Mrs. Anwen Bevan, retired administrative assistant to a vice president in the Utica Mutual Insurance Co., devoted a portion of each day to strategizing about her yard. It was rectangular, fifty feet wide and eighty feet long, hemmed in by the yards of three neighbors. To the left and right, chain-link fences ran the length of her property. Between these at the far end was a ramshackle low stone wall, remnant of an early era of wall- and fence-making in this neighborhood. Mrs. Bevan did not want her yard to be overrun with trees, flowers, and vegetables, or serve as a haven for birds, insects, bees, or squirrels, as was the case with the Cavallo family on her left. She did not want her yard to be populated with the detritus of children, as with the Wasilewskis on her right, whose two sons played in that yard every afternoon, trudging muddy sneakers at dinnertime up the stairs to the small back porch, leaving in their wake all manner of balls, bats, bicycles, jackets, toy guns, even a half-assembled soapbox car—which remained half-assembled for a good three years before Mr. Wasilewski dragged it to the curb for the trash pickup. Mrs. Bevan had as little to do with children as could be managed. She’d been an only child in the north Wales village of Ffestiniog, and the cousins her age had emigrated with their families to London when she was a toddler. Since then, children rarely ventured into her presence, or she into theirs.
No, she would not keep a yard intruded upon by children. She also would not allow her yard to resemble the Shank property beyond the stone wall, a wasteland of uncut grass as wispy and inconsequential as what sprouts from an old man’s head, with a miniature forest of sun-starved saplings and a mound of old tires stacked against a garage, slowly melting into themselves and accommodating, no doubt, an entire colony of rodents. Mrs. Bevan had not seen Mr. Shank for many years. She’d heard he’d been ill and confined to his house—Mrs. Morgan across the road reported on three occasions that he had in fact died, though these reports proved premature. Mrs. Bevan had also heard that Mr. Shank’s grandson brought supplies and medicine to his home. At least the boy made himself useful. But Mrs. Bevan was not impressed with other members of the Shank clan. That boy’s father, for one, had abandoned his family in a most peculiar manner. According to Blodwen Richards, he’d gotten into his car on a Saturday morning for grocery shopping, and after completing the errand drove in a direction opposite from his home. His errand advanced him into a new life, without wife, child, church, or community. The boy’s mother, by all accounts, turned to religion for consolation. That was all well and good, but she attended Our Lady of Lourdes several times every day—a schedule apparently acceptable in the Roman Catholic world. Would she not run out of things to say, Mrs. Bevan wondered, to her priest or to her God? All in all, Mrs. Bevan thought, the Shanks extended family represented a sorry state of affairs.
Mrs. Bevan observed the goings-on in her immediate neighbors’ yards from a bay window in her kitchen, one pane facing the Cavallo yard and another the Wasilewskis. The middle pane overlooked her own property and the Shank property beyond. Mrs. Bevan’s yard was spare but well cared for. She paid Rev. Price’s son to mow it once a week. She herself weeded every Saturday. She tolerated no flowers, shrubs, or trees—the last of which must one day topple upon one’s house or fence. She could not abide bird feeders because they attract squirrels, a species of rodent. And birds themselves, of course, pollute the very trays from which they feed. The largest yard project Mrs. Bevan had ever organized was the chainsawing of a mature sugar maple where her lawn abutted the Shank wasteland—a mother tree and fountainhead of the stunted sapling forest, as well as shelter for the multitudinous birds Mrs. Bevan could hear squawking, as they will, every sunrise, every sunset.
Mrs. Bevan did not appreciate the annual spring eruption of Mr. Cavallo’s flower beds and vegetable gardens or the irksome bustle of his late summer harvesting—his carrying back and forth, with extravagant care, wicker baskets of tomatoes and cucumbers, as if they were his newborns. But however much the profusion of his garden affronted Mrs. Bevan, she most of all resented the compost heap behind his garage, a few feet from her property. On summer afternoons she could smell the food scraps Mr. Cavallo had added to his heap the evening before with the fling of a bucket. One afternoon she walked to the end of the yard to inspect his compost and discovered a squirrel squatting at the very pinnacle, making a meal of carrot peels and wilted lettuce. At the property line, she called out, as if rebuking a child, “Stop that! Stop this instant! Go!” She waved her arms to shoo it from its perch. The creature cast an indifferent glance at her, then resumed its dinner.
