Birds on Dark Branches

Carol held the ladder while I climbed up – like a city girl, she said – and handed me a scoop of mixed millet and corn, which I took to refill the feeder. She continued holding the ladder as I climbed back down, not letting go until both my boots had reached snowy terra firma and I had stepped away. Away to where, Carol? Is this far enough? I gave her a sideways glance as if to say oh please, I’m not some little old lady. She answered with one of her looks. The blueness of her eyes with pinpoint pupils was piercing in the brilliantly sunny outdoors, a perfect reflection of this cold and icy place.

Her look evolved into a withering shrug, one from her repertoire of shrugs that I’d become so familiar with over the years. This was the one that said listen, I’m not leaving you to wobble around on a ladder unsupervised, especially on ground that’s become lumpy and rock hard from freeze-and-thaw cycles, hoisting a bucket of millet and corn with your dainty Yorkville wrists because you’d go and lose your balance and fall off and break your middle-aged hip and then it’d be a long, bumpy ride in an old pickup truck to the nearest hospital, longer if we have to stop for gas and ask directions, and that’s why we don’t tiptoe around people’s pride out here, we shut up and hold the goddamn ladder. She has spoken some variation on those words many times in the past, customized to each situation, and now we’re at the point where she can deliver the full sermon with a single irritating shrug.

She’s right. I know that. She’s the one who has earned the weather-worn hands and long hair thinned by the wind, the one who chose this life in red flannel shirts and green rubber boots, the one who walked away from a promising career in global finance – coaxed away from the Bay Street towers by her husband at the time – an implied sacrifice that endows her with an air of dignity as if she were born into this. Still, I reserve the right to be annoyed. Anyway, within three seconds I forgave her. As usual, as always. Carol was, after all, my big sister if only by seventeen and a half minutes.

Another type of bird feeder dangled nearby. It bulged with a pudding of suet and nuts and looked something like a fancy Christmas dessert. She’d made it from her own recipe, one that calls for exotic ingredients like pecans and almonds she can’t really afford. But she always insisted her woodpeckers were worth it. Her woodpeckers. As opposed to what, Carol, somebody else’s woodpeckers? Knowing my sister, yes, she could probably tell the difference. She reached up with one hand to yet another feeder and swivelled it from the bottom so we could both see. The hopper was mostly full with black sunflower seeds so thankfully no ladder was going to come into play this time. She pulled off the other mitten with her teeth and used it to sweep the ledge clear of sunflower hulls stripped of their oily meat. She took care in doing it, calling it a “platform” as she swept, a word I chose to interpret in the theatrical sense, imagining the birds that were soon to arrive to sing and dance for our entertainment.

“They’re finicky like cats, some of them,” Carol said over her shoulder as black hulls fell to the ground, adding to a winter’s worth of empty casings making a shapeless polka dot rug at our feet. “Especially titmice … well, and chickadees, too. Seems the smaller they are, the more they like things to be just so.” She loudly kissed her gathered fingertips like a proud chef then slid her mitten back on and squinted up at the big clear sky. “But grackles, those jerks, they’ll eat anything, they don’t give a shit.”

She batted her mittens together to knock out the loose bits and brushed off her jeans – dungarees I think is more the word – then waved toward a snow-encrusted tract of farmland. It was her farmland, stretching out for a few hundred yards until it reached a cluster of trees.

“They’re in those woods right now. But in a few minutes, once we’re gone, they’ll come bursting right out—” Carol interrupted herself and heaved a long sigh, visible as a swirl of hot breath before vanishing into frigid air. It was a particular sigh intended to remind me once again of my role as feeble urbanite, a marketing professional of little value in the palpable world, incapable of midwifing a cow or winching a tractor out of the mud. In this instance, though, I knew she was joking. Half joking. She turned to look at me squarely and shook her head as if she could hardly believe it needed to be said: “You know, you really ought to stay over some time and catch them in the morning. The morning feed is way better. You’ll see goldfinches.” Then in an overly girlish voice she added, “Promise!”

The woods Carol waved toward were hardly what I think of as proper woods though that’s what she called it. No serious mammals would be living there. Deer, yes, but no predators of deer. No cougars, no wolves. There’s been no expanse of true wilderness like that around here since the Iroquois had the land. But if not woods, what else would you call it? To be fair, Carol’s grouping of trees was no different from thousands of others found at the foot of every farm from here to Montréal, isolated by fences, roads and telephone poles and stranded in a gridwork of fields etched into a post-glacial landscape. They were the same poplars, maples and birches we learned to identify by their leaves and bark, summer after summer, at the camp our parents kept sending us to. They were the same tedious trees seen through the windshield for hours every time I come out to visit. Proper woods or not, those trees serve a purpose. That’s one lesson I do remember as my sister’s semi-willing, semi-attentive student: they would have been planted as a windbreak, to mark property lines or as a source of fuel. Or they were simply left by settlers to fight erosion and fill a few acres of land too marshy to plough. From the point of view of a farmer – a farmer other than Carol, that is – the fact that marauding bands of birds would make their homes there, and in such abundance, was the only downside.

