The Bird Lady
Mrs. Marlar was chained to her ancientness. Her husband and all of her closest friends had died decades ago, and so wonderful had her past life been that she refused to take part in present-day society. The only human contacts she kept were her living children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, who visited her religiously every Sunday afternoon, and the grocery delivery man, who came every Friday. She was ninety-three years old but still fit enough to keep her own house, although not strong enough to work the garden. Since her delicate body could no longer plant new seeds every year- or perhaps because she did not want to see her flowers perennially dying- she had some years back decorated her garden bed with plastic flowers. Nevertheless, she watered these eternal flowers every morning, remarking to herself such things as “the daisies are coming up nicely” or “the tulips are wilting too early, poor things.”
Mrs. Marlar ate like a bird, and with her sharp angular nose and thin skin pulled tight over brittle little bones, she looked like one, too. The neighborhood boys, whose magnolia tree fort had a direct view of Mrs. Marlar’s backyard garden, spent a not-insignificant amount of their summers spying on her: her house and large backyard always figured prominently in their ever-changing plans for neighborhood conquest. The boys noticed her physical resemblance and in hushed tones referred to her as “The Bird Lady.” For her part, “The Bird Lady” was unaware that anyone in the outside world gave her such thought, and was also ignorant of her nickname. Yet she too thought of herself as a bird.
For their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, her husband had taken her to Europe. They traveled with a war buddy of her husband’s and his wife. The trip was the zenith of Mrs. Marlar’s- indeed, of all four’s- life. Against the backdrop of Parisian cafes and other beautiful European landscapes, the ladies talked contentedly of their families and what life was like in their respective small towns. The men, who had not seen each other since they served together under Patton, had until that trip been unable to talk about the war; but now, after revisiting the healed battlefields, something changed inside them and they took almost boyish delight in recounting anecdote after anecdote (their minds now able to filter out the humorous from the horrific). One of these stories involved how the two men, during the occupation of Vienna, had gone to the ancient imperial palace at Schönbrunn, on the grounds of which is the world’s oldest zoo. Mr. Marlar- Capt. Marlar- a little drunk with “liberated” German wine, had somehow managed to fall into the polar bear pool. The bears must not have been well-fed during the war, because he just barely made it out before being mauled.
The ladies just had to see where this took place, so during their stay in Vienna they visited the zoo. The polar bear exhibit was still there (albeit with better-fed bears), but that is not what Mrs. Marlar most remembered. The zoo also houses a species of white storks. Their wings have been clipped so that the birds cannot fly away; however, the birds must not be able to overcome their instinct, because they constantly flap their wings in a futile attempt at freedom. Now Mrs. Marlar, alone for so many years, spends her days wondering why she must wait so long to be reunited with her loved ones in heaven; now she thinks of herself- more with simple melancholy than bitterness- as one of those white storks.
Within a year of their trip to Europe, the Marlar’s youngest son, Jimmy, was drafted. He refused his parents’ pleading to use political pull to get him out of it, and within another year he lay dead in Vietnam. The Marlars had planted a “life tree” for each of the children in their backyard. For Jimmy, they had planted an oak tree. It had grown from an acorn into a perfectly straight tree; its lowest branches were strong enough to hold a swinging child, and it had almost reached acorn-producing age. After Jimmy’s death, Mr. Marlar insisted that Jimmy’s tree be removed. He hired some men to cut it down, but they left the stump. Mr. Marlar furiously cussed the workers- what is the point of cutting down a tree if you leave the roots? But they did not have the equipment to uproot the rest. However, before new workers could be hired, Mr. Marlar suffered a heart attack, and died. The Bird Lady, overcome with grief, left the stump, and never got around to uprooting it.
It was on this stump where, on a June day some thirty years after Jimmy’s and her husband’s deaths, Mrs. Marlar found the baby cardinal. He had fallen from his nest on a neighboring tree’s branch that stretched over the stump. His tiny, crinkled, monstrous body could not have hatched any more than a few days earlier. He lay, silently groping his beak for food that did not exist, in the center of the stump’s twenty concentric circles. Mrs. Marlar had just finished watering her flowers when she saw him. She was afraid to touch him, but more afraid to leave him to die. She called one of her grandsons, who was a veterinarian. Her grandson built a chicken wire fence around the stump (Mrs. Marlar had no pets, but there were stray cats in the neighborhood) and fashioned a bed out of kudzu leaves to keep the baby warm. He showed her how to feed the bird with a eye dropper, and told her that the cardinal’s parents would abandon the baby, but if she fed him everyday there was a chance he might survive.
