Paradise Lost

Submitted into Contest #248 in response to: Write a story titled 'Paradise Lost'.... view prompt

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Fiction

Millie shifted in her wheel chair, and rolled over the slider threshold onto her little porch. Her porch was shared with the woman next door, with a small fence between the two. Millie's half of the porch had a pole with two bird feeders and a hanging flower basket. Around her, several filled suet cages hung from the railing. There is just room left for her wheelchair and a small side table.

Time has not been kind to Millie, but she was of an age where she knew her days are numbered. She struggled with her health, but her birds were her sanctuary. As April had finally arrived, she sat bundled up in her thick woolen sweater, and held out her hand. A few black oil sunflower seeds sat within the hollow of her palm. "Chicadee-dee-dee-dee-dee," she called softly. In a moment, a black-capped chickadee landed on her thumb and took a seed. It flew off, and Millie again called out, "Chicadee-dee-dee-dee-dee."

"Hello," greeted Millie's neighbor, standing at the slider screen door to her next-door apartment.

"Hello," said Millie back. Again, she called to a bird. Ally hung back and watched. Another chickadee landed on Millie's fingers and plucked a seed from her palm.

"I can't believe you just did that," said Ally in surprise. "May I come out?"

"Please," Millie answered. She put the remaining seeds in her sweater pocket and turned the wheelchair to face Ally. She studied her neighbor, a thin woman who's eyes were dark with fatigue and too much care. Millie notices sounds coming from inside Ally's apartment. "Are you alone?" she asked. "Did I disturb you?"

"Goodness, no," said Ally. She pulled up a folding chair from the far side of her little porch and opened it. She sat at the border fence between the two porches. "That's my son," said Ally, nodding towards the doorway. "He's playing his video game."

"Have you any other children?" asked Millie.

"An elder son," Ally answered. "He's in college on a free ride. Here, it's just me and my youngest, Tommy. I can have him come out to meet you."

"No, that's fine," Millie reassured her. "Don't interrupt his game."

"Is it too loud?" asked Ally.

"No," said Millie. "The birds don't seem to mind, so why should I?"

Ally smiled. "Have you any children?"

Millie smiled and nodded at her young neighbor. "I have a son of my own, and a daughter, but they're grown and moved away. They don't come by very much." She shrugged. "The birds are all I have left. 'Twas ever thus," she said, mildly.

"I'm sorry," said Ally.

"No, please, don't be. I am content." Millie nodded towards the back of the apartment complex. She explained, "One of the reasons I moved into this apartment building was because of the birds. Back there, behind the parking lot in front of us, is a nature sanctuary. It goes up that ridge and over, quite a ways back. Is that why you moved here yourself?"

Ally shook her head. "I came here because the rent was right. I'm newly divorced, and I needed the break."

"Do you work, Ally?" Millie asked.

"Yes. I'm a cashier at the Home Depot. Then I have Door Dash and Lyft, and I clean an office building on weekends."

"Goodness, you're a busy woman!"

Ally shrugged. "I do what I have to do." She stopped as a tiny chickadee landed on the railing to Millie's porch. Millie pulled some seed from her pocket and held out her hand. The chickadee landed on Millie's fingers and plucked a seed. It flew off and Millie glanced over to Ally and smiled.

"How do you do that?" Ally asked.

"Patience," Millie explained. She was proud that she could coax the birds to her hand. "Would you like to try?" she asked.

"I haven't the patience," Ally explained.

"I didn't either, when I was your age. But, when my kids all left, my husband, Carl, became ill. He'd sit at the slider window and watch the the world go by. He wasn't able to exert himself very much. He had COPD and heart failure. I had to look after him." She shook her head. "He was a ripe old bastard, let me tell you. Anyways, I had to go back to work, cashiering at the Shop and Save. I tell you, I loved it, meeting new people, and, for once, earning my own money. It wasn't much, let me tell you. But one of my customers suggested I try feeding the birds. Well, I tell you! I'm not sure who got the most pleasure from it, him or me. When I'd come home from work, he'd tell me all about the antics of the blue jays, or that the red-tailed hawk landed on this very railing, trying to catch a meal. The birds brought us together. For the last few years of his life, he looked forward to watching them and telling me all about it. I bought feeders and books, and we chatted up a storm."

Ally asked, "Did he teach you to feed the birds in your hand?"

"No, no," she answered. "My grandfather taught me that. However, Carl found these little button-like hummingbird feeders on-line, which you could put in your hand. While I was at work, he'd set out here for hours, coaxing them in. I could never get the hummers to feed from my hand. Just the chickadees. But the hummers will be coming up from the south soon, so they'll need a feed. You know, Ally, hummingbirds are very territorial. Would you be interested in putting up a feeder on the far end of your porch?"

"I don't know how to do that," Ally replied, doubtfully. "Is it expensive?"

"It's just sugar water, dear."