Not counting the legions of insects that will remain mercifully dormant for another month or so, birds are the most visible inhabitants of small woods like these and are the most active throughout winter. Those birds include goldfinches. When we were early teenagers I made the mistake of casually mentioning that goldfinches were my favourite bird.

A totally predictable choice, my sister snorted at the time, made by all the silly poetry-reading girls.

But I don’t even like poetry! I protested, then ran off in a blur of tears, making a stupid episode even more absurd. So it wasn’t random when Carol mentioned goldfinches just now. We both knew it was another sisterly swipe, which I’m sure she found absolutely hilarious even after all these years, delivered without a thought to how deeply the comment still cut.

“You know I’ve got the spare room. Fresh sheets on the bed and everything. But no-o-o,” she said, “you’re always in some big hurry to get back to fuckin’ Toronto.” She gave a cartoonish wink because she never uses that word except to be funny. And also to make a point. I wondered if maybe I’d glanced at my watch without realizing it. If I had, she’d have noticed. Saturday night on the 401 was going to be a conga line of taillights slithering into the city with nothing on the radio but mattress ads and Phil Collins. And true, I was in a bit of a hurry – not a hurry, exactly, but I was thinking if I left within the hour I could make it home before the girls fell asleep and in time to have a glass of wine or two with Mike, tell him about my day on the wild frontier and go to bed myself.


It had been a crisp, cloudless, windless day, as close to glorious as it gets in early March out here – closer to Lake Huron, I believe, than Ontario. In the stillness as Carol and I stood gazing at trees, I could feel the temperature drop along with the angle of the sun. I tensed my body to ward off the bout of shivering that I knew would otherwise consume me. God forbid I should expose another weakness to Carol. From this distance the woods seemed stark and lifeless: charcoal lines on a sketch pad. Yet winter birds of all kinds find shelter among the dark, brittle branches and tangled underbrush.

“They’re persistent buggers, I’ll give them that,” said Carol. I nodded vigorously in response, afraid to open my mouth and let my teeth launch into uncontrollable chattering.

“People think birds are free. What a laugh. You think they’re free?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Birds aren’t free. Ask Leonard Cohen. They’re just prisoners. Like chickens … like bees, even.”

Part of me wanted to point out that Leonard Cohen was a poet as well as a singer but it was thirty years too late for that comeback. Instead, instinctively, Carol and I turned at the same moment to look at the beehives, positioned some distance from the house and well away from the bird feeders: four boxy columns that would stay swaddled in blue tarps until the first burst of spring.

As we looked at the beehives the tarps caught the light from the lowering sun and their deep blue colour suddenly turned unnaturally bright, with an almost electric glow. The effect lasted only a moment, until the sinking sun shifted its focus once more, to bounce off the hard snow and cast a cold tint across the fields and into the horizon. The beehives returned to just being beehives. Overhead the vast arc of sky lost its colour and turned opalescent as if a coat of frost up there quickly knitted itself together in response to the falling temperature. If this was a prison, like my sister said, then as far as I could tell it was a prison without bars, without bounds and without inmates.

“Give me a hand with something, would you?” Carol motioned with her head, then led the way along a trodden path to the other side of the house. Set a little ways from the house was a structure I hadn’t seen before: a long lean-to with a pitched and shingled roof. It looked newly constructed and as we approached I could smell the fresh lumber. It was built in a basic way but with the level of care one might give to a garden gazebo and it was filled with firewood so meticulously chopped and stacked as to be almost sculptural. It struck me that it must be intended as something more than just a framework for keeping logs off the ground and sheltered from rain and snow. It also seemed unnecessarily far from the house, not that I would dare question it. Then I noticed that this shrine was in the ideal spot to face the woods squarely with nothing but flat, uninterrupted acreage in between as if for some reason the woods and the woodpile needed to keep a constant eye on each other.

Every year my sister would tell me the latest version of how she hires local boys to go into the woods for a couple days to cull the trees felled by age and lightning and wind then cart it up to the house for the winter’s fuel. You wouldn’t frickin’ believe the racket of those chainsaws, she’d say every time. Holy jeez, then they’d go down the road to the Timmermann’s and start them up again. Birds must’ve hated it.

