The Grey Heron
by Shannon Taylor
The patio, at twelve o’clock on a sunny day in August, was oppressively hot. The shade from the large banyan trees that surrounded the restaurant provided some relief, and occasionally a light breeze from the Pearl River stirred the air. Ned Lewiston sat under a bright blue umbrella studying the menu. He was trying to picture the Chinese version of quesadillas, but when the waitress—”Doris” according to her name tag—appeared he decided to err on the side of caution and order sweet and sour chicken.
Doris smiled and took his menu. “Thank you very much,” she said in careful English. She turned and began to make her way back to the kitchen through the crowded maze of tables and chairs that were starting to fill with the lunch crowd.
Ned leaned back in the plastic chair and took a sip of iced tea. Sparrows pecked at crumbs on the pavement at his feet. He watched a boat full of tourists sail by, then picked up the newspaper he’d brought. He started to read but after a while realized he’d been reading the same sentence over again. He put the paper down, took another sip of iced tea, and watched his fellow diners settle in.
He knew, of course, that many tourists on Shamian Island were families staying at the White Swan Hotel while they waited for appointments with the U.S. Consulate for final approval to adopt Chinese babies. Minnie’s Restaurant was popular with the families, with its offerings of burgers and shakes and other western-style food. Ned had found himself returning every day for lunch since his arrival in Guangzhou a week earlier. He enjoyed practicing his Chinese, rusty though it was, with the wait staff, and they in turn were eager to work on their English with him.
More than anything, he was glad to be distracted from his thoughts.
“Sir?” Ned realized Doris was waiting, plate in hand.
“Sorry. Lost in thought.” He smiled at her and moved the newspaper out of the way. She set down the plate, then stood back and waited.
“It looks very good,” he said. “Xie xie.”
Doris smiled and moved to the next table, where a family was arranging themselves. The father was loaded down with bags, which he piled onto an empty chair. A fair-haired boy stood holding a book in one hand and a bottle of formula in the other, waiting while his mother put a very small Chinese girl in a high chair. There was a leggy daughter, as well, thirteen or so, dark-haired like her mother. She was chatting away as they settled in and it occurred to Ned that, except for the baby, they looked much like his own family must have years ago.
Ned closed his eyes against the sudden pain. It never really left, of course, but it had settled into a constant, dull ache. But there were moments like this when grief stabbed at him suddenly, like a sword, literally taking his breath away.
After a few deep breaths, he opened his eyes and saw that the boy was looking at him. Embarrassed to be caught with his guard down, Ned gave what he hoped was a nonchalant smile, picked up the paper again, and started eating.
When he’d finished, he glanced at his watch. One o’clock. He folded up the newspaper and left some yuan on the table. As he was leaving, the baby at the next table flung something to the ground at his feet. A plastic rattle. He bent over to pick it up and held it out to the baby, who looked up at him warily.
“Thank you,” the woman said, taking the rattle from Ned with a smile. “The older kids taught Anna Li the ‘I throw things on the ground and you pick them up’ game, and it’s become her favorite.”
“I have five grandchildren at home, so I’m used to it,” Ned said. He looked around the table. “Are you enjoying your stay in Guangzhou?”
“The hotel is awesome,” the older girl said. “I love the pool.”
“Are you staying at the White Swan, too?” said the mother.
“No,” Ned said. “I’m at a friend’s house.” The family was looking at him with mild interest, so he added, “I lived here a long time ago and I’m back to do some research. I’m Ned Lewiston, by the way.”
“Phil Wallis,” the father said, standing up to shake Ned’s hand. “You’ve met Anna Li, the newest member of our family. This is my wife, Vicki, our older daughter, Maddie, and our son, James.”
“Nice to meet all of you,” said Ned. He was about to tell them to enjoy their lunch and excuse himself when James said, “Do you play chess?”
The question surprised Ned, but he said, “I do. Why do you ask?”
“I brought a board with me, but no one has time to play. Will you?”
Ned looked to the boy’s parents for guidance, but they were both looking at their son.
Maddie sighed heavily and said, “You can’t go around asking people to play chess with you, nerd.”
James ignored his sister. “Will you?”
“I’d be happy to, if it’s okay with your parents,” Ned said. “I could always use the mental stimulation.”
