Read by Lin Sagovsky
She arrives at the park. She comes every day, if the weather’s good and she’s up to it. Thirty years ago there’d been no Socrates Sculpture Park (highfalutin’ name). It fronts the East River, giving million-dollar views of Manhattan. She’s more interested in the water, the boats and the shoreline than the skyline. She started walking here daily not when the sculptures came, but when the flowers did. Now it’s more like a garden. Her name is Margaret O’Brien. Like the actress? no one asks any more. Yes, she would reply, but only after I married my John. Before then I was Margaret Connors.
It used to be an illegal dump. The first time she’d checked out the new park, it just had a handful of benches, very few trees and some hedges. And of course the sculptures, which she doesn’t like, modern arty farty things they keep changing all the time, nothing pretty; sometimes Margaret’s not sure if it’s art or if someone left a tractor out there while doing some landscaping. One time, though, there was a giant woman made of birdseed; she’d liked that, although the birds came every day and ate the poor woman away. In the beginning the only flowers had been desultory begonias and impatiens. Bah. Not real gardening.
But for now she has this garden. They’ve planted more trees, so she doesn’t have to sit in the sun any more. The begonias and impatiens have been replaced with perennials—hydrangeas, hostas, coral bells and, in the shadiest nooks, ferns; roses, echinacea (whose awful name sounds like medicine) and their cousins, black-eyed-susans. Her favourite type of garden.
Nikos, one of the old-timers, complains to her all the time about the new plantings; Estelle always agrees.
“It looks like a bomb hit,” Nikos says, and laughs. “Look at all those holes.”
“Before, it was so neat and orderly,” Estelle says. “Now it’s just a mish-mosh.”
Those idiots know nothing about gardening. It makes Margaret want to smack them with her cane. Yes, there are holes—that’s because perennial gardens have seasons. You’re not stuck with just one thing—plunk, plunk, plunk, impatiens, impatiens, impatiens. The daffodils of April give way to the irises of May; you can’t plant two things in one space. Sometimes, true, the holes stand for failures. Perennial gardening involves risk: not everything you plant will take. You have to wait and see. Now there‘s this glorious variety—of color, shape, size. Even scent. Your damn begonias didn’t smell sweet, did they? But there’s no one to argue with right now.
Because of the perennials, butterflies and bees have taken up residence. “Bugs,” Estelle complains. Margaret welcomes them. A garden improves when beasties move in. She watches a squirrel digging in the dirt and has mixed feelings, as most gardeners do. She would like to love the squirrel but what if the bugger digs up next spring’s crocuses? Instead he oddly wiggles his lower half in the hole. To cool off? she wonders.
She opens her plastic bag to distract him from his relentless digging. She hasn’t brought the seed for him, but she knows the damn beggar and his ilk will steal some anyway. She’s brought it for the pigeons. Yes, she’s become one of those old ladies who feeds the pigeons. The condo doesn’t allow pets. She strews the seed. The squirrel rushes over.
It doesn’t take long for silent word to spread throughout the park. In a whirr of wings, the pigeons descend and start to peck.
“Uch! Rats with wings!” a teenaged girl says. Shouldn’t that girl be in school? It takes a minute for Margaret to remember that it’s summer.
“Hey, lady, you shouldn’t feed them,” the girl’s boyfriend says. He’s not wearing a shirt. Margaret disapproves of men going around half-naked; it’s common. The boy must be showing off his muscles for the girl. “They’ll keep coming back. There’ll be pigeon shit all over this park.”
Margaret ignores them. One of the good things about being old is that you can pretend you’re deaf. Another good thing is you can pretty much tell people to go to hell (or at least think it), and keep right on doing what you want. It’s very freeing. Just like not having to attract a lover, or keep a husband interested, is freeing, if a little sad. Anyway, it’s pointless to mourn the roses when it’s the season for mums.
The teens leave. Most of the regulars, the old-timers, come early in the morning and leave by noon, avoiding the heat. Margaret wears a hat and doesn’t mind. She came late today so now the park is hers, her flowers and her pigeons.
She knows some of them by sight, the ones that aren’t the standard blue-grey with their natty stripes and shiny purple necks. There’s Blackie. There’s Spots, who’s white with black speckles, like chocolate chip ice cream. There’s Dapper Dan, who’s brown with what looks like a white necktie around his collar.
They bend and peck and coo. It’s a nice broody sound, comforting.
There’s another whir of wings, louder. In comes Aengus Og. Two pigeons settle on his left shoulder, two on his right.
“How are you today, Margaret?” he asks.
“Fine, and yourself?”
