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Winter Birds

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Winter Birds

  Winter Birds

  Jamie Langston Turner

  © 2006 by Jamie Langston Turner

  Published by Bethany House Publishers

  11400 Hampshire Avenue South

  Bloomington, Minnesota 55438


  Bethany House Publishers is a division of

  Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan


  Ebook edition created 2012

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.

  ISBN 978-1-4412-6124-3

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Quoted material from Time magazine used by permission.

  Scripture quotations are from the King James Version of the Bible.

  Cover design by Lookout Design Group, Inc.

  “Turner [is] one of the best writers in the Christian market.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “Turner [proves] that a faithful Christian witness can come packaged in a quality novel.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  With gratitude and love


  (May 11, 1921-January 6, 2004)

  Daily I see your tender heart, your ready

  smile, your strong faith, your love of

  music, your pleasure in a job well done,

  your sense of humor.



  (b. November 27, 1918)

  Daily I see your standards of excellence,

  your attention to detail, your reverence

  for God’s Word, your willingness to

  sacrifice for those you love.

  Daily I see you both in your son Daniel,

  my husband, and for your great gift to

  me, I thank you.



  Title Page

  Copyright Page



  1. Conscience Is But a Word That Cowards Use

  2. The Whirligig of Time Brings in His Revenges

  3. To Dive Into the Fire, to Ride on the Curled Clouds

  4. Some Meteor That the Sun Exhales

  5. The Wide World and All Her Fading Sweets

  6. Vowing More Than the Perfection of Ten

  7. A Foul and Pestilent Congregation of Vapors

  8. As the Gentle Rain From Heaven

  9. Against the Stormy Gusts of Winter’s Day

  10. Honor Is a Mere Scutcheon

  11. So Strong a Prop to Support So Weak a Burden

  12. Men Must Endure Their Going Hence

  13. Wipe Off the Dust That Hides Our Scepter’s Gilt

  14. Second Childishness and Mere Oblivion

  15. A Tattered Weed, of Small Worth Held

  16. Like a Rich Armor, Worn in Heat of Day

  17. O Tiger’s Heart Wrapped in a Woman’s Hide

  18. Now, Music, Sound, and Sing Your Solemn Hymn

  19. Like a Fair House Built on Another Man’s Ground

  20. And Therefore Is Winged Cupid Painted Blind

  21. And When He Falls, He Falls Like Lucifer

  22. A Tide in the Affairs of Men

  23. What’s Gone and What’s Past Help

  24. Trifles Light As Air

  25. That Makes These Odds All Even

  26. The Web of Our Life Is of a Mingled Yarn

  27. Home Art Gone and Taken Thy Wages

  28. To Feed on Such Sweet Honey, and Kill the Bees

  29. To Burn This Night With Torches

  30. Stones Have Been Known to Move

  31. The Thread of His Verbosity

  32. No Other Tribute at Thy Hands

  33. My Gracious Silence, Hail!

  About the Author

  Other Books by Author

  Back Cover

  After so long grief, such felicity!


  Chapter 1

  Conscience Is But a Word That Cowards Use

  The pine warbler eats its neighbors in the pine tree—insects and spiders—as well as seeds and berries. As it creeps over the bark of the tree, the warbler’s olive green and yellow plumage sometimes becomes stained with pine resin.

  Rachel comes to take my dishes. I watch her move slowly and silently. I have cleaned my plate tonight, have used my biscuit to polish its surface. The dish is one Rachel makes from an old recipe card titled Irma’s Beef Dinner. The card is worn around the edges and splattered with tomato sauce and onion soup. Rachel doesn’t know who Irma is, she has told me, and she doesn’t remember how she came by the recipe card. Rachel may be excused from remembering such details.

  As for me, perhaps I may be excused from remembering details, also. I have been young, but now I am old. That is the usual course, though I have often dreamed of how it would be to say I have been old and now I am young, to implant my old mind into my youthful body of fifty or sixty years ago. I would even trim it to twenty or thirty if someone were granting favors. Or ten.

