by Jude Higgins
My mother tamed birds. The first, a robin, when she was newly married. While my father fixed up the inside of their house, she worked in the garden. The robin perched on her fork and she talked to it about her plans for beautiful flower borders, a vegetable patch and a large family. She fed it meal worms and fruit.
‘You must talk to birds if they come close,’ she always said, ‘Make sure no-one else is around. Be consistent. And never hold out an empty hand.’
She called her first baby Robin. After the baby died, she often told me, the tame robin returned to the garden. Her comfort through a long, dark winter.
I was named Jenny, for the Jenny wren and she said she’d chosen well because I hid from her, like a wren would. She could find me though—that was the difference.
I’m not sure I wanted to be found. The more she fussed over me—worrying that I didn’t eat enough, layering me up with woollen jumpers, mittens, scarves and coats in the winter, keeping me away from school with the slightest of colds—the more inventive I became at hiding. I learned to sit absolutely still under a bush. Or sneak into my father’s shed, which was out of bounds, and squeeze behind some boxes under his work bench. Once I spent a whole afternoon there without him noticing, listening to him whistle, watching sawdust sprinkle his steel tipped boots. He allowed me in the shed once when I wanted to make a bird box for my mother’s birthday. But I was all fingers and thumbs.
‘Never mind,’ he said patting my head then finishing the box off himself. ‘It might be a boy’s thing.’ And although afterwards I practised for hours, sawing and learning to hit a nail on the head, he took the tools away. My mother was afraid I’d hit my fingers.
Eventually, she let me have sleep overs with friends and as a teenager I often stayed out all night. My father spent more time in his shed and, with no-one to talk to, my mother consoled herself with birds. By the time I was ready to leave home, she’d tamed blackbirds, dunnocks, sparrows and even a crow which sat on her shoulder when she fed it titbits.
‘Who’s a lovely boy?’ she said, her face pink with pleasure as it sidled up next to her ear, cawed loudly and took half a grape from her fingers. I’d never seen her look so happy.
After my father died, my mother said his spirit was in the song thrush that came to visit. But even I knew his whistling never sounded like a thrush and he was far too practical to return as a bird. The same summer I was sure I saw him going into the ironmongers in the town where they lived. I followed after him into the smell of oily machine parts, wood sap, compost and something else I couldn’t fathom. My father would have known what that smell was but the old guy who turned when I called out ‘Dad’ had another man’s face.
In later years, I went home regularly and talked to my mother most days on the phone. Every time I visited, I brought her a delicacy—a Spanish fig cake at Christmas, a new cheese, the best bread. We got closer. She said she was glad to find me again. But there was a time I didn’t ring her for two weeks. When I did call, I waited a long time for her to pick up.
‘Hello stranger,’ she said in a distant voice. I told her I could come down at the weekend but she said it wasn’t the best time to visit—she was taming a new robin in the garden.
‘You need to keep away. The bird’s ready to eat out of my hand.’
‘I won’t even go into the garden.’
‘It will know you’re hiding there,’ she said. ‘I’ll get back to you when I’m sure it’s going to stay.’ I could tell she was itching to get back to her robin. She put the phone down without saying goodbye.
Jude Higgins is a writer, writing events organiser and writing tutor, currently offering international flash fiction classes on Zoom. Her chapbook The Chemist’s House was published by V. Press in 2017 and she has been widely published in magazines and anthologies. She runs Bath Flash Fiction Award, directs Flash Fiction Festivals UK and the small indie press Ad Hoc Fiction.