Flight Lessons


by Barbara Ganley

Featured Art: “Holy Holy Holy” by Yan Sun


Because it’s Thursday, nearing five o’clock, Lucie is well into a doozie of a headache. Every week at this time little Jenny Baker hands her one as they sit side by side in the dining room and Jenny busily tortures the piano. She’s a narrow slip of a thing with a distracting, gum-baring smile made stranger today by a drift of tiny metallic stars sweeping across her cheeks like cosmic freckles.

Her orange high tops smack the stool’s taloned feet bapbap as she bludgeons the keys in an apparent heavy-metal version of “Long Long Ago.”

The piano, old and patient, takes it. Lucie, who is neither of those things, says, “A bit slower and softer now. See if you can find the melancholy.”

She uses her hands to play a phantom keyboard floating in the air. She must look ridiculous. “Sing the words if you like. I find that helps.” She is ridiculous.

Jenny, clearly having the same thought, grins at the keys, speeds up and hammers away. She doesn’t sing. She never sings.

What ten-year-old doesn’t sing?

But of course Lucie is confusing children with birds, Jenny with Bacchus, her grandfather’s sidekick and belter of sea shanty and Broadway schmaltz. Since moving back home, she has learned far more about thirty-year-old African grey parrots than about ten-year-old humans. Prefers them, too, if truth be told, even if they do bite. Lucie understands that people would find that small of her. But this ten-year-old human next to her couldn’t care less. A look of near madness flashes across the girl’s starry face. Her thin hair switches about her neck like an agitated tail. She’s seeing herself onstage, adoring fans at her feet. Next she’ll be peeling the stars from her face and tossing them to the crowd.

“Much better,” Lucie lies.

She focuses on fixes. An obvious one: arrange the kids in a talent/less-talent every-other order. If only there was talent. Jenny is the third kid in a row with the musicality of a crow. Billy Buxton shows some promise, but he hides it well, like a secret he aims to keep, and honestly, Bacchus has more music than any of them.

The weighted word flips over and over in her sore head, talent, she who only a decade ago was the girl working in her father’s fish shop by day and practicing piano by night. Back then she thought she could play. Her little brother Liam knew better, joking about her afternoons spent scraping scales downstairs and evenings running them upstairs, and both smelled pretty fishy. He was right of course. In college she didn’t even pass the try-outs for lessons. How wrong, she had thought then, that you weren’t allowed to learn unless you already knew how. What about the unpredictable path to mastery and genius? What about learning for learning’s sake? These were questions she sloughed off as she turned from music to museums, from scales to feathers, from the stress of counting beats and measures held in her head to the pleasure of counting nests and eggs resting in her cupped hands. Now here they are again, circling her at the very piano she thought she had left.

As she tries to follow the line of Jenny’s din, she wonders if it’s the adult’s job to encourage brilliance even when there is no shine. Just in case. And the kid’s to flap along until reality hits.

“Nicely phrased right there,” she says suddenly out of nowhere, just in case.

She breathes slowly, careful not to sigh, and smoothes a hand across her Thursday skirt with its pattern of little white boxes afloat against sky-blue. From this angle they look more like coffins than gifts. How appropriate, she thinks, and touches one with a fingertip, half waiting for the lid to snap shut. She found the skirt online, thanks to Suzanne, who is also back, teaching art at their old high school. Suzanne is a marvel, though, as content as a goldfish, serenely swimming through her classes. She wants to help kids in this dying town find wonder: “Like the door to Narnia,” she says. “You remember it? But it turns out that they’d rather sext each other.” She shrugs. And then she laughs. Why wouldn’t she? She has a job that pays a salary. Provides health insurance. And she’s sleeping with the hot new Methodist minister.

Lucie has her grandfather and his parrot. And evenings spent perched on a barstool down at Two Sisters Tavern, laughing tightly at every bad joke the barman repeats as though that constitutes conversation. Over beers one night Suzanne suggested she get some talismans. “Seriously. They’ll help. Really. Better than drugs. Go online to Alice’s Bizarre Bazaar. She’ll make you anything.”