And, to everyone’s surprise (including the neighborhood boys, who watched the progress from their fort) the cardinal survived. What was even more surprising was that the baby’s parents would help feed it: swooping down daily from their nest, they would gently place part of a worm in his mouth. Between the parents’ and Mrs. Marlar’s care, The Cardinal (Mrs. Marlar had begun calling the baby “The Cardinal”) grew- his feathers turned deep red and his beak went from producing nothing more than unconscious garbles to controlled song. A month passed, during which time The Cardinal learned to fly. The parents’ job was finished, and given the special circumstances, they could not make him leave the nest and find his own territory, so the couple flew away, leaving Mrs. Marlar’s backyard as his. The Cardinal could take care of himself, but was never too proud to accept food from Mrs. Marlar, who was proud to give it.
Mrs. Marlar said she felt better than she had in years, and started going to church again and even sat in at a game of bridge at the Country Club; but she still spent most of her time at home, where she and The Cardinal lived a life of companionship. In the mornings, he would perch upon her shoulder while she watered the flowers and she would tell him stories about her life. In the afternoons he would fly some, doing whatever birds do. And, like clockwork, at sunset every evening he would be waiting at Mrs. Marlar’s back door. Mrs. Marlar would let him in and he would fly to his kudzu nest, which Mrs. Marlar had moved onto her living room chest-of-drawers. Her family now visited several times a week, the great-grandchildren begging to touch The Cardinal, who in the eyes of all bore an almost regal appearance- his head held back, eyes surveying all, occasionally giving his opinion through a brief song. It was all, as Mrs. Marlar’s veterinarian grandson said, “The damndest thing I ever saw.”
For years, successive mothers in the neighborhood had told successive children: “You ought to go visit ol’ Mrs. Marlar; she’s all alone and I’m sure she would love the company.” None of the neighborhood boys had ever wanted to or had visited The Bird Lady- they sensed her solitude and did not see what good wasting an hour in a strange house would do. But when The Cardinal arrived, and the boys watched him magically fly and live with The Bird Lady, they all desperately wanted to go. However, they figured it wasn’t right for them all of a sudden to be nice to her just to be able to see her bird.
And so on a June day two years ago- a year after Mrs. Marlar found The Cardinal- the boys were debating whether or not to introduce themselves. In the heat of the argument they forgot their usual reserve and the whispered debate turned to near-shouts. It was then that Mrs. Marlar’s eye strayed to the magnolia tree, and for the first time she made out the shapes of boys through the leaves, spying upon her. How she had never noticed them is strange: Jimmy was the first neighborhood boy to use the tree as a fort, his initials carved upon the bark the first in a long, proud line of would-be conquerors. Mrs. Marlar, after conferring with The Cardinal, shouted “You boys get down from there.”
And so began the enchanted summer. Mrs. Marlar dug out all of her children’s’ old toys from the attic, and with the boys’ help they set up an elaborate maze of croquet games, which wound through the trees. A volleyball net was raised, and a ping-pong table placed beside the garden. The boys usually woke up around 9:00, which was good because that was the time Mrs. Marlar usually finished watering her garden. The boys would spend the hours before lunch playing croquet, and even Mrs. Marlar occasionally took a swing. All the while The Cardinal floated contentedly above- his song occasionally suspended to brief whistles; he was naturally the referee. At lunch the boys would either go home or eat the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and lemonade Mrs. Marlar made for them. After lunch the boys usually played volleyball, and Mrs. Marlar would watch while reading a book or looking at old photo albums. Sometimes when the boys were tired she would tell them stories from her life: Mrs. Marlar sitting in a picnic chair under the shade of one of the trees, The Cardinal forgoing his afternoon flight and resting upon her shoulder, and the boys huddling around her on the ground, forgetting for a moment their arguments and plans for adventure as they became swept up in tales from Mrs. Marlar’s past life. And thus the summer passed.
This is the story of The Bird Lady. I know it because I had been one of the boys who spied on “The Bird Lady;” and because it was during my little brother’s tenure in the magnolia fort when Mrs. Marlar once again learned to love life. I know this story because small Southern towns function like birds flying in ‘V’ formation: everyone knows the path of the other and is dependent on the others; or, as they say, “everybody knows everything about everyone else.”
It was the boys, my little brother among them, who found Mrs. Marlar. She lay dead beside Jimmy’s stump, her watering pot beside her hand. The Cardinal sat on her chest, and my brother swears he was crying. The ambulance took away Mrs. Marlar’s body. The Cardinal, comatose with grief, was placed upon the stump. Within a few hours he, too, was dead.
copyright, 1999, 2003, Matt Hedges
last updated 24-Apr-2003