Our hero’s name is Ulysses. He was just fifteen when I first met him – a short and slender youth, nervous; in a place he didn’t belong. The skin on his face was still smooth, the face of a child. In many ways he was still a boy. He was a boy trying to become a man and, like many men, he wished to go back and change his past. He desired this more strongly than most, but like all was impotent to do so.
This boy Ulysses had been afraid of one thing or another for most of his life. That’s how he felt at least – always waiting for something to go wrong. Yet this whole adventure got started when in a strange moment of rashness he did something foolish. He risked being smacked by his uncle, he was getting soaked in the rain, and who knows what the woman he was following would do once she discovered him.
Ulysses was supposed to be cleaning out the corral. He had worked at that steadily for an hour or two, but had stopped for a rest. It’s a tiring job: shoveling mud and manure into heaps, loading those heaps little by little into a wheelbarrow, pushing each barrow load out into the pasture, being careful not to get one of your rubber boots sucked off your foot by the muck thus stepping out of your boot and into the mud – having to hop into the house for a fresh sock. Ulysses liked to pass the time by pretending he was engaged in some grand civil engineering project; perhaps building a road to help transport food to the besieged Chinese in World War II (he had recently been watching a documentary on the subject). But now he had found something more interesting to apply his imagination to.
It had begun to rain on that cool autumn day. The boy had stepped into the door of the barn. He leaned against an old wooden post, gazing out across the field. He watched fog blow in off the river. On that day it was slowly making its way up the backwaters that led past his uncle's small farm on Sauvie Island – a few miles northwest of Portland Oregon.
The fog slowly rolled past the cattails and tall grass, engulfing the cranes that waded through the waters sporadically snatching up little fish in their long beaks. The damp fog swirled around short stout oaks and spun with their falling leaves. It wove through the firs and slunk through the remains of an already harvested cornfield. Ulysses drew deep breaths of the autumn air.
Little drops of rain spattered the boy's boots and pounded on the metal roof. A strong cold breeze ripped into the barn blowing rain into Ulysses' face. He liked it.
He straightened up. He strained his eyes to see the path that lead along the river. He could just make out the spot where the path came out of a marsh and wound through the trees.
There – was that something? he wondered. No just the shadows – no, there was certainly someone walking there.
It was a small form wrapped in a cloak. He saw the figure clearly for just a moment through the trees. The person was striding quickly past the farm. A flock of starlings took to flight as the stranger approached them.
Ulysses followed the figure out of curiosity even though the rain had become a downpour. The boy was drenched, but he had caught a better look at the person. It was a woman and she carried a small bundle underneath her cloak. The woman was beautiful; a small woman, with fair skin and red hair.
Ulysses had made following her a game and he constructed a fantasy to justify his curiosity. He was a resistance fighter; she might be his contact. She would have ammunition and food for him and his compatriots. But he had to make sure she wasn't a spy. If she was a spy she can’t discover their hideout. They might have to eliminate her – though he would regret that outcome he thought.
The woman approached an abandoned farmhouse. She pushed open an unhinged gate and entered the small overgrown yard. Before she went into the house she turned and looked at Ulysses. He ducked down quickly, but his heart raced. He was sure she must have seen him.
In fact she already knew he was following her. “Are you coming in?” she asked. "Don't be afraid. I knew you were following me. I'd like to show you something."
Ulysses stood up cautiously.
“Come on,” the woman invited.
So Ulysses followed her into the house, which was a very foolish thing to do.
“I’m sorry if I bothered you,” Ulysses said
The woman was in the kitchen, at the table, and had her back to the boy. She turned. “No need to be sorry,” she said. “You don't know me, but I know you and meant for you to follow us. That’s why we’re here.”
Ulysses moved towards the woman. “Who’s with you?” Though cautious he was still a curious boy.
The woman moved aside revealing that the bundle she had been carrying was a baby tightly swaddled in an old blanket. It began to cry. The little thing kicked her arms and legs fighting with her blanket; the woman gently swaddled her again. She then picked her up and soothed her. The child became quiet, gurgling happily to herself.
“Will you bless this baby,” the woman said. She held the child out towards Ulysses.
“Bless? What, what do you mean?”
“I can’t pay you.” The woman backed away. “This was a mistake, I should go.” She began to move towards the door.
“No, stay, please.” Ulysses stepped in front of the woman, blocking the door. “I don't understand. Why would you ask me to bless the baby?”
