Issue No. 1, Summer 2012

Louie Crew

Unexpected Gifts
Kathy Stewart

Alice the Bird Lady filled the tower feeders with wild bird food for the second time that week and, closing the bulk bag tightly to discourage pests, she raised one hand to steady the silver feeder that dangled from a low maple branch.  She cherished her back yard as her private aviary, enclosed by tall, green arborvitae that served as an effective barrier against the outside noise.  It began one spring when Alvin had brought home a bright red hummingbird feeder and then had added a suet feeder that winter.  Afterwards, gradually and then suddenly, around the property she had added bluebird houses, wren houses, nesting shelves for robins and mourning doves, and a stately white condominium for purple martins.  Several pedestal bird baths, equipped with water heaters in winter, provided a year-round retreat for species that stayed and for those that returned to her care when the weather turned cold.  She and Alvin had shared a seat on the resin storage bench in the garden, bird watching together.  Inside it, she still stored binoculars, the notebook, and bird identification books.  Although she observed birds from here often, many of them trusting her as one of their own, she remained unable to open the notebook with her late husband’s written observations.  She avoided the feeling that rose in her throat when she recalled his lively penmanship that had never completely landed on the blue lines.

After Alice the Bird Lady had filled the feeders, she stretched on tiptoe to check the nesting box perched on a post.  She smiled at the season’s first brood of bluebirds.  Her grandchildren would love this, a rare site in the states where they lived; she would have to send them a photograph.  “Hello, little ones,” she cooed.  “Oh, how you’ve grown.”  The tiny bluebirds quivered, new and helpless, in the nesting box that Alice the Bird Lady had purchased online.

She understood that people in town called her Alice the Bird Lady because they thought she was obsessed with birds, preferring them over people.  She noticed neighbors pause before her house and point her out with a smirk.  She had overheard snatches of hushed comments, including words like “strange,” “recluse,” and “distant.”  She was unaware that the other reason they had renamed her was because she resembled a bird.  A retired nurse, she was a small, quick woman with thin legs, a tiny mouth and a nose that, though not large, resembled a beak.  She wore her hair, mixed gray and brown, short and feathered close to her head.

Yet, she never defended herself from their derision.  Alvin’s death had been sudden.  Not only had she missed the warning signs, but she had been unable to save him.  Afterwards, it became impossible for her to continue working as a nurse, so she retired.  However, with her grown children relocated and absorbed in the routines of career and family life, she found that the days became a silent, inactive child that she could not engage.  After nurturing everyone around her so well for so long, she realized that no one remained.  Hovering over the nesting box, Alice the Bird Lady comforted the hungry brood, their tiny beaks opening instantly, expecting no harm to ever touch them.

She straightened, suddenly stiff and stern, when she noticed just beyond the nesting boxes two faces side by side among the bushes.  They resembled garden ornaments except she believed that they had blinked.  She peered closer.  The faces of a tabby and a boy studied her.

“What are you doing?  Get out!”  She spat the words as if shooing away squirrels.  Wrens and chickadees scattered.  Equally startled, four eyes widened and the cat squirmed in the boy’s arms; it appeared to run in midair.  Then the boy lost his balance among the branches.  Both boy and feline tumbled forward with shrieks and snapping branches into Alice the Bird Lady’s yard and rolled to a stop at her feet.  She took one step back with her hands on her hips, and glared from boy to tabby and back again, as if trying to comprehend how it had happened.  Amazingly, boy and cat were still attached.  The boy’s arm remained wrapped around the cat’s chest, lifting up the two front paws as if in self-defense.  The boy, however, seemed unruffled.

“Whoa!” He bellowed, lifting himself off the ground.  “Didn’t expect that to happen!”

Alice the Bird Lady snorted and recoiled from the boy who lacked volume control and remorse for the intrusion.  “I don’t know you.  What do you mean by trespassing into my yard?”

“Mean?”  The boy wrinkled his nose.  A tuft of his hair stuck up in back.  “I wasn’t trying to be mean.  I just fell.”

Hadn’t this child’s parents taught him any manners?  Why was he shouting right in front of her?  Alice the Bird Lady crossed her arms and noticed the boy’s untied shoes; he had shoved the laces inside the shoes.  “Are you always so loud?”

