He reached down and picked up the locket. It had been smashed into the mud by a passerby. There was no chain. The eyelet at the top of the locket was bent open, but the locket was still clasped shut. The day was warm and bright around him, the street bustling with movement and sound. On a telephone line above, a collied blackbird told the story, and no one listened, not even the man holding the locket. His heart felt lighter than it had a moment before.
He said of her, “She is smart—really smart.” His closest friend, a woman with short-cropped curly brown hair and tight lines radiating from the corners of her mouth, thought that he meant She is not beautiful. He meant that her nightstand overflowed with books, that she would rise suddenly in the small hours of the night and trace her fingertips along the spines lining her bookshelf to retrieve an exact quotation, that her intelligence rattled in him an ego he hadn’t realized was there. Hanging from the corner of her antique roll-top desk was a long silver chain. On the end of the chain was a locket. He stared at it while she quoted Goethe. He did not mean that she wasn’t beautiful.
Rain made the hostel more crowded. The people usually lingering in the garden with their Turkish coffees and unfiltered cigarettes were forced inside. The football match on the television in the corner garnered little attention until a young woman stood on top of the wobbly table in front of the screen, quaffed her mug of dark beer in one long motion, and lifted her T-shirt to reveal sun-browned breasts adorned with American flag pasties. Several people clapped and hooted, and then a quiet voice in the corner said, “Can you step out of the way of the match, please?” The woman looked startled. She lowered her shirt and stepped down carefully from the table. She took the silver locket around her neck into her hand and held both to her heart. The room seemed to exhale silently. The rain was a tambourine on the picture window facing the Leidseplein. Someone handed the young woman another dark beer, and she wiped away tears without saying a word.
The man selling flowers in the square was staring at him.
“There is a train later this evening,” she said.
“I’m already packed.”
“Do you think this is the easiest way to do it?”
A blackbird near the fountain tried to work its claw free from a ring of plastic. It looked like the tamper-proof ring from a carton of Holland Dairy Star. The bird shoved its beak between the ring and its claw again and again. Blood ran from the side of its face, just below its black eye.
“I think it’s the only way to do it,” he said.
She took his hand and turned it over, spreading his fingers open. She placed the locket into his palm and pressed it there. He thought the silver should have been cold, but it was warm.
“I believe you,” she said. There was nothing he could say that was kind, so he nodded his head and swallowed hard. The clouds moved quickly behind her head.
“I cannot cut with these.”
“Those are your scissors, my love. So you do not cut yourself.”
“But I cannot cut out her picture with these, Daddy.”
“Which picture are you cutting? Oh, that one. I was just thinking about that trip earlier today.”
“I don’t remember it. Sometimes I feel like I won’t remember her.”
“We have to work hard to keep her memory alive. Both of us. We took that trip four years ago. You had just turned three. It was late October and there were leaves everywhere.”
“I wish I could remember it. She looks so pretty with her hair in a bun.”
“She did. Does.”
“Do you think this will fit?”
“I think you need to trim off just a bit more. You want it to fit perfectly, so the latch will close all the way.”
“I think that’s just right.”
The blackbird knows time in waking ground, in naked trees. Snow drifts and frozen ponds. Rowan berries before pale white flowers. It does not feel the passing. There is no river into which it can dip its claw and mark memory. Or, rather, the river is always only a river.
The silver is bright. The chain dangles from the woman’s fingertips and swings slowly. Her arm rests against the white weave of a summertime couch. The door of the screen porch is propped open with a worn brown sandal.
The blackbird preens its oily black feathers. The woman does not take notice of its movement. It skitters closer, and she breathes a deep sigh that almost makes it turn back. The silver is an antidote to the dull ache in its brain.
When it grabs the chain in its beak and spreads its wings, the woman does not resist. The bird registers the sound of her soft weeping and does not feel anything except the absence of the pain in its head. The locket is heavy, and the blackbird bears its weight with pinion feathers until the locket cartwheels into space. It is left holding the chain, and the chain is enough.
The man who finds the locket will say the woman in the photo looks like she has enough. Her eyes look contented, he tells his friends, clicking the locket shut again. They will nod and smile in a way that acknowledges what he no longer has. His heart stands still. The bird will return to its nest and peck at the tiny silver links, and time will pass and the rowan berries will come again before the small pale flowers.