During the years of living with Mr. Bevan, Mrs. Bevan wasn’t nearly as passionate about the issue of the Cavallo compost, though occasionally, after the washing up, she would pause during the latest issue of Y Drych, or while reading a letter from a cousin in London or perhaps a book of religious verse, and raise her nose, saying in Welsh, “Edwin, do you smell that?”
Her husband, watching television, would sleepily respond, also in Welsh, “Smell what, my dear?”
“Something on the air.”
“The windows are closed, my dear,” he’d say.
“It’s the Cavallo compost,” she’d say, switching to English. “It seeps into the house.”
Mrs. Bevan had an instinctual grasp of English, more extensive, more sure (though delivered rather stiffly) than her husband, who was fully fluent only when speaking Welsh to friends from the north of Wales.
“Ah, yes,” he’d reply. “Of course it does. Of course. Yes. ‘Permeates,’ as you like to say.”
He’d return to his program and she to her reading.
Edwin had been widowed five years before proposing marriage to her. He’d formed a pattern of walking her home after the Sunday service: His house was just four blocks farther from the small house she rented. Early on they mostly talked about his first wife and his sons, who were now grown men with families. His eldest wanted him to sell the house and move in with his family in Marcellus. But he wasn’t yet ready for that change. Soon their conversation moved from the past to their present lives. And one day, after they’d stepped onto her front porch, he took hold of her hand and proposed—a turn of events that surprised everyone, herself included. It was a very formal request, in Welsh of course, and she accepted, right there, without really thinking. It was so unlike her usual way of proceeding. But somehow she knew, without fully knowing him, that Edwin was a good man. And theirs proved a good marriage, far better than she could have imagined, despite the chilly reception given her by Edwin’s sons and their wives. She moved into this house to discover that Edwin was easy-going. He enjoyed neighbors, made a point of chatting, and even chose to weed while Mr. Cavallo tended his vegetable garden on Saturday afternoons.
The day Mrs. Bevan learned of Edwin’s cancer—that was a terrible day. Early on it was difficult to believe anything was wrong with her husband besides shortness of breath and a cough that worsened when he lay down in bed. How she bore the diagnosis from Dr. Evans and managed those last months of steep decline, how she survived the funeral and the loneliness that followed, she could not say. But she did survive. She made a point of surviving. She hadn’t wept in public—not once, though Edwin’s sons and their wives and children carried on at the funeral, their handkerchiefs fluttering busily across their faces. For Edwin, she maintained her dignity. For Edwin, she demonstrated undiminished strength, despite the fact that, since his death, life had become a far darker journey.
It was in early September, two years after Edwin’s passing, that Mrs. Bevan paid the Cavallos a visit to address the issue of the compost. As with most of her non-Welsh neighbors, she had never in fact stepped inside their house. They invited her into the sitting room, which Mrs. Bevan observed was spotless, with a formal, old-world feel—not dissimilar to her own front parlor. Mr. Cavallo was dressed casually, in wrinkle-free dark trousers and light green shirt. Mrs. Cavallo brought in a pot of coffee with delicate china cups and saucers, a bowl of sugar cubes, and a plate of homemade biscotti. When all had been served, Mrs. Bevan got to the point.
“Mr. Cavallo,” she said. “That heap behind your garage. It has an odor.”
“I’ve kept a compost since, well, since we moved here twenty-three years ago. You’ve never mentioned an odor before. Your husband and I had a thousand conversations with him weeding and me turning compost.”
“It’s garbage,” she said. “Plain and simple.”
“It is not,” Mr. Cavallo said, leaning forward. “I compost only vegetable scraps. I mix those with soil and leaves. I water it daily. I turn it over weekly. It’s hot as an oven in my compost, so nothing can smell.”
“Vermin and such,” Mrs. Bevan said, “seek out garbage.”
“There’s never been a rat in my yard,” Mr. Cavallo said. “Or that I’ve seen in this neighborhood, for that matter. And I need that compost for my tomato and basil plants.” He paused and leaned back. “Isabella,” he said, “would you bring the basket from the kitchen?”
“Nothing in this world,” he said to Mrs. Bevan, “is more pleasing for me than digging compost for my garden. It’s rich and clean. That’s why we eat so well.” He smiled and patted his ample waistline. His wife reappeared with an oval wicker basket heaped with ripe tomatoes. “These are for you, Mrs. Bevan,” he said, gesturing to the basket.
