It didn’t take long at all for her and Sarah to walk down the hallway to the stairway and carefully navigate the rough stone flooring of the stairs down to the first floor. Then, they stepped quickly and lightly down another hallway to a double steel doorway leading to the garden. Sarah held the door open for Collie as she passed through it out onto the pathway of the garden, just around the corner from her cell’s window. Perhaps to many, standing on this path just past the steel double doors wouldn’t have been anything special. Indeed, just a few short months before this day such an experience as this wouldn’t have meant that much to Collie, either. There had been many hours during those depressing days in her cramped and filthy windowless cell when she’d tried to remember every little detail of those days she’d been outdoors and surrounded by vivid displays of life abundant. During those hours, Collie had wished that she’d paid more attention to what was going on around her during her life and had appreciated more the times when she was truly happy, so that she might better remember those wonderful times of the past and be comforted by them during the harsh times that she sometimes had to endure. She’d vowed in her heart that she’d never let this happen to her ever again…that she’d make as much effort as she could to live in the moment each and every day and fully give of herself and receive from others during this time, both for herself and for all those she loved.
Collie knew her time in the garden would be limited, for there was much planned for her during the next few days. Soon, she’d be going with Sarah in her car to her new home to begin her life in her sister’s home, and she truly wasn’t sure if and when she’d ever pass this way again. Keeping in mind her decision to live in the moment and pay close attention to the beauty of all of nature’s wonders which surrounded her, Collie wanted to make the most of the time she and Sarah would share in the prison’s garden.
“I’ve dreamed of walking in this garden, Sarah.” Collie had a feeling of happiness that was not so suppressed that Sarah couldn’t see it in her sister…it was as if Collie had a tiny inner glow that came out in her voice and expression. The afternoon was warm and pleasant, and all the small inhabitants of the garden were wide-awake and going about their business.
“And I knew it was the first place I wanted to take you, so we could share our gifts.” Sarah shifted the boxes from under her right arm to hold in front of her with both hands, as she began walking to the bench with Collie following close behind. Gravel crunched under their feet and squirrels looked out curiously from behind trunks and branches as the girls went by them. The green birds had stopped chirping and stayed very motionless, blending into the surrounding foliage of tree leaves, moss, and small bushes and vines until they could see what these two ground-walkers were up to. The green birds were acutely aware that sometimes ground-walkers could become tree-climbers and occasionally the smaller ones would be dangerous to them, thus their caution when Sarah and Collie entered the garden…
Collie knew she’d love what Sarah had in her gift boxes, and it really didn’t matter as much what was contained within them because she loved Sarah so much. When she was a little girl, Collie was very concerned with what gifts were in each box and bag, and those who gave her gifts could tell instantly if she liked what they’d gotten her, and almost exactly just how much she liked the gift. The older she got, the more skillful she became at making those who gave her gifts believe that it was something she dearly loved, even if she didn’t care for it at all. It all started out innocently enough, but Collie had gone beyond what was socially necessary to be polite. She’d become so skilled at shading the truth, that sometimes she herself didn’t know exactly how she felt…sometimes her half-truths were so convincing that she half-believed it all herself. Truth to be told, Collie had a hard time telling the exact and precise truth. She meant no harm by it, and it had all started because she didn’t want to hurt other people’s feelings. But sometimes…sometimes it went too far.