And so she who wore black on black in the city no matter the day now has this Thursday floating-boxes skirt. And a lemon Wednesday blouse with blue ladders climbing up the front. A Tuesday dress, cloud gray, features red balloons rising. On Monday, when there’s still hope, she dons the billowy emerald silk harem pants with the line of yellow warblers across the waist, a stream of musical notes rising from their beaks. At first it was the Friday red-and-black spotted jumpsuit that she liked best. It was a secret nod to Jack back in New York. He’ll never see it, but she liked to picture the way he’d raise his eyebrows. Call her his little Cinnabar Moth, his Eastern Burnet. But of course he doesn’t. And now most Fridays she keeps it in the closet and wears black on black. The parents of her Friday students think she has slipped back into mourning.

At least the kids think she’s bonkers, in a good way. Suzanne claims they appreciate a little oddball in a teacher: “It gives you cachet. It gives them license.” And it’s true. Take Jenny who rockets into her lessons as though the whole point is to talk about the oddities surrounding Lucie. She enters the room with an open, sunny face and questions no one else would ask: “Your brother makes awesome tattoos. Has he done one for you? Can I see it?” or “Does your grandfather’s parrot really swear? I could help you make a YouTube video of him—it’ll go viral! You’ll be rich! Famous!”

And today’s question: “What’s it like to have your mom run away and your dad drop dead of a heart attack?”

Although stunned to be asked—or because—Lucie tried to answer straight. Not even Jack ever asked, even in a roundabout way. Yet here comes this kid with stars pasted to her face and orange high tops on her feet, without pity or malice, just curiosity—bam—asking. Lucie could find only a scrap of truth to offer in reply. It’s hard, she said, when she should have said, It knocks you on your ass. But not for the reasons people think. No one ever mentions her mother. In town people still come up to her, three months after her father’s death, and say, “Sorry for your loss.” She wonders which one they mean or if they mean anything at all. They’d be scandalized to learn that she was pretty much over her father being dead after the first shock of its suddenness. She didn’t have anything against him—he wasn’t abusive or negligent—but he was so opaque after her mother flew the coop that Lucie questioned if there was anyone there.

The night before leaving them—Lucie was fifteen, Liam thirteen—during that strange first and only family meeting, her mother insisted they sit in a circle on the floor with a feather-decorated talking stick, dozens of candles and too much incense. As her mother was the only one who had anything to say, she waved her glass of red wine with one hand and the stick with the other, the rest of them staring stupidly at both as though they might fly off. She quoted from F. Scott Fitzgerald like it was proof: “ ‘The idea, you know, is that the sentimental person thinks things will last.’ ”  She pointed the stick and her eyes at her husband, “ ‘– the romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won’t.’ ” She turned the stick to herself, curled her wine to her belly and smiled a sad, knowing smile at them each in turn. As though that’s all the explanation any of them needed.

And apparently it was, for from then on, Lucie and her father and Liam never spoke of her. Not really. Not in any way that mattered. They didn’t say if they ever heard stories about her new life out in Montana. If they called. If she called. If they missed her. If they were angry/sad/shocked/overwhelmed/relieved. They lived adjacent lives. Together they would scoop ice into the fish cooler before school and hose down the floors at the end of the day. Her father would filet fish; she would wrap it; Liam would count change. Her father would pull lobsters from the tank; she would bag them; Liam would add plastic bibs. The radio tuned to the local Oldies station muffled their silences. Lucie turned to the piano until she didn’t. Liam started stitching himself with ink. Their father ran marathons. It was as though they were biding their time until they could leave, too. She just didn’t expect that her father would leave leave. But she couldn’t very well say all that to Jenny.

Lucie makes an extra effort to smile at the remarkable sonic turbulence unleashed from the piano. If it had thoughts to think, what might they be. Her thought is about excusing herself for a moment. Give Gramps and Bacchus a bright wave and a finger to the lips on her way through to the bathroom. Unearth the flask of whiskey behind the tower of toilet paper under the sink. Take a quick swig. Just one. Because she still has Billy Buxton to go. Chase it with a blast from the breath spray in her pocket. Feel a tiny lightening. This kid, though. Nothing muted or fluttery. No shadows. Kids these days aren’t fools. They know you can replicate mastery. Plagiarize. Mash up. Wing it. Share it. Then arrivederci. It’s about the moment. They’re romantics. She holds herself to her seat even though Jenny wouldn’t notice if she flew about the room.

