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Friday, June 03, 2011

two for a penny

Two For A Penny



She always told him, "God sees the sparrow fall. Put out seed.

Fill the birdbath with fresh water. Elijah was fed by ravens. The Holy

Spirit perched on Jesus like a dove. If you have faith you will rise up

with the wings of an eagle. Never forget the birds. They are closest to

God."

As a boy, he would answer her, "What about people?"

"Birds don't sin. People do."

"But doesn't God love people?"

She would sniff. "Look at the birds in the sky. They don't sow

seeds or harvest crops. They don't store wheat in barns. Our Father in

heaven takes care of them."

"Father Duchak says Jesus wants us to love one another."

"Jesus. Do you know what Jesus says? Not one sparrow can fall to

the ground without God knowing about it. That's how important birds are to

God."

"Aren't we worth more than sparrows?"

"It's anybody's guess. But if you want to do the kind of good deeds

that will make up for the evil in your life you will put out bird seed

every day. And not the cheap kind either."

The birds had come and gone from her yard thousands of times since

those talks. Now he had phoned to say he was bringing her sister by for a

visit. It was the Orthodox Christmas season, two weeks later than the usual

holiday, what they always called Ukrainian Christmas because Ukrainian

Catholics kept the same religious calendar as the Orthodox Church. The snow

was thick on the ground. She spotted them through the frost on the window

before they rang the front doorbell.

“Go around to the back!” she called and rapped her fist on

the glass. They looked at her and she swept her arm toward the

side of the house two or three times. “To the back!”

She got there ahead of them but waited until her nephew

knocked. Then she turned the lock and opened the heavy wooden

door. Her body cringed. “Hurry up, hurry up,” she said, starting

to close the door before her nephew and her sister were in the

house, “you’re letting the cold air in.”

Her nephew hugged her. “Hi, Aunt Helen. Merry Ukrainian Christmas.”

“Don’t take your coat off yet. I need you to do something.”

She took a key and keychain from a rack beside his head. “My

neighbour left a big sack of bird seed in the shed. The feeder is

right by the kitchen window. It hasn’t been filled for days.”

He took the key. “How much do you want me to put out?”

“You can see the feeding station, can’t you? The poor

creatures must be starving. Thank you, darling.” She suddenly

leaned forward and puckered her lips. Her nephew gave her a

quick kiss and went out.

The sister stood just inside the door with a heavy black coat

on. “Hello, Helen. Merry Christmas.”

Helen poked a hanger at her. “Here.”

“I’m chilled. I’d like to keep my coat on for awhile.

“Suit yourself.” She snapped the hanger back on the steel rod

in the closet. The other hangers swayed and clattered.

Helen filled a pink kettle with tap water and put it on the

stove. Then she placed cream and sugar on the kitchen table. It

was covered with an oilcloth of yellow and white daisies. Her

sister followed her into the kitchen. She laughed. Lines and

wrinkles popped up on Helen’s face and her eyes narrowed. “What’s

so funny?”

The nephew was grinning in at the kitchen window and flapping

his arms like a bird. Helen went over and called, “Never mind

fooling around! Put out the seed!”

What? Matthew mouthed back at her.

Helen jabbed a finger at the feeding station. “Put out the

seed!”

Matthew hefted the 50 pound bag in his arms and began to pour

black sunflower seeds into a wooden trough covered by a wooden

roof painted with blue jays. Helen watched, her lips in a pout.

The kettle started to whistle and steam shot up to the ceiling.

“Of all the times to be acting the clown,” she said.

She took the kettle off the element. A ceramic teapot in the

shape of a hen was on the counter. She poured the hot water into

it, set the kettle down, and placed two teabags in the pot. Then

she snugged a tea cozy down over it. It had humming birds on it.

She put the teapot on the table next to the cream and sugar.

“Are you coming or going?” she asked her sister.

“What?”

“Are you going to sit down and have some tea?”

“All right.”

“There’s cups and saucers in the cupboard over the sink.”

Helen walked out to the dining room and opened the china

cabinet. She came back with her own cup and saucer and placed them

on the table. Then she sat down and removed the cozy and poured

tea into the cup. It had a gold trim. The tea came out yellow.

“It’s weak,” said her sister, coming back to the table with a

chipped cup and saucer. “You should wait a little longer.”

“It’s fine as it is.” Helen put the cozy back over the pot.

They sat at the table, one at either end. A thick black Bible,

speckled with bits of sugar, lay beside the creamer. They heard the

thump of the shed door. Then the crunch of Matthew’s boots over

the snow on the sidewalk. Helen stirred sugar in her cup and

looked over her sister’s head. The spoon clicked against the sides

of the cup. There was a gust of icy air.

“Close the door behind you!” she called.

Matthew grunted as he removed his boots. The hangers jangled

as he hung up his jacket. Helen looked out the window. He came

into the kitchen rubbing his hands together.

“Must be 20 below,” he smiled.

