Jamie Langston Turner
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Conscience is But a Word That Cowards Use
The pine warbler eats its neighbors in the pine tree—insects and spiders—as well as seeds and berries. As it creeps over the bark of the tree, the warbler's olive green and yellow plumage sometimes becomes stained with pine resin.
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. If tapping on my window fails to scare them off, I open the window. I also have a small-caliber handgun, which I know how to use. Squirrels, however, are not intimidated by the sight of a gun, and I would never fire it for risk of damage to the bird feeder.
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.
Because of Patrick and Rachel, I do not have to modify the phrase to make it singular: "the winter of my discontent." Truly, it is the winter of our collective discontent, though Patrick and Rachel try to hide it and though at the end of it they will receive a reward to compensate for the trouble of wintering me. It is a winter barely begun, for I have been here only four weeks. By the calendar, a week into November, it is shy of literal winter by six weeks. "Short winters" is a description misapplied to Mississippi by those who know nothing of the South. We natives know how long these short winters can be.
A cantankerous old woman is never so annoying as when she is in some way related to you, and if you are strapped with her, overseer of her care, recipient of her complaints, then she may be a burden past telling. I know this. Before I lived here, before I myself qualified as a burden, I knew this, for I was my mother's keeper for five months before she died of irritability, a condition that had started in her bowel years earlier but metastasized to her mind and behavior by the end. Throughout my life I have been told that I am like my mother in many ways except in looks. My mother was a great beauty in her youth.
A difficult old woman may be entertaining if you are not responsible for her upkeep. Such a termagant lived in my mother's boardinghouse when I was a child. I used to delight in Mrs. Beadle's nasty temper, the tactless things she said about the meals my mother prepared, the way she upbraided the postman, whom she accused of withholding letters from her and whom she regularly threatened to sue in a court of law.
One day I was hiding behind the spirea bush at the corner of the house, spying on Mrs. Beadle as she sat on the front porch. She was muttering to herself and working her jaw in a way I found both freakish and fascinating. Between mutterings she would pucker her mouth, then push her tongue out and let the tip of it move about slowly, like a mollusk venturing from its shell, testing the air for danger. I must have laughed, for she turned and saw me. Before I could flee, she had pronounced me an ugly, spiteful child with the look of a bow-legged, mangy dog, at which point I ceased to delight in her. It was Mrs. Beadle who first apprised me of the fact that I was not an attractive child. My parents and sisters had kept it from me. After that, whenever I looked into a mirror, I marveled that I had not seen it for myself, that it had taken a peculiar old woman like Mrs. Beadle to point it out.
This I also share with Richard III. As he was small of stature, ill-featured, distrustful, and fidgety, so am I. Though not truly a hunchback, I am crooked, one shoulder being higher than the other. This defect I saw for myself when I began to examine photographs after Mrs. Beadle's pronouncement of my ugliness. After this I could adjust my stance to correct the fault when I remembered. Now I do not care. The fact that I stand off-center is the least of my worries. That I limp when I walk is likewise of no concern.
Imagine two pretty, graceful hands shaping a mud pie. I am the mud pie, my sisters the hands. Or two flowering dogwood trees with a little stunted ginkgo growing between them. I am the ginkgo. Smell the fruit of a ginkgo sometime for a full appreciation of the analogy. Or a common field sparrow occupying a nest with two golden-winged warblers. I am the sparrow. But the hands have fallen silent and the dogwoods ceased flowering. The sparrow has outlived the warblers. My bird book tells me that the female field sparrow does not sing.
My care is a responsibility that Patrick has taken upon himself willingly, though, as in most duties, with insufficient understanding of what it will entail. Tall mountains always look surmountable from a distance, but once the arduous upward trek commences, the peak is nowhere to be seen. There are ruts and thorny weeds along the path, sometimes only sheer wall with no path at all.
Patrick was chosen, along with his wife, Rachel, from among five applicants to house me during the winter of our discontent. I interviewed each of the five—two nephews, two nieces, and one great-niece—and selected Patrick. I was honest with all five, to a point, stating the simple terms of the trade: my money for their food and shelter. The food and shelter would come now, the bulk of the money later. Perhaps I led them to believe there would be more money at the end than there will be. I suffer no distress of conscience because of this. "Conscience is but a word that cowards use," as King Richard put it. There will be money enough, certainly more than Patrick has ever had.
I had the foresight to arrange for my winter before autumn had ended, though the flutterings of my heart spoke urgently of leaves falling rapidly. My mother died at eighty-six, my sisters at seventy-nine and seventy-five. At eighty I knew I must not delay. The branches of the tree were nearly bare. My method: I sent letters to nine people, family and acquaintances, five of whom responded to apply as Providers of Winter Hospice for Sophia Marie Langham Hess.
In the letter I laid out the terms of my care. I stated my reasonable expectation to die within a year, two or three at the most. I did not state my intention to resist this expectation. Those reading the letter could have concluded that I had no fear of meeting my end, that I was ready to yield, that their part would be easy.
