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I first saw him more than a year ago, perched in front of a side mirror on our car in the driveway. He had a shining, coal-black head, wings, and tail, with a warm, reddish brown body, like a fancy waistcoat under a tux. He seemed a little too sartorial for a brawler. But for hours he would flounce and flutter and even attack his own reflection, as I had so often watched redbirds do when I was a boy. Then, as if he knew he was being watched, he would aim one startling, red-orange eye at me, as if to say he would get to me later, once he had dealt with this interloper beyond the glass.
"Eastern towhee," said my wife, Dianne, who knows these things.
Later, we heard his song.
"Drink-your-tea," he seemed to be saying.
I did not hear that, that way, till she told me.
Unlike other bird sightings, which always make her smile, this one made her sad. In our yard in western Alabama were dozens of doves, hundreds of finches, an abundance of blue jays. Her favorites are the hummingbirds, a blur of motion that seem not quite all there, as if they live halfway here and halfway in a dream. But even they, often, appear in pairs. "There's just the one of him," she said, as, day after day, the Towhee faced off against an unconquerable adversary, for a nonexistent love. In the evenings my wife would listen to him call. This is a woman who strikes fear into the hearts of men and boys. But her own broke, over birdsong.
It was then I realized I was married, for better or worse, to The Crazy Bird Lady. Every neighborhood has one. They festoon their yards with feeders to help get the birds through the more barren seasons, and try, sometimes in vain, to somehow hold them to a patch of shrubs and grass—a permanent home for a thing that floats on the breeze. But it makes her happy, in a way few things can. It could be worse, I tell myself: I could be married to The Crazy Cat Lady.
I asked her, once, why she loved these creatures.
"I don't know," she said. "They don't do anything for you, except to be there."
Our backyard became, over years, a kind of oasis where birds, like windblown flowers, decorated the trees, shrubs, lawn, and sky. Mockingbirds made a home there. Cardinals, which have always had a kind of mystical connection to my people, became not an occasional sight but something I saw every day. Dianne bought birdseed 50 pounds at a time.
"They know me," she said of her birds.
She listened, amid that cacophony of songs, for the towhee, then listened for an answer that never came. Finally, in early spring of last year, a small, plain, little brown version of himself just appeared, blown in on a March wind.
But she had no sooner appeared than the world came apart, as the April 27 storms rearranged the Southern landscape. My wife stood in a yard now barren of trees and wondered where all her birds had gone. She filled the feeders and—when no one was looking—cried for this one more little thing that was gone. Over the days they did return to her, the doves with their haunting call, the obnoxious blue jays, the surreal hummingbirds. The cardinals flash, again, like fire over our little piece of sky.
And finally, long after my wife believed he was lost forever, appeared the towhee, and his little mate. Again, they are the only ones of their kind. Again, now and then, he battles the phantom rival behind the glass. I guess he always will. But now my wife sits in the tree-stripped yard and listens to them call, and answer, and that is enough to lift one woman's heart in this sorry ol' world.