, and somersaulted through the quatrefoils. Megan was terrified.

     These hideous creatures apparently inhabited every nook and cranny where she had hoped to hide from the hawk. 

     As she tried to determine how she could escape them, a stone female figure the tour guide had called a sheela-na-gig broke away from the wall, and sauntered up to Megan. 

     “I can see you are tired,” the sheela-na-gig said. “And you have done enough. Come with us, Megan Walsh, join the dance. We sleep all day; we feast and sing all night. Put your troubles behind and be lonely no more. Come away with us.”

     The sheela-na-gig spoke the truth, Megan thought. Her sons’ educations and their two recent weddings had exhausted her. She should be happy to relax. 

     Yet she had found herself feeling dismayed and bereft. She had run away to Ireland to examine her options, to try to decide how she wanted to spend the years that were left of her life.

     Just as if they could read her thoughts, a chorus of gargoyles began to repeat the refrain. 

     “Come away, come away, come away with us.” 

     Their dogged insistence in the clattering rain was unnerving. 

     “No,” Megan said, and shook her head.

     Annoyed by her refusal, the creatures surrounded her. They began to pinch, hurl rocks and pull Megan’s hair. The sheela-na-gig turned haughty.

     “You’re an old woman, Megan, and your happiest years are behind you,” she said. 

     The creatures grabbed hold of Megan and dragged her across the north transept floor. They pulled her out the door and into a graveyard that lay beyond the medieval round tower. 

     “Come away, come away, come away with us, to the life of eternal frivolity. Dance and play, come away and labor no more.”

     “No,” Megan said. “I still have work to accomplish.”

     “You are done,” the sheela-na-gig said. “All that remains is sorrow and mourning. Escape with us and forget.”

     “Escape and forget,” the chorus echoed. “Come away, come away and forget.”

     “My family still needs me,” Megan insisted.

     “They are gone,” the sheela-na-gig said. “Your sons have wives, and jobs and lives. Those young folks hope they will never grow old. They hope they will never turn slow and hollow like you.”

      “You lie!” Megan cried, as tears filled her eyes. She tried to shake the creatures away, but they clung like leeches to her skin.

     With the whistling sound of a raptor’s plunge, the King Hawk swept down from the top of the round tower and landed in the cemetery. The youngest creatures leaped on his back, thinking to have a ride, but he picked them out of his feathers with his beak as if they were insects. 

     The wiser ones backed away, waiting to see what he would do. They looked like they were hoping for his imminent departure.

     But the hawk remained like a courtier at Megan’s feet, peering up into her face with intense concentration. She almost felt glad he had joined the group, as long as he stayed where he was. He, at least, revealed no fear of these unholy beings.

     When the hawk did not immediately soar away, the hostile creatures resumed their pinching and pulling. They combined their strength to push Megan down, forcing her body into the soft ground. 

     As she sank deeper and deeper into the peat, the hawk began to expand and change. He emerged in the form of a man. Astonished, Megan recognized her old friend Michael.

     “You came back! You came back to help me. Stop them, Michael! They're trying to take me away.”

     “Alas, my fair Megan,” Michael replied, “I cannot help you. ‘Is geis dom e a dheanamh.’ I am forbidden to do it. This ‘gheasa’ was given before I was appointed to accompany you. Remember, I told you on the plane?”

     When Michael had materialized in the seat next to her on the flight to Dublin, Megan had thought it fortunate that her archangel friend had showed up when he did. Otherwise, he would have landed on her head as she stretched out to sleep over the Atlantic Ocean. 

     He had looked perfectly normal, the way he always did, wearing his favorite pea green Polo shirt and khaki slacks. He had not looked angelic at all.

     But Megan had felt a familiar flicker of fear. He might not have come, as he had once or twice, to assist her in her mortal life. Perhaps this time her friend had been sent to retrieve and transport her soul. 

     She knew that despite his ability to manifest himself as a mortal man, Michael was in fact a warrior archangel. He had defeated Lucifer’s rebellion and would lead the last battle for heaven. Michael had always promised her that she would not die alone.

     Megan’s fears of imminent death had not been assuaged when five minutes later a blinding flash of lightening had struck the wing of the plane. She had felt the sizzle right through her bones, from the roots of her hair to the pads of her toes. 

     But miraculously, the wing had remained intact. This had not been the first time Michael had flown her safely through a storm. But Megan was still suspicious.

      As soon as the turbulence had settled down she had asked him,       “Michael, why are you here?”

      His green eyes had been gleaming with leprechaun mischief. His hair had still been growing in that little thatch of ash blond wisps, around the bald spot at the top of his head. She had known he was planning to tease her.

     “Shall I say it’s because you’ve done a fine job of bringing up those boys? Could I convince you it’s my reward for finishing my most recent mission? Or would you believe I’ve come to protect your search for a priceless treasure?”

     “Would I argue instead you’ve been found overdue for some kissing at Blarney Castle?” 

     Megan fell easily into their familiar rhythm. “Or maybe the truth is you’ve simply indulged in one Guinness pint too many?”

     “I’m telling you the truth,” Michael said, turning serious. “There's a treasure waiting for you if you’ve courage enough to win it.”

     “Okay, Michael, what is this treasure?” Megan asked. “And where will I find it?”

     “If I told you that, Megan – but it would not be your own treasure then, now would it?”

     “If I have to go search and find it myself, then why do I need you?”

     “Why don’t you rest, and wait awhile to see how useful I might be?”

     “Yes,” Megan had thought, “I definitely need some sleep. This is too impossible altogether, probably a hallucination, brought on by stress and severe sleep deprivation. I can’t see why he’d appear to me now. I’m on vacation! When I wake up, he’ll be gone.” 

     And just like that, she had dozed off.

     By the time her plane had landed in Dublin, Megan had managed to convince herself that Michael’s appearance had been only a symptom of jet lag. She hated long flights, strapped into a cramped economy seat. She'd decided she'd been lucky to have suffered no more than a transient illusion, the result of wishful thinking.

     Now, Megan asked Michael, “But what can I do?” from where she lay trapped in the peat by the gargoyles. “I’ll never escape their evil chorus alone.”