“I cannot eat tomatoes or a sauce made of them,” Mrs. Bevan said. “Because of acid indigestion.”
Mr. Cavallo could only stare at her. He turned to his wife and erupted into rapid, sharpish Italian.
Mrs. Bevan rose from her chair. “I will see myself to the door,” she said. “If you would simply remove that heap, please, at your earliest convenience.”
The next Sunday afternoon Mr. Cavallo spent an hour transferring the compost pile, wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow, to the opposite side of his yard—a space previously devoted to potatoes. Where the heap had been, Mr. Cavallo set a basket of tomatoes—the same he’d tried to give to Mrs. Bevan. What on earth? she thought when seeing it the next morning. Hadn’t he understood the words “acid indigestion”? Then she realized that the basket was not a gift but a reproach. She resolved to think no more about it.
A week after her success with the Cavallos, Mrs. Bevan sat at the table by her bay window watching Mr. Wasilewski walk from his garage to his backyard with a long-handled spade, then return a minute later with a wheelbarrow. He commenced digging. And each day following his arrival home from work, Mrs. Bevan watched him dig steadily for an hour, sometimes alone, sometimes with one or more sons, shovelful upon shovelful, wheelbarrow upon wheelbarrow, the earth carted to an expanding hill at the bottom of his yard. Why, she wondered, does he want to create a hill in his yard? Or is the hole in the ground the point? The sons worked silently and, she thought, sullenly, though the father was bumptious, singing rough-sounding songs in Polish, telling jokes to his sons that she couldn’t pretend to understand.
On a Saturday morning, Mrs. Bevan watched Mr. Wasilewski line the hole with black plastic, then fill it with water from a hose. When the water rose high enough, he carried a bucket from the trunk of his car to the hole. What he dumped in was more water, with flashes of wriggling orange lumps. Fish! Mrs. Bevan stood up from her chair by the bay window. Fish would live in that hole. And in due course, no doubt, frogs. And turtles. And insects. Birds might drop from the sky for a bath and drink from the same fouled water. And creatures would breed in that hole, Mrs. Bevan supposed, because standing water, as is well documented, becomes a cesspool of breeding. Mosquitoes would hatch eggs there.
She visited Mr. Wasilewski the next afternoon. His wife was not at home, and Mr. Wasilewski did not offer coffee or a biscuit. He led Mrs. Bevan into the TV room, where they sat on red vinyl chairs on either side of a card table. Landscapes that Mrs. Bevan assumed had been cut out of a calendar were scotch-taped in a vertical line on one wall: a cathedral, a castle, a mountain hut with a few goats standing nearby. These were the only decorations in the room. On the card table was a well-used deck of cards; stacks of red, white, and blue poker chips; and a half-full bottle of Budweiser. The TV was on—a baseball game, which Mr. Wasilewski did not turn off.
“I’m delighted you’ve stopped by,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve exchanged more than four words all year.”
“You have fabricated a water hole,” she told him. “In your yard.”
“You noticed,” he said. “Yes, it was a lot of work, but worth it, I hope.” After a quick glance at the TV, he added, “It’s a pond.”
“I know what it is, and I would like you to fill it in.”
“I would like you to fill in that hole.”
“Why would I put back in what I spent a week digging out?”
“Because,” she said, “we live in a city, not the wilderness. There are no Red Indians here. If you wish to live in the wilderness, you must relocate.”
“The pond is on private property.”
Mrs. Bevan tightened her lips. “There are rules, Mr. Wasilewski, even for private property. Have you not heard of plagues?”
Then Mr. Wasilewski laughed. He laughed long and loud. While he laughed, Mrs. Bevan did not change her expression, which was cold and pinched.
“Pestilence,” she said, “should not be scoffed at.”
“Do you know where I work, Mrs. Bevan?” he asked.
“I do not.”
“I make sausages at Hapanowicz’s.” He held up two meaty, calloused hands. “I work at a grinder. It’s messy. It smells bad—the smell doesn’t go away when you leave work or even after a bath. I come home at half past five and my wife does not welcome me because she’s working—she cleans the homes of rich people by the parkway. What I want when I’m home is to drink a beer and sit by the water. I love water.
