Purple finches once flocked to the feeder. They were supplanted by house finches, the red feathers of their face dull in comparison to their fleeing cousins. The small birds’ aggressive tendencies pushed other flocks further north before they, too, were evicted. Tree sparrows and chickadees no longer bathed in the bath Merrill attempted to fill when he could spare the rain water. A silence permeated everywhere, the air no longer stirred by the screes of tufted titmice and grackle. The surplus of birdseed Katherine bought before she died was dwindling, wooden crates nearly empty.
The same could be said for the canned vegetables and jams Merrill stockpiled in the basement. The deer meat had dwindled to a few shreds of jerky. The canvas bags of rice were no longer plural.
The bird feeders stood before Merrill’s front door, mesh tangles of wire and platforms to shelter the remaining visitors from the buzzards circling above. The feeders huddled under a copse of scrub pine and wild cherry, their boughs providing shade, a perch to nibble seed when temperatures rose. Merrill’s house stood on a hill, overlooking a pond that had gone green from Cyanobacteria. It was a split family residence, but the upper floors were boarded off. A gas explosion killed the earlier occupants when they tried to rig a propane tank to their natural gas stovetop. Merrill and Katherine managed to put the fire out before it charred their rooms below. Only a minimal amount of rain water slurried through the wreckage of their ceiling. Merrill collected it in buckets. Waste not, want not, Katherine always said.
She hadn’t minded the exodus of neighbors, the crowds at the local grocer thinning every day. It was the declining variety of avian life that brought her low. It wasn’t just the birds. Squirrels and chipmunks disappeared. Deer fled for greener pastures. Even the number of insects ebbed to a few species of caterpillar, which was concerning, considering robin and sparrow fledglings couldn’t survive on birdseed alone. They needed the protein-rich, soft bodies of worms and grubs.
Katherine had worked for the local land trust back when it was still a functioning entity. She mapped wetlands where amphibians were attempting to establish breeding populations. She hammered osprey nest onto telephone poles, manufactured bats homes to keep mosquito populations down. Towards the end, the last ecosystem she defended was the feeders in her yard, which, in her opinion, were poor substitutes for actual habitat, but necessary considering the circumstances.
Her grave rest at the bottom of the hill, marked by a single blade from the lawnmower Merrill hadn’t gassed up in two years. He intended on planting a tree in its place, but seedlings wilted before their first adult leaves could unfurl.
In some way, he was glad she hadn’t lived to see the two remaining species who frequented the feeders. Bluejays and cardinals were the last to perch atop the seed, vying for territory they once shared in peace. The feathers they plucked from one another nearly brought Merrill to tears as he watched them through a crack in the blinds.
He didn’t want to think what the minor violence would have done to his wife.
“If you’ve got enough to feed the birds, then you’ve got enough for us,” a woman with a shaved head said, standing outside Merrill’s front door, thumbing back to the feeders. The two men accompanying her had shaved heads as well. The hairstyle helped disperse heat. One held on to what little muscle he could. The scrawnier of the two was skeletal, his left arm broken and healed at a wrong angle.
“There’s a difference between birdseed and food that’s ok for you and me. You’ll expend more calories shucking the shells than you’ll get from what’s inside,” Merrill replied, scratching his beard, looking down at the four locks separating outside from in.
If there was anyone who knew anything about calories, it was Merrill. He’d been a high school chemistry teacher before things went south. He could balance any equation the young woman couldn’t wrap her head around.
“But it’s still food, right. Sunflower seeds, like the baseball players used to chew?” the woman asked, scratching at a scab on her forearm nestled amongst the thousand freckles. Every tendon in her neck stood out when she spoke.
“Some comes from sunflowers. There’s also millet and safflower, maybe some suet. You’re going to make yourselves sick if you eat it. Trust me. Why do you think I haven’t eaten it myself?”
The larger of the men walked over to the feeder and upended what was left from the morning’s scoop. He stared at the kernels in his palm before tipping them back into his mouth, not bothering to pick out the bird droppings that inevitably mixed with the shells.
“Got anymore?”The scrawnier man asked, staring at Merrill through the slatted door.
Merrill dragged the barrel of his rifle into the opening, letting the group know it was part of the conversation, neglecting to mention its lack of bullets.
“Ok, ok. We get it,” the woman said. “No seed. We don’t need to take this any further. Gasper, give it a break and hang that back up.”
The larger man did as he was told, looping the metal clasp of the feeder over its perch.
“See you around,” the scrawny man said, before they walked down the road leading to the green pond.
When they were out of sight, a pair of cardinals alighted on the feeder, scrounged through the empty platform, then took wing.
Merrill kept the birdseed in his triple locked shed. He wanted to drag the crates of seed inside, but there was little room, and like he told the visitors, it wasn’t worth consuming. There was also contamination to consider from the manufacturing plant. If he had to put money on it, the larger of the group would be doubled over in intestinal despair, the ruffage and bird droppings too much for an already debilitated GI tract to handle.
Before he fed the birds the next morning, he searched the property, making sure no one lingered in the blueberry grove that no longer bore fruit.
Satisfied, he unlocked the shed and walked to the back of the confined space, passing old gardening implements that no longer held any use. He dipped an aluminum can into the remaining crate of seed and filled the feeder, making sure none fell out when he carried it back to its perch.
From his front window, Merrill watched the pair of cardinals return. The male selected a seed from the feeder, the best in sight, and fed it to his mate. It was a trait the species developed over the course of their evolution, the male proving he could supply food, that he was reliable, selfless in giving up the choicest morsel. Cardinals were Katherine’s favorite bird.
