Ode to a Nightingale

Joan McCracken

{Another episode in the tale continued in

As Kingfishers Catch Fire
, SENT, "Square the Circle", "The Green Gloves", and "The Swallow"}

for DJ; il miglior fabbro

     And it happened: he saw her again in his mind's eye, a shiny badge, like all the other times before. He had been painting -his drawing table faced corner windows- it was angled to catch the light from both sides in the apartment suite of rooms. There was but a glimpse of the furniture store sign with colours like that of expelled bodily fluids, either into a tissue or toilet. Fortunately, it was a glimpse only, it's when he stood that he could see the whole of the travesty. (There was a hint of a smile on his face remembering its unique offensiveness.)

     This woman had hair the colour of that American candy, Cracker Jack. He fancied once she had retrieved the golden plastic whistle (so she could call him, her lover) which the featured sailor lad had hung around his neck, for the box advertises a toy surprise inside. Her hair so became her, especially as it was thick and luxuriant. He could easily spot her golden ear loops, rings, and bracelets, of varying degrees of largeness. Her makeup was tasteful; in another era, she would have been an aristocrat or sovereign. She was a handsome creature; a beautiful recollection for him.

     Her man at first seemed to come from every direction, except hers of course, and sometimes appeared as if by outright magic. He would stride, run, lope, finally shuffle towards the end. They met always at the same place and the same time, a quarter after four pm. At this time of day, there were incidents of silvery brightness outside, as when it rains and rinses the air of our filth; others, twilight snatching them unawares. Yet the haloes of this light or another caught them and more than this, "alone they were and without any fear."

     The man was younger than she, by about ten years. He had dirty blond hair which he tried to brush back. He was just as tall as she in her heels. She dressed 'to the nines'. He had obviously finished some job, although he did make the effort to neaten up for her. How she loved him! When he showed himself, she ran to him, holding him and kissing his face, as though they had not met just the day before. He caressed her face and kissed her tenderly, then his force became known as he pushed his hands and arms down her body. They remained holding each other for a good five minutes. They took each other's hands and spoke closely to each other, reveling in this invaluable time. Even the hardest heart would secretly take pity on them and wish them well. At the end, they would press their foreheads together, still holding hands, kiss once, and walk away in their respective directions.

     "For he has sent him back to us." Luke 23:15.

     Now the sky begins to brighten, yet the twilight is so near, rain soft upon her marker. Nothing is tenser than this, her absence. He wanted to paint this scene but it was bound tightly in his spasming heart.

     Jack was coupled in his past with bits running in his head; moreover, the crucial information about his last two and half years seemed to be inertia. Nonetheless, he forced order into his bleary mind beginning with the gap year he left England to finally decide: be a painter or a priest. And just before graduation at his isolated school, his parents and many others puffed up the population of the town near the institution. The young man and his parents attended the last Mass of the year. As Jack prayed before receiving the Sacrament, he had a vision; a genuine, true vision. His eyes closed, he could see through the eyes of Christ; his apostles gathered for the Passover meal. Christ allowed, no invited, a wretched young man (for he believed he was), to look down the left side of the table to those apostles, taking bread as it was passed to them. The room was golden in the candlelight, the tableware ochre and the wall a muddy-river brown. Their beards and hands seemed to be similarly colored. Little did they grasp in their devoted hearts their trial; yet he could see their full hearts. His mask of Christ faded and the scene stayed strongly over him as he took the sweet Sacrament. The priest was especially tender and his mum smiled approvingly. After a luncheon, he napped for a long while. Waking, he painted, though not daring to render the vision. Jack spoke only to his mum about it in the late afternoon. She held him tightly, promising to keep his secret whilst her eye teared up.

     His parents understood his dilemma all too well as he swerved between one vocation then the other, his many talents almost hindered him. Hence, he left for the Continent for several months, first Rome, then Paris, then the new excitement in Berlin.      I wanted to be all. Instead, I became the rebel artist – 17 and James Dean, love was panic as I approached her, an affair as taut as silken strands and our barrier was a stupid man I had never met. I was smitten the second I spied her. She walked gracefully towards me that cloudy day years ago and asked if I was lost. Of course. After a week we were woven together; the silk held. Evelyn.

     Our minutes were etched somewhere. The day before it ended, Evelyn pleaded with me to let her go. I knew what she meant. We sensed her wall and the impending Wall rising up. I squeezed her and I swear, I felt her heart crumple. I was wild; I wanted to stay. She kissed me and assured me she would be here at our meeting place. Tomorrow being the last day I faced the waiting dusk and walked, no wobbled away to my anxious flat.

     Friday came and I was at our appointed time early. I saw her and she smiled; such a face! We kissed. Abruptly, a single firecracker reverberated in the branded air -- the invocation of our acknowledged love -- that sent Evelyn's body jolting into mine and I jerked back, still holding her, ignoring the bullet jab. She brought her bloodied hand up and brushed my cheek before we fell backwards onto the street, cocooned in our own love and the blood gathering in our clothes that then crept onto the pavement. Hands wrestled her away; but I, Jack Thomas, managed to eat our sin first.

"Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
     I have been half in love with easeful Death…"

     Five years later, Jack looked once, twice, over his shoulder, looking out for his God. The corbels on his client's plans could wait a moment. His small architectural firm had taken off. Jack stood up and rubbed his eyes. Then the load of memories began to peep back. Whilst working, he was happy, wholly taken up. Sleep usually did this also, though not always…his selfish love whipped back on him.

     'I felt abandoned by God when I knew she was leaving me. That's why I took it upon myself to send her to Him cleansed. It was my fault.' Jack was tied up in Scripture and this scalded the thoughts he sought to end. Whilst slipping into sleep, he saw the crucified Christ bursting through a high-ceilinged cathedral, stained glass falling, small and large panes, sharp points slicing through His already bloody body. The next night, it was large crucifixes nailed to telephone poles, papered and peering at the poverty it witnessed, saying things in the body of Christ. Jack's coughing hands sought another framework to be crepuscular in the Mystery which was his worldly music, dilating the veined-soul into he knew not where. Love or charm? The taste of Love or love; Love never ends. As for the prophecies: will they pass away, as for tongues, will they cease, as for knowledge, will it falter? Words tangled at the back of his neck: clocks and others attempting to pull him down with their regurgitated refinements. Then the inarticulate, at least for her, Evelyn, in the end added to his own miraculous designs.

     Jack stepped outside for a smoke on this night, this uncharacteristically warm night in November. This night, at his second inhale, sent a sensation that wooed his brain and ran down to his cramped hand, down his other, down his spine. He rubbed his eyes. 'Go away.' he mumbled to them in his mind and thought she was miles away in one of the hard phases of Berlin, and his throat and heart still hurt.

     It was near eleven o'clock and Jack saw one of his neighbor's dogs, a large Labrador, crap on another not well-liked neighbor's well-kept lawn. The man furtively looked around and spied Jack. Jack waved and grinned at him. Man and dog walked away, with Jack's approval.

     "May God grant you pardon and peace…," he gleefully thought. He loved the tap-tap of a cigarette as he lightly hit it on the heavy glass ash tray on his balcony. His new silver lighter's lid was stiff so his wrist was slower than usual opening the lid, and Jack kept flicking it open to loosen it. His mind whirled with the complexity of the motions in his corbels: the vines dancing down, the sliver moons around a giant open rose, stray lines that intersected with the vines and disappeared. These were his toys – the houses and buildings went to others, but he kept the precious drawings. They were never riven from him. This was the muscular heart and eyewitness to God's chambers.

     Jack called to mind what his boyhood's priest told him, when he broke down and went to seek counsel after returning to England one month later, after extra hospital care. He told him everything in the priest's small office for parish work. Father Perkins listened carefully without saying a word until Jack finished his rehearsed speech, leaving nothing out.

     'So, Jack, when did you become or a -- shall I just ask from whom you learned this unusual skill?'

     'I learned from no-one. I read about it, and took the sins upon myself when we were shot. I wanted, as I told you, to send her to the Lord. It was my fault anyway.'

     'Jack, I commend you.'

     'Excuse me? Have I not committed a mortal sin? "Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus!" What about…'

     'Jack,' he leaned closer, 'you are not one of these creatures; you haven't studied with one; you read about it and you think by saying words like "I take our sins upon myself" that makes you a sin-eater? The last I heard of one was in the Appalachian Mountains in America over a hundred years ago! Please Jack, don't torture yourself. Only our Lord judges us. This poor woman was shot, either by her husband, or the East Berlin guards. I pray she survived! You survived; that bodes well. No, you haven't committed a mortal sin here; you tried to be priest for the both of you. You loved her, and that is why I commend you. Your love was great. "There is no greater love", Jack. You tried to save her life by way of her soul.'

     He cried, something Jack had not done yet, he gripped his knees. 'Oh God, keep her safe!'

     'I will pray for her, Jack. Yes, you have committed sins for which I will give proper penance. Return to the Church. Listen to the Word, receive the Sacrament. If you still wish it, I will give you absolution.'


     Jack attended Mass for about a year, then faded from it. This warm night, he finally lay down on his floor mattress, content in his spent state. He partially awoke next morning, images sown on his eyelids. There Jesus ascending, nailed to the cross, breaking through the same cathedral. His face was shadowed, no, no skin on the face at all. Jack, afraid in his sleepy state, believed the mask he had seen through when he was young was still in his possession; that was why this mangled Christ hadn't abrogated Jack's psyche. Then he sat up, sweat drizzling on his chest. 'Stop! You can have it damn well back! No more of this. "Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget."'


Joan McCracken's "Almost 13" appears in FlashPřint #6.