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The Language of Sparrows
By Rachel Phifer
David C. CookCopyright © 2013 Rachel Phifer
All rights reserved.
April knew she'd find her daughter close to home. That's why she didn't search the streets of Houston when the school called this time. And as expected, she found Sierra sitting in the apartment courtyard with her back against the willow tree. Oblivious to the cars speeding by and the crowded apartments surrounding her, she wrote in a notebook with utter concentration.
It wasn't until Sierra noticed her blocking the light that she glanced up. They looked at each other for what seemed like a long minute before Sierra spoke. "I couldn't stay there, Mom."
As she lifted her face to the sun, it took on a quality that didn't belong on a fifteen-year-old. April lowered herself to Sierra's level, taking a moment to balance on her pumps. "You couldn't stay in school because ...?" Sierra sent her a pleading look.
"Sierra," April insisted.
"It's not like my old school. There aren't any windows in most of my classrooms. It's so dark."
There it was—the best explanation her daughter could offer for skipping school. Again. Sierra, with her knowledge of languages. But she never could seem to find the words she needed most.
As they talked, Sierra's hand kept moving across the notebook in her lap. Writing by touch and not by sight, she guided the pen right and then left, then down. Every now and then she'd stop to hem a section of her strange script in black boxes.
"Baby, you've got to talk to me eventually."
"I am talking to you." But Sierra looked into the distance, tracking the movements of a cat, a blur of white that leaped from balcony to balcony. And her pen still moved.
April tried not to hate the symbols on Sierra's page—Hebrew, Greek, an occasional column of hieroglyphs. Pages of archaic languages were absorbing more and more of her time. The girl had filled reams of paper with ancient words since they'd moved.
April sighed. Only on the news did people disappear in an instant. One minute a girl was walking to her bus stop. The next she was gone. Cable stations broadcast the missing child's photo nationwide. Crews searched the woods. Everyone mourned when a child disappeared in a flash.
Not so the slow disappearances. No one called a press conference when Sierra's grades began plummeting, when she dropped each of her friends one by one or refused to make new friends when they moved to Houston. The alarms on the school doors didn't go off when she left in the middle of the day. The policeman at the front entrance didn't even notice her leaving.
Only a computerized phone call alerted April to Sierra's skipping classes at all.
There was no need to make threats or offer encouraging words. April had tried them all since they moved here last January. And Sierra was smart enough to understand the risks of skipping school—the danger of the streets where they lived, the potential failure to graduate, trouble with the police.
Instead of the old standbys, April looked through Sierra's letters until she found a familiar one—a hieroglyph in the shape of an eye. "I see you, baby."
That caught Sierra's attention. She looked directly at April and blinked.
The school might not notice Sierra's disappearing act. Maybe friends were nonexistent. Sometimes it seemed that God Himself had found someone more newsworthy to save. But it was impossible to disappear with a witness.
April underlined the hieroglyph with her index finger. "You are not invisible. I would have seen you walking past me if I'd been at the school. I see you, Sierra. Okay?"CHAPTER 2
As soon as she got home from school the next day, Sierra pulled on a pair of capris and a T-shirt and left the apartment. Her feet, following a map all their own, carried her to the bridge.
Rap music throbbed from a nearby car. Behind her lay a ramble of buildings and billboards. She hesitated. If Mom knew she was walking out here alone, she'd be upset. But Mom didn't have to sit in the classrooms with the walls closing in on her.
As soon as she crossed over the bayou into the neighborhood beyond, Sierra began breathing easier. There were little box houses and rows of old oaks screening out the sun. It was just the way a neighborhood should be. But most of all, it was his neighborhood.
Five houses down the street, she stopped. Today, the old man crouched by the front porch with a spade in hand. Sierra chewed on her lip, waiting, but he continued moving dirt around with his spade as if she weren't there. Sparrows pecked at scattered birdseed until a squirrel sent them into the trees with a rush of flapping wings.
She eased onto the front walk in his yard, moving closer to the porch, and still he didn't turn.
Her hands grew sweaty. "Hello," she finally managed. Brilliant! She'd had her opening line all picked out, and hello had definitely not been part of it.
He looked up then, with a shake of his head. "Hello? Is that all you have to say?" he said in his thick accent. Italian, she'd thought when they'd first spoken, but that wasn't quite right. There was something Slavic in his accent too.
She shook her head and tried again. "This city now doth, like a garment, wear the beauty of the afternoon."
"'This city now doth, like a garment, wear the beauty of the morning.' Do you propose to rewrite Wordsworth?"
She stepped onto his lawn, moving close to him now. "It's afternoon now. I don't think Wordsworth would have minded."
