Elizabeth was dying, and Mom said they had to sing the herons to take away her soul.
Greg thought this was idiotic. Not the dying part. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He didn’t even like Elizabeth much, even if she was his sister. She was annoying, and whiny, and had always gotten into his stuff, breaking it. And she was the absolute worst tattletale ever. Besides being stupid and believing in absolutely everything. It was worse now that she was sick. It was all great in the movies and stuff when kids died. They made it seem all moving and touching and shit, but in real life all it meant was Elizabeth lying there not doing anything and Mom crying and Dad saying he couldn’t deal with this shit and taking off to the other side of the city in another apartment which Mom said made it even harder to deal with the bills. They’d gotten a free little trip to Disney out of it and someone had brought cookies but otherwise it sucked. And Elizabeth hadn’t been like one of those kids in the movies, either, all nice about it. She was mean, and she threw things, and she told lies about Greg, and Mom and Dad believed her because she was sick and dying.
That’s when he’d started saying shit all the time, even if his mother hated it.
No, the dying part wasn’t idiotic. Even less now that Elizabeth couldn’t throw anything.
But the herons.
He’d never heard of singing to herons. Neither had anyone at school when he asked, really cautiously. He’d found a bit on Egyptians and ibises, but nothing about singing to them. Anyway, his mom had said herons.
“This week,” she said, staring at the wall. It was creepy, really creepy, the way she went between not looking at Greg at all, and then staring at Greg intensely. Almost as creepy as the way she kept tapping her fingers against the table, the wall, the chair, the couch, every place she sat. Or the way she was planting flowers and plants in the yard for Elizabeth to dance on, later. Greg wasn’t sure about his sister dying and all, but he totally knew he didn’t want her ghost dancing in the yard. Javier told him that was just shit too, but it still made him shiver when he looked at the bougainvilleas. The school counselor they’d made him talk to said that sometimes parents would do things like this. Greg just had to be patient.
Greg was sick of being patient.
“Why this week?”
“Because,” she said, still not looking at him. “Because.”
Shit. Absolute shit.
And so they sang the herons, standing on the shores of the lake, and singing as the herons flew by.
Rock songs, soft songs, folk songs, old songs, new songs, because his mother didn’t know what the herons would like. Her brown eyes glowed with a strange green light. Once he thought he saw reflections of little birds in them, which was also stupid. He was so hungry. The wind stole his mother’s thready voice. His own voice was a bit louder, but never quite on pitch.
That night, Greg dreamed of herons, tall skinny grey birds with ragged feathers. One of the herons extended a foot, and he reached out and seized its wing. And then he was on the bird, flying—but under the water—five more great blue herons swimming beside and below him. He looked up, to see fish flying in the air above the water, to see Elizabeth, her arms and legs spread out on the shimmering surface, between the air and water and swimming birds and flying fish. He thought she might be singing.
He woke and went to the window.
His mother knelt by the bougainvilleas, head in her hands, not singing. Seven great grey herons stood beside her, wings outstretched. They were even larger than any of the herons he’d seen before.
It was shit, he knew, pure shit, totally bogus, but he almost thought he could see some sort of glow hovering above the herons, changing their feathers from dull grey to brilliant blue. The light shifted, a little, the way candlelight moved on the old table of polished wood that they used to play games on, back before Elizabeth got sick, pulsing and dancing all at once. It was stupid, stupid, and the only reason he was seeing any light there at all was because he was crying. Which was even stupider than everything else, totally shit, but what else was he going to do, other than start singing again.