“So what is that you’ve done there?” I asked Pearl as she was rearranging some sticks and pebbles and leaves in a cleared out area in the chicken run.
I had brought some of my unfinished drawings outside with hopes of getting inspiration. Some of them were just not coming together.
“Oh, nothing really,” she said.
“Whatever you do is never nothing.”
Pearl seemed glad to have sparked my curiosity. “I thought I might help you with the book.”
“How do you mean?”
“Look more closely.”
And so I did.
“I only see some twigs and pebbles and leaves and a few little feathers.”
Pearl added one more twig to the collection she had gathered, and suddenly an image formed.
It was a chicken, a happy chicken! I couldn’t really call it a drawing, and I couldn’t really call it a sculpture.
“Pearl, it’s beautiful, it’s perfect, and it’s so much like something you would do!”
She just smiled up at me.
“I’ve always known you were a collector, but I never knew you could do anything like this!”
“I thought you might need some help with the illustrations.”
She moved a few of the twigs and pebbles, and there was suddenly a completely different chicken pose. Then she added an azalea blossom, and suddenly there was a dancing chicken wearing a tutu made from the flower.
So I sat and just watched as she kept moving and rearranging and creating new images.
“I started making these last summer. When you were teaching Emily to draw.”
“I had no idea.”
“I taught myself how to do this, how to draw like this,” she said. I could not tell whether she had felt left out last summer, but it was likely she did. “I guess I have always gone my own way.”
“That was when you were getting over Blanche leaving us, wasn’t it?”
“May I show you something else?”
Pearl had not answered my question or waited for me to answer hers.
She went up to the darkest corner of her nesting box where I would have never thought to look. One by one, she brought out bits of torn paper and gift wrap she had collected when the trash truck came by on Tuesdays.
Each held a drawing made with the simplest of tools. These were her real drawings, ones on scraps of paper. She had used feathers shaped into pens, soft twigs frayed and turned into brushes, inks made from charred wood and milkweed sap, smudges of mud, and even what looked like the last of some bottles of white correction fluid and fingernail polish.
“Pearl, I had no idea.”
I sat next to her to examine them more closely.
“May I touch them? I will be careful. I want to spread them out so I can see them better.”
“Yes, that would be fine.”
“I don’t want to damage them.”
“You won’t. I trust you.”
I picked each one up as carefully as I had picked up Pearl when she was just a baby chick. As I spread them out in front of us, Pearl hopped up into my lap and whispered so only I would hear, “They are the story of my life.”
There was her life. Had I ever been so introspective? It takes a great deal of courage to look at one’s entire life laid out like cards, tiny snapshots of who we are. But Pearl had done it, and each of these was an expressive masterpiece.
“Most of these are full of light and hope,” I said.
“A chicken’s life can be that way.”
“But some of them are very dark and scary.”
“A chicken’s life can be that way too,” she said as only one who has known dark and scary can say.
We sat there looking at her artwork together. There were times I wanted to ask a question, but chose to stay quiet. I felt the drawings would speak for themselves, and if there was something they did not say, then maybe it was not important to know after all.
I placed one of my own unfinished drawings under one of hers.
“May I use some of these for our book, your book? Some of the chapters have things that only you experienced. Like this one with the opossum. I haven’t known how to draw those things because I wasn’t there.”
“I was there.”
“I know you were. And you lived to tell about it.”
“And draw it too.”
Life must create and create anew. With whatever it can find. Even useless throwaways. Pearl may have once thought about her own life that way. But no longer. Perhaps Life specializes in turning what others reject into priceless beautiful things, if not on the outside, then certainly on the inside.
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