Read The Language of Sparrows Online

Authors: Rachel Phifer

Tags: #Family Relationships, #Photography, #Gifted Child, #Contemporary

The Language of Sparrows


Somehow my jumble of notes and roughed-out scenes morphed into a book. I’m well aware that this wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the many friends, family, and experts who worked with me, cheered me on, and prayed for me. Thank you all for offering me your time and skill.

Christine Lindsay, my first-class critique partner and dearest friend, helped shape the story with her keen sense of plot and character, and prayed me through the writing.

Rebecca Middleton, my mother, always believed I’d publish a novel someday. She read through more than one draft with me, and I’m ever grateful for her honest feedback.

My sister, Melanie Miller, read and cheered on my book, as well as double-checked my photography details.

My family endured a few burned dinners and more than a few dust bunnies while I talked to my “imaginary friends.” Their patience means the world to me. And as my youngest daughter has enthusiastically waited for the day she could find the book in the library, I’ve found a new reason to keep writing.

Alice Crider and the WordServe Literary Agency took me on as an unpublished author and supported my book from submission to publication.

The David C Cook team made the publishing process a breeze, and I particularly want to thank editors Tonya Osterhouse and Jean Bloom. Their eye for detail blew me away.

American Christian Fiction Writers mentored me and gave me the tools to write a novel.

My relatives Joyce Bell, Jean Carwile, Elizabeth and Jill Myers, and Kristen Phifer will probably never know how much their encouragement meant to me.

Patricia Abraham kindly acted as a first reader and corrected my Spanish.

Lidiana Burca read an early draft and provided me with a wealth of information on all things Romanian.

Dr. Matt Koepplinger provided me with information on catastrophic hand injuries.

Fr. Cassian Sibley of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia brainstormed with me on the kinds of things a Romanian Orthodox priest in prison might say (or might not say) and directed me to resources on persecution in communist Romania.

Debbie and Jerry Staton worked with me on flood rescues.

My apologies to all if I still got it wrong.

In addition to those who helped with the book’s details, I’d like to thank those who helped me work out its themes. Chris and Karla Carroll and Charles and Leslie Smith of Sienna Family Fellowship influenced my thinking about loving our neighbors as Jesus does. Also, as I wrote
The Language of Sparrows
, I read and reread Pete Greig’s
God on Mute: Engaging the Silence of Unanswered Prayer
and Ann Voskamp’s
One Thousand Gifts
for their visions of the unexpected ways God brings us healing. These beautiful books influenced both my story and my life.

Chapter One

April knew she’d find her daughter close to home. That’s why she didn’t search the streets of Houston when the school called this time. And as expected, she found Sierra sitting in the apartment courtyard with her back against the willow tree. Oblivious to the cars speeding by and the crowded apartments surrounding her, she wrote in a notebook with utter concentration.

It wasn’t until Sierra noticed her blocking the light that she glanced up. They looked at each other for what seemed like a long minute before Sierra spoke. “I couldn’t stay there, Mom.”

As she lifted her face to the sun, it took on a quality that didn’t belong on a fifteen-year-old. April lowered herself to Sierra’s level, taking a moment to balance on her pumps. “You couldn’t stay in school because …?”

Sierra sent her a pleading look.

“Sierra,” April insisted.

“It’s not like my old school. There aren’t any windows in most of my classrooms. It’s so dark.”

There it was—the best explanation her daughter could offer for skipping school. Again. Sierra, with her knowledge of languages. But she never could seem to find the words she needed most.

As they talked, Sierra’s hand kept moving across the notebook in her lap. Writing by touch and not by sight, she guided the pen right and then left, then down. Every now and then she’d stop to hem a section of her strange script in black boxes.

“Baby, you’ve got to talk to me eventually.”

talking to you.” But Sierra looked into the distance, tracking the movements of a cat, a blur of white that leaped from balcony to balcony. And her pen still moved.

April tried not to hate the symbols on Sierra’s page—Hebrew, Greek, an occasional column of hieroglyphs. Pages of archaic languages were absorbing more and more of her time. The girl had filled reams of paper with ancient words since they’d moved.

April sighed. Only on the news did people disappear in an instant. One minute a girl was walking to her bus stop. The next she was gone. Cable stations broadcast the missing child’s photo nationwide. Crews searched the woods. Everyone mourned when a child disappeared in a flash.