Sarah handed Collie a small box to open, and Collie gently began to take off the tape holding the wrapping to the box. When she was a little girl, she’d torn off the wrapping all in a great hurry to get at what was inside. As she became closer to entering adulthood, she began to get satisfaction from the experience of opening the gift…the delicious anticipation and being able to appreciate the way the gift was wrapped. She searched for clues as she was in the process of unwrapping it, turning it this way and that way while gently shaking it and listening for a rattle or bump while feeling to see how what was inside shifted within the box. In this case, on this day unwrapping this particular box, Collie could feel nothing inside and wondered if those of the Realm might be as fond of playing jokes with gift boxes as those in America were. Her former best friend Nancy had once given her a gift box for her birthday that had an elaborate “Jack-in-the-box” mechanism inside with a decorative pillow that had a picture of a dog that looked a lot like Lady on the front. The pillow launched itself directly at Collie’s face while she was leaning over the top of the box opening the last flaps on the gift. She still smiled when remembering how she’d been so shocked and startled that she’d actually wet her panties, but only just a little…and that hadn’t happened to her since Granny’d taken her to the Sportatorium II to see “Cricket: Force of Nature” wrestling back when she was a little girl, and CFN had ended up throwing his evil rival, professional wrestler Rattus Sapien the sewer dweller, right into her chair, and he’d pretty much fallen on top of her. The Commissioner of Wrestling, R. Alan Smith, was ringside as usual, and Commissioner Smith had immediately rushed over to talk to her and Granny and to make sure Collie was all right and hadn’t been hurt by Sewer Dweller accidentally landing on top of her. In fact, in the last second of the incident just as Collie saw the hairless prosthetic tail of the half-man and half-rat coming toward her, he’d put out both his human left hand and his rat claw where his right hand should have been and transferred the full force of the landing to the armrests instead of Collie. Collie had put out her hands to protect herself as she squirmed in her seat and tried to turn partly away from the inevitable collision. As Rattus’ hand and paw hit the two armrests, one of Collie’s hands brushed against his prosthetic rat tail. Both armrests vibrated furiously under the shock of the collision and Rattus fell to his knees in front of Collie’s seat. Both CFN and Sewer Dweller Rattus Sapien paused for a few seconds in shock at how the technique had gone so dreadfully wrong, and both professional wrestlers looked at her questioningly, Rattus turning around on the floor and CFN coming right up to her to stand next to the rat man on the floor. For a number of long seconds the action had a total pause as everyone in the Sportatorium was looking at Collie and wondering if she’d been hurt in the accidental collision. In truth, Collie had been hurt no more than when Nancy had prepared the joke gift box for her after vowing to do Collie one better when she discovered that Collie had been the one who started a secret write-in campaign for her for class Vice-President. During the student government pep rally the school principal had called Nancy and the other candidates up on stage so each could give a short speech about why they thought they’d do the best job, and she didn’t even know she was a candidate until that moment, thanks to Collie and her incredible ability to keep secrets. Collie had been really careful that the campaign’d be a secret…and it was just that to almost everyone in school, except those few Collie had asked for help with Nancy’s campaign. Collie still remembered how shocked she was at the passionate and convincing speech Nancy had delivered on the spur of the moment, and which had surely won her the election. Even when she and Nancy became enemies, Collie never once regretted that she’d voted for Nancy in the school election, and she never forgot how happy they both were when Nancy won. The details of the secret campaign she ran for Nancy and how shocked Nancy was when she was called up on-stage, and then later how shocked she herself was when Nancy’s gift came flying out of the gift box right at her face were among the many memories from the past that she cherished, even though some of these particular memories had their uncomfortable moments while she actually lived them. Still, she wouldn’t have traded them for anything and it made her feel good to remember the happy times from her life back in America, especially now that it seemed like she’d never be able to return to the land of her birth ever again, except lying cold and still in her coffin on her final flight back to America after her execution.
“Sarah, is there really something inside?” Collie wasn’t sure of Realm etiquette in such matters, and even as she said the words she wished that she could take them back…maybe they weren’t the right words to say, even though she’d be comfortable to say this in America and with her American friends and family.
It was a little breach of etiquette, and Sarah knew a Realm girl probably wouldn’t have said this, but then her sister Collie was half American and what she had to say would probably never again be either entirely of America or of the Realm. The only way to know this for sure was when Collie was able to talk to her friends and family members in America. Would they understand the change in her by speaking to her over the phone? And, would they attribute the changes in Collie to her getting older and more mature as she moved ever closer to adulthood, or would they understand that Collie was now of two separate and distinct cultures? Sarah didn’t know, and wasn’t sure if her American friends and family could understand the difference in her yet, but it seemed to her that Collie would soon find her own equilibrium point somewhere between the two cultures, just as all other immigrants did — retaining part of their old culture of origin and adopting some of the culture of their new land. Collie would be no exception, and gradually she’d adopt more and more of the culture of the Realm.
“Open it and see…and, then tell me if you can guess why I gave you this gift.” Sarah didn’t think Collie would be able to guess, because none of those she’d guided before Collie had ever been able to figure it out. Maybe Collie’d be the first….
