Rising from the Sea, watercolor with sumi ink, collage, and rubber stamps, by Eleanor Rubin

Felicity Dying

Felicity, sitting behind the library checkout desk, will die in an hour.  


She prays as she sits. She places spread hands on the desk, takes in breath, breathes out. He will lift them on wings of eagles. Over and over. Lift me on eagleswings. Lift me from it all. She is mindful of the story, in the Gospel of Luke, about the woman who persistently sues the unjust judge for fairness and ultimately wins. Lift me. Lift me. Pray without ceasing and God will listen.  

So far, God listens in silence.  

To her left, under the long, inconvenient Victorian windows, old men in rusty wool jackets doze over newspapers. The men live in furnished rooms downtown and come here to get warm in winter and cool in summer. They have knobbed fingers and lonely eyes. She understands and shuns the old and lonely.  

To her right are the reading-room tables and next to them the computers. Their flat screens stare out, blandly intrusive. Behind her, the shadowed stacks filled with books that smell of vanilla and the dust of softened paper and break her heart with their promises. Except for the computers the library has not changed since she used it in high school, when she would come in radiant, knowing that there was nothing she couldn’t do, that one day people would come in here to borrow her books….

She wears a dress from the local thrift shop, where she now buys all her clothes. They are worn, these dresses, their color and fabric soft as the end of a winter afternoon. She brings them home and washes them, but she can’t wash out the smell of alien closets and old skin.  

She has stopped having haircuts. They’re expensive, and she has little money of her own. The alimony, though promptly paid, is minimal. And there is the student loan. She wears her hair, suddenly gray, scraped off her forehead and twisted up into a knot. Sometimes she puts a pencil through the knot. She speaks with deliberation, clipping her consonants, as the librarians she remembers used to do. She does not remember laughing at them, at their gray knobs of hair, at their sibilants, at the thick rubber wedges of the shoes on which they moved quietly and efficiently but not gracefully. As she moves.

The library is quiet on Wednesday afternoons, especially right after lunch. The old men nod and snore into their newspapers. At about 3:30, junior high schoolers smelling of fruit gum and wakening hormones will pound the tobacco-colored floors with their pricey Nikes and jam around the computers, elbowing for seats. She is invisible to them.

Lift me on eagles’ wings.

She lives with her mother. There was nowhere else for her to go after the divorce.  

Her mother is bewildered and querulous. Her voice has become high and whiny. The backs of her hands are covered with age spots the color of old blood. She doesn’t understand why it should be so hard for Felicity to find a proper job.  “You always did so well,” she says, over and over. “You were at the top of your class in high school.”

Because newspapers dont hire reporters with out-of-date degrees in journalism, Felicity tells her mother. She does not say because I cannot be a grocery bagger; because I must have a vocation; because God has not shown the way.

It isn’t that she hasn’t tried. She used her small savings to pay part of the tuition for seminary and took out a loan for the rest. She thought it was a path. It wasn’t. She’d wanted to do ministry, to be lifted into new spiritual air. Instead they’d made her read books on doctrine, filled with words that weighed like stones. Faculty stared at her when she spoke of her needs. She’d quit. 

Now she is repaying her loans, living in her childhood home, and clerking nights at Walgreen’s to contribute to household expenses. “I don’t see why it should be so hard,” her mother says.

Felicity has never told her mother about the poetry she writes late at night, early in the morning, when she can’t sleep or is exhausted from praying. The poetry that has gathered so many rejections from all the “Christian” periodicals she googles on her breaks in the library.  

On this Wednesday afternoon, the day Felicity will die, Katie comes into the library.

Katie and Felicity were in high school at the same time. Now Katie is a Visiting Writer, back home in Illinois to give a lecture for the library’s educational program. Felicity has, of course, seen the many posters proudly advertising the event.

She remembers when Katie’s literary successes began. Felicity was still hoping, believing, that soon she would be pregnant, and that one day, perhaps after the anticipated children were in school, she would write books, as she’d always planned to. So when she read articles about Katie’s achievements, she found them interesting, perhaps a little surprising, because she’d always believed Katie was less gifted than herself. In fact, Katie, just a year behind her, had been something of an acolyte in their school days: a skinny, intense girl with a too-toothy smile and big glasses.  (I love your name. Felicity.  It fits you, she’d said once, and blushed.