“It may take days for the birds to come back,” said Helen.

“There hasn’t been seeds there since the weekend.”

Matthew sat down between the two sisters. “Couldn’t get here

any sooner.”

“You could have come after school.”

“I have classes at the university until ten on Mondays.”

“The cups are in the cupboard over the sink.”

Matthew got up and crossed the kitchen floor. “What kinds of

birds do you get here, Aunt Helen?”

“All kinds. Mountain chickadees. Chestnut-backed chickadees.

Now and then a white-breasted nuthatch. Blue jays. Northern

flickers. I love the northern flickers. They have big black spots

all over their chest. And a beautiful black crescent.”

“What about the summertime?”

Helen laughed. “The hummingbirds come and fight over the

water and honey I put out. The rufous and the calliope. They dive

bomb one another. And I get yellow birds. They’re wonderful.

The townsend’s warbler. Wilson’s warbler. Western tanager. It’s as

if someone took scissors to the sun and snip-snip, a bird.”

They looked out the window at the feeding station. It was

black with seeds but no birds had flown in to eat them. “It will

take days,” said Helen.

“Do you want some tea, Aunt Nellie?” asked Matthew tugging

the cozy off the teapot.

The tea was a dark brown.

“Is that too strong for you, Aunt?”

“I put in lots of cream.”

Helen was staring out the window. “There are some fox

sparrows on the fence on the other side of the lane. And chipping

sparrows on my neighbour’s clothesline.”

“Where?” asked Matthew.

Helen pointed. “Right over there. See them?”

“How can you tell what they are? They just look black to me.”

“I’m not blind.” Helen slid a book into the centre of the

table. “Take a look. Their pictures are in there.”

“I believe you.”

“Go ahead.”

Matthew picked up the book and flipped through the pages.

There were hundreds of colour photographs. “What an incredible

book.”

“My niece in Toronto bought that for me. Heather. She signed

it in the front.”

“I see that. It looks great. Aunt Helen, I’m working on this

project for school. Kind of a geneology. A family history. That’s

why I asked Aunt Nellie to join us today. She’s been telling me

about what happened during the war.”

Helen clicked her spoon around the inside of her cup. “What

has she been telling you?”

“You must have known her husband. And her son.”

“I knew them.”

“She was talking about how they were in Europe when the war

broke out. The Germans rounded them up. She never saw her son or

her husband again. She was taken back to Germany and forced to

work in a factory in Berlin.”

Helen dropped her spoon on the oilcloth and leaned across the

table. Her eyes were green and white. She spoke rapidly and loudly

in Ukrainian. Nellie lifted her hands away from her cup and

responded in short sharp sentences in Ukrainian. Helen looked at

Matthew.

“So if you are listening to her why are you coming to me?

What do you need me for?”

“I want to know what you remember about Aunt Nellie’s son and

husband.”

“Why are you asking me? You already talked to her.”

“Aunt Helen. Of course I talked to her. It was her son. It

was her husband.”

“She was the one who talked them into it. Her and her

Communist Party. We must go and help Stalin. We must go and help

the Soviet Union. We will build a new Ukraine. She dragged them

over there. Nicholas was a beautiful boy. He waited on me hand and

foot. Shovelled my sidewalk. Brought me groceries. Never forgot

the bird seed. A Clark’s nutcracker fed right out of his hand. Off

to Russia. Stalin had starved everyone to death. Still she

wouldn’t come home. The Germans attacked across the border and

shot Nicholas. And her husband. But they didn’t shoot her.”

“I lost my son,” said Nellie.

“You had no business taking him there. He belonged here.”

“What do you think it did? It broke me in two. I did not want

it.”

“Then why did you stay? You saw what Stalin did.”

“I did not know the Germans would come.”

“You knew.”

A large bird landed at the feeder and began to probe at the

seeds with its long beak. There were black spots on its chest.

“Don’t move,” Helen whispered. “It’s a northern flicker.”

But Nellie slapped the flat of her hand against the table. “I

did not want it!”

The bird jerked its head at the window. It spread its wings

and vanished. Helen threw a hand at her sister.

“Look what you have done! You destroy everything!”

Nellie sat back in her seat and murmured a phrase in

Ukrainian. Matthew traced the pattern of a daisy on the oilcloth with his

finger. Then he started to collect the cups and saucers.

“What are you doing?” asked Helen.

“We should go.”

“Sit down. I will put on the kettle. You can do with some

fresh tea.”

“Aunt Helen. I don’t want to see you two fight.”

“We are not going to fight.”

She walked to the counter and picked up the kettle and ran

the tap water. Then she put the kettle on the stove. She came back

to the table and picked up the teapot. The cozy was lying beside

it. She placed her hand on the side of the pot. It was warm. She

glanced out the window at the mound of black seed under the small

wooden roof. Already a small bird had made its way the feeder and was

thrusting its beak in and out of the black shells with short sharp

stabs.

"His eye is on the sparrow," she said.

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