“Dinner will be in ten minutes,” Simon called from the kitchen.
Simon was on the job at seven and finished at four. He often was home before Mattie and frequently prepared dinner. Mattie couldn’t cook and had no desire to learn. She had an ambivalence toward food and often didn’t know she was hungry until she started eating or smelled something delicious like tonight, fish and chips. Simon wasn’t a great cook, but he had a few specialties and beer-battered, deep fried cod with hand cut chips was one of them. The fish was a gift from Ruby, the soon to be terminated gallery gift shop manager and a member of the Tsawwassen band. Her husband was a commercial fisherman and kept Mattie’s freezer filled.
Mattie went into the kitchen and gave Simon a hug, hung on and felt the stress of the day melt away. It was like his broad shoulders absorbed it.
“Careful, I got flour on my hands.”
Over dinner she told him about Anne.
“Don’t worry,” Simon said. “You’re family, you’ll work it out.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“Families fight and disagree, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love one another, don’t have each other’s back.” Simon picked up her plate, rinsed it and began to fill the dishwasher. “My Dad and I haven’t agreed on anything for five years, and I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to kick Franklin’s ass.
Franklin was Simon’s cousin and a recovering addict, at least Mattie hoped he was still recovering. If someone needed their ass kicked, it was him.
“You’ve never had family, Mattie, that’s why you don’t understand.”
Simon was right. She’d only recently connected with her mother and was still finding that challenging. She wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to commit to unconditional love. Judging people was what she excelled in.
“How about a movie?”
This guy was not only comforting, he was comfortable. She’d be quite happy to snuggle up to him and shut out the rest of the world for tonight, maybe forever.
“I’m selling the property.”
Simon stopped wiping the counter.
Maybe she should have waited for a better time, but when would that be? She was suddenly excited about the future and wanted to share her happiness with someone. No, not someone. With Simon.
“The Board agreed to close down the sanctuary?” Simon said.
“I didn’t leave them much choice.”
“What about the buildings, the event facility?”
“Some board members want to buy it and expand the business.”
“And you’re okay with that?”
“I think so, I got three days to decide.” But she didn’t need more time.
“What are we going to do?”
Mattie liked that he’d said “we”. “Buy a house?” she said.
“Maybe just some land. I’ll build the house.”
“You can do that?”
“Leo and the owls seem happy with my work.”
Mattie had asked for a simple enclosure in the dining room for the tortoise. That room had been chosen because it was never used, faced west and had sliding doors that opened up to the front veranda.
Being a carpenter, Simon never built anything slipshod. The dining room chairs and table had been stacked in one corner and half the room devoted to the project. He covered the hardwood floor with oriented strandboard and used two by twos to construct the side and back walls. He then lined the floor with waterproof paperboard. The front abutted the patio doors which could be opened to give Leo access to the sunny porch which Simon enclosed with chicken wire. Leo’s pen, consisting of temporary plastic fencing supported by bamboo garden stakes, had been moved from beside the sanctuary and reassembled off the side of the porch. Access to the pen and all those luscious dandelions was by way of a ramp Simon installed.
Mattie filled the giant dining room floor box with a layer of garden soil, then added the cement wading pool surrounded by pebbles, a water trough, dinner board and, for privacy, constructed a cinder block cave. The ceramic heater and UVA/UVB light were positioned so they heated three large paving stones providing ambient as well as radiant heat for basking. Leopard Tortoises were native to the savannas of eastern and southern Africa, and though Leo had acclimatized somewhat, he preferred temperatures around eighty degrees.
Mattie realized overcompensating for this reptile’s care was an attempt at assuaging her guilt. It didn’t work, but at least something benefitted.
It took the tortoise a couple of days to get oriented, but then he settled in. When they were home, Leo had access to the entire main floor and liked to be inconveniently underfoot. With his keen sense of smell, he was quick to investigate anything that ended up on the kitchen floor. When they were out, he migrated to his compound. Despite Simon’s craftsmanship, he shunned the ramp and would wait by the front door to be let out and carried to his outside pen. He would, however, climb up the ramp and return to his enclosure, especially if it got chilly outside.
Three years ago, Simon had built a bird house for five owlets that had come into Mattie’s care. Now each spring they returned and competed for the prized abode.
Dependence on humans for food or shelter was not a good thing for wild birds. If they began to rely on it, they could die if it was taken away. In that regard, Mattie felt she and wild birds had something in common.
* * *
“It’s not like I dreamed of owning an exotic bird sanctuary.” Mattie was talking on the cell phone to her mother.
“No, you took it on when your grandfather died,” Louise said.
“It seemed like there was no choice. He was gone and there were all these beautiful birds that needed care.”
“And you love birds.”
“It was necessary, but it’s not the solution. The more birds rescued, the more birds that need rescuing.”
“It’s enabling the exotic pet trade.”
Leave it up to Louise to work in some of the program’s philosophy, but she was right.
“So, are you going to sell the property?” her mother said.
“Yes.” The more Mattie thought about it, the more appealing it became. The sanctuary was her grandfather’s, and he was the only family she’d ever known until recently. She’d kept it because it was all she had, it gave her purpose and identity. But she’d discovered there was more; she had a mother who was a recovering addict; a half sister whom she’d just alienated; and a father who she wanted nothing to do with. Maybe she shouldn’t sell the sanctuary after all?
No, she wouldn’t define herself by the state of her relationships with others, which was probably a good thing. She’d become comfortable with whom she was, even if other people weren’t. She was emerging from her past and shedding all the fear, doubt and loneliness like one of Liz’s pythons shed its skin. And like the reptiles her friend had cared for, she felt it was a natural process that would allow her to continue to grow.
“I’m so happy for you, Matz,” her mother said. “Have you talked to Simon about this?”
“He’s going to build us a new house.”
“That’s wonderful. Where?”
“We haven’t discussed where yet.”
“This will be good for you, Mattie. You need to break free from the past.”
Despite feeling like she was basking in bright, warm, summer sunlight, Mattie couldn’t overcome the feeling the weather was about to change.
“I love Simon, Mom. He makes everything better, everything possible.”
“Why do I feel anxious?”
“When you love someone, Mattie, you’re vulnerable. It comes with the condition. Considering the life you’ve had, you feel this more than most.”
“Will I ever accept being happy? Just go with it?”
“Trust takes time. It will come,” Louise said. “But it’s worth it. Despite everything that came after, I never regretted being in love.”
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