Her Grandma said when she was born she was so small they made her bed out of a bread drawer and shone an incubator lamp down on her to keep her warm. “Honey, you glowed under that light like Moses comin’ down from the Mount shinin’ with the Shekinah glory of God,” she said.
And that’s where she got her name. She never did grow very big, just five feet and 95 pounds, raised by folks who didn’t have even one bone of meanness in them. When she first realized how easily it came to some people in this world she would find herself staring, just staring and trying to figure out how all that meanness could be hiding down deep inside of a perfectly normal looking human being. Was it born there? Or did it grow there like a weed choking all the goodness out?
It was hard to know exactly how she got herself into a predicament like this, married to a man with a heart so mean she began to picture it like a rotten apple shriveled up inside of him. He hid it well for a long time with all his smooth words, and to tell the truth she wasn’t looking to find it. She just saw his soft, little-boy eyes looking into hers and she lost every speck of sense in her head. Those eyes were hard now as he raised the shot gun to his shoulder, squinted and aimed for Mamie as she cowered out there in the hay field, her tail between her legs, crawling low.
“Get outta here! Go on! We don’t need any damn useless, cow chasin’ mutt causin’ trouble around here!”
Jake pulled the trigger, and a spray of lead shot blasted into the dog´s side. Blood began to run into her white fur, staining it pink. She ran for the woods yelping and limping, hurt bad. Shekinah’s chest was tight and sobs sliced through her as sharp as shattered glass, but she swallowed them down and just looked at him with his slicked back hair, cigarette pasted to his lower lip, beer bottle balanced on the grass beside his feet. He stood the gun in the grass, holding onto it with one hand and reaching down for his beer with the other. “Damn dog. I hope she dies.”
She wanted to shoot him right then and there, just point that gun at his chest and watch the white of his T-shirt stain the same ugly shade of red as her dog’s white fur. Instead, she took a deep breath and stepped forward and lunged for the gun. She grabbed it from him and ran as fast as she could with her heart racing into her mouth. She ran out to the road that curved in front of the house and stopped, chest heaving, knees trembling.
He was coming toward her, beer in hand, not running; just loping along steady like he knew he would catch her, like he always did. She raised the gun by its barrel and held it high over her head with both hands as she looked him straight in the eye, and then with all her might she swung it down onto the asphalt and smashed the wooden stock. She raised it and swung it over and over down onto the road, jarring her bones until there was nothing left of the gun but splinters and steel. The sweat poured down her face, down her neck and shirt, between her breasts to where her heart pulsed and measured her hatred of him. She spun around and flung what was left of the gun at him then turned and ran for the barn.
She stopped at the big sliding doors at the barn entrance and turned back to see him standing there with the barrel of the gun in his hand, staring down at it in disbelief. His head slowly turned towards her. She knew that look. He threw the gun down into the grass as he walked with long determined strides to the barn, never losing his grip on that beer bottle. She slid the door to the side just enough to slip in, closed it behind her and swung the latch, leaning back to swallow her heart back down into her chest.
The shadows of the big open space pulled her in and held her close and kissed her skin with cool, calming breath. She heard his footsteps on the other side of the doors and sprinted across the wide, ancient planks of the barn floor that creaked beneath her until she reached the wooden ladder that led up to the loft. As she climbed she heard him banging on the door. “Shekinah, get the hell out here! You’re gonna pay for bustin’ up my gun. You think you can hide from me?”
She climbed faster as he pounded harder. There was no way for him to get in. She’d made sure of that a long time ago, closing and latching the heavy inner shutters to every window, and securing the wide, plank barricades across every door. This barn was built long before the days of electronic security, with a deep, stone foundation and a solid frame meant to keep out horse thieves and the north wind, and it sure as hell would keep Jake out too. She heard the crash of the beer bottle against the door. “Go ahead and hide, Shekinah. I’ll be waiting for you.”
“You do that, Jake,” she whispered through clenched teeth. On days like this, when Jake got to drinking and tearing up the place and she felt like she couldn’t breathe, she came here and gulped in the quiet air until her heart loosened up in her chest and his yelling and raving stopped buzzing in her ears. But today was different. She felt powerful. Finally, she’d done something, stood up to him and done something. Her hands ached from pounding that gun onto the road, but it had felt so good.