And now Vicki turned to Ned and he couldn’t quite read her expression, but all she said was, “That would be very kind of you. Our travel group is visiting the Pearl Market tomorrow morning, but Maddie could bring James over here afterward and then bring him back to the hotel. Let’s say at two o’clock? If that works for you?”
Ned agreed and said goodbye and started to make his way back to the house. He turned left and walked down the main boulevard, lined with more banyans, that ran the length of the island. Along the sidewalk, bright patches of red begonias popped up here and there among neatly trimmed hedges.
He crossed the park, passing a large group practicing tai chi, and came to the house where he was staying. It was large and pale blue and would have looked more at home on the streets of England than China. He opened the front gate, closed it behind him, and walked along the short path and up the steps. He unlocked the door and called out a greeting to Mrs. Han, who bustled out of the kitchen at the back of the house, drying her hands on a towel.
He greeted her, then said, “I’ll be in the study, writing.”
Mrs. Han nodded. “I’ll bring you some tea.”
Ned went into the study and sat at the large desk that filled a bay window overlooking the boulevard. Shortly after the funeral, John had called from China to see how Ned was doing. He and his wife were planning an extended vacation back to the States so when Ned had mentioned that he was thinking about a trip to Guangzhou, they immediately offered him their house and refused Ned’s efforts to pay for his stay.
“It’s the least we can do,” John had said. “I mean, we loved Suzanne and anything we can do to help….” His voice had trailed off. Ned had thanked John for his kindness and the two had said goodbye shortly after that.
Everyone had been extraordinarily kind to him. Friends and relatives had stocked his freezer with enough meals to last for months. His children, Brad and Teri, called regularly to check on how he was doing and to make sure he knew about all of the children’s soccer matches and baseball games. But when Teri asked if he wanted help going through her mother’s things he’d told her not yet, that it would have to wait until he got back from Guangzhou.
“You’re going to China?” Teri had asked when he told her his plans over coffee during a rare moment alone. “Now?”
Ned had smiled at his youngest child, ignoring the ache as he looked into her warm brown eyes. Suzanne’s eyes. How could he explain that he felt drawn to Guangzhou, to the place where he and Suzanne had started their life together? That he was looking for the answer to something that couldn’t be found here.
In the end, he had just said that he wanted to do some research for the book he was writing on life in the foreign service.
He opened his laptop and saw that he had some email messages. He opened one from Teri and was met with a photo of a pudding-smudged Willa. He laughed and started to call for Suzanne to come and see it, but her name caught in his throat as he remembered she wasn’t there.
He shut the laptop and put his head down, his face in his hands, as the wave hit. Sadness, yes, but also anger. It was the anger that was the hardest to cope with. He knew, vaguely, that anger was one of the Five Stages of Grief, but he had always assumed that meant anger at God. What he wasn’t expecting was to feel anger at Suzanne. And it killed him because it wasn’t her fault that she died. God knows, she’d fought the disease as hard as humanly possible. No, his anger wasn’t because she’d died and left him behind.
It was because of the way it happened.
He’d been with her through chemo and radiation and her hair falling out and the horrible pain that wracked her frail body. He had expected to be there with her at the last moment, holding her hand, but she had left him without saying goodbye. The dog had been there, for God’s sake, but he had been at the post office when the woman he loved more than anything in the world had slipped away. She was his best friend and the fact that she had been alone when she took her last breath had broken something in him and he didn’t know how to fix it.
* * *
The next day Ned wrote all morning and realized with a start that it was nearly two and he was expected for chess.
He hurried the few blocks to the restaurant. James was already there on the patio setting up the chessboard. Maddie was reading at a nearby table. She looked up and waved when she saw Ned, then went back to her book.
Ned sat. There was a pause while the two sized each other up.
“Would you like a shake or something?” Ned said.
“Thanks, but I had one at lunch.”
There was silence as they put the pieces on the board, then Ned said, “You know, I have a grandson about your age. Alex. He’s ten.”
“I just turned eleven,” said James. He moved a white pawn forward. “You remind me of my Grandpa Dave. When I first saw you, I thought you were him. He wore glasses, too. And he had gray hair.”
“Did he pass away?” Ned asked quietly, moving a black pawn.