“I’m not complaining,” he says. She’s always liked that Irish lilt to his voice. Her people, and John’s, came to America too long ago to have accents. As far as she knows, she has no relatives in the old country. But she identifies as Irish, and guesses that’s why Aengus visits her. John had loved Yeats, and the old tales, and used to read them to her. Aengus has long dark hair, which curls around his neck, and blue eyes. He never looks older than the first time they met.
The pigeons on his shoulders were once kisses, Margaret remembers. She only dimly recalls John’s kisses. Aengus’ birds must not have originally been pigeons; gods, like perennial gardens, evolve. While he’s in New York City, of course his birds are pigeons. Aengus loved swans, too, but there are none here. He always watches the cormorants down on the water, as close to swans as you’re likely to get in New York. In Ireland he has the Boyne, here he has the East River. No doubt in India he visits the Ganges. Margaret imagines a woman dignified and beautiful in a purple sari, feeding ibises.
Aengus offers to help Margaret up. They walk down to the river. He allows her to lean on his arm. It’s pleasant to be squired about by a handsome young fellow. She wishes John would visit, but he never does.
“Are you getting warm?” Aengus asks solicitously. “Your cheeks are flushed.”
“Just a little bit,” Margaret admits.
The pigeons on Aengus’s shoulders fly off to perch on the railing when he shifts his wings to fan her. The breeze feels refreshing. Margaret perks up. The god keeps his wings unfurled so they shield her from the sun.
As they stroll the esplanade, Aengus gazes at three black cormorants riding the Hell Gate currents. Margaret decides to ask. She hopes it doesn’t make him disappear.
“So, why is it, Aengus, that of all the people in New York, you visit me?” Her eyes squint so she can look him in the face while he answers.
“And what makes you think you’re the only one I visit?” he asks. “Besides, everyone knows I can’t keep away from a comely woman.”
Margaret chuckles. It’s silly to flirt at her age but still enjoyable. “Flatterer. But seriously, why? If I was ever beautiful—and I’m not saying I was—I surely am not now.”
“Who am I?” Aengus asks, a pagan catechism.
“Aengus Og, the youthful and fair god of poetry and love.”
“Nicely put. It was your John who really liked poetry, even wrote a poem or two himself, I seem to recall.”
“He did,” she says. She’s kept them. She should take them out to re-read. Maybe tomorrow; it’s a lot of work, bending down and digging through the cabinet.
“But I’m here in my capacity as god of love. Don’t you love?” he asks.
She stops walking so she can give it some thought. She has to rest anyway; her knees hurt and she’s a bit out of breath, although they’re going very slowly. “I loved my John, God knows. But he died long ago. He’s like a pleasant dream, or a favorite old movie; you remember you loved it but you can’t quite tell anyone the plot.”
“There are all kinds of love,” Aengus says.
“Ah, the girls then. Well, yes. But when your children are all grown up, with lives of their own, husbands, careers, children, they’re not so much yours any more. I don’t see them that often. I don’t quite understand them, but I love them. And my grandchildren. They’re like aliens, but they’re my aliens. All my human relations seem so—foggy. Like when I take off my glasses.”
“There are all kinds of love,” Aengus insists. He turns away from her to face the park. He leans against the river railing and sighs. It’s the kind of contented sigh she herself makes when she’s been sitting amongst the flowers for a long time. Her eyes follow what he’s looking at. Her flowers. Her birds. She does indeed love them fiercely.
The pigeons resettle on Aengus’s shoulders. Margaret smiles at them and at the young god.
“Are they really kisses?”
“They are indeed, Margaret,” says the god. “Ready to walk back?”
She nods. As they resume their ramble, his wings fan her again. The kiss-pigeons strut behind them. Margaret’s mother used to speak of angels all the time, but she’s never been interested in angels or priests or the church. She prefers the wings of Aengus Og to any dreary angel’s.
She hopes that someday she’ll be granted wings—not angel wings but pigeon wings. Her prayer to Aengus Og, a god who listens well, is that she’ll spend her afterlife in this park, bending and pecking and cooing, watching the phlox and the hydrangeas nod, bees courting the buddleia.
(c) Sandi Leibowitz, 2016
Lin Sagovsky has just played Clairee in Steel Magnolias at Islington’s Hope Theatre, to multiple five-star reviews. Apart from voicework in various media, she helps non-actors become better communicators, by playing impossible people from doormat drudges to kickass Alpha females, in places ranging from Mexico City to Milton Keynes.
Sandi Leibowitz is a native New Yorker and would-be Londoner. She's a school librarian, classical singer, and writer of speculative fiction and poetry. Her work appears in Mythic Delirium, Mithila Review, Metaphorosis and elsewhere. Please visit her at sandileibowitz.com.