A flock of bluejays wheeled out of a nearby pine, cawing at the cardinals until they abandoned their perch, diving into a nearby thicket of bittersweet ravaged oak. He’d shoot the jays if he had the cartridges. Their presence never sat well with him. They ate the eggs of other species, swallowed small rodents if given the chance. Yet, they weren’t quiet birds of prey. Not when classification still made sense.
The stomp of trudging feet woke Merrill from sleep. Someone had broken into the second story and was traipsing around the deceased tenants’ rooms, turning over charred furniture, realizing there was nothing valuable left. Merrill picked it clean months ago. Catherine didn’t like the idea of going through the possessions of the dead, but there was no sense leaving something of worth to rot.
“Waste not, want not,” Merrill reminded her.
The footsteps continued. Several someones moving about the small space. There was little Merrill could do but wait to see if they tried his door. The rifle was useless as anything besides a club. Kitchen knives had dulled over years of use and abuse. He could tear a leg from the rickety table in the kitchen, hope a few nails came with it, but that was little better than the rifle’s stock.
Merrill slipped out of bed and moved to the wooden chair by the door, rifle in hand, listening to the inarticulate dance steps filtering through the floor above.
When they’d given up, it wasn’t Merrill’s doorhandle they tried next. Halfway down the hill, he heard the hinges yanked off the shed, the torsion of wood and metal scraped and bent by crowbar and hammer. They must have seen him go for the bird seed the day before. Binoculars spanned great distances. Merrill’s eyesight hadn’t been well since he was in his fifties. Camouflage was barely necessary to duck his notice.
The seed was gone. So were several shovels and rakes Merrill once used to tame the land he owned. The crates were torn to pieces, even though the thieves only needed to scoop out their contents. Wasting calories, Merrill thought to himself. That’s how he knew they weren’t long for the world. “Waste not, want not,” Katherine reminded him as he estimated the math in his head.
Outside, up the hill from where he stood in the shed’s doorway, he watched the cardinals land as they did every morning, but the feeder was empty. The two birds lowered themselves onto the platform, picking through the few empty shells that stuck to the bottom. Neither came away with anything. A lead weight dropped through Merrill’s empty stomach. He knew that look of longing in the birds shared glances, the nervous chitter escaping their beaks. He didn’t know how he lasted so long without Katherine and her daily reminders of how life had once been, how the world had once made sense, genus, phylum, family.
Shakespeare once said fish turned belly up beneath an osprey’s shadow. It was an act of surrender.
Cowbirds are parasitic. They lay their eggs in another bird’s nest so they don’t have to raise their own young..
Owls ears aren’t symmetrical. One’s higher than the other to hear their prey better.
Her words played out in Merrill’s head as a bluejay descend on the male cardinal, tearing into his feathers. The rest of the flock followed, beaks plucking feathers, finding the softer spots beneath, drawing blood, dark liquid flecking the air as the harassed songs of the two species sung in untuned agony, neither wanting what was happening, but neither knowing how to avoid the next step.
Merrill left the front door unlocked, but the thieves didn’t come in the night as he’d expected. The door was left open, his single lantern burning within, the dregs of the oil sending up a thin stream of smoke, blackening the already blackened ceiling. Merrill no longer had any desire to wait.
He’d stuck around for the birds, giving help where others hadn’t. Katherine, years before, had fought housing developments tearing down local forests, reducing bird habitat in great swaths. She went door to door getting residents to sign petitions baring the use of chemicals and herbicides that affect birds’ food sources. She organized local retirees to build nesting boxes for neighboring marshes. But the land was always cut back, houses cropping up like a pox along ailing skin. The chemicals continued to flow and there were no mating couples to fill the boxes once they were in place.
Katherine had seen it coming from far off, but she would never bend until the last option had been bled from her veins.
The seed theft was that last drop.
The next morning, the woman found Merrill sitting on his front step, rifle leaning against the house. Only the larger of the two men was left, and he looked paler than the day before, eyes sunken.
“I told you the seed wasn’t a good idea,” he said, not unfriendly.
“That you did,” the woman replied, her voice horse, eyes wider than they’d been the day before.
“Did your other friend make it?”
“Does it matter? None of us are going to make it,” the woman said.
The man cleared his throat in agreement.
“You could always head north like everything else. That’s still an option,” Merrill said, a flicker of regret crawling up his spine. He didn’t want the end he had laid out now that it was upon him. The Katherine’s ghost hadn’t fallen silent with her facts and figures, but none of the knowledge was going to bring back the birds, or help Merrill get off the stoop.
Nostalgia never saved anyone.
“Do we look like we’d make it?” the woman asked, gesturing to her partner.
“No. Not in your current state,” Merrill replied.
“This was never where either of us wanted to be, you know that. You know we never wanted to be like this. You know…” the woman trailed off as Merrill nodded. He knew. There was no question in his mind. And he knew how important those last remaining calories were, the meals no one wanted to have, the few remaining sources of nutrients available to anyone.
Even if they could catch a bluejay, the meat would only last them a day, if that. There were better, more easily attainable sources of calories, ones they wouldn’t need to pluck first.
Corey Farrenkopf lives on Cape Cod with his wife, Gabrielle, and works as a librarian. He is the fiction editor for The Cape Cod Poetry Review. His work has been published in The Southwest Review, Catapult, Tiny Nightmares, Flash Fiction Online, Bourbon Penn, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. To learn more, follow him on twitter @CoreyFarrenkopf or on the web at CoreyFarrenkopf.com.