A beautiful summer Saturday, I was nine years old.  I faced a pile of ironing, high as my waist—punishment for some misdeed. I’ve forgotten what it was, or why I had done it, only that atonement waited in laundry piles: in washing, folding, and ironing.


I waited until afternoon. Then, in a panic to finish before the grownups came home, I crammed all the clothes into one wash load, even my wool school skirt, which shrank into a tutu.


As usual on Saturday, I was home alone. My mother worked late in a beauty shop, setting nice church ladies’ hair in thousands of poodle curls, backcombing prom queens’ up-dos.  At night, I would rub her feet: knobby from too much standing in high heels.


I wanted to iron everything perfectly to make up for ruining my school skirt, but I didn’t know how to iron my stepfather’s blue work shirts. In my smallish hands, the iron weighed like a steamship, and the white plastic buttons were crushed like icebergs.  I melted the edges of a few. I didn’t know how to iron work pants either—how to press the long creases and flatten the pocket flaps.


So, dreamer that I was, I sang all the songs I knew, and waited for the birds to sing to me. To me, birds were arrows from God with comfort and messages.


There was the mourning dove. She perched in the peach tree, right outside my window. So sadly kind and wise, her song increased with the lengthening shadows. She understood everything.


There was the mockingbird. He lived like a hobo. He had no special tree, nor a song of his own. He imitated my cat, the ice cream truck, and our telephone ringing. He made me laugh.


Finally, there was the hummingbird.  I never learned where she lived. Maybe she flew straight from heaven, sparking across the garden like a shooting star. Her wings whirred hope. As she disappeared to sip the flowers, I entered this hope and drank up love.


I set the iron down to listen closer, leaned into my dreams, and burnt a brown triangle on Stepfather’s shirt.  Lucky for me, God sent the comforting birds again the next Saturday, and the next—to accompany my crimes and punishments.

—Claire Nail