     “Yet alone you must do it, if you mean to escape at all,” Michael told her. “I’m not, however, forbidden bygheasa’ to give you a single clue.”

     “Oh yes, please do! Michael, help me – give me a clue?”

     But he remained stoic and silent, refusing to move. He just stood there watching, as more and more creatures leapt in to pounce on Megan, and pummel her with sticks and rocks. 

     She was becoming certain that she was overcome and would spend eternity in this muddy yard where the inscriptions on the gravestones bore witness to her ancestors.

     Just before she disappeared altogether, though, she noticed that a small family of deer had quietly crept through the rain up the hillside. She spotted them peering in from the edge of the cemetery; they were watching her with what seemed like concern.

     Yes! Megan remembered. 

     She remembered Michael telling her how St. Patrick had once escaped his enemies by turning himself into a deer.

     With her last strength, she began to whisper St. Patrick’s Breastplate. 

     “I arise today through the strength of heaven . . . light of the sun . . . swiftness of wind. . . depth of the sea . . . firmness of earth and . . . stable rock.

     As Megan finished this incantation, the ground beneath her ceased to give way. The weight of the gargoyles could force her down no deeper. But the imps continued to beat her as she persevered. 

     “I arise today through God’s strength to pilot me . . . God’s might to uphold me. . . God’s shield to protect me . . .God’s host to preserve me from anyone wishing me ill.” 

     When Megan spoke these words, her strength returned. She was able to get to her knees, stand up and push away her attackers.

     But now the sheela-na-gig opened a pouch that hung from a loop on her belt. She pulled out a tiny golden horn and blew three discordant notes. 

     From every valley all around them, up the mountainside little creatures came running – banshees wailing, gancanaghs lusting, every unkind spirit seething – all of them summoned by the sound of the horn.

     Megan continued invoking the Breastplate. “Christ defend me . . . Christ before me, Christ behind me. . . Christ beneath me, Christ above me . . .” 

     Michael at last was freed to come forward. He laid his hands on her head. 

     “Ri-seabhag,” he said, and Michael the man disappeared.

     The King Hawk spread his wings, launching himself up and out of the graveyard. To Megan’s astonishment, she discovered she also had wings! She sprang into the air and spread them, following his lead. 

     As they caught the wind and rose, she could see the thwarted burial squadron stamping and raging far below them. 

     Michael and Megan flew in tandem, streaking through the clouds, rolling, diving, soaring and gliding on invisible currents. 

     They flew over pastures thick with nourishing grass, hosting an embarrassment of fat glossy cattle. They soared above fluffy newborn lambs frolicking in gorse-bordered fields. They landed at last near the foot of the. ancient Rock.

     Megan stumbled as she came to her feet and Michael reappeared as a man. He steadied her with his hands. 

     “Geall dobhriste,” he said. “Ta gra imish agam dhuit.” He told her that she had indeed found her treasure: the sacred promise of God’s unconditional love. 

     Her life was changing and much she had depended on for meaning was gone. But the important commitments still endured.

     “Thank you, Michael,” she whispered, as the King Hawk sailed away. He circled three times above the Rock; he dipped his wings to Megan once more, before he turned west to the sea. She watched him go until he finally disappeared entirely. 

     Then Megan Walsh composed her heart, and turned her feet towards home.


 
*****

 

Copyright 2006 by Margaret Zacharias

Published in J. Tullius, Ed. Lies and Limericks: Writings from Ireland, Triple Tree Press, 2006

All royalties from the sale of this book were donated the Maui Writers Foundation.


*****


 

 

The Last Pass

By Margaret Zacharias 

           Footfalls thunder on the second floor above my head. Doors slam, toilets flush, pipes rattle, and the occasional dull thud makes me wince. Next to me in the kitchen, Bobby bangs his cup on his high chair tray. I inhale sweet steam and continue to stir the oatmeal. 

           People tell me there’s a special place in heaven reserved for the mothers of four boys. I hope it’s true. That means my mom Bridget Kavanaugh arrived in a slam dunk.  Just like her, though, no matter how crazy my boys might make me, I can’t imagine ever giving one of them away. They’re O’Malley’s. They know where they belong.  

           My own birth mother gave me away, and it still hurts. 

           But I got lucky. Sean and Bridget wanted me. They gave me six feisty older brothers, a brilliant Catholic school education, and all the love their generous hearts could provide. Tricks I use daily to deal with my own sons, I learned from them. 

           I shout up the stairs. “Joseph!” I pull the oatmeal off the heat and pour it into bowls to cool. “Make sure you have your chemistry text for that open book test!” 

           “No worries, Mom.” He sprints down, book in hand and looking dapper in his well-pressed uniform. 

           “Good job! Remember I’ll be at the Bishop Daley Home. No express delivery today.” I start to layer lettuce, tomatoes, meat and cheese between slices of bread. 

            David and Daniel scramble downstairs with uncombed hair, still wearing their pajamas. They slump over their oatmeal bowls, yawning.  

           “Get a move on, you two,” I say, “Don’t forget, soccer practice after school. Pack your cleats and t-shirts in your backpacks.” 

           As soon as they’ve finished breakfast, they grab two sandwiches, apples and chips from the countertop and jostle each other all the way back upstairs. 

           “Debate practice after school, too, Mom,” Joseph says.  

           I turn to the high chair but I’m too late. Bobby already holds his plastic bowl high above his head. He chortles and his breakfast flies. I scoop him out of the high chair just as the whole mess bounces from my chest to the floor.  He snuggles his cereal-covered face into the shoulder of my formerly clean shirt, and I snuggle him right back. 

           Okay, wipe down toddler, high chair and floor.  Load dishes.  Toss all the oatmeal-coated clothing into the washer. Throw on a clean shirt and a clean diaper and—

           “Mom, Mom, you have to sign these!” The twins race down the stairs  to shove a dozen different pieces of paper in front of my eyes. “They have to go back today!” 

           Why didn’t they think of this last night when I asked if there were papers from school? 

