There was a time when I was eleven years old -- between the start of a new school year and Midwinter's Night -- when I was invisible. I was never invisible for long, and I always returned to plain sight, but all my life has been affected by the people I met and the time I spent in a world where I could see and not be seen.
It happened not so long ago, less than a year after Congress had passed the anti-hijacking bill. The airlines had not yet put in X-ray equipment, so the checking had to be done by hand. My mother had trained to become an airport security guard; she had learned what to search for in the suitcases and pocketbooks that passengers carried on board. She proved to be quick and thorough at it, so she got a job at one of the world's busiest airports, Kennedy International, serving the New York metropolitan area.
Late that August we hauled our trailer from Texas to Long Island, way out on the island, beyond the highways and before the Hamptons, to where there were duck farms and fields of potatoes and cabbages. To the Empire Estates Mobile Homes Park. We arrived in time for the beginning of the school year.
After three weeks at Singer Grove Middle School, I still ate lunch by myself. After three weeks, no one but my teachers called me Jeanmarie. I was nameless and furious. Furious at being nameless. Furious that no one recognized that I was a future famous person. Furious at having moved seventeen hundred miles only to find that the in-crowd were clones of the cheerleaders and jocks that I had gone to school with in Texas. Clones: lived in houses not mobile homes; had two parents, the mothers of which made cakes for PTA bake sales; talked to each other on the phone for hours; had been friends with each other since the world began. Clones were never alone.
It all started with a dead blue jay.
I had a tendency toward carsickness that I did not choose to demonstrate or discuss, so I always scrambled to claim a bus seat just behind the driver, where the exhaust fumes did not smell as bad and the bus did not pitch and roll as much. I was always the first one off the bus at my stop, and I always started home the minute my feet hit the ground, looking down, not looking back. So I was well ahead of every one else when I saw the bird and stopped.
There was no blood showing, and it looked more stunned than dead. I bent down to see if I could detect at least a little flutter. I had no intention of touching it; birds could carry a dread disease called parrot fever. Never mind that this was not a parrot. I did not want to die before I became famous. I was bending over, trying not to inhale any of the air between the bird and me, when Malcolm Soo caught up with me and stopped to see what had made me stop.
"I wonder if it's really dead," I said. "It may have flown into a window and gotten stunned."
Malcolm got down on his knees and put his face heroically close to the bird's beak, then leaned back and with his bare hand gently turned the bird over. "Dead," be said.
I swallowed hard, hoping to dissolve any bad air I may have consumed. I managed to say, "We ought to keep it from rotting."
"Everything rots," Malcolm replied.
"It ought to be buried," I said.
"It will still rot. It will just rot out of sight."
I didn't think a person had to see every bad thing that happened, and I also didn't think I had to discuss the fact that I didn't believe it. Death and dying were heavy items among the clones at Singer Grove Middle School. I avoided those discussions. I developed symptoms of any long, mysterious, illnesses that the clones cared to talk about. It seemed to me that every tragic illness started out like a common cold, and only after the disease was beyond cure did it produce the lumps and running sores that killed you. I saw my body as an incubator for thousands of viruses, all of them waiting for one wrong breath to enter and attack and kill me before I had a chance to show the world and its clones what I was really made of. Our teacher last year had shown us a film strip of microscopic life in a drop of water, and I thought that it should have had an R rating; I found the unseen world violent, full of sex and with no redeeming social value.
"Do you want to help bury the bird?" I asked Malcolm, hoping that he would take over the job entirely. I didn't want to pick it up, and I surely didn't want it to remain above ground where it would reek and rot -- since everything does -- and infest all of the Empire Estates with parrot fever.
Malcolm took his map of the states west of the Mississippi -- it was the largest and heaviest piece of paper he had -- and slid it under the jay. "I think we ought to," he said.
I agreed. We decided to go home, deposit our books and meet to perform a burial service. Malcolm pinched the two ends of his map together, making a hammock for the dead bird to ride in as we walked the rest of the way.
"That was a nice map," I said, "very neat." I had had the same assignment, but my map had a red palm print on the northwest comer of Arizona where I had dragged my hand across wet paint because I had forgotten to work from north to south, and I had left the second o out of Colorado and had had to add it with a caret. My map was accurate but not worth putting on the refrigerator door.
"I'm very neat," Malcolm said. "It's a talent I have."
"Being neat is just something that is easier for some people than for others."
"That's why I would call it a talent," Malcolm said. "Like playing the piano is easier for some people than it is for others, and that's called a talent."
I told him that I would call it congenital, like a heart murmur or a strawberry birthmark or a clubfoot.
