About Face

“Wait, what’s that you’re making for supper, father?” Ellen asked upon bursting into the kitchen from the mudroom, sniffing at the air like some feral creature, forgoing any prefatory niceties. Like, Hello.

“Halibut au poivre,” I answered, because I figured the French might throw her off a bit, and because that’s what I was making. It had been one of her mother’s favorite dishes, but I wasn’t about to go there.

“I thought we agreed, father.” I imagine she put her hands on her hips here, but I didn’t want to look up from the cutting board to see.

“Oh? And what’s that we agreed upon?”

The short, cold days at our northern latitude well into spring tended to make everyone in town a bit cranky. Including Ellen. Including me, maybe. It wasn’t quite six o’clock in the evening, but already dark outside. The ancient incandescent fixtures I ought to have replaced years ago sprayed a dull, uriny light about that made our small kitchen seem smaller, made the challenge of Ellen seem closer. She was never good about gauging physical distance, and volume, and tone. I could smell her dirt-smells and green-smells from Gil’s nursery, where she now worked, above the saline odors of the halibut fillets I was trimming.

“That we’d try not to eat anything with a face.”

Yes, these were the strange dietary terms that I might have agreed upon in a fit of weakness or (more likely) inattention.

“Have you ever seen a halibut?” I asked. Here I set down the knife and looked up to see that aggrieved look painted across Ellen’s face, which took my breath away. It was the expression she wore practically from the time she charged out of her mother’s womb—the whole world from the get-go presenting thorny challenges against which she would struggle.

 

***

 

I hated the look on father’s face when he said that whole thing about whether I’d ever seen a halibut, that sort of smug-ass look he must have worn for his students back when he taught at the college. “Sure I’ve seen a halibut,” I said, because I’d seen at least one down at the dock when I was a kid, like an overgrown flounder.

“Can hardly call that a face,” he said. Fucking father. He was actually going to argue about this. He left the cutting board to walk toward the fridge, maybe just so he could turn his back to me. He rooted around in there for ingredients—the parsley, green peppercorns, butter, lemon and whatever—which pissed me off, that my crying foul didn’t even interrupt the flow of his supper prep.

“Well does it have a mouth?” I persisted. He admitted that it did, sighing as he set down the items from the fridge on the tile island next to the cutting board. The top part of the plastic baggie holding the parsley sort of floated in the air, all willowy, as if it was sitting amongst the seaweeds on the ocean floor. Father’s mindless reliance on all this single-use plastic was another thing that bugged me, but I’d let that slide tonight.

“And eyes?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“And nostrils?”

“Yes,” he further admitted.

“Well, father, you see? Mouth. Eyes. Nose. Face.”

 

***

 

Ellen hadn’t been this persnickety about what we ate when she first moved back home. She’d returned to Maine after having been diagnosed with MS. She seemed relieved, even surprised, that she still had a home to come back to, that I hadn’t sold it, or rented out her room, or remarried a much younger woman with replacement children. I told her she could stay here as long as she liked. Of course she could. I’d help take care of her. I almost begged Ellen to stay. Even though our relationship might best have been described as estranged, these promises came easily to me. She’d been handed a horrible deal, and I was never without strong fatherly feeling toward my only child. It was just the application that I usually bungled.

We’d been getting along pretty darn well, better than we ever got along when she was growing up here, particularly after her mother died.

 

***

 

I think I caught him at a good time, life-wise. He’d retired early from the college that he was always bitching about when I was a kid and wasn’t so stressed over his work. All he had to do, it seemed, was cook his meals, hike across the spruce woods and swim for his exercise, screw around in the garden out back when it was warm enough, read when he felt like it, and keep the house too neat. He had time on his hands, I suppose I’m saying, time to oversee my treatments, my insurance, my taxes, and my meals. He insisted on doing my laundry, too, even if this was mostly to keep me from breaking his new front-load washer, flooding the basement or something. Father always had a way of not quite hiding well enough what a fuck-up he thought I was. And I guess, to be fair, I was the type of kid who broke things.

 

***

 

But then she started seeing this skinny Jon fellow, who ran an animal sanctuary up near East Machias. He “led a vegan lifestyle,” as he put it the first time Ellen brought him around, which I took to mean he followed manifold rules more all-encompassing and obtrusive than just eating or not eating this or that. Although Jon seemed like a nice enough young man, was this really the time to get all wrapped up in a boyfriend who complicated matters by pushing a whole new “lifestyle” on her? What’s more, my daughter seemed determined to foist this new lifestyle on me, touting the virtues of obscure grains (amaranth?) and berries (açai?), plus more beans and nuts than my digestive system appreciated. Still. . . .