Jenny is now arcing her body over her hands as they softly flutter the black keys, first high and then low and back again. “Long Long Ago” is long forgotten. Oh well.

If she were to answer Jenny straight, Lucie would have to say that she misses the very air of the university natural history museum where she worked as Museum Specialist, Department of Ornithology, tending to the drawers upon drawers of softly stuffed study skins, eggs, nests and bones collected over the centuries. She misses how visitors instinctively whisper in hushed reverence for the ghosts dwelling there; how the light tricks in like a song from the transoms just beneath the high, vaulted ceilings; the tender way the bodies, when you pull out a drawer, lined up as they are, neatly next to each other in perpetual stillness, nonetheless exert selfhood and the long echo of lives lived, revealed through variations in size and color and little peculiarities of claw and beak and feather; the labels meticulously tied to feet—the hummingbirds dwarfed by their trailing notations—the shifts in inky script revealing hints of story and the Latin nomenclature possessing its own particular cadence. On slow days, when outside researchers made no requests and curators were away, she would leaf through the thick white leather volumes with their neatly detailed records of every single body, egg, nest and bone in the collection. She would read the entries aloud. They sounded like poems. She wonders if they still do.

Although there was never any question about coming home, it amazes her that she is not there but here, in a silly skirt in a cramped, cold dining room at the piano carted from above the fish shop, lusting after a hit of whiskey as she pretends to this kid, while her grandfather and his parrot hide out on the other side of the wall watching a wretched talk show with the sound off. As usual, she hasn’t had time to make dinner, so it will be cod cakes again. The freezer brought over from the fish shop is starting to show signs of empty. She’ll soon have to figure out how to cook things not from the sea. But not chicken. Not ever chicken. What do you call someone who eats anything but birds?

Parrot mutterings slip through the walls into the spaces between renewed piano thrashings. If Jenny notices, she’ll lift her hands and ask to meet him. But Jenny’s lost to her babel. She nods for Lucie to turn the page as though she’s actually on a page. Lucie complies. Why not live a little. Let ‘er rip, Jenny. Jenny lets ‘er rip. She’s having a blast. One of these days, Lucie knows, she’ll have to come clean with Jenny’s mother: I’m sorry, Mrs. Baker, but Jenny really should find another activity. She’s whip smart. How about chess? But if she told Mrs. Baker the truth, then she’d have to tell all the other parents, and that she cannot do.

Jenny is nearing the end of her riff. Great crashing chords rise up and she’s even standing up to add weight to her delivery. Bacchus is squawking from the other room. They could be playing an avant-garde duet for girl and bird. They could name it Torture Suite.

Plumage (Flight Lessons Interior)

For three months Lucie has waited to wake up and find herself back in the museum with eight-thousand-some odd species of tanager and owl and penguin and all the other two hundred plus bird families, including, yes, parrots. She has opened drawers lined with every kind of parrot under the sun, brilliant to dull, huge to tiny, hyacinth macaw to pygmy parrot; she has held many in her hands, even the kakapo. But she has never lived with one. The most startling thing in the early weeks was not her father’s absence or her brother’s disappearing act or her grandfather’s habits or even the piano. It was the parrot. He’s been here for more years than she is old, but growing up she never thought of him as a real bird. He spoke English, for godsakes, sat on her grandfather’s shoulder, pecked at his wispy hair, rasped the blues. That was no bird bird.

The parrot is forcing her to see the museum as a weird vault of silent, immobile bodies collected by humans who kill and study and arrange. When she catches Bacchus staring at her, it’s as though he has her number: she has actually liked sitting in a vast chamber filled with his kind, only dead and stuffed. What would Jenny think. Her grandfather. Liam. There’s a mean little corner of her that wishes the bird would keel over suddenly, dropping onto his back, feet up, eyes clouded. She could have him stuffed, lay him out with the other Greys, push the drawer shut.

Jack would understand. He’s sitting there right now on his stool in the Lepidopterology Department. An excellent draughtsman, he spends hours upon days staring through a large magnifier as he captures the details of the latest acquisitions to the butterfly and moth collections. She loved to walk in on him humming happily, lost to his work. She would watch the concentration in his narrow face and shoulders and wool-vested back until finally he would sense her there, look up and smile. She’d say, “Hey there, Papillon. What are you working on?” He’d reach his hand out to her, “Come take a look, Oiseau. Have you ever seen a Greta oto?”