“In Poland my family lived near a lake by the chemical plant where my father worked. The lake smelled as if something large in it had died. We couldn’t swim in it, weren’t allowed to fish it. But I didn’t care. My family picnicked on the stony shore—my parents, two brothers, three sisters. As a child I dreamed of living by a clean lake with no bad smell. I’ve never entered a swimming pool. I’ve only seen the ocean through a porthole on the ship that brought me here. So I dug out that pond with these hands. Now I have my own water on my own property. Clean, with living fish. It’s not for my children or my wife. It’s for me. It’s something I made with these Polish butcher’s hands.”
“You must now use those impressive hands,” Mrs. Bevan said, “to fill in that hole.”
“I will not.”
He paused. “May I ask you something, Mrs. Bevan?”
“If it’s not impolite.”
“When did you come to this country?”
“My parents and I arrived in nineteen hundred and nine.”
“I see. I arrived much later, but we have that in common, coming to this country. I’ve lived here since I was seventeen. Now I am thirty-one. I have a wife and two sons. I think I know what I can or cannot do. In this country, I can have a pond in my backyard if I want. I am sorry that you object.”
“It’s all so…” Mrs. Bevan couldn’t find the words. She started to tear up, and tugged a white handkerchief from the sleeve of her blue dress, pressing it against her eyes.
Mr. Wasilewski smiled. “Water is relaxing, Mrs. Bevan,” he said. “And refreshing. We need it, don’t we? We crawled out of it, or so I’ve heard. Priests sprinkle water on the heads of babies, do they not?”
“Are you a Catholic, Mr. Wasilewski?” Mrs. Bevan asked.
He smiled. “Jewish, if you go back far enough, then Catholic, but that’s a long story. Now I’m agnostic.”
Mrs. Bevan said nothing.
“You can visit me in my yard anytime. We’ll sit together by the pond. You’ll have a cup of tea. That’s what the Welsh drink, isn’t it? I’ll drink beer. We’ll talk. And we’ll look at what’s around us. The world, Mrs. Bevan, is all around us.”
Having suffered defeat at the hands of Jock Wasilewski, Mrs. Bevan walked stiffly back to her house, her purse wedged under an arm. She was upset that a man had seen her wipe tears away. She didn’t understand how that could have happened. She didn’t cry at Edwin’s funeral, yet teared up when talking to a boor about his water hole. Of course she’d never visit that man again, never enter his ramshackle yard, never sit next to him as he drank alcohol and stared at water. It was all preposterous.
Mrs. Bevan put a kettle on the stove for tea, and when she had poured a cup and had stirred in the milk and sugar, she thought again about her yard. She was only now getting used to the absence of the maple tree she’d had cut down the previous month—that tree had masked the crumbling dry-stone wall separating her yard from Mr. Shank’s. Was it possible that she made a mistake? With the maple tree gone, those ugly stones were all she could see. They reminded her of the walls dissecting the hills near Ffestiniog: disheveled, snaking shapes that held nothing in, kept nothing out, but demanded attention nevertheless. The Shank wall was similarly primitive, unruly, unsightly, but she could not have the stones carted away because they lay wholly on his property.
Then she saw something that exponentially intensified her dislike of the wall. Birds. Birds had settled on the stones. Sparrows, to be exact. A plague of sparrows. She did not remember ever seeing birds on the wall before. Perhaps her eye had been distracted by the now absent maple. Over the following week she pondered how these sparrows might be prevented from congregating there, defecating and disrupting. They always faced the Shank house, turning their collective feathery backs upon her property. One morning she observed a sparrow leap off the wall, then swoop to resettle back where it had perched—and thus she came upon the solution: Birds, like humans, have feet.
That afternoon Mrs. Bevan emptied a box of thumbtacks in a stream across the stones, shooing away sparrows as she walked, grimly shaking out the last tacks upon the last tumbledown stones. Close up, the stones were more disturbing than she’d suspected: irregular and primeval, mottled with lichen and moss, with overlapped splatterings of bird feces. Mrs. Bevan hoped that 500 sharp points would do the trick.
The following Wednesday, Mrs. Bevan’s phone rang shortly after nine, while she was washing breakfast dishes.
“I’ve been in hospital,” Mr. Shank said after introducing himself. “For three weeks.”