            I scribble my name on curriculum notices, homework approvals and field trip permission slips. I barely scan what I’m signing. Their matching red shirts look reasonably clean and smooth, properly tucked into their uniform slacks. Their belts sit in place. Hallelujah! 

           But we’re still running late. David and Daniel leap out the door shouting “Front!” The wild October wind threatens to snatch all those important papers from their hands. 

           “Joseph rides in front because he’s the oldest and he gets out first.”  I say it every-blessed-morning. I strap Bobby into his car seat between the twins. They fold their arms across their chests and stare out their windows from opposite sides of the backseat.  

           Halfway to Notre Dame High School I realize that I have left my purse in the kitchen. I stifle a shriek. This is not the correct adult example to set for teenage Joseph, who will soon be driving himself. 

           “Thanks, Mom,” Joseph says, under his breath, when he slides out of the car. He looks around before he saunters to the door. I know he’s hoping no one notices that his mom still has to drive him.  

            I stay five miles under the speed limit and stop at every intersection, all the way to St. Xavier. I already got a speeding ticket, the last time I shuttled a textbook for Joseph. I’m taking no chances. The terrible, I mean terrific, twins groan from the back seat. 

           “Green light, Mom. Green light!” 

           As soon as they depart from my annoying presence they close ranks, shoulder to shoulder, united buddies to reenter their middle school world.  I swing back home for my driver’s license before dropping Bobby with Mrs. Graham, our  neighborhood babysitter. I must look even more frazzled than usual. She plucks a wad of oatmeal from my hair, and gives me a hug. 

           “Some of them leave their babies with me so they can go to the spa and get a massage.” 

           “Yes, the smart ones!” I say. But I don’t mean it. I enjoy my work at the Daley Home. 

           Mrs. Graham laughs. “It’s not my place to judge. I do admire your generosity, spending your time with those poor old people.” 

           “They give me much more than I give them.” Mrs. Graham doesn’t know my secrets. 

           I hit the freeway. I’m brooding again. The need to justify my own  existence, the worry that I’m somehow just unworthy, keep assaulting me right along with the grief about losing my mom just over a year ago.  

           I always knew I was adopted. I’m petite, with dark hair and a golden complexion. The Kavanaugh boys are all pink-cheeked blond Vikings. I have brown eyes. Theirs are all blue. The first time I asked my mother why I looked so different from the rest of the family, I was only three years old. 

           “Well, sure, the angels brought you, Miss Megan,” she said. “They knew a tiny Pictish Princess would be just what I needed, to help me keep these rowdy boys in line.” 

           I believed her. I threw myself into my role as a beloved ornament, riding about the house like the queen of the fairies atop my brothers’ giant shoulders. 

          By the time I reached high school, though, I started to ask more questions. I went to Sister Margaret Mary, my favorite teacher. I asked if there was any way I could find out who my birth parents were, and why they didn’t keep me. That dedicated young Sister spent the next two years butting heads with her superiors, trying to break the seals on a closed adoption. 

          I’ll never forget the tears in her eyes when she called me into her office right before my graduation, to tell me she had learned nothing. 

          “But it’s my life,” I said. “I think I have a right to know!” 

           She just shook her head. “There are always good reasons why adoptions are sealed. In the end, we’re all God’s children. We make the choice to become the best He created us to be, or not, regardless of how we got here.” 

          “But, Sister –“ 

          “Count your blessings, Megan. Cherish the precious family the good Lord gave you. You know they love you dearly.” 

           For a while, after I started college, I prayed to Our Lady every day, asking her to help me answer my questions about my birth, and where I really came from.  Then I met a football player named Michael O’Malley. For a while, I forgot about those haunting questions, in the excitement of new love, creating our own family together while Michael built his investment business. 

           Maybe it’s just coming back to me now because Joseph has reached that same age, trying to figure out who he’s meant to be. He’s the only one of our children who shares my coloring. My gentle Irish mama is no longer here to reassure me. The brothers who once adored me have their own families now.  We still get together, but it’s just not the same without Bridget.

           I pull into the visitors’ parking lot at the Bishop Daley Residential Home. It’s time to get my mind off my pitiful self! Some of these quirky old souls have no one but me to visit them. Sadly,this parking lot is never more than half full. I comb out my curly hair. I spritz on a bit of L'Air de Temps. I’ll be sniffing the residents, and they’ll be sniffing me. 

           I catch the odor of disinfectant as soon as I open the door that leads to the sign-in desk. That’s the way this building is supposed to smell. 

           As a Resident Advocate, an independent volunteer for the State, my job is to inspect rooms and bathrooms for cleanliness; examine bodies for bruises or bed sores; and encourage the residents who still can talk to share any problems they might be experiencing. The time I spend singing, playing games, wheeling them to meals and Masses, praying with them – that’s my own choice. They’re certainly not state requirements. 

           I decide to start in Maddy’s room. I need her high spirits right away today, to settle my melancholy mood. 

           Maddy is even smaller than I am. She looks like a tiny doll, perched in her wheel chair to enjoy the morning sun streaming through her window. I peek into her bathroom as I come through the door, and find it sparkling. I take her hand, lean over to kiss her cheek, and quickly check her person. I see no bruises. Her sparse white hair has been combed, and she’s mildly fragrant with her favorite lavender cologne. 

          “How are you today, Maddalena Melone?” 

           Her brown eyes twinkle, but she sighs deeply. “That dreadful Sara Beth has stolen my

magazines again!” 

          “Has she, now? Perhaps you've just misplaced them? Let’s take a look.” I make a great show as I look back into the bathroom, “Not here. I’ll check your closet.” 

          I search high and low. “I can’t imagine how Sara Beth could have put them up here.” I standon tiptoe to peer at the top shelf. 

          “You should be looking in Sara Beth’s room,” Maddy says. She tries to sound grumpy. 

          “I will,” I say, “If we don’t find them here.” 

          I look under her bed, under her pillow and mattress, in the space between the bed and the wall. I look in the nightstand drawer. I’ve found her precious magazines in all these places, at one time or another. Hide-the-Magazines is Maddy’s favorite game. 

