On Eleanor Black’s 71st birthday a flock of birds flew into her kitchen through a window she had opened every morning for forty years. They blew in like paper in a wind tunnel blowing backwards, lining up deliberate across the notched cabinets hanging empty on the walls of the adjacent living room. She always used to say she’d fill them with books someday as a woman in her thirties, sprightly then by comparison. That was far before cracking the windowpane came anywhere close to routine.
However, this hushed cacophony of wings going pap! pap! pap! through the living room- it would do well enough.
Not all of the birds were of the same feather; in fact, many were of sizes and colors and habitats completely foreign to each other’s understanding. Some were the lost pets of worried neighbors, colorful, singsong and melancholy. Others made a pit-stop from their southward migration to rest their wings with friends and flock. Some, covered in the long-worn dust of living insignificant city lives, lingered by the window to splash around in the sink. Some swiveled on their plump necks and peered with their beady eyes, wholly confused as to why they were there in the first place.
But they all had a few things in common. Before all else, nothing was coincidental. Each avian felt a deep, reflexive understanding of their place like guests at a numbered party table. Seventy-one of them, Eleanor counted in gleeful shock. She had almost forgotten the age she was turning. Seventy-one, she recited in her head. She clung to the number like a beloved memento.
Eleanor gasped, her heart almost kicked down her ribcage door to marvel at them. What a scene it was! The woodpeckers’ gaunty stripes resembled the fresh print of tall newspapers. They conjured memories of her first ever job as a copy-editor for a news publication that was the perfect distance from home. Nineteen, doe-eyed, and sick of home, her first taste of freedom was like newsprint and blueberry beers her more-than-friend used to buy her in secret.
The blue jays resembled careful calligraphy of expensive first-edition prints; far beyond Eleanor’s modest means, but always within her dreams. She couldn’t quite remember when those dreams stopped being so important to her.
The finches were yellow, alternating in equal pairs quite symmetrically between very yellow and only slightly yellow. They looked like little books, old and new, that you could carry in your pocket and enjoy on a temperate afternoon stroll. She wanted to give urgent love to the zippy little finch fellows, looking to her like how a fresh book smells. To the well-loved lady finches, a deep and heartfelt appreciation awaited.
The cardinals were glossy and bright, in stirring hues of crimson and orange. They looked just like her son Damon’s old music books from when he was little, they must be somewhere up in the attic still. She was beginning to grow lonesome thinking of her son. The sun was pouring in, angled and colored like a gutted cantaloupe, and he still hadn’t called. She couldn’t blame him though, she almost forgot her age, on this of all days!
For a moment, Eleanor wanted to entertain the thought that she wasn’t all that memorable. The Chick-a-dees, however, started tweeting their protests. Eleanor discouraged the thought immediately as if they read her mind, but the black-capped rascals were just upset over a lack of birdseed.
Eleanor discouraged the thought immediately as if they read her mind, with immense gratitude. But really, the black-capped rascals were just upset over a lack of birdseed.
And before she knew it, her life flashed before her. She never raised her voice or moved too quick, but she thought of every heartbeat with deep relish and excitement. Life seemed extraordinary to her for the first time in a while. So she strolled through her memories with vigor and zest.
Nineteen, what a universally magical age. Before she ever met Patrick, how free she felt during then. Let alone before Patrick found his mistress in a bottle of gin and succumbed to its crystal-clear siren song. She carried the thought of Damon with tension, all the way up into his twenty-first. She made him swear to keep a distance from anything translucent, but now he was a grown man with a wife of his own. The decades flashed across her thoughts in
The decades flashed across her thoughts in waves- dinner parties, television she cried to, hurried rent payments and chocolate birthday cakes were but a few of the many, many details that each drew a response in Eleanor’s ruffled brow.
The sky was an amber backdrop to a stage with speckled clouds like purple pastries. It all looked so inviting, every sunbeam tickling what it touched with an otherworldly, lackadaisical hue. It felt like Eleanor could have floated right then and there, it all looked so inviting. She looked all around her, at the seventy-one birds with their gazes all fastened to her like children hoping for a story.
They all began to sing.
Happy Birthday, Eleanor.
She took a sigh of deep contentedness. She finally knew what it would look like to have a house furnished with books like she promised herself, but it was even better than that. She sat cross-legged in the middle of the room, and a hot, happy tear rolled down her cheek.
“Come on, now.” She said, sweet as a whistle.
And just like that, her heart stopped. Eleanor Brown dropped to the floor, light as a feather. One by one, the birds flew out the window into the luscious evening sky. The last, fleeting moments of this anbaric sunlight felt so good on their feathers, it felt so good.
And lastly, Eleanor Brown’s soul departed her body, to fly and sing and make merry with her friends in the sky before the lights went out.
(The first line is the beginning line of another piece that our Oxford Tutor gave us as a creative exercise. After going on about birds the entire class, I was delighted by the pleasant turn of fate to pluck this sentence from the bag she passed around. For this, I am eternally grateful.)