Birds Are Closer To God
By Daria Hilton
Chattering amongst themselves, the little birds churned the green sea of thick palm leaves with their relentless diving and cresting. On cue, they launched themselves into the heavens when the church bells announced the morning mass, their brilliant yellow bellies like fireworks against the pale blue sky.
The boy and his mother watched the birds as they grew smaller and smaller until they were tiny yellow dots that the sky easily swallowed.
“Did you give the birds a message for Javier?” Angelina asked her young son, Jesus.
“Yes,” he answered shyly. “I told him about how Beto had to wear the donkey ears yesterday.”
“Javier is with God,” his mother answered gently. “He probably already knows about Beto. What he might not know is what is in your heart.”
Jesus looked away. He didn’t know what was in his heart. He just knew his friend who got him into trouble all the time was gone. He remembered how they both got the belt that time when Javier had convinced him to pour dirt on his sister’s boyfriend from the roof.
“How come the birds can talk to Javier and I can’t?” asked Jesus.
His mother took his hand as they walked along the narrow streets toward his school.
“Birds are closer to God,” she explained. “You can talk to Javier in your prayers.”
Jesus was silent again. He had tried to talk to Javier in his prayers, and also in the back patio where they had played so often, and from the top of the only hill in the neighborhood. He had mastered Javier’s trick of flipping in midair off of the swings, hoping his friend would somehow signal his approval. All of these things just made him sadder.
Jesus wondered if Javier was with God at all. In school, Javier had to wear the donkey ears more than anyone except Santos. At home, he was worse. When his grandpa sat outside to smoke, Javier would round up red ants and sneak them onto the old man’s empty hand. He would howl with laughter when the ants started to bite and his grandpa, spewing expletives, tried to swat them, and Javier, with ungainly swings that rarely landed.
Angelina worried about her son’s silence but couldn’t find the right way to fill it. She simply kissed him on top of his head and reminded him that she loved him.
Jesus’s teacher, Mrs. Diaz, took the construction paper pumpkins and leaves down from the windows that day. While the class was working on the snowflakes that would replace them, she passed back the Autumn artwork. She paused when she came to a rather haphazardly cut out red leaf. Jesus knew it was Javier’s. Please don’t throw it away, he thought, though he couldn’t bring himself to ask for it. Without words, Mrs. Diaz placed the leaf on his desk.
When he got home that day, Jesus covered a shoe box lid with aluminum foil and glued marbles all around the edges. He only used cat’s eyes because those were Javier’s favorite. He glued the red leaf onto the center of the lid and hung it above his bed. Even his brothers, who usually spared him no mercy, had the compassion to not tease him about his small tribute.
On the last day of the novena, Javier’s mom fainted in the church. Parents never talked about these things. Jesus only knew about it because it happened on a Sunday. The novena wasn’t finished right. No one finished the prayers for Javier. Jesus began to worry. Then he began to panic. Javier needed all the help he could get to make it past Saint Peter and into heaven. Jesus said every prayer he knew and made up a few new ones.
He wanted to ask the priest for help but he didn’t want anyone officially religious to know how much help Javier would need to get into heaven. He also didn’t want the priest to find out he had been trying to talk to Javier. Talking to the dead was definitely a sin. He tried to find answers in the family bible, but kept falling asleep.
“Was he nice to dogs?” His friend Cualli asked when Jesus admitted worrying about Javier’s soul.
Jesus didn’t understand the question but answered it anyway. “He loved dogs. Street dogs, pet dogs, little dogs, big dogs, all dogs.”
“Then a good dog will carry him across the river to heaven but you have to make a tiny dog statue with a saddle on it and throw it into the lake.”
Jesus had never heard about little dog statues before, but Cualli seemed so sure. So he asked Mrs. Diaz for some clay. He made the little dog look like Javier’s Chihuahua, Tequila. He had to do the saddle over again though because Cualli said it should look like a basket not a horse’s saddle. Jesus figured his friend had to be right because you couldn’t sit in a regular saddle if you were dead.
Jesus wanted to let Javier know what he was up to so he talked to the bunch of little birds that flitted around the pomegranate tree in his back yard. They didn’t seem to listen. They wouldn’t even fly away. He ran at the tree, shouting and waving his arms. The birds flew up to the telephone wire and just sat there, like beads on a string.
“Dumb birds,” he muttered.
Sitting on an over-turned bucket on the beach, Cualli’s Uncle Juan had the opposite thought about the chirpy birds busily telling each other their dreams.
“Clever birds,” he thought. “No wonder they remember their dreams.”
The perfect steamy blend of fresh milk, coffee, chocolate, and cane alcohol of today’s pajarete warmed his body and crept into his stiff limbs. The ring of mist that circled the lake on these cold mornings split the surrounding hills in two halves. The bottom half an even black ribbon, the top half a roller coaster of peaks and valleys above which wispy clouds caught the pinks, oranges and purples tossed from the rising sun.
Pelicans flew overhead in small groups. Like the night herons, grackles, egrets and other ugly-voiced birds, they had the courtesy to stay quiet in the dawn hours.
Juan noticed two figures emerging from the pastel canvas of the Eastern horizon. It wasn’t until they were much closer that he recognized his nephew. He didn’t know the tall mestizo boy who was with him.
“What brings you here so early?” Juan asked his nephew, embarrassing him with a loud kiss on the cheek.
“Show him Jesus,” Cualli encouraged his friend.
Jesus dug the small dog statue from his pocket and showed it to Cualli’s Uncle Juan.
Without further discussion, Juan lifted the two boys into his small boat and began to pull up the anchor. The sawing noise of the anchor chain scraping against the side of the boat broke the tranquility of the morning into uneven pieces. The roar of the outboard motor shattered those pieces altogether. Juan piloted the little boat to a precise point in the lake. Not the center of the lake itself but the center of a larger network of holy places. Juan nodded to Jesus.
Jesus made a platform of his hand and carefully placed the dog statue in the center. He leaned out of the boat and lowered his hand until it, and the tiny dog, were submerged. He pointed his fingertips to the bottom of the lake and watched the little statue drift down and disappear.
On the way back to shore, a waterspout erupted from the very spot where Jesus had offered the lake the little dog. The two boys stared in wide wonder. Juan, of course, had seen this before.
“This is the power of love,” Juan explained, as the waterspout slowly rotated eight times then collapsed upon itself, becoming part of the lake again.
The next morning Jesus woke up to the sound of Javier whistling for him. He jumped out of bed and was outside in his back yard with bare feet before he remembered it could not be Javier. He saw the bird seconds later. He couldn’t miss it really. The bird, standing in a beam of light that was practically a spotlight, whistled again. Jesus walked up and sat next to it. It didn’t fly away. It kept whistling. Finally, Jesus whistled back. The bird flew up to Javier’s window next door and rested on the windowsill for a minute before flying straight into the sky.
Angelina watched her son sit motionless on the ground. She walked slowly outside and sat down next to him, putting her arm around his shoulders.
Jesus started to cry. “I miss Javier,” he sobbed.
“I know, mijo, but he’s in Heaven now.”
“Yes,” Jesus agreed with certainty. “Yes, he is!”