A Thing with Feathers (short story)

Photo by Evie Shaffer on Unsplash

She stared at her reflection, her head turning, tilting, left and right. It had been a rough flight this year. Weather had caused delays and it was unseasonably cold when they arrived after wintering in Mexico.

Not too bad, she thought, preening and pausing before picking her routine back up.  Just a few more spots and—

Her grooming was interrupted by an inpatient admirer.  She turned to face her offender, “You can’t give me five minutes of peace?!”

He seemed to ignore her protests, instead focused on moving back and forth in a gentle arc, almost as if trying to hypnotize her. “Not today, buddy” and she flew off.

At least that was the drama that played out in Paula’s mind as she watched the ruby-throated hummingbirds returning to her feeder again this year. The males always came first, scoping out their territory. Then the females arrived, and the real drama began. The males posturing with their aerobatic moves, flashing their ruby throats, chittering away to attract females and discourage competition.

“Penny for your thoughts,” Randall asked. His calloused hand reached for hers across the kitchen table.

“Nothing. Just watching my birds.” She smiled, immediately getting up. She was too embarrassed to share what went on in her head sometimes, even with Randall.

He smiled and returned to his paper.

“Want any more?” Paula asked, motioning with the pot of coffee.

“Thanks, hon” he smiled, folding the paper and turning his attention to his wife.

Randall still had the kindest eyes she’d ever seen. Warm, safe and inviting, with drooping folds at their corners, so deep that the sun, which had browned the rest of him, never quite reached their depths. He reached around her hips, pulling her toward him with a squeeze as she filled his cup. He released her with a playful pat.

“Dirty ol’ man,” returning a teasing slap on the hand.

Randall stood up and grabbed two slices of bacon and a piece of toast, folding it into a sandwich and taking the last swigs of his coffee.

“See you at lunch,” he said, kissing her on his way out the door.

Paula made her way to the back-porch studio, a secluded, sunlit space where she worked and sometimes hid. She scanned the pile of sketches stacked on the worktable, selecting a handsome goldfinch to continue work on. She had a few more weeks before the first farmers market, which catered to the summer migration of tourists who flocked to the country to get away from it all.

She mixed a luminous yellow while watching her birds, the sunlight catching the brilliant turquoise of an indigo bunting as it perched on a feeder. She logged the date and species in her journal as she always did with less frequent visitors. Sometimes, when she wasn’t sure of the species, she made careful note of any field markings: the size, shape and color of the bill, wings and tail; and any distinguishing features such as crests, eye rings, or wing bars.

There was a comfort in being able to identify and categorize birds in a way she couldn’t with people. Paula had a habit of trusting people well before she should. She was like her mother in that way, trying to lead with trust and kindness even though there always seemed to be people who would take advantage. Ever hopeful that they would live up it, she gave those around her second and third chances even when in doubt. Feeling like a fool, she attempted trying on a harder persona once or twice, but it never felt right. ‘Let that failure be on them for their lack of character’, her mother had always told her, and it made Paula feel better. Nowadays, it felt less true when Paula said it to herself.

She dipped a clean brush into clean water and in one practiced move, drew the wet brush from tip to tail. She quickly followed with a graded wash of yellow, the color pooling and spreading unevenly, mimicking the subtle changes found in nature. She set the goldfinch aside to dry, wanting to continue work on the crow. As with all her paintings, she had started with a drawing of rich black ink, but now she wanted to lay a foundation of majestic blues and purples before adding more black. Goldfinches, cardinals, and chickadees were pretty, almost commonly so, and easy to sell. Crows were distinctly different. Scorned and labeled a nuisance, most people were unable to see their dark beauty and intelligence.

The first layer complete, she sat back and sighed. The wind was picking up and storm clouds were building off in the distance. Time in her studio normally recharged her, but today her thoughts were getting as dark as the weather and the water she rinsed her brushes in. It was time for a break.


Some people really ought to come with warning labels, she had often said of Scott. He was creative, charming, mercurial, and eventually abusive. He had swept her off her feet with poetry and hyperbole. And while she was off balance and distracted by his verbal sleight of hand, he went off drinking and came home lying. Lies followed by apologies. Lies followed by forgiveness perceived as permission.

Standing at the kitchen sink and staring off into the darkening sky, Paula ran her finger along the thin, white scar which ran from the corner of her eye up to her temple, before disappearing among the silver hairs scattered in her dark hair. A memento from their last argument. She had finally worked up the courage to confront Scott about the obvious. The elephant in the room needed a name.

“Can I ask you a question?” Paula stood in the doorway of their bedroom. Scott laid on the bed, drink in one hand, remote in the other, never taking his eyes off the television.

“You can ask me anything, but I believe it’s an answer you’re looking for.” He now turned to face her. “So, what you’re really asking is if I’ll answer a question,” he said, enjoying a splash of belittlement with his bourbon.

Paula had the sudden urge to both roll her eyes and to punch him in his pompous mouth. But lacking the willpower to fight both, the eye roll escaped. Glass immediately shattered to her left, leaving a dent in the door and a bright red check mark at the outer corner of her eye. With that, she had all the information she needed.

By the time Paula met Randall, her checkmark had healed to a pale pink, but her other wounds, the ones that couldn’t be seen, were taking much longer. But Randall seemed to see those cracks and appreciate them. Even love them.


Paula moved around the house shutting windows as the rain started to fall. Birds left the feeders for the cover of trees and Paula was reminded of the day Randall brought her home and asked her to stay.

He led Paula around the yard by her hand, excitedly pointing out projects he had been working on. “I know how you feel about your birds, so I put in these feeders. No matter where you sit, you can look out a window and you’ll see them.” Paula smiled and gave his hand a squeeze.

“And over here is the pièce de résistance,” he said with a flourish, opening the door to the newly screened porch, freshly painted white. “I wanted you to have a place all your own when you need it.”

His smile dropped when he saw tears in Paula’s eyes. “What’s wrong? You don’t like it?”

“Did you know that it’s the male bird’s skill at nest building that shows his suitability as a mate? This is all so perfect.”

With that memory of hope and promise, Paula was able to return to her studio with renewed energy just as the sun and birds returned after the brief storm and the whistling of Randall signaled his return to their nest.

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