          Maybe she really does forget where she put them. I worry about that.  Some of the folks I visit here have forgotten their own names. But I don’t think so. I think she relies on this routine to reassure herself that we both know what we’re doing, that life goes on, as close to normal as possible for her at this stage of life.  

           I spot a bump under the blanket on her lap. Okay, this is a new one. “Perhaps you wanted to read them by the window.” 

           I lift the corner of the afghan and find only a big ball of yarn and a crochet hook. Right behind her, though, I notice that one curtain has been awkwardly pulled, to cover a portion of the deep window well. 

          “Let’s just let the rest of the sunlight in.” I push the curtain aside. 

           Here they are: St. Anthony Messenger, The Liguorian, The Magnificat, Catholic Digest,

 Catholic World Report, National Catholic Reporter and the English edition of L’Osservatore 

Romano. Maddy’s an equal-opportunity Catholic reader.  She’s trembling with laughter as I hand

 her the pile of magazines and newspapers. 

          “Naughty Maddy! You have to stop making these false accusations against poor Sara Beth. You know that’s a sin against the Eighth Commandment?” 

           She stops laughing and hangs her head. Now I feel badly that I’ve hurt her feelings. Then she peers back up at me from under her eyelashes. She doesn’t look chastised at all. She’s grinning. 

           “Mortal sin,” she says. 

           “Yes.” I’m trying to keep a straight face. 

           “Well, then,” with another deep sigh, “I guess I’ll just have to go to Confession, maybe, to that nice Fr. Frank. I like him. He listens to me. He always gives me a big penance. He says it’ll keep me busy, so I  won’t get into any more trouble.” 

          “Good,” I say. “You deserve it! Would you like me to come back and wheel you there, before Mass?” 

           Maddy nods. She holds up her rosary, her signal our game is finished and she wants to pray. I sit down in the chair next to her. We pray the Joyful Mysteries together. Then I stand up to go. 

           “I have a new Jesuit Joke,” Maddy says. Her eyes plead with me to stay. 

            I’m tempted. But I’ve already spent too much time here. I really need to move on, to the other folks who are waiting for me. It’s almost time for the Sing-Along in the Alzheimer’s unit.  

          “Why don’t you save it,” I say. “You can tell me when I come back, on our way to Confession. That way, you’ll get immediate absolution.”  

           The twinkle comes back, and she lifts her gnarly old hand to wave me good bye.

           My heart breaks as I hurry through the halls. Voices call out from almost every room I pass.

            “Come in, come in and visit me.” 

            “Please, come pray with me.

            If I stopped to chat with every lonely soul here, I’d never finish my official inspections for the residents on my list. These folks do have their own Resident Advocates assigned to them.

            I always acknowledge their invitations, though. 

            “Good morning,” I say with a smile. I wave as I pass by. I use their names if I can see them on the door. I know what it’s like to feel that you’re nobody. 

           At the corner of the hall, a dedicated power-walker collides with me. She wears a cute pinktrack suit, sports a fashionable blond bob and lipstick. Without a word of apology, she pulls away from me and strides as fast as she can toward the outside door. 

           Oh, no! I recognize her. That’s Penny McGee, up to her tricks again. She’s still accustomed to having the run of the place, but she doesn’t have it any more. Penny recently had to be moved into the Alzheimer’s Unit.

           The opposite scenario to Maddy, her body remains young and strong, but her mind is deterio-rating rapidly. If I let her get through that door to the parking lot, she’ll get lost – or run over. 

            I dash after her and catch up just in time. “Hi, Penny. It’s me, Megan. We’re just about to start the Sing-Along and I know you don’t want to miss that! Let’s go together.” 

           I grab her arm as gently as I can and haul her away from the door. She looks at me as if she’s never seen me before. Just six months ago we could enjoy a competitive game of Scrabble. She’s still alert enough to take care of her personal grooming. She’s cunning enough that she somehow manages to observe the passcode for the Locked Unit, when people like me go in and out. They’ve already had to change the numerical keypad three times. 

          I just hope the passcode I used last week still works. I slip my right arm through Penny’s elbow and hold on tight. I make a fist and pump my left hand up and down while she pumps her right. We power-walk our way back into the main hallway and turn left. 

          They’ve discovered that Penny went missing again. We meet two nurses running as we makeour way down the corridor. A young male nurse, Brian, I think, smiles at me and nods with satisfaction. 

           “There’s our Penny!” He punches in the code and holds the door open for us. 

           Penny sees everyone sitting in their circle on sofas and chairs in the residents’ lounge. She pulls away from me and takes her usual seat. 

           I’m constantly amazed that no matter what else these dear people might forget, they never lose the words or tunes for You Are My Sunshine and Take Me Out to the Ball Game. They each clutch a printed song sheet on their laps like tethers. But they never look at them. They just sing with gusto from the memories they still have left. 

           I’m belting it out myself and don’t notice when Harold Evans, who is sitting next to me, snatches my stack of index cards. I carry them to make notes about each client, things to remember from each visit, and things to look for next time. As special as each of them remains in my heart, I just can’t remember every detail from one visit to the next. 

           “You stole my cards!” Harold bellows between songs. 

           “No, Harold, those are mine.” 

           I reach over him to take them back. He’s too fast for me. His hands fly away quicker than hummingbirds. I don’t want to get too aggressive, but I’ll be lost without my cards. 

           “My cards,” Harold says again, this time with great dignity. He holds them over his head to his left, keeping them away from me. He shoots me an indulgent glance of fatherly reproach, as if I were a toddler. 

            Harold is one of the residents I visit, and he’s never pulled something like this before. I don’t know what to do. We’re starting to draw attention from the rest of the crowd. Like adolescent boys, they think nothing’s better than a good fight. 

           Mary Ann, the director of the unit, catches my eye and shakes her head slightly. Okay, she doesn’t want me to disrupt the Sing-Along. I know it’s everyone’s favorite part of the day. 

           Many of the unit’s residents are no longer able to attend Mass. They wander away, or start speaking inappropriately. The Sing-Along serves as their “community time.” Those who can and wish to, still receive Communion from Mary Ann or one of the other extraordinary ministers, before they eat their lunch. 

