Joel noticed the birdhouse on his porch the day he moved in. He'd put his eye up to the entrance—cautiously, in case the resident flew out at him—but found it empty. Caught up in failed attempts to get out of the miserable hellhole he'd wound up in, he'd quickly forgotten about it.
The morning of the first frost—which came on the ungodly date of September second—he paused on his porch to look out at the rimed grass glittering in the sunlight. The birdhouse swung in the slight morning breeze, creaking on the metal rod from which it hung. He asked Ruth-Anne whether any birds wintered this far north, and then bought a bag of sunflower seeds from her. The feathered fools who voluntarily stayed through the winter when sun and earthworms (or whatever birds usually ate) beckoned down in California and Mexico deserved the frozen soil and scarce food they got, of course, but despite certain people's opinions to the contrary, he wasn't heartless. That afternoon, he spread a line of seeds along the porch railing.
He wasn't doing it because he expected to be in Cicely much longer, he thought as he replenished the seed supply two days later, hordes of avian beggars having scoured his porch soon after the first serving. No, he still had a few tricks up his sleeve. Joel Fleischman was resourceful. He'd gone to school with plenty of proto-lawyers, not to mention children of lawyers. He wouldn't be sticking around long enough for any of the birds outside to make a nest in the birdhouse come spring.
From his window, he watched a large gray bird with spots of red and yellow on it peck at the seeds. He missed pigeons.
A pair of bluebirds moved in that May, exactly three years, two months, and six days before his contract was up (not that he was counting). Although patches of snow still lingered in shady hollows of his rented property, the birds seemed to bring spring in their wake. The air smelled green, and birdsong cracked open the deep silence of winter. He drove to town with a smile on his face.
That summer, he decided to do something about the seed husks constantly littering his porch. He bought a bird feeder, and with Chris's help—he couldn't quite bring himself to ask O'Connell, though she probably would have been the better choice, or at least wouldn't have given him a treatise on birds in the Irish mythological tradition as they worked—rigged up a wooden support that allowed the feeder to hang over the lawn, about a foot away from the porch. Chickadees mobbed it as soon as he and Chris went inside.
The bluebird chicks hatched in June. He watched the three spotted babies fledge, and from what he could tell, only one of them got eaten by a predator before they grew up and flew away for good.
An early autumn thunderstorm lashed against his truck as he pulled up to the cabin. Using his medical bag as a poor umbrella, he ran inside, only getting seventy-five percent soaked in the process.
Before going to change, he paused at the window, watching the storm whip the trees back and forth. He wouldn't want to be an animal out in that. At least the second round of chicks the bluebirds were raising in the birdhouse were dryish, although from the way it was swinging back and forth in the wind, they were probably on the bird equivalent of a really great roller coaster.
He suddenly remembered that O'Connell was supposed to be flying in some medical supplies this afternoon, along with the past week's Times. He'd nagged her at breakfast for not going earlier, as she usually did. He hadn't meant it entirely seriously—although he had been looking forward to reading the paper over coffee on a break between appointments this morning—but she'd snapped at him anyway, saying she wasn't his personal delivery service and she'd damn well wait until she could get a paying customer for the flight into Anchorage. They'd parted, as they usually did, with acrimony and irritation.
While he changed his shirt, he spared a brief moment to hope that she'd gotten back before the storm hit.
Something had started eating all his seed. He would put some out in the morning, and by the time he returned from the office, the feeder would be entirely empty.
He asked Holling about it, and the older man immediately suggested squirrels, or maybe... Then he paused portentously.
"What?" Joel asked.
"Well, I don't know if you'd care to hear about it..."
"Supposedly there's a small colony of Great Black-billed Thrashers living nearby. I've never seen one myself, but every few years, our birding society gets a report of a sighting."
Joel felt the familiar sinking, drifting feeling that generally meant he was about to be dragged off on a flight of fancy only a Cicelian could pilot. "What does that have to do with all of my sunflower seeds disappearing?"
"The Great Black-billed Thrasher is extremely large—the wingspan is said to be nearly sixty inches, a little bigger than your average raven. And it has an appetite to match. Miles McGriff says it's particularly fond of sunflower seeds."
Joel thought about this for a minute. "But if it's so big, how could it sit on my birdfeeder without breaking it?"
Holling lowered his voice. "They say it has three tiny claws at the end of each wing, and that it can use one set to tip the feeder sideways while keeping itself in the air with the other wing."
He was never asking these people a question ever again.
"Miles has what he claims is a picture of one, if you want to see it. It's very blurry. He said at the time that he thought it was a whaddaya call 'em, one of those dinosaur birds, it was so big. But Miles is rather fond of the bottle."
Joel pinched the bridge of his nose. "So, what, this is like the Loch Ness Monster of birds?"
"Dinosaurs and birds are related," Ed chimed in from the stool next to him, where he'd been openly eavesdropping on their conversation.
Never, ever asking them a question ever again.
"But your problem is probably squirrels," Holling said. "Fill your feeder with thistle seeds; they don't like them as much as the sunflower seeds."