When she got to the top of the ladder and into the loft she continued up onto the high stacked bales and sank back into a nest of hay, spreading her arms wide like she was a starfish, quiet and hidden at the bottom of the sea. Relief washed over her. As she curled onto her side an angled shaft of sunlight shot down through the window high up in the roof’s peak, and she watched as dust specks came to life: swirling, swimming amoebas drifting through the atmosphere.
The loft was warm, piled high with the summer’s harvest, and every sound was muffled as if she were wrapped in layers of tissue paper. She breathed in the sweet smell of green clover, timothy and alfalfa, and each lungful took her flying high out across the fields where they grew, ripened and fell to the sharp hay rake’s teeth. The Mast boys had ridden their hay wagon through those fields behind their daddy’s baler and heaved these bales up onto the wagon bed one by one until they towered above their heads, waddling and swaying like a broad-hipped old woman as the tractor growled toward the barn. They rigged up the conveyer to the loft, and with calloused hands and farm-boy-biceps swung the bales onto the belt where they rode up like roller coaster cars, creaking slowly to the top and tumbling through the high window.
It was a long way up to the floor of the loft, maybe 20 feet, and the roof soared up to almost 50 feet at the peak. This barn was old, over a hundred years. It leaned a little to the east now but the rough, hand-hewn beams that framed it were strong and true. She’d tried counting the wooden pegs that held them together but there were too many. She felt the ghosts of the men who’d built this dusty cathedral all around her, who had painstakingly carved each peg by hand and pounded them into each joint and beam with sure, steady swings where they would meld perfectly forever.
The beams joined the loft walls to the high, sloping roof, forming a shelf that ran the perimeter of the barn. Here were her treasures, all the things she didn’t want him to see, things found walking the fields and woods while Jake was gone, special things. There were smooth, worn stones from the pond down by the woods where she waded and Mamie chased tadpoles, sparkling pieces of pink-and-black granite dropped jewel-like from glaciers that had carved out the land so long ago, a variegated feather from a red-tailed hawk, prickly globes of sweet-gum tree seeds, sky-blue robins’ eggs, a painted turtle’s shell, and her favorite--a tiny, one-inch-high birdhouse. Her neighbor Mose had given it to her.
It had been a few years since they’d moved to this forsaken farm out in the middle of nowhere, Rural Route Two, Moore Road. Jake said they needed to get away from nosy neighbors in town. They’d called the cops on him one too many times. Domestic disturbance was what they called it; Shekinah just called it stupid-drunk husband.
The only ones that heard him raising hell out here were the neighbor’s Black Angus who never complained about anything. Mamie lived to chase those cows, but Shekinah knew Jake only shot her dog because he couldn’t stand her giving her attention to anything but him. Mamie loved Shekinah, but she hated Jake. She knew his heart. Dogs always know. And now she was out there all shot up, scared, bleeding, maybe dying. Shekinah’s throat got tight again and tears rolled down the sides of her face into the hay beneath her. She choked back the sobs. She would never let him hear her cry.
She’d thought about leaving so many times, pictured herself walking out the front door, back straight, resolve firm. But then the picture got fuzzy when she thought about where to go. There really wasn’t anywhere that Jake wouldn’t find her, and she knew what would happen when he did. She ran her fingers over the mass of black-and-blue flesh across her ribcage and over her breasts where he’d made sure she knew. But this time he’d hurt her dog, and Shekinah knew she needed to get away, no matter what. She had to find a way.
She heard a rustling up high across the barn and squinted to see what it was, and as her eyes adjusted she saw a brown, barn owl settled up in the corner on one of the beams. It raised one wing and flapped it, the other limp at its side, then settled back down and just stared at her with its white, heart-shaped face. She stared back into its gleaming, black eyes and wondered how it had gotten in here. Her eyes traveled back up to the window and she realized one pane of glass was completely gone. The owl must have broken through by mistake. The window was as tall as she was, and broad, with wide panes of old glass full of waves and bubbles that distorted the world outside into a crazy-quilt of green and gold stitched together with barbed wire fences. There was a crude ladder that led up to a narrow platform in front of the window. She climbed up there often. The window swung out on rusty hinges and she would open it and sit on the edge and dangle her legs outside, gazing far out over acres of wheat, corn and soybeans that grew in long, green lines, stretching and arching out into an infinite horizon. The owl called out a low, questioning “Whoooooo?”
