Hymn

There were five of them in the neighborhood, Rose-of-Sharons, five not fenced anyway, and I sat Shannon down among the dropped blossoms of the one alongside the Baptist church.  Crickets fiddled from untended foundation edges while a siren ramped up by the hospital, then faded.  Beyond that everything, even Shannon, was quiet.

Streetlight here is minimal, but the hundred or more white, rolled-cigar petal falls all around her picked up what they could to mark their scattershot pattern, the way tide-shuffled moonstones do on the beach when we nightwalk there.  Though less dependent on ritual than most autistic kids, Shan still craves it, and even in this, her fourth year, these petals had become an ephemeral favorite.

Sleep comes late for her, with commotion her only path to it.  Newport’s nightlife bustles into September, and she’d enjoyed the ice cream shops and blinking arcade, the street most of all, sounding like a snared raccoon throughout, but after the pleasant, muggy walk in my arms back to our quieter blocks she needed familiar objects and manufactured patterns of her own, a way to gently absorb, we think, all she takes in.

Shaking the branches above her to rain down thirty more flowers, I stooped, sweeping blossom bunches between her bare feet before stepping away.  Ever wordless, she scooped, spreading two handfuls wide before dropping, seeing whatever she saw as the lavender-tipped cylinders re-settled on the sidewalk.  This would take us to midnight, I knew, when I’d creep back in the apartment to lay her down without fuss, the only way we had of giving Karen and our one-year old Flannery the peace they needed, a routine we’d stumbled upon in March and had practiced since.  Bending occasionally to re-pile flowers, I otherwise listened to crickets while surveilling the small city night.

****

Like anywhere, dark here makes a difference.  Well back from Thames Street, where we’d just been and tourists thronged, and far enough from Broadway, where locals cavort, these residential blocks aren’t busy by day but are near stillborn at night.  Wildlife, though, does move, and in walking Shan all those late hours it was common to see more skunks and possums than people.  Still, I had an eye out.  There had been several beatings in recent months, one close to fatal, all at night.  Teenage kids stirring what teenage kids do it was hoped, but the race riots flaring around the country brush-stroked the obvious overtones.  Shan’s ten fingers curled around two more flower loads before her hands divided.  Studying what patterned out as the petals dropped, she cooed.

“Gah.  Gaaaaahh.”

Rearing her face skyward, she twisted her head side to side like a sturgeon making a rare surface foray.  Agape, she let out another soft syllable as her wall eyes took in whatever Newport’s lights let through.

“Stars,” I said, “stars,”, then watched her dip back to the flowers.

In the street, a ring-necked snake, black, orange-collared, undulated along the curb.  The length of a nightcrawler, not much thicker, it stopped, easing its head up to the cement top.  I couldn’t see the tongue flicks, but knew they picked up whatever Shan and I emitted.  More interested in cricket pheromones, it ascended, ribboning a foot behind my daughter before slipping into the fox gloves and chickweed edging the church.  I’d seen enough smooshed into the streets to know they were here, but this was the first live one.  Where it vanished the crickets went quiet, just another vignette of all we never see.

****

Shan had played here before.  Even without the flower falls she often clambered out of my arms to busy herself.   Earlier that summer a yellow and black butterfly, big, a tiger swallowtail, drew her into to the mulch and weeds, while most times the ant columns kept her on the sidewalk.

A few days before, Sunday, it had been music.  The Rose-of-Sharons had started to drop, but the piano lilt coming through the vent windows atop the bricks broke her away.  Soon singing accompanied the notes – a voice here, two there, until ten or so, some out of key, unisoned the soft, simple hymn, something more in line with New England’s brimstone pedigree than anything I might have imagined.

Eyes toward the vents, Shannon ambled into the faded wood chips, where the softer matter had leached away years ago.  Too gentle for excitement, the tune simply held her in place like a charmed snake.  Down the half block by the open church doors members filed in, mostly mid-aged to elderly women, dressed in smart, clamped clothes despite the heat.  The bulk wore an odd, box-like hat atop their hair.

When Karen and I moved to Newport we only knew what everyone does, of beaches and mansions, but nothing of its common underbelly.  We slipped into it, though, and after years of Shan’s wordless company I’d gleaned bits of its history, mostly abstractions until now.

Yellow-clad, deeply wrinkled, a final congregant hunched in her chair, wheeled by a broad-shouldered man in a blue suit.  The two groups chatting at the entrance parted, then nodded, a gesture the woman returned as she wheeled through.

All that summer, further up the neighborhood, Flannery had been doing much of her early walking in a large cemetery, stumbling after cottontails, tweeting at robins, a place where Shan and I had spent God knows how many hours doing the same.  Early on, downhill of the weather-blanked colonial stones, past the fresher, more ornate Catholic ones, Shan once staggered around a pink-blossomed cherry tree, one of several shading a patch of tilted markers separate from the rest.  “God’s Little Acre” a sign said, payment to slaves and free blacks, and watching the old woman enter the church I wondered if she belonged to that line or a more recent influx, a daughter, say, within the Great Migration, a splinter of which worked the Goat Island torpedo plant when that was necessary.  As the church doors closed, the chorus gathered, and before it stopped Shan stepped to the wall, palming its bricks, feeling whatever pulsed in the desiccated clay.

****

With the deepening night even lights around Thames and Broadway blinked out, clarifying the sky.  Cassiopeia’s ‘W’ was up, brightening with the fading summer, while over to the north a cock-eyed Big Dipper showed.

Shan had stopped cooing, a sign of waning.  On a house opposite, atop a rusty air conditioner, a slumbering pigeon purred, while footfalls shuffled behind us.  Turning, I stepped to the sidewalk’s center, squaring to two figures.  If I couldn’t see their faces, though, the outlines indicated women, older ones.  Shadowed by the Rose-of-Sharon, I’d started the shorter of the two, but she continued alongside her friend and I moved to the side, unveiling Shannon.

“Hi,” I said, unable to see much of either face.

“Hello,” the taller one said.  “We didn’t see you, only her.  I thought we’d have to call somebody.  She’s getting so big.  She really does like flowers, doesn’t she?”

I wasn’t sure when Shan and I had last been apart.  Months it seemed, maybe more.

“She does.  Yes.  I . . . do you know her?”

“We see you around.  Everyone does.  She’s so sweet.  Kind, in spite of it all, isn’t she?”

“Yes.  Thank you.  Thank you.”

Neither woman talked to Shan nor even gestured to do so, a great relief, and I guessed one or the other had an autistic relative.

“They keep you up late, though, don’t they?,” the shorter one said, eliciting a quiet, collective laugh.

“Yes, they do.”

Shan looked up.  Never in my eyes, but up, then raised her hands.  Cupping her armpits, I hoisted her to my shoulders.

“Well, you take care of her,” the tall woman said.  “God made her special, for you and everyone.  She sees what we don’t and doesn’t what we do.”

Crickets tenored, and I shifted a shoulder to better balance my daughter’s weight.

“Yes, Miss.  She does.  Thank you.  Very much.  Have a great night.”

“You too,” each said as we split.

On the way home Shannon spilled across my head, asleep, one arm dangled along my cheek.  Passing through dark and shadow, through a lone streetlight’s dim purview, I wondered if we’d ever do it, all of us across the world.  Lock arms, ball tight, let out a single note.  No song, but a hum, something to pierce the clouds and sky, the stars too, maybe the sun, our signal that we’ve had enough, enough of ritual, enough of pattern, enough of all that’s seen and all that isn’t.