The images of Montreal’s volatile weather remained at odds with the hope-laden forecasts everyone listened to but few believed. An endless curtain of rain, drawn around an isolated city. Windswept neighbourhoods once thriving, now bereft of couples, strollers, the laughter of children. Homeowners inside, bowing to the inevitable, removing accident-prone trees, abandoning soupy lawns, replacing flower beds with slabs of insensible, decorative stone.
October arrived. On one street, a locust stood dormant under a pallid sky. An exception, its defiant, slender limbs extending to caress a balcony where an aging couple lived. Hippies who hadn’t read the memo.
Winifred Lloyd, 45, sat across at a window, alone in her own second-floor walk-up. She knew little about the couple, who were retired in every sense of the word. But who ventured out, beyond necessity, anymore?
The tree, however, beckoned. A curiosity, an anomaly, drawing her back, arousing her professional interest. For it had been transformed into living scaffolding, an ephemeral home to dozens of songbirds, flocking inexplicably among its boughs.
It began in April. Hundreds gathered; the locust heavy with perching life. Waves of species targeting the only refuge in an otherwise barren neighbourhood. Like some freak aberration, the street endured, for a time, a noisy cacophony. For weeks she wondered at it, recorded it, sketched it, staring in baffled delight.
Now, just before Thanksgiving, a single goldfinch remained, it’s undulating flight like the bowed power lines before the house.
Bundled one morning against the wind and rain, Winifred stepped carefully down the slick staircase as her Uber pulled up to the curb. A young woman emerged, tall, willowy, her arms wrapped around her open raincoat so it might not be stripped away. As she retrieved her suitcase, her scarf, loose about her shoulders, was carried by a gust high above the street.
A pale-yellow streak flashed. The finch caught the fabric in its beak, beyond the balcony to the locust’s topmost limb, dropping the bright blue cloth on its tip. It caught, the wind unable to dislodge it, blowing like a flag.
Winifred stood, heedless of the downpour. The newcomer laughed and waved to the tree.
As she advanced to the car, the stranger smiled. ‘I told the little bird ‘well done’. Enterprising, would you not say?’
‘Shall I call on the people who live there for you?’
The woman spoke in an accent Winifred did not recognize. ‘For my zapi? Do not worry – I am going there myself. And you are becoming very wet!’
‘I’ve been watching that house…’ Winifred caught herself, suddenly embarrassed. ‘Birds … flocked there for months. Only the finch is left.’
‘Perhaps he has a reason to linger.’ She extended her hand. ‘I am Maialen – visiting the Spencers. And you are?’
‘Winifred. I’m … interested in birds.’
‘Ah!’ the woman smiled, blinking away the raindrops.
Above, a balcony door opened and a man stepped out holding a putter. ‘Maialen! Why do you tarry under this deluge?’ His voice carried like a referee at a soccer match. Then he seemed to recognize Winifred. ‘Neighbour! I see you’ve witnessed this latest spectacle. You must join us later for drinks!’ He leaned forward, retrieved the scarf, and retreated inside.
Maialen patted her sleeve. ‘Come if you are able. I want to hear more about your birds.’ As Winifred got in the cab, the woman turned up the path and entered the house.
Later, she climbed to her neighbours’ apartment, worn as the staircase. Her armchair beckoned, but invitations like this were rare. And she had questions.
Rolland Spencer was short, weathered, formidable up close, his eye keen, a chipped tooth disarming his smile. A long-ago altercation with a bicycle, he said, ushering her into a compact living room. A woman rose, tall, matronly, long, gray hair pulled back from a gently-lined face, embracing her like a benevolent aunt. ‘I’m Bertha Spencer. We hoped you might join us. We hardly get out, and so enjoy guests. I understand you have already met our friend from the Basque Region. Please, make yourself at home while Rolland and I prepare the tea.’
Winifred tried to remember: were did the Basques live? Somewhere near the border of France? Or was it Spain? Yet the blonde looked more Nordic than Mediterranean.
‘Is this your first visit to Canada?’
‘Yes,’ said Maialen. ‘Although the Spencers and I have been friends for many years. They were delegates to a conference in my country.’
‘A business connection?’
‘In a manner of speaking.’
‘Well, I envy you being able to travel. Hard to do so these days.’
‘Yes, the restrictions. But Rolland knew someone able to sort out my visa.’
