f-tile300The Birdwatcher

by Ella Shively

Runestone, volume 7

Runestone, volume 7

The Birdwatcher
by Ella Shively

Your Great Aunt Margaret has just moved from her farmhouse in the countryside to the townhouse adjoining yours. At your parents’ request, of course. Marge never would have left on her own.

 “I’m a wild thing, not meant to be living in the city,” she likes to say, her sharp canines scraping her cracked lower lip as she speaks.

But Marge is old and her knees are bad and she can’t get up and down the steps of the old farmhouse anymore. So she says, fine, I’ll move, but only on the condition that your family keeps a bird feeder filled outside her window.

You’ve only met her a handful of times, at family reunions back in Nebraska. It was a full day’s drive to get there, and then you hardly spoke to her. You were always off with the cousins, catching tadpoles down in the creek or playing ghosts in the graveyard under the vast and starry wilderness of the Nebraska sky. Marge didn’t seem to like kids much, anyway. She especially hated rough-housing near the bird feeders.

“You’re scaring the birds! Go out by the barn if you’re going to play like that!” she’d shriek, shaking her cane.

She doesn’t want to talk to you now that you’re a teenager, either, but your mom makes you go over and check on her in the mornings and after school.

“Open the window for me,” she says each morning, “so I can hear the birds.” No hello, no how ya doin’. 

Open the window.

You oblige. The window has no screen, and Marge sticks her hand outside, feeling the breeze.

“Feeder’s running low,” she says, and you top it off with sunflower seeds, even though it’s still plenty full.

Every other week, she sits next to you on the patio while you give the bird feeder a good scrubbing. Once, you drop the scrubbing brush, and Marge snatches it out of the air before your brain has even processed that the brush is gone. She’s got fast reflexes for someone so frail. She could catch a hornet if she wanted to. Or maybe a songbird.

She scoops up a handful of bird seed and holds it out in her palm. “Green finch and linnet bird…” she sings, in a voice unexpectedly sweet for someone so brusque. A few little chickadees edge closer, abruptly scattering when they come within a few inches of Marge, though neither of you has moved a muscle. Their chattering seems louder and more agitated now.

Marge dumps the seeds back into the bag. “You scared them off.”

She keeps a field guide and a pair of binoculars on a table by the window, but she never seems to use them. Her eyes, pale green with a hint of yellow, follow the birds around the yard with cat-like intensity, dilated pupils sliding rapidly back and forth. Her entire body is tense. Sometimes her face turns purple as she watches a particularly active flock, and you have to remind her to breathe.

Marge is always hungry, but never for what your family cooks.

“I’m in a mood for chicken. Or turkey, or duck. Or grouse! I haven’t had a bite of grouse since I went on vacation up north. Hmm, pick up a turkey on your way home from school today. They taste better when you catch ‘em yourself, but the store-bought ones will have to do.”

You nod politely, though you have no intention of buying a turkey. Your life with Marge goes on like this, helping her to open the window, filling her bird feeder, taking her complaints. And when you enter the townhouse and catch her napping unawares, you do your best to ignore the iridescent blue feathers stuck to her lips, half open in innocent, contented sleep.

Ella Shively

Ella Shively

Northland College


Ella Shively is a senior at Northland College studying natural resources and writing. Her work has been published in Prometheus Dreaming, Consonancie, Bracken, and elsewhere. 

See Ella’s digital storytelling piece “Abiogenesis”

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This