This story was written by Mike Freeman, a writer and birder who has two daughters, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. Read more of Freeman's work on mikewfreeman.com.
With the sun noon high and the day and lake so still, not even shadows disturbed the silted bottom. Four years old now, Flannery, having followed the yard-long, finger-width furrow to its source, reached in the water to pluck another burrowed mussel. In the broad lake’s opposite corner kids splashed and shouted where we had an hour before, but our oldest Shannon had wandered down this way and Flan and I followed. Shan remained forty yards back at water’s edge, where she’d plopped herself to watch fistfuls of sand ripple the mirror lake. We have no idea what she sees in such dynamics, but occasionally sense that if she could articulate them NASA would rend the space-time continuum. For now, she was just a speechless autistic kid increasingly capable of pacifying herself.
“Look, Da-Da,” Flan said, holding the mussel up. The lake supported multitudes, each with a pearly knob adjoining two brown shells. “This one’s a girl too. And a princess. Her name’s Priscilla. See?”
She dropped it among a dozen others in the red onion bag we found snagged on a driftwood pile. They were all girls and all princesses. I looked back, down the sand ribbon where Shannon busied herself in maple shade. Two more sand hurls stippled the water, while a phoebe rushed off the branches above, its ashen wing whirs suspending it long enough to dab the targeted midge.
“That’s a pretty princess, Flan,” I said, turning back. “Let’s find more.”
“Why did you stop singing Nana’s song? The princesses like it.”
Middle-age is the time. Our parents seep back out, coloring our own kids through unconscious channels. I wasn’t sure I’d sang a country song in thirty years, but with the girls growing up out they came, word-by-word, ones my mother sang along to 8-tracks Kris Kristofferson. Waylon Jennings. Willie Nelson. They flowed out, as if I’d never left the station wagon and my mom never stopped tapping thumbs on the steering wheel. Shannon loves all singing, and the narrative tumults beguile Flannery. This was Good-Hearted Woman. As with all of them, she let me get through a line or two before interjecting.
“Was it Nana’s favorite?”
“One of them, yeah. It tells a good story but a sad one.”
A crow coasted above, passing its thin shadow over the lake-trapped glacial dust between us.
“But she never complains about the bad times or bad things he’s done . . . She just talks about the good times they’ve had and all the good times to come.”
“What were the bad things?
“Well, it’s a little complicated, but he wasn’t home very much.”
“Where was he?”
“Out. You remember what we said about wine? He drank that a lot, and liked other girls a lot.”
“And it made her sad?”
“It did, but she mostly thought of how happy she was when they met and how happy they might be soon.”
“The song doesn’t go that far, Flan. It’s mostly about how people make up pretty songs to keep themselves happy.”
I never mean to overload, but she always steers us that way. Sometimes it takes minutes, sometimes days, but eventually the next logical inquiry comes out.
Despite having swam for a couple hours, the sun worked into us. I kneeled. Slipping into the water, I stroked a few times before re-kneeling between Flan and two more mussel trails.
“It’s hot, isn’t it, Flan?”
Behind her, a gray squirrel hustled another up a beachside oak, while deep in the canopy a scarlet tanager oozed out a few hoarse, late-summer notes. Downshore, Shan’s sandplay escalated, with her latest mélange of verbal contentment kicking in. This pattern sounded like a coyote killing a rabbit but was deep joy to us. Stealthing forward, Flan bent, pulling up another mollusk.
“What is it?”
“Did Nana really go to heaven? I miss her.”
My mom died twenty years before, but Flan wasn’t the first to yearn for someone or something she never knew. Until I die, I’ll always be out in the Territories, skinning beavers and dodging grizzlies.
“Not everyone believes that, but your mom and I do.”
She held the mussel in one hand, thumbing its impearled hinge. This creature, I knew, wouldn’t get a name.
“Is heaven a pretty song too?”
Dislodged by my brief swim, a smear of midge larvae floundered mid water column, arching wildly on boneless hinges.
“Like the one the lady made-up? No one knows, Flan. Until you die, you don’t know. Some things just feel right, though, so we believe them even if we can’t see them. Say ‘Faith’.”
“‘F’. Like you.”
Things had grown easier. For Flan’s first three years Shannon could hardly handle her sister’s breathing, but we kept shoving them together, where eventually, especially outside, they coped. There on my knees in the lake it even hung there, dangling the coveted clairvoyance. If we could foster the girls’ tolerance, there was hope they’d kindle something deeper, something to enrich them once we were gone. I already knew you didn’t need words for such a bond, though doubly knew that it wouldn’t be long before our daughters split – Flannery down the river of words, Shannon down a more lonesome run. How often, though, does language deaden, poison, or brick up the spaces between us? Like anyone, Flan would need refuge, and there in the water I could feel it in her, I could, the same solace Karen and I had come to know in Shannon’s quilted company.
Still fondling her latest mussel, Flan dropped it in the bag below.
“What is it?
“I want to see Nana. In heaven.”
“You will, Flan. Me too. Just believe it.”
As one sister resumed her search the other yipped and moaned in the shade, and I knew Flannery would stay quiet a while, composing her thoughts of heaven. We all have a song in our head.