"If someone has an ability that they are born with -- whether they develop it or not -- that ability is called a talent. Take gymnastics..."
I said, "A person can be born with a hare lip and not inherit it. Hare lips are congenital."
"I never heard of a newborn with a hairy lip."
"Hare lip. H-A-R-E lip. It's congenital."
"Neatness is a talent. My father is neat. I am neat..."
"Listen, Malcolm, I wouldn't mind hearing you list your talents and virtues except that I think that it might start to stink before you finish," I said, looking at the bird. I was finding it difficult to talk without breathing in.
We arranged to meet at the spot where we were standing.
Malcolm and I were both latchkey children. I had noticed that he was the very first day of school. (Clones were never latchkeys.) Malcolm's father worked in the duck processing plant on the edge of town. His father's business was almost as seasonal as my mother's, for ducks and travel were both popular during the holidays. My mother had been told that during the peak travel seasons she would sometimes have to work the evening shift as well as every other weekend.
I wore a housekey on a metal chain around my neck, under my blouse. I had lost four keys during the first six weeks of school last year before Mother came up with the idea of my wearing my key around my neck. Malcolm never lost a key. Malcolm always knew exactly where his was. He didn't even take his key ring out of his side pocket until he was at his trailer's door. Key losing is congenital.
I dumped my books on the sofa and began looking for the trowel we had used when Mother and I had tried to grow tomatoes outside our trailer in Texas. The plants had grown about a foot high when huge caterpillars attacked. They were covered with hundreds of tiny white cocoons, and if you picked them off and stepped on them, they squished out the most disgusting green stuff. I decided that it was punishment enough for them to have to go through life looking as ugly as they did, so I left them alone, and they ate up all the tomato plants. We had no harvest at all.
I couldn't find the trowel.
I took a soup spoon from one of the kitchen drawers and started out the door when I had a second thought and returned. I rummaged through the closet in my room until I found a bottle of ink and a calligraphy pen that Mother's (boy)friend had given me last Christmas. I had liked the idea of doing calligraphy, but I could not get the hang of it. It was not easy to hold the pen at the proper angle so that both the up-and-down and the crosswise stroke of the + sign were the same thickness. If I concentrated on how I wrote, what I wrote made no sense at all. Besides, I always managed to get enough fingerprints on the paper so that it looked more like an FBI file than a page of beautiful handwriting. I suspected that even if Malcolm Soo could not do calligraphy, he was congenitally neat enough to do a weathergram.
A weathergram is what I wanted for the dead blue jay.
I took a brown grocery bag from Mother's supply and put the spoon, the bottle of ink and the pen into the bag and ran out to meet Malcolm. I guessed that he would have a proper digging tool and that even if it wasn't new, it would look new.
He did. It did.
We decided to bury the jay as far away from civilization as we could; and since both of us had strict orders not to leave the grounds of The Empire Estates Mobile Homes Park, we walked to the part of it that had not yet been cleared for trailer hook-ups. We weaved our way through a stand of evergreens where the underbrush was ragged and full of sticklers until we found ourselves in a clearing. As we stood in its center, we saw that the pines that we had been walking through were part of a thick protecting circle that marked the clearing off, not only from the settled part of the trailer park but also from the part that had never been cleared. Except for a narrow opening on the far side of the trailer park, the circle was complete. It was not a large space, only about as big as a two-sofa family room in the home of the average clone. It was comfortably large and comfortably small.
We knew as soon as we saw it that it was the proper place to bury the jay. Together we pushed aside a mattress of pine needles and dug a grave, and Malcolm placed the jay, wrapped in The States West of the Mississippi, into it. He gathered up some pine cones and made a small pyramid of them. "This will be the grave marker. Not a gravestone but a gravecone."
"Clever, but not too clever," I said.
Malcolm said that it didn't seem right to bury the bird without saying something.
It was then that I reached into the grocery bag and brought out the calligraphy pen and the ink. I tore a strip of paper from the bag and handed it to Malcolm. "It's biodegradable," I said. "We'll do a weathergram." I told him that a weathergram is a poem of ten words or less that a person writes on plain brown paper and hangs on a tree.
"Why would a person do that?" he asked.
Because that's the way a person delivers a weathergram, I told him. "The message is rubbed by the wind, faded by the sun, washed by the rain and becomes part of the world."
He shrugged his shoulders. "I get the idea," he said. "You sure have a talent for the dramatic."
I almost told him then that I was a future star of stage, screen and TV, but I didn't. At the moment I thought that Malcolm Soo could wait with the clones and the rest of the world to find out, but his remark made me gentle. "I'm sure you are a neat writer," I said kindly, "so I want you to write: "May your soul have flown to Heaven before you sank to Earth."