When it was clear that she’d have to leave to care for her grandfather, she told Jack there was no point in attempting long distance. She half-hoped he would protest. But naturally he agreed. He specialized in short lifespans. What else was there to say? It’s one thing she learned from her mother: when you leave, just go. You can’t be two places at once. But to land back home? If they were in touch she would tell Jack that she is more boomerang than bird. He would laugh in that chest-clutching quiet way of his and nod.

Jenny is finally lifting her hands and looking over with eyes sprung wide. She touches the stars on her cheeks; she swings her feet; she returns to earth.

“Beautiful, Jenny, just beautiful,” Lucie says, her voice soft.

Her father keeled over from a massive heart attack while making early-morning coffee. Liam, asleep in his back room, didn’t hear him collapse to the floor. He wouldn’t find him until he was well past dead, clutching the little plastic coffee scoop, grounds dotting the floor. Next week would be his fifty-first birthday. He made it to fifty. Who dies at fifty? Not even African grey parrots.

She smiles at the absurdity of it all. Jenny thinks the smiling is about her. Lucie makes it about her and adds eyes to the smile. “Okay, great, let’s see what you’ve done with the scales this week.” She knows exactly what Jenny’s done with the scales this week. Not a thing.

Jenny raises an eyebrow at her as if to say, Seriously? Scales are so beside the point. I thought you knew that.

Because the kid is so damn herself, Lucie knows she should laugh and offer improv time instead of scales, what the hell, but Jenny has pried a shadowy something loose. She needs to put it back in its drawer if only she can find the right one. She leans over Jenny to reach the metronome, and turns it to a slow, tocking beat. “Start with the easy one. C.”

Jenny shrugs, rubs her hands together, blows on them as though for good luck, and then starts in again. Her mad smile lifts off. She’s playing fast and slow, fast and slow in the auditory equivalent of a 1950’s sci-fi spinning spiral illusion. She’s also adding sharps every once in a while just because. The black keys are cool, dummy, she’d say if asked.

On the other side of the wall, Lucie’s grandfather is clearing his throat. His talk show is over. The sun is dipping fast. He has things to tell her, things he has learned from the television and things he has told her before. In the meantime, as he has done every day at this time since she’s been back, he is carefully reaching for the big old phone on the wall, his crooked spotted fingers slowly pushing the numbered buttons. Sure enough, after a while his crackly voice climbs up through the woo-woo of Jenny noise and the tock tock of the metronome: “Hello? Hello? Liam?”

And then he goes quiet because Liam never answers. He’s in the middle of a tattoo. Or off to the mountains. Or doing anything but taking the daily call. Even though he still lives three streets away, above the fish shop, they rarely see him. He says soon he’ll come over to visit. Tomorrow. Next week. At first Lucie wanted to believe him. So he can stay in the old place while he gets his shit together, they’ve leased the shop downstairs to their father’s competitor. Really what Gramps wants to find out is if the bastard is selling any fish. Liam wouldn’t know anyway. He hates fish.

Bacchus is echoing the Hello Hello Liam Liam. Liam? The five o’clock train clanks by three streets away. Jenny is slowing down to play a perfect C scale with one finger dum dum dum dum dum in time with the parrot and the train and even the metronome. Pavanne for Girl, Bird, Old Man, Metronome & Train. Lucie glances out the window. The wind is on the rise, the light is yellowing and the leaves are falling from the poplars like finches.

“Okay! That’s good,” she says, claps her hands and stands up. “Now let’s talk about what you’re going to practice for next week.”

Jenny stops. Lucie waits. Gives her time to come back from wherever she has been. Maybe she’ll let her compose something to make up for this lousy lesson.

Finally, with a sweet smile up at Lucie, Jenny says, “Nothing. Not a thing.”

“Ha! Nothing? You sure?” Lucie cocks her head.

Jenny gives her a look she cannot read. The little stars are catching the light and glinting. Lucie catches a glimpse of herself at that age: lanky and goofy, a happy kid, she could have worn stars on her face. She feels a pang of affection. She says, “Love your cheeks, my little starling, but you really do need to practice if you want to make progress.”

Jenny, surprised, touches her face, feels the stars, starts peeling them off. “You want them?”

