Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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Margaret’s Gift

September 18, 2020

Athena Williams


Margaret set the waxy leaf on the cotton square and fitted the lid onto the paper box. She scanned the shelf for an empty space; she had long since stopped trying to organize the boxes. Spying a likely spot on the third shelf, she reached to tuck the box in among the hundreds of others, then stood back to admire her collection. Nestled between the paper jewelry boxes lining the bookshelves were several jars filled with eggshells of all colors and sizes. Margaret was amazed when she considered that, at this time last year, these same shelves had held nothing but books.

Last year … when she’d lost Roger. The thought brought her to a halt in the doorway. She closed her eyes against the pain and willed herself to move, carefully locking the library door behind her and slipping the antique brass key into her pocket. She swept the floor and wrote a letter to her aunt. Sometimes it took all her willpower just to do the next thing. The day after Roger died, she had gone out for a walk, just trying to get away from the house and the pain of his absence. She found a crimson leaf lying on the ground beneath a tree, and it reminded her of Roger. She took it home, found an old paper jewelry box to store it in, and put it on the east shelf in the library on top of Roger’s favorite copy of Tom Sawyer.

The next morning at dawn, Margaret was awoken by tapping and fluttering sounds coming from the library. She crept out of bed and down the hall, cracked the library door open, and peeked in. A little cardinal hopped around on the desk below the window. The box Margaret had placed the leaf in – Roger’s leaf – was open on the floor. There was no sign of the leaf, only a speckled eggshell lying next to the box. Margaret was puzzled, but she whispered gently to the young cardinal as she eased around the desk to crank open the old casement, then retreated to allow him space to find his freedom without fear. When he flew out the window and away, she crumpled to the floor and wept.

While Margaret’s heart was crushed and aching, she kept thinking about the cardinal. Where had it come from? What had happened to Roger’s leaf? Without understanding her own reasons, she went walking again that afternoon and repeated her actions: she picked up a leaf, brought it home and placed it into the same box, put it on the shelf, and closed the library door, locking it this time.

Tap, tap. When she placed her ear against the library door, she heard nothing, so she eased it gently open and looked in. Sure enough, a tiny robin perched on the desk by the window, his ruby breast heaving with unrewarded effort. She let him out and watched him fly away, but this time a glimmer of hope flickered in her heart.  She carefully set the blue eggshell into a jar and replaced the lid on the empty paper box, shelving it on the west wall.

As the days melted away and winter approached, Margaret’s grief pressed in. Each day was a trial, but she fell into a routine that brought her a small measure of comfort. She checked the library every morning, releasing the bird she inevitably discovered there. Sometimes there were two birds. She fixed herself breakfast, forcing herself to eat regardless of whether she felt like it, although she couldn’t bring herself to eat eggs after the hatchings had begun. She read Dickinson while she cried into her coffee, indulging her sorrow, then tidied the kitchen and laced up her sneakers. There was a little park at the end of the neighborhood. She walked there and back, collecting a few leaves each day. She boxed and shelved them.

At first, the leaves were all bronze and russet. Soon, there were only evergreen needles to collect. She stored these in bracelet boxes, the east wall of the library becoming more and more cluttered with the boxes of leaves. As spring approached and new leaves began to burst out, Margaret’s grief settled. She knew it would always be with her – Roger would always be with her. But she allowed herself to smile for the first time when she heard the melody of a cardinal (while out on her daily walk). She spotted him on a high branch and felt sure it was Roger’s cardinal.

That first morning she hadn’t understood. A year later, she still didn’t understand in any way she could explain, but she accepted. She gathered leaves every day, moving the books into stacks on the floor as the paper boxes took over the bookshelves and the jars of eggshells multiplied. Every morning she received a secret gift and released it to the world.

The featured image is courtesy of Aaron Burden. You can see more of Aaron’s remarkable images here and here.


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  1. Tez says:

    Really cool story. Thanks for sharing it with us Athena

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