A Holiday Excerpt from Song of the Storm Petrel
by Jessica Glasner
Dorris squinted into the pigeon loft, a special coop for the drafted birds of the U.S. Army stationed in Townsville, Australia. “So, they are just like regular pigeons?”
“Regular pigeons!” Frank was horrified. “I mean, these girls are the athletes of the sky! Specially bred and trained.” He reached in and pulled out a gentle sleek bird. “Look how muscular she is and well-proportioned. Sure, she may come from the same family, the Columba livia or Rock Dove, as those pathetic run-of-the-mill pigeons down at the fountain, but they are altogether a better bird. These will live for twenty years. Those other birds might last three or four. It’s all in the breeding, see?”
“They look the same,” Dorris challenged.
“Well, they aren’t.” He put the bird back, and we stood aside as he came out of the loft. “I’ve been studying.”
“I can imagine.” She looked at him squarely. “They don’t seem to mind when you hold them.”
“Pigeons like people. They are actually pretty social.”
Edie adjusted her straw hat and slipped her arm around Grace’s waist, as though she was afraid the girl would bolt at any moment. “And to think, they mate for life!”
“They do. Not like some people.” Frank’s expression was emotionless.
Peter and I peered into the loft. It was not terribly large, not much bigger than a garden shed. But it was large enough for the fifty birds in the program.
“So, how do you get them to race?” Peter cleared his throat.
“It’s pretty simple. These birds have been here since they were six weeks old. They’ve been trained together, and it’s in their genes to come back to their home. They have an amazing sense of direction. We take them somewhere, release them, and they fly home.”
“How do you tell them apart?” Paul asked. Much to Frank’s disappointment, Paul had gotten yet another afternoon off.
“They wear a little rubber ring with a number on it. Whichever one makes it back first wins. We also time each of the birds so we know which ones are the strongest, fastest fliers.”
“This should to be interesting.” Dorris elbowed Grace playfully. Grace tried to look interested, but she was obviously distracted.
Frank checked his watch. “We ought to be going. How about you all go get in the jeep with Horatio? Peter, Piper and I will follow with the birds. We’ll all meet up at the base on the top of Castle Rock.”
* * *
The drive up Castle Rock, the enormous pink granite mountain rising out of the earth in the center of town, was breathtaking. Surrounded by eight cooing pigeons in their cages, Peter couldn’t help but laugh. “Well, this certainly beats walking.”
“I thought you wanted to hike up this monolith,” I protested, remembering his words upon first laying his eyes on the mountain.
“I take it back.” Peter looked down over the edge of the mountain.
As we wound our way up the steep switchbacks, Frank switched on the radio. Immediately, a newscaster with a heavy Australian accent broke into the gentle birds’ songs.
“One week ago on December 16, 1944, German forces launched a massive offensive campaign through the Ardennes region of Belgium, France, and Luxembourg. They have completely encircled and destroyed four Allied armies, and there are rumors that the Allies are willing to negotiate a peace treaty favoring the Axis.”
Peter and I shared a pained look.
“American forces have suffered more than others, and the casualty list is higher than any other operation during the war. Between 63,000 and 98,000 men are killed, missing, wounded in action, or captured.”20
“How can they know?” I exclaimed. “I mean, so soon! It’s only been a week!”
Frank slammed his hand on the steering wheel, barely containing his rage.
“We’ll counter-attack,” Peter said firmly. “We will. You mark my words. We will. We are Americans.”
The radio announcer continued, “Disagreements between the Allied forces have caused delays in a clear response. German Panzer units…”
Frank shut off the radio, and we drove up the rest of the mountain in silence.
We did not speak of the news as we prepared the small flock of birds for the race. But by the looks on Edie, Horatio, Grace, Lorelei, and Katrine’s faces, they too had listened to the radio on the drive over. I wanted to scream and cry. I wanted it all to end. I was infinitely finished with death. How could it go on and on? It was absurd. And the absurdity of it all was frustratingly infuriating.
One by one, we released the graceful birds off the granite rock at a set time and watched them soar back to their coop, where another birdkeeper waited to catch them and clock their arrivals. But the excitement of the race was lost.
It was Edie who was humming under her breath, “His eye is on the sparrow.” I knew she was thinking of all our boys in the Ardennes forest, and she was reminding herself that God saw them, just as he saw our pigeons soaring over the Townsville skyline in a magnificent sunset.
“Well,” Frank said, rubbing his hands together, “that’s it. The show’s over.”