Collie hurried a bit more with the box, her curiosity getting the better of her. She saw that the lid of the box was hinged and held with a small piece of tape. Gently and carefully, she peeled the tape back from the bottom and, remembering what’d happened when she’d leaned over Nancy’s gift years before and it’d launched itself right towards her as she opened it, Collie slowly and hesitantly opened the lid of the box away from herself. Inside, there were two small piles of hair, all tangled up. Collie put the box on her lap and put her fingers into the box to feel the hair as she rolled it between her fingers.
“Every time I brushed your hair when I visited you, I saved it in this box when I got home. Then, I brushed my hair and saved my loose hair in the box next to yours. I wanted to have this gift of hair to share with you when we were able to visit the garden today.” Sarah could see Collie was puzzled as she explained what she’d done over the past months so she could fill the box with her and Collie’s cast-off hair.
Collie knew that Sarah must have had her reasons for making a gift of this box of hair to her, but she couldn’t guess what they were. Maybe they’d make two bracelets out of their hair, one for each of them? Collie had read of some tribes that did this sort of thing, and began thinking that the Realm must have some sort of custom involving the gift of hair…. It must be a special gift to give to someone, having a deep meaning. Whatever it was, Collie knew that it was something good, because it was her sister Sarah who’d given her this gift.
“Take some of the hair in your hand, Collie….just a little bit of yours and a little bit of mine.” Collie took a half-dozen strands of her hair and a like number of Sarah’s hair in her hand. “Now, hold it out away from your face and away from me. Hold your palm flat with the hair in it, as if you were going to feed it to a horse, just like the hair was an apple you were holding out and you didn’t want the horse to nip you. You can hold the very ends of the strands in between your fingers so they don’t blow away.” Collie very carefully did as Sarah instructed, and in a matter of seconds two adult green birds came and perched on her wrist and thumb and began tugging at the hair strands with their beaks. One green bird even used one of its feet to give a troublesome set of hair strands an extra forceful tug. Each bird soon flew off with several strands of hair flapping in the breeze as they both flew toward one of the large trees. Collie gasped in thrilled shock and amazement over this unexpected event.
Sarah knew that the green birds had been watching them and understood what the box of hair was for, even if Collie didn’t. “They love our hair for their nests, Collie. They know that each strand’s strong as steel and soft as cotton. They’ll build our hair into their nests and it’ll help keep them secure and safe for the eggs and nestlings that can’t yet fly.’
Collie suddenly remembered the day she saw a bird attacking Lady in her back yard. It was such a bizarre sight that at first Collie thought that the bird had become sick or disoriented and had accidentally flown into Lady’s back and had quickly seen its mistake and flown away. But, then the bird kept coming back and dive-bombing Lady, and Collie was frantic because she couldn’t understand what was going on. Suddenly, she understood perfectly…. The bird was grabbing some of Lady’s fur off her back each time it made a dive-bombing attack, and taking bits of fur back up into the tree. With her dad’s binoculars Collie could see the bird using the fur to line a nest way up in the tree securely anchored at a fork in a large upper branch. She didn’t want Lady to have to undergo getting dive-bombed by the nest-builder anymore, so she brought her dog into the house and cut off some of her fur where it wouldn’t show and took it out and put it on the grass. From inside the house, Collie could see the bird taking the fur off the grass up to its nest, and when it no longer came down to the grass to get more fur, Collie knew that Lady would be safe going out in the back yard again.
As they perched on her hand, Collie got her first good up-close look at the green birds. Their eyes sparkled with intelligence as they looked at her in between giving their attention to the various strands of hair she held in her hand. Their beaks looked sharp and powerful, yet they never made any move that might have harmed her. They seemed to understand that she was making a gift of the hair to them for their nest-building activities, for there’d been no hesitation whatsoever in their flying to perch on her hand as soon as she held it out away from her and Sarah.
“Does anyone ever tame one of these beautiful green birds and keep it as a pet?” Collie knew her great-great-Grandmother Louise had a small parakeet that she’d adored, and the little creature had lived for so many years that it’d come to be considered as a tiny feathered member of the family.
“Oh no, not really Collie. They’ll live close to people, but they prefer to live among their own kind in the wild. The best you can do for them is to have a garden where they’ll feel welcome and safe in building their nests.” Sarah knew that if it were possible for her to take one as a pet, that Collie would be an excellent caretaker, but that a life of captivity for one of the green birds would not be a good thing for it, just as Collie’s ordeal during her cruel time of captivity in the depths of Central Prison was not a good thing for her, and indeed came very close to killing her.
