My mother graduated Yale with highest honors. My father, Harvard. Both my older brother and sister picked up top university scholarships like discarded sidewalk change.
I barely graduated from high school.
I matched my sibling's 4.0 GPA's with six total A's, and all of them in music. I spent after school in detention while they led sports teams to victory. I guess I've been jealous at times, but really I think it doesn't take as much to make me happy. Maybe I'm more simple than them, or maybe I don't need society's opinion to catalyze my endorphins. I’ve never been stupid, but I’ve never had their motivation either.
I don't think my parents cared much. They had already cashed in on their first two children, so anything that I brought to the table would be gravy on top the main course. So when I opted to forsake college and pursue a life of music, their objections sounded half hearted.
For two years I played guitar in a public park, strumming riffs that both stimulated the ears of passerby's and emptied their pockets. I like to think I was one of the more successful street performers- my hat was always full of change, and my crowds larger than most. And I didn't realize the extent of my success until the first year out of high school, as I played the ever famous chords of *She Talks To Angels*, and I felt the tug of a small hand against the side of my jeans.
The girl looked to be six years old, her hair curling in golden spirals to her shoulders, and wore a confused look that fit her much better than her overalls.
" 'Scuse me, 'scuse me mister." She said, punctuating the statements with a tug.
"Hey there, what's up?" I said while keeping the beat of the song. I don't sing, so my performance did not suffer.
"How did you get them to sing for you?" She asked.
I frowned. If anyone was singing to my guitar, that meant they were taking advantage of my talent, and called for a gerrymandering of musical park boundaries.
"Who is singing for me?"
"Why, the birds, of course."
For a moment I stopped to listen, and realized the birds in the trees above me picked up fragments of the guitar where I left off. I think I knew they always were there, but that was my first conscious awareness of their presence.
"My niece is right, you know." Said a woman, stepping forward to take the child's hand, " I work with animals, and I've never seen birds so well trained."
While the little girl had not disturbed my song, the aunt had done the opposite.
God she was beautiful. I've never seen eyes like hers- each a deep brown iris that seemed to mingle with her pupil into a single point. Freckles dotted her cheeks like accent marks, and her eyebrows raised in a way that seemed both inquisitive and flirtatious.
I guess I owe that little girl for introducing me to my wife, Jessica.
And my future wife was right- Jessica did had a way with animals. I found that out after we bought our first dog and cat, and both slept on her side of the bed every night.
I think I fell in love when I played my guitar for her after our third date, in her backyard, and she began to sing. While I could tempt the birds into notes, she could coax the frogs and crickets to join in harmony to the melody- predator and prey forgotten.
Her voice was like nothing I had ever heard. There was a quality to it, a alien inflection, that made the very notes burn in the air with passion as she rolled between frequencies.
"Where did you learn to sing like that?" I asked afterward, my hand cupping her shoulder and my arm curtained by her hair.
She laughed, "If I told you then you'd never believe me."
"Go for it."
"When I was young," she started, eyes on mine, "My mother was very religious. We went to church three times a week, and sometimes I went alone. And once I fell asleep on the back pew, where no one could see me. When I woke up, I heard the most beautiful singing, and I sat there, just listening to it. After I while, I joined in, mimicking it, and the voice stopped, and a woman came to my pew.
"I don't remember much- I was very young, you know, and it was hard to see her because the church lights framed about her in a way that brightened her face, except I thought those lights were off. And she was very sad, I remember that. 'Dear child,' she said, 'I cannot take back from you what you've learned today, but remember this- you were not made for it.' Then she handed me a toy doll, I felt sleep come over me again, and I could've sworn it was a dream, but I woke up with this."
Jessica pulled a small doll from her pocket, ragged after years of carrying, and placed it on the table. It was a boy, with matted wings attached to it's back, and flopped over in her hand.
"An angel?" I asked, picking it up.
"Not quite, and my mother laughed at me when I claimed the woman was one." She said, turning the doll over, where there was an inscription. *Fly not too high.*
We never had a fancy marriage- court papers were enough. One year after that marriage she quit her job as a nature journalist and we opened a pet shop.