           When the Sing-Along is finished, Mary Ann comes over and sweet-talks Harold into giving her the cards. She promptly hands them back to me. He glares at us both. I know he’s not happy. I make a note on Harold's card to bring him his own index packet next week. 

           Fortunately the lunch carts have arrived, plates ready, and everyone moves to the little round tables. Residents in the Alzheimer’s unit eat early, so their food can arrive hot and appealing, before the main dining room fills up. It smells good; but it’s also a sign for me that Confession will begin in about forty minutes. 

            I still have three more people to check on here. I pull a chair over to the table where Bessieand Helen always sit together, asking if I can join them.   

           “Of course,” Bessie says. She flips her hand across the table at Helen.  “I don’t like her.” 

           “Well, I don’t like you,” Helen says. She turns a smile on me. “You’re very welcome to eat with me, my dear. Do I know you? How long have you been here?” 

           “Not very long,” I say. That’s my standard answer. “What are we eating today?” 

           “Pork chop,” Bessie says. “Green beans, applesauce.” She points them out on her plate. “They taste good.” 

           “I’m glad,” I say. “Do you like your food, Helen?”

           “Oh, yes. But I don’t like her,” she says, nodding at Bessie. 

           “You don’t? I thought you two were best friends.”

           “Oh, we are. But she gossips.”


           “So does she!”


           “Okay,” I say, “All of us girls love a good gossip, don’t we?”  

           We laugh together, and I rise from my chair. Helen and Bessie appear status quo, physically healthy with no signs of injury or further mental deterioration. Best friends and dedicated rivals from early childhood, the two sisters maintain their routine. It serves them well. 

            I still have to check in on Wilma. She’s my toughest customer. I take a deep breath and pray for the Holy Spirit. I go to confront the lioness in her sanctuary, the Unit staff lounge. 

           Wilma experiences screaming terror of the other residents, but only at lunchtime. Perhaps she was bullied in school as a child? Whatever the reason, when she first came to the Unit, she would ask to “Take my tea in my own home, please.” 

           She soon developed the notion that the enclosed staff lounge is her “living room.”  After managing lunch-time hysterics that disrupted everyone’s meal and upset the other residents, pragmatic Mary Anne kindly decided to just put Wilma into the staff lounge alone at this hour. 

            Mary Ann meets me at the closed door and knocks. I hear Wilma’s voice, “Who is it?” 

            “It’s Mary Ann.” She opens the door, walks in and closes it behind her. “You have a visitor today. She’s come to take tea with you.” 

            “Who is it?”

            “It’s your friend Megan.”

            “Megan? I don’t know any Megan.” 

            “Yes, you do. She’s your special friend, Wilma, and she comes to seeyou every week. Shall I bring her in?” 

            “All right. If she’s my special friend, she can come in.” 

            Mary Ann opens the door and I cross the threshold. Wilma smiles at me and gestures to the chair next to the sofa she occupies.  A fresh stargazer lily in a small vase sits with pots, cups, sandwiches and cookies on the tea tray. Its intoxicating fragrance perfumes the whole room. 

            “How are you today, Wilma?” 

            “I’m fine.” She takes a sandwich. “I’m glad I can stay in my own home. I don’t like to eat with those mean old people.” 

            “You have a lovely home.” I sweep my eyes around to take in the pictures on the walls. “Did you decorate it yourself?” 

            “Yes, of course. It’s all mine.” She neatly sips her tea. 

            “How is your tea today?” 

            “It’s good.” She stares at me. “Don’t you know it’s good? Who are you?” 

            “I’m Megan, remember? I come to see you every week, and –" 

            “You’re not my friend.” Wilma slaps her cup into its saucer. “I don’t know you! Get out of my house!” 

           I’ve had enough time to make my observations. Wilma’s fine motor control remains excellent. Recall and social skills have deteriorated. I respect the lady’s wishes and scuttle out the door as fast as I can. Though Wilma has occasionally refused to see me, and she's seldom been particularly pleasant, this is the first time she’s actually thrown me out. I make a note on my index card. 

            Mary Ann puts her hand on my arm. She looks unspeakably sad. 

           “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’ll talk to her doctor. I know she’s getting worse. I do everything I can for her, but . . .” 

            “I know you do! I can’t believe you’ve given over the staff lounge at lunchtime just to help her feel safer!” 

            “But it’s not enough.” 

            “I feel like a complete failure today myself. I’ve always been able to reach her before. I just thought maybe the best thing to do was to honor her wishes?” 

            “Exactly right. At least she did let you in. Let’s try again next week.” 

            I look around to make sure Penny’s not lurking, before I punch the security code to depart. I hustle down the hallway, because Reconciliation begins in ten minutes. At least I know I can count on Maddy to be ready when I arrive at her room. 

            She’s wearing a lovely chapel veil that she crocheted herself, and she looks perkier than when I last saw her. She’s excited to tell me her joke.  “I know you have all those brothers and all those boys, so you’ll love this one.” 

           A man has three sons who entered three different religious orders: the oldest became a Dominican, the second a Franciscan, and the youngest a Jesuit. On his deathbed, the father tells his sons, ‘I know you all have vows of poverty, but as a sign of your love for me, I want each of you to place one thousand dollars into my casket to be buried with me.’  On the day of the funeral, the Dominican son steps up, places $1000 in the casket, and says, ‘This seems like a waste of money, since you can’t take it with you, Dad. But with the special permission of my superiors, I'm doing as you requested, as a sign of my love.’ Next, the Franciscan son approaches the casket and says, ‘You know I love you, Dad, but the needs of the poor are so great, I just can't let $1000 be buried with you. I hope you understand, now that you are in heaven. Please forgive me.’ Finally, the Jesuit son comes forward and says to his brother, ‘Don’t worry, Frank. I'll pay your share.’  Then he reaches into the casket, takes the cash left by his eldest brother, and puts in a check for $3000.” (http://catholic-resources.org/JesuitJokes.htm, compiled by Felix Just, S.J.) 

