“We called you The Fish,” he told her, when the storm was over.
He was one of six bright young grad students with privileged credentials and gorgeous English who came a long long way to the U.S. for a winter internship. She was the co-ed in campus housing next door who saw them arrive. She knew about these distinguished awaited university guests. She imagined how homesick her new fellow students must be in a different culture. So she left the floor mopping to run out into the wind in her t-shirt and jeans, calling greetings in their language. She stayed to help them and the moving men unload their van. That evening she baked them an apple pie and delivered it to their Reception desk. A week later when the youngest one of them had flu, she brought her specially concocted hot golden chicken-vegetable broth in a big jar wrapped in plastic bags, and left that for their unimpressed building manager. When the grocery store showed Bicentennial spirit by selling tiny cherry-sapling sticks for Washington’s Birthday, she planted one at their curbside out front while the Security guards watched through the window. She did not not stop to think that in most countries planet-wide, a modest decent girl does not tote moving boxes for strange men, deliver home cooking to their door, or dig up their garden dirt while singing Shaker hymns. But the interns did. They showed a range of reactions whenever the group met her at seminars and shops. The youngest one in particular always hailed her with humorous pleasantries; the oldest would keep his distance, looking pensive and saying nothing at all.
Then the six interns were included as guests of honor at an awards ceremony in Alumni Hall. For the occasion her roommates staged a cosmetic intervention to dress up her image. They teased and moussed her hair and decked her out in their makeup, perfume, and a sleeveless slit-side clingy silver gown.
She felt off-center in all that array, so she spent the ceremony evening near the auditorium wall beside a potted palm with her usual khaki knapsack and best brown cardigan. But her roommates were right: she was in fact noticed. The American lads from her building got to bantering with the youngest intern and some guests from his country, all about the escalated eagerness of her new vamp costume. One quip led to another, in a chain of assumptions that complicated her life for the next several months. After the players left the country she pieced together the situation, and salvaged the one good memory: an ally that she didn’t expect.
But behind the potted palm, she heard just enough. She heard her hospitable overtures valued like the fortune cookie at a feast, a party favor to crack open and toss as a mistranslated joke. In 1976 she didn’t know that young men might like to compete in thinking up off-handed remarks about girls when they don’t know who is listening. She didn’t know that once the guffaws died down, her own peers in post-Woodstock America really gave very little hoot about her welcome wagon hobby. But she did live by the tradition that a girl’s crowning gem is her irreplaceable Good Name, and that night she went home believing that hers was lost forever.
Her well-meaning roommates, who thought the Good Name idea was so much piffle, tried to cheer her melancholic gloom with teasing, pep talks, scolding, and hot brownie sundaes. But for the rest of the winter while the ripples rocked the rumor mill, she stayed quiet and subdued, mostly at home. Above all, she dropped any contact with the new neighbors. Coming and going, she even walked the long way round the block to avoid seeing their building or being seen by them.
On a spring night she got off the bus with her commuter reading and knapsack, and trudged uphill to the apartment. At the home stretch, along a brick wall running for several blocks, she broke into a run ahead of a thunderstorm rolling in from the south. A car swooped in beside her. She recognized the driver as the pensive laconic oldest intern. She darted behind his car to run across the street.
Other drivers honked at him to move along. Lightning cracked across the sky.
“Sister!” He shouted through the thunder, waving her toward the car, and threw open the passenger door.
She hesitated a moment while the first hail stones hit the ground.
He drew something from his jacket pocket, held it overhead out the window.
And that clinched it.
“This isn’t looking good,” he apologized as she jumped in and they took off. “Might as well drop you at the — hold on!” He braked (throwing the back of his hand out in front of her) as traffic stopped. Fire trucks seesawed through the street behind them. The sky turned yellow-green. Hail hammered and bounced on the windshield. The wind rocked the trees and electrical wires.
“Hello,” he murmured, glancing over his shoulder. He took a sharp turn off the main street and up the driveway to the Cathedral. Tapping his brakes to test them, he parked in the downwind side of the building. “Shouldn’t drive in this,” he explained, both hands still on the wheel. “It’s a fast moving front; let’s give it five minutes.”
“Good idea, thank you.” She wondered what else to say that wouldn’t sound forward and wrong. “I appreciate it.”
The hail turned to solid rain, blocking out the view through the windshield.
“So. What’s the book?” he asked. “Bus reading?”
“Yes! Here: Wind, Sand, and Stars. Have you read it?”
“Why, St. Exupery.” He read the chapter titles. “Wait — this is Terre des hommes! I read this as a boy. Amazing — imagine finding it again here. What are you doing, reading this?”
“Well, it’s…” She thought it over. “A reminder. How even flying alone — midnight, desert, storm — there’s always some sign in the sky or land to guide us. Even in desolate places. Often something quite beautiful.”
“Navigational philosophy.” He smiled in recognition at some passage on a page, and glanced up at her. “How is it working?”
“I don’t work it very well. As half the school knows by now.”
He gave the book back. “No, that storm blew over. Too.”
The rain eased up just enough for them to see the Cathedral as it loomed on and off, traced by the lightning.
He leaned closer to the windshield, and pointed through the glass as a creature in wet-pointed fur hauled itself up on the pavement and stopped, gaping into the headlights.”Look who’s come to call.”
“Oh!” She swayed a little for a better look through the raindrops. “The biggest rat I’ve ever seen.”
“Rat? No, it’s…” He tapped his forehead. “Ah: Opossum. We’re intruders in his country now, and he’s dazzled by our commotion.” He switched off the headlights, then cranked down his window and leaned out into the rain. “There he goes. He’ll be fine.”
