"Do you know," Peter asked "why swallows build
in the eaves of houses?
It is to listen to the stories."
James M. Barrie Peter Pan 1904

She loved the impromptu little dinner party less for itself than for the idea of the memory she was making - something to keep within her for a winter a long time from now. May had stopped saving for the future in the way people usually meant when they envisioned security. That future - the one founded on marriages and account balances and professional ladders - had floated off into nothingness. Now, she found faith in ephemera and comfort in uncertainty. Her concentration on transience made every experience keepsake.

So May sorted happily through Hannah's collection of flea market silverware and balanced tumblers on her wobbly garden table that was surrounded by stretchers and drawing-in-progress. There were leftover onion pies and sausages and a nice new bottle of port. The doorbell, laughter, too few chairs, many opinions. Wealth. As the meal was ending, May wandered to the room's far corner and looked out the window with a view of the city (holiday lights, ambulance lights, headlights, traffic lights all mixed together in a rain-washed abstraction). Such a long time coming, May thought. So much more precious for being over.


Thou hast forgotten, O summer swallow,
But the world shall end when I forget.

Algernon Swinburne Itylus 1866

Allie Covino shed her full black coat, drew the shades on a rainy evening, and sat down to review her day. This was her routine, and she approached her assessment methodically. Yesterday's late night had turned into an early morning, but her work was always worth the effort of extra hours. Allie saw to it she was exceptionally well paid for everything she did. Well paid, but not always well treated, she thought. Allie frowned as she remembered the day's annoyances, her sharp features and dark eyes taking on a crystalline glint.

Allie believed in her inherent value - and in her obligation to assert it in any circumstance where it might be overlooked. Today in particular she had been forced to be quite blunt pointing out how several of her staff members had failed to serve her well. No matter how carefully she chose her colleagues, she thought, they always disappointed.

And then there was May. May did not report to Allie, and thus should have been beyond reach of her disapproval. But May was always late to sense trouble when it came her way and unable to conceal emotions that were powerful. She easily attracted cruelty and had corresponding difficulty deflecting its blows.

had taken her complaint to May's supervisor on a day May was actually feeling a reprieve from opprobrium. So much the better to pin those wings down again firmly and sit back to watch the struggle. The frown relaxed into the satisfied calm Allie usually displayed: black and white was such a lovely combination. It left no room for interpretation - or escape.

Hope & Uncertainty

September: it was the most beautiful of words, he'd always felt,
evoking orange-flowers,
swallows, and regret.
Alexander Theroux Darconville's Cat 1981

For the third time this month, he'd come home after work to find red ribbons - the narrow, satin kind that little girls used to wear tied around their pigtails when their mothers dressed them up for a party - laying in swirling loops across the front porch of his small, frame house. They trailed down the steps and wandered curiously over the lawn. The first time he found them he assumed they'd blown onto his property from some gift unwrapped at one of his neighbors. He gave up that idea after he found the same ribbons waiting for him on subsequent Thursdays. James Elliot had seen them as a nuisance, like the leaves separating from his maple tree now that September was nearly over.

This afternoon he felt something else. A tinge of sweet regret, perhaps - a keepsake from spring shoved into a drawer and found accidentally on a raw winter day. He left the ribbons where they were, opened his front door and walked to his living room window. He leaned against the frame and looked out on his lawn for a very long time.


Short swallow-flights of song, that dip
Their wings in tears, and skim away.
Arthur Tennyson In Memoriam 1850

There were never more than a dozen people scattered around the cathedral waiting for the noontime mass to begin. May
preferred a church nearly empty: it emphasized the secret supplication that was the point to her attendance.
She entered through the side, liking the casualness of it - akin to letting oneself in through a friend's side porch and hearing the screen shut with a comforting slap. May sat up close where the priest could recognize one of his regulars and took from her purse the folded piece of paper she kept in it. The printed proof of her great failure. What was. And then was not.

May only half heard the mass, although her intentions for it were powerful. She preferred the priest's prayers as mere backdrop to her own, unorthodox sacrament - ink on paper transfigured and sent swirling over the city as acceptance and forgiveness. May was not concerned with heresy - the suffering figure she focused on would be pleased both by her invention and her understanding of the incalculable price of imperfection.

What was. And then was not. May intended to live with both.

Betwixt and Between

Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow," said the Prince,
"will you not stay with me one night longer?"

Oscar Wilde The Happy Prince 1888

"33 Oceanview," May told the driver who'd been hired to take her the mile from the ferry dock to the Oak Bluffs cottage she'd rented at Hannah's urgent request. "Get out of here," she'd advised. "If your precious house were burning down, you'd have to run for your life. Leave this inferno behind for a while. You need safety - and distance."

Safety, distance and something that could stop the panicked spiral she'd lived in all winter. Nice, impossible idea. Weeks before, May had stopped believing that a soul who felt such deadness creeping nerve by nerve could hope for resurrection. But Hannah was as gently insistent with May as she was coaxing cut paper onto canvas, so May had left this morning for a month-long Vineyard vacation.

It was the street number. Or numbers. Three of them actually - three points in time and, it seemed, space. Hand lettered down the white gloss paint of the porch post: Now 33. Recently 29. Originally 37. A house that understood, survived and celebrated displacement. May believed she paid the driver, assumed he was the one who placed her luggage in the front hall, had a hazy thought that he'd wished her a happy stay on the island. But she would never be sure. She was already in the embrace of something that eased her breathing and hinted that there might be a way through.

First Look

Quando fiam ceu chelidon—O swallow swallow  
T.S. Eliot The Waste Land 1922

May Barton sat parked along elegant Sutton Street in the damp dusk of a raw New England spring and watched the artistic, intellectual and mostly wealthy residents of East Side Providence arrive at their front doors. A platinum-haired woman wearing a voluminous black coat turned off the sidewalk into a courtyard and opened a heavily ornamented door into an old building cut into apartments. May saw the lights come on inside and a moving figure draw, and cast interesting shadows against, the shades. The woman in black and white was home.

There would be no such homecoming for May tonight. She was, in fact, waiting to see yet another in the endless string of unsuitable or unobtainable houses she was always seeking to possess. Just before six o'clock, May left her car and began to walk down the block to where the real estate agent was unlocking this new prospect. She walked quickly, but with a thought for how she looked. Providence was a small city, and at this time of evening any number of people she knew - or at least knew her - could be climbing College Hill.

May was not particularly hopeful about the house for sale. But she was certain that her house would appear and that one day she, too, would be able to come home in the way she believed other people did. She had once read of a woman who viewed 400 houses before finding the right one. What number, May wondered, was she up to now?