The woman hesitated. But finally, she asked, “You are Ulysses are you not?”
“I knew your mother, she was a powerful woman.”
Ulysses was surprised to hear this. All he knew about his mother was that she had abandoned him; left him with this aunt and uncle. He had no memory of her.
“This child needs help,” the woman said. “I thought you could help her.”
“How could I help?” He was the one who had been abandoned, how could he help?
“This isn’t my child. She was stolen, but the thief has grown tired of her, left her in a dumpster. That’s when I found her – her mother won’t, she can’t, find her.” That's why I brought her to you.” The woman had retreated from Ulysses.
Ulysses was horrified, “Give her back.”
“I can’t; I wish I could.”
“Is this a joke?”
“No,” said the woman. “Why would it be?”
Ulysses looked at the little girl resting in the woman’s arms. “What will happen to her?" he asked.
“She could die. She’s not fortunate like you.”
Ulysses approached the woman. He brushed the little baby’s cheek. “Why can’t you just give her back?”
“I can’t” the woman said.
“Then give her to me.” Ulysses reached to take the child. As he grabbed at the bundle the child vanished. The woman let go of the blanket, Ulysses grasped desperately at what used to be a baby – the blanket fell through his hands and crumpled on the floor.
Ulysses sagged to the damp floor in front of the blanket. He sat there not knowing what to make of this.
He thought for a moment. “Tell me about my mother. Can you?”
“Your mother desperately needed to have a child, but hadn’t been able to conceive.” the woman said. “So she came to this home. She had nowhere else to go; she was suffering. It was a great risk for her. She came here to see her priest – this was his home. She stood right here and prayed with him. I stood over there.” The woman pointed past the empty living room to a hallway. “I heard her whisper an oath to her God. If he would just give her a son, she would dedicate that son to his service.” The woman kneeled down in front of Ulysses. She took his face in her hands, raising his eyes to hers. “You’re that son.”
Ulysses tore his face from the woman’s hands and looked back down at the floor. In that moment he despised his mom, he despised a God that would make a woman give up her child. “I’m proof that God makes deals then?”
The woman stood up. “That's not the lesson I’ve learned.”
“Did she know what my life would be?” Ulysses jumped up. He shouted, “Why was my mother so desperate to have me just to leave me.”
“You can’t thank her for life?” the woman asked.
“No, I wish I could be like that baby – forgotten!” He spat out the word. Ulysses ran from the house. He didn’t want to be seen crying.
Ulysses didn’t remember anything about his mom. He couldn't picture her; he didn’t have a single photograph of her to help him. She was gone. What should he care? He didn’t get along with his uncle, his aunt was all right; he had no cousins. Ulysses was a lonely child, he wanted cool friends, he wanted help; he wanted someone to show him how the world worked – how to get a girlfriend for example. But the only friends he had weren’t really good friends. He thought they were just a collection of losers who couldn’t find anyone else to eat their lunch with. The only thing they all really had in common was that they were all socially inept, lost. Ulysses wasn’t good in school – he had actually done pretty bad and was nearly held back once; not that he was stupid. He didn’t fit.
The woman watched Ulysses run away. Then she returned to the blanket that lay on the ground. She opened it up and there in the blanket crouched a little yellow finch. The woman placed a cupped hand in front of the bird and coaxed the tiny thing onto her palm. Then she turned and left the house.
Ulysses had snuck back to the house. He hid behind a tree as the woman came out.
The woman stopped on the front porch and lifted her hand up; the finch beat its wings tentatively as if uncertain. But the woman gently shooed it off with her other hand and the bird flew away. Then the woman looked directly at Ulysses. He stayed in his hiding place. She couldn’t possibly know he was there. The rain was coming down hard. The sun had just set behind the mountains and dark storm clouds had sucked nearly every last little bit of twilight out of the sky. It was a coincidence; she couldn’t possibly see him. The woman pulled her cloak tightly around her and walked down the path towards the river.
When she had disappeared from view – swallowed up by a grove of trees – Ulysses hurried back into the house to check for the baby. When he found that the girl was indeed gone he decided to follow the woman.
It shouldn't have been hard to find her. Ulysses knew he was on the right path, he had watched her go. But he didn't find her. He had gone slowly at first, wanting to sneak up on her. Then he became frightened. He began to hurry. He didn’t like being in the woods at night. Then he ran, panic rising in him. He ran straight into the river plunging deep beneath its waters.