Every day, they exchanged quotes as she walked past his house. Once she'd tried to stump him. She'd searched the library to come up with an obscure poem from the Ming Dynasty. It hadn't work. He'd nailed the country and the time period.
He shot a glance at her feet. "Your ankle is bleeding. I have had an infestation of thorns. They are quite sharp."
She looked down, feeling the sting of the scratch for the first time. He went back to digging. Her cue to leave, apparently. They never spoke beyond their quote exchange, but she couldn't leave, not yet. Finally, he patted the soil around a group of flowers arranged by color order and stood with his back to her, slipping off his gardening gloves. He nodded and went inside, leaving the door open. Did he want her to follow him? Nobody left their doors open here, especially in September. They liked to keep the air-conditioning trapped inside.
She could imagine what Mom would say if she found out she'd gone into a stranger's house. But he didn't feel like a stranger. Sierra stepped through the doorway, but he was nowhere in sight. The living room held two chairs on heart-pine floors and one side table. That was it. There was no TV, no clutter. There were no paintings on the walls. There was a curio cabinet, but unlike her mother's, there were no photos there either. The main thing that stood out about the room was what wasn't in it.
He bent his head out of the hallway in the back. Sierra raised her shoulders and acted as if she didn't mind wondering what to do as she crossed the room.
"We were never formally introduced." She imitated what her mother would say and reached out her hand. "Sierra Wright."
He nodded curtly. "Yes, Sierra. Come then." He turned without reaching for her hand and searched through the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. "Ah, there."
He drenched a cotton ball with alcohol and slid out a Band-Aid but didn't hand them to her. Instead he left the room, and she hurried to the sink where he left them, disinfecting the scratch and slapping on the bandage as quickly as she could.
"You know my name now," Sierra insisted, as she followed him back to the front, "but I don't know who you are."
He turned and gave her a long, hard look causing heat to rush into her face.
"I am not my name," he said at last, "but if it is this you ask for, it is Luca Prodan."
She could see his library through a pair of French doors.
That was how they met. She'd seen the books through the window and peeked in. She'd thought the room was empty, but he'd been there, sitting in the armchair, reading a book. He'd looked up at her with eyes as blue as Antarctic ice caps, and she was sure he could see right through her. After that, he was always in his garden when she passed by on her walks. He'd started the quote game.
The library was smaller than it looked from the outside. The whole house probably wasn't any bigger than Sierra's apartment. Still, it was the kind of place that made her want to curl up with a book in hand.
He caught her curious stare and started walking toward the library doors.
"Do you often look into the windows of people whom you do not know?" When she didn't answer, he said, "You do, yes?"
He waited. Sierra shifted.
Speak, she told herself. You have to speak.
"I-I have a thing about books. That day I was just walking by, but when I saw your library and then I saw you sitting there reading ... I just sort of ..."
"You sort of ...?"
"I was ... I don't know ... enchanted." Enchanted. How uncool was that?
The old man gave her a half smile.
"I'm always curious about people and their books, I guess."
"You guess," the old man said. "Or are you sure you are always curious?" His English was as crisp as new paper.
She couldn't believe she was actually carrying on a conversation with him, but she had a desperate hunch that if she kept talking, he would invite her into the library and she could see what he had on his shelves.
"I'm always curious about people, but especially if they have a book. The one I saw you reading was big and looked like a classic. So I thought maybe David Copperfield or Anna Karenina. But you don't look like a Dickens kind of man."
That smile again. "No? What kind of man do I seem? A Tolstoy one?"
Sierra shook her head. He looked like a grandpa who should be picking tomatoes for salad. But the way he spoke. So demanding and clear. "The Inferno?" she tried.
He raised an eyebrow, but at last, he led her into the library and she quickly scanned the room. Books in English, German, and Spanish lined the shelves. Not translations. And then there were two shelves of books in a language she didn't recognize. The letters were accented by tails and loops.
He handed her one of the books—the thick, leather-bound book he'd been reading that day.
She ran her finger along the gold letters on the spine. She'd seen the marks before, but where? "It's not Greek. Or Italian."
"It is Romanian."
"You're from there?"
He studied her before answering, as if analyzing whether she could be trusted with the answer. "Yes, that is where I am from."
A new book. One she knew nothing about. A man with a story. Two stories in one.
"Inchide Usa, Într-o Lada." She sounded out the words on the spine. She liked saying them. The sounds rolled and dipped on her tongue.
"You are familiar with Romanian?"
She shook her head.
"But you know that the S with a comma below it makes a sh sound. Where did you learn this?"