Dorris tried to smile. “Maybe we could all go to dinner? I know a great place right on the water. It’s called Longboards. They make a great hamburger.”
“That sounds good to me.” Peter nodded.
“I could go for a hamburger,” Lorelei agreed.
“Nothing like a riveting pigeon race to wake up the metabolism.” Edie took Horatio’s hand. “Don’t you think, so dear.”
Paul paused and took Lorelei’s hand and whispered quietly as the group made their way back to the car, “I have the night off, Lorelei. I was wondering… Maybe I could take you out. You know, something nicer than a hamburger.”
Horatio, just ahead of them and accidentally overhearing, stopped dead in his tracks. “What’s this?” He turned on his heel and looked up at Paul. “You are asking Lorelei out… to dinner?”
Paul smiled innocently and shrugged nonchalantly.
“But you haven’t asked my permission,” he stated bluntly, rolling his brogue ‘r’s’ especially long as he stared menacingly at Paul.
Lorelei stepped in. “Horatio, I don’t think it’s necessary. Really—”
He put his hand out and stopped her. “Lorelei, you are my pseudo-adopted daughter. If a man wants to ask you out, he must go through me.”
“Sir,” Paul looked at Lorelei, “Lorelei is 28 years old. And just between us, we’ve been going out for quite some time now.”
“Is that true?” Horatio’s eyes widened in shock.
Edie rolled her eyes. “Where have you been for the last two months?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Fighting a war. Kicking the Japanese back to where they came from? And apparently, this young man’s been gallivanting about in the bush with my daughter!”
“Oh my.” Edie fanned herself and smiled. “I had no idea you were such a protective father, Horatio! I like this side of you!”
Horatio shrugged to Edie. “Just practicing for the young ones.” Then, back in character, he continued to Paul, nearly shouting, “I think I deserve an apology, young man.”
“I’m sorry?” Paul had no idea what he was apologizing for.
“And…” Horatio waved his hand for Paul to continue.
“And…?” Paul looked at Lorelei for a clue. She looked nervous.
“And dinner is a lot more serious than coffee,” Horatio hinted.
“May I have your permission,” Paul said solemnly, “to take your sort-of daughter to dinner?”
“I’m not sure.”
Edie slapped his arm. “Horatio!”
Horatio frowned. “Oh, Edie, I’m just teasing the young lad. Well, I already know you’re an upstanding citizen and a true Christian. I can’t think of any reason off the top of my head to say no.” He looked at Lorelei. “Unless you don’t want to go.”
“I want to go.” She smiled up at Paul.
Horatio waited, enjoying the moment. “Have a lovely time, dear.”
“I’m planning on it.”
Paul offered his arm to Lorelei. She nodded, and arm in arm they began descending the switchbacks down the mountain.
Watching them, Edie exclaimed, “My my my, that young man reminds me of Horatio when he was young. He could be your twin! It reminds me of our old courting days, doesn’t it you, darling?”
Horatio nodded in agreement. “I definitely see the resemblance.”
“Don’t you think so dear?” Edie called to me.
“That Paul looks like Horatio!”
I looked at Paul’s back. Well… if Uncle Horatio was a foot taller, clean-shaven, had more hair and a tan, and a stronger jawline… there might be a resemblance, I thought.
“So,” Dorris clapped her hands together, “how about that hamburger?”
“You all go ahead,” Katrine said. “I’m not very hungry. I’ll meet you at home. I’d like a walk myself. I need some time to think.”
* * *
Though the weather made it feel nowhere close to the holidays, Christmas was just around the corner. And despite the heat, I woke up early the next morning with a subtle desire for the familiar of Christmas’s past. I could make my mother’s Linzer cookies with spiced jam. She always made them this time of year. The problem was, I couldn’t remember how many cloves she used. Or maybe, Katrine and I could make an almond-filled stolen. That was always a crowd favorite.
I glanced at my watch. It was 6:30 in the morning. Coffee cup in hand, I was ready for a pleasant moment of quiet spent reading my pocket Bible in the living room. But my pocket Bible was nowhere to be found.
“Where is it?” I huffed under my breath, glancing around the room. I was sure I had left it there the morning before. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the menorah we’d made of tinfoil and wooden beads. Hanukkah this year fell right over Christmas, and we had, of course, gone to great trouble to honor both holidays in our house. But it was difficult to feel celebratory. All our thoughts and prayers were directed towards our boys on the other side of the world.