  In matters of money I have been poor, and now I am rich. I have often considered how it might have been had my youth intersected at some point with my wealth. But I have no time for dreams now, nor for regrets. I have had plenty of both in my life, as any other man or woman, but I give my attention now to staying alive. It is an endeavor at which I continue to toil in spite of its many inscrutabilities, for to give it up would be to yield to nothingness, an enemy I am not eager to confront.

  I am in the cold season of life, and the words that come to mind as I rise in the morning are these: “Now is the winter of our discontent.” I borrow them from John Steinbeck, a fellow American, who lifted them from Shakespeare, who put them into the mouth of the Duke of Gloucester, also known as Richard III. Though I am hardly the villain Richard III was, I am no saint. Though I have not murdered, I have used words to maim and destroy. Though I repudiate the notion of conscience, as did Richard, I do not rest easy at night. Often when I wake in the morning, it is after few hours of troubled sleep. I cannot sleep long for fear that I will let go of living. Rather a winter of discontent than no winter at all.

  By day birds flock to my window. I watch them feed, sometimes companionably, two or three different species at the same feeder, and sometimes singly, pecking quickly, nervously, darting glances to yard and sky for unwelcome company. I monitor the feeder for squirrels, which devise crafty methods of mounting it. If tapping on my window fails to scare them off, I open the window. I also have a small-caliber handgun, which I know how to use. Squirrels, however, are not intimidated by the sight of a gun, and I would never fire it for risk of damage to the bird feeder.

  Birds never interested me before this, the winter of our discontent. I was sometimes diverted by other things, but never birds. Even now I know little of them except what I observe through my window and what I read in my Book of North American Birds, a large but overly generalized collection of short summaries describing six hundred different species of birds, each page also boasting an artist’s rendering, in color, of the featured bird. This worthy volume was compiled by the editors of Reader’s Digest, a body of persons whose aim is knowledge rather than understanding. It was presented to me by my nephew Patrick, who, with his wife, Rachel, shares with me the winter of our discontent.

  Because of Patrick and Rachel, I do not have to modify the phrase to make it singular: “the winter of my discontent.” Truly, it is the winter of our collective discontent, though Patrick and Rache
l try to hide it and though at the end of it they will receive a reward to compensate for the trouble of wintering me. It is a winter barely begun, for I have been here only four weeks. By the calendar, a week into November, it is shy of literal winter by six weeks. “Short winters” is a description misapplied to Mississippi by those who know nothing of the South. We natives know how long these short winters can be.

  A cantankerous old woman is never so annoying as when she is in some way related to you, and if you are strapped with her, overseer of her care, recipient of her complaints, then she may be a burden past telling. I know this. Before I lived here, before I myself qualified as a burden, I knew this, for I was my mother’s keeper for five months before she died of irritability, a condition that had started in her bowel years earlier but metastasized to her mind and behavior by the end. Throughout my life I have been told that I am like my mother in many ways except in looks. My mother was a great beauty in her youth.

  A difficult old woman may be entertaining if you are not responsible for her upkeep. Such a termagant lived in my mother’s boardinghouse when I was a child. I used to delight in Mrs. Beadle’s nasty temper, the tactless things she said about the meals my mother prepared, the way she upbraided the postman, whom she accused of withholding letters from her and whom she regularly threatened to sue in a court of law.

  One day I was hiding behind the spirea bush at the corner of the house, spying on Mrs. Beadle as she sat on the front porch. She was muttering to herself and working her jaw in a way I found both freakish and fascinating. Between mutterings she would pucker her mouth, then push her tongue out and let the tip of it move about slowly, like a mollusk venturing from its shell, testing the air for danger. I must have laughed, for she turned and saw me. Before I could flee, she had pronounced me an ugly, spiteful child with the look of a bow-legged, mangy dog, at which point I ceased to delight in her. It was Mrs. Beadle who first apprised me of the fact that I was not an attractive child. My parents and sisters had kept it from me. After that, whenever I looked into a mirror, I marveled that I had not seen it for myself, that it had taken a peculiar old woman like Mrs. Beadle to point it out.