Felicity read about Katie with admiration and something akin to pride, imagining the thrill Katie must be feeling as her publication credits accumulated. It was a thrill Felicity believed she, too, would one day know, likely buoyed on accolades from somewhat more prestigious sources than Katie’s work attracted. In the high school yearbook the blurb under her picture had read: Felicity: her futures in her name.  

But the days went by, unaccomplished, and then life swerved: Martin went off with the church secretary who wore green nail polish and thought “In the Garden” was the most beautiful hymn (hymn!) ever written; Felicity’s community disintegrated because his adultery split their church; and Felicity felt herself falling through the breach of love, of trust….O the mind mind has mountains, cliffs of fall …. Lift me, God.  Lift me on eagles’ wings.

Felicity recognizes Katie immediately. Not because she’s unchanged—she is, in fact, radically changed cosmetically—but because she still moves with the eager, ardent youthfulness of her sixteen-year-old self. She has become sophisticated, refined, rather than old. She wears a close-fitting blue suit. A peppermint-striped scarf swathes her neck. Her legs are elegant in dark hose, her shoes sensible but attractive, her ankles impeccable, her stomach flat. She presents herself at the check-out desk and says, with that same odd little catch of breath that Felicity remembers from all those years ago, “Yes, hello, I wonder if you’d be kind enough to direct me to the head librarian’s office?”

And Felicity says, in her deliberate, low-pitched voice: “Hello, Katie. Katherine, I should say.”

Katherine smiles, uncertain but gracious. This kind of recognition probably happens to her frequently. 

“I expect you don’t remember me,” Felicity says. “From high school—” and gives her name before marriage.  

“Oh! Oh yes, of course, Felicity.” Does Katherine really not need glasses any more—or is she one of those who come mid-life to contact lenses?  “Of course. It was only—no one has called me that for a long time,” she says, “Katie.  Please do.” She reaches a hand across the checkout desk.  

Felicity isn’t quite sure what to do with the gesture—is she expected to jump up and hug her? (They hadn’t really been that close.) She remains seated, takes the offered hand, shakes it formally. “It’s been so long,” Katherine says. “How are you?”

They discover that they are both well. Felicity congratulates Katherine on her literary success. “Oh,” Katherine says, and pushes a hand through her expensively tousled silver (not iron-gray) hair, becoming the gauche sixteen-year-old again. Except now she wears a wedding ring. She’s married to a well-known poet. Felicity remembers the interview in which Katie—Katherine—spoke of her husband’s encouragement and support. She has this, too, Felicity remembers thinking. 

“Well, thank you,” Katherine says then, adult once more, smiling with the practiced grace of celebrity, “thank you, that’s—really kind of you. So,” she says, more briskly—but there is warmth as well; Felicity hears it, has become sensitive as a shucked oyster to warmth, and to indifference—“so are you writing now, well, I mean, apart from . . . ” she waves at the check-out desk. “I remember how well you wrote in high school. I was always in awe of you. When you edited the literary magazine and took my story I was over the moon.”  

The editorial board hadn’t liked the story; it wouldn’t have made the cut without Felicity’s special pleading. She smiles her lip-tightening smile, feels her jaw go rigid with it. “How very—kind of you to remember.” Echoing Katie. She tastes bitterness like metal.

“But I imagine,” Katherine rushes on rather breathlessly, “I suppose as a librarian you find it difficult to make much time for your own writing. I mean, it’s a demanding job, especially these days with all the new technology and—so forth.” 

“I’m not a librarian actually,” Felicity says. “I volunteer three days a week.” She explains with her precise diction: “I’ve moved back home because I needed a place where I could live economically while I try to find work. Real work, I mean. My husband divorced me two years ago. A complete surprise. He is a minister and I thought, I believed we shared certain values.” This is what she tells the people she meets from her previous life. The people who no longer recognize her, with her gray hair, her thrift-shop clothes, and her old-lady shoes. As Katherine did not recognize her. She practices this psychological flagellation as a spiritual discipline: Here I am, God.  This is what I am. It makes people uncomfortable but she cannot help that.

Katherine says, “Oh—oh, I’m so sorry.  I—didn’t know.”  

“Of course not,” Felicity says, “how could you? Naturally you wouldn’t know about my life as I do about yours. Actually this is why I write—to find my way.”