“Well, well,” Mrs. Bevan said, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
He let out a loose, muffled cough. “I rarely get out,” he said. “Truth be told, I am not well. But I saw from my bedroom window that my birds no longer sit on my wall. I asked my grandson to investigate, and he said nails had been scattered across the stones.”
“They are thumbtacks, not nails.”
“Whatever they are, they are not good for birds.”
“That’s the point, Mr. Shank. I have done us a favor.”
He coughed longer this time.
“They’re my birds,” he said.
“Nonsense,” Mrs. Bevan said. “They are wild. They belong to no person. They do as they please.”
“I feed them,” he said. “They wait for me to fill the feeder. I in turn wait for them. I enjoy them. It’s my grandson who feeds them now, since I’ve been ill, but in any event they expect to be fed. Since you had their tree cut down, they have no branches on which to perch. But they continue to eat from my feeder and now must sit on my wall. And I spend a considerable part of every day watching them from my bedroom window.”
“I am not responsible,” said Mrs. Bevan, “for wild birds.”
“This afternoon my grandson will pick off every nail you set on the wall. I am asking you, please, no more nails. That wall,” he added, solemnly, “is on my property.”
And with that he’d made a point Mrs. Bevan could not refute.
That afternoon, Mrs. Bevan hired Alexander Pappas, a carpenter, to construct a fence to block her view of the Shank property: the stone wall, the yard, and the broken-down house beyond. This fence would run in front of the Shank stones and between the chain-link fences on the Cavallo and Wasilewski properties, establishing a solid perimeter. Mr. Pappas carted into her yard the necessary boards, nails, concrete mix, and post-hole digger. He started at the Wasilewski yard and worked toward the Cavallo property, completing the fence in a single day of continuous effort. He’d sunk the corner post deeply into concrete. He’d screwed—not nailed—the cedar boards to the posts. It was an excellent fence.
“The fence should now be stained,” Mr. Pappas said. “You might give that job to a neighborhood boy, who’ll charge less than me.”
“I do think you charged rather much for this bit of fence,” Mrs. Bevan informed Mr. Pappas. She wrote the check out slowly on the kitchen table, her lips pursed as she tore it from the checkbook.
Just after she’d set on her kitchen table a pot of tea, a plate with buttered toast, and a boiled egg in its eggcup (her usual breakfast), Mrs. Bevan sat and looked out her bay window, over the lawn to the fence. It was, she thought, as tranquil as a painting. Then a red-haired boy—thin, perhaps ten or eleven—dashed out from her driveway into the yard. He wore a red plaid shirt, tail hanging out, and jeans with pant legs too short. He stopped, gazed around as if he’d never seen a backyard before. She straightened in her chair, lit by the indignation that a boy would presume to trespass onto her property. Mrs. Bevan looked at her new fence. She realized that the boy could not, in fact, continue on through, as there was no exit. What would he do? What could he do? He had invaded her yard and now must leave the way he arrived, having wasted time and effort.
Then the boy did an incredible thing. He faced Mrs. Bevan’s house and hastily made the sign of the cross before bolting toward the new fence, leaping onto it, using the spaces between boards for traction as he scaled to the top, where he straddled the fence, shot his arms into a triumphant V, and slid to the other side, all with the facility, Mrs. Bevan thought, of a trained monkey.
She was stunned. “A Catholic boy,” she said aloud.
She hurried to her yard. “How dare you!” she shouted. But she was shouting at the air. She stared at the fence in disgust. “Why?” she said aloud. “What’s the point?” But when she summoned up the geography of her neighborhood, she understood why a boy would cut across her property and into the Shank yard: This was a Saturday morning, and her neighbor’s yard led to a driveway that emptied into Prospect Street, which dead-ended three blocks on at the city park, with its rusted swing set, broken merry-go-round, and an unmowed field where ragtag boys played their ragtag games. A child using this route and not the sidewalks would save, perhaps, five minutes.
Then something caught her eye. On the grass where the boy had crossed himself was a card with a portrait. When she bent to pick it up, she saw Jesus with arms outstretched, a bright purple heart on his chest, golden light breaking through clouds behind his head. A Catholic object, offensive in its gaudy literalness. On the other side was a prayer titled “Comfort,” with select words highlighted in red. “Death is for the good,” she read. “A translation into light.” She strode into her house and set the card in a kitchen drawer, because it wasn’t right to toss even a sacrilegious Iesu Grist into the trash.
