©Evan Nichols, 2019

As the winds whistle cruelly about, knocking autumn leaves into explosions of confetti and the wildfires rage through wine country like a parade of terror, she dozes and wakes on a couch in Yolo County, brushing her beloved dog and whispering to him. She looks up suddenly, calls me by my brother’s name, and points towards the bathroom. “What’s that?” The tree above the rooftop in frantic climate dance, is sending waves of green and yellow light through the portal in the bathroom ceiling, resulting in a light show in the doorway. The hallway is filled with flashes of light and shadows, as if a great fire consumes the bathroom. I explain it to her as best I can and close the bathroom door. “That makes it stop?” she asks. “Kind of,” I say, settling back at the nearby table behind my laptop, returning to my essay grading. She brushes the dog and nods off again, peaceful until I sneeze and her eyes shoot open, alarmed. Then back to brushing.

We call this house in Davis where she now lives the Duck Pond House. She would probably tell you she is just visiting. She would probably tell you she will soon return to San Diego. Yesterday we walked the dog to the path along the duck pond, only there is no pond and there are no ducks. As we walked, I told her about the geese who like to stop here when the pond is a pond, about the beautiful sound of honking, the flocks in formation overhead, the dramatic water landings, and the way she used to watch them. But all that takes rain, not wind. She listens as if to a bed time story. This, a pond? What were they again? Geese?

When we first moved her back to this little house, she could walk to the first bench and plop down exhausted. Yesterday, however, she pushed on to the butterfly garden, sitting on a bench with a wonderful view of beautiful red, fuchsia and orange flowers able to thrive without rain. We sat for an hour and watched joggers and walkers and dogs on leashes trot by. As we left, she snipped off a few flowers, despite my rule-following protests (protecting this demonstration garden), and fashioned a lovely tiny bouquet as she walked, her hands twisting them about and joining the flowers together in a way I didn’t know she had in her.

When we returned, she settled on the couch and I put on one of my favorite movies, Fly Away Home, the beautifully short story of a girl and her dad and their journey to help geese migrate from Ontario to North Carolina (If you’ve seen it, you’ll remember young Anna Paquin calling the geese, “Come on, Geese, hey hey hey hey…”). I hoped she would focus less on the title (her wish is surely to fly away home) and the fact that she also wants to migrate south again, and more on the beautiful story and all the fabulous footage of the geese from hatchlings to goslings to adult geese in flight. She loved seeing the geese and made happy noises every time they appeared. Still, near the end she turned to me and said suddenly, “Hey, you could drive me to San Diego!” 

“Sorry Mom, that’s not going to happen. You live here now.” Angry silence.

Yesterday before our walk to the alleged pond, she and I had lunch downtown with my sister. We sat outdoors at a beautiful spot on a perfect day, pre-windstorm, with just the right balance of sunlight and shade provided by trees all around us. As my mom carefully devoured an open-faced crab and shrimp cheesy and delicious sandwich, my sister and I discussed habit change and neural pathways, a topic in my current English class at the community college. I compared the fact that old neural pathways never really go away with the memories of river and stream beds, how when it really rains, the water reverts to the old pathways. Now, as I drape a warm blue blanket over my mom, sleeping on the couch, I think about migratory pathways too.

The goose knows it must fly south for the winter. My mom has never stayed in this house beyond a long visit before. She also wants to migrate. Her brain, beneath all its confusion, tells her it’s time to return to her two-story house crammed with furniture, throw rugs and memories. She has so many routines and friends so far away now. At some level, though she can’t name it, she misses her dinner parties, the traveling-circus-music-and-love of her musician housemate, lunch with friends, her neighbor bringing her a quiche or walking her dog for her.

This all feels completely new to her. I look over at her in this peaceful, safe, cozy home, so close to her three children who now visit her every week instead of twice a year. She is building new pathways: the walk to the butterfly garden, sitting out back and looking at that same beautiful tree which now dances above the roof, trips to the Austrian bakery on the other side of town where she sips a decaf vanilla latte and nibbles a delicious apricot pastry, her daily life here with a new live-in caretaker (on respite this weekend), who takes wonderful care of her, and the new reality of her three children visiting all the time to spend time with her. But it’s all so new.

The winds have filled the back patio with green yellow and tan leaves. Every window is alive with flickers and flashes. An hour or two away, the fires still burn through the vineyards. As usual, California is on fire. My family in Oakland reports the power is out. And yet my mom sleeps on the gray couch with a blue blanket thrown across her. Her dog sleeps too, though he looks up at me briefly as I type this.

Can we build a life here for her to be happy in this chapter of life? I ask this and stare out the back glass door as the wind picks up again and lights up the leaves on the ground in a gorgeous flare of yellow and green, better than any lava lamp. The shadows of skinny leaves dance across the bamboo floor to the table where I sit. Tiny shades of geometry, stretching and falling, crisscrossing in sudden animation, then slowing. Her days here are filled with mostly happy moments. She is like this lull now, calm between the flare-ups, warm and happy, asleep or chatting. She smiles and hugs us when we visit and has even learned to let us go when we need to return to our own homes.

When her desire and anger flare, however, everyone who loves her knows she can rage. The tree bends, the limbs thrash. There is a strength which can be terrifying. There is a kind of a howl in the air and we hunch our shoulders and pray nothing breaks, nothing burns, nothing floods. There is nothing we can say to replace all she has lost, all she is missing. All we can do is stay with her until the next lull in the storm and then delight with her as the peaceful moments stretch and begin to gently take hold.

Perhaps soon the winds will stop all their horrible mischief, and, later, the first drops of rain will fall beyond the butterfly garden, drop by drop into the dry ground, transforming the empty gully of bush and grass back into their memory of a wet, glistening pond. My mom will wake to the sounds of excited honks, telling each other, “It has returned!” She, her lovely caretaker and her little dog will shuffle out onto the quiet street, down to the pathway, to find a real pond again with Canada geese bathing, splashing, honking. Looking up, she’ll spy a dot in the sky fast becoming a goose, excitedly swooping down from the tree tops, its wings thrown suddenly back, neck forward, feet outstretched, reaching, reaching, reaching, until they finally find water and it lands, satisfied, home in the pond.


©Evan Nichols, 2019

             Evan Nichols, BAWPtised in 2000, teaches English reading and writing courses at Merritt community college in beautiful Oakland, California. This spring he will teach his first creative writing class at Merritt (spaces still available as of submission date!) as well as his first ESOL class at this level (lots to prepare!). In November he successfully completed his first attempt at NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), meeting his goal of writing 777 words per day for 30 days in a row (only missing Thanksgiving) though you would be hard pressed to find a novel in all those words, just a scattering of wildflower seeds to the wind.

One Response to “Fly Away Home by Evan Nichols”

  1. There is so much tenderness in this piece. The rhythms of dog walking and goose migration and the changing light set a background of calm as your mom settles in cozy and peaceful or is jarred back to her restlessness. Very affecting.

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