The room was filled with books: on the walls, by the baseboards, piled like so many unsteady pillars. When the couple returned with laden trays, the goldfinch was perched on Rolland’s collar. He set his own cup and saucer atop one of the pillars and eased into a chair. His tiny burden hopped to one side and began to preen.
Winifred tried to tear her gaze away from the bird. By the tray on the coffee table sat a wooden grid, like a three-dimensional, oversized crossword. ‘Is this what I think it is?’ she asked.
‘A puzzle, if I ever finish it,’ Bertha replied. ‘Rolland built the frame; I fill in the clues. When you are house-bound, you need to find new ways to keep yourself occupied.’
‘Crosswords,’ Winifred said, ‘they were so addictive. The smell of the weekend paper. I remember how bold it felt to use a pen.’
‘Yes, newsprint… ‘ Bertha smiled nostalgically.
The finch began to gurgle, picking away at tiny ectoparasites. Rolland smiled indulgently, then turned to their guest. ‘A friend of ours, Li Wei, mentioned that you lecture at the university. Said you’re an ornithologist by profession.’
‘I am – I do. Actually, passerine behavior is my specialty. In fact, I’m trying to publish a paper.’ The bird grew noisier. ‘I’m sorry – is he your pet?’
The couple laughed. ‘Hardly,’ Rolland answered. ‘Maximillian is quite independent; though, now you are visiting, he seems content to remain indoors.’
‘What are you writing about?’ asked Maialen.
‘The role of catastrophic weather in the erosion of migration patterns. When they – the birds – gathered outside our homes last spring …’ She frowned. ‘Forgive me. You’ve given him a name?’
‘It was not ours to give, ‘Rolland said. ‘But you are right about the gathering in April. They came, of course, of their own volition.’
Winifred stared into her cup, collecting her thoughts. Perhaps this all came from spending too much time indoors. She tried again. ‘But it’s extraordinary. You never put out seed.’
He folded his hands. ‘It isn’t, really. We retained the locust, and were rewarded. We have a long history with the passerines. Personally, I find the breadth of their language uncanny. We’ve found them very helpful in our efforts.’
Bertha leaned forward. ‘My dear, now may not be the time -’
The goldfinch interrupted, its throat throbbing in an outpouring of melody. The couple turned to listen. Maialen’s eyes flashed with delight.
‘You must take my husband’s comments with a grain of salt, Winifred,’ Bertha said. He may have a doctorate in linguistics, but I’m afraid he veers toward the dotty end of the spectrum.’
When the time came for Winifred to leave, Bertha saw her to the door. ‘We are having a small party at Thanksgiving,’ she said quietly. ‘Li Wei will be there and a few other friends.’ She touched the younger woman’s arm, her look giving the lie to the evening’s matronly bearing. ‘Forgive us. We’re old and a bit odd, I’m afraid, but we would enjoy your company… Max especially.’
Thank you for your last letter. I was glad you cleared enough this season to cover the boat repair and get comfortably through the winter. Strange how the new weather patterns have benefitted the fishery. I would have said once that there are winners and losers in a change like this – although I now wonder if it even makes sense to talk like that.
As we know, travel restrictions won’t be lifted at Christmas, so I can’t join you in Charlottetown. Please, could we at least connect online instead? I know it’s not your thing – but I would love to see your face if you can manage to borrow some technology.
I remain busy at work. Lecturing will never be my favourite, especially with this latest crop of students, who are as dug into their opinions as turnips after a hard frost. But it pays the bills. My paper is finished and now I am working to get it published. Never an easy process. Wish me luck!
Don’t worry, I won’t be alone again for the holiday – some neighbours invited me for dinner – the couple with the tree in front of their house, and all those birds. Their name is Spencer. They’re quite eccentric. They have this one goldfinch who seems to have stayed behind and moved in with them. Sounds crazy, I know – they call him Max. I thought he was wild, but now I’m not sure.
All my love, Win
There were eight for dinner, but everyone managed despite the tight space. Winifred was disappointed there was no turkey, but changed her mind after Maialen gently pointed out the offense to Maximillian of roasting any bird in the Spencers’ oven – even an ignorant member of the Galliformes.
The two women sat side by side on the sofa, the aroma of rice pilaf wafting through from the kitchen. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she whispered. ‘I’m not used to thinking about our feathered friends so … anthropomorphically.’
‘That word … is unfamiliar to me.’
‘Sorry! It means ascribing human characteristics to an animal.’
