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
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
"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
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
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.
“Are you going to sit down and have some tea?”
“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
“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.”
Matthew picked up the book and flipped through the pages.
There were hundreds of colour photographs. “What an incredible
“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
“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
“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
“Then why did you stay? You saw what Stalin did.”
“I did not know the Germans would come.”
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
“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
"His eye is on the sparrow," she said.