Glancing out the bay window to her right, she saw Mr. Wasilewski on a lawn chair in front of his pool, smoking. He set the cigarette on a saucer by his feet and picked up a bottle of beer.
Mrs. Bevan shook her head, then lifted her face to the heavens. “Arglwydd,” she said, “arwain trwy’r anialwch.”
Mrs. Bevan did not see the red-haired boy for the rest of the week. The following Saturday morning at 7:15 she made her pot of tea and soft-boiled egg and buttered bread, turned on her radio, and seated herself at the table by the bay window overlooking her yard. The boy wouldn’t, she thought. He would not. He would not dare a second time.
But at a little past eight he appeared, running into her yard from the driveway. He paused halfway to the fence. He slid his hands into his pockets, leaned forward, and stared at the grass. Mrs. Bevan knew what it was he sought—the Jesus card he’d dropped. The boy took his time. He untied and retied his sneaker laces. He stood, then pulled a paper bag from his back pocket, pouring its contents of bread crumbs into a little heap on the cropped yard grass, like an offering. He took two steps back.
A sparrow fluttered down, hopping to within a foot of the heap. It twitched its head. It retreated then hopped closer. The boy remained still as stone. Another bird appeared, and two more. A squirrel arrived, dashing up to the heap, scattering the birds, gorging frenetically until its cheeks bulged like twin balloons. Then the boy started walking in spirals, scanning for the prayer card, turning his head oddly as he inspected the ground—very like a bird himself. More birds arrived to search for remaining crumbs. In a single fluid motion the boy whipped around and bolted toward the fence.
Mrs. Bevan stormed out to her yard only to witness the boy’s leap to the other side. Not only did the fencing not deter him, it was clearly an attraction. She gripped a board with two hands and yanked. The fence could sustain ten climbing boys, and more. It was, indeed, just the thing for climbing.
As Mrs. Bevan assessed the fence from top to bottom, a flash of silver on the ground caught her eye. She picked up a round medal featuring a head framed by a halo. It had a classical, even a Grecian look to it.
That afternoon, while Mrs. Bevan was considering how best to solve the problem of the fence, her doorbell rang. Thinking it had to be the newspaper boy, she brought her purse with her, and was surprised to see on her doorstep the very same red-haired boy who had twice run into her yard and scaled her fence. And next to him, a short, bald, elderly man out of breath, as if he’d run a race, his face thin and flushed. The boy, Mrs. Bevan noted, was cross-eyed, though not precisely: One eye focused while the other roamed, which must be why he’d turned his head so oddly when searching for the dropped Jesus card. The boy appraised her with his good eye while the other eye drooped in the direction of his pug nose. A smudge of mud covered the middle of one cheek.
“Good afternoon,” the old man said.
“You don’t recognize me?”
She squinted. “Is it Mr. Shank?”
“I know it’s been a while—years in fact. I’m sure I’m much altered.” He paused, launched into a long, liquid cough, and spit into a handkerchief he pulled from his pocket, then quickly stuffed back in. The boy looked away.
Mrs. Bevan did not invite the pair in.
“This is Alec,” Mr. Shank said. “My grandson.”
“Ah, your grandson.” Mrs. Bevan examined him. “Young man,” she said, “your face needs washing.”
“Yes,” Mr. Shank said. “He’s been digging out a flower bed for my front yard. In fact he helps me around the house every Saturday. And we didn’t have time to wash up, did we, Alec? His mother is expecting him.
“Yes,” Mr. Shank said next, as if Mrs. Bevan had asked a question. “Yes, yes, yes. But speaking of yards, Alec has something to say. An apology, isn’t that so, my boy?”
“I’m sorry I cut through your yard,” Alec said in a rehearsed monotone. He crossed himself quickly and jammed the hand in his pocket.
“It was difficult to convince him to come along,” Mr. Shank said, a twinkle in his eye. “He’s rather afraid of you.”
“Why should he be?”
“He thinks you’re…” Mr. Shank paused. “Well, in a word, he’s frightened of you. You can imagine the notions boys get.”
“I can imagine no such thing,” she said.
“Yes, yes, they will have their notions I assure you. I receive two ears full of notions each time he visits.”
“It was not one occasion on which this boy entered my yard,” Mrs. Bevan said. “There were two.”