  This I also share with Richard III. As he was small of stature, ill-featured, distrustful, and fidgety, so am I. Though not truly a hunchback, I am crooked, one shoulder being higher than the other. This defect I saw for myself when I began to examine photographs after Mrs. Beadle’s pronouncement of my ugliness. After this I could adjust my stance to correct the fault when I remembered. Now I do not care. The fact that I stand off-center is the least of my worries. That I limp when I walk is likewise of no concern.

  Imagine two pretty, graceful hands shaping a mud pie. I am the mud pie, my sisters the hands. Or two flowering dogwood trees with a little stunted ginkgo growing between them. I am the ginkgo. Smell the fruit of a ginkgo sometime for a full appreciation of the analogy. Or a common field sparrow occupying a nest with two golden-winged warblers. I am the sparrow. But the hands have fallen silent and the dogwoods ceased flowering. The sparrow has outlived the warblers. My bird book tells me that the female field sparrow does not sing.

  My care is a responsibility that Patrick has taken upon himself willingly, though, as in most duties, with insufficient understanding of what it will entail. Tall mountains always look surmountable from a distance, but once the arduous upward trek commences, the peak is nowhere to be seen. There are ruts and thorny weeds along the path, sometimes only sheer wall with no path at all.

  Patrick was chosen, along with his wife, Rachel, from among five applicants to house me during the winter of our discontent. I interviewed each of the five—two nephews, two nieces, and one great-niece—and selected Patrick. I was honest with all five, to a point, stating the simple terms of the trade: my money for their food and shelter. The food and shelter would come now, the bulk of the money later. Perhaps I led them to believe there would be more money at the end than there will be. I suffer no distress of conscience because of this. “Conscience is but a word that cowards use,” as King Richard put it. There will be money enough, certainly more than Patrick has ever had.

  I had the foresight to arrange for my winter before autumn had ended, though the flutterings of my heart spoke urgently of leaves falling rapidly. My mother died at eighty-six, my sisters at seventy-nine and seventy-five. At eighty I knew I must not delay. The branches of the tree were nearly bare. My method: I sent letters to nine people, family and acquaintances, five of whom responded to apply as Providers of Winter Hospice for Sophia Marie Langham Hess.

  In the letter I laid out the terms of my care. I stated my reasonable expectation to die within a year, two or three at the most. I did not state my intention to resist this expectation. Those reading the letter could have concluded that I had no fear of meeting my end, that I was ready to yield, that their part would be easy.

  During the past summer I traveled from my home in Kentucky to visit each of the five respondents, ten days in each home, with a suitable interval for rest between each trip. This took the entire summer, after which I announced my decision. All travel arrangements were furnished by the applicants, as stipulated in the letter. I would not negotiate airports alone.

  In each home I looked at the accommodations with an eye to light and privacy more than to space and luxury. I would not spend my winter in darkness nor in the hub of chaos. I wanted many windows but few doors, though I did not state these requirements in the letter.

  As for privacy, I saw the necessity for interior access to my quarters, but I wanted a solid door with a bolt on my side. That is not to say that I wanted absolute quiet, however. I wanted to hear convincing evidence of living on the other side of my walls. One home I eliminated because, among other reasons, it was too quiet. My great-niece Adrienne offered me an entire apartment in what she called her “deluxe townhouse” in Jackson, in a private community with iron gates and a guardhouse, but for the ten days I was there, I felt as if I were in a vacuum-sealed vault. Adrienne was away all day in an office downtown. Her maid fed me breakfast and lunch, then left at one o’clock. I had a phone number and a television for the long afternoons and evenings.

