by Aline Soules
Music drew me to her. Beethoven’s Pathétique floated across the marsh backwater from an old clapboard house I thought was empty. Curious, I walked around. By then, all I could hear was birdsong.
When I knocked, I was greeted by an old woman. Her hair was blunt cut, as if she’d done it herself, and a bobby pin held it to one side like a little girl. Although wrinkled, her face had a classic bone structure, but her body was short and square. Thick legs showed beneath a flowered cotton dress and her bare feet had bunions.
“Hello. I’m Cynthia Malik. I own a cottage on the other side of the marsh. I heard the music and didn’t know anyone lived here.”
“Moved in last fall,” she said. “Want some iced tea?”
“I’d love some.”
She headed for the kitchen.
“Watch for Pete. Close the door.”
I went in, wondering if Pete was a boy or a dog. Suddenly I realized that I had a bird at my feet, a sparrow with a toothpick tied to his wing. He squawked as I stepped over him. Then I looked up and saw cages with other birds in various broken states—wings, legs, even a beak. The cage doors were all open.
“Here, Petie, Petie,” said my hostess. Pete waddled over and climbed on her finger. She put him on the kitchen table, then poured tea.
“Porch?” she asked, pointing to the back of the house.
She spoke in whispers to Pete as we left the kitchen. Her tone was soft and light, her words so quiet I couldn’t hear them even though I was right behind her.
The floor slanted to the back of the house. Apart from the cages, all she had in the living room were two wooden rocking chairs and a side-table.
“What brought you to the Irish hills?” I asked.
“Wanted to live easy.”
“Have you kept birds long?”
“I don’t keep them. They just visit for a while.”
I swallowed more tea. Pete stuck his beak in her glass.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know your name,” I said.
“I really enjoyed the music. Do you have a large collection?”
She laughed. “No collection!”
“That was you? But I didn’t see a piano.”
She lifted Pete and got up. “Here,” she said, opening the door.
There were two small bedrooms off the back hall. Her bed was in the first, the piano in the second. It was a baby grand and filled the room, but I could see why she’d put it there. The room faced west and south to the sun. There were piles of sheet music stacked on the floor. I started to look through them—classical, modern, Broadway, jazz. Most of the modern pieces were original editions.
“Would you play something?” I asked.
“Pick.” She put Pete on the piano.
There was so much I wanted to hear, but at last I handed her Debussy’s Images.
She played Reflections in the Water. It was effortless, as if she didn’t even have to move her muscles. Her bare bunioned feet looked as if they belonged on the pedals. The music rippled out, and I sat on a pile of sheet music and closed my eyes, drifting away with her.
I don’t know how long we sat there after she finished, but I finally opened my eyes. She was looking out the window. The birds were silent in the afternoon heat.
“Thank you. That was wonderful. I must go.”
“Come back when you like,” she said.
I did. I came back and back and back. We hardly talked, but I felt close to her when she played or we were silent. We went to Paris, Vienna, the English countryside. We visited Broadway and European cabarets. The birds chattered when I came and were silent when I left.
We never talked about us. It was unimportant if we were married or single, rich or poor, with children or without. It was music and birds.
One day, I was in Mrs. Mullins’ general store.
“Haven’t seen you in a while,” she said, ringing up my groceries.
“I’ve been busy and my garden is doing well.”
“You seen that old lady out your way?”
“Yes. We’ve met.”
“Don’t say much, does she.”
“No. She’s not much of a talker.”
“Must be feeding all the birds in the whole damn county. She buys me out of seed.”
Mrs. Mullins knew everyone’s habits. She saw what they bought, handled their mail, and got most of the crisis calls if Dr. Bryan was out of town or no one knew what to do.
“You see her much?” she asked.
“How come she’s buying bird seed in summer?”
“She helps injured birds.”
“She a vet?”
“I don’t think so.”
Mrs. Mullins snorted. “Sounds like one of those bleeding-heart liberals.”
In fall, I realized my concerts were about over. It was time to go back to my teaching job in Dearborn. All winter I wondered about Millie. Her playing was so wonderful, I thought she must have been somebody once, so I went to the library, but I couldn’t find anything. I sent her a Christmas card, but she didn’t send anything back. I was busy with work and all the unimportant things that seemed to take over my life.
The next summers passed in a dream. I took her vegetables from my garden. She played. Sometimes, I helped with a broken bird. She taught me patience when working with a delicate wren and caution with a raven or hawk. I grew to love summer so much, I could hardly wait for school to end.
The fourth summer, I was hardly in the door before I walked to Millie’s, but there was no one there and I couldn’t hear anything—no birds, no music. I went to the store.
“Mrs. Mullins,” I called.
She waddled out of the back room. “Well, welcome back for the summer. You must be just in. What can I get you?”
“Oh, her. They took her away.”
“The ambulance folk. They showed up asking directions and went out there and took her away. Must of been February, March maybe.”
