icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Winter Birds

From Chapter 1, “Conscience Is But a Word That Cowards Use”:

Rachel comes to take my dishes. I watch her move slowly and silently. I have cleaned my plate tonight, have used my biscuit to polish its surface. The dish is one Rachel makes from an old recipe card titled Irma’s Beef Dinner. The card is worn around the edges and splattered with tomato sauce and onion soup. Rachel doesn’t know who Irma is, she has told me, and she doesn’t remember how she came by the recipe card. Rachel may be excused from remembering such details.

As for me, perhaps I may be excused from remembering details also. I have been young, but now I am old. That is the usual course, though I have often dreamed of how it would be to say I have been old and now I am young, to implant my old mind into my youthful body of fifty or sixty years ago. I would even trim it to twenty or thirty if someone were granting favors. Or ten.

In matters of money I have been poor, and now I am rich. I have often considered how it might have been had my youth intersected at some point with my wealth. But I have no time for dreams now, nor for regrets. I have had plenty of both in my life, as any other man or woman, but I give my attention now to staying alive. It is an endeavor at which I continue to toil in spite of its many inscrutabilities, for to give it up would be to yield to nothingness, an enemy I am not eager to confront.

I am in the cold season of life, and the words that come to mind as I rise in the morning are these: “Now is the winter of our discontent.” I borrow them from William Faulkner, a fellow Mississippian, who lifted them from Shakespeare, who put them into the mouth of the Duke of Gloucester, also known as Richard III. Though I am hardly the villain Richard III was, I am no saint. Though I have not murdered, I have used words to maim and destroy. Though I repudiate the notion of conscience, as did Richard, I do not rest easy at night. Often when I wake in the morning, it is after few hours of troubled sleep. I cannot sleep long for fear that I will let go of living. Rather a winter of discontent than no winter at all.

By day birds flock to my window. I watch them feed, sometimes companionably, two or three different species at the same feeder, and sometimes singly, pecking quickly, nervously, darting glances to yard and sky for unwelcome company. I monitor the feeder for squirrels, which devise crafty methods of mounting it.

Birds never interested me before this, the winter of our discontent. I was sometimes diverted by other things, but never birds. Even now I know little of them except what I observe through my window and what I read in my Book of North American Birds, a large but overly generalized collection of short summaries describing six hundred different species of birds, each page also boasting an artist’s rendering, in color, of the featured bird. This worthy volume was compiled by the editors of Reader’s Digest, a body of persons whose aim is knowledge rather than understanding. It was presented to me by my nephew Patrick, who, with his wife, Rachel, shares with me the winter of our discontent.

From Chapter 17, “O Tiger’s Heart, Wrapped in a Woman’s Hide,” in which Sophie is seated at a dinner table on Christmas Day:

Della Boyd is gaping openmouthed at the cloisonné bird pinned on my sweater. “Why, that is so beautiful it takes my breath away! Look, Helena, can you see Sophie’s pin? It’s a work of art!” Now Helena is leaning forward to see the pin, and Steve and Teri are nodding and murmuring in agreement from the other side of the table. Patrick is smiling with satisfaction, proud that his gift has inspired such admiration. Potts observes that such a wonder should be passed around the table for closer inspection.

Mindy is eyeing the pin, frowning slightly, as if wondering how such a small thing, something she would never be caught wearing, can evoke such emotion from adults. Perhaps she will tell her friends about it later: “And this fat old woman was wearing this weird-looking bird pin that everybody was having a cow over!”

Rachel returns with a serving platter in one hand and a bowl of gelatin salad in the other. On the platter are slices of the turkey and ham I have smelled baking in her oven since early morning. She hands the platter to Patrick. “Why don’t we start with Aunt Sophie?” she says to him.

“I just love birds!” Della Boyd says. “Don’t I, Helena? Don’t I love birds?”

“She loves birds,” Helena says dryly.

“Especially little hummingbirds,” Della Boyd says. “They’re my special favorites.”

Steve volunteers that he has seen an owl in his backyard. Patrick shares the fact that both long-eared and short-eared owls spend winters in the Southeast.

“Why, I didn’t know owls had ears,” Della Boyd says. “Did you, Helena?”

No one replies to this. Mindy opens her eyes wide and stares hard at her plate, as if thinking, Is anyone at this table going to say something normal?

Rachel returns with two more dishes, one of mashed sweet potatoes, another of green beans.

“But then, I suppose birds have to have some kind of mechanism for hearing,” Della Boyd says. “What I meant was . . .” She trails off.

Patrick explains that the owls’ ears are actually only tufts of feathers that have nothing to do with their hearing.

“Well, now, that is certainly interesting,” Della Boyd says, looking at Patrick with great awe.

And thus, seated between a great innocent and a tiresome pedant, I am served my Christmas dinner. I think of what Samuel Johnson once observed, that one does not have to travel widely to see all there is to see of humanity.

From Publishers Weekly starred review, June 2006:

“With this fictional octogenarian’s rich reflection on her disappointing life, Christy Award-winner Turner pens her best novel in years. Dangling the promise of leaving her money to whichever distant relative cares for her, ‘Aunt Sophie’ takes up residence in the spare room belonging to her loquacious, pontificating nephew, Patrick, and his diffident wife, Rachel, in Greenville, Mississippi. They collect a ragtag group of acquaintances, including an ex-con and a severely disabled four-year-old, who flit in and out of the story. Sophie, a former English teacher, passes her days mostly by reading obituaries, watching television, and learning about the birds outside her window. Turner brilliantly weaves together the threads of Shakespeare’s plays, television sitcoms, birds and their habits, and the deaths of celebrities gleaned from Time magazine’s obituary section as she unfolds the story.”

Endorsement by Phyllis Tickle, Writer and former Religion Editor for Publishers Weekly:

“If ever angels were to try writing stories, they would strive to make them like Jamie Langston Turner’s novels. Steady, soft-spoken, elegantly plain, Turner takes us by the hand of our mutual imaginations, and with the pure, sweet voice of the accomplished writer, she sings us down into the kingdom of the believing heart. I love her books.”