Ally agreed, hanging one of Millie' spare hummingbird feeders on the far end of her porch. Millie nodded in approval.

In a couple of weeks, Ally noticed a creature whiz by her front slider door. She got up from the dinner table and crept out to her slider door. A tiny hummingbird had perched on Millie's feeder. Slowly, Ally drew her eyes towards her own feeder. Another hummingbird dipped its beak into the floret feeding hole. She grinned, and gestured Tommy to come to the slider. She put her finger to her lips, and pointed out the hummingbirds at each feeder.

Throughout the spring and summer, Ally sat outside every evening, listening to the birds, and watching the hummers dart between the two feeders. The birds squabbled sometimes, and Ally and Millie sat together in silence, grinning to each other.

Millie did not always sit outside, and Ally sometimes found herself alone. She took to peering into the woods behind the apartment building. She was charmed to discover that there were squirrels and chipmunks all around. She heard baby ducks as they quacked to their mamas. She heard coyote pups yip when they were hungry, as their parents went off in search of food. The pups excited howls filled the night when their parents brought in an unfortunate animal for dinner. Lost cat and dog poster sprung up around the neighborhood. Once Ally watched a fox run up along the ridge, bearing, of all things, a chicken in its mouth. Later on, Ally saw a poster searching for said pet chicken, but she said nothing.

Most nights, when she finally got home, her son spent the evening playing zombie video games. "Homework done?" she asked. Tommy grunted. "Where is it?"

"Table," he mumbled. "When's dinner?"

"Fixing it now," she replied. She pawed through Tommy's backpack and looked over his work. Tommy heaved a loud sigh but did not stop playing his game. He glanced over to where his mother stood reading his term paper.

"Are you gonna let me explain?" he asked.

"Did you even try to read the book?" Tommy said nothing. "Movie? Cliff notes? Disney version? Anything?"

"It's a girly story," he said, frowning as one of the attacking zombies broke through his front lines. Ally went over to the television and unplugged it. "Hey!" he protested.

"Say another word and I'll smash it to bits--TV, game console, and maybe even your head!"

"Jeeze!" he said. "Sorry," he whispered.

"You want to go to college? You want to be like your big brother? Answer me! It's just a girly book, is it? Because I think I'm having a conversation with your teacher about this girly book. I want to understand how much your final grade rests on it."

"Harsh!" he muttered.

"We'll see. In the meantime, I want you to pick up this room. Did you get the laundry done like I asked? Tommy?"

Ally heaved a great sigh after dinner, when she'd had to yell at Tommy some more. She made him start reading the book. He got into it, and she left him, engrossed in the story. The game console came out on the porch with her as she plopped herself into her chair and rested her eyes on the ridge in back. Millie sat nodding on her own porch. Ally glanced over towards the old woman, finding her trembling in her wheelchair. "Millie? Millie!" Ally called in alarm.

Millie stirred and awoke with a start. "I'm all right," she said, embarrassed.

"Of course you are," said Ally, cheerfully. "You look tired. Maybe you should have an early night?"

Millie nodded and said nothing. Her eyes darted about, and she had an odd look on her face, but she wheeled herself into her apartment, and closed the slider door. Ally sat alone, letting the stress of her day slip away. Tommy's homework niggled at her, and now she had Millie's confused look to think about.

A week later, Ally returned home from work, tired and cross. She sat on her porch, staring out at the ridge, thinking about giving Tommy his game console back. Thump! She heard a sound come from next door. Millie's slider door was open to the screen, despite the chilly fall day. "Millie?" she called out in alarm.

A man came to Millie's open slider. "Hello," he said. "Who are you?" he asked.

"Ally, Millie's neighbor. Is she all right? I haven't seen her in a while."

The man emerged from Millie's apartment. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm afraid she passed a few days ago. Is there something I can help you with?"

Ally started. "Uh, no, thank you. I used to share birding tips with her."

"Birds, huh? That's new." He nodded. "I'm surprised. She was not one for little innocent things. I'm Carl, by the way. Carl, Junior." He held out his hand to shake.

"Ally," she replied. "I'm so sorry. I had no idea."

Carl nodded. "Thanks. But she hung on for dear life. She was getting pretty old. She just made it to ninety, before she passed. You into birds?"

Ally smiled. "Millie taught me a lot about feeding them. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed them, or in talking to your mother. I'm going to miss her."

Carl said, "You interested in some of this stuff, then? I got seed, feeders,books--all kinds of stuff."

"Do you mean it?" asked Ally.

"Yeah," Carl replied. "Get it off my back. I don't know what to do with all her crap, but if it's something you can use, you can have it."

"Wow!" said Ally, impressed. "That's really awesome! Thank you!"