‘Ah, yes! Antropomorfismoa.’
‘I wish I had your facility for language. I always feel inadequate – my French is not what it should be, even after living here for years. Are you fluent in many others?’
‘Besides Euskara -’
‘My native tongue. I have French, and some Spanish. Those come from sharing a border. Sadly, I am not confident with Canadian English as I would like to be. Your … colloquialisms make me flounder.’
‘Is that why you’ve travelled here, then? To learn more?’
‘In part.’ She smiled, and poured out some wine. ‘But what about you? Tell me about your job at the university.’
‘It’s challenging,’ Winifred said. ‘Students have lots of ideas – many of them fanciful at best. But I understand – so much we have taken for granted is being lost.’
‘Yes, much is changing.’
Max flew into the room to land on the coffee table. He looked from one woman to the other, as if asking to be caught up on the conversation. Winifred felt a sudden, delicious desire to stroke the bird’s feathers.
‘You are very beautiful, my little friend,’ she murmured.
‘Something is bothering you, Winifred?’
She sipped her wine. ‘One out of five avian species is lost or endangered. When I lectured on the disruption to migration patterns, I was mocked by some who disputed the facts. And my department head supported them! He said, ‘questioning ideas is the hallmark of a vibrant academic institution’. As if I were advocating a flat earth!’
Maialen frowned as Bertha entered the room to signal that dinner was ready. ‘We must talk more about this,’ she said.
Afterward, the party divided into two groups, each before a large Scrabble board Rolland had custom made. He scurried about like a kid, pouring drinks, putting the needle to a Haydn symphony, saying it improved concentration. Winifred had played the word game many times but, preparing to face off against Rolland and Li Wei, wondered if she and Maialen were a match for these devotees.
As Rolland fetched a bag of tiles for each table, the goldfinch landed on his head. ‘We’ll need to be careful,’ he joked, ‘Max has been known to scoop the X.’
Bertha stood with her team, a bowl in hand. ‘Each team will choose a one-word theme from out of the bowl. Your challenge is to work together using all the tiles to construct as many words as possible based on that theme. May the better table win!’
Winifred unfolded the piece of paper for her team while Rolland emptied the bag of tiles onto the board. It read star.
Maialen laughed. ‘Let’s do this!’
Li Wei, a balding young man who rarely spoke above a whisper, began assembling words furiously and arranging them on the board as the group went to work to construct a jigsaw puzzle. ‘Don’t grab all the vowels, my friend,’ grunted Rolland. ‘And keep the words to two syllables; we’ll be able to use more tiles that way.’
Twenty minutes later, words snaked across both boards in every direction, a bottle of champagne was opened and word choices were shared and defended.
Winifred was nonplussed. And charmed. And, for the next hour, forgot about the relentless slap of rain against the window behind her.
November came. Winifred visited the couple on many dark evenings, her only witness the clouds thickly bandaging the moon. Joined by others seeking to escape dreariness, eager to embrace their unusual company. And always, there was Maximillian. Winifred wondered at this Carduelis tristis, her private name for him. Sorrowful thistle. Sometimes the finch seemed almost ready to comment on a well-turned remark, and she who had long studied the feathered creatures marvelled at the variety of song of which the bird was capable. And tried to make herself believe that, somehow, he understood the conversation, while not entirely sure she understood it herself.
When had she ever heard words like these? Lyrical, winsome paroles that left her feeling a peasant among linguistic nobility. The sentiment was brought home forcibly her third visit, the night the group adopted a sesquipedalian theme. The assembly’s task: name the longest simple and compound word brought to mind. One guest dominated, a medical practitioner with a penchant for compound disease names; although Winifred was quite proud of her contribution ‘squirrelled’ which had the value of being the longest one-syllable word cited.
Eventually, Winifred came to see the desire was not to dazzle, but to educate. To reveal possibility. The couple formed a small cell of a larger society Maialen called the Expression. Virtually ignored, a guild of language lovers in a world increasingly dominated by txt-speak, SMSish, and emojis.
The year ended and the blizzards came: fierce, relentless, fragmenting the city, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, as if conducting some eerie experiment in isolation.
Rolland stood by his window, gazing out at the storm. ‘Do you think Winifred will return?’ he asked Maialen. ‘Our last visit seemed to trouble her.’
‘Winifred. Your name means joy and peace.’ Rolland held her hand a moment.