Not so the slow disappearances. No one called a press conference when Sierra’s grades began plummeting, when she dropped each of her friends one by one or refused to make new friends when they moved to Houston. The alarms on the school doors didn’t go off when she left in the middle of the day. The policeman at the front entrance didn’t even notice her leaving.

Only a computerized phone call alerted April to Sierra’s skipping classes at all.

There was no need to make threats or offer encouraging words. April had tried them all since they moved here last January. And Sierra was smart enough to understand the risks of skipping school—the danger of the streets where they lived, the potential failure to graduate, trouble with the police.

Instead of the old standbys, April looked through Sierra’s letters until she found a familiar one—a hieroglyph in the shape of an eye. “I see you, baby.”

That caught Sierra’s attention. She looked directly at April and blinked.

The school might not notice Sierra’s disappearing act. Maybe friends were nonexistent. Sometimes it seemed that God Himself had found someone more newsworthy to save. But it was impossible to disappear with a witness.

April underlined the hieroglyph with her index finger. “You are not invisible. I would have seen you walking past me if I’d been at the school. I see you, Sierra. Okay?”

Chapter Two

As soon as she got home from school the next day, Sierra pulled on a pair of capris and a T-shirt and left the apartment. Her feet, following a map all their own, carried her to the bridge.

Rap music throbbed from a nearby car. Behind her lay a ramble of buildings and billboards. She hesitated. If Mom knew she was walking out here alone, she’d be upset. But Mom didn’t have to sit in the classrooms with the walls closing in on her.

As soon as she crossed over the bayou into the neighborhood beyond, Sierra began breathing easier. There were little box houses and rows of old oaks screening out the sun. It was just the way a neighborhood should be. But most of all, it was

Five houses down the street, she stopped. Today, the old man crouched by the front porch with a spade in hand. Sierra chewed on her lip, waiting, but he continued moving dirt around with his spade as if she weren’t there. Sparrows pecked at scattered birdseed until a squirrel sent them into the trees with a rush of flapping wings.

She eased onto the front walk in his yard, moving closer to the porch, and still he didn’t turn.

Her hands grew sweaty. “Hello,” she finally managed. Brilliant! She’d had her opening line all picked out, and
had definitely not been part of it.

He looked up then, with a shake of his head. “Hello? Is that all you have to say?” he said in his thick accent. Italian, she’d thought when they’d first spoken, but that wasn’t quite right. There was something Slavic in his accent too.

She shook her head and tried again. “This city now doth, like a garment, wear the beauty of the afternoon.”

“‘This city now doth, like a garment, wear the beauty of the
.’ Do you propose to rewrite Wordsworth?”

She stepped onto his lawn, moving close to him now. “It’s afternoon now. I don’t think Wordsworth would have minded.”

Every day, they exchanged quotes as she walked past his house. Once she’d tried to stump him. She’d searched the library to come up with an obscure poem from the Ming Dynasty. It hadn’t work. He’d nailed the country and the time period.

He shot a glance at her feet. “Your ankle is bleeding. I have had an infestation of thorns. They are quite sharp.”

She looked down, feeling the sting of the scratch for the first time. He went back to digging. Her cue to leave, apparently. They never spoke beyond their quote exchange, but she couldn’t leave, not yet. Finally, he patted the soil around a group of flowers arranged by color order and stood with his back to her, slipping off his gardening gloves. He nodded and went inside, leaving the door open. Did he want her to follow him? Nobody left their doors open here, especially in September. They liked to keep the air-conditioning trapped inside.

She could imagine what Mom would say if she found out she’d gone into a stranger’s house. But he didn’t feel like a stranger. Sierra stepped through the doorway, but he was nowhere in sight. The living room held two chairs on heart-pine floors and one side table. That was it. There was no TV, no clutter. There were no paintings on the walls. There was a curio cabinet, but unlike her mother’s, there were no photos there either. The main thing that stood out about the room was what
in it.

He bent his head out of the hallway in the back. Sierra raised her shoulders and acted as if she didn’t mind wondering what to do as she crossed the room.

“We were never formally introduced.” She imitated what her mother would say and reached out her hand. “Sierra Wright.”

He nodded curtly. “Yes, Sierra. Come then.” He turned without reaching for her hand and searched through the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. “Ah, there.”

