Familiar Birds

by Karen Joy Fowler

Between the ages of eight and fifteen, I was packed off to the seaside for a month every summer to stay with the Hutching family. Norma Hutching had been my mother’s college roommate. She had three children — two boys considerably older than me with whom I had almost nothing to do, and one girl, Daisy, only one year my elder.Since I had lived most of my life in a house with a television and a city with a sports franchise, you might have thought I had things to say worth listening to. You didn’t know Daisy.She always acted as if she’d packed a lot of learning into that extra year she had on me.

Daisy’s mother ran a seafood restaurant and her father, a charter fishing boat. My mother would join us most weekends, sometimes with my father, when his job permitted. The Hutchings weren’t rich enough to live at the beach with their tourist clientele, but had a house half an hour away in woody seclusion. It was a property littered with thorns, bugs, and birds.Daisy became my self–appointed docent to the natural world.

"This tree," Daisy would say — she took me around the property every year on the day I arrived to remind me that I was on her turf now — "is older than Columbus." Which made me wonder, first, how she could know this, and, second, how old Columbus was. Do you keep counting after you die?

There was no point in asking. Daisy, while more than generous with her information if allowed to offer it spontaneously, would answer no questions. I’d had teachers like that. To their way of thinking, questions expressed less interest than doubt. (To be fair, as far as my questions went, this was often accurate.)

"We used to have lots of bees here when I was little," Daisy said. "They all died of a stomach parasite.

"Those leaves have five fingers, just like a hand. That’s why they call them finger–leaves. Some word that means finger–leaves.

"Every seven years you get a whole new skin. Everything on the outside of you, everything you see, is already dead." Daisy poked me with the sharp corner of her fingernail. "Dead person," she said.

I spent these summers trying to get the upper hand. At my school I was quite likely to win a spelling bee, have the best birthday party, sing the solo for the Christmas concert. I could see that Daisy, dropped into that competitive environment, would be no one. I would have liked it if Daisy had seen this, too, but it was a hard point to make on her home ground.I spent my summers bossed about by someone to whom, anywhere else, anywhere real, I was clearly superior.

Sometimes we went with Mrs. Hutching to the restaurant. If she were short–staffed, we’d be asked to stamp the restaurant name (Crow’s Nest) on pats of butter, fold the napkins into the wine glasses. When we were done, we’d hang about the pier. If there were tourist kids around — there usually were — I’d make it plain that I didn’t live here either.Daisy had hard little eyes, eyes like buttons. I’d feel them on me, but I didn’t care. Down by the pier, I’d be the one doing the talking.

Have I been clear? I didn’t like Daisy and she didn’t like me and this was because neither one of us was likable. Anyone but our mothers would have seen that straight off. But they liked each other so much, our friendship was compulsory. "Our Daisy," my mother would say appreciatively. "She is one smart little girl." Just because Daisy’d once saidshe preferred a good book to any television show. I actually laughed when she said this and even laughing didn’t tip my mother off to the fact that she was being played, only to the fact that I was being rude.

"I wish," Daisy’s mother would tell Daisy, "that you had the manners Clara has." Clara being me. And all I had done was thank Mrs. Hutching for the meal she’d made, tell her it was good. I hadn’t even eaten the food. You had to wonder sometimes just how smart our mothers were.

"You can’t drink the stream water here," Daisy said. "There are eggs in it, and if you swallow them, they hatch into worms that live in your gut. Down by the Columbus tree the water’s cleaner, because it’s just gone over the rocks. The rocks scrape the eggs out of it.

"When you find three stones piled up like that, it means, danger. Beware. The Indians used to do that. Some of the stone piles around here are from Indian times."

"That bird there built a nest last year in the porch eaves. It was a lousy nest. All the eggs dropped right through and smashed on the porch. Birds can go crazy, just like people. That one has. She’s like those old ladies you see in the city in their ratty old sweaters, talking to themselves."

Daisy’s recurring themes: you’ll die here, because you don’t know what you’re doing.

And the city is lousy, too.

 * *  * *

The year I was eleven Daisy explained to me how she came to know so much about nature. She said that it spoke to her. She had conversations with birds and trees, just exactly the same as she did with people. They could talk to anyone, those birds, those trees. But mostly they didn’t want to.They had to really trust you.

I was immediately suspicious. I’d caught Daisy in lies before (look at that ridiculous one about not liking television) and this, if true, seemed too big a secret to have kept so long. Besides, why her?

But I didn’t tell anyone what she’d said either, not right off, and since I so liked to make her look bad this is harder to explain. The best I can do is this: I was the kind of child who scraped the frosting from my oreos, eating only the cookies until I’d collected a whole ball of frosting,which I then ate all at once. Daisy was the kind who ate her frosting first and then tried to make a deal for yours. Daisy was not the sort to save something good for later. I was.

"The Mormons used to make tea from this," Daisy said. She was pointing to a particularly leggy, stickery plant. "They picked the leaves and dried them and then put them in boiling water. They thought this tea stopped pregnancies. Any woman found with the dried leaves was excommunicated. Or thrown into prison.

"We have cougars here sometimes," Daisy said. "They hunt in packs and they always pick the smallest weakest person as their prey."

Daisy outweighed me by a good twenty pounds.