           Both Maddy and I are laughing like loons. The staff and residents stare at us as we wheel back down the hall. We certainly don’t look like people on their way to Mass, never mind Confession. But we’re enjoying ourselves. 

           I wait for Maddy outside the Reconciliation room while she visits with Fr. Frank. I watch other volunteers bringing residents into the Chapel. Unlike most churches, this chapel contains only two banks of three-deep pews with kneelers, one bank on either side. The vast wide-open space in the middle, facing the altar, remains empty, waiting to be filled with wheelchairs. It overflows into the hallway for every daily Mass. 

           I wonder if I should go stand in a spot, to save it for Maddy. She “really, really” likes to be up front. I don’t want her to be disappointed. But then I hear her knock on the Reconciliation room door. I wheel her out, and there’s still plenty of room to place her right where she wants to go.

           I move over to the rear pew on the right side of the altar, and kneel. I thank God for my own blessings, including the fact that I can still kneel. I pray for my husband, my sons, my parents, and my brothers. I pray for the souls of my mother, my grandmother, and the whole bloodline of a family I come from, but never knew. I pray for these people at the Bishop Daley Residential Home to receive consolation in their suffering, and peaceful release when their times come.  

          My prayer always feels more meaningful here than it does in any other church. I think that’s because I’m in the midst of such overwhelming pain. It’s offered up actively, intentionally, every day by people who have so much pain to offer. These residents have become master-craftsmen in the art of intercession. During the Mass, I can feel the waves of energy,  rolling from the wheelchair section towards the altar, surging to a crescendo at the moment of consecration. 

           When the Mass has ended, I leave Maddy in the dining room with a hug. She promises me an even better joke next week. I tell her with a wink that I’m counting on it. 

           As usual, I find Yvonne in bed and napping. I quietly inspect her room. Her bathroom smells a bit funky. I examine her face and neck on the pillow, gently lift the covers to look at arms and hands. No body odor or dirty hair smell. 

            I stop at the nurses’ station to mention the bathroom, and inquire about any changes in Yvonne’s health or behavior. Yes, Yvonne’s doctor made a note to watch her hydration levels. They’ll check her again. One of them picks up the phone to call Housekeeping about her bathroom. 

            Sister Jane is sleeping, too, slumped in her wheelchair under a blanket, in front of the TV in the private Sisters’ wing. How can she sleep through all that noise and flashing light?  

           Two other elderly nuns who also live in this wing perch on the lounge sofa. They’re dressed in their usual pastel shirts with matching slacks, aqua and lilac today. They share a bowl of popcorn, set on the coffee table in the spot just between them. The salt-and-butter aroma reminds that me I didn’t eat lunch.  They have their eyes glued to a Travel Channel program about Italy. I hate to interrupt them, but I have to ask. 

           “How is Sister Jane? Has she encountered any problems?” 

           “Oh, hello, Megan dear.” Sister Frances turns to me. “No, none that I’m aware. She’s ninety-two, you know. Sleeping the afternoon away comes naturally. We’re keeping an eye on her.” She smiles. 

            “And you, Sister Frances? Sister Clare?”

            “No complaints whatsoever,” Sister Clare says firmly. “God is good!” 

            My last visit takes me to see Patricia McBride, another octogenarian, and one of the founders of the Bishop Daley Residential Home. A larger than usual woman who occupies a larger than ordinary room, she served for many years as President of the health care complex that sponsors this facility. She recognized her responsibility to plan a future for everyone, not just for herself. The Bishop Daley Residential Home only exists due to her foresight.  

            But she’s not in the mood to play grande dame today. She’s sitting in her bed, propped up on pillows, still wearing cotton pajamas and sketching something in her notebook. 

            “Come in,” she says, and indicates the chair beside her bed. 

            I lean in to look at what she’s drawn. It’s a farm scene: a two-story house, a barn, a white picket fence enclosing four horses in different poses, and rolling fields stretching toward an infinite sky. I’m astonished that she can create so much perspective on a flat piece of paper with a simple lead pencil. 

            “That’magnificent!” I say. “How on earth do you do that?”

            “It’s home,” she says, shrugging. “The indelible childhood memory. I’m missing it today.” 

            “So you decided to draw it?”

            “Can you imagine me as a foolish sixteen-year-old girl who couldn’t wait to get away?” 

            I shake my head. 

            “Well, I was. When the Sisters of Mercy offered me the opportunity to train as a nurse, I jumped for it. The blood and the bedpans didn't scare me! I was accustomed to shoveling out stables, herding cows, birthing sheep, mind you. To care for actual human beings in a big city hospital? It sounded like a major promotion. I couldn’t wait to be catapulted into my new life of glamor and excitement.” She rolls her eyes. 

            “Did it live up to your expectations?” 

            “In some ways. My years as a labor and delivery nurse . . . Nothing can match the excite-ment of helping a new child enter the world. But also, no tragedy is more overwhelming than a poor outcome. It certainly satisfied my adolescent craving for drama.” She twirls her pencil and stares out a large picture window into late-blooming gardens. 

            “And you created this wonderful Residential Home,” I say, patting her arm. 

            She tosses back her covers and scoots to the side of her bed, swinging her legs over the edge. Her bare feet twitch with restlessness.  

            “But it’s so confining. Living in this sluggish old body, this one room, with all those skyscrapers hulking their shadows over my rose bushes.” 

            Bright red toenails flash as she curls and uncurls her toes. They tell me that at least she’s treated herself to a pedicure in the beauty salon on the first floor. Pat reaches into her bedside table drawer and pulls out a rosary. I take the cue. 

            “Thursday, Luminous Mysteries. But let’s pray the Glorious instead today to cheer you up?” 

            “You know me far too well, Megan O’Malley! Glorious it is, and we’ll crown Mary today. October has been here for almost a week. I waited for you.” 

             Pat’s accommodations include a small stone sculpture on a shelf in the corner. It’s another example of her remarkable artistic talents. The matching piece, a tiny golden crown, lives wrapped up in her nightstand drawer – except during October and May. 

             After we pray, Pat carefully unwraps the crown and slowly shuffles her ungainly body across the room. She places the crown gently on Mary’s brow. I help her back onto her bed. 