We didn't make much money. We didn't intend to. But we were happy. And we got by.
During slow days I'd strum my guitar, Jessica would sing, and the entire store would listen. After the first verse, the birds would mesh with Jessica's voice, adding trills to embellish her inflections. They'd be followed by the dogs, who would howl at the high pitched parts, and growl at the low. Then the chorus of other animals would join in, each with their own talents, keeping beat with me but following Jessica. On the rare occasion that we had a parrot in the shop, it would mimic her singing voice quality like musical rounds. But we never seemed able to keep our parrots alive- I don’t know if it was the region, the environment, or the food, but they always seemed to die after a few weeks in the sho.
"The animals like you more than they like me." I commented one day, and she gave me a coy smile. I knew, because on the days she left early to prepare dinner and I brought out my guitar, there was no such melody in the room. They would only follow my basic chords.
"Sometimes, they need a woman's touch." She said, putting her smaller hand on top of mine. And for the next hour, I would have my own share of a woman's touch.
Those were happy days. Simple ones, before our finances began to plow themselves deep into the mud of debt. I didn't anticipate that, as we always lived simply, but then again medical bills are no simple matter.
Neither is chemotherapy.
Jessica's hair started shedding faster than the dog's during her treatment, and her tears hit the floor in time with her bangs as I cut it short with a buzzer.
I'm not religious, but I started to frequent the nearby church as she slept longer each day, holding a picture of us and praying as my last resource. I cried those days, and the angels seemed to cry with me, their somber faces staring down from paintings above. Once I knocked a candle over, and it tumbled out onto the picture of us, completely covering Jessica's image in a layer of wax.
After her first appointment, the doctor pulled me into his office, his eyes a cold steel that matched the hospital temperature.
"Mr. Anderson," he started, his voice on the edge of anger, "I would have called the police by now, had it not been for your wife's denial. But as you know, she has throat cancer. And it doesn't look like the natural sort. She's scarred and burned there, like acid caused it, and I won't stand for domestic abuse."
I stood there, my mouth open, "God, I love her. I'd never do that. God no."
"Then you had better be sure she's not doing it herself." He said, fixing his eyes on me, "Neglect is just as bad. If I have any more reason to believe something is going on, I will report you. "
"I'm sure nothing is going on, doctor."
But i still kept close watch on Jessica in the coming months, watching as she wilted away before me. Our songs turned sad, until one day she couldn't even muster the strength to sing anymore.
"Mike," she said on her last day with me, her hand barely able to hold mine, cold and fragile, "Do you know why Icarus fell to the sea?"
"He flew too close to the sun," I said, watching her shallow breaths.
"No, no, plenty of things that were made for it fly too close to the sun. Everyone gets that part of the story wrong. It's because he wings were made of wax."
Then she died, exhaling one last time, and even that sounded like a musical note. In the distance, church bells rang.
Jessica had left me a box, instructing me not to open it until after her death. For a full week the cardboard sat underneath the pet store counter.
I still played guitar, as best as I could with shaking hands. But the animals never joined in like they did when Jessica was there.
Anger and curiosity cracked me after a week, and I opened the box.
Inside, there was a note, and a stoppered bottle.
*Mike, know that I love you with all my heart. With this, my song will always be with you.*
I picked up the bottle, and viewed the Icarus doll inside. I'm not sure how she fit him in there, as the lip was narrow, but he was whole.
With a sigh, I unstoppered the bottle, and caught her scent escaping it. I breathed deeply, then settled down to play a song that I never had before, that had only come onto the radio three days prior.
And though I could not hear her voice, the animals sang alongside it. A parrot sang too, in echoes, and it was not until the song was finished that I realized it somehow knew the words. But like all other parrots we owned, it died two weeks later.
Sometimes, when the wind whispers just right through the shop, when I'm nodded off too far in daydreams, I swear I can hear her too.
In the coming years, Jessica’s niece visited my shop often, and I noticed that her voice changed to sound just like Jessica’s as she matured. When she sang, it was as if Jessica was in the room with me.
I guess I should have kept the doll on a higher shelf, one where her hands could not reach.