Lucie is surprised, too. “Oh no, but thanks. They’re so perfectly you.”

Jenny shrugs.

Into the awkward space Lucie says, “Okay. Let’s call “Long Long Ago” a wrap and move on to…” She’s about to say, “Red River Valley,” the next piece up, but really. Jenny is looking at her, waiting, a few stars left dotting her cheeks. Lucie draws a blank. “…’Red River Valley,’” she says finally with a whooshing of breath. She feels her own cheeks reddening. “After that, let’s ditch these old songs and get to some cool stuff. Scoot over and I’ll play it for you. It’s actually kind of a sweet tune. Bittersweet. Here listen: ‘ From this valley they say you are leaving. We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile…’”

Jenny stands up and stretches, pockets the peeled stars. She smiles that full gummy smile, scratches her belly. “Doesn’t matter. My mom says I can quit after today.” She gathers her piano books fanlike in her arms.

“She did what?” Lucie lets her hands fall away from the keys.

“Says I can quit. I quit. I stink at piano,” Jenny says and hugs the books. She looks at Lucie, her eyes friendly, curious. “My mom wonders why you’re even here.”

Gramps’s haw-haw laugh and Bacchus’s echoing refrain burst from behind the door. Lucie wants to laugh, too, feels it building inside, for no reason, the way it can.

Jenny drops her books on the dining table. “Can I meet the parrot? It’s my last chance.”

Without waiting for Lucie to answer, her grandfather cracks open the door enough to stick his scraggly head around it. His glasses are slipping down his narrow nose. He pushes halfway through the door. His flannel shirt is wrinkled and there’s a button missing, a faint stain. He loves that shirt. Bacchus, on his shoulder, peers in too. Gramps crinkles his face into a smile and says, “You’re a pistol! But you quit? You can’t quit. Even if you haven’t a goddamn clue about music.”

Lucie throws her hands up, stands and fusses with a pile of piano books.

“Sure I can,” says Jenny, delighted. “I just did.” She heads over to Gramps and Bacchus, where they’re still standing halfway in. Bacchus is shifting his weight from side to side on the old man’s bony hunched shoulder. Jenny shifts her weight with him.

Bacchus hollers, “Goddamn clue. Goddamn.”

“You do swear!!” Jenny hollers back. “Yay! Hey, Lucie, do you think a parrot can learn to play the piano? Have you ever tried to teach him? Could be fun. You could make a video.”

Lucie makes her face a question. Gramps snorts. Bacchus turns his head almost upside down and gives Jenny the eye.

Jenny reaches a hand out as though to touch him, but she waits, dangles her fingers in the air, statue-like.

Lucie says, “Watch out, he bites.” She half-hopes he will. Just a little nip. The kid just quit.

Bacchus tips his head down for Jenny.

“Ha!” Jenny says, “No he doesn’t, see?” She scratches his head gently and whistles “Long Long Ago” perfectly. Bacchus is relaxed. Gramps is enchanted. Lucie knows her own jaw is dropping.

The pistol has turned to Gramps. “Did you know, Mr. Jenkins, that the Norse God Odin had two ravens? Named them Huginn and Muninn — that means Thought and Memory in their language — and he sent them out to the corners of the world to learn everything there is to know. He was worried they wouldn’t come back. But they did! They always came back to whisper the world into his ear. Does Bacchus whisper the world into your ear?”

Gramps smiles bright dentures. “He sure does,” he says and gives a jaunty head waggle. “Don’t you, buddy?”

Bacchus fluffs his head feathers.

“Hahaha—that’s awesome! What do you say, Bacchus, can you give me four?”

Bacchus holds out a claw for her to tap.

“Woohoo, Bacchus! I like your name. Wouldn’t you like someone to whisper the world in your ear, Lucie?”

Lucie doesn’t know what to say. She really needs to get to the bathroom.

Gramps, with a quick glance over at her, says, “Did you know that Lucie is a bird expert? She knows every last thing about birds. More than anyone I should think.”

She has never heard him talk about her work. He smiles at her. He looks back at Jenny. He is holding himself tall. He runs his free hand over his tufty head in a way that hints at who he must have been as a young man. He might even be sucking in his gut.

