They’re waiting for me when I wake up every morning, perched in the Yew tree where the feeders hang. I wonder if the neighbors notice their chatter.
“Of course they do,” she whisers. “No one likes the birds but you.”
“I don’t care,” I tell her, but it’s a lie.
She starts to speak, but a cardinal’s undulating song cuts her off.
I look up at the pear tree, bereft of leaves on this icy January day. “Thank you,” I say, searching for him. He bows his scarlet head in my direction.
She remains silent as I replenish the feeders, but not before shaking her fist at a dole of doves gathered on the ground. They retreat to the trees, an explosion of white and grey feathers, cooing their alarm.
“Jerk,” I say. “They’ll be back.”
The house finches begin to congregate, dozens of raspberry-breasted males and soft grey females that look like tiny clouds. She vanishes for a few weightless seconds as I watch them.
When this chore is done, I sit down to work. She sits beside me and whispers about longing and loneliness.
“How can you work when Ana’s gone?” she asks and I wonder the same thing. She changes shape, wrapping around me like a fog, rolling along the spine of my sadness until, weeping, I give up on work.
A flash of movement from my office window breaks her hold. The doves are back. They gather beneath the hoppers like chickens, tiny heads bobbing. There are goldfinches and house sparrows among them, each bird intent on the singular goal of filling their bellies with my gift of seed. I wipe the tears from my face and feel her stiffen with frustration, but before she can pull me back down into despair, I see a flash of red amid the grey sea of doves.
“Cardinal,” I whisper, smiling.
She curses and retreats. “Not for long,” she says.
She runs outside, changing shape as her feet hit the frozen lawn, becoming a lithe marmalade tom cat. The cardinal is oblivious.
“No!” I run outside, clapping my hands to scatter the birds.
“I’ll get one eventually,” she says. Her eyes are bright, expectant. I turn away from her, pretend I don’t care, but my heart feels heavy.
The starlings arrive as the daylight fades, filling the trees. Their chatter sounds like rain. The light fades as they flock, their dark bodies casting speckled shadows against the purpling sky. I watch, transfixed, wondering what it’s like to perch among the trees. I wish I could grow wings. I am staring at them when she comes.
“They’re so ugly, aren’t they?” she asks, her brow creased with worry. “Do you think they’ll chase all the good birds away? What if they damage your house?”
“They do that?” I ask, knowing I shouldn’t engage. Panic rises up from my stomach to my throat. I’ll have to take the feeders down!
“Yes,” she says and shakes her head. “It’s the only solution.”
“But then I won’t have the birds.”
“You’ll have me,” she says, touching my arm. A lump forms in my throat, but I don’t swallow it down. I let the tears flow, salty and cold, the starlings forgotten. She wraps her arms around me as I stand in the driveway, desolate, the birds forgotten.
The sweet trill of a white-throated sparrow breaks her hold. I step back.
“I’ll always have you,” I say. “With or without the birds. Can you watch them with me?“
She looks uncertain. “But you’re crazy to love them—a crazy bird lady. I’m the only thing that’s real.”
I surprise us both by laughing. “Listen to yourself! You can be so narcissistic and clingy.”
A spot of crimson blooms on each cheek and she looks down at her feet. “I know,” she says. We both begin to shiver.
We go inside. I stand at the window and count six cardinals in the tiny nectarine tree where the suet feeder hangs—three male and three female. She stands behind me, her breath hot on my neck. “You’re too close,” I tell her.
“That’s what everyone says,” she replies.
“It’s easier for you to get my attention now, but spring will be here soon.”
She shudders as she reads my thoughts. I’m thinking of the hummingbirds.
The hummingbirds are gone until April, but I know how to bring them home again. They’ll float through reality and make time stop. They are hope wrapped in joy, alive with the promise of nectar, but fragile and fleeting. Even now, they hover at the edges of my vision, not quite here or there. My world has changed now that I’ve learned how to see them.
She trembles and takes a step back.