The little green birds returned again and again to Collie’s hand to take more of the hair to use in their nests, and Collie didn’t tire of taking hair out of the box and holding it out for them. She kept thinking about what Sarah had said about guessing why she’d given her the gift of hair, and Collie thought she knew why.
“You gave me the gift so I could give it away, and our hair could be used for something worthwhile instead of being thrown away. Is this why you gave me the hair?” Collie turned to Sarah as she asked the question just after a smaller and younger green bird launched itself from her palm as it carried the gift of long strands of hair back to its home.
Sarah looked at Collie thoughtfully. She was on the right track, and Sarah truly believed that Collie would be able to understand this lesson easily.
“Up in those trees, my hair’s been used in dozens and dozens of nests over the years. Every spring, the birds use the best of the old nests as building material for their new nests, and they search for the best new material to add to make their new nests even better than the ones they had the year before. In your life, Collie, if you keep the best of what you have from the past and take the best of what you find in the here and now and put them together, then you’ll always have the very best of what’s available to you to use in building your life.” Sarah reached over to the box in Collie’s lap and took out some of her hair and some of Collie’s hair and held it up between them.
“The birds will intertwine our hair from this year in their nests with my hair from the years before and the hair of other girls I’ve guided who have already journeyed to the next world.”
Collie felt a little hurt that Sarah would bring others into what she thought was something very special between just the two of them, and a twinge of jealousy pricked her before she could even think it through, and she spoke to her big sister before she calmed down enough to realize that her words would hurt Sarah.
“You mean you’ll be sitting here next year with some other girl after I’m gone and she‘ll be holding her hair and your hair out for the birds to build their nests, don’t you?” Collie said very sadly and with just a hint of jealousy and bitterness.
Sarah didn’t expect Collie to react this way, and sat looking away from her and carefully thinking of her reply for a dozen seconds or more. When she turned to speak, Collie could see the lines of concerned sadness and weariness in her face.
“Perhaps I will, Collie. But, this is what I want you to remember of our time here together in this garden….if I should die before you, I ask of you this day that you bring another here to this bench and that you give the birds strands of your hair and hair strands from the one you bring with you, and that you give them to the birds to use in building their nests.” Sarah moved closer to Collie, so close that their hips touched, and she took both of Collie’s hands in her own.
“I ask this of you, Collie, because I want you to live your life each and every day until you make your journey to the next world. Some of the birds that perched on your hand today won’t be in this world next year. But, while they are here on earth they’re doing their best to make their own lives and the lives of their babies the best they can. They build for the future, even if they won’t be there when the future they build for arrives. I have no way of knowing if I’ll be in this world or the next even as soon as when tomorrow morning dawns. But I do know that someone should be here next year to give the birds their finest nesting material. And whoever is here on this bench next year to give them hair for their nests will have their hair taken by some of the babies too young to fly you see in the nests now.” Sarah kissed Collie on her lips quickly and lightly as she hugged her comfortingly.
“I’ve brought others to this bench before you, and from those who’ve gone before me I’ve tried to remember the best that they had to teach me. It was their gift to me. The birds taught my mother something that she shared with me when I was a little girl…to use the best that I have from the past to help build for the future, just like the birds are doing with our hair right now and the hair I gave them last year and the years before that, too.“ Sarah could see the light of understanding brighten in Collie’s eyes as the darkness of bitterness, sadness, and jealousy slowly faded and then was gone.
“Our hair is part of the cycle of life now, Collie. Some of the eggs will stay safe in their nests because our hair will help cushion them during storms and help the nests survive in one piece, and the hair of those who’ve gone before us will work with ours to keep these eggs safe. Remember that there’ll come a day when you and I will be together in the next world, and when that day comes I want there to be other girls to take our place here in this garden for the green birds who’ll be here hunting for their nesting material then. This is the cycle of life, and today you and I are part of it.’ Collie suddenly returned Sarah’s light kiss and put her arms around her and laid her head on Sarah’s shoulder, as she understood more and more of what Sarah had been telling her those many weeks in her cell, and she suddenly felt so horribly ashamed of the hurtful thing she’d just said to her big sister in sadness and jealousy. But, she also remembered that Sarah had made a request of her, and would want to know that she would honor her request.