“There it is,” I thought relieved. It sat beside the menorah and underneath a stack of books and papers scattered on the desk.
As I moved to push the clutter aside, the writing on a page from the open notebook covering the Bible caught my eye.
Who is this Jesus?
“What’s this?” I whispered to myself, picking up the page and scanning it.
It was Katrine’s writing.
Findings: Obviously, there is archeological evidence for the existence of a Jewish rabbi named Yeshua who was born in the first century… The eyewitness accounts, the sources outside of Christian scriptures… there is no doubt that Yeshua existed. The question at hand: Who was he, and why is he so important? And why do Lorelei and Piper feel so strongly about him the way that they do?
My heart started beating in my chest. Katrine had taken my challenge! And she was doing it the only way she knew how, through research. There must have been 20 library books stacked beside the desk on the floor. The notes on the page were detailed, her handwriting small and even. I assumed she had been up half the night. Carefully, I continued to read.
The Gospels are clear that Jesus was convinced he was the son of God. But did he match Messianic prophecy?
Below that, on one side, she had begun a numbered list.
1. A descendant of Abraham? (Genesis 12:1-3)
2. The tribe of Judah? (Genesis 49:10)
3. The House of David? (2 Samuel 7:12-16)
4. Born in Bethlehem? (Micah 5:2)
5. Carried to Egypt? (Hosea 11:1)
6. Born of a Virgin? (Isaiah 7:14)
The list went on and on for several more pages. At the bottom of the list, she had written in a hand that was not as firm or as straight as before, the last lines underlined:
The first Christians were Jews… Yeshua, Jesus, did not come to start a new religion.
I felt nervous, as though I had stumbled onto something not meant for my eyes. The books, the papers. I could feel her internal struggle, her mind’s restless wandering to find the truth. She would never find it on her own. But I knew God’s promise, “Seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be open to you.”19
Silently, I extricated my Bible and sat down behind the desk, still looking at Katrine’s research, praying God would lead Katrine on her journey. If Katrine was looking, she would find him. If she was knocking, he would open the door. As I prayed, my thoughts turned to the day ahead.
My notebook full of notes from the soldiers waited to be edited and expanded and cajoled into some sort of cohesive whole. The task seemed daunting, and I geared up for a morning of frustration. The pain of losing my camera and film still stung. No suitable replacement had been found and I was resigned to do without until we returned home. Where that was and when that would be was up for grabs.
And then, there was the Christmas shopping to be done. I had been assigned Grace via my aunt’s Secret Santa plan. That would, possibly, take even more work than my attempt to become a journalist.
Grace was not the easiest of my cousins to shop for. In the past, she had always been fashionable, more so than I. But now (for the most part) the new Grace stuck to trousers or shorts and blouses rolled up to the elbow. All frill and fun was gone, replaced with a sort of strict, militaristic harshness. I thought of perfume or maybe a new lipstick. But that sort of thing was so personal. A woman needed to pick out her own lipstick. Nylons were too expensive. Edie suggested a book, but Grace wasn’t much of a reader.
However, it was in the bookstore I found it—a beautiful leather journal. It was not dissimilar from the journal my mother had given me long ago when I’d first arrived at Edie’s lighthouse the summer of ‘39. The paper felt handmade. I purchased it and a box of brand-new colored pencils. The pages, unlined, were perfect for writing or sketching. She had so much locked up inside of her… If she couldn’t share with me or her sisters, maybe she could share within the safety of a blank page.
“What do you think?” I asked, holding it up for Lorelei, who was staring off into space.
“What did you say?” The fog cleared, and she looked at me.
“What do you think? For Grace?” I tilted the journal to the side.
“I have no idea what Grace would like these days.” Absentmindedly, she backed into a stack of books on a table. They crashed to the floor and, startled, she knelt down to pick them up.
“Here,” I set the journal down, “let me help you.”
She smiled and one by one; we re-stacked the books.
“What’s going on, Lorelei? You’ve been acting awfully funny all morning. Did the date last night go badly?”
She shook her head, an indiscernible expression on her face. “Not badly…”
She put another book on the stack and whispered, “Oh, Piper, he asked me to marry him.”
“He didn’t!” I exclaimed.
Loudly, she shushed me and motioned for me to come closer. “Keep your voice down, please!”
I leaned in, whispering, “What did you say?”
“I couldn’t answer him. I… I didn’t know what to say!”