"No worries," said Carl. "I was just going to throw it all out. Hold up," he said. He went back inside the apartment and emerged with garbage bags of black oil sunflower seeds, whole peanuts, and several bird feeders. "I got more," he said, as Ally's eyes lit up. Carl went back into the apartment and returned, bearing books and more feeders, more seeds, and a pair of binoculars. Over his shoulder was a holey woolen sweater. "Take this stuff," he said. "You got one hummingbird feeder, you want another?" He pulled Millie's empty feeder off of the overhang.

"Carl, thank you!" Ally exclaimed. Such generosity! She didn't know what to make of the bounty of seed and feeders. The binoculars alone might cost over a hundred dollars. But it was Millie's sweater, made of pure wool and woven from Scotland, that she hugged. She could already feel its warmth against the fall chill. She draped it over her shoulders as Carl handed over the other hummingbird feeder. "I got more. Boxes of crap. I'll give you some, or you can come by and take your pick. I'll be here the rest of the weekend."

"May I ask you for something?" Ally ventured.

"Sure! What?"

"The pole?"

"Oh, yeah! Didn't even notice it. You want the plant, too? It's looking kind of tired."

"It's a geranium," Ally explained. "Millie told me that she had been nursing it and dividing it since she moved away from the family farm, oh, years ago. Would you like it? After all, it is a part of your heritage, not mine."

Carl shook his head. "I couldn't care less. You have it. In fact, I'll give you all her garden crap. She's got indoor plants as well. You interested?"

Carl was so generous, that Ally had trouble finding room in her apartment for her new treasures. Millie had an enormous book collection, based on farming and nature studies, books she had loaned to Ally and encouraged her to read. Carl gave her books and shelving, and an antique four poster bed with a brand new mattress. A comfortable chair also appeared, as well as terracotta pots, plants, and gardening tools.

None of this stuff interested Carl. Indeed, he couldn't wait to get rid of it all. Ally benefited from her bonanza, but one thought troubled her. "Carl," she asked him as the weekend came to a close. "Where is Millie buried?"

Carl snickered. Despite Millie being born and raised in another part of the country, he had had her buried in a local cemetery. He drew Ally a map and directions to her grave site, as well as his own contact information. "Thank you," said Ally. "I'd like to keep in touch, if I may."

"That's okay," said Carl. "You're very nice, but my mom was not my favorite person. She was so obsessed with only her own life. It's a relief to be rid of her. You did me a favor."

"It was no bother, believe me," said Ally. "Carl, I'd like to visit her grave if I may. I could plant a few flowers or something."

"Go ahead," he replied. "I'm glad you had a good relationship with her. She was not the easiest person to get along with, but if that's what you want to do, you go right ahead."

That evening, the wind howled, as autumn began to give way to winter. The hummingbird feeders needed to be cleaned and stored, thought Ally. The birds were long gone, migrated to warmer climes. The other feeders would also need to be cleaned, and then filled. She could do that this weekend. And she would still like to learn to feed a chickadee from her hand before winter set in, and it grew too cold to sit outside for long.

As she sat at the dining table, drinking a last cup of coffee, the dinner dishes piled in the sink, Tommy was working on the last of his math homework. "What are you up to?" he asked, smiling.

"Tommy, am I a pain in the ass to you?" she asked.

"Whoa, where did that come from?" he asked, unsure how to answer.

"Millie's son, Carl. Am I?" she pressed.

"Nah," he said, meaning it. "You can be a bitch, sometimes, but sometimes I ask for it. So, no, mom, you aren't."

"Even though I made you read that 'girly' book last spring? And when I talked to your teacher?"

"Even so," he said, smiling.

Ally said, "This weekend, will you come with me? I want to find Millie's grave."

"How come?" asked Tommy.

"I want to try something," she answered.

Tommy did come, but only because Ally promised him a hamburger after they had finished at the cemetery. Her son studied Carl's map, and navigated their way around the winding lanes until they found Millie's grave. Her name was carved on one side of the gravestone, and Carl Senior's name was on the other. Millie's date of death was freshly carved on her side of the stone, which featured pictures of birds swooping down across its face. Ally asked Tommy to wait, and walked from the car towards the grave. She wore Millie's thick wool sweater and stood over the stone. In a pocket, she had secreted a small handful of black oil sunflower seeds. "Chickadee-dee-dee-dee-dee!" she called, again and again, holding the seed out on her palm. A bird answered after her. She waited, watched by Tommy. Finally, a black capped chickadee flitted from branch to branch, tree to tree. It landed on Millie's grave and peered up at her.

Ally said nothing, holding her breath, afraid she might spoil this moment. The bird stared up at her, then lifted itself up and flitted up to her palm. It landed on her thumb, picked out a single seed, and flitted away.

"Did you see that, Millie?" she asked aloud. "I did it! Thanks to you, I did it! And thanks to you, I will continue to do it. For you. For me. Thank you!"

Ally put her handful of seeds on the top of Millie's grave stone and returned to the car. "Did you just do what I think you did?" asked Tommy.

"Yes, I did," said Ally. "Yes. I really did."

May 03, 2024 17:23

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