“Poor baby. Did you hurt yourself?” He blinked and shifted his weight from one hooked talon to another and then moved his beak, as if he wanted to answer her. “You’ll be alright. I guess we’ll have to figure out how to get you out of here.”
She sat up and looked around. Later she would open that window and maybe he would fly out the way he came in. She watched him watching her and settled back down into the hay where its golden fragrance filled her brain, and as she drifted off her eyes settled on the tiny birdhouse. It was a little out of place with all her other stuff, but she loved that it was carved with Mose´s own hands, hands like ones that had built this barn.
The day he had given it to her she had snuck out and walked the mile up Moore Road to visit him and his wife Mabel while Jake was uptown at the bars. They’d been married 67 years. She couldn’t imagine living with the same person that long, especially Jake. Along the way she had gathered periwinkle-blue blossoms of chicory, tall stalks of Queen Anne’s Lace, and bunches of starry-white asters to make a bouquet for Mabel. She was sick, dying of cancer. Mose filled her room with flowers and his hand-carved birdhouses painted in all the colors of the rainbow. He said a pretty lady needed something pretty to look at.
She knocked on their front door loudly because she knew Mose couldn’t hear very well. She waited and then heard the shuffle of his feet and him fumbling with the door. His hands were gnarled and twisted from all the years of chiseling and hammering, and when he finally got the door open his face crinkled into a smile. He reached out and drew her in, putting one rough hand on her arm. He was tall with broad shoulders, but his back was as bent as the rows of windbreak pines behind his house. “Mabel’s been bad, Shekinah. She’ll be so happy to see you”
He left her at the door to Mabel’s room and wandered away to work in his woodshop. She walked into the bedroom where Mabel lay sleeping, neatly tucked into crisp, white sheets. Her silver hair hung in two thin braids held with rubber bands, one down each side of her lined face. Shekinah added the flowers she had brought to a bouquet on the bedside table and sat in a chair next to the bed. Mabel must have sensed her presence because her eyes fluttered and she woke. She gave Shekinah a small painful smile and then noticed the flowers. “Oh, how I love chicory. There’s no color like that in the world.” She winced as she shifted her weight under the sheets. “You know, we used to boil the roots back in the Depression and drink it like coffee. It has a bitterness to it. Kind of surprising from such a sweet little thing.” She studied Shekinah’s face and slowly put one hand up to her bruised cheek where it rested like a fragile bird.“Why do you let that man do this to you?”
“Oh Mabel, don’t you worry yourself. It was just an accident. You know me. It’s amazing the trouble I get myself into.” She stroked Mabel’s hair, "Mose said you were having a bad day.”
Mabel nodded, looking steadily at Shekinah for a moment with knowing eyes, clear and blue, and then she sighed, taking her hand from her cheek. “I dreamed of you.”
Shekinah smiled and took Mabel’s hand in her own. “You did? What did you dream about me?”
Mabel looked away; over to the window where the sunlight filtered softly through sheer, white curtains.
“I dreamed I was out on the porch with Mose. We were sitting after supper and the sun was going down.” She swallowed and coughed harsh and deep, then took a shaky breath. “The sky was so beautiful; it looked like it was on fire, all pink and orange, and the sun was so big. I looked out over the fields towards your house and I saw you.” She raised one hand, pointing at the picture in her mind. “You were up in the sky. You were flying away. I said, Mose, do you see that? Shekinah is flying. He just looked at me and said ‘I know Mabel, I always knew she could’.”
She began to cough again and Shekinah helped her sit up and take a sip of water. Her breathing was shallow and strained. She laid back and looked up with a furrowed brow and Shekinah could see the pain was getting to her. Her eyes were heavy again.
“What a nice dream, Mabel. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to fly?”
Mabel closed her eyes. “We´re all born to fly honey, we just get so tied down to Earth with all of our troubles we forget how.” Sunlight slivered in through the curtains and onto the wall behind the bed. “But lately it’s starting to come back to me.”