“I promise you that I will,” was Collie’s promise made to her big sister from the depths of her soul, and in her words and in her heart she promised that she’d give to the future without regard to whether she herself would be in this world or would have already made her journey to the next world when the future she contributed to would arrive. Collie now understood that what she did in her life would touch the future, perhaps in ways that she couldn’t even guess or imagine, just as the Legend of the Little Granddaughter and the Old Grandfather had taken place over half a century before her birth, yet had changed her life so many decades later during 2019 in the Realm.
Collie had forgotten that there were other gift boxes until Sarah held another out to her wordlessly, and without speaking Collie took the box and opened it slowly and with great care, as she had the first gift box. This box had a very interesting series of rattles and bumps when she turned it, so very different from the box with the hair in it. Finally, when she opened the lid she saw a bewildering assortment of buttons, beads, coins, and several small shiny objects that seemed to be from the back of junk drawers and the bottom of sewing baskets from around the world.
“Bet you can’t guess who could use this, can you Collie?” Sarah smiled at Collie’s look of confusion as she put her hands into the midst of the trinkets and moved them around, searching for a clue hidden underneath all the baubles visible on the surface.
“Just go ahead and put the box down on the grass by that rock, Collie and you’ll see who claims it as their own.” Sarah’s eyes were twinkling and she was almost laughing, and Collie knew that her unhappily bitter words spoken in haste just minutes before had already been forgiven and forgotten…
Collie stood up and laid the box next to the rock just under a dozen feet in front of the bench she and Sarah were sitting on. She’d barely made it back to the bench and was taking her seat when the first gray squirrel came to see what was in the box. Little paws took up one shiny object after another until, with small chuckles and squeals of excitement, it settled upon its favorite and then, holding the small coin with its teeth, it scampered up the tree that was its home to admire this new shiny possession. In no time at all, dozens of gray squirrels had thoroughly pawed through and examined the contents of the box and taken what most appealed to them. There had been four or five squirrel fights as two of them made a grab for the same object, but Sarah was quick to clap her hands sharply and hiss loudly at them. The first time she did this, it startled Collie terribly and she jumped. Sarah squeezed her hand with a soft quick little “Sorry, Collie”, and Collie expected the clap and noise to break up each squirrel fight after that. Collie watched in fascination as the small objects were quickly ferried by what seemed to turn into a coordinated effort by the squirrels to transfer the contents of the box to their homes in the trees. It was very enjoyable to watch because it was so obvious that the little animals were so completely and totally thrilled by the gifts they’d received, and Collie joyfully delighted in sharing their pleasure with their gifts.
“Can you tell how happy they are, Collie?” Sarah’s eyes twinkled and her nose crinkled up as she laughed out loud. “It’s just like we brought them a pirate’s treasure chest full of gold and jewels.”
Collie was happy too, as she went and fetched the empty box back to their bench. But, she was curious as well, “What do they do with this stuff – do they use these things to line their dens or something?”
“No, not at all,” Sarah was still laughing a little. “They’re collectors. It really is their treasure. But, you have to be careful not to give them too much of this kind of stuff. After a certain point, it becomes bad for them because it gets in their way too much.” Sarah was certain that Collie wouldn’t be able to understand the gray squirrels without a detailed explanation, but in this she was quite mistaken.
“You mean they’re little gray pack-rat squirrels!” Collie understood in a flash just what Sarah was trying to explain to her. When she was in fifth grade and on a school outing at a real working farm to see what life was like for those who lived and worked on farms, she’d seen a quick glint of silver coming from back in the corner area of the barn as one of the boys moved the barn door slightly, thus shifting a sunbeam across a dark stretch of the rear wall, through a small doorway of a storage room at the back of the barn, and to the far wall. Collie walked over to where she’d seen the flash of reflected sunlight and moved a loose board to reveal a small creature looking back at her from the depths of a cubbyhole filled to overflowing with assorted trash. She could see there was a tunnel at the back for the little gray creature’s escape should it feel threatened by her if she reached in to its nest. She stood there silently looking at it as it kept her gaze and remained motionless looking back at her.
