“And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures and let birds fly above the earth across the firmament of the heavens.’ So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature with which waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.” Genesis 1:20-23
Phoebe believed in keeping life simple and predictable. It drove her crazy when she visited her sister June and preparations for every meal started hours ahead of time with a long discussion of when they should have it, what they should eat, and whether they should go out or eat at home. Phoebe had a schedule for her meals, starting with oatmeal in the morning, a variety of sandwiches for lunch (tuna on Fridays was her favorite), and a collection of about two dozen recipes for dinner which she could make easily and all of which provided a leftover meal. She allotted two evenings a month to visiting friends, although this was dwindling to once a month (and Phoebe did not particularly mind) as her aging companions moved away, stopped driving, or died (well, she did mind when they died). Phoebe went out to eat on days when she had medical or hairdresser appointments in the afternoon (once a year physical, twice a year to specialists for her eyes and thyroid, and four times a year for very short haircuts). Grocery shopping was on every other Friday, with stops at the general store in town for necessities on the alternate Fridays. She called June in Arizona every Wednesday evening, and visited every other Christmas. June laughed at her, but Phoebe’s schedules freed her up to think and do other things. Mostly it meant more time for being with her birds.
Rising with the birds was part of Phoebe’s strict routine. She read a novel and had her coffee in her bathrobe for an hour or so in the very early morning, and then dressed while the oatmeal was cooking. She had recently discovered that jogging suits were more comfortable and easier to wash than the slacks and cardigans she had worn for years. Phoebe had them in four bright colors which she rotated so that on any given laundry day (and she always did the laundry on Thursday) three of them were in the wash. By sunrise (and this, of course, varied by the season), Phoebe was sitting at her kitchen table, wearing her lime green, turquoise, pink, or navy jogging suit, finishing her oatmeal, and ready to watch her birds.
Birds were the one thing that could distract Phoebe. In her world of defined tasks and schedules, watching the birds sometimes ate up large portions of her time and could make her lunch late or cause her to forget that she had left the freezer defrosting. From her kitchen table, Phoebe could look through her sliding glass doors at her four feeders. In the summer she also had a station for the humming birds, but it was January now and the aggressive little ruby-throats would not be back until at least May. She missed them, but she had the wintering goldfinches, cardinals, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and sparrows to keep an eye on.
Her view was not as good as it could have been. When her feeders had increased avian activity in the backyard, she had the heartbreaking experience of watching the birds – the woodpeckers were the worst – fly into the sliding glass doors and break their necks. The glass was now sprinkled liberally with decals to prevent this. The ugly black and white decals (the Audubon Society said colored decals did not work as well) which broke up her view and affronted her aesthetics, but they were necessary. The birds sometimes still hit the glass, but less often now. It broke her heart every time she had to bury a bird. In the winter, of course, she could not dig in the garden to do this; but because she did not want to encourage the feral cats, she still quickly removed the almost weightless shells of the precious birds and placed them in a cake tin in the garage until the ground thawed.
The feeders were a relatively new aspect of Phoebe’s ordered life; she had not even started watching the birds until several years after she had retired. But when she had gone to Florida to stay with her fading widowed father in his last days, he had been worried about nothing as much as who would feed his birds. Drugged beyond caring what time it was or even who was sitting beside him, he would ask whether the birds had been fed. The feeders in the backyard of the old trailer on its little lot in a retirement community had been made by hand out of scraps of wood or old bleach containers. The seed was stored under the trailer and had been a source of vermin and consequent complaints by the neighbors. Phoebe had bought new bags of thistle and sunflower seeds so that she did not have to reach under into the dark space between trailer and red earth, and truthfully assured her father upon each request that the birds had been fed. It had taken her father almost three weeks to give up a hold on his world and his birds, and by then she was in the habit of feeding and watching the birds. When she came home after the cremation and memorial service, Phoebe went straight to the hardware store for feeders and seed.
It was not that easy, however. She had originally put the feeders on poles with squirrel guards underneath them, but in the winter it was hard to take her stool out in the ice and snow to reach and fill the feeders. On a visit on a couple of years ago, her niece’s husband had rigged up a clothes line from which the feeders could hang with the squirrel guards over the top. The line was on pulleys and Phoebe could stand on her deck and pull them in, fill them, and send them out again. There were four feeders – one for sunflower seeds with a large deck for the bigger birds, one for mixed seed, a sock for the suet which so pleased the woodpeckers and nuthatches, and a thistle feeder for the finches. The feeder for the hummingbirds was affixed to the kitchen window which she could also reach from the deck.