“Okay, Ellen,” I said. “You win. We can order something from Carmine’s.” Carmine’s was the pizza place in town that featured vegetarian and even vegan options, though Ellen still seemed to appreciate real cheese once in a while, thank god.

“No, it’s okay, father.” She put her hand on top of my hand that was about to lift the cutting board holding the fillets. Her hand was still cold and dry from the outdoors and its contact sort of froze me in my place. I couldn’t remember the last time we touched. “I guess we can eat these fillets tonight, as long as you’ve already bought them. Poor creature can’t die twice.” This surprised me. The old Ellen wasn’t one to bend so quickly, or at all, to my will. Which might be another reason we’d been getting along so well.

 

***

 

Over the next week, father prepared oatmeal for breakfast, using the steel-cut oats I preferred but that I knew he didn’t like as much as the plain old-fashioned type. He put out honey, different freeze-dried berries and nuts each day too. He boiled water in the kettle for my tea, because I don’t drink coffee.

For supper, he made fried rice with peas, carrots, and extra-firm tofu.

And chimichurri cauliflower steaks he grilled on the deck, even though it was still freezing outside at night.

And Kung Pao brussels sprouts, which made father sick.

 

***

 

I was trying.

 

***

He was trying, which was sweet.

 

***

 

Then I accompanied Ellen to have supper at Jon’s house way past Cherryfield so I could finally see Chinchilla Cove Animal Sanctuary, which struck me as a ridiculous name (whether or not Jon rescued any chinchillas). Just after we got into the car for the ride up, she asked me again if I was sure I didn’t want to bring Claire, who I’d started seeing just before Ellen moved back home. I told her yes, that I was sure. Ellen fired up the ignition and nodded in a sort of tight-lipped way that betrayed the mild insult I hadn’t intended to deliver. We didn’t speak much on the drive. I studied the windblown spruce out my window and the few businesses along the highway, mostly shuttered, either permanently or until the summer people started coming up in a month or so. The gray sky dimmed on the commute, whether from the approaching nightfall or the increasing density of the single cloud flung over the horizon, or on account of both these factors, I wasn’t sure.

There was still just enough light remaining by the time we arrived to appreciate the property before supper was served. The cold air was drenched with a fine particulate mist that wasn’t quite rain, but that coated our hair and skin. I licked the cold wet off my stubbly lips as we walked. The grounds were rather impressive, I confessed, even though I probably shouldn’t have seen this as a confession, per se. I wondered where Jon scraped together the funds to keep up an operation like this, but knew enough not to ask. While he finished cooking whatever it was he was cooking inside the house, Ellen showed me the barn outfitted with dedicated stables, the lakeside where various indeterminate waterfowl frolicked, the mouse house where, yes, a few chinchillas scrambled across what looked like cat-towers, and the paddocks where goats and sheep suffering from observable and unobservable maladies muddied themselves, bleated, and bucked at one another. She walked me around the property with an air of vague proprietorship.

Ellen had come such a long way since returning to town last year. With the help of Dr. Ramasamay, we’d figured out her meds and she was feeling pretty well, well enough to drive and to work almost thirty hours a week at Gil’s nursery. She attended her support group up at East Machias without complaint and even found a boyfriend, which I wanted to believe was a good thing. She’d worked her way into the human mix, which was all a parent could reasonably hope for their child, other than good health. If only there wasn’t the MS to contend with, I found myself thinking as Ellen nattered on about the llamas, or maybe it was alpacas, that Jon hoped to adopt next.

 

***

 

It was sort of tough to read father when I took him on his walkabout at Jon’s sanctuary. He took note of some nice things (the new lumber and hardware in the stalls, the pretty pond, the fine forested land at the periphery shielding Jon from his closest neighbors) but he held himself at a weird, stick-up-the-ass remove. It’s why he didn’t invite Claire, I was pretty sure. Inviting her would have validated Jon, and his sanctuary, and Jon and me, in a way he wasn’t yet willing to do. I had to prod him into entering the sheep paddock to say hi to Sunny. She was my favorite gal of the bunch. When I first met Jon, she was just getting over foot-rot and was quarantined in one of the stalls in the barn so she wouldn’t infect the entire flock. I liked to hold her in her calf-high bath of zinc-sulfate when I visited, her garlicky vegetable breath tickling my neck, the wind she breathed in and out her lungs thrumming against my arms and hands wrapped around her soft, unsheared coat.