"It doesn't rhyme."
"It doesn't have to."
"It's more than ten words. It's twelve," he said, counting on his fingers.
"Write it," I said.
"And be sure to capitalize both Heaven and Earth."
Malcolm finished and held up the strip of paper, pleased with it and himself. I examined it and said, "You're neat all right, Malcolm, but you are not perfect. It should be s-o-u-l, not s-o-l-e. I don't know for sure if birds have s-o-u-l-s but I know for sure that they don't have s-o-l-e-s."
"Is a crow a bird?" Malcolm asked.
"Of course it's a bird."
"Then how come when people get old, they say that they get crow's feet around their eyes?"
"That's an expression."
"Is a duck a bird?"
"Then how come when someone's feet point out when they walk, they say that they are duckfooted?"
"That's another expression."
"Is a pigeon a bird?"
I said. "I know what you're going to say. You're going to tell me that when someone toes in, they say that he's pigeon-toed."
"I have just one more thing to ask you."
"If they have feet, then how come they don't have soles?"
"Because they don't. Horses have feet and they have hooves, and dogs have feet and they have paws, and birds have feet, but they don't have soles. Trust me, Malcolm. You can have feet and not have a sole."
"How do you know that birds have s-o-u-l-s?"
"How do you know that they don't?"
Malcolm rewrote the weathergram. He did an even better job the second time than the first, which surprised me because when I tried to improve an artistic effort, it never came out neater or better the second time. Malcolm's letters were distinct and clear, every ascender was firm and complete, every descender was looped if it was meant to be, and every t had its cross. Malcolm was pleased with the way the weathergram looked, and I thought that what it said was worthy of a hallmark.
Together we walked to the center tree of the inside row of the circle. It was a pine that stood slightly out of line with the others; it seemed to be asking us to hang our weathergram there, and we did. When we stood back, the strip of brown paper was ruffled by a slight breeze that came up, and I had the distinct feeling that our message was on its way.
Together we walked to the middle of the clearing and stood on either side of the small grave and listened. There were no sounds of traffic from the road. There was only the late afternoon sound of small animals and insects; it was an uneven hum, pitched low and restful. There were no manufactured smells: no gasoline or asphalt or insect repellent. There was the quiet odor of the pines and the sweet smell of leaves at rest after a summer's work. I wanted to take deep breaths so that I could fill up with all the wonderful smells at once. I looked around and could not find a single reminder of Empire Estates. There was nothing to tell us what day of the week it was or what year. There was nothing there to tell us that it was the twentieth century; even the fading afternoon light could have been dawn as easily as dusk.
As we walked out of the circle of trees, I felt as if I were taking out more than I had brought in, even though we were leaving the weathergram and the buried jay behind. I walked out of there with a feeling of closeness to Malcolm that I had not had when we had gone in. I said to him, "Next time, we can circle around and enter from that opening on the far side instead of weaving our way through the trees. That way it will feel more like an amphitheater," and when Malcolm nodded his agreement, I knew that we had made a promise that there would be a next time.
The very next day we found a luna moth. "I'll get my spoon," I said the minute I spotted it.
"And the stuff for its weathergram," Malcolm added as he reached down and picked the moth up by the tip of its body and held it so that no dust would rub away from its eerily beautiful wings.
I was pleased that Malcolm wanted another weathergram, and I thought that I composed an award winner, Fly. Flutter. Falter. Fall, but Malcolm again complained that it didn't rhyme, and I said that only a person who was neat to the point of being sick would need poems that did. I told Malcolm that he made the F's so beautiful that I thought that they might alight from the paper and leave the weathergram on wings of their own. "I have excellent small muscle coordination," he said.
We began walking to and from the bus stop together, studying the ground to find candidates for a funeral service. Nothing turned up on either Thursday or Friday, and on the following Monday just when we reached the steps of my trailer, Malcolm said that he would see me at the burial ground, and I said sure, and we gave up pretending that we needed to bury something to spend time together.
Malcolm Soo had been born in Korea but didn't remember the language. He was a half-orphan. He had gone to Milton Road Elementary before Singer Grove, which meant that he knew one-third of the sixth grade clones, but he hardly paid any attention to them. He didn't even realize they were clones. Malcolm Soo was five weeks younger than me but just as bossy. He also considered himself a future famous person, but, unlike me, he was perfectly willing to talk about it. He had decided that he would win a Nobel Prize in science. He had not yet decided whether he would win it in chemistry or physics, but whatever he discovered, he would name after his dear dead mother, Chin-i. He was neat, methodical and had an opinion about everything. I was not neat, not methodical and had an opinion about everybody. He had opinions about things I had never even thought about. I had opinions of people he had never even noticed. I did not find Malcolm Soo as boring as afternoon television. I did not find him boring at all.
