As he stepped out of the car, he realized that he was coming home for the last time. Soon he would be going back to school, then moving into the apartment in the city, and from then on when he arrived at this house, walked through its doors, slept in its beds, he would always be ‘just visiting.’ He stepped through the door into the warm light of the kitchen, pulling off his bag. As he had expected, his mom was standing in front of the sink, looking out through the window into the night. She smiled and hugged him.
“I made soup if you want it, I didn’t know you’d be getting home quite this late.”
“Sorry, I’ll have some later.” He walked through the kitchen. “Let me just take my stuff upstairs.”
He paused in the living room.
“What’s this?” He recognized the picture of his aunt in the corner of the frame, but the poem was unfamiliar. “Did you write this?” He read through it again.
She came into the room and took the picture frame from him. “Yes, I wrote it.” Her face was angled downward and tilted as she read it as if she was looking at a child.
“I had no idea you wrote at all.”
She looked at him, her forehead tightened. “We all did, that was what we did. No television. We played instruments or we wrote or we learned languages. Your grandmother wrote plays.”
His bag was heavy. He dropped it to the living room floor. He knew his grandmother wrote plays. She put the poem back onto the table.
“Bring your bag up to your room, I may still have some things.”
He went upstairs. Everything was cluttered with piles of stuff they had been cleaning out from the spare room, his childhood bedroom. He edged by the boxes and opened the door. Every time he came home the walls in here looked whiter, the ceiling lower. He put his bag down and began taking out his clothes.
His mom walked in. “I saved these from your grandmother’s house.” She sat next to him on the bed and handed him the thin pile of yellowed papers. On top was a torn out page from a yearbook with the same picture of his aunt. Below was quoted “. . . and we will all the pleasures prove . . .”
“In our house, when you were sick, or alone, you crawled into my parents’ bed and my mother, my parents came and they read. They read poetry to us, stories, and that’s how I was raised. There’s no right or wrong, that’s just the way it was. We would memorize poems and recite them to each other. What was it?” She paused, smiling in the same way she had downstairs, with tears in her eyes. “Ah,” she looked over his head as she began to recite,
“‘Son,’ said my mother,
When I was knee-high,
‘You’ve need of clothes to cover you,
And not a rag have I.’
‘There’s nothing in the house
To make a boy breeches,
Nor shears to cut a cloth with
Nor thread to take stitches.’
‘There’s nothing in the house
But a loaf-end of rye,
And a harp with a woman’s head
Nobody will buy,
And she began to cry.”
She paused. “I’m not sure I remember most of it.” She shut her eyes, covering her mouth. He was holding his knees with his hands. They had never talked about poetry. She opened her eyes. Her voice was choked.
“Men say the winter
Was bad that year;
Fuel was scarce,
And food was dear.
A wind with a wolf’s head
Howled about our door,
And we burned up the chairs
And sat upon the floor
All that was left us
Was a chair we couldn’t break,
And the harp with a woman’s head
Nobody would take,
For song or pity’s sake.”
“I can’t remember the rest.” She was breathing heavily, her eyes watered. “But that’s what we used to do.”
“What poem was that?”
She tilted her head. “Clothing for a Prince? Something like that. I have to go downstairs, do you have any laundry?”
“No, that’s okay Mom. Thanks for all this stuff, this is really amazing.”
She nodded, a distracted expression on her face as she closed the door behind her. He looked back down at the paper on his lap. Beneath the yearbook photo was a stapled together group of typewritten pages. He gently pulled it out. His aunt’s name was at the top. Some of the poems were in French, some in English. He saw the name “Jacques Prevert”.
To Paint The Portrait of a Bird First paint a cage with an open door paint next something pretty something simple something beautiful something useful for the bird next place the canvas against a tree in a garden in a park or in a forest hide behind the tree without saying anything without moving . . . Sometimes the bird comes quickly but he can as well take a long time to make up his mind Do not be discouraged wait wait if necessary for years the speed or slowness of the bird’s coming not having any relation to the success of the painting When the bird comes if he comes observe the most profound silence wait until the bird enters the cage and when he has entered close the door softly with the brush then erase one by one all of the bars being careful not to touch the bird’s feathers Make next the portrait of the tree choosing the most beautiful of its branches for the bird paint also the green foliage and the coolness of the wind the dust of the sun and the sound of the creatures in the grass in the summer heat and then wait until the bird decides to sing If the bird doesn’t sing it’s a bad sign a sign that the painting is bad but if he sings it’s a good sign a sign that you can sign it Then you pull out very gently one of the bird’s plumes and you write your name in a corner of the painting. Free Sector I put my army cap in the cage and I went out with the bird on my head So we aren’t saluting anymore demanded the commander No we aren’t saluting anymore replied the bird Oh well excuse me I thought we saluted said the commander You’re quite excused anybody can make a mistake said the bird.
He looked up. He felt profoundly light headed. He blinked and looked out the window. In the morning he wanted to go outside.