A Bird in Hand

By: Emma O’Neill-Dietel
Smith College, Northampton MA, USA

I tugged at the braids coiled around the back of my head. They were thick and itchy and the bobby pins made my head ache. The church was sweltering hot and my black dress draped heavily across my knees. I had asked Maeve if I could wear shorts, and she said no, because it would be disrespectful. Maeve also braided my hair, since Mom was too busy getting ready. She was probably also too busy being sad, since it was her sister who died.

My aunt Eileen always wore her hair down. Maeve liked to braid it when she was my age, but Aunt Eileen always let me undo the braids when Maeve was finished. “Freedom!” she used to say when I finished. It made us both laugh. Aunt Eileen had long, smooth hair that was brown with little stripes of grey at the top. My own hair was frizzy and the color of the dirty linoleum tiles in my elementary school hallways.

Maeve saw me fidgeting with my hair and swatted my hand away. I glared at her. She took my hand in hers and squeezed, a little too hard to be friendly.

“Can I please undo it?” I whispered. Maeve pinched the skin on the back of my hand. I almost cried out, but I stopped myself just in time. Music swelled—well, it was too dreary to swell. It really just got louder and sadder, if that was possible. The men sitting in the row in front of me stood up and gathered around the casket. Maeve loosened her grip on my hand. I inched my other hand towards the back of my head as the men lifted the casket and began to carry it down the aisle. People around me shifted in their pews to watch them leave so I did too. I saw Uncle Frank, cousin Theo, and a few other men I only slightly recognized lifting on either side of the enormous wooden box. It didn’t really seem like Aunt Eileen was in there. If she was, she would pop out like a jack-in-the-box and make us all laugh at how dramatic we were being.

While Maeve’s head was turned towards the men, I used my hand that wasn’t pinned under hers to yank the bobby pins from my braid. They came out with little clumps of hair still attached. The men carrying the casket that was somehow holding Aunt Eileen reached the doors at the back of the church and my hair finally fell out of its coil. It was still braided, but I could almost feel the strands of hair unbraiding themselves. They were reaching out like plants growing towards light. I extracted my other hand from underneath Maeve’s and began to use both hands to unweave my hair. Maeve suddenly snapped back towards me.

“Fallon!” she hissed. I heard a soft thud as an attendant closed the doors behind the men and the casket. The pastor began speaking again but I couldn’t pay attention. Maeve was furiously pulling my hair back into place. I could feel the stare of a church lady behind me hot on my neck.

Maeve finished fixing my hair just as the pastor instructed us to make our way out to the cemetery behind the church. Maeve shoved one last pin into my hair where it jabbed at my scalp like a sharp-beaked bird. She grabbed my hand and I tried to wriggle away to no avail. I was much too old to hold someone’s hand, even if that someone was my sister and even though we were at a funeral where it seemed like everyone was holding hands and hugging. We filed out of the pews and joined our parents, who had been sitting in the front row. My mom was holding a tissue up to her eyes and my dad was holding her hand in both of his like a small and wounded bird. He was holding it tightly but in a way that meant she was protected, not captive. When he saw us he let go of her hand with one of his and put his arm around both of our shoulders.

“Come on, girls,” he said. “Let’s see Auntie Eileen off.” We walked outside in an awkward family clump, too close together to step normally. Maeve finally let go of my hand when we got to the hole for the casket. I saw her wind her fingers together and pick at her cuticles. If Mom had been watching she would have said something, but she was too busy staring blankly at the hole in the dirt.

“Remember when we used to play here?” I asked Maeve.

Maeve shushed me. “This is still a funeral, Fallon.”

“I know,” I said, “I’m not stupid. I’m just saying, remember how we used to play hide-and-seek behind the gravestones? That was really fun. Maybe someday kids will play around Aunt Eileen’s gravestone.”

“Don’t be morbid, Fallon,” said Maeve.

“What does ‘morbid’ mean?” I asked. My dad looked down at me as if he had just begun listening to our conversation.

“‘Morbid’ means something that is related to death,” he said. “What do you think is morbid, Maeve?”

“Fallon was saying that she hopes kids will play around Aunt Eileen’s grave someday.” Maeve looked at me and then back at my dad like I was a baby and she and my dad were both grown-ups.

“I think that’s a wonderful thing to hope, Fallon,” he said. “I think Aunt Eileen would like that very much.” My mom nodded, looking up from the hole in the dirt.

“Aunt Eileen and I played in this cemetery when we were your age,” she said.

“I didn’t know that,” I said. I tried to imagine my mom and Aunt Eileen when they were my age. They were only two years apart. From pictures I knew that my mom looked a lot like me and Aunt Eileen looked a lot like Maeve. If I concentrated really hard, I could pretend that I saw Aunt Eileen as a little girl poking her head over a gravestone and smiling at me. Her smile went up to her eyes the way that Maeve’s did when we were younger. The more I thought about it, the more the imaginary girl smiling at me looked like Maeve, not Aunt Eileen, and then when I looked at the casket my first thought was that Maeve was inside it. For the first time since Aunt Eileen had died, I started to cry.

My dad noticed and he knelt down and lifted me up into a hug. I wrapped my legs around his waist like I had when I was much smaller. My mom reached past me to hold Maeve’s hand. When I had finally stopped crying and my dad set me back on the ground, I saw Maeve squirming her fingers out of my mom’s grasp.