The old woman who lived beneath our house called up to me. “Why are you leaning over the railing with a fishing pole?” I wanted to do something special like catch the beautiful silver fish swimming beneath our deck. If I pressed my ear to the redwood planks, I could hear them. I’d even baited my fishing pole with chewing gum. But it was the sugarless kind, and I was afraid I might not get any bites.
Basuma moved slowly. Her legs were swollen from working as a check-out clerk in a supermarket. Her grey braids reached the top step. Basuma settled into a broken lounge chair and straightened out her dress. She pointed to the garden. “It’s filled with weeds.”
“I know. But my mother doesn’t have time to do that.”
“You can help her.” I was silent. Weeding was not my favorite thing. She looked at my pole. “You trying to catch something?”
“The ones swimming beneath the deck?” her brown eyes widened. I nodded. “Come over here. Sit down.”
“But what if a fish bites?”
Basuma laughed. She was one of the biggest women I’d ever known with a curtain of flesh that hung beneath each arm. Freckles covered her hands and arms, making her look like a ripe banana.
She took my hand and pointed to a flowering plum tree in our backyard. “See anything?” I could make out several birds with red throats. One bird put a wriggly thing into the smaller bird’s beak. “The momma bird is feeding the baby bird,” she said, casting off her slippers and pushing them beneath the lounge chair.
“How do you know it’s a momma bird? Where’s the daddy?” My own father lived far away.
“Daddy’s is waiting for his turn,” she said, pointing to a row of houses on the next block. “Until then, he’s watching out for cats.”
“Basuma,” I said, shaking off my flip-flops. I placed them next to her slippers. “There’s no way a bird is going to sit and look for cats.”
“Not so,” she said, in a sing-song voice. “Daddies know that cats wait for little birds with shaky wings to fall from the tree and then snap them up for lunch. And when it sees the cat scrunch itself up into a waiting rock beneath the tree with its mouth open and its tail ticking,” she continued, “the daddy flies to the branch and warns its family to fly away.”
“Basuma, how does a bird learn how to fly?”
“The momma bird teaches it how to use its wings.”
“But how does the momma bird learn how to fly?”
She scratched around in her scalp and pulled out a brown and white feather from her grey hair and began to fan herself. “Can’t you guess? Her momma, of course.”
“But how did the first momma learn how to fly?”
“Sheesh, child, it’s much too warm here.” “Let’s go down to the basement.”
We climbed the winding wooden stairs to her small room. Its walls were cool gray cinder blocks. The window looked out on the garden. Basuma sat in a rocker, the only chair in the room. I sat on a blue rug and leaned my head against her bed. “Tell me.”
“Once there was a Bird Woman named Liana,” she began.
“Liana!” I said. “That’s my name!”
“Of course, no one knew about her being the Bird Woman. That came later. Liana was nobody’s child and everybody’s child. She was an orphan who had been brought to the village as an infant. Everyone said that once she got older, she would share a great gift. So all the families in the village helped to raise Liana. Every year she got to live with another family. She grew up learning a bit of something from everyone.
“One family taught her how to listen. Find those places where roots grow around a tree. Listen to what they have to say to you. Once you do, you will know how to hear.
“Another family taught Liana how to sing. This was a family secret. “You can move rocks when they sit on your heart.“ Still, Liana was sad. She wanted to know about her mother. She wanted to know about her father. She tried to move the heavy rock from her heart, but it wouldn’t budge. One evening she leaned against a walnut tree.
“Why are your eyes sliding off your face?” asked an ant who had made a trek down the bark of the tree to talk with her.
“I think something must be wrong with me.”
“Don’t you have a fire each night?”
“And isn’t your belly filled with food?”
“Then what can be wrong? I’m always happy when I’m warm and my belly is full.”
“But you don’t understand. I receive gifts from all the families; I have none to share.” Now Liana was now living with Malley’s family, a girl who was just a few years younger than Liana, and her little brother Joosh. They were her favorite family.
The ant scratched her head. Climbing up and down and around and everywhere, she knew many things through her antennae. “I know! You can borrow my smelling. Then you will have a gift to share.” The ant crawled up into Liana’s ear and rubbed its antennae against the side of her head. All Liana felt was a tickle. Later that evening, she ate dinner with Malley and Joosh, and fell asleep.
“The next morning she awoke covered with her leaf bark blanket. The children’s mother must’ve taken it from her pack to keep Liana warm. She opened her eyes and saw that the moon had not yet disappeared. But even though the day was still young, she felt something had changed.
“Liana smelled the dew on the leaves, a cool wet freshness. She looked for moss on the back of the trees and inhaled the difference between damp and wet. Smoke from last night’s fire curled up inside her nostrils and brought her yesterday’s memories. The ant had given Liana its sense of smell. She jumped up from her blanket.
“What’s wrong?” asked Malley, stirring in her bed of soft fresh leaves. “Why are you up so early?”
“I am making breakfast.” Liana raked the live coals into a pile. She was older than Malley and knew how to do this.
“Joosh heard both girls and rolled out from his covers. He made it is business to be a part of everything.
“Liana poured tea from a kettle. She could smell the hot water; she learned that water has its own special smell. Liana loved these two children. She wanted to do something for them and felt she could. She cupped the ear of each one with her hand, and blew softly through it. She released the gift of smell. The children walked through the forest together. But the ant’s gift was magnified through their own larger size.
“Now we know everything,” said Malley.
“What?” Joosh pulled the hem of his sister’s dress.
“Quiet. You’re too little to understand.” Of course, this got him angry. Joosh bared his teeth and stuck out his tongue and stomped up and down on the pine needles.
“Malley began to laugh. But as they walked, they noticed an opossum on lying its back with its belly ripped open, entrails pulsing and slimy. Malley and Joosh smelled the stench of death. The boy’s face turned gray. He held his stomach and felt sick. Malley grabbed her brother’s hand, and they ran. Then they smelled their fear.
“Liana ran after them. “Come back.”
“Get up, please” the children sobbed to their parents. Liana didn’t understand that fear is something all creatures must learn so that they can protect themselves. She didn’t understand that it was its own gift.
“But there was no one to hug Liana. She had wanted to show the children her love but instead she felt that she had hurt them. At the last tree beyond the big rock, she saw nothing but a blue swirl. She didn’t care what happened. She felt she had to leave the village.
“Each special thing that the villagers had taught Liana grew into a feather. Her back grew thick with them, and the wind parted her dark hair down the middle of her neck, which spread over her arms into two wings. Liana had turned into the first Bird Woman, moving so quietly through the air, she didn’t even disturb the wind. But her beautiful song was heard throughout the village.”
I awoke up from the lounge chair holding my fishing pole. Basuma was gone. My pole shuddered. Something was stuck to the chewing gum and I yanked it toward me. It was a small brown feather with silver glitter. It looked like a school project. But where was Basuma? And why wasn’t I in the basement?
“Liana,” I heard my mother call from the kitchen. “Come here and help me unpack the groceries. I just got back from work. What a busy day at the check-out counter. Everyone’s buying bags of food for the holidays.”
I placed the feather inside my pocket and went to the kitchen. “What’s for dinner?”
“Spaghetti.” She hugged me.
I started to help her unpack. “What’s that funny thing you have?” she asked, pointing to my pole.
“I was fishing off the deck with Basuma and then she told me a story.”
“Basuma?” my mother laughed. “Oh, child. “The more you grow, the more stories you make up. One of these days you’re just going to sprout wings and fly out of here.”