She nodded. “I’m just not sure yet! Piper, this is not just something you rush into! You knew Peter for years before you married him! You knew his family, his friends. . . his life. Paul is still a mystery to me. Everything about him and his life is foreign and strange. I feel I barely know him! And he barely knows me!”
“Marriage is always a risk, Lorelei, and you can never fully know a person enough to safeguard against that risk. It takes time. The more you talk, the more you will learn about each other,” I offered.
She nodded. “We do talk, just not about the things I think we should talk about—like the war or my family or, oh, I don’t know. He doesn’t ask the right questions… Sometimes it seems like he doesn’t want to. It makes me nervous.”
“Sometimes you have to help people out. If there are things about you that you think Paul needs to know, you need to just tell him.”
She raised one eyebrow. “I need him to ask, Piper. I need him to know to ask on his own. What if everything in my life, all these hard years, is too much for him to handle? If that’s true, how could we be together if he doesn’t want all of me?”
I shook my head. I knew from experience that you could never expect men to know what you were thinking, even if it seemed obvious.
“But surely, you understand what I am feeling, Piper? I can’t say yes now, not without knowing if it’s the right thing.”
At that moment, Edie bounded around the corner. “All right, ladies! Tempus fugit! We’ve still four more shops to hit before closing time.”
Lorelei looked at me, silently pleading for me to keep what she’d just told me in confidence. She walked around in a daze behind Edie and me the rest of the afternoon. Later, once we made it home and began stringing popcorn, listening to Christmas music, frying up donuts, and trying our best to act festive, Lorelei sat with her bowl of popcorn and string, barely moving, not saying a word.
* * *
“How absolutely international we are,” Edie said, munching on her donut. “Christmas and Hanukkah together.”
“It’s not a bad fit really,” Katrine said thoughtfully, “Yeshua celebrated Hanukkah, and we are celebrating his birthday, even if he might not have been born on Christmas…”
I looked at Katrine surprised.
To my astonishment, she continued sharing her recent research in her usual confident, ‘teacherly’ fashion. “You know,” she said, “Jesus wasn’t a Christian at all. He was a good Jew. I never realized that.” Her tone was serious.
Grace, not hearing what Katrine had said, began a list of complaints. “No dreidel, no latkes, no cheesecake. It doesn’t feel like Hanukkah at all. And these donuts are oily.”
“Don’t disparage the donuts.” Horatio poured another mug of eggnog. “They may be a little ‘oily,’ but the jelly in the middle is excellent. Eight nights of donuts,” Horatio patted his stomach, “on top of whatever is coming on Christmas Eve tomorrow at the party and Christmas and New Year’s. The children won’t recognize us when we get back home, darling Edie!”
“More than likely we won’t recognize them.” Edie frowned. “Imagine how much they’ve grown, dear.” Her face fell. “The presents we sent them won’t make it in time most likely.”
“Happy thoughts, love, only happy thoughts.” Horatio brought her a mug filled to the brim with eggnog.
Lorelei smiled and said softly, “Eating oil-based foods is one way we remember what God did on the first Hanukkah after the Maccabees rebelled against the Seleucid Empire. Once they got the temple back and purified it, they needed pure olive oil for the lamps. But they couldn’t find any, except for one bowl that was sealed with the signet ring of the High Priest, all the way from the days of Samuel. That’s how they knew it was pure. There was only enough oil for one day, but God made it last eight whole days, long enough to find other pure oil for the lamps.” She took another donut.
“Only the Jews could think of such a way to remember.” Frank smiled, “My mother made great donuts.”
“Our boys need that same oil in the Ardennes right now if they will survive the Germans, much less defeat them. If things keep going the way they are…” Peter trailed off. The Nazis, as usual, were proving a formidable enemy. He looked up. “Well, all I can say is we need a miracle.”
“A Hanukkah miracle.” Lorelei picked up the popcorn garland and began to wrap it around the small potted palm tree that was standing in for a Douglas fir.
“A Christmas miracle.” Edie nodded.
“God doesn’t perform miracles anymore.” Grace stood up. “If you want something done, do it yourself.”
“That a girl.” Frank winked at her from across the room where he sat at a small card table playing solitaire. “My sentiments exactly.”
My heart dropped, but no words came to mind to refute their doubts. But I knew. I knew. God was performing miracles every day, all around us. Miracles had marked every stage of our journey; the boys’ survival of the storm in the Malahini, Paul’s rescue, the submarine pickup, catching Ansel Thornton, being together now, the list went on and on in my mind. Grace and Frank just couldn’t see them or didn’t want to.