Taking this as an invitation to chat, he lowered his cat to the ground.  It skedaddled before paws reached earth.  The boy, oblivious to being unwelcome, blurted, “Oh, I must be extra loud.  I threw my pill into the garbage this morning.”

“Your pill….  What?”

“Mommy said I definitely needed to get outside today.  Whoa!  Look at all this.”  He took off to explore the yard, a bird resort featuring an assortment of feeders, houses and baths in lovely gardens.  Alice the Bird Lady watched helplessly.  Having little experience with children anymore, she was unsure how to stop him or how to convince him to go home.  “No wonder they call you the Bird Lady!  Mommy calls me the Wild Child.  Hey look, oranges!  You sliced oranges for the feeder?”

She wondered if this child ever stopped talking.

“We had a bird feeder.  Then we got Sylvester.  Mommy said it’d never work.”  He started jumping as if to grab an orange slice.  “This is really high.  How high is this?  Could you put apples on it?

Alice’s head was spinning from the barrage of questions.  If he would pause to breathe, maybe she could answer.  “Stayawayfromthefeeder!”

He jumped once more and stopped.

She sighed and then noticed Sylvester scratching a defiant paw at the soil in her hummingbird garden next to the shed.  “Hey!”  She shouted and clapped her hands.  She was too late.

“Do you sit there to watch the birds?”  He shouted over his shoulder as he ran to the garden bench.  She followed him, feeling more tired than she’d felt in a long time.  “What’s this stuff for?”  He pulled out the binoculars and books.

Anxiety rose in her throat.  “Sit.  Stop talking.”  He crossed both hands over his mouth and watched her with big eyes.  Alice retrieved the binoculars and books, and said, “I’ll answer your questions if you stop rambling for a minute.  Cool your liver.”  He was silent briefly, considering this, until a giggle escaped through his dirty hands.  They sat on the garden bench.

“Now.”  She had perched on the edge and watched a few black-capped chickadees return to peck at fallen seeds in the grass until she calmed her breathing.  “What would you like to know about birds?”  Finally the boy was sitting and not grabbing anything.  Maybe if she answered a few questions to satisfy his curiosity, he would go home.

“Why do you like birds so much?  Why do you have all this stuff for birds?”

“Ah, I see.  Ask the crazy bird lady.”

“No… well… yeah.”  He squirmed in his seat and looked away.  “It’s not really weird to like birds.  I just wondered.”

He didn’t look convinced.  At least he’s honest, she thought, and definitely inquisitive.  “I like nature,” she began.  “Look at the trees and flowers here, the bright red, yellow and orange blooms.”  She pointed to various flower beds.  “Birds are attracted to these.  They need them to live.  The feeders give them food, and they have water for bathing and drinking.  The houses give them a safe place to nest.”

She glanced at him.  The boy inspected the yard thoughtfully.

“All of this works together.  I discover new birds and learn new things every day.  Most people aren’t that aware of their surroundings.”  He watched her intently now, absorbing her words like the earth takes in a soaking spring rain.  “So while people say, ‘Alice the Bird Lady is odd,’ I think I’m incredibly lucky to have this.”  Alice stopped, folded her hands in her lap.  Nature was such a complex, miraculous thing.  It amazed her that anyone could skate across the surface, never acknowledging the deeper mysteries.  “I think they are odd.”

The boy nodded.  “I like taking things apart.  Like Daddy’s camera.  He says I’m too rough with things.  I destroyed it.”

She visually checked the status of her binoculars.  “Well, I’m sure you didn’t break his camera on purpose.”

“No.”  He sounded defensive.  “I just wanna see how things work.  Staplers, flashlights, the kitchen clock.  Those cords that go to the computer.”

She felt a mix of sadness and hope for the boy.  She wondered if the Wild Child’s parents, despite their inevitable fatigue, could see beyond the pile of broken household items.  “Do you see those black-capped chickadees?  They are sweet, friendly birds.  If I sit very still with bird seed in my hand, they will eat right out of my hand.”