“Yes,” James said. “Right after school got out. He didn’t even get to meet Anna Li.” He moved another pawn forward.
“I’m sorry,” Ned said. He moved a knight up two spaces and over one.
James moved his bishop, then said, “The waitress said your wife died.” Ned must have looked taken aback, because James quickly went on. “My parents wouldn’t just leave me with anyone. They had to do a…a background check to make sure you’re all right. That was okay, wasn’t it?”
“Of course,” Ned assured him. “I would be disappointed if they hadn’t.” He sat for a moment, then said, “Yes, my wife died.” The words still felt strange on his lips.
He studied the board and wondered how competitive James wanted to be. He decided to play it safe and moved a pawn one space ahead.
When he looked up, the boy was grinning at him.
“What?” Ned said.
“You don’t have to let me win.”
Ned laughed. “All right, then. I won’t go easy on you.”
“It’s really hot here,” James said, wiping sweat from his brow. “I’m going to swim when I get back to the hotel.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Ned said. He moved a piece, then said, “So what else did the enterprising staff tell you about me?”
“Not much,” James said. “Just that your wife died and you work for the State Department.” He finished his move and looked up at James, one eyebrow raised. “Are you a spy?”
Ned laughed. “I’m afraid not. Just a paper pusher.”
“Hmm,” said James, looking disappointed. Then he brightened. “But that’s what you’d have to say if you were a spy, right?”
“Yes, I suppose that’s true,” said Ned.
“Cool,” James said. “So are you here on ‘vacation’?”
“I guess you could say that,” Ned said. “When my wife—Suzanne—when she died I needed to get my head around it. Around her being gone. This place was very special to us, and my friend offered a place to stay. So here I am.”
James didn’t say anything for a while and he was staring so intently at the chessboard that Ned wondered if he’d even heard what he’d said.
Finally, James moved a piece, then said, “Grandpa Dave and I had a table we played chess at in the park. After he died, I asked if I could go there to spend time with him.” He looked up quickly at Ned. “I know he wasn’t actually there, but it felt like he was.” He looked down again. “That probably sounds weird.”
Ned moved a piece. “No. It doesn’t sound weird at all.”
They continued to play until a shadow fell across the table. They looked up to see Maddie standing there. “Sorry, but if we want to swim before the river cruise tonight we’d better head back to the hotel.” She smiled at Ned. “Thanks for playing with him. I’m completely surrounded by small siblings and it was nice to get a break.”
“I’m not a small sibling,” James protested indignantly. He looked at Ned with a long-suffering expression. “Thanks for playing with me.”
They packed up the board and Ned smiled as the two walked off, bickering amiably. Then he stood for a moment and pulled his phone out of his pocket to check the time. It was after three o’clock. He could go back to the house to write, but he didn’t think he would be able to concentrate.
When he reached the main street, he hesitated, a memory tugging at him. He turned right and walked along the river until he reached a small park. On their first night on Shamian Island, he and Suzanne had sat on a bench—could this be the same one?—overlooking the river.
He sat and remembered that they had watched together as a grey heron landed not far in front of them and had begun to move gracefully through the water, scanning for prey.
Ned had turned to look at Suzanne. After a moment, she had felt his eyes on her and looked up and smiled. He had looked into her brown eyes and felt a surge of affection and gratitude. They had met at a party in Georgetown, at the apartment of a fellow classmate in the Chinese language program. The party was loud and noisy and he had gone out on the balcony for some air. He had found her there and they had begun to talk, and that was that.
When he received his consulate assignment, they had married quickly in a small ceremony, packed up the wedding gifts, and headed to Guangzhou. He had asked her, before they left, if she would someday regret leaving everything, might even come to resent him. Suzanne had brushed his concerns aside. “I can paint anywhere.” And now there they were, halfway around the world, just the two of them. He couldn’t imagine a world without her in it.
“If you die first,” he had said, taking her hand firmly in his, “promise that you’ll come back to haunt me.”
She had laughed at him, but said, “I promise.”
They had continued to watch as the heron, now standing motionless, had suddenly darted its head into the water and snatched up a small fish. They had cheered quietly, then, laughing, made their way back home, hand in hand.
Ned sat for a long time, and then he stood and began to walk back to the house.