He drenched a cotton ball with alcohol and slid out a Band-Aid but didn’t hand them to her. Instead he left the room, and she hurried to the sink where he left them, disinfecting the scratch and slapping on the bandage as quickly as she could.

“You know my name now,” Sierra insisted, as she followed him back to the front, “but I don’t know who you are.”

He turned and gave her a long, hard look causing heat to rush into her face.

“I am not my name,” he said at last, “but if it is this you ask for, it is Luca Prodan.”

She could see his library through a pair of French doors.

That was how they met. She’d seen the books through the window and peeked in. She’d thought the room was empty, but he’d been there, sitting in the armchair, reading a book. He’d looked up at her with eyes as blue as Antarctic ice caps, and she was sure he could see right through her. After that, he was always in his garden when she passed by on her walks. He’d started the quote game.

The library was smaller than it looked from the outside. The whole house probably wasn’t any bigger than Sierra’s apartment. Still, it was the kind of place that made her want to curl up with a book in hand.

He caught her curious stare and started walking toward the library doors.

“Do you often look into the windows of people whom you do not know?” When she didn’t answer, he said, “You do, yes?”

He waited. Sierra shifted.

she told herself.
You have to speak.

“I-I have a thing about books. That day I was just walking by, but when I saw your library and then I saw you sitting there reading … I just sort of …”

“You sort of …?”

“I was … I don’t know … enchanted.” Enchanted. How uncool was that?

The old man gave her a half smile.

“I’m always curious about people and their books, I guess.”

“You guess,” the old man said. “Or are you sure you are always curious?” His English was as crisp as new paper.

She couldn’t believe she was actually carrying on a conversation with him, but she had a desperate hunch that if she kept talking, he would invite her into the library and she could see what he had on his shelves.

“I’m always curious about people, but especially if they have a book. The one I saw you reading was big and looked like a classic. So I thought maybe
David Copperfield
Anna Karenina
. But you don’t look like a Dickens kind of man.”

That smile again. “No? What kind of man do I seem? A Tolstoy one?”

Sierra shook her head. He looked like a grandpa who should be picking tomatoes for salad. But the way he spoke. So demanding and clear. “
The Inferno
?” she tried.

He raised an eyebrow, but at last, he led her into the library and she quickly scanned the room. Books in English, German, and Spanish lined the shelves. Not translations. And then there were two shelves of books in a language she didn’t recognize. The letters were accented by tails and loops.

He handed her one of the books—the thick, leather-bound book he’d been reading that day.

She ran her finger along the gold letters on the spine. She’d seen the marks before, but where? “It’s not Greek. Or Italian.”

“It is Romanian.”

“You’re from there?”

He studied her before answering, as if analyzing whether she could be trusted with the answer. “Yes, that is where I am from.”

A new book. One she knew nothing about. A man with a story. Two stories in one.

“Inchide Uşa, Într-o Ladă.”
She sounded out the words on the spine. She liked saying them. The sounds rolled and dipped on her tongue.

“You are familiar with Romanian?”

She shook her head.

“But you know that the
with a comma below it makes a
sound. Where did you learn this?”

Sierra shrugged. He obviously loved books. He read several languages. But no one ever understood her fascination with alphabets. “I guess I just read it somewhere.” She tried to say it casually, as if she’d stumbled upon the information in passing. “What do the words mean?”

Behind the Door, Inside a Chest.
It is a book of fairy tales.”

When she started to put the book back on the shelf, he gave her a bruising glance. “You do not like fairy tales?”

She shoved a hand into one of her back pockets. Not that it was any of his business, but she wanted something more, something really deep.

“I like stories. The grown-up kind.”

“Ah. But to live without the wonder of childhood is distressing. You must believe me, it is not the sort of life one wants to live.” He paused. “Take the book. It is a gift.”

Sierra looked at the floor. “Thank you.”

He placed his hands over hers, pressing the book between her palms. Four scars circled the back of each of his hands, disappeared over the other side and back again, like rough, pink ribbons wrapped around a present. She couldn’t keep from staring. She felt odd, hot, as she looked from his wrists down to his fingers.

Sierra pulled away. She wanted to ask, but she didn’t want to ask. What had caused those scars? Something more than kitchen burns or shears that had slipped. But he had pity in his eyes, as if he felt sorry for her.

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