I’m telling you, I see my mother on the roof sometimes, just sitting and looking out at the other houses, the roofs, the antennas, the obsolete satellite dishes, and other junk people stick on their roofs; but I never ask her how she gets up there. The only way would be to climb out the tiny bathroom window and creep over the narrow overhang to the place where the dormers end and the roof spreads toward the peak. But I see her out there. I imagine her smoking a cigarette, because it’s what the movies would show her doing, but she doesn’t do that. Instead, she hums. I can hear a ghost of her tune over the sound of traffic and the wind through the maple leaves outside my window. It’s just like the sound the wind makes, rushing by my ears when I fly through the night.
I imagine Mom wakes me up in the middle of the night and shows me the way to get out there. We climb out, gasping with effort and giggling with adventure, till we reach the place where the leaves and pine needles gather near the edge and she warns me to be careful, not to get too near.
And all the time, I pretend she is showing me, that I don’t already have my own secret way out there. Me and Maggie, the dark, fat cat whose amber eyes showed me the way out from my hot attic room last summer.
She paused at my window screen, meowing ever so slightly, her nose twitching. I called her name. Five minutes later I heard my closet door squeak and she’s jumping on my bed, purring and nosing my chin. It was too hot so I pushed her off, then wondered how she got in. I found the crawl space hatch askew, and beyond that, the screen over the vent in the soffit torn off, just at the corner. That soffit overhung another part of the roof, so I just pulled it off a little more—the staples were rusty and brittle—and crawled out into the cool night. That’s how skinny I am. Maggie followed me. The air washed over me and filled my grateful lungs after the fusty crawl space.
That last summer, I just sat on that part of the roof the first few times. I was too afraid to move around but that was when I started seeing Mom out there on a different part of the roof. One night I just started moving around the edge of the overhang and found a way onto the broad expanse of roof that I would see her on. I wanted to surprise her one night. But it never happened. Something else did.
I lay back on the gritty asphalt roof tiles, watching the maple branches bending over me, and over that, the sky. Usually it would be a kind of orange color from the overcast and the street lights. But that night, the sky was clear and I could see a band of stars in an arc overhead. I reached up my hand and traced them with my finger.
I remembered a song we sang in school that went, “Follow the drinkin’ gourd.” The music teacher explained how the drinking gourd was a constellation that people would use to find their way when they were escaping slavery. Most people call it the “Big Dipper”. I thought about those stars and I was pretty sure I was looking at the same ones, from the picture in the music book. I thought about people looking at those stars a hundred years ago and two hundred years ago and maybe thousands of years ago and I felt free from the time I am in and the body laying on the roof and the freedom was so overwhelming I was glad the maple branches were over my head, holding me down to my place on the top of the old gray house with my Mom and sisters and Aunt Joanie and Uncle Clyde sleeping down below.
The next time I went out there I flew even higher. I could look down and see my pale blue nightgown against the black roof. I could see the stars reflected in my shining eyes. I could see over the other rooftops to the lights of town, and the dark of the hills at the outskirts. And after that I could fly to those hills and skim the waters of Lake Bomoseen and fly to the bald head of Killington, the ski lift towers like abrupt fists in the night, the trees like bunched velvet passing underneath me.
But the fall came and the maple leaves dropped and the bare branches did not hold me well and it was icy on the roof and Uncle Clyde discovered the torn screen and stapled it down so red squirrels wouldn’t get in and wreak havoc. Those were the words he used, ‘wreak havoc’. I had to ask him what it meant and he smiled his grizzled smile. “That’s what comes of reading books. Talking like one, I guess.”
That fall and winter and into spring, I flew only in books.
But even when the roof was blanketed in white, I am telling you my mother was out there anyway, bundled in her coat, singing softly. Till the eaves were dripping and I carefully pried out the staples and Maggie and I ventured out onto the roof. But it was too cold and when I went in, I weighted the screen down with an old sneaker, so the red squirrels wouldn’t wreak havoc.
Summer came late and wet, and poor Maggie was hit by a passing car. We buried her under the maple tree, rolling a whitish rock over her place and planting impatiens around it. The old sneaker stayed where it was until it was almost time to go back to school.
I had been to Lake Bomoseen to swim with some friends and while I was paddling in the amber water I looked down at my shadow, surrounded by golden shards of sun. If I spread my arms, my silhouette flew against the brown depths of the lake. I remembered flying from the roof.
That night we cooked on the little grill on the back porch and I kept waiting for it to get dark. When it was finally really night, I said I was tired from swimming—which I was—and went off to my room. A window fan hummed, keeping the attic room breathable at least. I lay on the bed, letting the fan cool me. I fell asleep.
Later, when I woke, still in my bathing suit, I went right to the crawl space hatch. My knees knew the dusty planks laid over the joists. I moved the sneaker. I had grown and had to pull another staple out, and even then I got scratched and my bathing suit snagged.
When I made my way around the roof, there was my Mom.
I gasped, and she heard me and turned. “Sylvia! How the—“ she didn’t finish the thought, but was at my side, gripping my hand and pulling me to where she had been sitting. She firmly sat me down next to her. But then she didn’t say anything for a while.
She was still holding my hand tightly. She lay back against the roof tiles, and so did I.
“No stars tonight,” I said.
“Mm. No flying.” I looked at her, and she at me. We smiled.