            When I leave, she’s phoning the florist to “Send up a rose, please. Red.” 

            Since I’m back in possession of my driver’s license, I push the speed limit just a little, after I pull out of the parking lot. I arrive right on time to pick up David and Daniel from the soccer field, and Joseph from debate. 

            Mrs. Graham says, “Bobby's been a perfect angel,” when she hands him over. 

            “That will be the day! Thank you so much.” 

            By the following Wednesday evening, we know that Joseph has placed second in the debate semi-finals. He can still advance to the finals. But he’s missed first place in this round. His golden complexion turns sallow and his mouth threatens to freeze in a scowl. He refuses to be consoled. He's  convinced that second is the mark of doom. 

            The twins, however, manage to surface their critical documents on the same day they bring them home. They reveal the mystery color for tomorrow – green. They bring down their own shirts to the laundry room and start the washer by themselves. Bobby achieves one actual use of his portable potty. High fives all around!

            As I set the table, I wonder about Maddy’s next joke. What will it be tomorrow? 

            I’m back at the stove, stirring my rich picante sauce for spaghetti, when the phone rings. I answer and learn that for once I’m the person wanted by the caller. I’m surprised to hear Fr. Frank. I don’t know him well, but his usually resonant basso profundo voice sounds a bit subdued. 

           “Is something wrong, Father?” 

           “I’m sorry to be the bearer of sad news,” he says. “But I’m sure you’ll want to know before you come in tomorrow. Maddalena Melone passed away in her sleep, late this afternoon.” 

           “No!” It’s out before I can stop myself. I drop the spoon onto the stove. I have to sit down.  “Not Maddy!” 

           I’m embarrassed to hear the whine in my voice. I take a deep breath. “Do you need me to come in tonight?” 

            “Not at all,” Father Frank says. “Everyone in her family predeceased her, as you know. But she left clear instructions. Visitation tomorrow evening, I could use your help with the residents then. And we’ll celebrate the Mass of Resurrection at our usual time on Friday. Is that possible for you?” 

            “Of course. I’ll make arrangements for the children.” 

            “Ron Clancy was the one who found her,” Father Frank says. “I think she would like that. He was her favorite, wasn’t he?” 

            I choke back a laugh that’s more of a sob. 

            The three Clancy brothers are the Daley Home’s answer to Jane Austen. Tall, handsome, and strong well into their seventies, Don, Ron and Jon have mastered the art of dancing with wheelchairs. They do spins, patterns and wheelies that leave a girl’s head as dizzy as a glass of champagne. When one of the Clancy brothers wheels you in to the dining room – for breakfast, lunch or dinner – you feel like a debutante at a ball. 

            I know, because I made Ron take me! 

            The Clancy’s volunteer at the Daley Home every day. The competition for their attention is fierce. They organize themselves so that at least one of them is always available, even on weekends. They don’t want anyone to feel left out. 

           Someone complained once about this foolish Clancy business, said it was too dangerous altogether. In came the state inspectors with their legal requirements, the hospital inspectors with their patient safety checklists, and the medical inspectors with their age-appropriate guidelines. 

           But the ladies refused to give up their dancing companions or their wild rides. In the end, the Daley Home legal department insisted that every resident would have to sign a release. They all signed. 

           Yes, Maddy is surely delighted that Ron kept his date with her, even after she was gone. 

            “I’m sorry for your loss,” Father Frank and I say at the same time. 

            I wait through a pause. Then Father Frank says, “Megan, I do need to speak with you privately. Will you please come see me in my office tomorrow before Mass?” 

            “I’ll be there, Father.”  I phone Mrs. Graham to make arrangements for Bobby. I call the Notre Dame and St. Xavier car pools. I manage to feed the boys their dinner and put them to bed. 

            Michael holds me while I cry, all night long. I can’t believe Maddy has left me! What will I do without her? How will I survive without Find-the-Magazines, without her Jesuit Jokes? 

            Thursday morning, Bobby hits the potty target again, though his aim still needs work. Gloomy Joseph has finally turned back into his usual mellow self. Daniel and David eat breakfast, pack and dress on time. Even though I’m trying to protect them all from my mournful mood, they seem to know their mom feels sad. They’re doing what they can to help. 

            When I get to the Unit, Harold appears delighted to receive his own pack of index cards. He carefully pulls off the cellophane wrapper and walks around the locked ward lounge handing a card to anyone who will take one. He’s grinning like a small boy giving out birthday party favors. 

            Wilma allows me to enter her sanctuary and actually offers me my own cup of tea. She pours, and hands it to me on its saucer, without spilling a drop. 

            Helen and Bessie are even getting along today, co-conspirators because they have an especially juicy story to share. The tale emerges a bit garbled, but I say, “Really?” “I don’t believe it!” and “What next?” They’re satisfied, beaming at each other and holding hands as I depart. 

            Then it’s time to go see Fr. Frank. As I approach his office, I start trembling. He’s a kind priest, and Maddy certainly adored him, but he sounded so serious when he asked me for this appointment. I wonder what he didn’t want to ask me or tell me last night. I’ve already agreed to help with the wake and the funeral Mass. 

            He’s on the phone when I arrive at the door, so I hover outside until I hear that he’s finished.    

            “Thank you, Megan. I know your first commitment is to the residents, and that you spend considerably more time with them than is required.” He gestures me into a chair and takes his own. “I also know you're a busy mother. But this is a matter best discussed in person.” 

            Now I’m really worried! Have I taken my friendliness too far? I fold my hands and they clench in my lap. 

            “I have a particular duty to fulfill, at the request of Maddalena Melone. You’re aware she was not a wealthy woman?” 

            “Yes, Father. If she left any bills unpaid, I’m sure my husband and I could help; some, anyway.” 

            “Thank you, but no, not at all. Her funds had indeed been depleted, just recently. At that point she became one of a few select residents, Pat McBride’s, um, ‘scholarship students.’ Now I’ve shared with you a well-kept secret.” 

            “I didn’t know about that,” I say. “But I’m hardly surprised.” 

