It was a cold Sunday morning in the fall. The trees were bare and looked like they needed a coat. The ocean water lapped up against the sand, liquid ice. Two boys played by the beach, each daring the other to go farther into the freezing water. A little girl sat atop a sand dune, staring but not seeing anything, her eyes dark blue and blank, her mind traveling far from the chilly scene laid out in front of her.
* * *
My mind was with my grandmother. I could just imagine her sitting next to me on the frigid sand, in her bright red coat, pointing out all kinds of clouds in the sky, finding things that were invisible, like fat Arctic terns hidden between the sand dunes. Then she would take me home, make her cinnamon hot chocolate, and sit down and keep knitting striped slippers to sell at her shop the next day. My brothers would come home, cold, wet, and laughing. Mother would return from the bakery and settle down, close her eyes, and listen to some unheard music.
After dinner we would all sit around the fire. Papa would come from the kitchen and tell a story about growing up in Denmark. The story usually involved his brother, Uncle Alge. Uncle Alge was special because he could feel no pain. He did ridiculous things. He once took a swim in the ocean in December, came out, and rolled around in the snow. My grandma would be sipping elderberry tea, Mother would be stoking the fire and drawing things on her sketchpad. My two brothers would be playing some card game. I would be listening to Papa’s story.
Now Grandma has gone back to her home in Wales and Papa has gone to help Uncle Alge in Denmark. It is just Mother and I running the bakery. Grandma’s knitting shop has a big, mean, red “For Sale” sign in front of it. Mama says that once we sell the shop we will go back to Wales and join Grandma. I do not want to leave our town in Quebec by the sea. This is the only home I have ever known.
I am Glas Aaderyn Eden-Pasãre. The funny thing about my name is that if you translate it into English it would literally mean blue bird bird-bird. As it happens, I love birds.
It was seven o’clock when a knock splintered the soft morning silence. Mama opened the door and was met by a stream of apologies, in French, of course. This must be the postman, Étang, I thought. He is our village chatterbox. Once the swell of explanations had subsided, he handed my mama a small, rather plain, brown envelope, the kind of envelope that could not contain anything good. He left, and Mama promptly shut the door, locking out any further disturbances to our morning. She slit open the letter with a satisfying rip, as if ripping it would make all the trouble it might contain disappear.
My mama looked distinctly unhappy with the contents of the letter. She opened her mouth to speak but closed it again, an indecisive look on her face. Finally, after giving the distinct impression that she was a fish, she spoke. “It seems that your cousin Maskine is coming to visit.” Maskine is the daughter of Uncle Alge and my dead Aunt Marge, who died when Maskine was ten.
She arrived two days later. I saw her in the driveway, a small, coat-shaped figure, looking up at the house. The house is beautiful, it has a looming presence that you cannot easily forget. She seemed to be relishing every last detail, as if imprinting all of the worn, smooth stone in her mind. She struck me as a person who would not miss anything. Perhaps she could teach my brothers not to dump their green beans on the floor for Galapagos, our dog-like pet tortoise.
She finally came inside. Placing her suitcase down in the center of the entrance hall, she proceeded to start staring again, looking up at the stairway that spiraled like a snake, a beginning but no apparent end. At dinner that night Maskine was silent. In the days that followed, the silence expanded, an ever growing puddle. She did not seem to be able to speak. Some tricky hobgoblin had stolen her tongue. She seemed to wear sadness as a second skin. I decided to give her time to adapt, like a new species. It takes them millions of years to develop all the skills that they need to survive. If they don’t die out first.
One cold December day I was sitting on my favorite sand dune. As usual I was watching the birds run from the crystallizing foam. I loved the way they did their complicated dance across the frigid sand, as if their feet were flying to escape the cold. I wish I could dance that well. I am a horrible dancer. When I try I stomp on my dance partner’s feet, and then my brothers keel over laughing at the look on my mother’s face. Soon we are all holding our sides, we laugh so hard.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?”
I was rudely jumped out of my imagination and back into reality. I turned around. Maskine stood there, looking cold.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“The birds, of course. Aren’t they dancing?” And those words would echo in my head for a long time after that. In that moment she saw the birds exactly the way that I did. The silence still hung around Maskine afterward, but it was more comfortable, like one between old friends who understood one another.
One morning, about a week later, the doorbell rang. I was in my attic room, working on my mechanical birds. I love to make things. Especially things involving birds. My father started to teach me how to make mechanical animals when I was five. It started with mice. Soon I could make little rows of windup mice all by myself. I can understand machines better than I can understand people. People are so complicated and unpredictable. Gears and cogs, however, do what they are told.
I was sitting upstairs, making wings for the Arctic tern that I was building, when the doorbell rang. I walked to the stairs and looked down. The postman, Étang, was giving a letter to Maskine. She opened it and a few minutes later flew upstairs. Running into her room, she slammed the door. The sound echoed around the house. Bouncing off the walls, wanting to get out.
I thought nothing of it until I found the letter later that afternoon. I wasn’t looking for it, but it lay there, on the floor, calling to be read. My curiosity got the better of me and I picked it up. The paper was a soft shade of yellow. The kind that was calming after bad news. That was the only thing that this letter could hold.
Are you having a nice time in Quebec? I hope you have found your tongue enough to say your pleases and thank yous. I am sorry, sister, but nothing is good at home. Papa is getting worse, and Uncle John got lost last night. He came back in the morning mangled and bloody. I know you do not want to hear this, but it would be wrong if I do not tell you. Papa is not getting any better. On the contrary, he is getting worse. He has a fever and doesn’t want to get out of bed. I could not tell you this terrible news myself, but the doctors believe that Papa will not live much longer. At most a month. He wants to see you before he departs this world. Papa says he loves you. I will come and pick you up from Aunt Sophie’s. The boat journey will be rough, but Papa dying will be rough. I love you.
Your older sister,
I sat there for a while. I did not know that Uncle Alge was teetering on the edge of death. Now I understood Maskine’s silence. I had to think of a way to cheer her up, at least for a little while. If my world felt unsettled, hers was crumbling.
I was sitting up in my attic workshop when the idea struck me. I would try to make my biggest project yet. It might not work, but at least Maskine would know I tried. The cold rain did a sad and solemn dance across my window. The grass was a wet and knotty mess. We were all inside, wearing long sleeves and still shivering from the cold. We hurried around from heated room to heated room. My attic room was not as drafty as you would imagine it to be. I worked all afternoon, and hours later, with the darkness now at my window, I was done.
I called up Maskine to see what I had made. She came up, her eyes sad. When she came in she looked around at all of my mechanical animals and I saw what true amazement looked like. Then she noticed what was sitting on the table. I had made her a tiny, dancing bird. I silently handed Maskine the key and she quietly took it from me. She walked forward and gently put the key into the slot. It smoothly turned. The bird started to dance, lifting its legs up, like the birds had on the beach that cold day.
And slowly, for the first time since Maskine came here, she smiled.