When her husband left – so long ago now, I’ve actually forgotten the year – Carol found herself abruptly alone, though of course the reasons for these things are seldom so sudden or so simple. Running a farm, which at first had been more his idea than hers, was now solely in Carol’s hands. And so along with every other chore she would split the logs herself in early autumn, stack the firewood in neat rows, then sell the excess by the cord to whoever wanted to come by and pick it up. Lately she’d been borrowing a neighbour’s gas-powered splitter for most of the work, which I suppose explained the massive amount of wood she now had and the need for a new place to store it. Until the day not long ago when she finally admitted that her back troubles had come to stay, all the splitting had been done by Carol swinging an axe.

We each carried an armload of firewood to the door, stomped the snow off our boots and went inside, shuddering at the sudden warmth and laughing because of it. By the time the kettle boiled, and with our cheeks still rosy from the outdoors, my sister’s so-called prisoners were beginning to arrive for their late afternoon rations. Needlessly tip-toeing we carried our mugs of tea to the living room, blowing gently into the steam, and left the lights off so we could sit and watch undetected through the picture window. We sank into facing armchairs, upholstered in unfashionable plaid, that were almost as wide as loveseats – it was comfy but I got the uneasy sensation of being a child sitting where an adult belonged. We placed our matching mugs of tea on the table between us, a dollop of my sister’s honey stirred in, still too hot to drink.

First to arrive were the aggressive males, the ones with strong, fast wings, the flashy cardinals and blue jays, the obvious birds known to every Canadian schoolgirl. They were soon joined by their dull-feathered mates and jostled each other for position, making a quick mess of Carol’s carefully swept sunflower seed platform.

Once the comings and goings of birds settled into something of a pattern we turned from the window and looked at each other. Then without a word we did something we did hundreds of times as kids – and many times since. We pulled our feet up slowly by the ankles, one at a time and simultaneously, mirroring each other’s movements exactly until we were both sitting cross-legged. This exposed our identical pairs of thick woollen socks – our annual Christmas stocking present to each other, so the joke went – and we wiggled our toes to pretend our feet were waving hello. As children we gave puppet voices to Mrs Left Foot and Mrs Right Foot and performed bedtime skits for each other where they’d argue about something and wrestle one big toe against the other until they ached or we died laughing and then our feet would apologize to each other and hug.

Even now, with probably more days behind us than still in front, the two of us could instantly become those eight-year-old twins who would mock our parents, rest their souls, for dressing us in identical outfits with identical hair and expecting us to behave identically. It was annoying at the time for both of us, each being treated like half a person, and now I wonder if it didn’t border on some kind of abuse – unwitting on our parents’ part but still. Beyond our common genetic code, my sister and I must be identical in other ways, too. I’m certain of it, just as I’m equally certain that we each unspooled into entirely different versions of that self.

When the moment evaporated we turned back to watching birds through the window. Blackbirds and grackles had arrived and Carol pointed out which were which as if maybe this time I would remember. Like most of the other birds, they squawked and competed for food, though there was plenty to go around and plenty of room. I imagine they fought only because their instincts compelled them to, and now nature commanded them to rush off together while the sky still held a few strands of light. Meanwhile, a crew of juncos and sparrows were rummaging through whatever scraps had fallen to the ground until they, too, hightailed it back to the woods. Birds are prisoners, Carol? What is it, their inescapable routines that you’re talking about? Or, like Cohen’s bird on the wire, they may not be free but, in their own way, at least they’ve tried? How is that different from any other animal, Carol – or is that your point?

As we watched the last birds disappear, I noticed a front of clouds on the horizon, inching in from the west, spoiling the spotless sky.

Carol pointed a crooked finger out the window and said with a crackly voice, “Fly, my pretties, fly!” Her Wicked Witch impression made us both laugh. We knew it wasn’t the actual line from the movie we’d seen a million times and we didn’t care. Somehow it was funnier this way. Then we sat in silence as the room grew dark.


Tending to birds. Keeping bees. Chopping wood. That was how she’d been filling her days since the day he walked away – that supposedly strong, silent man she was drawn to, married and fell in love with. Who then left without a word, without even slamming the door, slouching off like a bored coyote. He left her without so much as a child to look after. Although – who knows? – the fact of childlessness may have been the thing. It was a thing Carol was never willing to discuss. Now, with our parents long gone and her friends having spun away to lives of their own, I worry that Carol’s loneliness has gone deep, wrapped its roots around her bones like an old oak, although it must be said that I have never once heard her complain. But worrying is all I can do. That, and turning off the highway and onto a rough county concession road once a month, then into her long dirt and gravel driveway, making myself feel somehow inadequate in doing so, like a caseworker reporting for duty.