            “I mention it only so you will understand and appreciate the legacy which Maddalena did leave with me, in Reconciliation last week. She asked me to pass it along to you when the time came. Sadly, it has, far sooner than I suspected.” 

           Father Frank pulls from his desk drawer a large padded legal envelope. He holds it out to me. 

           I start to reach for it, but pull my hand back. “Do you know what’s inside?” 

            “In general terms, yes. I’m not certain Maddalena told me everything, and I can’t share what she did say. Would you like to open it here, or wait until you go home?”  He offers me the envelope again. 

            Tears spring to my eyes. I finally take it. The envelope feels heavy. What would Maddy give me? Her stack of magazines? Her crocheted chapel veils? Her lavender cologne? 

            “Here, I think, Father, if you have the time? With four active boys . . .”

            “I understand.” He hands me a letter opener. 

            I slit the envelope and reach inside. I pull from the top a letter addressed, in Maddy’s tremulous handwriting, to Megan Angelina O’Malley Melone. 

            “But I’m not Angelina!” I say, showing him the words. “Angela Melone was Maddy’s daughter. She was killed in the 1995 bombing at the Oklahoma City Federal Building.” 

            Father Frank nods. “But you are Megan O’Malley. And Maddalena Melone gave me specific instructions, in person and under sacramental seal, to deliver this envelope to you.” 

           My hands no longer clench. They shake. I slit the letter and begin to read. 

          

            Dearest Megan, 

                I call you by the name you know, but in my heart your name is Angelina.  I hope I’ll live long enough to discuss this with you in person, but none of us know the day or the hour. So I’m leaving my letter with Father Frank because I trust him to deliver it in case I can’t.

          We’ve talked about my daughter’s death. I’ve told you how difficult that was for me. We’ve never really discussed her life. 

           In May of 1972, my beautiful daughter became engaged to marry a young man she knew well. Angela and Patrick McCarthy grew up together in St. Anthony parish. Neither one of them ever had eyes for anyone else, after the second grade. 

           Patrick had drawn number seven in the draft lottery, but they were both quite stubborn. They were determined to continue with their plans and to marry as soon as he finished his military service. 

           The last time Angela saw Patrick was at the end of July in 1973. He had been granted compassionate leave from duty in Viet Nam, to attend his father’s funeral. Martin McCarthy died of a heart attack at the age of 55. The uniformed officers from the Department of the Army arrived on our doorstep at the beginning of September, 1973, before I even realized that my daughter was expecting. 

           Margaret McCarthy was also my close friend. To lose her son in that terrible war, so soon after losing her husband — and both of them so young. It nearly killed her. By Thanksgiving,however, Margaret had started to marshal her strength and her faith. I turned to her, then, in my own need.  

            Angela had not even begun to recover from her loss of Patrick. She was nearly catatonic with grief. Only her commitment to finish her law degree could get her out of bed in the morning. She refused to even discuss her condition. 

            As the months went by, Margaret and I implored her to let us keep our grandchild.

            Angela told us she wanted Patrick’s baby to have two parents and a normal family. Her heart was shattered by his death. She didn’t feel capable of providing proper care for his child. She wanted to do the most loving thing she could. Angela was a legal adult. She chose to make arrangements through Catholic Charities for an adoption. 

           On April 28, 1974, the same day you were born, Angela gave birth to a daughter. (Now you know why I pestered so much to learn your birthday). Neither of us was allowed to hold the baby.

           Because the adoption papers were sealed, I could never retrieve them.

           Believe me, I tried. For years after Angela died, I begged Our Blessed Mother to help me find Angela’s daughter, my granddaughter. But I never did. 

           Then one day in a residential facility for the elderly, where I certainly never expected to find myself, a sunny young mother named Megan O’Malley walked in. You've made my life these last three years far happier than I ever expected them to be. No child of my blood could have done more. 

           I can’t prove legally that you are my granddaughter, Megan. I don’t really have much left to leave you, anyway. But you look at that picture!  

          Thank you for everything, from the bottom of my heart.

          Love, Maddy 

          P. S. I also left you the Jesuit Joke Book, so you can keep the rest of the old folks laughing while they wait. Don’t forget, now! It’s a family tradition.” 


            Father Frank passes me the jumbo box of Kleenex that every good priest keeps handy. “Do you want to look at the picture?” 

            “Not yet. It’s too much.  She left me the Jesuit Jokes.” I pull a tattered pamphlet out of the envelope to show him. 

           He laughs, and then sneaks a peek at his watch. I know it’s time for him to get ready for Mass. I need to pull myself together. He gives me a solid hug before I leave and says, “Come back to talk anytime. I’d like to see that picture, when you’re ready to share it.” 

           I manage a nod and run for the Ladies Room. 

            Late on Friday night, after Maddy’s funeral, I sit before my dressing table mirror with her envelope in front of me. Michael is getting ready for bed. I wait until he comes over to stand behind me and puts his hands on my shoulders. 

            I slowly pull a framed black-and-white portrait out of Maddy’s envelope.  

            Michael gasps. 

            A mother about my own age sits holding a small girl on her lap. They wear matching plain dark dresses with crocheted white collars, and small gold cross necklaces. The mother’s skirt falls to the floor. The child wears white socks with crochet lace cuffs and black patent leather Maryjane shoes. Her ankles are crossed just above her mother’s knees. She snuggles into her mother’s arms. 

            Little Angela looks exactly like that enchanted ‘Pictish’ Princess I once used to be. 

            But she’s Italian! 

            I hold up the portrait and look into the mirror. There, they reflect together: my eyes, my face, my hair; their eyes, their faces, their hair. Angela. And Maddy. 

            Michael comes around to take my hands. He pulls me to my feet. He takes his football stance, and mimes a desperation pass. We watch together for a few seconds. 

            His arms fly –- straight and high –- Touchdown! 

            We stamp on the floor and whoop like college students, until we look at each other and realize we do not want to wake the boys. Then Michael sweeps me up in his quarterback arms, and carries me off to bed.


 
 
 

Copyright by Margaret King Zacharias, 2020. Published for the first time on www.animaviva.com. 

This story is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.