“What have you found there, Colleen Lee?” her teacher asked her from across the barn. Some of her teachers would call her “Collie” and other of them wouldn’t, and it didn’t seem to follow any kind of pattern. Miss Williams had settled upon “Colleen Lee”, while other adults would call her “Colleen” and others would actually call her “Collie” sometimes. It didn’t really matter that much to her, because she knew to answer to all three names, “Colleen”, “Colleen Lee”, “Collie”, and once in a very great while, someone would refer to her as “Miss” or even “Miss Knight”, depending upon them and what name the adult addressing her was most comfortable with.
“It’s a big mouse in the wall and there’s a lot of trash back here, too” Collie had expected the mouse to run when it saw her, but it moved not a whisker as it kept staring at her, trying to decide if it should retreat or not.
“Don’t touch it, Colleen Lee!” Miss Williams spoke in a tone of urgency and command as she hurried to young Miss Colleen Lee “Collie” Knight’s side. “Did it bite you?”
“No, Ma’am. It hasn’t moved…maybe it’s sick?” Colleen didn’t love big mice, but she knew what it felt like to be sick, and she couldn’t ever wish this on anyone or anything.
Miss Williams peered into the little cubbyhole at the small rat and watched as the little creature shifted its position as it saw another huge creature coming to look at it. Here was an increasing threat! At first there was only one big thing looking at it, and now a similar looking creature much larger and obviously more powerful had joined it, and its little rat mind was processing this new information and deciding that a retreat would soon become its best option. Should either of these massive creatures make a move toward it, the little gray rat decided that it would turn and flee at top speed down the escape tunnel and only return once it was certain that the giant creatures had left. Miss Williams understood what the little rat must be thinking and whispered to Collie….
“We’ll leave this nest alone, Colleen Lee.” Teacher and student turned and walked back to the rest of the students. Miss Williams asked each student, one by one, to join her in peering into the nest at the small rat sitting amidst assorted pieces of cast-off trash. The next day, back in the classroom, Miss Williams reviewed everything they’d seen the day before.
“Class, yesterday we saw cows, chickens, pigs, horses, and a little pack-rat in its nest in the barn.” She went on to explain how pack-rats love small shiny objects and other pieces of trash that they, for unknown reasons, treasured. She saw the opportunity to teach the children a lesson about how some people were different, but that these differences could enrich their lives.
“There are people you’ll meet in life who are much like the little pack-rat. They treasure things that might seem like so much trash to you, but always remember what the things they treasure mean to them and how much they love their collection, even if it means nothing to you and might even seem to just be so much garbage. If you’ll try to understand how much these objects mean to those who collect them, then you’ll be able to understand them better, and you’ll also be able to realize that some of what you treasure appears to others as only trash.” Colleen Lee Knight was stunned by this idea…but, when she thought about it carefully, it all began to make perfect sense to her. Her friend Matt had confided to her once that he was thoroughly puzzled that his mom and dad didn’t love his comic books as much as he did….sure, they’d sit with him and look at them because they knew he loved them so much, but it was obvious to him that they didn’t care that much about them, and he never saw them reading his comics on their own. Colleen Lee Knight couldn’t understand why her mommy and daddy didn’t like the wrestling on TV as much as she and Granny did and never wanted to go to the Sportatorium II to see the wrestlers, and it’d remained a mystery to her until Miss Williams spoke to the class about the pack-rat in the barn, and how only it knew what it found valuable…no one else could decide for the pack-rat what was valuable treasure and worth keeping and what it should ignore in its wanderings as only trash to be left where it lay.
All this went through Collie’s mind in a flash as she took her seat on the bench next to Sarah, and commented, “You knew just what they wanted the most Sarah, and you’re someone special to them because you provided them with exactly the things they’ll treasure the most and like the best.”
Sarah looked at her solemnly and asked her earnestly, “And now you know what kind of treasures the squirrels love and you know what the green birds need to make their nests safe and comfortable for their eggs and hatchlings, and from now on you’ll always be someone special to them too, won’t you Collie?”
In reply to her sister’s question, Collie answered in the same manner as if she was taking a solemn vow as she pledged to always be of assistance and comfort to these small creatures, “Yes…Yes, I promise that I will!”
© 2011, John Michael O’Loughlin, All Rights Reserved