My Heart Has Wings
by Ron Van Sweringen
part 1 of 2
The bluejay came every day at about the same time, hopping about the trashcan lid in the backyard, on thin spindly legs. Its iridescent blue feathers glinting in the sunshine always amazed Carl Meadows. How could God have created such a beautiful and unique creature and then made someone as ordinary as him in the same breath. The thought occurred to Carl on his eleventh birthday as he was tossing the bird a few raisins he’d saved from an oatmeal cookie at lunchtime.
It was 1943 and the war was still on. Carl’s older brother, William, was serving somewhere overseas, a long way from home in Ardmore, Oklahoma. Carl missed him constantly. William was everything Carl was afraid he would never become: tall and strong and kind and able to sink a basketball from any angle, no matter what.
At first, when the bluejay appeared, Carl was very quiet, afraid of scaring him away. But slowly, as the days passed, he began talking to the bird, softly at first. He told it his name, how old he was and how much he missed William.
Of course, the bird never replied, but it did cock its head and watch Carl when he spoke, sometimes even giving a sharp cry when he finished talking. It was a signal to Carl that the bird understood everything he was saying. On occasion, when he went to bed at night, Carl dreamed the bluejay flew across the ocean to find William and tell him how much Carl missed him. On those nights he slept soundly and peacefully.
It was a long, hot summer that year, and the grass in the backyard turned the color of straw. Small swirls of dust danced on the dry wind, and Carl wished with all of his heart that William was there to take him swimming and fishing at Ardmore Lake, the way he used to.
Only two letters arrived from William over the summer, and Carl’s mother read them to him at the kitchen table. She read them slowly savoring each word. When she finished, she lit a cigarette, staring at the letters for a long time. Carl wondered what would happen if William didn’t come home. He knew he wasn’t old enough yet to take care of his mother, and the thought frightened him. Carl told the bluejay of his fear one afternoon and he felt much better afterwards.
* * *
Snow came by the end of October, dusting the town and surrounding plains. By now the bluejay trusted Carl and allowed him to come very close. Carl marveled at its familiar features. The quick black eyes that took in everything, the peak of feathers on its head and the delicate toes and nails.
Carl was twelve years old on October 26th, 1944. His mother had baked a chocolate-frosted birthday cake for him, and he was going to spend the whole day at the movies watching Roy Rogers and Trigger. He was very happy, and the bluejay came early to the backyard that morning as if to celebrate with Carl.
When his mother appeared on the back porch, she waved a letter in her hand. “It’s for you,” she called, “from William.”
In his dash toward the porch, Carl startled the bluejay and didn’t see it fly away. The letter was as light as tissue paper in his hands and the envelope had red and blue markings around the edges. “By Air” was stamped in one corner and most importantly, his name, Carl Meadows, was printed boldly across the front.
It was the first letter that he had ever received, and it came from the person he loved most in the world. Carl’s hands trembled as he opened it. The bluejay had perched on a branch high up in the large oak tree in the backyard. Its scolding calls of alarm went unnoticed by Carl in his excitement.
Carl opened the envelope nervously and handed the letter inside to his mother. “You read it to me,” he said, his eyes wide with anticipation.
She began reading slowly. “To Carl, the best brother ever,” she read the words slowly. Carl’s heart pounded and by the time his mother had finished the short letter, there were tears running down his cheeks.
Unnoticed by both Carl and his mother in the excitement of reading the letter, the bluejay had perched a few feet away on the clothes line post and stood quietly watching them.
“If that doesn’t beat all,” his mother said noticing the bird.
“He’s my friend, he wanted to know what William said.” Carl smiled. “Now he’s happy.”
As if on signal, the bluejay darted out of sight without a sound.
* * *
Christmas Eve came and brought a blizzard with it. Carl had never seen knee-deep snow before. Several houses in the neighborhood lost their electricity; he could tell by their blackened windows.
Carl and his mother were surprised by a heavy knock at the front door. Two police officers and a young woman stood in the snow when Carl’s mother opened the door. “Come in out of the cold,” she said immediately.
Carl recognized the young woman; she was a new teaching assistant at his school. She smiled when she saw Carl and nodded her head.
“Ma’am,” one of the police officers addressed Carl’s mother, “this young lady lives in the neighborhood and her house has lost power. Would it be possible for her to stay here until the electricity is restored?”
“It’s absolutely fine,” was the immediate reply. “We have plenty of room, there’s just Carl and I. My other son is off at war.” The young woman smiled and looked relieved. “Thank you very much,” she replied, “I was getting very cold. There’s a fireplace in the small house I rented, but no firewood.”
Her name was Mary Anne Rogers, she was almost twice Carl’s age. He fell in love with her the minute she smiled at him.
The blizzard swirling around them showed no signs of letting up; she stayed with them for three days. It was amazing to Carl, as though she had always been there. The three of them laughed and played Monopoly and cards in the evening by the fireplace. She even made spaghetti one night from the canned tomatoes in the pantry. Carl said it was the best he’d ever tasted.
* * *
The long winter stretched into the spring of 1945. Carl and Mary Anne had become good friends. They saw each other almost daily at school, and Mary Anne had dinner at their house once or twice a week. One Saturday afternoon Carl and Mary Anne were enjoying the warm sunshine when the blue jay appeared. He watched them sitting on the back porch steps, but made no sound.
Carl had told Mary Anne about his friend during the winter, but this was the first time she had seen him. “He’s beautiful,” she exclaimed.
“And he’s smart too,” Carl added excitedly. “He understands what I say.”
“That’s truly amazing,” Mary Anne replied with just the slightest hint of disbelief in her voice.
“I’ll show you,” Carl said, standing up and stretching out his arm. “Come and see me, show her that you understand me.” An awkward silence followed as Carl stood with his outstretched arm waiting for the bluejay to obey his instructions.
Mary Anne felt the boy’s embarrassment and quickly made an excuse to leave. As she turned to wave goodbye from the end of the walk, she was astounded, the bird was perched on Carl’s shoulder.
“I told you he was smart,” Carl shouted with a smile. “Will you marry me?”
Mary Anne’s face flushed red, she had never expected such a question from Carl.
“Maybe in a few years,” she answered before thinking, then added quickly, “We’ll see.”
The bluejay made a loud screech that sounded for all the world like laughter to Mary Anne, then he flew away.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Ron Van Sweringen