A pause. Keys tap on a computer. Footsteps thud across the floor, back into the stacks. Katherine hikes up her shoulder bag (pricey-casual) and says, “So: please do tell me where I can find your work. I’d love to read it.”

Felicity draws breath, not to pray but to hold against pain. She’d thought that it couldn’t ambush her any more, bind her to itself. She’d imagined that her disciplines had broken its intensity, that it would remain that sullen throb, like her almost daily headaches, until the lifting came. She is stunned with the freshness of its power. She puts her hands flat on the checkout desk and looks down. Her hands seem very far away, the skin a little rucked, as if someone had pinched it, with a few tan spots, shiny as fish scales in the overhead light. Soon she will be old and her hands will be blood-spattered bird’s claws.  

She says, “I haven’t had much luck in finding places that will publish my writing, I’m afraid. Spiritual poetry doesn’t seem to be greatly in demand. I wish—I deeply wish—I could interest someone, some publisher, in what I do. I believe, I know, I have things to say that would be helpful.” To people like me, in my kind of pain, she almost adds, but doesn’t. She pauses, breathes again, raises her head, sees the dust motes swimming against the big windows, like flaking skin…. “I had never imagined, back when we were in school, that I would be in this situation at my age.”  

Katherine murmurs something—maybe “No, no.” 

“So I am searching, you see, Katie,” Felicity says. “Searching for what I must do to realize my vocation. It is . . .very difficult.” 

“I’m sure it is,” Katherine says.  Her voice is low, sympathetic, as if she understands. As if she might—

At first she thinks it’s the pain again, it stabs so fiercely. And then she knows what it is, so long deferred it’s unrecognizable. It is hope, Emily Dickinson’s thing with feathers, wings rushing in her head, before her eyes, great white gleaming wings…. 

She is shaking, her arms in tremors against the desk top, and she brings her hands to her lap, folds them as for prayer, hard. It is so right, so fair. Justice at last. “I wonder, Katie,” she says, “I wonder—since you are familiar with publishers—could you . . . help me?”

One of the old men shuffles up to the checkout desk. He smells like a urinal. He must have wet himself while he was napping. He says to Katherine, “Do you know where they keep the Saturday Evening Post?”  

Katherine jumps a little, turns and looks at him. Her eyes are startled, then luminous. She says, gently, “No, no, I don’t, I’m afraid. But this lady does. She can help you.”

The old man says: “That’s a good magazine, The Saturday Evening Post. Norman Rockwell made a lot of the covers for it.”

Katherine says, “Yes, I’ve seen some of them. They’re really charming, aren’t they? The people are so alive.”

“Just like you was looking in at their lives,” the old man says. “I know folks like that. You from around here?”

Katherine smiles, warmly. “Originally, yes. Just visiting now. And yourself?”

Oh this is idiotic, Felicity thinks. This is an idiotic conversation. The old man’s senile. Go away, she thinks fiercely, go away and let me talk….

Finally the old man shuffles off. Katherine starts to call after him: “Sir, didn’t you want—?” and half-turns to Felicity. 

“He’s forgotten,” Felicity says. Her voice is harsh and flat. “He asks the same thing every day. Usually more than once.”  

Katherine watches him wander back to his seat. “Sad,” she murmurs. “I wonder if—” She turns back to Felicity. “Look, I’m so sorry, but honestly, I don’t know much about those kinds of publishers”— the quick breath catch—“I mean, you know, I’m not religious. So I couldn’t really—”

“But your books, your characters,” Felicity says. “They’re so kind, so aware, so compassionate.” She hadn’t read them at first because she couldn’t bear to. Then she’d made herself read them as a penance for envy. And she couldn’t help responding to what was in them.

“Oh.” Katherine ducks her head. “Well—yes.” There’s something in her tone Felicity can’t identify: embarrassment? Impatience? Katherine says quickly, “I can ask around, but I honestly don’t think—does your church have a publishing house? That might be a good place to start.”  

“They have their own cadre of writers,” Felicity says tightly.  “They are not very much open to unknowns, I’m afraid.” 

“Oh Felicity.  I—” Katherine  puts out a hand. Felicity keeps her hands in her lap.  And then the library director sweeps out of her office, her metallic necklace clanking, and bears Katherine away in a whirlwind of gushes and heavy perfume.

