The house finch has a red head and breast. There are three on the feeder this morning, little bursts of crimson between a frenzy of brown—chickadees and sparrows, boring birds, or so I thought. Over a few weeks of observation, I have come to notice their intricacies. Speckled faces, multihued feathers, a blending of chestnut, almond, walnut browns. Birds like a bowl of mixed nuts on a bartop. I envy their gathering, circled around the tray of birdseed like a group of friends sharing a pitcher of margaritas and a basket of chips. I imagine their conversations.
This one complains that her husband never changes the toilet paper roll. Another says, you’re lucky, her husband doesn’t even know how to do laundry. So teach him, a third says, show him how to fish, but the first bird only shrugs. You can’t teach a man something he doesn’t want to learn. They are all tired of their children. They love them, of course. Of course they love them. The light of their lives. But this one’s kids won’t shut up. All day yammering, yammering. A zillion questions. Yes! All the birds agree. So many questions. Another one’s kid still hasn’t learned to read. It’s fine, she says. We’re not worried. It’s fine. She says it one too many times, so the rest of the birds know it’s definitely not fine, but they nod warmly. Every bird has its own strengths, they say. Timelines are arbitrary, they all agree, each one thinking, thank god that’s not my kid. Each one thinking it could never be their kid. Each one silently patting themselves on the back.
One bird wants to leave her partner. Another’s been having an affair with a coworker. One is waiting on the results of a biopsy. They don’t share these stories with the group, though they want to. Tell me what to do, they want to say. Tell me I am bold. Tell me it’s okay. They ignore the painful truths thumping beneath their ribs and refill their margarita glasses, except for biopsy bird who isn’t drinking. When she leaves early the rest of the birds will say I’ll bet she’s pregnant. She must be pregnant. Oh, she’s definitely pregnant. They’re too young to think of dying, though each one says old, and barks a laugh when asked how she’s feeling. They have lost loves and babies. Parents and dreams, gone too soon. But they can picture themselves twenty, thirty years from now: the same flock, still gathering. These stupid birds, who can’t see the cells metastasizing. Who don’t know it’s already too late.
One bird will ask, what does that mean, Stage Four? One bird will set up a meal train. If you can’t come to the feeder, we’ll bring the feeder to you. One bird will bring fresh flowers each time she visits. Replace the drooping tulips with cotton ball peonies, then perky daisies, then brilliant dahlias. Dump the fetid water from the vase. Say, there, that brightens things up a bit, as she sets the vase back on the nightstand. All the birds will say: you’ll beat this, you’ve got this, you’ve always been a fighter. They’ll make plans, talk about this summer, next year, when the kids are older. None of them will say: you’re dying, you’re dying, you’re almost gone. One bird will come and rub the dying bird’s sore, wilting legs. Kiss her on the cheek. Say, I’ll see you next week. She’ll be in the checkout line at the grocery store when her phone buzzes. She’ll let it go to voicemail. She’ll think, I’ll call her back, but she’ll get busy and forget and when she remembers, the dying bird won’t answer. Will never answer. I was in the grocery store, she’ll tell the other birds and they’ll hug her to their breasts. We know, we know, they’ll say. I was checking out. She’ll repeat it, again and again. It’s okay, they’ll lie, it’s okay.
Even the smallest movement startles the birds on the feeder. I take a sip of coffee and they panic. The sparrows and chickadees, all three house finches—a flurry of brown with a spark of red. They scatter in all directions without saying goodbye.
Claire Taylor is a writer in Baltimore, MD. Her micro-chapbook, A History of Rats, is part of the Ghost City Press 2021 Summer Series. You can find Claire online at clairemtaylor.com and Twitter @ClaireM_Taylor.