“I know,” Mr. Shank said. “I learned all this today. When Alec visits me, the boy”—Mr. Shank glanced at Alec—“the boy likes to pray to Saint Peregrine—the both of us must pray, in fact, that’s the long and the short. He insists. We must get down on our knees—and I have a devil of a time getting back up, let me tell you. But I must say, I rather…it’s rather touching. His mother’s Irish and she’s become a great Catholic this year. I myself am mongrel. Scots, German, Irish, some French Canadian. A citizen of the world, I suppose.”
“A mongrel?” Mrs. Bevan said. “I see.”
“Yes, at any rate, when Alec arrived to my house this morning, he’d lost Saint Peregrine. And we always pray with that particular medal to hand. None other will do the job.”
“What a shame,” Mrs. Bevan said.
“He’s always losing things. He’d lose his nose if it wasn’t growing out of his face, wouldn’t you, my boy?”
Alec nodded solemnly.
“And some of his pockets have holes, which I have asked his mother to sew up. Quite fantastic holes. Ravenous holes. That, or else he enjoys hanging upside down.
“He also lost his prayer card. But his mother has hundreds of those cards. The medal, however—there’s only one medal. When I asked Alec which route he took from his mother’s house to mine, thinking we might retrace his steps, he made his confession regarding your yard. And he mentioned climbing your fence. He’s an honest boy, this one, and never lies.”
Mrs. Bevan nodded solemnly. “The fence was not cheap,” she said.
“So I told the boy he must apologize, and” —Mr. Shank slid into another bout of coughing. This time, when he spat into his handkerchief, Mrs. Bevan saw a flash of red.
“And I said that after he apologized, he might ask permission to search your yard as the medal must have slipped from his pocket while he was climbing your fence.”
“He most certainly may not enter my yard to rummage for that object,” Mrs. Bevan said. “I am a Calvinist Methodist.”
“It’s silver,” Mr. Shank said. “In color, not true silver. It has no monetary value, but Alec tells me I cannot replace it. Children will have their ideas. It’s the size of a quarter with a chain attached, though Alec has not worn it, have you, Alec?”
“Your cancer wouldn’t get cured if I wore it,” Alec said. “And if we used a different one, the saint would know, and it wouldn’t work.”
“I’m sure there are no such rules about the workings of saints’ medals,” Mr. Shank said.
Mrs. Bevan let go her grip on her doorknob and took a good look at Mr. Shank. He was breathing fast, as if standing on her stoop was equivalent to running in place. His face was flushed the same meaty red as Mr. Cavallo’s ripe tomatoes. But the thing that affected her most was in his eyes. She recognized it. This was the look in her father’s eyes after the first heart attack when she had come home early from work to find him lying on the couch, insisting nothing was wrong, though he couldn’t move either arm. The second attack killed him three days later. She saw it in her mother’s eyes after the stroke that silenced her—she’d sputter and gag, trying mightily to say the words she thought must be said at the end of a life—and not one could be managed. She lingered for three weeks, unable to eat or drink. And of course it was in Edwin’s eyes when the pneumonia set in. With infection in Edwin’s lungs, the doctor told her, you must prepare for the worst.
“The blind, halt, withered,” she said to Mr. Shank. “They wait for the moving of the water.”
Mr. Shank stared quizzically at Mrs. Bevan. He glanced at Alec, back to Mrs. Bevan, then waited another moment before saying, “Well, yes, yes. We understand your position. But if you come across the medal, would you let me know? It would mean a great deal to Alec.”
Mrs. Bevan removed the Saint Peregrine medal from her purse, and held it out.
“Take it,” she said to Alec. “I have no use for such a thing.”
Alec turned to his grandfather, who nodded. Then he plucked the medal from her palm, examined it, and slipped it in his pocket. He stepped back from Mrs. Bevan, afraid she’d try to take it back.
Mr. Shank mustered a sly look. “Thank you, Mrs. Bevan,” he said, “for…well, for remembering.”
“I am incapable of forgetting,” she said. Then she added, almost as an afterthought, “You knew my husband, I believe.”
“We spoke over my wall many times. At least once a week. Mr. Bevan was a great lover of stone walls—they reminded him of his childhood in north Wales, he told me. He was an old-world gentleman. I knew his first wife also—I hope you don’t mind my saying so. And his sons.”
