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The Birds of the Sky and the Beasts of the Field

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"My child," said the Mother Superior, "it is time for you to leave us."

But Maria didn't want to leave the abbey, even for only a while. The abbey was where she belonged, it was her home - her life. But she packed a bag and left for a villa just outside Salzburg to be a companion to a recovering invalid, because it was the will of God.

If it was the will of God, then it must be right. It must be.


What struck Baroness Elsa von Schraeder about Fraulein Maria, upon meeting her for the first time, was that she was quite pretty to have come from a nunnery.

Then Maria started talking.

Elsa, who suffered from headaches - among other things - quickly began to wonder if she would ever stop. After taking tea with the woman for the space of at least twenty minutes, Elsa felt she no longer had to wonder about that.

Her home had been a quiet place since the Baron had died. It had been a place where she could always find comfort in her solitude and independence.

Elsa's headache persisted, but she listened to Maria babble for another five minutes or so, while she sipped her tea.


What struck Maria about the Baroness was not that she was pale and ill, but that she was so alone.

When Maria felt lonely, there was an excellent way to feel instantly more cheerful.

"Would you like to sing with me? There is a marvellous song I could teach you about doing one's best and being happy in the face of hardship, I'm quite certain you would enjoy it as much as I do."

"Fraulein Maria," said the Baroness, lifting her head from the arm of the settee where she was lying against a pile of satin cushions, "I've no idea, what you are talking about, but be a dear and stop, will you?"

"Oh. Yes." Maria looked at her hands in her lap, considering. She was sure that everyone appreciated music, even if they didn't know it yet. "Have you ever tried si-"

"Why don't you find something to read, Fraulein?"


One day, when she was feeling quite well, they took the car to town. Elsa wanted to visit some shops, buy some flowers or a hat, whatever she liked.

She turned her back for one minute, and when she looked around again for her companion, there was Maria leading a group of urchins around the fountain in the centre of the square, dancing and singing and splashing each other with water.

It was quite awkward, really.

"I'm not altogether fond of children," she said, once Maria had extricated herself from the situation and rejoined her.

Maria was beaming and red-cheeked as she responded. "Oh, I am terribly fond of children."

"Of course you are, darling. Wouldn't you like a new hat?" Maria had a certain wistful look on her face, and Elsa was afraid she was about to suggest they acquire a few orphans. "We could get a little dog, perhaps."

They got three little dogs, and a pair of doves that Maria was forever letting out of the cage to fly free around the conservatory. They made a terrible mess, but still, Elsa assumed, less than orphans would.


They sat on the terrace in the sun with glasses of pink lemonade, watching the dogs chase each other around the lawn and bark at the ducks on the river. Maria liked the lemonade, but she never felt useful enough at times like this - though Elsa seemed happy enough with her company. The Baroness lay reclining in her wicker chair, the sunshine and fresh air of the Austrian summer doing her the world of good, no doubt.

Elsa took a cigarette from a silver case and lit it with a silver lighter. She offered the case but Maria shook her head.

Elsa leaned her head back and closed her eyes, her throat an elegant arch as smoke curled from between her lips. "I never used to care for it, but my doctor assures me it will benefit my lungs. Which I suppose need all the help they can get."

"Smoking is a vice," Maria said. She gave a small shrug. "But the trouble with the world, of course, is that so many things in it are. And we're only human, aren't we?"

"Oh no, not you, dear. Stay a saint, Maria," Elsa said, a smile gracing her lips. "I prefer you this way."

Maria sipped her lemonade, her eyes on the Baroness's face.

So many things, she thought.


When the storm hit late at night, after Elsa was already in bed, she remained really very calm under the circumstances. That is, until the lights went out.

She was, of course, embarrassed to scream at a little electrical failure, but then the door was flung open and Maria was by the bedside, flashes of lightning briefly revealing her hovering there in her white nightgown.

"Oh, really," Elsa said. "I'm not scared of a little thunderstorm."

"Of course not," Maria said, and hopped into the bed next to her.

Elsa shifted to make room. "Well, I suppose, just this once."

"How kind of you."

Maria curled next to her in the dark and sang a childish nonsense song about kittens and geese in her ear until the lamp flickered a little and came back on.

"There, you see?" Maria said, fists tucked under her chin and her wide eyes on Elsa's face.

Elsa turned her head on the pillow to look back at her, seeing her for the first time properly.

