Her spine curved like a wind-taut sail, Martha, hunched over her walker, plies the carpeted corridor like a slow-sailing frigate and rolls into the dayroom where the others sit in a semicircle watching a television mounted high on the wall. A rerun of 'I Love Lucy' flickers in black and white, but mostly grey, above the huge bubbling aquarium full of unreal-looking, rainbow-colored fish. Lucy laughs, Desi laughs, Fred and Myrtle laugh, but no one in the semicircle laughs. Their faces are scarred and saggy as those of old pirates – some toothless, some with eye patches, some twisted and crusty as faces you see in the trunks of old trees. Martha docks her walker, with the name she's given it, 'The King of Spain' taped to its bar, as far away from them as she can, and sits right under the television. Viewed from behind, the bubbles rising between the aquarium plants appear to emanate from the top of her head like thoughts in a cartoon.
Ellie, the nurse with the Southern accent and blonde ponytail, appears with her meds tray, meets her gaze, and says, "Well don't you look like a sunflower this morning, Martha, in your yellow sweater? Why, you just light up the whole room," and bends down to give her her pill in applesauce, and a kiss on her wrinkled cheek, translucent as old airmail stationery. With the gaze of a baby looking into her mother's eyes, a smile spreads across Martha's face like dawn on the sea, and her eyelids come down like sails.
Sunflowers. . . A whole field of sunflowers. Out past the stables. Bogie brushing the ponies. I get to ride after lunch. My best friend, Cocoa. Your shiny big brown eyes, your whinny, swishing your tail when you see me coming. I am the only one allowed to ride you, you buck the others off. The others. Rachel, in the bed next to mine. Your mother comes up every Sunday from New York. I wait till you're gone to cry. One time you come back for your coat and see me. You look but I turn away and we never mention it. 'Be my brave girl, make Mommy proud', Mommy says. Mommy's away working. Daddy, you come sometimes on the train to take me out for an ice cream sundae, then you're gone. Sarah and Rachel go riding together, but they never ask me. Or is her name Susan? With the monogrammed suitcase, and why don't I have that, I'm not as rich as them, not of their class. Freddy said Don't let them laugh at you, kid, think of Van Gogh, he's a God of Art, and he was as poor as a dog.
Freddy and me. We rowed the boat all the way to the island under Mt. Tom. The ambulance came, god my arm hurt like knives, but it couldn't have been in the boat; I was riding, not Cocoa, but the white yearling, Starlight, and I fell off, that was it, I fell off. Walking back to the barn holding my arm, crying, but even then Mommy couldn't come, she was too far away. Always far away. No, I hadn't broken my arm yet. Freddy tied up the boat and the blackbirds were flying out of the trees like a fairy tale, and we saw the sun slip like a bright copper penny behind the old lookout tower on Mt. Tom. Then it was all so quiet. I could hear my heart beating, just standing there. The lake spread the colors from the sky like a painting all around us. You took my hand and then the other one too, and said, 'You're swell, you are. You're the only one here I can talk to. I'd feel lost if you weren't here.' I wanted to kiss you but Mommy always told me don't be forward, they'll think you're cheap. We just stood there holding hands as it got dark all around us, but your eyes felt so warm like a blanket so soft on me and I thought they must be seeing me as someone else because there couldn't be really anything to love about me, I was sure. I was very sure. . . Then came that day. That day everything changed. In my muddy boots. Taking the ponies in from the rain. That day you found me in the stables. You were a day student, not a boarder like me, and you told me your parents were moving to France and taking you with them. I asked,
'Why don't you stay? You could live here like I do.'
But you said, 'I'd miss my mom and dad too much.'
'You get used to it,' I said.
'I don't want to get used to something that hurts,' you said, and you took my hands again like you did at the lake. And you looked in my eyes and said, 'But I'll miss you, and I'll write back, if you write me first.'
Why didn't I write? I know why, but I want to write him now. I will tell him about the squirrels outside my window, and how I leave them the cookies they give us after supper, and ask him if he thinks it ruins their teeth, but I don't have any nuts for them, and no way to get to the store, no money anyway to buy nuts with. I will tell him those two children are still on the island in the lake at Mt. Tom, my hands in his hands, looking at each other as it gets dark. It gets dark so fast. And how the day he left I cried in the barn as I fed the ponies and Bogie asked why but I couldn't tell her, wouldn't tell her. I just saddled up Cocoa and rode for hours, down the path past the cottonwoods to the field of sunflowers. It was afternoon, but the sunflowers were all facing east, I remember, in the direction of France, like they were all saying Goodbye, Freddy. And I lay down in them and watched the clouds and wondered if you would see the same clouds from the deck of the boat taking you to France. Cloud Mail. I could send my thoughts up to the clouds and they could carry them to you. And even though I was crying, I made myself laugh. And then I thought, well that's what clouds do already, carry people's tears. I watched them until it got too dark to see.
On our way back, I told Cocoa all about the sunflowers and you and Cloud Mail, and he listened the whole way, nodding his head, and he knew the path so well it didn't matter it was dark. When I came in, after putting him in his stall, everyone was mad at me. Persona non grata, Mommy would say. I'd missed supper. They were worried. Sent people looking for me. Ordered me straight to bed and said they would call Mommy all the way out in California, and how disappointed she would be in me. I felt so alone I didn't care anymore. 'Tell her I'm disappointed in her, too!' I yelled and ran up the stairs in the dark to our room, and was glad it was empty.
I should have written you, Freddy. I tried sometimes. But I just couldn't risk it. Couldn't get in the habit of hoping. Couldn't start wishing or dreaming or things like that. Then you lose the only thing you have left. But I don't have to worry anymore about that. I never forgot you, Freddy. Maybe you can hear me talking to you right now, wherever you are. I wouldn't know if you were still alive. What was your last name? I can't remember. But it doesn't matter because I can still see your eyes looking into mine. It's starting to get dark. The lake is holding the colors of the sky like a painting all around us, Freddy, and we're in it. Art never dies. I still feel the warm blanket of the way you look at me. Maybe you are sending it to me by Cloud Mail.
Ellie heard Martha chuckle to herself, and saw that she'd been crying a little. She wondered if her meds needed to be adjusted. Just then Martha's daughter arrived, a large, loud woman who always seemed to be in a hurry.
'I'm taking her over to the horse stables. She used to ride, as a kid.'
'Oh, I'm sure she'll love that to pieces. Just make sure she's back for supper.'
'I promise. 5:30, right? . . .Hi, Mom. Howzabout going for a ride? I have a surprise for you. Someone who wants to meet you. Tall, dark and handsome, has a pony tail, well, a horse tail, actually. Come on, I've got your coat. No. . . we can't leave the King of Spain here, the rules, you know. Remember that time you fell?. . .Okay, here we go. . .'