There were crises, of course. Occasionally a hawk would perch on the top branches of a nearby dead pine tree and make the feeders eerily quiet for hours. Once the feeders had been devastated by a bear at the end of hibernation season. Phoebe had never even found the sunflower and suet feeders, and she assumed that the suet sock had gotten imbibed with the suet (and she rather hoped it had given him severe indigestion). When she arrived at the hardware store for replacements, the owner told her that she shouldn’t put out feeders until the bears moved along and satisfied their winter hunger. Phoebe could not be without her birds. For a few weeks, she put out the feeders at dawn and took them in before bed.
Phoebe’s greatest joy, however, was just sitting at the kitchen table and watching the birds. In the good weather, she spent some time on the deck, but it was often too hot or too cold, and, in any case, it made the birds nervous. Watching the birds and stirring her coffee in the morning, she did not feel lonely; she did not feel that there was anything else she needed to do. Phoebe did not miss teaching; she had taught high school Latin, and there was so little demand for it at the end of her working life that she knew that the administrators were just waiting for her to retire in order to recoup her salary for the budget. She was grateful that they had not forced her out or asked her to teach other subjects, although she had been assigned to more than her share of study halls as her classes dwindled in size and number. She still read from some of her college Latin texts; Ovid’s Metamorphoses was her favorite. Sometimes she had it open in front of her as she watched the birds. Ovid did not have too many stories about the kinds of birds that she saw in her yard; his birds were rather more exotic – phoenixes rather than woodpeckers, swans rather than sparrows – but she did enjoy the old tales of gods, men, and animals. Did children read such stories any more? Sometimes in the old myths people were turned into birds as punishment – the Pierides were turned to cackling magpies because they thought they could sing better than the Muses. Ascalaphys was turned to a screech-owl because he tattled on Persephone. People were sometimes turned into birds so they could be with the one they loved; Ceyx and Alcyone became kingfishers so they could always be together. Most often, however, Ovid’s characters were metamorphosed into birds so they could escape from someone, often from one of their very own relatives. Perdix was changed into a partridge to save his life as his uncle Daedalus was throwing him off a cliff in a jealous rage over his nephew’s genius; Scylla was turned into a sea bird to escape her angry father. People were turned into birds more often than any other creature in the Metamorphoses; Phoebe thought that ancient people must have had the same fascination with birds that she had.
Other than Ovid, there were no books about birds on Phoebe’s kitchen table. Friends and relatives were constantly trying to be kind and giving her bird literature – field guides, bird-feeder manuals, books on birding and about birders – but Phoebe had no interest in the classification or science of birds by other people; it was simply the experience of the birds that captivated her. Phoebe got to know the characteristics of her birds the same way she had gotten to understand her students, just by watching them. Of course, she knew the common (and even the Latin) names of her regular birds, and if something more exotic turned up for a day or two, she could enjoy it without knowing whether it was a red crossbill (loxia curvirostra) or a pine grosbeak (pinicola enucleator). Friends had given her name to the local birding group, and they had called and put her on their mailing list. No one seemed to understand she was not interested in trekking through wet fields with a bunch of determined, competitive people (homo sapiens) so that she could check another species off her life list. Phoebe was only interested in her birds.
In fact, the more that Phoebe understood her birds and the more she loved them, the less she cared to understand people. When her niece would come for coffee and Phoebe’s prized almond coffee cake on Saturday mornings, the old woman would sit at the kitchen table with Jessica and project herself out of the glass doors and among the birds. Jessica would rattle away about her job (loved the work, hated the boss), her kids (drove her crazy but better than anyone else’s), and her husband (drove her crazy). Phoebe realized that her distraction was causing Jessica to fret about her aunt’s hearing (“Did you hear what I said”), about her mental capacities (“do you understand what I mean?”), and about her ability to take care of herself (“I worry about you”). Jessica was increasingly perplexed, but Phoebe could not bring herself to care what Jessica thought, and even wished that she did not visit so often. Her loud comings and goings frightened all but the feasting goldfinches. Phoebe stopped making the almond coffee cake in order to discourage such frequent visits, but Jessica took to stopping at the bakery on her way to her aunt’s house, bringing muffins and pastry that would be shredded and put out for the birds the next day.
