When Alice finds the paint sample at the hardware store, she isn’t thinking of paint or birds or rooms or beams of light, but there it is, misfiled between Phantom Mist and Radiant Rose. It isn’t the deep wine color that calls to her or the name, No More Drama. It’s the smell of wet earth and the pinprick of light.
There is a lighthouse near Lake Superior, Alice remembers. Its thick beam cut the night sky. She saw a whole world in the particles of light, the green tips of tall trees, the clean-cut white clouds, but her parents were arguing in the front seat of the car. Their voices whisper in faint echoes now.
After so many layers, Alice’s arms ache. The rolling paint clicks soft kisses in the dark. She thinks of the lips she will miss. The heavy fumes hang about her. She refuses to open the window. Soon enough, she won’t have to worry.
She begins to think the pinprick of light might have been all in her imagination.
“That imagination will get you in trouble.” Her mother’s words are no longer a whisper. They ring as clear as if she is standing next to Alice. They echo long and steady like a heavy gong.
Alice’s arms shake. She imagines thick tree branches and wonders how they can hold their own weight for years. Just as she thinks she can’t push the paint roller any longer, a thin filament of light cuts the dark as she makes a pass over the south wall. Of course, it would be the south wall, the one that faces the yard where the bird first appeared so long ago. She lets go of painting the whole room and rolls layer upon layer over the light. With each new pass, the speck grows, to the size of a pencil eraser, to a golf ball, to a tennis ball. The salt and wetlands stink waft through, curling in corners of the room. She can feel the moisture beading on her skin. She listens between the clicks of paint for the familiar call.
Alice tries to think of reasons to stay as she pushes the paint roller at the edges of what is less a speck and more a hole in the wall now. She only half remembers a reason, but then it slips from her. She thinks of reasons to go instead, the stale institutional air, her loneliness, the bird.
The first time she was aware of the bird, she was eight. It called to her in the dark, the clear sound filtering through the peepers.
Piu, piu, piu, she heard through her window. Piu, piu, piu.
“What is that sound?” Alice asked her mother.
“I don’t hear anything,” her mother said. “Go to sleep.”
“Am I a bird?” she asked her mother.
“Don’t be silly. You’re a girl,” her mother said as she flicked the light off in Alice’s room.
Alice saw the bird the next day, at the edge of her yard where the grass met thick trees and brush. It didn’t call to her, but she knew the bird was there for her. The bird stood so still, the purple sheen of its feathers gleaming in the sun.
“It’s a purple gallinule,” a man said one day when she was sitting on her back deck. “They’re rare.”
He wore a khaki hat and a t-shirt that had an image of a mountain in green. Around his neck were large high-powered binoculars and a small notebook attached to a lanyard. Alice had wondered where he came from. More people dressed like him came after, from all over, hundreds of them, to see the bird, the gallinule. She felt in some ways they had come to see her, too, to see her watch the gallinule. Then the bird was gone, almost like it had never been there. The people disappeared, too. At night Alice listened for the call, but all she heard was the constant thrum of peepers.
Alice’s arms fade in and out in the dark as the beams of headlights pan through the room. They are coming for her. Her skin has a sheen she recognizes.
Through the hole in the wall, blades of thick swamp grass wave slowly reminding her of sauntering hips or the casual way the bird paced back and forth in the yard. She drops the paint roller on the floor. Paint splatters on her bare feet. In the light that diffuses from the hole the splatters look like blood. Her feet are thinner, almost bird-like. The light has a sheen she recognizes.
A voice calls from outside as flashlights strobe the dark walls.
“Alice, we are here.”
It sounds like her mother, but it can’t be. Alice’s arms are still gray but there is a hint of mauve now. She stands still with the splatters of paint on her feet and listens.
Through the hole in the wall it comes, a quick and faint piu, piu, piu. She wonders who she’d miss again as she hears the mother voice once more.
“Your imagination will be the end of you.” She hears again, only it trails off as if the voice is blown away by wind.
Alice lets go of everything around her as she puts one paint flecked foot in the hole and then another. She slides into the warm marshy grass. Whatever was behind her is gone, as if it never existed.
Piu, piu, piu, she calls. Piu, piu, piu, the bird calls back.
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