“Wow,” he said, impressed but distracted.  His eyes were shifting back to the shed.  “Is that a big butterfly?”

Alice chuckled when she spotted his butterfly sighting.  Despite its frenetic motion, she recognized the tiny bird’s shimmering green head and back, soft white feathers on its underside, and the tell-tale iridescent red throat.  “You are a fortunate young naturalist to witness a Ruby-throated Hummingbird’s visit.  A male.”  She opened an identification book to show him a picture and share more about the tiny bird that hovered around the hummingbird feeder, sipping nectar with its long, delicate beak.

Suddenly, the boy was yelling again.  This time, it was something about the cat.  “Sylvester, no!”  He jumped up, swinging his arms as if tormented by a flock of starlings.  When Alice looked up, she spotted Sylvester spring from the grass into the air.  As it approached the shed, paws swiped at the bird like a boxer.  Alice ran too, relieved that the cat had missed.  The tiny bird was too fast for the cat and had flown backwards to escape the predator.  Unfortunately, the hummingbird collided with the shed window and dropped to the ground.  The boy stomped his foot at the cat.  It darted through the bushes from where it had entered.

Alice and the boy stood looking down at the tiny bird lying at their feet in the mulch.  Neither said anything.

“Is he dead?”  The boy whispered finally.

“Yes, I think he is.  Unfortunately.  It’s a fragile, beautiful bird.”

He made a whimpering sound.  “Should we bury him?  Can we pick him up?”

Alice kneeled down, cradled the bird in the palm of her hand.  It was motionless, weightless.  The boy kneeled beside her.

“Look!”  The boy said.  “He’s still breathing!”  Indeed, the tiny chest rose and fell almost imperceptibly.  She didn’t want to raise his hopes though.  The chances of a hummingbird surviving both a devious cat and the impact of a window seemed slim.

“The hummingbird will probably die soon,” she said softly.  “I’m sorry.  But you can watch him.  People rarely observe a hummingbird this close.”

“I run into things all the time.  He’ll be okay.  Can I pet him?”

“Okay.  Feel how silky the feathers are?”  Green feathers glittered in the sunlight.  The boy moved gently and quietly as if attending a funeral.  He reached over to touch the tiny bird.  When he did, it grasped the boy’s finger, causing him to gasp and freeze in place.

“He’s still alive!”  He whispered.

Alice remained noncommittal, “For now, yes.”

“We have to save him!”  He insisted.  His eyes flashed intensely.

Alice wished she knew what to do.  It surprised her how much she didn’t want to disappoint the boy.  Yet, she was forced to admit that her knowledge was limited this time.  “I don’t know how.  It’s probably too late.”

“Try mouth to beak rescue-tation!”  He suggested.

She smiled, her mind racing.

“Rub his chest?  Call the vet?  Try something, Miss Alice.”

Alice was desperate for an idea.  She wasn’t used to flying by the seat of her pants to rescue half-dead birds while calming increasingly hysterical preschoolers.  “Okay, you rub his chest.  I’ll think.”  The boy seemed relieved to be helping somehow.  How do you save something so fragile and beautiful?

Then Alice spotted the hummingbird feeder.  “Let’s try something.  I can’t promise anything.”  She lifted the bird, still attached to the boy’s finger.  They looked like two EMTs lifting a tiny patient on a stretcher.  Carefully, she dipped its tiny beak into the nectar.

“He’s drinking!”  The boy fastened his eyes on the hummingbird as it took tiny sips, moving only its tongue.  When the hummingbird stopped sipping Alice’s ornithological IV, she kneeled again with bird and boy, and they waited.

Finally, the tiny bird stood in Alice’s hand.  Instantly, it was gone.  At first their breath caught, as if they had imagined the whole experience.

Alice and the young naturalist looked at each other, tossed back their heads, and they both laughed loudly.

Kathy Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, five children and newfoundland, Samson. She has an MA in English from Millersville University in PA and contributes feature articles regularly to local newspapers and publications in addition to writing fiction.

Louie Crew is an emeritus professor at Rutgers. Editors have published 2,191 of his manuscripts, including four poetry volumes. Follow his work at:
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The University of Michigan collects Crew’s papers.