Phoebe’s pastor also could not be discouraged. Phoebe had never been a regular church attendee and she had not stepped foot in the faded white eighteenth-century structure in years; she belonged to the Congregational Church in the way that people in small towns do. She did make a yearly contribution, however – more for the sake of the building than the congregation or the pastor, but Reverend MacKinnon just kept showing up and asking people to call her to see if she wanted a ride to church. “What for?” she had hooted at the last solicitous voice to call and offer to pick her up for services. No congregant called more than once. Nevertheless, within a few days the doorbell would ring and she was again making tea for the thin and nervous vicar of God. She used to entertain him in her dark and unused parlor, but after a while she started just plopping his teacup down on the kitchen table in front of the glass doors so she would watch the feeders while she waited for him to leave. He always commented on the birds in the backyard, but then felt compelled to relate them to the life of St. Francis or the Gospel of Luke (“Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?”). As with Jessica, Phoebe became more and more distracted during Reverend MacKinnon’s pastoral calls. It was not that she did not hear what he said; she simply felt no need to respond. In fact, she understood him perfectly and read through the nuances of his comments about her condition and family connections to slowly realize that he and Jessica were most assuredly talking to each other – even though Jessica belonged to another church.
But Phoebe was quite sure that she was not going senile; she felt as happy and contented as she had ever been and never even thought about the past. Phoebe knew that some of her friends of the same age retreated from life by dwelling on their own childhoods. They idealized their early years, the Garden of Eden of their innocence, and even their dead husbands – husbands whom Phoebe remembered and who had assuredly been far from ideal. Phoebe realized fully enough that her own childhood was no Garden of Eden. She had gone through one bout of psychoanalysis when she was in her thirties, and had relived those early years in painful detail, an experience which she had no desire to repeat. She had gone through a period when she had had regrets – about no husband, no children, a long teaching career but a lack of grateful students – but now she was glad to have no expectations or obligations in her old age. Most old people she knew complained endlessly that their children and other relatives did not visit often enough. Were they happier than she was? So far, her birds had come every day. They had never failed her or asked for more than she could give.
Meanwhile, she spent more and more of her time with her birds. She had a pair of small but powerful binoculars that she kept on the table; she used them so often that she often had circular red rings around her eyes where the rubber on the eyepieces rubbed against skin that was no longer resilient. With the magnification, she could look right into the faces of those birds that would stand still long enough for her to focus. Finches were good for this, as was the rose-breasted grosbeak which tended to sit on the edge of the feeder for long periods of times. Chickadees and nuthatches were too fretful, and woodpeckers were always looking directly at the suet. With her binoculars in place, she felt that she was out in the open air with these free and beautiful creatures. She felt a bond with her small birds that she did not feel with Jessica or anyone. They took her out the window to another place. She realized that not only did she not have any use for the rest of humanity, but she wished they would respect her privacy. Phoebe did not think it was misanthropy; she did not hate other people – at least as long as they left her alone.
But they were not going to leave her alone. The more she wanted them to do so, the more convinced the people in her life became that there was something wrong with her. In her better moods, Phoebe smiled at the irony of it. If she demanded their attention, inflicted herself upon their lives, called constantly and kept them on the telephone for hours, they would be annoyed but consider her a normal old lady. She remembered letting her own phone ring at times when her mother was living alone in Florida just to have enough peace and quiet to eat her dinner in after a hectic day with her high school students. But her desire to be alone was not to be honored. We are creatures of the flock, she often thought. We are starlings, crows, and cedar waxwings and have no truck with the lone bird.
Phoebe continued to resist increasingly frequent entreaties from her niece and friends to enter an assisted living complex, elderly housing, or a rented condominium closer to town. Phoebe was going to stay here with her birds, and she was wise enough to know that as long as she remained healthy and did not indulge in outrageous behavior, there was little anyone could do to move her. Her behavior was firmly under her control, her house was clean, she was fastidious about paying bills and keeping doctor’s appointments. She ate well, took her vitamins, and tried not to venture out in bad weather, but she still worried about her health. Worse than assisted living would be the hospital or the nursing home, shut away from her life, her birds. If she got sick or hurt, she would lose control; they would force her away from her birds, they would put her in a cage with a flock of strange birds and she would die. Phoebe had to take care of herself.
All had gone along in this way for several years. In the fall, the migrating birds disappeared to winter with equal numbers of human retirees, and the feeders were left with their winter sparrows, goldfinches (drab as sparrows in their winter clothes), chickadees, titmice, juncos, and woodpeckers. This winter had been amazingly mild; filling the feeders had been no problem. But today the warm weather had suddenly led to an ice storm, as dropping temperatures turned a warm drizzle into heavy coatings of ice. Ice storms were bad times for birds, and the feeders became so thick with fluttering wings and bobbing tails that the seed disappeared quickly. Jessica’s husband had left Phoebe a bucket of salt and sand which she kept outside of the sliding glass doors and it had worked well up until now. The ice storm, however, came in accompanied by an extreme arctic front and the sand did little to melt the ice. And the worse it got, the hungrier the birds seemed to become.