Felicity sits straight and still, her head bent, her eyes closed. Computer keys tap like rain. Across the room someone laughs quietly.  

She tidies the desk, picks up her purse (large, square, black fake-leather, thrift shop issue), pushes through the heavy wooden door, proceeds down the echoing steps that smell of tobacco, urine, and disinfectant, then out into the autumn afternoon. This morning the light was dull and flat; now there is a strange pattern of intense light between strips of bruised cloud.  

She walks home. She puts down each foot in a separate, tentative movement, as she has seen the old walk, as if something were twisted inside her.  

She looks at the sidewalk, at the small erosive cracks in its surface. A sound makes her look up. And she sees him.  

He is standing on the sidewalk, in her way. His pants sag (yes, he did wet them, there are the dark spatters), and his head is tipped back. Whiskers bristle like faded straw over his jaw and down his neck. His mouth is open.  

She says, “Excuse me, please.”

He doesn’t answer, doesn’t move.

She says, louder, “Excuse me. I need to get by.”

A cigarette dangles between his fingers. (How does he have money for cigarettes?)  “Now that’s one pretty sight,” he says. His voice is ragged. “It don’t get much prettier than that.”

His smell gags her—the smell of age, of decay. “Please,” she says, “please let me by.” Or maybe she doesn’t say it. She steps off the curb to get around him, away from him.  

He says, “Look at them. Them wings. That’s God up there working, that is.”

God! What do you know of God? Fury rises in her, violent as grief, and then, suddenly, another violence—fiercer and stronger than pain, pulls her eyes up toward the sky. And she sees them—the long crosses of geese flying south.

They are flying in the narrow band of light between the two swollen layers of blue-black cloud. The light makes their wings shine like poured silver. She draws in her breath to say “Yes, oh yes.” 

And that is when the car, its driver blinded by that same strip of light, strikes her, thrusting her high, in a shining arc, toward the sky, toward the bright wings.  

SPIRIT CAPTIVE, Jerusalem in Poetry, Prose and Paintings
by Helen Bar-Lev
      Spirit Captive is the impressive collection of poems, short stories, memories and artworks that Helen Bar-Lev presents to us as a declaration of her love for Jerusalem, a city harboring as much pain as pleasure. Through Helen's eyes, we see contested Jerusalem through the seasons and the hours, a city of exquisite beauty. To appreciate the real spirit of this work we should start from the end: reading the poem Spirit Captive, we can feel the bond that exists between the poet and her chosen city. We can also sense the universality of Jerusalem – the painful, sometimes suffering, beauty that permeates it. In A Love Poem to Jerusalem, Helen wonders if God created the sweet air of the city just to intoxicate her and if every stone or gate or flower may have been created as a source of inspiration for her paintings. This book is Helen's masterpiece, where her poems, prose and paintings pay magnificent tribute to Jerusalem.
— from the review by Lidia Chiarelli, President, Immagine & Poesia, Italy
    Available from BookBaby and, shipping now.


After receiving master's and doctoral degrees in English from The University of Chicago, Ann Boaden returned to teach at her undergraduate college, Augustana (Illinois). Her work appears and/or is forthcoming in Another Chicago Magazine, Big Muddy, From SAC, Gingerbread House, Ginosko, Ink Babies, The Other Journal, The Penwood Review, Pietisten, Sediments, South Dakota Review, Teach.Write, and The Windhover, among others. Her books include Light and Leaven, a creative nonfiction evocation of women who shaped Augustana College, and Fritiof's Story, a YA novel.

Eleanor Rubin is an artist and writer whose work is the subject of Eleanor Rubin: Dreams of Repair, with a foreword by Howard Zinn (Charta, Italy 2011). Her prints, drawings and watercolors are in permanent collections including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Boston Athenaeum, the McMullen Museum, Boston College and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, University of Michigan. Rubin plays the cello and is currently preoccupied with helping Ukraine through her music, writing and art. For more, visit Persimmon Tree's Dreams of Repair.


    1. I agree that the art work was an inspired choice. Thank you for your kind words about the story.

  1. I truly enjoyed the story …well written … a deep and thoughtful look into a life, the dreams unfulfilled and a lack of hope.

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