* * *
The next day Ned was looking through the outdoor stalls on Shamian Street for the souvenirs he knew his grandchildren would be expecting. He found some panda key chains and was sorting through T-shirts when he heard his name called. He looked up to see James and his father approaching him.
“We’re just coming back from the laundry,” Phil explained, holding up two large bags. “They took pity on our big family and gave us a discount.”
Ned laughed, “I can imagine.”
“And now I have to go to the clinic because the babies need shots,” James said gloomily. “Unless you want to play chess?” He looked hopefully up at Ned.
“James, we don’t want Mr. Lewiston to think we’re taking advantage.”
“Not at all,” Ned said. “I enjoy it.”
“If you’re sure you don’t mind,” said Phil. “Maddie would probably like to skip the clinic, too. You could set up by the pool at the hotel.”
James and Phil went off to deliver the clean clothes and Ned finished shopping and went inside to pay. He crossed the street to the hotel and stopped for an iced coffee in the lobby cafe before going out to the pool. He found a table at the edge of the patio with a view of the river and thought about how much his grandchildren would love swimming under the waterfall in the large, kidney-shaped pool.
He had just sat down when Maddie and James appeared, wearing swimsuits and cover-ups. They tossed their towels on a nearby chair and Maddie said a quick “hello,” took off her cover-up, and dove right into the water.
Ned and James set up the board and played in silence for a while. Ned noticed how James screwed up his face in concentration and how he couldn’t help but grin when he made a successful move.
“Do you know how much longer you’re staying here?” Ned asked.
“We’re leaving tomorrow. Really early.”
“Are you ready to go home?”
James thought for a minute. “I guess so. I really like it here, but I miss our dog. And my stuff.”
While he was contemplating his next move, Ned said, “I never asked where you live.”
“New York,” said James. “By Columbia. My parents teach there. Where do you live?”
“Washington, D.C.,” said Ned. “For the last ten years. Before that we lived all over the place because of my job.”
“I think it would be cool to move around,” James said. “I’ve never lived anywhere except New York.”
“It was pretty cool.” Ned moved a piece, then leaned back in his chair. “We got to see the world and had some great adventures. But we missed out on things at home. Weddings, birthdays, graduations. And our parents getting old and needing help. We weren’t there for them, and that was tough.”
He realized that maybe this wasn’t the kind of thing you should discuss with an eleven-year-old you barely know, but James didn’t seem bothered. He moved a piece, then said, “We were at my grandparents’ house all the time. But we couldn’t really do anything.” He looked up at Ned. “Did your wife have cancer?”
Ned nodded. “Yes.”
“So did Grandpa Dave. He was really sick. He didn’t even seem like my grandpa anymore.” He captured a pawn and set it down on the table with extra force. “I hate cancer.”
“Me, too,” said Ned. “Were you with him when he died?” He immediately regretted asking the question. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have asked you that. And, anyway, maybe your parents would have wanted to protect you.”
James thought about that, then shook his head. “I don’t think they were worried about protecting us. I mean, they kept asking how we were doing. But we were okay. He was mostly just sleeping, anyway.” He watched as Ned moved his queen. “I guess we weren’t there because of what the nurse said.”
Ned waited while James thought through his next move. Then, “The nurse?”
James nodded. “Yeah. Grandpa had a lot of nurses, and some of them were pretty grumpy.” He stopped to consider that. “No, not grumpy. Just really serious. But there was one nurse I liked. She smiled a lot and brought us cookies. She told us that sometimes it’s hard for people to die when their families are there because we…we sort of hold them back and they can’t break away, even though they have to go because it’s their time.” James shrugged his shoulders. “And she was right because he waited until he was by himself in the ambulance on the way to the—what do you call it?”
“Hospice,” Ned said, automatically. He opened his mouth to say something else, but a small movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention.
A grey heron was walking along the bank. Ned watched as it moved, its long legs gangly. He sat perfectly still as it turned toward him. The bird looked at him for a long moment, then it slowly spread its wings and launched itself into the air. It circled once over their heads and then flew off with slow, deep wing beats. Ned watched until the bird disappeared, finally, into the golden sky.
He turned back to the board, picked up a white knight and moved it over two squares and up one.
He smiled at James.
“Your move,” he said.