The way she never mentioned him again meant that I was never going to mention him again, either. Eventually I began to wonder if he hadn’t been a figment of my imagination all along. Although that man did me no harm specifically, I’d rather not conjure up his name and have that syllable appear at the front of my mind – out of respect for my sister and also because I fear it would let in a flow of unnecessary memories that would prove difficult to stem. Carol had disposed of every souvenir of his existence, scrubbed the house of evidence like a crime scene. She repainted the bedroom in a lighter, cheerier colour and took his chair to the dump. Not a single photo remained, no aftershave on the dresser, no overalls drying on a peg by the back door. Somewhere in all that she was able to hang onto the farm by leasing the land to a neighbour to plant his pumpkins and beans.

Not talking about it became our way of talking about it. That’s the way Carol seemed to want it, and this was her drama to stage-direct, not mine. Besides, we were never ones to open our hearts to each other, not verbally anyway, and neither of us was the Chatty Cathy type to begin with. During our visits we’d spend long silences alone together that could easily last an hour – a comfortable hour and often more. Mike thought the whole thing was weird or a calculated attempt to exclude him, as if we would need to go to such lengths to achieve that effect. Either way, it gave Mike more reason in his own mind to resent my sister. He argued that our girls were too young for Crazy Aunt Carol’s “issues” – his word – and rather than fight a never-ending battle, I said nothing when he and the kids stopped coming on these visits. At first I was hurt and thought Mike was being unreasonable. But I kept it to myself. Then, to be honest, it worked out better for everyone: once a month the girls got their daddy all to themselves while I came out here to spend time with my evil twin.

Carol and I didn’t communicate by telepathy like twins in storybooks are said to do: sitting and staring as wordless conversations zap between their minds. Nothing like that. This quiet time together was for our souls to realign and reconnect, to reverse the flow that might otherwise let us drift too far apart like an iceberg split in two that’s never able to reattach. At least that’s what I felt was happening and for me it was deeply gratifying. Still, I seriously dislike the word “soul” mostly because of the way other people use it. Misuse it. I wish I knew a better word.

“It’s never the right temperature, is it, for more than a few sips,” said Carol, ending the silence. She lifted her mug to her lips and even in the dim light I could see her grimace in exaggerated disgust. I had to laugh – because of the look on Carol’s face and because I was relieved to see that our quiet time seemed to have done her some good, too. Although personally I don’t mind the taste of sweet, cold tea.

Coldness had crept into the living room along with uncomfortable darkness and the picture window had been black for a while now that the bird show was over. Neither of us had gotten up to switch on a lamp or nudge the thermostat.

“Right!” Carol slapped her knees then got up slowly from her chair. “I’ll get that fire going.”

Thank God.

She placed logs expertly in the fireplace grate and tucked crumpled newsprint, curls of birch bark and spindly twigs underneath as if she were giving a Girl Scout demonstration.

“I like to wait till they’ve all gone to bed,” she said, tilting her head to the window. She lit the tinder and a wave of light and warmth flowed into the room. “I don’t want them to see me burning down their house.”

I leaned back in my armchair and watched Carol crouch by the fire, focused. She reached in fearlessly to insert kindling of snapped-off branches and shards of wood into precise places here and there. Orange and yellow flames darted about, licking every which way, and I got the sudden impression that she was nurturing a nest of baby dragons that were competing for fuel – for food – and that Carol, the calm, steady-handed dragon mother was trying to satisfy each hungry mouth equally. Logs popped and hissed as she shifted them with a blackened poker to make room for larger logs on top. Before long, the fire had gained an unstoppable life of its own.

I decided I’d call Mike in a minute to say I was going to stay over and see goldfinches in the morning. He’ll tell me about the forecast for heavy snow coming in off the lake overnight with snow squalls making for poor visibility all day tomorrow. I’ll say I’ll play it by ear in the morning and that it’s fine for them to order pizza tonight as long as the girls promise to eat some fresh fruit at breakfast and not just cereal.

Carol rose from her crouch with some difficulty and let out a quiet grunt, unable to entirely hide the pain in her stiffening joints. She wiped her hands down the front of her legs and stood still for a moment, facing the fire. Then she returned to her chair opposite mine and sat in the identical posture as me, in a mirror image. Together we watched in silence as the fledgling dragons tested their wings and tumbled back into the nest again and again, yearning for the moment when they would be strong enough to fly away.

Paul Ruta

Paul Ruta is a Canadian writer living in Hong Kong with his wife and a geriatric tabby called Zazu; his kids live on Zoom. Recent work appears in Cheap Pop.