It surprised her that, somehow, all of a sudden, she didn't feel so bad.


Sometimes Maria wondered: had she not been late to prayer again that day, had she not been drawn again to the freedom of the hills and the joy of lifting her voice to the sky with no one but the Lord and the butterflies in the meadows to hear her - had she been less untidy, less prone to running in the cloisters and speaking when and what she shouldn't, less - less herself, would she have ended up where she was today?

The answer always came simply enough: no, she wouldn't have.

God made her as she was, no more - certainly no less. And Maria always trusted in God.


"Do you miss it, the convent?" Elsa said. She was in bed that day, and Maria was changing a cool cloth on her forehead.

"Yes. Do you? Miss it?"

"Miss what?"

Maria shrugged helplessly and sat beside her on the bed. "Whatever it is. Forgive me, but I don't think it's your husband, may he rest in peace. But there's something, isn't there? You're - sometimes I just don't think you're happy, as if you've lost something. Or you are lost. Or are they the same thing?"

"I'm not lost, I just - oh, does a woman ever want anything else? I miss knowing my future, and who will be there with me. I had that, once, I suppose I miss it even more for the knowing."

"Oh, so it is about your husband."

"No, darling." Elsa sighed and put the cloth aside. "No, as you should know by now, if you know me at all - it's all about me."


Maria was teaching one of the dogs a trick - an enterprising little fellow they'd named Friedrich, who seemed willing, if not yet quite able, to stand up on his hind legs and spin around in exchange for a treat.

She was sprawled on the floor with Friedrich still when Elsa came in and sat to watch their progress.

"Elsa?" she began, holding the treat above Friedrich's nose, coaxing him to stand. "Would you like to marry again?"

Elsa leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees, cupping her chin in her hands. She looked better today, Maria thought, and as soon as she thought it, suddenly wanted to stop looking.

"Who would I marry?" Elsa said.

"Someone you love, of course. Oh, Friedrich!" The dog had snatched the tidbit from her fingers the moment her attention wavered.

"Well, of course you're right. Every woman wants to be in love, doesn't she?"

Maria hesitated, fondling Friedrich's silky black ears. "Every other woman, you mean."

"Why did you join the convent, Maria?"

"My heart took me there."

"But where has it left you?"

"Oh, nowhere terrible. But," she hesitated again, "once you are quite well, I will return to the convent and prepare to take my vows."

"The dogs would miss you terribly."

"As I would miss them."


The night of the ball, Maria was nowhere to be found. Elsa found this concerned her more than the number of pairs dancing, the temperature of the supposedly-chilled punch, and the odious man who wanted to know why she wasn't flying the colours of the Third Reich in her home when clearly they would clash with her decor.

She found Maria where she often found Maria - in the conservatory, communing with the birds through song.

She waited for Maria to finish singing, and then asked why she hadn't joined the party. Elsa had ordered her such a lovely dress, after all, and it was a shame others couldn't see how lovely she looked in it.

"Oh, I'm happier here," Maria said. One of the doves flew down and lighted on the back of her finger and Maria smiled, petting its head.

"All alone?"

"Well, I'm not quite alone."

She probably meant the birds. Or perhaps God. But Elsa had always firmly believed in choosing one's own truth in every situation.

"Since you are so fond of my company - a wonder you haven't tired of me yet, never met a man who could say the same - but since you are, and since here we are, together, won't you dance with me, Maria?"


When God closes a door, he opens a window. So the Mother Superior always said.

"And if I am as God made me, and if God sent me to you, why, then -"

"Then I suppose that makes me your window," Elsa said. She stroked Maria's rumpled mop of hair back from her warm, flushed face, and she laughed. "For once I feel I completely understand you. You're mine, too."

Maria's arms tightened around her. "It's like looking out on a new world, and I never..."

"Are you going to break into song again?"

"I might, yes. Oh, yes, I should think so."

"Well, all right, then. You'll have to teach me the words."


They left Austria by train when the time came. It wasn't so difficult, in the end.

Maria held onto her guitar case in her left hand, and Elsa's hand with her right. Porters followed, wheeling trolleys piled with luggage, one man tasked with leading along three excitable little pooches at the ends of three patent leather leashes.

They had gone to the conservatory that morning together, after breakfast, and shooed the birds out the open French doors.

Sitting beside Elsa, Maria watched out the window as they pulled away from the station, imagining she could still see a pair of doves soaring in the sky, as high and as free as her heart.