She fell back to sleep, her crepe-paper skin luminous in the light of the afternoon sun. Shekinah watched her for a little while then leaned down and kissed her cheek, then walked out of the room through the house to Mose’s workshop out back. He was just stepping through the doorway. He walked towards her with effort, willing each foot in front of him, then stopped in front of her, reached out and took her hand and placed something inside. She opened her palm and there was the birdhouse, tiny, perfect, painted bright red with a green roof, just like her barn. “Thank you for being so kind.” His cloudy eyes filled with tears. “I don’t think she has too long.” He studied Shekinah’s face for a moment, taking in the bruises. She turned her head, embarrassed. He just shook his head, “If I were a younger man.”
“If you were a younger man I’d have to fight Mabel for you.” She gave him a hug and he walked her to the door.
Mabel died not too long after that.
Shekinah woke to strangeness, a slapping, bumping flurry of noise all around her, and she opened her eyes to gray haze. The sun was setting and the light had faded. She smelled smoke. The air was thick with it. Above her head the owl was panicked, flapping his wings, slamming into the barn walls and roof, circling, trying to find a way out. She sat up with a start, her mouth dry and hot, and her throat burning. She heard the sound of glass crashing and breaking outside against the barn walls; it sounded like Jake was getting rid of the day’s empties. He was whooping and hollering. “I told you Shekinah! I told you you couldn’t hide from me forever! Now you’ll get out here. Come on, Shekinah! Come on out and play!”
She crawled over to the edge of the hay bales, coughing, and looked down into the barn. Hungry, orange flames were licking the bottoms of the doors. As she watched they grew bigger, greedier, traveling up the edges of the door, laughing, devouring the century-old wood as if it were paper. The flames traveled across the top of the doors and straight for the loft, racing toward the hay. “Shekinah! You’re crazy, you know that. Get on out here now. Whooeeeeee, she’s gonna go! It’s gonna be a pretty sight. Come on out here and watch it with me.”
As she watched, frozen, the flames met with the hay, and in one gleeful burst that whole side of the loft was blazing. The owl was frantic now, swooping down at her as she ducked to avoid his sharp claws. It was too late to go down to the lower level; the only escape was going to be up. She looked at the window. Flames were edging over to the bottom of the ladder. She leapt over the bales stacked in front of her and made a lunge for it. She swung herself up just as the flames started licking at the bottom rung and she climbed up fast, hand-over-hand until she reached the narrow platform in front of the window and climbed onto it. Her heart raced. She pulled at the rusted latch to the window but it wouldn’t give. She pulled again with all her might, but there was no way she could budge it today, those Mast boys had latched it good.
The smoke was thicker now; black, and boiling up from the hay and barn walls in angry clouds. It was hot and her eyes were pouring tears. All those ghosts must have been crying too to see this. One crazy man destroying what all those hands had blessed. Shekinah couldn’t hear Jake anymore, only the crackling and popping and roaring of the fire. She started pounding on the glass with her fists, shattering the panes, her hands slicing and shredding with each blow, blood running down her arms and dripping onto the thirsty wood of the platform beneath her. She kicked at the window latch with one last effort and finally the wood splintered and the latch hung useless. She swung the window open and stuck her head out into the air, choking and gasping. She stood with her feet planted on the edge, her hands grasping the sides of the window frame. The sky was burning too, the clouds an inferno of bright, golden plumes over the earth below.
She looked down and there was Jake staggering around the yard. His mouth was moving but she couldn’t hear what he was saying. It looked like he was crying. He saw Shekinah and dropped to his knees and raised his hands to her. He looked so small, and Shekinah was surprised to feel a small flutter of pity for him.
She felt the heat behind her like a blast furnace; the flames licking at her ankles. She looked out over the house, over the fields, out to the woods where she saw Mamie running and leaping, her fur clean and white like December snow. She looked down the road to Mose and Mabel’s. Was that Mabel on the porch, waving? She felt like the whole world was holding its breath, waiting, waiting for her. As she stood there she heard a whirlwind of feathers and in one blind swoop the owl swept past her head and out into the sky despite his wounded wing. The flames were hot on her fingers now, and suddenly she wanted to know how it would feel to launch herself out like the owl, untethered, free, to a place where Jake could never follow her. She teetered there on the edge for a moment and looked up to see the owl soaring off into that glorious sky, and then she remembered. She remembered how to fly.