“Are you ready yet?” Tom asked the child.
“No, not yet,” the reply drifted back to him.
“Ok,” said Tom. “We can take our time.”
Tom sat on a thick lump of driftwood, hands stuffed deep into his pockets, his shoulders hunched against a wind that bit with sharp teeth through his thin jacket. Waves were being pushed onto the rocks by that wind, as it peeled the lake back layer by layer.
They were being peeled into layers, too, he and the girl. Life had become a stinging wind and blunt rocks, and they were caught in between, like the water, being battered by the two.
Ahead of him, at the point where rock melted into sand stood the small girl, Birdie. Tom’s heart wobbled looking at her. She was so little and alone there on the beach, her slightness emphasized by the vast horizon and unending stretch of water. Now and then she would kick a rock into the water with a drunken sounding ‘sploosh’ but mostly she was still, facing the unrelenting waves and the angry sky with all her solitary frailty.
Coming here, this spot, today, had been her idea. Birdie had spent many happy days at this beach, chasing seagulls, collecting shells, watching her mother paint the ever-changing mood of the sky over the lake. She could sit for hours with a pile of books, lost in a story or pouring over illustrations of shore life, eagerly sharing interesting tidbits.
It was a long drive for them to visit Tom, but they would come every summer. They made every visit worthwhile by filling their days with adventures and picnics, and plenty of day dreaming. Those days were touched by gold, Tom thought. Now they were in a time of somber grey.
“Birdie?” he called after some time had passed since he last asked, “are you ready now?”
“Not yet,” came the answer chased by the wind.
So Tom stood for a moment to stomp warmth back into his feet. They had been here, just like this, for hours it felt like. He was willing to wait longer, determined she would have all the time she needed. Each time he asked the question, her answer was the same: not yet.
And then she moved. He was at the point of thinking he would break and take her away before she was ready, but now she was standing in front of him, big eyes bruised with sadness.
“Is it true, Tom?” she asked, holding out the letter he had read aloud to her three times.
“Show me.” she’d said. “She me which words are Mama’s name.” and she’d traced her fingers over the loops and lines he had pointed to.
“Yes, little one. I’m so very sorry, it is true.”
At his answer she flung herself at him, not crying but holding on so very tight.
After a thousand heartbeats he gently pressed her back to look into her too-old eyes.
“Come on, Birdie Let’s go home.”