by Karen Joy Fowler
The property only looked beautiful to me when I went around it with my mother. Then I would see the reflections of trees laid upside down on the water and rippling; the tiny rainbows woven into an insect’s wing; a black feather floating like a boat between two stones.
When my mother stayed, she slept on a futon in the Hutching’s living room. If I managed to stay awake long enough, I’d leave the bedroom Daisy and I shared and join my mother. "Do you think there are people birds talk to?" I asked her, that year I was eleven. I was lying in, close as I could get, one of her arms under me and one arm over.
I’d been reading The Secret Garden and had decided that loving the land reflected better on me than feeling slightly menaced whenever I went out. I’d thought of Daisy when I read how Dicken spoke to the birds, how the robin brought Mary the lost garden key. I wanted to be the kind of child birds brought keys to rather than the kind of child cougars picked off and ate. Loving nature in all her aspects seemed to me the first step in switching over.
"When I was a little girl," my mother said, "we had a parakeet. It knew several words, but it also used to babble sort of sleepily to itself for hours at a time."
"Wild birds, I meant," I said.
"My arm’s going to sleep. Move off a minute." My mother rolled me away and then rolled me back. "Anyway. I wasn’t done with my story. My grandmother lived in Germany and I hadn’t seen her for three years when we heard she’d suddenly died. My mother cried so hard and so long. She lay on the couch for days, weeks it seemed to me, face down in a pillow and if you touched her or tried to talk she said to please, please just leave her be. We even had the doctor in to see her.
"One day when she’d been lying on the couch, she suddenly sat up gasping. The parakeet had been babbling away and then said something absolutely clear, but in German. ‘Don’t cry, little dearest. It’s beautiful here,’ the bird said.
"Now that bird didn’t learn anything without you saying it over and over and over. Mother figured Grandma must have been working with it ever since she died."
"Did it scare you?" I asked. I would have been scared to think my dead grandma was in the house. Or anyone’s dead grandma.
"It made Mother stop crying. I was much more scared when I thought she was never going to stop," my mother answered.
* * * *
There was another reason I didn’t tell my mother about the claims Daisy had made. Whenever I tried to complain about Daisy, my mother anticipated me, headed me off. She did this in a cunning way, by telling me she was proud of me. "Daisy doesn’t have as many friends as you," she would say. "Living here, so out of the way, I think she’s very lonely. I know she irritates you sometimes, even good friends can really annoy each other. But you’re always so sweet to her. It makes me very proud to see.
"Norma says Daisy spends all year waiting for summer when you come back," my mother said.
The whole arrangement worked so well for our parents. Daisy’s parents could go off to work confident they’d left Daisy with company and things to do. Mine avoided the summer daycare problem, provided me with the benefits of brothers and sisters, and took a holiday from parenting themselves. No one was going to let a little thing like Daisy’s and my mutual antipathy spoil all this.
My mother went back to the city. The weather improved. The tourists packed the road to the beach so you could hardly get to the store for milk without it taking the afternoon. Mr. and Mrs. Hutching left early and came home late and exhausted. Mr. Hutching’s nose had turned bright red and was now peeling.
They were less likely to bring Daisy and me to the beach, now that the workday was so long and hard. On July 4th they made an exception. Mr. Hutching was taking some tourists out in the evening so they could see the fireworks from the water. There’d be a picnic on the boat: potato salad, five–bean salad, hamburgers and hot–dogs. He’d barbecue any fish they caught. Daisy and I could come along, he said, and help.
The tourists turned out to be two families. There were four children — a two–year–old, two fives, and a seven. You’d think I’d find it beneath me, playing my usual game to such an easy audience. You’d be wrong. I told the children Daisy talked to birds.
"I never said that," Daisy said.
"We should call her bird brain," I suggested. "But only when the grown–ups can’t hear. Can you all do that? Are you big enough to do that?"
"Bird brain," said one of the fives.
I’d held off on the really good card. Now I played it. "She talks to trees, too."
"Tree brain!" the seven said. We were all having fun now. Daisy went up to stand at the tiller with her father.
A gull landed on the deck rail. "Bird brain’s not here," I told it. Much hilarity. "Can I take a message?" The gull turned sideways to look at me with one red–ringed eye. It puffed out its feathers, and then shuffled them back into place. Flapped its wings, stretched its neck, but didn’t fly. I didn’t like the way it was looking at me.
Too late I remembered my plan to be the sort of child birds brought keys to. I tried to rewind. "We won’t really call Daisy bird brain," I told the children who were disappointed to hear it. "I just made that stuff up about the birds and the trees."
Of course, Daisy wasn’t there for this. She was scolded later for leaving all the baby–sitting to me. "One of you was very helpful yesterday," Daisy’s father said.
* * * *
The next day, Daisy worked to reestablish her supremacy. "July is snake month here," she told me. "I hope you brought your anti–venom. I don’t need any, myself. If you live around here, you get shots.
"My father is going to build a tree house for me. For when I want to be alone. No one else will ever be allowed inside it. We’re just picking out the right tree.
"Your mother isn’t coming down this weekend. I don’t know why. I guess she’s too busy or sick or something. Germs spread much faster in the city because you’re all crammed up against each other. All it takes is one person coughing on the bus.
"My mother says your mother never really wanted children. She had her tubes tied after you were born.
"See those two little birds flying at the one big one? Birds do that. They join together to pester any bird bigger and faster than they are. It’s called mobbing."
We were walking down to the creek, single file. A sparrow landed in a nearby tree, hopped along the branch. "That’s a white–crowned sparrow," Daisy told me. "What’s that?" she asked it. "No, she’s from the city. No, she’s staying all summer." And then to me again, "He wishes you’d go home."
This fooled no one. But the whole time Daisy talked, the woods were filled with bird noise. I’d never heard so much of it before, or maybe I’d never listened so carefully. There was a bird with a call like a clicking tongue. The round, hollow sound of a dove. A nearby trill, a faraway whistle.A loose flock of ducks passed over us, white sides, narrow red bills, hoarse croaking cries. Last winter, two girls in my class had decided they didn’t like me. They would lean together, whispering, whenever I passed. I had the same feeling now, that I was being talked about behind my back and nothing good was being said.
That afternoon my mother phoned. "Did Norma tell you I can’t make this weekend, sweetie?" she asked. "I’ve got a report due in to accounting. I’m just swamped. I may not get there next weekend either, just giving you a heads–up. Lucky you! Out in the country without a care in the world!"