During the past summer I traveled from my home in Kentucky to visit each of the five respondents, ten days in each home, with a suitable interval for rest between each trip. This took the entire summer, after which I announced my decision. All travel arrangements were furnished by the applicants, as stipulated in the letter. I would not negotiate airports alone.
In each home I looked at the accommodations with an eye to light and privacy more than to space and luxury. I would not spend my winter in darkness nor in the hub of chaos. I wanted many windows but few doors, though I did not state these requirements in the letter.
As for privacy, I saw the necessity for interior access to my quarters, but I wanted a solid door with a bolt on my side. That is not to say that I wanted absolute quiet, however. I wanted to hear convincing evidence of living on the other side of my walls. One home I eliminated because, among other reasons, it was too quiet. My great-niece Adrienne offered me an entire apartment in what she called her "deluxe townhouse" in Jackson, in a private community with iron gates and a guardhouse, but for the ten days I was there, I felt as if I were in a vacuum-sealed vault. Adrienne was away all day in an office downtown. Her maid fed me breakfast and lunch, then left at one o'clock. I had a phone number and a television for the long afternoons and evenings.
I can tolerate a great deal of noise. I am not deaf, although because I sometimes choose not to reply, people often assume wrongly that I am. I do not take pains to relieve them of this misconception. I have learned to turn to my advantage such misconceptions. They may serve to gather useful information, as in the case of Adrienne.
"Oh, I'll get a system worked out," I heard her say to a man in her kitchen late one night, a man she called Roger. "The food part will be easy," she said. "I gave her a Lean Cuisine tonight—put it all on a plate, and she thought I'd made it."
Young people are forever overestimating their cleverness. I had seen the frozen dinners in her freezer. While she was at work that very day, I had explored her house.
Roger said something, and she laughed. "Don't worry, she'd never figure it out. She's deaf as a fencepost. Besides, she probably wouldn't care. She had plenty of boyfriends in her day." Obviously, Adrienne had mixed me up with my sisters. I had friends but never a boyfriend, not until a short, bearded man became charmed by my typing skills, which I faithfully exercised on his behalf through numerous lengthy articles for scholarly journals and papers to be presented at conferences. He rewarded me at last by marrying me.
I heard Roger's car leave Adrienne's driveway the next morning before eight. I wondered what attracted him to Adrienne, who was severely thin with a square jaw and a garish blond streak in her short black hair. I had also heard her say of me, "She's loaded." Maybe Roger was interested in sharing the profit. She left for work soon after he did, and I counted on my fingers the number of days I had been in her house, sorry that I still had four to go. When I heard the maid arrive, I turned up the volume on the television and waited for her to pound on my door.
"Dolly here to clean!" was how she announced herself. She always sounded angry. I wondered what Adrienne had told her about me, if anything. The routine was unvarying. First Dolly set a plate of food on the large ottoman, then a glass of orange juice on the table beside it. The menu was not creative—a single fried egg, a piece of toast, a slice of bacon. I was never consulted as to preferences. As I ate, Dolly moved about the apartment, never speaking, never glancing at me. She made no noise with her feather duster and Windex. She was short and round like me. Perhaps she avoided looking at me because she did not want to see how a short round woman looks when she gets old.
My only view through the windows of Adrienne's apartment revealed other luxury townhouses on every side. A patio and garden in the rear were enclosed by a high fence of bleached wood. Adrienne had filled a shelf in the guest apartment with books, had left a large volume of Shakespeare on the mahogany table beside the sofa. Like others in my family, she imagined I was an intellectual, had heard the rumor, which I do nothing to dispel, that I had lectured on Shakespeare in my days of university teaching. Many people do not realize how much information one can pick up secondhand and pass off as his own, how narrow his understanding may be of things he references with apparent ease. A person can feed the assumptions of others by affecting an aura.
Associations may heighten one's reputation, but they may also lower it. "Birds of a feather flock together," as the old saw goes. If the flock is predatory as a whole, each member will be judged a predator. If they are songbirds, bird watchers will expect each bird to sing. In a flock of crows, it will be assumed that each one is a messy squawker. One may stain himself by the company he keeps just as surely as he may catch the reflected shine. Because of my husband, I consorted with scholars. Though I was quiet, having many questions but few answers in matters of philosophy and literary criticism, I was considered one of the windbags by association. I have read that the pine warbler soils his feathers by living in the pine tree.
Patrick's house was my next visit after Adrienne's, and the last of the five. It was also the smallest and most modest of all the homes. Though I am in no way averse to luxury, perhaps I settled for this one since it was closest to my childhood home in Methuselah, Mississippi, or perhaps because I had taught school in this town for a few years in the sixties. Perhaps it was because of all the windows facing the backyard. From my vantage I could see a field where children played, birds at the bird feeder, a birdbath, pine and poplar trees, a gazebo with a weathervane on top, a neighbor's trampoline. Perhaps these images held more interest for me than those of the other four houses.
Or perhaps, weary of the interviewing process, I had lost my powers of concentration and my capacity and patience for comparison. It was easy to simply surrender and say, "This one—I'll take this one." Maybe it was that Patrick and his wife didn't act falsely eager for my company, as some of the others did. Or maybe there was some mysterious quality this house possessed. Who can tell? I have chosen it. Here I am, and here I shall stay.