  I can tolerate a great deal of noise. I am not deaf, although because I sometimes choose not to reply, people often assume wrongly that I am. I do not take pains to relieve them of this misconception. I have learned to turn to my advantage such misconceptions. They may serve to gather useful information, as in the case of Adrienne.

  “Oh, I’ll get a system worked out,” I heard her say to a man in her kitchen late one night, a man she called Roger. “The food part will be easy,” she said. “I gave her a Lean Cuisine tonight—put it all on a plate, and she thought I’d made it.”

  Young people are forever overestimating their cleverness. I had seen the frozen dinners in her freezer. While she was at work that very day, I had explored her house.

  Roger said something, and she laughed. “Don’t worry, she’d never figure it out. She’s deaf as a fencepost. Besides, she probably wouldn’t care. She had plenty of boyfriends in her day.” Obviously, Adrienne had mixed me up with my sisters. I had friends but never a boyfriend, not until a short, bearded man became charmed by my typing skills, which I faithfully exercised on his behalf through numerous lengthy articles for scholarly journals and papers to be presented at conferences. He rewarded me at last by marrying me.

  I heard Roger’s car leave Adrienne’s driveway the next morning before eight. I wondered what attracted him to Adrienne, who was severely thin with a square jaw and a garish blond streak in her short black hair. I had also heard her say of me, “She’s loaded.” Maybe Roger was interested in sharing the profit. She left for work soon after he did, and I counted on my fingers the number of days I had been in her house, sorry that I still had four to go. When I heard the maid arrive, I turned up the volume on the television and waited for her to pound on my door.

  “Dolly here to clean!” was how she announced herself. She always sounded angry. I won
dered what Adrienne had told her about me, if anything. The routine was unvarying. First Dolly set a plate of food on the large ottoman, then a glass of orange juice on the table beside it. The menu was not creative—a single fried egg, a piece of toast, a slice of bacon. I was never consulted as to preferences. As I ate, Dolly moved about the apartment, never speaking, never glancing at me. She made no noise with her feather duster and Windex. She was short and round like me. Perhaps she avoided looking at me because she did not want to see how a short round woman looks when she gets old.

  My only view through the windows of Adrienne’s apartment revealed other luxury townhouses on every side. A patio and garden in the rear were enclosed by a high fence of bleached wood. Adrienne had filled a shelf in the guest apartment with books, had left a large volume of Shakespeare on the mahogany table beside the sofa. Like others in my family, she imagined I was an intellectual, had heard the rumor, which I do nothing to dispel, that I had lectured on Shakespeare in my days of university teaching. Many people do not realize how much information one can pick up secondhand and pass off as his own, how narrow his understanding may be of things he references with apparent ease. A person can feed the assumptions of others by affecting an aura.

  Associations may heighten one’s reputation, but they may also lower it. “Birds of a feather flock together,” as the old saw goes. If the flock is predatory as a whole, each member will be judged a predator. If they are songbirds, bird watchers will expect each bird to sing. In a flock of crows, it will be assumed that each one is a messy squawker. One may stain himself by the company he keeps just as surely as he may catch the reflected shine. Because of my husband, I consorted with scholars. Though I was quiet, having many questions but few answers in matters of philosophy and literary criticism, I was considered one of the windbags by association. I have read that the pine warbler soils his feathers by living in the pine tree.

  Patrick’s house was my next visit after Adrienne’s, and the last of the five. It was also the smallest and most modest of all the homes. Though I am in no way averse to luxury, perhaps I settled for this one since it was closest to my childhood home in Methuselah, Mississippi, or perhaps because I had taught school in this town for a few years in the sixties. Perhaps it was because of all the windows facing the backyard. From my vantage I could see a field where children played, birds at the bird feeder, a birdbath, pine and poplar trees, a gazebo with a weathervane on top, a neighbor’s trampoline. Perhaps these images held more interest for me than those of the other four houses.

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