“She has a pretty face,” father said, patting her head. Then his shoulders sort of bucked upon his silent laugh. “Face,” he repeated. “Guess Sunny’s off the menu!”

 

***

 

Jon’s vegan mac and “cheese” tasted like chalk, though I wasn’t so boorish as to say this over the table. When he finally took off his girly denim apron to join us, I noticed that he was wearing a green T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan, KALE, which might have been a deliberate, passive-aggressive choice, but probably wasn’t. I mostly shuffled the coagulated noodles around on my plate and concentrated on the salad, instead, tasty with some sort of dried fruit in there I wondered about. We were getting along fine before Jon started in full-bore on his vegan lifestyle. Maybe it was my fault for complimenting him (falsely) on the deliciousness of the supper he had prepared. Because that was all he needed, apparently, to launch in on the precious resources squandered on cattle for their meat and milk, their noxious methane emissions, the barbarousness of feedlots and slaughterhouses, and the murdering of day-old male calves and chicks by the dairy industry. The terms carbon footprint and deforestation and Brazil might have come up, but I’d started to lose the thread. I was willing to just nod and make affirmative listening noises, but then he said, “Who knows if Ellen would have contracted MS had she eaten clean food her whole life.”

 

***

 

I knew Jon had gone too far when he said what he said about vegan diets preventing heart disease, cancers, and maybe even MS. Father took it as a personal insult—of course he did—even though I knew Jon didn’t mean it this way. Setting his fork down on his paper napkin, father rattled off a bunch of counterarguments to Jon’s points, went on and on about the trace minerals and micronutrients most vegans were missing out on, the Vitamin-B12 and iron deficiencies that plagued less vigilant vegans. He challenged the legitimacy of terms like “clean” and “unclean” to describe food. He even expressed concern over the amount of water necessary to cultivate all those almond trees in California for almond milk, as if he gave a shit about the drought in California.

“Watch out, Jon,” I said, “father’s mansplaining again.” I mostly said this to be funny and distract them from what was fast becoming an argument, and to keep Jon from pointing out that he drank oat milk, not almond milk—for precisely the reasons father mentioned—but I could tell by the muscles bulging in father’s jaw that I’d touched another nerve.

 

***

 

Mansplaining! Apparently, this was a thing. I liked it better when Ellen just called me an asshole. Young people—I’d started to learn during my last several years teaching at the college—now subdivided all manner of misbehavior into discrete categories they launched like missiles upon the slightest insult, or perceived insult, which leant their complaints added credibility. The young, suddenly, were impassioned curators of grievance. A smart student with facial piercings in unlikely locales had accused me of “sea-lioning” my final semester at Emmenthaler.

In any case, it occurred to me as I stabbed at my salad with my fork that I ought to have brought Claire along tonight for her tonic influence. She would have kicked my leg under the table a long time ago to quash my “mansplaining” or “sea-lioning,” or whatever it was that I was doing.

 

***

 

“I’m sorry, Dr. Hertzog,” Jon said while father chewed. “I shouldn’t have said that whole thing about the MS.” Which was sweet of Jon to say. He was a good guy, Jon, the first really good guy I’d ever dated.

“That’s okay, Jon,” father said. “I shouldn’t have let myself get so exercised.” He took a sip of his iced tea. It was really quiet all of a sudden. I could hear the ice tinkling around in father’s glass. I could hear more faintly one of the rats in its cage in the family room, quarantined on account of its respiratory infection, rooting around in its bedding. It couldn’t be easy for father to see me struggling with my health. He was doing the best he could. I think Jon appreciated all this, despite all the negative stuff I’d told him about father. Sitting there, I sort of wished I hadn’t vented so much about how impossible it was growing up in father’s house, even before mom died.

“Would you like more salad, father?” I asked, partly to burst the quiet and partly because I could tell that he preferred the salad to the pasta. Jon made great salads. He added all sorts of stuff to increase their nutritive density, ingredients like chickpeas, sunflower and pomegranate seeds, groats, beets, dried currants, and cashews, stuff I never thought of adding to salad.

“Yes, Ellen. I’d love more salad.”

 

 

***

 

For breakfast the next week, consulting Ellen’s turmeric-stained cookbook, I prepared sweet potato pancakes topped with vegan yogurt and toasted pecans.

And avocado-tofu toast.

And peanut butter and jelly chia pudding.

And cremini mushrooms, bell peppers, sweet potato and zucchini sautéed in my cast iron skillet.