“Where did they take her?”
“Don’t know. Didn’t say.”
“Mrs. Mullins, you know what goes on in this town. What happened to her?”
“I don’t know nothing if nobody don’t tell me. And nobody didn’t tell me nothing.”
I could see that Mrs. Mullins’ nose was out of joint. I got in touch with Dr. Bryan.
“Her nephew came,” he said. “He was upset and asked me to call on her. He said the house was full of wild birds and she had practically nothing. She didn’t say much when I visited, but her nephew was right. The birds had the run of the place. In the end, her nephew found a home for her near where he lives.”
“But that’s not right! She wanted to stay here.”
“But she couldn’t take care of herself.”
“How do you know that? You didn’t even know her. Yes, she takes care of birds, but that’s good, isn’t it? Have you ever heard her play the piano? She’s incredible.”
“She didn’t have proper heat and she really couldn’t take care of herself.” Dr. Bryan patted me on the shoulder. “I’m sorry. No one wants to see people in homes, but sometimes it can’t be helped.”
“That’s not good enough. Where is she?”
“I’m not sure I should tell you. Why don’t you go home and see how you feel when the shock wears off.”
I wasn’t getting anywhere, so I went home and worked in the garden, but it was no use. I called him.
“If I promise not to interfere, will you tell me where she is so I can at least visit?” I asked.
She was in a home outside Chicago. Her room was semi-private and she was in a chair, her back to the window, her head on her chest. Her roommate was watching TV.
“Hello, Millie. How are you?”
She raised her head. It took her a moment, then she looked me straight in the eye. “Miserable. Can’t stand that,” she said, pointing to the TV. Her roommate glared.
“Oh, Millie, I’m so sorry. How did this happen?”
“I’m an old woman. No power when you’re an old woman.”
“Why couldn’t they leave you alone?”
“Didn’t like the way I lived. Wouldn’t live like ‘normal’ people. Besides, I’ve got money.”
“Used to be a concert pianist. Made money then.”
“I looked you up in the library, but I couldn’t find anything.”
“When I quit, I disappeared. Took another name. Not my own, one I made up. My real name’s Elizabeth Furman.”
I was stunned. No wonder she played like a dream. She’d had a great career.
“Why did you stop?”
“Didn’t like the way I lived. I got rid of things. Fancy house. Furniture. Jewelry. The lot. Bought the house and moved in. Started living easy and felt free as the birds. Wouldn’t do what others wanted.”
“Can I get you anything?”
“Can you get me out of here?”
I didn’t know what to say.
She smiled. “You took too long to answer.”
I smiled back. “I’ll come and see you again.”
“No. Just depress yourself. Go home and listen to the birds. Live easy.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about her. That fall, for the first time, I was glad to close the cottage. Right before Christmas, I got a letter from Mr. Grant, a lawyer. She’d died and left me everything—house, music, birds.
“She never said a word to me,” I said to him when I called. “What about her nephew?”
“Her estate is yours. Can we meet?”
I drove to Chicago on a cold, gray day. After we talked, he offered to help me clear things up. We drove to Millie’s house.
It was the first time I had approached it from the road and I was afraid my car wouldn’t make it. Mr. Grant unlocked the door and we went in.
Dead birds. Dead birds everywhere, their eyes glassy, lying on their sides in the cages and on the floor. Silent. I felt my knees buckle.
Mr. Grant grabbed my elbow. “Why don’t you wait outside while I go through the rest of the house.” I shook my head. In the back bedroom, there was thick dust and the piano was cold. I lifted the lid and hit a key. Stiff and out of tune.
“Do you play,” asked Mr. Grant. I shook my head.
We went into her bedroom, a room I’d only seen from the hall. I opened the closet. A couple of dresses and a coat. One pair of shoes. Her drawers held practically nothing—underwear, a shawl, a photo album. I pulled it out and turned the pages.
How beautiful she was. Her hair was shoulder-length in a page boy style. She wore dresses fitted through the bodice and flared from the waist, and her face had that classic bone structure I’d seen when I first met her.
“I’ll get someone to clear things out,” said Mr. Grant.
“No,” I said. “I’ll do it myself.”
As soon as I could break ground, I dug a hollow and buried the birds. Then I gave away everything except the piano, the music and the album.
As summer wore on, I grew more reluctant to sell her house. I couldn’t make myself do it. One morning, I walked over there and sat on her front porch, aching for her music. The sun was warm and I drifted into that half-state between waking and sleeping. I thought about her decision to come here, to live easy in this place. Suddenly, I knew that she hadn’t played for me. She’d played for the birds. I listened and let their music flow through me.
When I went home, I called the Audubon Society. “How do I start a bird sanctuary?” I asked.
It took two years. I sold the piano and the music for money to keep it going, but not to keep birds. Just to let them visit for a while. Now, I live easy myself.