Sierra shrugged. He obviously loved books. He read several languages. But no one ever understood her fascination with alphabets. "I guess I just read it somewhere." She tried to say it casually, as if she'd stumbled upon the information in passing. "What do the words mean?"
"Behind the Door, Inside a Chest. It is a book of fairy tales."
When she started to put the book back on the shelf, he gave her a bruising glance. "You do not like fairy tales?"
She shoved a hand into one of her back pockets. Not that it was any of his business, but she wanted something more, something really deep.
"I like stories. The grown-up kind."
"Ah. But to live without the wonder of childhood is distressing. You must believe me, it is not the sort of life one wants to live." He paused. "Take the book. It is a gift."
Sierra looked at the floor. "Thank you."
He placed his hands over hers, pressing the book between her palms. Four scars circled the back of each of his hands, disappeared over the other side and back again, like rough, pink ribbons wrapped around a present. She couldn't keep from staring. She felt odd, hot, as she looked from his wrists down to his fingers.
Sierra pulled away. She wanted to ask, but she didn't want to ask. What had caused those scars? Something more than kitchen burns or shears that had slipped. But he had pity in his eyes, as if he felt sorry for her.CHAPTER 3
April parked in front of the string of walk-in shops. If the heavy mahogany doors to the gallery didn't tip her off, the BMWs and Volvos along the street certainly did. This wasn't where the middle class came to shop. She sat in the car, rifling her fingers through her short hair, feathering it, and checked her lipstick in the mirror for the third time.
When she entered the art gallery, a bamboo chime over the door clattered in a vaguely tropical tune. The place was as heavenly as she'd imagined. Angled columns divided the wood floors into geometric sections. Sculptures graced cabinets. Paintings hung on the walls—oils and acrylics on one wall; local landscapes in watercolor on another. And the smell ... wood and cloves and something else.
Money—it was the smell of money.
When her sister had called last week about the store manager job, April almost dropped the phone and her apartment grew a touch brighter. Hillary had found the job through her husband's network of influential friends. But it wasn't just a job. It meant being around art.
If it was one of Wes's friends, it meant a decent wage, too. She tried not to think what a job like this might mean for Sierra. If she thought about it, her desperation would show.
The store seemed empty, so April wandered through the works of art for sale, taking in the ones that caught her eye. A long drape of crimson silk drew her to one corner. Chinese characters ran down one side in black stitching, reminding her of Sierra's notebooks filled with foreign scripts.
A cough over her shoulder made her jump. An older woman with iron-gray curls towered over her. Her tailored suit made April doubt her own choice of clothing. True, her blouse was cashmere, but the cuffs of her standby interview outfit had grown slightly frayed over the years.
April tucked her portfolio under her arm and offered the woman her hand. "Ms. Baines? I'm April Wright." When the woman didn't seem to register the name, she added, "Here for the interview?"
The woman glanced at a mahogany clock. April resisted the urge to look. She was on time, a few minutes early even.
April followed Ms. Baines to a back office, where they sat at a cluttered desk, and flashed her brightest smile.
Ms. Baines didn't seem to notice. She inspected April's résumé, her mouth puckered as if she were chewing on something sour. "No college degree, I see."
April's heart dipped. Hadn't Wes told the owner about her background? "I finished my junior year at Rice University, but no degree."
Ms. Baines tapped the résumé. "And except for a couple of clerical jobs over the last two years, you don't have any work experience."
"I'm currently an executive assistant to the company VP." It was a small company, but she had some measure of skill. Surely the woman could see that.
"And no knowledge of art." It wasn't a question.
"No formal study, but it is my passion." Her blouse began to cling damply to her back.
Ms. Baines's dark eyes didn't relent. There was no point in prolonging this torture.
She stood. "I'm sorry, Ms. Baines. I thought you knew my background. You have a beautiful gallery. I would love to work here, but it's obvious I'm not what you're looking for."
Ms. Baines rested her chin on her fist and settled into her chair. "Perhaps I wasn't clear enough with your brother-in-law, Mrs. Wright. I told him the job is yours."
"I'm sorry?" April sat back down. She smoothed her skirt. It wasn't Ms. Baines who had been unclear. As her sister well knew, April wouldn't have come for a hand-out job.
A faint smile crept to the woman's lips. "I'll admit I'm not happy about your lack of experience, but Wes assures me you've got the personality for the job. And let me tell you, this job is all personality."
April stared blankly.
As if speaking to someone not quite bright enough to understand, Ms. Baines slowed her words. "The job is yours, Mrs. Wright. Saturday is your first day."
Excerpted from The Language of Sparrows by Rachel Phifer. Copyright © 2013 Rachel Phifer. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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