Phoebe was worried, but felt somewhat silly in her anxiety as she did not even have to leave her deck to fill the feeders. She pulled on her crepe-soled boots, put an extra coat over her parka (more for padding in case of a fall than for warmth), shoved small bags of seed into her pockets so that her hands would be free, reached out and spread some more sand with the rusty coffee can sticking out of the bucket, and set out to the deck to bring her feeders in by pulling the line through the pulley.
It was not that easy. The pulley had become encased in ice and no matter how hard Phoebe pulled and twisted, the line would not budge. Not only was the pulley iced up, but there was at least a half-inch of ice on the line, and it probably would not go through the mechanism even if she was lucky enough to free up the pulley with hot water or her blow dryer – the two alternatives she quickly considered and rejected.
Phoebe made her way back into the house, closed the sliding door, and collapsed into a kitchen chair without removing her coats, hat, or shoes. She could see that the feeders were almost empty and had been again surrounded by birds within seconds of her closing the door. She could call Jessica, but that certainly would be seen as batty behavior – particularly on a day when the roads were so icy the school systems were closed. She could just open the back door and throw seed out on the deck – and she did that – but there are some birds that are not ground feeders. Phoebe decided to make a pot of tea and think about it.
After a pot of tea and a slice of toast, nothing had changed, except that the feeders were now empty and what was left of the seed she had thrown on the ground was now encased in ice. There were few things in her life she ever felt that she had to do, but Phoebe needed to fill those feeders. She put back on her layers of clothing, got the step-ladder out of the cellar, and filled her pockets again with bags of seed. She gingerly eased herself and the ladder out of the sliding door, being careful not to lock it. The rain and sleet were falling even harder now, and freezing on contact. Phoebe used the small stepladder as a walker and managed to get out under the feeders with only one minor fall. As she opened up the ladder to use it, she realized that it was already getting encrusted with ice and she had better hurry. She got one feeder filled and was able to reach another without moving her ladder, but it was a slow process. Her glasses, which had steamed up at first, were now encrusting with ice. She saw that there was some suet left, and concluded that the finches would use the other feeders if necessary, and so gave up on trying to reach the thistle tube. Phoebe abandoned the step ladder, got on her hands and knees, and crawled toward the deck and sliding door. When she reached the door, she pulled herself up by the handle, congratulating herself that she had accomplished her goal.
But she could not move the door. She was sure that she had left it unlocked, but apparently the mechanism had frozen up, or perhaps the encrusted iced had sealed it shut in some way. Phoebe slumped back down to the ground and sat with her back to the door. It was no good yelling for help; the nearest house was at least a quarter-mile away, and no one would hear her in this weather. In any case, if she yelled it would scare away the birds that were already gathering at the refilled feeders. Phoebe did not know what to do, so she simply watched the birds – who seemed oblivious to her presence.
Jessica tried to reach her aunt after supper and got no answer. Had someone invited the old woman out in this weather? She tried every hour until nine, and then every fifteen minutes until midnight, when she called the police. The dispatcher said that the crew was overwhelmed with the storm – power lines were down all over and there were a number of accidents – but they would try to check it out. And was she sure no one came to get her aunt before the storm? An officer called back about an hour later and said he got no response when he stopped by the house, although the car was in the garage. He told her there had been one light on inside, but other than that all looked normal. Jessica tried to launch into the story of how she had tried to get Aunt Phoebe to go into assisted living, but the officer cut her off. He felt there was little that could be done until morning, but if they did not hear from her aunt by daybreak, he would meet Jessica at the house. Meanwhile, he told her to call anyone who might have seen or talked to the old woman.
Jessica and the tired officer were at the house just as the orange sun hit the crystal wonderland that had been created by the previous day’s storm. Jessica was overwrought after a sleepless night, multiple calls to the police dispatcher, and too much coffee.
“When we find that woman, she’s going straight home with me until they can get her into Meadowlark Village,” she informed the poor officer in a tone that seemed to threaten him as much as it did the absent aunt that she purported to be so worried about.
They knocked and then used Jessica’s key to get in. No sign of Phoebe, no sign that she had packed to go away. Her teacup was still on the table and there were dishes in the sink. The lid was off the birdseed in the pantry, something Phoebe never would have been negligent about in this old mouse-ridden house. Jessica looked out the back to see if perhaps Phoebe had fallen filling the feeders, but the only unusual things were the ice-encrusted stepladder and a small grey bird, which had apparently broken its neck flying into the glass doors. Jessica didn’t know what it was, but the officer said he thought maybe it was a titmouse.
“Aunt Phoebe would have known what kind it was,” Jessica said in an exasperated voice. “And she would have been very upset about it.”