Maialen spoke. ‘Winifred. We are kin. The Basques are sisters of the Celts. Bound by blood. Of all modern peoples, we are closest to the descendants of the tribuen who first settled your Welsh homeland.’
‘Winifred, your first task begins.’ Bertha handed the grid to her. ‘The first, we hope, of many. You need only your mind and your heart. Complete it as only you can. With our blessing.’
Bertha stood back, the wooden grid in Winifred’s hands. The lights seemed to dim even as the surface before her began to illumine, the perfect symmetry of the dark squares asserted themselves. Bertha had been right; it was like an enormous crossword puzzle, but with only a single clue, its words, its very characters, gleaming. The edges of the empty squares pulsated, like rows of open jewellery cases, each awaiting its own diamond.
Winifred breathed and bent forward to examine it. And the room swam away.
- ACROSS: A specific environment or ecological condition in which a species lives. Seven letters.
In her mind the idea formed, the need to see it, to see it complete and whole. Her cortex alighted, fired, lifting the word out of her fusiform gyrus. As it emerged, she mouthed the syllables as if gulping for air …
H A B I T A T
She spoke it. It whispered out, air expelling from her lungs, the living truth of it vibrating into the room like a newborn’s cry.
Once unleashed, she watched, amazed, as other words followed suit, submissive to the Mother Word, flocking to their place on the grid … setting, site, surrounding, situation … other words joined she did not immediately recognize, trailing into other languages … locale, limite, endroit, espace … words she had never seen, characters fluted and accented, dialects foreign to her own. She heard in that moment an echo, and understood it to come from Maialen’s mind, part of the word healer’s own lexis, and Winifred realized afresh how they were kin, for the Mother Word in both languages was identical.
In a matter of seconds, the grid was complete, the words glowing, inviting her to enter deeply into their meaning. As she gazed, trying to understand, yielding, the images began to form…
A marshy wetland in spring, fringed by dense tangles of brambles among shrubs and small trees, the standing water already receded to small, damp, muddy pools, the aquifers below choked, overcome. Herons hovered above, unable to land…
A desert, barren, dunes of sand in a dry sea of futility, inert, barely able to support life, a Martian mockery, a lesser Mordor with an appetite for conquest unbridled, unabated. The way was blocked…
A tropical jungle withdrawing before the desert’s expansion, retrenching, always receding – lush, vibrant, diverse, a humid, sun-drenched community where life thrummed from the decaying floor to the highest canopy – under siege, cordoned off…
She was one with the Passerines. It was through their eyes that she perceived all of it, and the sight was wonderful and dreadful: an earth full of life yet fragile, immense yet wounded, in peril, crying out for mercy. And now she saw that the skies had opened as a desperate attempt to right a terrible wrong. It was this the winged creatures saw. And now, she saw it too. And reeled…
Was this what it meant to plumb the depths of meaning? The Mother Word contained an entire universe. It overwhelmed her, humbled her, claimed her. She reached out to it, let it caress her mind, fill her being.
She knew then. Her mandate lay not in command, but in submission. To its meaning. To the demand it made upon her. To its intrinsic, unchanging value. Rolland’s lesson echoed: We allow the words to change us, purify us. To think clearly, to see what is. To not be confounded…
She grieved, then, for the ignorance, the foolishness, the stubbornness of men. For her own. And her tears fell fast even as her resolve grew and she heard the finch’s trill, calling her back…
When she became aware again of the room she stood in, she found that her legs were shaking. The glow of the grid was fading. She just managed to set it down on the table. Maialen held her then. Lest she collapse on the floor.
‘It was only one word!’ she whispered.
‘Yes, Winifred, it was.’
‘You have done well,’ said Bertha, relief now in her tired voice.
Winifred looked up.
‘Now we are whole again. Now move forward together,’ said Rolland.
Winifred smiled, an ingenuous, knowing, heartbreaking assent.
In the morning, Maximillian joined them as Winifred walked Maialen down to the street and the waiting cab.
‘We will meet again at the equinox,’ asked Maialen, the flakes swirling around her. ‘Your training has just begun, and we will have much to discuss.’
‘I will miss you,’ said Winifred. ‘Return soon.’
With a kiss and a wave, the cab pulled away.
The finch landed on Winifred’s shoulder. She looked at him curiously. He nudged forward and caught a single strand of her loose hair in his beak. And then he flew, without a sound, circling the locust, the rooftops, ascending the leaden sky.
A moment later, he was gone. Ω
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