I will admit to one certainty: Patrick's wife intrigued me during my ten-day visit. People, like the ginkgo fruit, may look small and harmless on the outside yet emit the vilest of smells when crushed. I know that Rachel cannot be as good as I imagine her to be. One does not live to be eighty and still harbor delusions about the fundamental goodness of humankind. Perhaps this in itself should have driven me to choose another home, one in which the inhabitants wore their imperfections like old clothing. But then, maybe I purposely sought the site of inevitable disillusion for the final act in my play, to confirm to the end what I have known life to be.
* * *
The first night of my visit with them, I watched Rachel slice red potatoes for supper. I pretended to be looking at a magazine Patrick had placed in my hands, telling me in his strident voice that I would be interested in the article on a certain page. I was not. It was an article about the unreliability of college entrance exams, especially the new writing component, but I read only the first sentence, which opened with the pedestrian words "Statistically, the likelihood of a quality education in the public schools today is lower than it has ever been." I was not interested in statistics or a quality education. I was interested in Rachel's slicing of the potatoes.
I sat at the kitchen table in view of the counter where she was working. She handled the potatoes as someone working her way through a delicate puzzle. She first sliced each potato into four segments, then studied each quarter, as if measuring it into equal parts before laying her knife against its red skin. She sliced each quarter into three parts, then gently scraped them to one side of the cutting board before beginning the next quarter.
After finishing the seventh potato, she looked at the small pile of neat wedges for several long moments before stooping to get a pan from the bottom drawer of the stove. This she filled with water and set on an eye of the stove. I thought it curious that she would slice the potatoes before setting the water to boil. Did this suggest a lack of intelligence, a habitual failure to plan ahead, or simply a reluctance to presume upon the future?
I remembered the pots of boiling water on the stove in my mother's boardinghouse kitchen, usually two or three of them churning furiously as my mother stood at the counter hacking vegetables into pieces so large that the boarders had to cut them down to size before they could eat them. At least they were always soft enough to cut easily. In fact, they often verged on mushy, since my mother's method was to let everything "cook down" until the liquid was nearly gone.
Rachel took up the saltshaker and gave it four deliberate shakes into the water before turning on the eye. When it grew red, she wiped her hands on the apron she was wearing over her blue jeans, then opened a cupboard door and stared inside before reaching up to remove a can of green peas. She cranked it open with a handheld opener, then emptied its contents into another pan, rinsed the can, and threw it into the garbage.
Hanging on the kitchen wall nearest where I sat were four matched prints in blue frames. The titles of the prints were Granny Airs the Quilts, Grandpa Chops Wood, Aunty Hoes Cotton, and Mama Washes Clothes. The scenes were of tidy shacks beside cotton fields, with happy, neat-looking, colorfully dressed Negroes doing their work under large shade trees. The prints were matted, but two were not centered properly. On the counter beside Rachel's canisters was a large ceramic cookie jar in the shape of a fat, jolly Negro mammy. Her big scarf-tied head was the lid, which lifted off at her broad shoulders so that she could be filled with cookies to make everybody else as fat and jolly as she was.
The pictures and the cookie jar are the kinds of things I hate about the South, even though I call it home. Perhaps these items should have provided further cause for me to eliminate Patrick from among the five applicants, but I think I knew, even as I was sitting in the same room with these things, that I would come here to live. I hate small, constricted minds, but I had seen Rachel slice potatoes and wipe her hands on her apron. I also saw her place a cube of butter in the pan of peas, open a can of biscuits, and take meat loaf out of the oven. It wasn't the food itself that drew me but the slow grace of her actions, as of moving against resistance, like someone under water, someone capable perhaps of surprising, like a large mermaid.
I do not spend my days wondering if I should have chosen differently. I live in a single large room, a former "rec room," as Patrick called it when I first arrived for his interview. I also have a walk-in closet and a small bathroom, which shares a wall with Rachel's laundry room off the kitchen. The proximity of the washing machine spares Rachel from having to transport my laundry a great distance. Laundering an old woman's clothes is no pleasant task. This I remember from the months that I was my mother's keeper.
I watch birds and television. Patrick pays for cable service, which provides me with fifty-one channels. I also eat, sleep, and bathe, though not in excess. I do these things alone, without help. I read sometimes, mostly my bird book and old issues of Time magazine, which Patrick has saved and stacked on the bottom shelf of the bookcase.
And I listen. Rachel rings a bell every night sometime between five-thirty and six. It is a small gold bell that sits on the windowsill above her sink. She rings it for Patrick, thinking I can't hear it. Then she comes to my door with a tray. She knocks and calls out, "Suppertime, Aunt Sophie."
I watched her ring the bell the first night I visited, the only night I ate at the kitchen table with them. First she stood at the stove and lifted the lids of the pans to check the potatoes and peas. Then she opened the oven and looked inside. Then she filled three glasses with tea. Then she reached for the bell on the windowsill. The table was not yet set when she rang it.
Excerpted from WINTER BIRDS © Copyright 2017 by Jamie Langston Turner. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House. All rights reserved.
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