And sweet potato and black-bean burritos.

Sweet potatoes seemed to be a go-to ingredient among those who adhered to a “vegan lifestyle.”

I’d lost eight pounds and felt better than ever, was the truth of the matter, and, sure, I liked the idea of not participating in the misery of those poor chickens. I’d finally broken down and watched one of the documentaries on YouTube that Ellen had mentioned. It was a scandal how Big Poultry treated their birds, and they scarcely treated their black and brown human employees any better. I didn’t come right out and mention any of this to Ellen, who would tell Jon.

 

***

 

For supper, father made butternut squash linguini with garlic and fried sage.

And spaghetti alla puttanesca, which he used to make when I was a kid, only back then he added anchovies, which he’d mash into a paste between two forks. But, you know, face.

And he made soba noodles with sugar snap peas, carrots, and wakame seaweed, harvested locally by our next-door neighbor, Stacey. She and her husband are marine biologists at the college. She dries the long dark sheets on a clothesline in her backyard, other side of the hobblebush hedge we share.

He made wakame seaweed stir-fry with tofu, mung beans, and shitake mushrooms, because Stacey gave us so much of the seaweed that she dried.

And sweet potato, kale, and chickpea soup.

I’d have to talk to father about easing up on the sweet potato recipes.

But I had to call him out when I came home from the nursery to see him scraping with a spatula white rings of calamari from the cast iron pan into the tomato sauce bubbling on the gas stove.

“Face!” I cried.

 

***

 

It made my throat thick, the terse way she said it. Face!  Ellen used to utter the word just like that as a taunt every so often when she was a child, usually when she beat me in a swimming race at the Y, or at the campus pool, or up at the Bowl, our glacial lake nestled between spruce cliffs a short hike from town, where her mother drowned in our midst after suffering a heart attack. Ellen was always a good swimmer, even if it took some prodding to get her to swim, or to do anything athletic. I’d forgotten all about that taunt of hers. Face! I wondered whether kids still deployed the word in this way. I wondered if Ellen was thinking about her mother now, as I was. I had to blink my eyes and jostle my head over the gas stove to bring myself back to the present.

“For crying out loud, Ellen,” I said, stirring the white rings into the sauce. “Squid eat, pee, and poop out of the same hole, right? And all their reproductive business is up there too. What kind of face is that?”

The only reason I knew any of this is that I’d asked Stacey a series of squid-related questions that morning over the hobblebush hedge while she walked her cat on its silly leash. I didn’t tell her why I was so interested all of a sudden in squid—or cephalopods, as Stacey called them—but I’d found myself craving calamari lately and couldn’t get all worked up over the suffering of squid.

“Not much of a face, maybe,” Ellen said. “But they had a mother, all those poor squids you’re stirring into the sauce.”

So yes, Ellen was thinking about her mother, which had nothing to do with the dietary terms we had agreed upon. I told her so, but without conviction, maybe because of the way Ellen said mother.

“We shouldn’t eat anything with a face or a mother, I think.”

Now what was I supposed to say to that? It had been fifteen years since Rebecca’s accident. Ellen had decamped as soon as she graduated high school, pretty much. Now she was back, which weirdly magnified her mother’s absence—for me and for Ellen too, I could tell.

 

***

 

Then we started to fight a lot about other stuff, stuff we hadn’t fought about all the months I’d been living here again, but stuff we used to fight about when I lived here before. Like me leaving the lights on in my room, or leaving a dirty dish in the sink for more than five minutes before cleaning it, or not wearing a bra when Claire was about to come over (like what the fuck?), or leaving a smear of toothpaste against the sink basin in the hallway bathroom he didn’t even use, or leaving my work boots as a “tripping hazard” middle of the mudroom rather than filing them under the bench seat “where they belonged.” Most of father’s bitching I let roll off my shoulders. But then he got on my case about something new when I joined him for breakfast before heading to the nursery.

“You’re hobbling this morning,” he said, pouring my tea. Now, he could have said this in a nice way. But the way he said it, like it was my own fault, pissed me off.

“Gee, thanks father, I hardly noticed.” I reached for the oat-milk (which father had started to buy) to give my hand something to do. I tried to keep it from trembling as I poured the milk over the bowl of granola father had already set out for me. I could tell he was watching me, judging me.

“That’s what happens when you don’t take your meds,” he said, retreating to the stove. I could hear the kettle clanking back down on the burner.

“No, father, that’s what happens when you have a shitty disease. You’re so fucking ableist.”

