Some Lessons About Light

When I was a child, I longed for early summer to come quickly so I could skip on the walk, pick bouquets from the garden, and sit for hours on the chintz-pillowed, white wicker furniture listening to grandmother's two king warblers, Midas and Croesus, sing. The summer I was 8 was destined to be the last summer the latter pleasure would be mine to enjoy.

One morning, I was sitting on the cool, terra-cotta tile floor playing jacks. A soft summer wind carried the talcum-sweet, flower-garden scents through the open windows. Thai, Gran's spoiled old Siamese tomcat, had been watching my game. He pounced after a ball I failed to catch when I glanced up to listen more intently to Gran's conversation with Miss Letitia Cullen, a spinster who had lived next door for many years.

Miss Cullen was a frail little wisp of a woman with a rosebud mouth. She wore tiny, floral-printed batistes that smelled of lavender, and she wrote song poetry that she chanted to her own accompaniment on the Autoharp. She had been a humanities and philosophy teacher at a private school prior to her retirement some years before. When she spoke, her voice was tremulous but authoritative.

''Christine, I just don't think Midas is well. His twitter and warble and trills are all right, but when he chirps, it's flat -- definitely flat!''

I watched Gran walk to the cage and listen attentively as Midas swelled his chest, arched his throat, and sang with a purity that freckled my arms with chill bumps.

''Oh, I think he's just fine, Letitia,'' Gran soothed. ''Just listen to him, now.''

''W-e-l-l, he's measuring light all right, but I still hear a bit of a shadow.'' Miss Cullen's tone became patronizing. ''You've no trained ear you know, Christine. Personally, I don't see how the little things sing at all in these cages. Things with wings were just not made to perch in cages.''

I scooted on my jeans closer to the conversation.

''What do you mean, he's measuring light, Miss Cullen?'' I ventured.

There was no compromise for my paltry eight years in her answer.

''White light is a combination of all the colors, child. The decomposition of white light into all its colors is called the dispersion of light; I call it measuring light, which is the sustenance for all living creatures. Somehow ... somewhere, sound and sight are like Siamese twins; they complement each other. Midas is just trying to do his job of feeding our ears, but he's not feeling well.''

She rubbed the cameo brooch at her throat with a crooked forefinger and continued: ''Everywhere, less light is measured at night. That's because of the dark shadows that are cast when we turn away from the sun. Midas is beginning to turn away. When you're older or there is a need, you'll understand.''

Thai returned with my golf ball, and the rhythmic sound of the bouncing ball and dragging jacks assumed priority. But Miss Cullen's words, ''things with wings were just not made to perch in cages,'' floated softly just beneath the shallow surface of an impulsive summer visitor in her eighth year.

Early the next morning, Gran, in her broad-brimmed straw hat, set off to pick strawberries from the patch on the back of the lot. Still half-asleep, I wandered to the sun porch and was standing there in my pink pajamas with Thai mewing and rubbing against my leg, his tail arcing like a bushy metronome.

I noticed the cage covers had already been removed, letting a slant of early-morning sun sift through the brass ribs of the cages. But Midas was only giving forth a few halfhearted chirps.

Was Miss Cullen right, I wondered? Without pausing for further reasoning or compunction, I walked over and snapped open the tiny doors of both cages. Then, I watched wide-eyed with awful trepidation, but neither bird advanced at all toward the rectangle of freedom I had provided. Just then I heard Gran's voice in the distance.

''Lou Evelyn! Lou Evelyn, hurry and bring me another berry bucket from the hook there by the back door.''

Dew was still on the strawberries, and I stayed to help her finish picking them, dissolving the sweetness of a juicy, especially large one in my mouth from time to time. When we finished, I carried one metal bucket, and she brought along the other two. As we reached the house, I opened the back door and stood aside to let her go in first.

All of a sudden, there was a frantic rustling, and then a wild flutter as two yellow streaks with untried wings zigzagged to the cherry tree, paused for a moment, and then flew over the back garden wall and were gone. Gran took one look at my stricken face and she knew.

For an instant, I felt a rush of exhilaration! As the wings of the birds carried them higher, my own heart soared like an eagle. And then I realized they would not be returning.

''They're gone,'' I cried, tears streaking down both cheeks. Gran held me close, and Letitia Cullen, who had been watering her petunia bed, caught the gist of the commotion and called out to us.

''I'll be right over.''

Gran was rocking me in the big old wicker rocker and smoothing my hair, still damp from the trauma, when Miss Cullen came in. My sobs had not yet subsided completely. Thai was mewing and swishing his tail, and the tiny open doors of the bird cages emphasized the emptiness within. There was one yellow feather on a bright swatch of sun in the middle of the tile floor.

Unceremoniously, Miss Cullen handed me a small, rubber-banded box.

''Open it,'' she said. ''It's time you knew there are other ways than bird songs for measuring and seeing light.''

Inside the box was a perfectly scaled pocket sundial of carved ebony with a silver gnomon that unfolded like a fan, casting its tiny shadow.

''It's my fault,'' Miss Cullen informed Gran matter-of-factly. ''She remembered what I said. But I still say, man made cages, God made wings.'' Her voice was soft as she continued: ''Life is not only for growing, but for learning, and today is an example of one lesson she will long remember. It has provided an example of one of the many choices she will have to make as she encounters new situations with other problems to solve.''

Many summers have passed since that impetuous one. As I grow older, I often remember Miss Cullen's philosophical intercession in my time of sorrow. I know now why canaries do not sing at night. At her invitation, I have also learned there are unlimited ways of measuring light. Letitia Cullen's declaration that ''Man made cages, God made wings,'' has more than once been the leaven that raised my consciousness to new levels.

True, other birds have escaped, but they were so magnificent at the moment of their flying! I know now that light can be separated into its component variety of colors, or notes of song, but that then these elemental hues can be mixed again. A distortion results when we separate ''light'' in our experience but forget the secret of putting the colors back together in a special harmony.

When choices are hard to make, I remember that fallen yellow feather I now have encased in a glass locket, and rise with each moment to my own decision of when to fly and when to falter. Today, I passed the locket along to my eight-year-old daughter, Rowena. She touched it softly and said, ''Where has the bird gone?''

''It sings in my heart,'' I answered.

She placed her head against me and marveled, ''I hear it!'' And I believe she does.

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