"Thanks," Joel said, and left for Ruth-Anne's, where he was not going to ask her anything except whether she had some thistle seeds.
He'd forgotten to buy birdseed for a couple weeks. Between his broken nose, aborted lawsuit, and...well, the incident with O'Connell, his mind had been on other things. He'd finally remembered on his weekly grocery run, and had spent a few minutes Saturday morning refilling the feeder's long cylinder with dusty black seeds.
Even though it was the dead of winter, his avian dependents had apparently moved on to greener pastures, because here it was Sunday afternoon, and not one had shown up. He kept inventing excuses to get up from the novel he was reading and walk by the window, pausing to peer out at the feeder. Not even a starling graced any of the perches.
He went to bed with an unaccountably heavy heart. But when he woke up the next morning, a glance out the window while he was eating his bagel revealed an entire flock of birds—nuthatches, chickadees, and a few others he couldn't identify—getting breakfast as well.
In the Brick, he sat at O'Connell's table and watched her draw lines and write figures on an aviation map, plotting her afternoon's charter flight. Eventually she looked up and asked what was so fascinating about trajectories and fuel calculations.
"Beats trying to figure out what shape this beer stain on the table reminds me of," he replied. Besides, Maggie O'Connell was easily the most attractive view in the entire bar, not that he'd ever tell her that.
"Well, if you're going to sit there and stare at me, the least you can do is help." She gave him a pencil. "Erase that line, will you?" She pointed at a ruler-straight line connecting Talkeetna and some little burg near Fairbanks he'd never heard of, then went back to centering her plotter and connecting the lines she was drawing into some kind of irregular polygon.
He carefully erased the line, wiping away the rubbery residue when he was done. Peering at the map, he found it practically unintelligible, full of long strings of numbers and cryptic abbreviations. He looked at her newly-drawn lines, which seemed to be taking a rather roundabout route from Cicely to a dot on the map that didn't even have a name. "Wouldn't it be simpler just to fly straight from here to there?" he asked, pointing at the destination she had circled.
She regarded him as she might a particularly unappealing bug. "Sure it would be simpler, if I felt like getting shot down." She drew her fingertip around the rhombus of hash marks she had plotted a course to avoid. "That's military airspace. They don't take kindly to civilian pilots flying into it."
"Oh." He returned his attention to the map, trying to compare it to remembered images of Alaskan road maps. "What's with all the circles?"
Her raised eyebrow questioned his sudden interest in aviation. "Circles? You mean the compass roses?"
"I guess so. Like that one." He touched the one closest to him.
"They indicate radio beacons. And the arrow points to magnetic north. It changes variation from true north depending on where you are, you know."
"I did know that, actually." He tapped the paper with his fingertips. "So these compasses, and all these little lines—they'll always get you home, no matter what?"
She chuffed a breath. "Well, when you add in wind and fuel requirements, it's a bit more complicated than that, but it all starts with the sectional, I guess. If I ever got completely lost—not that I would—once I got someone to tell me where I was, I'd use this to get back home."
When summer came back around, the bluebirds returned to the birdhouse on his porch. At least, he thought it was the same pair that had been nesting there since his first spring in Cicely; the female had a greener tinge to her blue feathers than other bluebirds he'd seen since he'd come to Alaska.
After their long journey (he'd checked; these birds might have come from as far away as central Mexico), they didn't even seem to pause for breath before they began renovating last year's nest, making his birdhouse a home for this year's clutch of chicks. He hoped nothing would eat them this year.
He turned thirty-one three weeks after he started dating O'Connell. She came over that night and, a little shyly, held out a small, neatly-wrapped package topped with a cluster of color-coordinated ribbons that had been curled with a pair of scissors. He'd opened it to find a book on bird identification.
The next morning, after she'd left to fly a charter to Skagway, he flipped through the book until he got to the Gs. The book went straight from the Great Black-backed Gull to the Great Blue Heron, with absolutely nothing between them.
"You know, I could rig you up something to keep the squirrels out of your feeder," O'Connell said as he placed a glass of orange juice in front of her. He sat next to her at the folding table they'd pulled out onto the porch—it was warm, even this early in the morning, and one learned not to waste a second of such pleasant weather up here—and contemplated the two bushy-tailed rodents currently hanging off the feeder and stuffing their cheeks with seeds.
He took a sip of his own orange juice and shrugged. At this point, he figured that any creature willing to clamber up the porch railing, claw its way up the post supporting the roof, and then skitter along the little piece of wood that held the feeder away from his cabin deserved whatever food it was so determined to get, and said so.
She looked at him like she was seeing him for the first time. "What?" he asked.
"Nothing," she said, smiling, but she leaned over to kiss him.
After breakfast, they gathered up their dishes and went inside to wash them, tossing out ideas for what they might do together on the day off.
A few minutes after the door closed, a huge black and white bird, with a great black bill, flew up to the feeder.
The next time Joel looked out the window, his birdfeeder was entirely empty. Lucky squirrels, he thought, and filled it again.