Jenny is nodding, her mouth pursed, her hands on her hips. She looks at Lucie with a furrowed expression and then back at Gramps. They wait for what she’ll say next. Even Bacchus is quiet. Finally she says: “Did you know that celebrities clone their pets? Are you thinking of doing that, Mr. Jenkins? You know, when the time comes? Or will you get him stuffed? Can I hold him? I think getting him stuffed would be weird. My aunt has a stuffed owl in her bedroom. She says it’s her spirit animal. It’s really creepy. Is Bacchus your spirit animal? I think mine is a pine marten. Not a bird. But it can run through the treetops, like flying. Cool, huh? Does Bacchus get to fly around? Do you ever put him in a cage? Do you take him for walks? I’d be happy to be your bird walker if you like. Wouldn’t you like to fly?”

Lucie doesn’t know if the last question is directed to the bird or the humans. She feels a piercing sort of sorrow root around beneath her ribcage and catch at her breath as she looks out into the front yard and the street beyond. Spirit animals. She can’t get the picture out of her mind of Bacchus lying in one of her drawers. She put him there just a few minutes ago. And this kid has just quit.

A car horn beeps outside. It’s Jenny’s mother.

Jenny sighs and rubs at the stars on her face. She looks about for her books, picks them up. “I have so many questions but I have to go.”

Bacchus repeats, “Questions. So many. Questions.”

The questions flock around Lucie’s head. She should say something anything, goodbye.

Jenny turns to Lucie. “Let me know when you want to make a video. Oh, and my mother wants to know if you’ll come for dinner next Thursday. She’ll call you. Bye, everyone!” And with a wave and a wink, she is gone.

Her grandfather shakes his head. “Wow, what a kid… Do you think we could clone him? Is that even possible with a bird? I’m not having him stuffed. She’s right. That’s a shit idea.”

Lucie doesn’t answer. She still has no words. They have never talked about after, even in a slant way. Bacchus has a good ten more years in him. Her grandfather probably not. Even though she’s thought about it, she can’t quite imagine him gone. She has no idea how to care for a bird. Jack wouldn’t consider it. He doesn’t believe in pets. She didn’t either. Keep the wild in the wild, he’d say. Except when you’re pinning it to a board, you mean, she’d like to say back, or shutting it away in a drawer.

They go over to the front window as Jenny and her mother pull away. Jenny looks out from the back seat and gives a thumbs up. The kid just quit, yet Lucie finds herself thumbs-upping back.

Bacchus flies to his perch hanging across the next window and looks out. “What a kid!” he shouts. “A shit idea!”

She stares at the parrot for a long moment then walks over to where he is still bobbing up and down, even though the kid has gone. She feels her heart beating fast. He sidesteps from his swing onto her shoulder. He has never done this. She knows it is dangerous. He could go for her eye. She wills herself to stay calm as she feels his wiry feet clutching and the smooth hardness of his beak as he roots around in her hair.

Outside the first wave of afternoon crows fills the sky, not in a single orderly flock, but in packs of rowdy twos and threes and fours, gossiping and tumbling through the air as they head to their evening roost along the river. Billy Buxton is walking up the sidewalk, kicking at stones when he notices the crows and stops. He looks up into the sky at the black bodies winging past. He waves his piano books at the sky, dances a little crow-flapping dance, and shouts. Bacchus, thrilled, joins in, cawing loudly in her ear, before flying over to her grandfather in a puffed up show of feathers.

An image from childhood flashes at her: she and Liam are standing in the doorway of the fish shop, waiting for their parents to finish for the day. It must have been summer for it is hot and they are wearing shorts. It must have rained recently for there are puddles everywhere. They stare at the parking lot as the crows jostle and splash, so many that you can’t see the water or even the blacktop, until noisy and gleaming they take off with a great whooshing of wings, cracking the sky into uneven shards of blue. Liam reaches his arms wide to the sky. She lifts hers. She had forgotten.

Something flutters in her chest and rises. Billy Buxton is at the door.




Barbara Ganley’s fiction has recently appeared in Glimmer Train, Sonora Review and Prairie Schooner, and she is currently at work on a collection of short stories. As co-founder of Vermont Story Lab, she also helps nonprofits learn to tell their stories of change. She lives with her family snug inside a wildlife corridor where their neighbors are bobcats and bears and golden-winged warblers.

Interior Art: “Plumage” by Madara Mason

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