 

***

 

Here was another one of those new terms (at least new to me) that I had to think about for a few seconds. Ableist. When I finally figured out what I was being accused of, it was too late to protest. We fumed there in silence for several moments. Ellen shoveled her granola down her mouth with one hand and aimed her smartphone screen toward her eyes with the other. I skimmed the Bangor Daily News, which I figured they’d stop printing any month now. I listened to the workings of Ellen’s jaw and teeth, the clanking of her spoon against the ceramic bowl (table manners were never Ellen’s strong suit), her inhalations and exhalations between bitefuls. I felt the heat slowly dissipate from my face.

“Could always call in sick to Gil,” I finally said. “He’d understand.”

“Can’t,” Ellen replied, shoving her phone down the front pocket of her jeans. I took a sip of my coffee, waiting for her to elaborate. But Ellen didn’t seem to have anything further to say to me.

 

***

 

I was so angry at father I had to call Jon to vent on the way to Meadowsweet. I could tell I’d interrupted him while he was tending to the animals, because most of what I heard through the speaker was the whoosh from the wind or maybe it was from his breath as he tried to listen and do whatever it was he was doing at the same time. When he finally spoke, he said it was sort of a low blow for me to call father an ableist, to which I replied, “You didn’t grow up with him so you wouldn’t know.” I sniffed at the green smells from the woods breezing inside the windows and waited for Jon to say something else. I drove slowly, as the does had just started giving birth to their fawns. Then, I heard bleating through the phone so figured Jon was out feeding the sheep, or raking up their crap. He might have thought it was my turn to speak, or maybe I pissed him off by saying what I said. Sure, I shouldn’t have jumped down his throat for taking father’s side. But as much as I might have wanted Jon to like father, I mostly wanted him to like me. I wanted him to be on my side.

“You know why he’s being such a dickweed, lately,” he finally said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

I told him no, that I didn’t know.

“It’s the same reason you’ve been so prickly. Come on, Ellen. You’re a smart person. Think about it.” My tires crunched onto the gravel parking lot at the nursery. First thing I thought, setting the brake, was that it was nice to be with someone who thought that I was smart and didn’t mind saying so. It wasn’t such a little thing. Next, I thought about father, and me, and what Jon might have meant by his remark, that I’d come back to live with him after all of these years, but that I wouldn’t be staying forever.

“Oh,” I said, twisting the key in the ignition to shut off the engine. Then I had to start up the engine again, because I forgot to close the windows.

“Fuck!” I cried.

“See?” Jon said. “Prickly.”

 

***

 

Claire scolded me that afternoon when I told her what I’d said to Ellen at breakfast about taking her meds. She said I needed to be more patient with her. We were hiking single-file up the well-maintained trail to the Bowl, the last, late snow having finally melted, the sheep laurel shrubs just starting to advertise their pink blooms. Claire was town sheriff for several years before hanging it up and had been a true officer of the peace. Countless times after Rebecca was gone, I’d summoned her to the house—or she’d been summoned by one of our neighbors—to pacify Ellen in one of her rages. She was always good at calming Ellen down, knew just the right tone to take with her, whereas I tended either to shout (when a softer approach was called for) or let Ellen run roughshod over me (when a firmer hand was required). I think that Claire, from her more distanced vantage, saw Ellen more clearly than I was able to see her. She still saw her more clearly, maybe.

We had no idea what Ellen was going through, Claire said as we stomped over the sweetfern and wintergreen, a young woman whose body was in rebellion, how difficult it must be for her, how it surely interfered with her sex life, for one thing, and complicated any plans she might have been entertaining to have children. I hadn’t really thought about Ellen’s intimate business, though I assumed she and Jon slept together. That she might someday want to raise a child, or children, was the furthest thing from my mind.

“Ellen called me an ableist,” I told her. We had just reached the steep section of rocky steps. I was hoping we might share a conspiratorial laugh before scaling them. Claire had as little patience as I had with the newfangled “wokeness” of the young. But Claire wouldn’t quite grant me this small pleasure. The breeze was up, even beneath the canopy, enough to whip her fine, gray-blonde hair about. She tamed a lock behind one of her fetching ears, issued a neutral listening noise, and started scaling the steps ahead of me.

 

***

 

Gil knew I had my eyes on those root-bound, five-gallon plums we hadn’t unloaded since the time I got here. Two Blue Damsons and a Santa Rosa. I’d even imagined the branches I ought to prune to encourage fruiting and discourage black knot, but I hadn’t yet made these cuts for fear someone would admire the artful scaffolding and buy them, which was sort of shitty of me. So I finally asked Gil what he wanted for the trees when we were working the drip lines together along the orchard row, bees looping about the flowers. I’d take all three was my plan, for pollination purposes.