Malcolm was alone when he found the next victim. He carried it over to my place and knocked on my door. "We need another funeral," he said. He ceremoniously unwrapped the neat folds of the aluminum foil (broiler-strength) package and showed me what I thought was a black caterpillar with a glandular problem. "A mole," he said.
We walked to the clearing on the edge of the Park and dug a grave. Malcolm took up the pen and asked me what the mole's epigraph was to be.
"Write That was light at the end of the tunnel. Sorry. Put two n's in tunnel, and remember to put the e before the l."
"I know a tunnel when I see one," Malcolm said.
"I have no doubt that you would know one when you see one. I'm not sure you could spell one."
"O-n-e," Malcolm said.
"No one likes a smartass, Malcolm," I replied.
"It takes one to know one."
We hung the weathergram from the same tree that held the other two. "Imagine living your whole life underground," Malcolm said. "Imagine finding the light at the end of the tunnel, and then, zap! you're dead."
"I don't expect to let that happen to me," I told him. "I want to be like the luna moth. I want to fly before I fall."
"But the moth also lives in the dark."
"And so do the stars," I said.
"I like the stars," he said. "I like astronomy. I'd like to discover a star some day."
"Good. Then I'll let you discover me."
"What kind of star do you want to be?"
I had never told anyone that I wanted to be a great actress. No one in Texas. Not even my mother. And yet that wanting took up most of my dream life. I had never told anyone and had never done anything about it. I had never even tried out for the Fifth Grade Christmas Pageant. It was as if trying for it would show everyone some secret, hidden part of myself that they could make fun of and hurt.
Since the day when we had buried the blue jay, I knew that I would tell Malcolm. I knew that I could trust him. Friendships and funerals may begin on common ground, but they have to go deeper. Friendships and funerals both require faith. Faith is a kind of bond, a kind of trust. I knew that Malcolm would not make fun of me if I told him my secret. And he would never tell anyone; I wouldn't even have to ask him not to.
So I told Malcolm Soo that I dreamed of becoming an actress. I told him that I wanted to be a great one, one they would name theaters after.
"You may not be pretty enough, but you sure are peculiar enough."
"Great actresses don't have to be beautiful; it's more important to make people think you're beautiful than to be beautiful. I told you I want them to name theaters, not hairstyles, after me. What do you want to have named after you?"
"A planet, an atomic particle and ten bastard sons."
Malcolm laughed. "What have you done about becoming an actress?"
"Telling you is the first thing."
I thought that we ought to give the burial place a name. Malcolm suggested Pet Cemetery, but I complained that the name was ordinary and besides none of the animals we had buried had been pets. "I'll think of what to call it," I said. I knew that something would come to me, something that was as appropriate as Coca-Cola and as dignified as IBM. There was a name buzzing in the back of my head, and one day when we were just sitting there, a day when we weren't burying anything, just holding our heads up to the sun to catch some rays, I heard a voice saying, "Jericho Tel" and was surprised to recognize the voice as my very own.
"We'll call this place Jericho Tel," I repeated.
Malcolm liked the sound of it. Jericho Tel seemed right to him, too, even though at the time I couldn't tell him what it meant. There was no logic to the name, but it seemed right, and the fact that it seemed right without reason to Malcolm made me all the more certain that it was.
When I got home, I looked up Jericho Tel. Jericho was the oldest inhabited city in the world. Tel meant hill. But the land in our clearing was flat. I wondered if the clearing was the top of a buried hill. Could we be standing on top of something that lay deep, deep under us? Something as old as civilization. I was excited by that thought.
The baby squirrel that had fallen from its nest was next, and when we buried it, I composed, and Malcolm wrote the following weathergram: By dying young, you have missed a lot of nuts.
Malcolm complained that not only did that poem not rhyme, it was the most non-poetic poem he had ever heard. I did not have a high opinion of it either, but I said, "The word count is accurate. Write it anyway." And Malcolm wrote.
When we hung the squirrel's weathergram from the tree, I noticed that our first one, the blue jay's, was only a tatter, and all the letters had faded away. Our first message had been delivered. I didn't say anything to Malcolm. He would want to know who had gotten the message, and I wouldn't be able to tell him. I didn't want to defend without proof something that I knew as certainly as I knew that.
Copyright © 1986 by E.L. Konigsburg