Mrs. Bevan nodded. “It’s difficult,” she said. She stopped speaking and glanced at Alec.
She tried again. “It’s difficult to know—” But she couldn’t finish that sentence either. “Edwin,” she said finally, “had a way about him. I never knew such a man.”
“Yes,” Mr. Shank said. “He had a way, didn’t he? A very good way. A delightful way.”
He put an arm on Alec’s shoulder. “My boy, let’s go. You have apologized triumphantly. You have retrieved your medal. Now please don’t keep it near the hole in your pocket. It’s been an altogether excellent visit, and your mother is expecting you. Perhaps now she’ll sew up those fantastic holes, if a needle and enough thread can be found.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Bevan,” he said. “I can guarantee that the boy will not be shortcutting through your yard again. Isn’t that so, Alec?”
Mr. Shank extended a hand, and Mrs. Bevan shook it.
“The boy is quite a climber of fences,” she said. “Isn’t he?”
“I believe so,” Mr. Shank said, “though I’ve not seen him do so myself.”
“You’re good, aren’t you?” she said rather sharply to Alec. “You’re a clever little monkey.”
“In gym,” Alec said, “I pull myself up the knotted rope to the ceiling. Then I let myself down. I never fall, and no one’s as fast.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Bevan said. “I see that. A quick boy.”
“Goodbye, Mrs. Bevan,” Mr. Shank said.
“Goodbye,” she said.
She watched them proceed down the sidewalk, the boy holding his grandfather’s hand. Mr. Shank walked slowly, with a pronounced limp, and they stopped every dozen steps so he could catch his breath. The boy talked nonstop while Mr. Shank bent his head to listen. She thought about how the two would continue in that manner to the end of the block, turn right and walk on to the next block, then a half block farther to Mr. Shank’s front door. If she hadn’t paid Mr. Pappas to construct that fence, they could have simply walked through her backyard and been home in less than a minute.
She watched them disappear around the corner, certain she would never see Mr. Shank again.
“There are terrible times coming,” she said aloud, as if the old man remained on her stoop. “Lonely and terrible times. For me, and for you and your devoted grandson, and your daughter-in-law, though I’ve not met her. You’re living to a terrible end. Living with that boy’s eyes as they are. Impossible to explain, or understand. Believing in a saint or not doesn’t matter, praying or not praying. Going to church three times a day, or decently once a week on the Sabbath. Your grandson believes in miracles. You believe in feeding sparrows. When it comes to terrible things, none of it matters.”
She thought then of the photograph of Edwin on her bedside table. She’d set it there the day he died, and hadn’t moved it since. “Ofnadwy,” she said aloud. “Siwr o fod. Pethau ofnadwy.”
The boy would be cheap to hire, she thought, to stain the fence. And Mr. Shank for the time he has left could be responsible for the boy’s work. Fences, she thought, should not be brought low by the prejudices of weather. They’re useful. They keep out creatures. They establish boundaries. They should be cared for, like all useful things. And if the boy behaved himself, he might be allowed to make his way through her yard and over the fence to his grandfather’s house. And now they’d met, he’d have no reason to make that absurd sign of the cross while on her property.
His scaling of the fence, she thought, how quick. Quite amazing. As long as nothing is damaged, some arrangement might be made.
After walking into her house and settling at the table by the bay window, Mrs. Bevan’s eyes locked upon Jock Wasilewski in a red fuzzy bathrobe, slouched on his frayed white-and-green lawn chair by his pond, holding a beer bottle. His bare feet rested on a plastic crate. Next to the crate were two empty bottles, and Mrs. Bevan assumed full bottles could be found in the cooler by his chair. She noted that he had large feet for a short man. He periodically wiggled his toes. His loosely cinched bathrobe exposed the tip of his belly, domed like a huge brown egg.
A sparrow swooped from somewhere on high and plopped at the edge of the pond. As it fluttered in the water for a bath, Mr. Wasilewski leaned forward. He watched the bird drink its fill and then leap into the air.
“Baptized!” Mr. Wasilewski shouted, raising his bottle. “Baptized with Wasilewski water!” He laughed heartily, open-mouthed, then leaned back to watch the bird cross Mrs. Bevan’s yard on its journey west, spraying water drops as it flew.
“Hallelujah,” he said more softly, wiggling his toes. “Hallelujah, and the saints be praised.”