She cranked her window too a bit, listening. “Around the corner of the building, if there’s a wind high up we might hear the bells in the tower.”
“Well. Shall we then?” He turned off the engine and set the emergency brake. They closed the windows, and she groped for the door handle.
Instead of reaching across her he leaped out and opened the door from outside. They sprinted around the corner to stand under an arch, with the city lights sparkling off to one side and the dark gardens sloping down before.
The rain was a calm steady downpour three feet away, a solid falling veil hemming them in.
“Warm enough?” he asked her, preparing to shrug off the jacket.
“Oh, keep it, really — this is fine, it’s nice.”
They listened to the bells breathe long-drawn chimes, shifting tones with the wind. A startled pigeon tumbled from the tower and soared back up again.
Somehow, on their own in the storm, they felt their way into talking.
“You did have me puzzled,” he confided. “The week we arrived, what was that big jar? Were you behind that plan?”
“My special chicken health broth. I told the manager!”
“He just left it at our door. We had no idea. And you keep Washington’s Birthday, the president who never told a lie. Wouldn’t you celebrate by chopping down the cherry trees, instead of putting them in?”
“Had to start somewhere first. Chop it down next year if you like.”
“Can’t, leaving in two weeks. Besides, it’s got little leaves now. Or what’s…? Pre-leaves.”
“Buds. I forgot that tree. It’s alive?”
“It is. Someone might have watered it. A time or two.”
He reached in his jacket pocket again, and this time dropped the rosary in her hands.
“This is wonderful.” She looked it over. “I’ve had this rosary since I was a little girl. I thought it was gone for good.”
“I was going to leave it in an envelope with your name, at your department office. But, I thought you just might cross paths somewhere around.” He did not trouble to mention that he’d kept it to show a few of the regulars around the department (refugee cleaning crew, a reference librarian, night staff at the language lab, friendly priest from the chapel near the classrooms). He made a few discreet inquiries about her. He drew out his willing sources, then when he was satisfied reported his findings to the local elders from his country, people with all the right social clout to intervene with the rest of the interns. Stopping the domino wall of pointless slander cost him trouble and time and a falling-out with his people, and it gained him nothing. But he did it anyway. “And then there you were. Walking wrapped in your storm and your book.”
“Wherever did you find my beads?”
“Ah, their evening bag — the clasp was loose. See, I was lost without all my usual pockets; the dress they picked out didn’t have any.”
“Picked out?” He gave her an instant’s lookover, and narrowed his eyes. “Who picked out what?”
“My roommates picked out the dress. They wanted to smarten me up. They tried so hard, I didn’t have the heart to hurt their feelings. But the makeup and clothes, and all? It was their stuff and their idea.”
“Theirs. Goodness.” He whistled in through his teeth and covered his eyes. “Oh dear. Oh I am sorry.”
He took three steps away for a long minute, jingling the car keys and looking out over the gardens. “Neither evil tongues,” he said, “Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men, nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all the dreary intercourse of daily life, shall e’er prevail against us.” He came back under the arch again. “Or disturb our cheerful faith, that all which we behold is full of blessings.”
She was pleased and heartened by his words and his lovely style of recitation. This was what people did in his country, she knew — recited great amounts of classical epics and chronicles and narratives, and then quoted them on all occasions. True, it seemed unusual that he’d learned this poem in particular; a young man at the top of his career, bright future ahead, winning awards — what could it mean to him? But she felt happy that he told it to her anyway.
“Star.” He pointed. The clouds were already blowing away. “Navigation for the journey home.”
The rain ended in a soft breeze. The elm trees showered their papery heart flowers over the grass and his windshield.
Hands in his pockets he circled looking at the ground, scuffing his heels in the elm flowers. “Can I go back to my unfortunate portion of the Third World, and remember you as being all right again?”
She thought that over, breathing the fresh storm air. True, a complex mindless practical joke had dis-illusioned her natural admiration of men as men. But instead she had this, a gift of time and an arch of shelter from a man who decided to believe in her. “Yes, thank you.” It was her first spark of understanding that in grace, it is never too late to begin amending a reputation.
Back at the car, he walked around checking around the tires. “Let’s make sure our little friend didn’t come back under the car…”
He opened her door. On the back seat floor he found an ice brush and wiped the elm flowers off the windshield. He handled the emergency brake and headlights and ignition. He drove her to her front entry and pulled in under the driveway canopy, waiting to make sure she got in the lobby door. Then he drove off and soon departed for his country, to a storm of man-made workings far more terrible than weather under any sky. For six young men with ties to America, survival was not likely at all.
Did he have a premonition of it, even then? On their way back he recited the rest of that poem for her.
…Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake.
“We called you The Fish,” he explained, shifting into Neutral. “That’s the name we settled on, to talk about you. It’s the only explanation we could find.”
“Fish as in cold heart?” Her own heart sank a bit.
“Fish as in no passport, no borderland. Foreign more or less, at home more or less; now this country, now that language. But try to pin her down, and she slips through your hands. Silver and gleam. Back to the sea.”
He got out and opened her door. “Farewell. God bless you.”
“And you.” She handed him the book. “I would like you to keep this, if you please. Thank you for talking to me.” She held out her hand, then realized, one instant too late: handshake across genders; her final cultural error.
“Welcome.” He ducked his head, smoothing back his hair. But, he made his decision and reached out, clasping three of her fingertips for a moment before getting back in the car.
“That poem is splendid,” she called. “Did you translate that? One of your classics?”
“One of yours. Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey,” he called back. “Everything I said, and everything I didn’t. Sister.”