“Ayuh, you want those guys?” Gil said, barely looking up. “Take ’em, Ellie.”

“You sure?”

Here he just nodded and dipped his hands into the loamy soil of the sour cherry pot he was tending to unclog the buried line. I told him thanks without making too big a deal about it to spare him the embarrassment. People around here often did nice things for one another, but not without feeling weirdly embarrassed by their own kindness. Why was that? First nice thing Gil did for me, of course, was give me this job, though he might have done this mostly to be nice to father.

 

***

 

I got home from Hannaford that afternoon to see Ellen crouched over three saplings (apple?) that she was planting near the shed. I was just setting down the groceries on the island and noticed her out the window. I’d mentioned a while back that we could use some shrubs or even young trees to hide that ugly shed, but nothing ever came of it. Soon as I put the refrigerated items away (I wasn’t sure how quickly tempeh went bad) I walked back there to help her out.

“I would have dug those holes for you, Ellen,” I said by way of greeting, which might not have been the best first thing to say.

“It’s what I do all day,” she replied.

“Exactly,” I said, which maybe wasn’t such a great second thing to say, either. I should have just thanked her for bringing home these lovely trees. Plums, I could tell now. She seemed to be making deep wells around the thin trunks to hold water, building up the round ledge of dirt and pine bark mulch with her bare hands. I told her I’d get the hose and walked back toward the deck to do so. Ellen stood back some once I returned with it so I could fill each well with the water.

“Thanks for the trees,” I finally said, dousing the base of one with a steady stream. “Plums, right?”

She said yes and told me the varieties, names I’d never heard of before.

 

***

 

“So you’ll be here long enough to get these trees established?” father asked, filling up one of the wells I’d formed out wide to the leaf line. It surprised me that he said this, outright, though not that he was thinking it, because that’s what I was thinking too, that I’d plant these trees and stay here just long enough to get them established.

“Yes, father,” I said. “’Til then.”

We both watched the water collecting in the well, maybe so we wouldn’t have to look at each other. The force of the spray stirred up the black earth to make the well murky as oil. I’d enriched the soil with peat, manure, and Milorganite. It was a good sunny spot beside the shed, just beyond the reach of the sugar maple’s shadow. After being crammed shoulder to shoulder at the nursery, these trees would appreciate this roomier place to live and grow.

“Guess it’s Jon’s place you’re thinking of moving into next,” he said, shifting the hose to the second tree. It wasn’t very nice the way he said it, something about that next. But I could tell by his voice that he was more hurt than anything else, and that maybe he’d sought to inflict a small hurt of his own to cancel out his own hurt.

“You can just say that you’re going to miss me, father?”

“What?”

“When I move out, or when you move in with Claire. It’s okay. I’ll miss yo’ face too.” I said this last bit to keep things light.

He didn’t say anything back right away, just kept filling up the well beneath the second plum tree. I listened to the water splashing down, and listened to my breath, and listened to the birds I didn’t really know so well bickering in the high canopy of the sugar maple (juncos?). Father shifted the hose to the third tree and a split-second later a pair of mustardy birds alit at the water’s edge of the plum he’d just watered. Goldfinches, I knew enough to know. Their boldness surprised me, given how close we were standing. They scooted rump-high into the dark water and bathed all whirligig, sort of like the chinchillas in their cornmeal-dust baths up at Jon’s. I was about to say something about how the goldfinches reminded me of the chinchillas, but then thought better of it.

“Brave little birds,” father finally said, because one of us had to say something.

“Pretty too,” I said. It felt good to exchange these mild words about the goldfinches. The tiny creatures were close enough that I could make out fine details, like that black cap they wore so low on their foreheads it touched their bill, more stubby and orange than I’d realized, plus that pale V like a superhero logo middle of their black wings. I wondered if that was just the water painting those wing-bars. I soaked in every detail, because I knew they’d flit off any instant. When they finally did fly away, my eyes followed them past father into the dense cover of the hobblebush hedge. When I brought my eyes back I thought I noticed him all misty over there. I didn’t want to say anything, but he must have noticed me noticing.

“It’s the poor chickens, why I’m so worked up,” he said. “The pigs and the cows and their calves, too. I watched that documentary, you’ll be happy to know.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“Those poor creatures, Ellen. Those poor creatures.”

 

 

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